Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Disparity of Wealth on Christmas

A time for family, gift giving, and feeling the true weight of how poor you actually are. Well, for me anyways. And for a lot of other people in this country during this recession. This holiday season, while walking home from work past brand new cars and homeless men, I got to thinking about the people that Have and the people that Have Not. Particularly, I was thinking about the all-too-common theory that poor people are poor because they way to be.

What is that? Who would ever want to be poor? It's hard as shit to be poor. It's stressful and depressing and every financial decision, no matter how small, is a painstaking decision. Furthermore, the poor are surrounded by the judging eyes of the Haves.

I don't understand how we came to worship money so feverishly in this country, but that appears to be the situation. At times it seems to me that we live in some sort of bizarre nightmare reality in which the most important thing in your life is supposed to be your job. Does that give you chills or what? The thing that gives your life meaning is the way you make money? That sounds awful.

A lot of different philosophies speculate at the true meaning of life. It might be to find happiness, it might be to find peace, it might be to help others and it might be 42. All of these seem valid to me. What does not seem plausible is that the ultimate goal of one's life should be to have a solid financial foundation, with good investments and low interest rates. I mean, have I watched too much Bill Hicks and read too much Palahniuk? Do I just have an especially strong distaste for bullshit? Am I wrong? Is life really about mortgages and nice cars and all the boring percentages? Because I would prefer my life to be a little more interesting than that.

You know, when you think about it that way, it makes perfect sense that the Haves would see the Have Nots as enemies. The Haves are all cooped up in their offices, stuck in neck ties, tricking themselves into believing that work matters. Paperwork matters. Deadlines matter. Business is important, damnit. And if they have to waste the only lives they have to live on making money, why should anyone else get any of it, whether it be a quarter to a homeless man or taxes that pay for public services?

And that's why I continue to be unsurprised about the failure of the health care reform. No one should get anything for free in this country. The only problem is that people just aren't working hard enough. And that's the kind of short-sighted, uncomplicated thinking that you develop when you start to define your worth by the money you make. You start to judge everyone else by the money they don't make. That's called The Process of Othering and it makes things less complicated. By thinking of the poor as others, they aren't really people.
"They" are all too lazy to work.
"They" are all just drug addicts and alcoholics.
"They" lie and cheat to get food stamps and medicaid.
"They" are immoral. Automatically. Because they don't make enough money.

It is so acceptable to hate and resent the poor. It's so easy to imagine that they are constantly scheming up ways to get the money that you have worked so hard for. Democracy was built to protect the rich from the poor, because "they" are the enemy.
But we're all human beings, and that should matter more than what's in your bank account.

Merry fucking Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Let me be very clear about this: Fuck the Blue version. Red is where it's at.

Within the last few days I decided to fire up the old Pokemon cartridge. It's a game I come back to every now and then, just like all the games of my early adolescence (like Super Mario 64, Final Fantasy 7, Ocarina of Time, etc...) I think of that time in my life as a sort of golden age of video games, when I wasn't distracted by things like work, or a social life, or the desire to create and achieve.
Coming back to these games is like coming back to my own bed after a long trip away from home. It's always nice to be back in a familiar universe.
Now I'm back into Pokemon like I haven't been in years, and an idea has been forming in my mind since I started the new file. I wasn't certain that I could be right at first. I was sure that I would be proven wrong, but I must say that now I am confident of my new opinion, and want to share it with the world:

Pokemon proves that all this ADHD, hyperactive-kid epidemic talk of the last decade is just absolute, flat-out bullshit.
Why? Because Pokemon is an INCREDIBLY slow game. Difficult, one might say, to even get through.

You start off with one Pokemon of your choosing. Now, training one pokemon wouldn't be so tiresome, but you can carry six pokemon at a time. Now, tell me, who isn't going to want to carry six? So, you go through the game, fighting and capturing the low-level pokemon that you come across and building them up as well. The thing is, these new pokemon you capture (and even the ones you start with, originally) are just as weak as the pokemon they're fighting. So that means your Pidgey and your Rattata are good for maybe one or two fights before you have to take them back to the Pokecenter in town to heal.
And hey, you're not a psychic. You're no Alakazam. So you're gonna want to build up all the new pokemon you come across (especially in the beginning) in case they have any sweet moves or evolve into something cooler. So you spend hours of gameplay walking around grass and caves, fighting little fights for measley amounts of experience, and as the game progresses you stay forever locked into a losing battle to make your little animals stronger.
Most games that are released nowadays can be beaten in about 10 hours. There's no real reason to buy games anymore, because you can run through them no problem in two or three days. But in Pokemon, the game has only just begun at the 10 hour mark. I JUST got the ability to move quickly in the game. My pokemon are JUST beginning to get all four of their moves. I've caught 27 out of 150, and all I see are fucking oddishes, which are basically radishes with feet.
I mean, I read for fun, and this game is trying my patience.
How could a country full of little hyperactive kids sit through this entire game, content only to move their thumbs and watch a little cartoon kid walk in circles in the grass? I submit that they could not.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Road

Ah, Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is, to me, a pretty strange time of year. I mean, either you're a thankful person or you aren't, in my opinion. If you're not thankful for your health, friends, family, loved ones, computer, car, shelter, grocery stores, running water, etc... all year round, it probably isn't going to really shine through on this one day of the year. Especially because most of us probably first experienced this holiday dressed up as pilgrims and Indians (back then they weren't being call Native Americans yet) in elementary school. At least I sure did.
My point is that this holiday isn't exactly sacred. In the way that Christmas was once about the birth of a deity-on-Earth and is now primarily about Christmas music/decorations appearing inappropriately early in stores and restaurants, Thanksgiving used to be a day on which people were truly thankful for the little that they had and is now about gluttony, football, and Black Friday shopping specials.
(Get ready for this transition, because it's fucking brilliant.)
I think that's a shame, because we have so much to be thankful for. Heat, food, shelter, and clean water are things that we so easily take for granted in this country while millions of people around the world go without, and it's important to recognize that more than one day a year. In fact, having electricity with which to play our sweet video games and refrigerators with which to store our delicious leftovers are a relatively new phenomenon in the big scheme of things. Rather than consider our technology a permanent fixture of life, you may consider it a flash in the pan random happenstance that could one day vanish as easily as it came. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the kind of book that reminds one of that possibility.
(Sweet Jesus, I NAILED that transition.)
If the man and the boy from The Road sat down to a Thanksgiving dinner at some point in the novel (not that they have any goddamn clue what year it is, let alone month) they would probably be thankful for absolutely nothing. Maybe the kid would be thankful for the one time he got to drink a Coca-Cola, and maybe the dad would be thankful for the one bullet he has left in his gun. But that's pretty pathetic, isn't it? I mean, that's stretching your thankfulness pretty thin. One bullet isn't even enough for a murder suicide, and you know that's got to just break the dad's heart.
The Road is a novel without hope, without any kind of light at the end of the tunnel. For nearly 300 pages the two nameless main characters march through "burned America" towards the coast for absolutely no reason other than the fact that they have nothing else to do. Well, also, they have to keep moving in order to find food. And to avoid the roving bands of cannibals, who seem to be the only other characters in the novel. Literally. Just about every single time you see another human being, he's about to eat somebody or he's being eaten. How absolutely horrifying is that?
What I like about the cannibals, though, is it really lets you know that McCarthy knows what he's doing here. (The Pulitzer Prize the book won in 2006 helps too, but I prefer the cannibals as my indicator.) I mean, roving bands of cannibals is not the first thing that pops into your head when you sit down to write a father-son post-apocalyptic road-trip novel. At least it wouldn't be my first thought. That kind of thing would come on the second draft when you realize that cattle, crops, and all other edible things would be unable to survive a nuclear holocaust. So what do people eat when they run out of canned corn? Answer: The only fresh meat left on Earth. The kind that can figure out how to survive something as unnatural as a nuclear holocaust.
And yes, this vision of post-apocalypse America IS a nuclear one, and I wouldn't concede that point if McCarthy himself told me something different. Don't let the movie trailers fool you into thinking that this was some sort of environmental catastrophe. In the novel they have to wear masks because the air is full of ash. The snow is gray. The sun is blotted out by a gray sky that never clears. Certain food is deemed unsafe to eat. Water has to be strained through a rag before it can be drank. Etcetera. I have no idea why they would change it for the movie, but let me assure you that we are seeing the aftermath of nuclear war here.
Also, that movie is going to suck. Don't see it. Watch the trailer on YouTube instead, because they used literally all of the action from the book in that two and a half minutes. The only reason that anyone would ever dare to make this book into a movie is because the last time somebody made one of McCarthy's books into a movie it won like 19 Oscars. (Even though I thought that movie was mediocre at best.) The book didn't win the Pulitzer because it would make a good movie. It won because...
Actually, that's a good question. To be honest, the entire time I read The Road I expected something to jump out at me, to really stun me and make me think differently about writing, the way that Pulitzers have in the past. (See: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The novel, not the blog post I wrote about it here. That post is terrible.) But, really, after finishing The Road I can't quite get behind all of the "A subtly brilliant, deeply disturbing, beautifully written, triumph of American Literature," talk that surrounds the book. It was good, sure. Quiet and beautiful I suppose. True to life in a painful sort of way and emotionally deep, but LOTS of books fit those descriptions, don't they? That's what a good book is all about.
I don't know. Either I'm desensitized by read one amazing novel after the other and my expectations are set so high that Pulitzers seem average, or I'm missing something about The Road.

