J.G.C. Wise

J.G.C. Wise (formerly Josh Cacopardo) has been on staff with The Curator since 2009, and also writes occasionally for GenerationQ. His first literary love was poetry, which gave way to songwriting and performing at various clubs around New York and Brooklyn. Though he will always have a soft spot in his heart for verse, Josh retired from performing in 2010 to focus more specifically on writing fiction. Since 2004, he has authored two novel manuscripts, which he hopes to have published one day, as well as numerous short stories and articles. His literary interests primarily include fairy tales, historical fiction, English classics, creative non-fiction, and religious non-fiction. When he's not writing, Josh spends his time as an amateur mixologist, photographer, quilter, and confidante. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his amazing wife, Stephanie.

One Short Sleep Past

“DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.”   — John Donne

My grandmother’s name was Hope. I remember learning this when I was little. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous. Who names their child Hope? Hope isn’t a name. Hope is a thing. Hope is something that sits deep down in a person’s heart – that persistent, sometimes annoying voice that tells us to persevere, to carry on, to strive for something beyond our own brokenness. Hope is the notion that all is not quite right with this world, even when things are quite good. Yet hope is also the notion that a world can ever become right at all. It must be both things – a tacit acknowledgement that something is wrong triggering the desire and will to make it right.

As a name, “Hope” offered a platform for easy clichés. Hope is doing well. Hope is happy to see you. Hope loves you. Hope is the backbone of her family. All of these and more could satisfy those who collect hokey phrases on coffee mugs and oven mitts, and the truth is that whether my cynicism wants to acknowledge it or not, these most often really did describe my grandmother. Ironically enough, she embodied hope, acknowledging life’s imperfections without accepting them as inevitable. And because she was hope to me and so many people, it was jarring, perhaps even a bit confusing, when earlier this month news came that Hope had died.

It wasn’t an entirely unexpected death. My grandmother had been ailing in body for years, regularly contracting pneumonia, suffering from congestive heart failure, and unable to walk. In my lifetime alone, she suffered multiple strokes and a broken neck. In recent years, she needed an oxygen machine. She could no longer sleep lying down. Her voice became garbled and strained.

There was a period of about six years where I didn’t see my grandmother. A lot about her changed during that time. In 2010, we finally made it back to West Virginia to visit. Even after all of that time away, her house was something familiar, recognizable. It smelled distinctly of “Gram’s” house. The wall-to-wall carpet ensured that eerie silence we’d grown so accustomed to. The antique crystal and smoked glass ice cream bowls were still in the cabinet. The porcelain Easter eggs were still in a basket on the table between the living room chairs. Everything was exactly the way we remembered it, with one exception – my grandmother.

She came to us slowly behind mechanics of a rolling walker. Her head had sunken down below her shoulders. Her skin had become thin, bunched up and loose like used plastic wrap. Her hair was snowy white, cropped short to her ears where always before it had been far past her shoulders. She couldn’t really hug us because she couldn’t stand that long without assistance. Hope, who meant more to me than any of those things in her house, was the only thing about that visit that was unfamiliar.

I came to understand that if the woman I saw that day seemed to be the shell of my grandmother, it’s because she was. But inside that shell, crooked, cracked, and falling apart, was the very same Gram – the same Hope – I had always known. She wasn’t dying. Her body was dying.

That, I think, is the most difficult thing for us to remember or even believe about death. Just as it is devastating to a child when he breaks his favorite toy and must go on to live without it, so also do we mourn the loss of loved ones when the apparent finality of death takes its hold. But what the child doesn’t understand is that loss of the toy does not mean loss of playtime – it doesn’t mean that the thing the toy was created for has also disappeared, never to be seen again. The same is true of death of the body. It is the vessel through which the soul seeks out and serves its purpose. Just because it ceases to exist does not mean that the person inhabiting that vessel is also gone forever.

This is a hard concept to grasp no matter which faith, if any, a person does or does not subscribe to. Again, like the child, we see the brokenness of the material thing and we can see only loss. That’s because human life was never really meant to be broken or ended in the first place. Death is a consequence of rebellion, but it is also a trick. Death made it appear that my grandmother was unfamiliar when in fact she only looked unfamiliar – she was quite the same woman as always before. This is only one of many tricks death plays on mankind: It speaks to those who are weak in spirit, pretending to be a way out; it speaks to the angry, convincing them that life is unjust and by so doing, suggesting that death is somehow better, stronger; it speaks to all of us, laughing its pompous laugh, because it would have us believe that those who submit to its claim are also eternally under its power.

This is why we fear death, why it saddens us to see loss of life. The very phrase, “loss of life,” implies finality, so that even those of us who believe there is life after death can quite easily get hung up on death itself and nothing more. That is not because death is so powerful, but because life is so meaningful, so beautiful and right. Life is goodness, and the loss of goodness is something wholly worthy of mourning.