NOTE: You'll notice I didn't discuss the fact that The Road is technically a work of science fiction, and the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction has generated some controversy amongst the nerds of literature.
That's because by "controversy" I mean that a lot of gloaty sci-fi nerds are writing up criticisms and blogs about a sci-fi novel winning the Pulitzer and rubbing them in an imaginary audience's face. "The Road is sci-fi, make no mistake! Literature snobs won't admit it, but it's true!" In reality, nobody cares. All great literature is stripped of genre when it would otherwise fit into one. You're not going to find Frankenstein in the horror section, now are you? Shut up, sci-fi nerds.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


It's no secret. I'm a middle-class white male, born and raised in suburbia, and I love rap. Like a lot. Like I listened to the Notorious BIG and little else for a year straight. And as strange as this sometimes seems to me, I think there's actually a perfectly good explanation for it.
First of all, rap is 90% dependent on lyrics, and I love words.
Secondly, beyond the amazing word-play and rhyming that comes with good rap, it also serves as a window into experiences that are completely alien to me. Hustling on street corners and plotting robberies are pretty far from my life experience so far, (but one can only hope.)
Those are two major reasons for my interest in rap, but there is one more reason that I think explains the fascination perfectly. Two words: Space Jam.

It's Michael's Secret Stuff

This was one of the first albums I ever owned, and for a time I listened to it like it was the only music in the world. Particularly, I liked the last track: Bugs Bunny's "Buggin." The fact that I liked a favorite cartoon character's rap over actual music definitely says something about my childhood, but I'm not sure what exactly.

I have a theory about rap, and it's this theory that I want to share with you today. Granted, my knowledge of the genre isn't incredibly expansive, but this is what I think and this is my blog, dammit, so I'm going to write it down.
The theory is this: Rappers only have two good albums in them. They have the album they write as young, poor men who saw no end to their hardships in sight, and they have the album they write after the success of their first album, in which they can reflect on their past and share new stories of their wealth.
As I said, rap is interesting to me because it is primarily words, but in order for the album to work, the words have to be good. For this reasons, I think a rapper's first album (and by this I mean the first commercial album with professional backing) is always the best.
Why? Let me tell you. First of all, as I said, the rap that I like is largely autobiographical. The first album is the poor album, the angry album. Let's take a look at the Notorious BIG.
In Biggie's first album, Ready To Die, he was completely desolate. He was a part-time crack-dealer and a part-time rapper. The majority of these songs are about the hopelessness of his environment, the extremities he will go to in order to escape his misery, and the small things in life that help him push through. "Gimme the Loot" is a song completely about robbing people on the street. Do you know how poor you would have to be to think about robbery so much that you could write an entire fucking song about it? The final song on the album, "Suicidal Thoughts," ends with the sound of a self-inflicted gunshot after Biggie completely villainizes himself to a friend over the phone and reasons that he can't go on because, basically, he's just a horrible person. That's insane. It's also incredibly interesting.
Apparently, a lot of other people thought so too, because this album eventually went quadruple platinum and the Notorious BIG has gone on to be one of the biggest names ever of rap. Because of his success, Biggie was immediately launched out of the Bedford-Stuyversant ghetto into millions of dollars. It was from this financial disposition that he wrote his second album: Life After Death. In this album, we see a newly rich man who just discovered that his wealth isn't enough to push away his misery. The final song on this album also focuses on his own death. Actually, it prophesies it. "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," actually turned out to be sort of true for Biggie, and I think it's kind of true for all rappers. Just fifteen days before the album was released, he was killed in an unsolved drive-by murder and has since been more than a man, but more like a symbol for rap itself.
Now, let's take a look at Eminem.
Eminem's first album was amazing. Like Biggie, his lyrics primarily focus on a struggle with poverty, depression, and the small things that make his life easier. Primarily, these small things seem to be drugs and an explosively violent vocabulary, the latter of which would understandably ease tension and allow one to vent against the hardships of life. His second album, like Biggie's, was written after an incredibly quick rise to the top of American music charts, and once again we see that money is a relatively small problem when pitted against personal relationships and the pressure of remaining a success.
But then, what did Eminem do? He went ahead and stayed alive. Bad move.
Now, Eminem is on his fifth album, and personally I think that everything he's done after The Marshall Mather's LP is complete garbage. He can still rap, sure. He can still fill up a sixty-minute album with words, but they're not good words, so he's only doing half the job. I mean, how long can you go on rapping about killing people when everyone in the world knows for a fact that you live in a mansion and have more money than God? After the first two albums he completely ran out of material. In The Eminem Show he's rapping about Saddam Huessein and Osama Bin Laden. Also, he and Dr. Dre go on for five minutes in a song called "Say What You Say" when the entire song could basically be summed up in three words: Don't Talk Shit.
Personally, I would like to go back in time to fifteen days before the movie 8 Mile was released. Then I'd like to walk up behind Eminem, but a shotgun up to his brain stem, and pull the trigger. That way, when the movie came out along with the soundtrack and the two combined with The Eminem Show on the charts to give him the most commercial success of anyone in music history since The Beatles (which is to say, a number one movie at the box office, a number one album and a number three album all in the same week) he could have died a legend. Instead, he continues to stick around the radio, writing nonsense songs with absolutely no passion or emotion, and we are stuck listening to more half-hearted raps about his daughter.

Now, this brings us to an interesting question. Is art worth dying for? Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Kobain, even Elvis, they were all made rock-solid legends forever because they died young and at the tops of their careers.
And I quote: "Dying was a good career move for Elvis. What was he gonna do, get more unpopular? Keep touring? Wouldn't that be sad? A real old Elvis touring with Steppenwolf and shit?" - Bill Hicks
Maybe it's cruel to say I want to kill Eminem, but I have the best intentions. You can't write good rap once you've made it big. There's a reason Bill Gates doesn't rap. Alright, probably a few reasons. But he has the money to make it happen, so let's say Bill Gates did decide to release an album. Would you listen to it? Hell no you wouldn't, because Bill Gates is rich and comfortable and his life isn't interesting the way Eminem's and Biggie Small's lives were. If Eminem continues to produce music, he is doomed to fade into mediocrity, and arguably he already has. That can never happen to Biggie.
I'm a pretty staunch atheist, but sometimes I find myself believing in higher power, and the deaths of great talents is one of the most convincing arguments for these thoughts. As soon as Led Zeppelin started to suck, BAM, John Bonham died. As soon as Bill Hicks started to get famous and sort of happy with his life, WHAM, pancreatic cancer. As tragic as their deaths are for their fans, for their loved ones and, most of all, for them, you have to consider the effects.
Death means never having to sell out.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

East of Eden: Part 2

I finished East of Eden while I was in Alabama, reading by the light of my cellphone in a pop-up camper. I said that I would return to it if the ending did something really interesting and, as it turned out, it did. So here it is.

As I said last time, East of Eden is basically a modern (well, not so modern anymore) retelling of the stories of Adam and Eve, as well as Cain and Abel. And Steinbeck doesn't simply retell these stories, but shows the reader a family line whose descendants seem locked into reliving these stories. For example: two brothers named Charlie and Adam represent Cain and Abel near the beginning of the book. The two have a falling out, Adam moves on, marries, and has two sons named Caleb and Aron, and then those two begin to represent Cain and Abel.

So, what Steinbeck seems to be taking a look at here, in a lot of different ways, is what might be causing this? By dissecting three generations of two different families, Steinbeck gives the reader a lot to consider when judging the behaviors of the son vs. those of the father (or mother.) Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes and patterns of our ancestors, straight up the line back to Adam and Eve? Could it be possible that, just as parents pass one genes of eye color and nose shape that they could also pass on their cruelty and evil?

Ultimately, Steinbeck gives a pretty definitive answer to this question, which is no. And the way that he delivers it is pretty brilliant. The Bible passage from which the title of the novel is derived is the story of Cain and Abel, and this passage exists in its entirety in East of Eden. Three of the main characters discuss one word in particular within the passage, a word that changes depending on what translation of the Bible you read. In one Christian translation, God tells Cain "thou wilt triumph over sin." In another, God says "thou shalt." However, in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, God's words leave a little more wiggle room. He tells Cain, "thou mayest triumph over sin." Thou mayest in Hebrew is timshel.

Thou mayest triumph over sin. You don't have to, it's not an order, it's not restrictive. You have control over your own destiny, that's basically what that means. Because if God could eliminate all of your control from the situation and force you triumph over sin by setting you along a nonnegotiable path, he could obviously do the opposite, and those set along a dark path would forever stay on it. That's what the new translations imply. But, originally (or sort of originally) God said, "Hey, it's up to you, man. You may or you may not. Your choice." I like that.

Something else I liked about this book, and something that I didn't really realize until the end, is that there are hardly any likeable characters in this novel at all. Some are rude, some are arrogant, some are greedy, some are selfish, some are mean, some are jealous, some are ignorant and some are just evil. And these are the main characters I'm talking about. There are a lot of them so you get to rotate back and forth a lot, and I think that's important because if the reader had to stay with any one of these characters for more than a few chapters, it would become tiresome.

But that's because they're human. And I quote:
"I'd like to respond to the common complaint that Holden Caufield is an unlikable character by saying this: you are also an unlikable character. So am I." - John Green, author.

And so it goes with so many characters in fiction. A lot of characters are super likable in a way that just isn't true of real people. They're completely selfless and do incredible things. In East of Eden people are petty, people are thoughtless, they ignore each other and hide behind their fears and lose people close to them just because they were cowards. And it feels so real that you don't even care that you're not rooting for anyone because they're all sort of bastards.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Real Life Stories 3: Alabama

Honestly, I never thought I would go to Alabama. Out of all the places that I've imagined visiting, like London, Ireland, India, California, New York City, etc... I just never really pictured myself at a NASCAR event in Talladega. Not really my scene, you know? If you have a better candidate for the redneck capital of the world I would love to hear it, because I simply cannot fathom a better choice. Lindsay's joke was that if we had to take a shot for every single Confederate Flag tattoo we saw, not t-shirt or bumper sticker or flag being worn as a cape, but just tattoo, we would have died.
Yeah, it's pretty serious.

So anyways, the reason we were in Alabama in the first place was to help Nina (Lindsay's best friend's older sister) sell these things called Shotgun Champs. These are small plastic cylinders that fit over your beer, punch a hole in the bottom, and allow for a fast and clean way to shotgun. They are far superior to a knife or your keys (or your teeth, as some of these rednecks implied as their method.) Like I said, I never thought I would go to Alabama. Then again, I never thought someone would offer me $300 to leave Kalamazoo for five days and demonstrate something called a Shotgun Champ for twelve hours at a time. You can't say no to that. Not if you're any kind of decent person. I would have gone anywhere, literally anywhere, under those circumstances. And you must believe me, because Alabama is where I actually went.

The Drive Down
Let me just say this: Never before in my life have I had any kind of reverence for caffeine. Even as a kid, I don't really remember Mountain Dew ever doing anything for me. But now, I kind of think that, to a kid, caffeine might be like the first time you smoke pot. Maybe you don't realize it's working because you don't know what to expect, but that doesn't mean it isn't working. That said, during my three hour driving shift down to Alabama, I found the line at which caffeine cannot be ignored, and crossed it.
After drinking one of those gigantic $4 Red Bulls, everyone else in the car drifted peacefully off to sleep and left me alone with the road and the pop-up trailer we were hauling all the way across the country. I've never hauled anything before, so I was a little nervous about it, which is why I drank the Red Bull. I wanted to make sure I was extra alert and awake for my shift. It worked on the way to Arizona. It stood to reason it would work again. But, apparently, caffeine is like any other drug, in that when you are left alone while under its influence, the effects rapidly multiply.
I didn't want to drive. Instead, I wanted to jump out of the car and run down the freeway at 70 mph. My thoughts weren't so much thoughts, but more like a humming blur of nothingness. And I was seeing shit, which was the weirdest part. Lights on the side of the road were leaving trails across my vision. The shape of the headlights took on different forms, specific forms, like monsters and animals. My eyes refused to focus, and at first I thought I might be nodding off, but it was just the opposite. I was too awake. Too awake to drive a car.

Our Days in Alabama
The very first guy we met in Alabama was a 65 year old Vietnam vet named Moonshine, and the day I met him he was wearing a t-shirt that said: "Fuck you, I have enough friends."
Needless to say, I liked this guy immediately.
Moonshine first told me the story of how his pit bull killed a poodle WHILE THE POODLE'S OWNER WAS WALKING IT DOWN THE STREET. And then, when the owner called the police, Moonshine showed "the law" that he had papers for his pit bull, that it was a guard dog, and since it was on his property he wouldn't be putting his dog down. Instead, he bought the other man a new poodle.
Then, he told Lindsay, "with misty-eyed pride" a story about his wife. Apparently, Moonshine and Mrs. Moonshine have a barn, and in that barn they have roughly thirty feral barn cats. One day, a dog got into the barn and killed one of the thirty, and that just so happened to be Mrs. Moonshine's favorite cat "Snowball". So, she grabbed a gun (which was just so readily available) and chased after the dog with the intention of killing it, but the dog got away. Then, the next day, Mrs. Moonshine was driving home from work, saw the same dog on the side of the road, pulled over and shot the fucking dog. And, thusly, Snowball was avenged.

"You're gonna have to pack a lunch if you wanna fight this old man. See, I gotta finish you quick or else I have to shoot you." - Moonshine.

When we weren't listening to hilarious stories that could only be true in the South, we spent most of our days selling Shotgun Champs to skeptical NASCAR fans. Truth be told, you'd think that a NASCAR event would be the premier beer-drinking spot, but mostly the crowd was older and wary of such quick access to alcohol. "Ha ha, oh no no," said thousands of onlookers, passing our booth with what can only be described as clear and apparent fear of their own alcoholism.
Still, most of the time when we did a demo of the product, we sold at least one. So we shotgunned about twelve beers a day. That's really not that bad when you reason one per hour, with a bottle of water in between each one. In fact, I was hardly ever drunk in Alabama.
Except for Halloween night.
To be fair, it our last night there, and we'd been having a really good day. We met some young guys who were really into the product, and who were really nice, and who are probably going to meet us down in Panama, FL for Spring Break and help us sell down there. These guys were in and out throughout the night, and their names were AJ and Jake Went the Bull Rider. Well, somewhere between selling all day, talking with these guys and racing a young couple that walked past the booth and gave me their beer, I got drunk. I also spent ten dollars on a Cuban cigar that was supposedly hand-rolled by a real Cuban, but I now realize that could've been any dark-skinned fellow claiming to be Cuban and everyone in the state of Alabama would've believe it.
Oddly enough, just like the caffeine, I didn't really feel the full weight of the alcohol until I was alone. AJ and the Bull Rider went off to some country concert, Lindsay was off getting more beer, and I looked around me. The table was covered in beer and cigar ash, I was smoking and spitting instead of talking to potential customers, and the world wasn't spinning but it was sort of dancing.
"Oh. I'm drunk," I thought to myself. In lieu of paper towels I cleaned the table off the best that I could with the edge of an empty cigarette pack, and things went up from there.

My biggest regret about Alabama:
The guy next to one of the Shotgun Champ booths was selling deep-fried everything. The fact that there were deep-fried Twinkies not ten feet away from me and I didn't try a free sample... I may never forgive myself.

While the redneck capital of the world may not be the most fair place to make general observations about the South as a whole, I'm going to do so anyways.
Both Moonshine and another Alabama friend of ours named Brandon made one thing abundantly clear to us during our visit: racism is still very much alive and well in this world.
These were guys I liked, guys I talked to and laughed with, guys who seemed genuinely cool and interesting to me. And then that dark and terrible N word would come sailing out of their mouths like it was the most natural thing in the world.
"Oh I'm from North Carolina. The town I come from doesn't let n*ggers in." - Moonshine
"The crowds are easy to predict. In the morning you get the old people, because they get up the earliest. Then a little bit later you'll get the young people, because they were up all night partying and they sleep in. And you'll notice that the n*ggers are lazy and sleep in really late, so they come out last." - Brandon
Then, of course, on Halloween a man was running around in a monkey costume shouting "I'm Obama!" and an old woman gave him a hug because she liked this joke so much.
I have a theory.
I think the South is a very uncomplicated place, which isn't so surprising when you consider how these states rank in education. And that's not a slight, it's just an observation. A lack of education means a lack of complex thinking, and it's simple thinking that keeps everyone on the same page. Fly the Confederate Flag, believe in Jesus, watch NASCAR, listen to country, hate black people. That's the checklist, and that about covers it.
When you live in a society where 99% of everyone abides by these rules, you would never think twice about them. You would just accept them as the laws of life. That's why every other person we saw had a Confederate Flag tattoo. It's like, to be a good southern boy, you have to get the flag in ink on your 18th birthday. And that might not be so far off. They are so proud down there and so enthusiastic about their heritage. All you have to do is wear that Confederate Flag and you're in the club. They'll love you forever. It would be easy to forget that the rest of the country is always sort of snickering at you for being a bunch of dumb hicks. In fact, after a while, with so many like-minded thinkers around you, you would sort of start to take pride in it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

East of Eden: Part 1

First of all I think I should start this blog by mentioning that the picture you see below is printed on the back of the book. When I first saw it, I turned to the inside pages and read that the Latin inscription means "To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig" and that John Steinbeck described himself as a "lumbering soul, but trying to fly." Immediately I loved this, and considered it as a tattoo idea. I could only hope that I would like Steinbeck's work, so that the tattoo would be justifiable. Now that I'm 400 pages in, it seems like an even better idea.

Holy shit this book is good.
But it's really long.

I don't know if I could ever write a really long book because I have been trained to have such a focused story-line structure. Most ideas I come up with would best be represented by about 300 pages, or the equivalent of a two hour movie. I think I know why this is, too. It's because I read more short books than long books (because I find them to be easier to digest in a short period of time, and I find that more gratifying) and I've watched way more movies than I've read books.

Don't get me wrong, I've read a lot of books. I'm actually somewhat amazed by how much my reading history weighs whenever I have to pack it up and move it around. What if that's how people talked about how well read they were? What if it was totally normal for me to say, "I like to read, I've read about 1,000 lbs of books." You'd be like, damn, that's pretty heavy, he must be a smart guy. And you'd be right.

I think the reason East of Eden gets away with weighing eight pounds is that it spans a really long amount of time and chronicles the lives of many protagonists, who you stay with for 50-100 pages each and then leave. Multiple protagonists really appeal to me (like Megamorphs, that shit was awesome) and I really like books that give me as many perspectives as possible. As I Lay Dying is a great example of that. The reader gets about 40 different first-person narrators over the span of like 250 pages (roughly two pounds.) East of Eden isn't exactly like that, though. You have John Steinbeck (narrating as himself, which I think is at once strange and incredibly cool) looking back on what I assume is a fictional account of his family history. He is hardly in the book at all as a character so far, and when he does show up he's just a kid. Mostly the story of his family history focuses on his grandfather, his eight aunts and uncles and the Trask family.
Now, I haven't got all the meaning of Steinbeck's lineage worked out, and it might not be too exciting to read about anyways if you haven't read the book, so I won't bother with that. What I will bother with is the Trask family.

East of Eden is, as the title may hint towards, a retelling of the book of Genisis. As time in the story progresses, the roles to be played are shifted, which I think is a really interesting concept. Say a man's purpose in the story is to represent God. When he gets old and dies, that's a big deal, but the story still has hundreds of pages left, and it moves on. Then it finds another God figure. The same goes for the characters that represent Cain and Able. Charlie and Adam Trask at first represent Cain and Able, down to the character traits and Cain's marked forehead. After Charlie dies, it's Adam's sons Aron and Cal who continue on the legacy, and it seems that the family is doomed to repeat this pattern. There are, of course, Adam and Eve characters as well, and a lot more stuff I'm sure I'm missing because one book I haven't read is the Bible. That's probably like an 18 pounder, if it's printed on normal paper and not that impossibly thin stuff I always see it on.

One thing about writers, they love to read. And reading does things to a writer. Obviously it makes them better, as it conditions them to an amazing use of language, but it also infests them with epic greatness. T.S. Eliot said something to this affect: Not only can you stand on the shoulders of giants as a writer, but you should. In fact, you must.
That's not really very close to what he said, but it's the idea. In this field it's important to understand your background. It's important to understand the greats, and it's important to draw on that greatness and use it to your advantage. I can't name a single person more avid about this than Eliot, who name-dropped Shakespeare tragedies and characters from the Bible like it was going out of style. But he was good, that's the point. It works. As Steinbeck says in East of Eden, "I believe mankind only has one story." And that story is the classic retelling of good vs. evil. So what makes you think you can make up a brand new story, when really all anybody wants is to see conflict and conflict resolution, the clean, hard questions as Steinbeck puts it. The great stories are told, you can't invent them, you have to make them your own. You have to embrace the giants, stand on their shoulders, and make them into something unique.

Note: I might not do a part two of East of Eden if I feel like I've rambled all I can ramble. If the ending is awesome I'll let you know.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

College For Free 8: Writing

It's been a while since my last update. Almost three weeks, a record for this blog, and an amount of time I never intended to go without an update. There were a lot of factors in my reluctance to update. I've been pretty busy with different jobs and projects, and the blog sort of takes a back seat to the things in my life that pay or are most centrally important to my existence as I define it. This is sort of an off-handed thing I do, and while I enjoy it, I don't feel compelled to it like I do to other aspects of my life.
Also, I wasn't really sure what to write about. I knew in the beginning I should have parceled out the good subjects I had in mind for the College For Free section, and now, only eight installments in, I'm grasping for things to talk about. Unfortunately, a lot of little things that I thought could make their own entries have already been covered because I discovered that they fit better under the umbrella of a larger idea. So, I might have to change the face of the blog altogether once I run out of stuff to talk about.
Fortunately, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't yet talked about a few things that I know a good deal about. Namely, writing, which is what my degree is in and what should probably have been the first thing I discussed on this blog.

For those of you who read my review of America's public school system, it will come as no shock to learn that I was mostly disappointed with my college experience. Well, in some aspects. There is a side of me that wishes it would've been more intensive, more challenging, more worth the money. Of course, there's also a side that would've hated that challenge and may not have been up to it, so who knows what would've happened had that been the case.
Anyways, my disappointment comes mostly from the structure of the program itself. In four years at Western Michigan University, took five writing classes. I took Writing Fiction and Poetry (basically just a simple intro class,) Advanced Fiction (in which we read Annie Proulx and discussed craft minimally,) Advanced Poetry (I'm not a poet, so I got nothing out of this class,) and the top undergrad level Creative Writing Workshop (twice.)
Some of you may be missing the point here, so let me back up real quick. This is what my degree is in. My whole degree. And I took five classes on the actual subject. And WMU is supposed to have a good writing program.
I won't go through and bitch about each of these classes individually, but I will tell you that I can't even make a list of the things I learned from these classes. Maybe the reason it's taken me so long to get around to this particular subject is because, unlike colonization and human evolution and the formation of a star, I can't recall very much actual information when I look back on my writing classes.
Now, to be fair, writing is extremely difficult to teach. The lines of right and wrong in writing, as in any other art, are extremely difficult to see, let alone teach. Everyone brings their own opinions to the table, so when you assemble a group of writers your bound to see people butting heads and disagreeing with each other over what is acceptable and what isn't. There are no fundamental truths of writing. As a young man, Kurt Vonnegut taught fiction, and as the teacher he would pass around a list of 14 rules for writing at the beginning of each semester. These were rules that Vonnegut believed were fundamental to the craft. Yet, when discussing them, Vonnegut admits that he himself has broken a few of these rules, and that many of his favorite writers continuously break all of them.
Because there are no fundamental truths, it seems to me that most of my writing teachers stayed away from strict lecture and left the class to discussion, in which disagreements often ended with the two opposing parties agreeing to disagree. While this is useful to some extent, a bunch of kids waxing intellectual about shit they would love to understand but kind of don't is just about the most infuriating thing in the world to me. When I know that there's someone in the room who knows an awful lot about writing but isn't saying so because it may not be an absolute "truth," I can't stand it. Writing teachers, while incapable of being correct by definition, should stand their ground when it comes to lecture and pass along the truths that they have come to believe in and live by. If a student doesn't like it, that's fine. I've always found that the English language is better when the rules are broken, but in order to break the rules you have to understand them. The more rules you understand, the more you can break.

So, unfortunately, I can't set about listing a great deal of things that I learned about writing in college. But, now you know what it's like to pass easily through an underdeveloped writing program, and College For Free is all about giving you the full experience.
Here are some things that I did learn about writing while in college. I learned a lot, but I don't know how much from class. I hear pretty often that the best way to become a writer is to read, or that writers are readers who occasionally write, and things of that nature. Well, I've found it to be mostly true. If you want to write, I think the best way to do it is to read a lot, pay attention to what works for you as a reader, and replicate it in your writing. As a young writer, it also helps to be dating Lindsay Holbrook. I certainly learned more from her than I did from any classrooms.
Take these tips or leave them, because they're probably wrong anyways.
I think it's a really natural impulse to make everything over the top when it comes to fiction. At the end of 90% of all undergrad short fiction, there is a death. It used to be a joke that the story wasn't over until someone was dead or married. The alternative to that ending, which became popular at the last half of the twentieth century, is the epiphany ending. What I've found in writing is that, while these things are interesting topics, they're not always the best. One example of subtle writing that I particularly like is an ending called a "false epiphany," in which the narrator is creating his own meaning out of the circumstances of the story, while it's clear to the reader that this epiphany is incorrect. This is like the ending of Native Son. Also, while death is an interesting topic, I find it's actually less interesting to focus on the gory details of the death itself. That's what horror movies are for. The real intrigue for me comes in the contemplation, speculation, and more complex emotions and reactions that follow death.
Cliches, as concepts and as phrases, are always a bad idea. Cliches are boring, tired, and lazy in a writer. Don't do it. Don't ever do it. Using cliche phrases to describe your characters and get your reader through your story will suck all the genuine goodness out of your writing. Real writers stand above the rest because they don't have to be cliche, they find ways around old words and find new ways to express familiar ideas. So, if you wouldn't ever want to describe a character as having a face "only a mother could love." We've all heard it a million times, and while your reader may not exactly yawn over this quick little phrase, it's certainly not going to grab their attention. In fiction, every word has to be custom. Every sentence has to drip with originality, your originality, because if your voice and wit and full concentration aren't coming through on every page, then why would anyone bother to read your work?
I once heard an author say that writer's block doesn't actually exist, it's actually just a form of not trying. I have found that to be absolutely true. The story doesn't just come to you, it doesn't just flow out of you like you're Stephen King in The Dark Tower Series. You have to work for it, you have to think about it all the time and roll it around in your mind. Most importantly, you have to write.
Just as great ideas can seem impossible to set down on paper, a mind with no ideas to be found inside will let greatness leak out onto the page every now and then if you just keep your fingers moving on the keyboard. As any writer will tell you, sometimes it takes six pages to get one good page, or just one good idea, but when you have it you have it and you can expand on it.
Because of this, a lot of things you write are going to have to be thrown out. I've always found that a full re-write is always best. Certainly it's less tedious than going through the original line by line and deciding what to cut and what to keep. I like to keep the original copy next to me and start with a fresh Word document when I do revisions. Also, I've found that it's important not to get attached to every line, every scene, or even every character. Sometimes whole sections of your work need to go, and if it's for the better of the story overall, that's what has to happen. Don't get hung up on losing the pieces that don't quite fit. You can always use them later.
I find it extremely useful to compare myself to greatness with incredible harshness. A little daunting at first, but how else are you ever going to get better? As I said earlier, if you read a lot and keep in mind the techniques that you like, you'll be a better writer. One thing I've always noticed is that, because so much of the story exists within the writer's head, it's almost impossible for a writer to know if the story is doing what he wants it to do. I've found that stealing techniques of particular effectiveness from other writers is a great way to ensure that you are getting your point across even when it might feel that it isn't working. Also, reading fiction of Pulitzer Prize standard (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) or classic works of fiction (East of Eden) will help you understand that you can never be as good as these authors, and will thusly make you try harder. At least, it's always worked for me.

That's all I've got right off the top of my head. That seems to about cover it. Really, writing is just all about writing. Just like everything else in the world, you have to do it a lot to get good at it. I think that may be the most important thing I learned about writing while in college. If you want to be a writer, you've got to write.

Monday, September 21, 2009

News and Human Rights 7: Honduras Constitutional Crisis

I'm not sure any editorializing is really necessary in this story, so all the moralizing and big picture messages I usually paste all over these articles will probably be absent from this one. This is all pretty cut and dry stuff, and mostly I think it's useful because I get to jump on my high horse and tell you that there are things going on in Honduras and that Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift is not what you should be paying attention to when you consider current events.
I think that maybe I should name my high horse. What do you think a good name would be for a horse that you use to jump on and get real preachy and bleeding heart liberal about everything? Maybe Kanye West.
Yeah, it's gonna be Kanye West.
Alright, so Honduras.
Not the most politically stable place, historically. That kind of goes without saying, since Central America in general has been pretty rocky since, like, 1500. Mostly this has to do with white people coming across the ocean (as do so very many of our world's current political problems) and within the last thirty years or so, America has done its fair share of damage down there, as was discussed in the Chomsky blog. If you didn't read the Chomsky blog, just suffice it to say that America looks out for America's interests, not for the interests of brown people in foreign countries. So if it's a choice between a democratic socialist government that's already in place and working perfectly fine or a military coup that will ensure staggering human rights violations and the destruction of democracy itself, America won't get caught up in moral baggage. It will choose the financially sound decision, and coups are good for business. At least that has been my impression of the region's history, correct me if I'm wrong.
I would like to stress at this point that the most recent political upheaval in Honduras was not US backed, thankfully. Obama commented that the coup was illegal and that it would set a dangerous precedent in the world if we were to revert back to a time when coups were the standard for political transformation. As usual I both agree and hope he means what he says.
Here's the story about the Honduran Constitutional Crisis of 2009:
Honduras, by nature, is slightly suspicious of dictators. They haven't had a real good relationship with them in the past and they just don't want anything to do with them anymore. For this reason the presidential term in Honduras, according to the constitution, is only one term and only four years. I'm not a political science major so I can't say with any knowledge whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. But that's the whole trick to government, everybody thinks everyone else is doing it wrong. Here's a good joke I know in that same vein:
Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.

Anyways, Manuel Zemalya is the current president of Honduras, and earlier this year he called for a preliminary poll to be held on June 28 to see if the people of Honduras would be interested in adding a fourth ballot to the general elections that are scheduled to be held in November. What he said, exactly, is this: "Are you in accord that in the general elections of November 2009 there be included a fourth ballot in which the people decide whether to convoke a National Constituent Assembly?" What he means by "National Constituent Assembly," is that there would be an opportunity to revise and rework the nation's constitution.
Remember what I said about Hondurans being suspicious of dictators? Well, this suspicion led many to believe that Zemalya was basically trying to sneak into the constitution before the end of his term and extend the length of his presidency. According to the German newspaper Die Welt, "Opponents of Zemalya believe he was pushing the limits of democracy with his drive to extend the single four-year term of presidents to allow re-election."
See, I wouldn't call that pushing the limits of democracy. First of all, Zemalya and many others have observed that it would be impossible for Zemalya to run for re-election because the re-election is to be held on the same day as the ballot for the Constituent Assembly. Any political effects that the constitutional revision would allow for would come into play after Zemalya was technically out of office.
What I do think is pushing the limits of democracy is for the military to organize a couple hundred soldiers, storm the presidential palace, put a gun to the head of a democratically elected president, and deport him to El Salvador simply because he suggested an opinion poll in order to find out who would like to take another look at the constitution. Either pushing the limits of democracy, or, as Obama put it, committing a crime. And that is exactly what happened in Honduras on June 28, the day the opinion poll was to be taken.

Since the military has seized control of Honduras, police and military brutality is unsurprisingly on the rise. Amnesty International has reported hundreds of instances of students and civilians being brutalized by the police, beaten with batons while in the midst of peaceful marches and protests. Women have been especially vulnerable to these attacks and women as old as 59 years old have been beaten with batons during peaceful resistance. Many have been detained but released without charges. Curfews and check points have also been put into affect and are largely arbitrary, it would seem. To me, these look like great way to control for the sake of control.
As I read about these things, I can't help imagine how badly it would suck to live in a place where one morning you might wake up and your entire life has been flipped upside down because of a military coup. I don't think any of us can really understand what that would be like.
"Shit, did you hear? This morning Obama got marched out of the White House with a gun to his head and they sent him to Canada. Now the military's in charge, there's check points all over the roads, and everybody who thinks that this isn't such a good idea is getting their asses handed to them with the business end of a baton."
Sounds like a science fiction movie, but it's reality for millions and millions of people all over the world.
Oops, there's that moralizing stuff again. Sorry about that.

As of today, Zemalya is claiming to be back in Honduras while the government and a UN spokeswoman assure the rest of the world that this is not the case. The US has a lot of stuff going on right now, it's true, but our government needs to put more pressure on the Honduran military to allow its rightfully elected president to return to office for the remainder of his term, and to let democracy continue from there on out. For now, the situations goes unresolved.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and Einstein's Dreams

While these books don't have much to do with each other, they are sort of similar in their bizarreness, their shortness, and their short chapters. Also, I read both of them in the same week, so I would feel like I was cheating if I spaced them out for two separate entries.

First, I think I should digress and talk a little about how I came to have these books in the first place. As you may or may not have heard, a few weeks ago my girlfriend Lindsay and I were on our way to New York City for the end-of-summer-road-trip of a lifetime. First to NYC, where we were to stay overnight in Time's Square and see the nightlife, then on to Atlantic City and the ocean, followed by Philadelphia, and finally to Washington D.C. Instead, we ended up stranded on the Ohio turnpike when a piston misfired through the motor of Lindsay's Saturn, leaving a softball-sized hole in its wake. We found ourselves in downtown Sandusky where the hotels are overpriced, the recommended dining is The Weenie Hut (we ate their twice) and by the grace of god there happens to be a Borders. After a wrecked car and a trashed plan to see the East Coast, I wasn't in the mood for the likes of David Foster Wallace (author of Infinite Jest, over 1,000 pages long.) I wanted something short, something easy to read and easy to get a lot of good stuff out of in a short period of time. While it's usually hard to find even one book like this, I managed to find two.

God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian is really classic Vonnegut. By this I mean the tone is perfect, the chapters are short, every page is brilliant and nothing happens the way you expect it to. This 76 page book is a collection of radio broadcasts that Vonnegut did in Texas some years back, claiming to be in the company of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Kevorkian, while in a state-of-the-art maximum security prison in Texas, supposedly induced a number of near-death experiences for Vonnegut, at which time Vonnegut was able to go up to Heaven (just outside the pearly gates, as entering would mean his actual death) and interview whoever happened to be around that day.
What's best about this book is not the interviews themselves, for, in typically Vonnegut fashion, very little attention is paid to what the book is actually supposed to be about. Instead the reader gets a lot of Vonnegut's musings on death, for instance, that there is no hell. In this book, Adolf Hitler is shown to be strolling around outside the gates, and he confides in Vonnegut that he wishes some likeness of himself would be erected (I think) in the UN headquarters in New York with a German engraving that would be the equivalent to "Excuse me," or "Beg Your Pardon," in English.
We also find out that angels are the souls of babies who have died and whose souls are raised in heaven. In this book, as always, I enjoyed Vonnegut's undying optimism and humanism. Everyone goes to heaven, how nice is that? Vonnegut's epitaph is at its most appropriate in this book: "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt."

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman was second on my reading list, and it too was filled with three-page chapters and a lot of interesting stuff. This book is all about mis-imagining, or maybe re-imagining, time. The book is supposed to take place in the dreams of Albert Einstein while, in his mid-twenties, he was working in a patent office in Germany and at the same time coming up with his theory of relativity. The dreams in question take up about 90% of the book, and each one is an exploration of the daily lives of parallel universes (it would seem) where time exists completely differently from the way we experience it. In one reality time is a loop and all actions are repeated over and over again into infinity. In another it has been discovered that time moves slower for people further from the earth, so all houses are built on stilts up in the mountains. Likewise, another dream shows all buildings on wheels because it has been discovered that time move slower for people in motion. In one dream, time is not a reality, time is a sense like sight or taste. However, some people are born with a type of time-blindness and are out of the flow of time altogether.
What was most interesting for me about this book is that you begin with kind of easy observations about differences in time (that time might be a loop) and end with increasingly personalized and complex imaginings of time. Time becomes more and more relative to the people experiencing it as the books goes on, which while not the exact meaning of relativity, is genius nonetheless.

These are both books you can read in an afternoon and they are jam-packed with interesting ideas. They are good for the same reason poetry is good. Sometimes it's nice to swim in a sea of language, characters, plot and metaphors for hundreds of pages. But sometimes it's nice to read a book cover to cover in one sitting and soak it in as a whole right then and there. I like the idea that a couple of hours can alter your perception of the world around you if you've got a good enough book in your hands.

Friday, September 4, 2009

College For Free 7: The United States School System

This blog is about due for a rant, and this is as good a topic as any. In fact, this may be the best topic.

Since the time we are entered into the system, we're told that next year things will get harder. School may not be that serious right now, but next year it will be harder. In second grade I was told I had to learn cursive because next year I wouldn't be allowed to turn in anything written in print. In third grade we were told we couldn't talk during the tests because if we did that sort of stuff next year our teacher would simply take it away and rip it up. Sure, slacking off in middle school seems fun, but once you get to high school it's a no nonsense, all business, fucking bloodbath of discipline and homework. Alright, so high school's not that hard, but college is no laughing matter. You at least have to pretend to try in college. I mean, it's college for God's sake. It must be hard, right?
Truth: School never gets harder.

I once saw an episode of Doug in which Skeeter told our hero that once they got to middle school, everything would change for worse. Specifically, I remember a theory about the tests being so hard that they wouldn't even have questions written on them. The students would be expected to write their answers unprompted on a blank piece of paper and, ultimately, fail. But of course, when they actually arrived and began their classes, they found that it wasn't so bad after all, nor was it very different from elementary school, and everyone went about their business as usual.
This is an absolutely perfect description of my experience in the public school system.

I think the fatal flaw in our school system is the same fatal flaw that exists everywhere else: Money. When you turn such a fundamental system as education (or health care for that matter, but I'll get to that some other time) into a business, it is doomed for failure. This is a long-standing problem, but No Child Left Behind really wrecked shit, let me tell you. The crime of No Child Left Behind is that it relies on standardized testing, which has very little to do with actual intelligence. Intelligence is better measured through creativity and inquisitiveness, not the ability to blindly memorize facts for the duration of an hour-long test.
Here's the ugly truth of the matter: some kids need to be left behind. Not left behind in the big picture, I mean left behind a grade. If a student isn't performing up to par with the rest of his peer group, if he isn't grasping basic concepts, if he hasn't shown mastery of the subjects needed to complete that level of education, he should be: a) shown special attention if these short-comings are not his fault or b) be held back if it is the student's unwillingness to learn that is slowing his progress. It seems to me that a vicious snow-balling phenomenon begins very early on in the education process, a phenomenon among teachers called "Not My Problem."
I'm not sure when this process starts, at what grade level a child shows up ill-equipped to deal with the most rudimentary tasks of education and the teacher simply shrugs it off, but I know it happens. Students that aren't performing at an acceptable level are pushed through the system with C's and D's, failing to comprehend the value of education and, in fact, feeling alienated from subject matter that they should have been helped with instead of scraping by in. Scraping by is not really acceptable anywhere, ever, so why is it acceptable when building the foundations of an educated society? I really, really wish I knew.
This is how we end up with a generation of people who do not understand the very most basic things about the English language, even when it is the only language they know how to read, write and speak. This is how we end with a generation of people who can't do multiplication in their heads and who don't have any awareness of the true nature of the world. The system dictates that the students must perform well in order for the school to receive funding. But the students aren't doing well, because all the teachers know that it is far too late to sit down with a high school student and explain the difference between "to," "too," and "two." So what do these teachers and school systems do? They lower the standards until the bare-minimum becomes acceptable work.

Let me say something that sounds like bragging but is actually regret: I did very well in school. I have never failed a class in my life. I was the English Laureate of my high school. I graduated college in 4 years with Magna Cum Laude honors and a 3.7 GPA. And, to be honest, I have never tried very hard at school. In fact, for the most part, I didn't try at all. The quality of basic public education has become so sub-par that a college essay written with fantastic grammar, spelling and vocabulary will receive an A every time REGARDLESS of content.

Why is this in the College For Free section? Because this is something that I've always known but didn't start to depress me until I came to college. In elementary school I thought middle school would be hard, and it wasn't. The same went for my transition for high school. In college, I really thought that the lie would be real this time, that I would be challenged, that I would be pushed, that the classes would be hard and my classmates would be smart and the material would be worth getting out of bed for. Sadly, that was not the case. As I sat in lecture halls surrounded by disinterested students checking their facebooks and playing games online, I realized that college is actually just high school part 2. A college degree has become so expected in our country that the standards have necessarily been lowered to greet all those high school graduates who, from day one, have been pushed through the system while teachers stood back and said "not my problem."

My conspiracy theorist side says that this all makes perfect sense, because it's really easy to govern a population that is more interested in celebrity gossip than the tyrannical abuse of power exhibited across the globe by their own country. It's very easy to control a group of people who can't even spell the word "government." When you don't teach empathy or world history or colonization as part of the K-12 agenda, it takes no effort at all to convince an entire nation of people that Muslims (all of them) hate our freedom. Man, the only thing that would make people easier to control would be to make them poor. You can't very well question the government when you're trying to feed your family and keep your house. You just don't have time.
But that's ridiculous, right?
I don't know. Nothing is certain, ever. It's turtles all the way down, didn't you know that?

Friday, August 28, 2009

News and Human Rights 6: East Timor

I know what you're thinking: "I've never heard of a place called East Timor."
Well, there's a perfectly good reason for this. East Timor is quite commonly known as Timor-Leste, so there you have it, just one of those simple mix-ups.
Oh, you've never heard of Timor-Leste either? Well there's a perfectly good reason for that, too.

The American public school system. And the American mainstream media. So two reasons.

East Timor is a country in South-Pacific Asia roughly the size of Connecticut. Even though you've never heard of it, more than one million people live there. And, unfortunately, all one million of them are living in the aftermath of a 25 year occupation that left an estimated 100,000 natives dead. Bummer, I know, but bear with me.

East Timor was first colonized by Portugal, because even though Portugal is small, they really know their way around colonization. They were, after all, the first to colonize in Africa. The Portuguese ruled until 1974 when a military coup in their own country forced them to relinquish control of some of their colonies, East Timor included. As would be expected the newly freed country was rocked by the sudden political upheaval after 400 years of colonial rule, but at this point things had to be looking up for them. They were free to govern their own land, reap their own rewards, and be the masters of their own destinies. On November 28, 1975, the pro-independence group known as FRETILIN (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor [the acronym is goofy because of the language difference]) claimed an independent East Timor after winning a short-lived civil war and the declaration of victory in the capital city of Dili.
Then, four years later, Indonesia showed up.
Indonesia came barging in Farva-style, completely uninvited and ready to fuck things up. They completely annihilated the armed resistance of East Timor and declared the country to be a province of Indonesia. During the 25 year occupation, the Timorese people were subjected to extrajudicial executions, torture, sexual crimes and starvation. While the UN opposed the occupation and demanded immediate withdrawal, countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, Britain and Germany firmly backed Indonesia. Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger even reportedly gave the "green light" for invasion after meeting with the Indonesian president shortly before the invasion.
The Massacre:
In 1991, a delegation to East Timor was supposed to take place with members of Portuguese Parliament, a UN representative, and a dozen journalists. After one of the journalists was identified as a FRETILIN sympathizer by the Indonesian government, the entire thing was called off. Demoralization of the Timorese independence activists, who had planned to use this delegation to gain international attention for their cause, ensued. This grew to frustration, tensions ran high, and things escalated when a group of resistance members was discovered by Indonesian troops. In the course of the confrontation, a supporter of independence named Sebastiao Gomez was taken outside and shot. Gomez's memorial service turned into the largest protest of Indonesian occupation since 1975. Several thousand pro-independence Timorese walked from the site of the shooting to the cemetery where Gomez was to be buried, chanting, holding anti-Indonesian banners, and mocking the troops all the way. While loud, the protest was reported to be peaceful and orderly by most accounts.
When the procession reached the cemetery, some were allowed in while others remained outside the gates and continued to protest their oppressors. It seems to me, in my limited knowledge, that massacres in these sorts of situations always develop out of protests, and usually over the protests of a man who was wrongfully killed. Not surprising, I suppose. What better way to get the state's enemies all in one place, than with a protest?
As the procession continued their peaceful assembly, a new group of soldiers appeared. These newly arrived Indonesian soldiers arrived with purpose. They didn't waste any time with crowd control, they simply opened fire on the protesters. An estimated 250 - 400 were killed. A direct quote from the Indonesian Commander-in-Chief taken two days after the massacre reads as follows: "The army cannot be underestimated. Finally we had to shoot them. Delinquents like these agitators must be shot, and they will be."

In 1999 alone it is estimated that 1,200 Timorese were murdered in an attempt to dissuade the population from voting for independence, which they were allowed to finally (finally, finally, finally) do during a UN-supervised poll (finally.) East Timor was finally granted independence with an overwhelming majority of 78.5% voting for freedom from Indonesia and was recognized as an independent nation on May 20, 2002.

Now, East Timor is one of the many countries in the world still struggling to recover from centuries of outside control. Since their recognition the country has been rocked by political instability and violence. A protest turned riot in 2006 forced over 20,000 residents to flee the capital city and resulted in 40 deaths between rioters and military. Large numbers of the military have disaffected and assassination attempts plague political officials. It occurs to me that perhaps it is difficult to stop fighting when your environment has taught you that it is the only way to live. Sure, Indonesia is gone, but there will always be an opposition whether it be political or civil or authoritarian. After centuries of armed opposition, how do you stop killing your enemies?
For the men and women who suffered for so long through the cruelty of Indonesian occupation, it must be incredibly disheartening to see that the violence did not end with independence. And it must be even more disheartening to know that the war criminals of Indonesia have yet to be punished. In fact, in 2005 East Timor chose to pursue something called the joint Indonesia - Timor Leste Truth and Friendship Commission, which provides no prosecutions for the perpetrators of war crimes from 1975-1999.
As usual, it seems, it's not even that we forgot about this country. We never even knew it existed in the first place.

"The path pursued by these two governments has weakened the rule of law in both countries... The victims need a clear commitment by the Indonesian and Timor-Leste governments and the United Nations to investigate all allegations and bring to justice those responsible for the grave human rights violations committed between 1975 and 1999." - Donna Guest, Amnesty International.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Radioactive Boy Scout

Last summer, in one of my many attempts to stall any kind of productivity in my life, I found myself reading the Wikipedia article on Commerce Township. I expected to find the usual things, of course. Demographics, geography, date of establishment, populations, all the boring numbers. However, what I was hoping to find was something weird and striking, something that would shock me, something that would make my rich, white, waspy, hometown stand out from other rich, white waspy towns. I didn't expect to find much, maybe a story about the infamous wall in Walled Lake, or something about the history of Native Americans in the area. What I didn't expect to find was this paragraph:

"In 1994, David Hahn, a 17-year old Eagle Scout, constructed a makeshift nuclear reactor in his backyard in Commerce Township, exposing himself and his neighbors-and maybe even as many as 40,000 people in the area-to radioactive materials and drawing the attention of the EPA. The event became a short-lived media sensation, and a book by Ken Silverstein called The Radioactive Boy Scout was written about the incident and published in 2004."

Holy shit! Can you believe that? This kid lived in Golf Manor! Like a two minute drive from my house. This is the subdivision just west of CHS where most of my friends went to middle school. The subdivision gets its name from Edgewood Country Club where I used to work. Also, to put that "40,000 people in the area" figure into perspective: as of 2000 there were less than 35,000 people living in Commerce Township. That number must have been far reduced back in 94, which says to me that many people outside of just Commerce (such as the residents of White Lake and Walled Lake) must have also been effected.

So, what drives a 17 year old boy to the isolation of a potting shed, reducing gas lantern mantles to thorium-rich ash in his senior year of high school? The answers are all in Ken Silverstein's book, and luckily for you I've already read it so you don't have to.

David Hahn, first of all, had a naturally experimental and inquisitive streak. When he was four years old he recalls mixing his first experiment while alone in the bathroom using chemicals under the sink. Obviously it's not exactly safe for a four year old to be playing with dangerous household chemicals, but a lack of parental supervision was absolutely key in all of David Hahn's experiments. His father Ken was an engineer at GM who worked long hours and paid very little attention to his son. His mother Patty was the source of affection in his home life, and the two were very close when David was little. Unfortunately, around the time that David was six his mother was diagnosed with depression and paranoid schizophrenia for which she was briefly institutionalized. Upon her release, Patty developed a drinking problem and the marriage came to an end when David was nine.
Obviously, a depressed, alcoholic, paranoid schizophrenic is going to have a hard time hanging onto custody rights, so David was sent to live with his father in Clinton Township. Though his father remarried shortly thereafter, David's stepmother seems to have been nearly as aloof as his father and David's family life quickly disappeared. With all this instability in his life, it isn't surprising that David turned to something that he could control and manipulate to his liking.
The most dangerous possession that ever fell into David's hands, even more dangerous than the radium, thorium and americium he was able to get his hands on later in life, was a textbook called The Golden Book of Chemistry. This was a severely outdated textbook from the 1960s that spoke optimistically of the nuclear age as a thing of the future, and as the way that humanity would solve all of its energy crises. It was also the kind of book that showed children performing dangerous science experiments without gloves or masks, just happily working away without regard for their own personal safety. This book, meant for children, would have brought down the fury of God in the form of angry mothers' lawsuits if it were released today. A short and simple recipe for chlorine gas (a chemical weapon used to kill tens of thousands of soldiers in WWI by stripping away the mucus linings of their lungs and letting them drown on their own blood) was provided for anyone who wanted to try it. The book also urged young scientists to perform their experiments in the garage or the basement, somewhere private. In other words, away from parental supervision.
By the time David was twelve he was making his own hair dye and experimenting with homemade tanning solutions. He would show up to school with his hair streaked blonde green and black or sporting skin the color of a carrot. He was also working with a very serious grasp of chemistry. When his father encouraged him to join the Boy Scouts (this in itself an effort to deter him from his increasingly dangerous experiments) David was briefly banned for concocting a batch of moonshine while on a trip. His real pride, however, were the sparklers, fireworks and smoke bombs he was able to throw together with chemicals like magnesium and potassium nitrate. Even at this young age, his confidence in his ability and seemingly harmless nature proved incredibly useful when it came to getting his supplies, no matter how difficult it may have seemed to come across them.
When David was in high school, he decided that he would find a way to collect all of the elements of the periodic table. When he told his assorted science teachers what he intended to do, he was met with the kind of disbelief that marked his entire life and always made it easy for him to slip by undetected. Some teachers brushed him off as a lying kid looking for attention. Others assumed that he would stick only to the simpler elements. None ever dreamed that he would go after radium, and none after thought that he would actually collect it.
Actually, back in the 1920s and 30s, radium was found in a lot of places. Radium was used as paint to make clocks and toys glow in the dark. Some of the radium painters actually used to paint their teeth in order to shock friends, and for this reason many radium painters later died of cancer. Obviously such practices were discontinued, but the clocks can still be found, and David found them. He also managed to get thorium, as I mentioned earlier, and he was able to extract americium from smoke detectors. About a hundred smoke detectors, actually, which he bought at bulk price.
So why a nuclear reactor? How did he go from making hair dye and smoke bombs to irradiating up to 40,000 people in Commerce Township and beyond?
One of his sources of inspiration was the institution that was supposed to deter him from such activities: the Boy Scouts. Their out of date pamphlets on atomic energy (that phrase itself being outdated) were terribly optimistic, downplaying disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and exaggerating nuclear promise and potential. David was, in fact, completely adverse to any negative literature on the topic, feeling that reading negative criticism of his obsession wasn't really worth his time.
Another fact that seemed to suggest he would actually able to build a breeder reactor in a shed in his schizophrenic mother's backyard was that Marie and Pierre Curie operated in much the same way when they discovered radium. Also, it must have appeared to him that he was absolutely unstoppable. This is a kid who couldn't spell the word "millions" when he wrote letters to government nuclear companies and professors around the country, and yet he was able to collect his radioactive materials and all the information necessary for his grandest experiment. So, from a outdated blueprint in one of his father's chemistry books, David Hahn attempted to build a nuclear reactor.
What's weird about this story (or, I guess, weirder) is that David came about as close as anyone has ever come to making a breeder reactor. (A breeder reactor is a reactor with a uranium core and a plutonium shell. When the uranium passes through the plutonium it's supposed to create more uranium which goes back to the core, and in this way the energy breeds itself and is perpetual.) No one has ever made a breeder before, ever. No country, no matter how many millions of dollars it spends, has ever done it. David didn't create nuclear fission, but he was getting reactions and the radioactivity of his materials grew at an alarming rate. So alarming, in fact, that even he realized how dangerous it was and had to dismantle it. The materials were only found when a random encounter with the police led to a search of his trunk, which held some radioactive materials, and this led to a subsequent search of his house, which revealed the rest.
So where is David Hahn now? Google his name and you'll see. The picture that comes up is his mugshot from 2007 when he was caught trying to steal smoke detectors from his apartment building. The pockmarks on his face were allegedly from radiation exposure, but I read an interesting blog that theorized Hahn has become a meth addict. As the article points out: he knows he can't build a reactor, he knows he doesn't have the materials, and frankly, he knows his shit when it comes to chemistry. Why would he be trying to get the tiny bits of americium out of a few dozen smoke detectors? This indeed does not seem like the actions of a healthy mind.
What's most sad to me about the entire ordeal is that afterwards, all the people he had been trying to impress, his teachers and peers, treated him as more of a pariah in light of his accomplishments. This is a 17 year old kid we're talking about here. He hadn't even graduated high school and he was able to create the basis for a breeder reactor, something that people with limitless supplies and resources do just about as well as he did. All anyone ever wanted from David Hahn was to hide his passion, hide his talent, and follow the rules like everyone else. He was never offered any guidance and encouragement, though to me he clearly shows signs of a savant at work.

You know, since I've been away from Commerce, I've found one truth to be consistent and inescapable: people from Commerce Township are weird. Upon arriving at college, I immediately gained a new respect for my hometown along this line of thinking: at least the people there are interesting. It's difficult to explain. You may say that I stuck with the friends I had, and that all people are interesting once you get up close and personal with them, but I beg to differ. For example, Scott Kilby was a perfect stranger to me when I moved to Kalamazoo, despite the fact that we attended school together and that he lived a mere ten minutes away from me. We became fast friends not because he was familiar, I had no idea who he was or what he was like. We became friends because he was the kind of person to be playing a digereedo outside the dorms while everyone else stood around smoking. And this kind of behavior, this pattern of strangeness worthy of characters in a novel, is relatively consistent in the people of Commerce Township, whether you love them or hate them.
Now, there are a lot of possible explanations for this. One is that the area's mixed level of wealth (from extreme affluence to lower-middle class) and the area's lack of anything fun to do (but not so desolate and stickish that heroin was allowed to completely run amok,) made for a batch of resourceful and interesting people who were afforded a great amount of leisure time in which to creatively entertain themselves. Not a bad theory.
My theory, however, is that David Hahn accidentally turned us all into borderline super heroes when he attempted to create a homemade breeder reactor in a shed and unwittingly exposed us all to radiation.