The trouble is that we get caught up in the mourning and we forget that death is not final – it does not have the last word. Death’s power over life has been taken away, restored to the one who established it in the first place. We have been given a second chance, if you will, an opportunity to make things right with the world, and not even on our own strength, but on the strength of one who is capable, who conquered death not only for himself, but for all of us. In short, we have been given hope.

Hope, you see, cannot die. Hope lives on when the shell of the body decays, because hope is beyond death’s power; they are natural adversaries. When my grandmother breathed her last, the woman she was in life went on to begin the process of becoming a better woman, closer to life than she ever was before death. Death did not have the last word – it only wants us to think that it has.

I’m writing these words from my couch in my Brooklyn apartment. I’ve been sitting here for five days now in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Across the river and to the east, there are damaged homes and damaged lives. There is loss, brokenness, and suffering. There is death. Yet amidst all of that, there is also a spark of hope, a sentiment rarely admitted to in this tough and superficial city. Volunteers are banding together with donations and work teams, helping those who have lost something to get it back. The destruction you may have seen in pictures strewn across the media this week is already beginning to look like restoration. There is, of course, a lot of work ahead – hope must be action as well as philosophy. But in the midst of the work, what hope promises, what my grandmother always believed, is that as long as we cling to the hope set before us, as long as we ascribe power to hope instead of death, we will be faithfully seen through to a very different end from the lonely emptiness we’ve come to expect from a cold, forgotten tomb.

Creative Historical Memoir Fiction

About seven years ago, I decided to write a novel about my grandfather’s experience in World War Two. I knew a very little bit about it: only that he’d been a prisoner of war, and that he’d escaped the Germans by jumping off a train somewhere in northern Italy. I’d also been told that he was shot (which I later learned was actually a shrapnel wound), but that was about it.

When I finally asked my grandmother if she could tell me anything about it (my grandfather passed away before I was old enough to care), I learned that his story was a great deal more interesting than I’d ever realized. She gave me a brief summary that had been submitted to the Army, detailing his experience. I took those eight pages and embarked on the monumental task of piecing the entirety of the story back together in novel form.

Earlier this year, I submitted an excerpt of my novel to a local writing group I’d been a part of, dubbing it “historical fiction.” Since starting the book, I’d used the term “historical fiction” to identify the genre, not really knowing how else it might be classified. But when I submitted the piece to the writing group, one of my cohorts suggested that the book was not, in fact, historical fiction, but creative non-fiction, or narrative non-fiction. I’d heard of creative non-fiction before, but the truth is that I didn’t really know what it was. It had always seemed to me that creative non-fiction was more applicable to stories that didn’t take place at a significant time in history, that for something to be creative non-fiction, one simply had to take actual events and characters and embellish a bit on the action and dialogue. Of course, that was exactly what I’d done with my own story except that mine did take place during a significant historical event, yet the historical aspect didn’t seem as important to my friend when she was considering the genre.

“But then, what is historical fiction?” I asked.

I don’t remember her answer, except that I knew I didn’t fully understand it. But since she was more of an expert than I was, I thought I should go with her guidance. I began to refer to my work as creative non-fiction.

In mid-July, I attended my first creative writing residency in pursuit of an M.F.A. I used excerpts from the novel as my workshop samples, eagerly awaiting the feedback I’d receive that would no doubt make the piece much better than I could have done on my own.

When I arrived, my new friends and colleagues had a tendency to identify each other by the pieces we’d submitted, since that was the only familiarity we had with each other at the time. I summarized my work to someone, and when she realized which piece it was, she said, “Oh, right! That was the historical fiction piece.”

“Yeah,” I said, suddenly confused, but wanting to sound like I knew what I was talking about. “It’s more like a creative non-fiction piece, but that’s the one.”

“Creative non-fiction?” she said. “Interesting. Why do you call it that? I really thought it was historical fiction.”

Me, too, I thought. My attempt to cover up my ignorance had failed, and I was forced to explain that it had been suggested to me by a trusted friend in the industry, but that I didn’t really understand the difference.

Similar variations of this conversation took place throughout the first part of the week, until I was thoroughly confused, frustrated, and a bit concerned that I didn’t know the genre of my novel. How would I ever choose the right agents or publishers to send the manuscript to if I didn’t even know how to market the piece by its genre? Would my novel be doomed to unclassifiable purgatory?

Fortunately, or so I thought, there was a workshop later in the week having to do with the fictionalization of actual events. We were given examples to read, primarily by Joyce Carol Oates and John Shepard. They were stories about not unfamiliar events – the Chappaquidick incident involving Ted Kennedy, and the Chernobyl disaster. The stories told the lives of real people, but the names were changed and some of the event details ever so slightly altered for obvious legal reasons.

“So would these be classified as historical fiction or creative non-fiction?” someone asked.

“Well,” said the facilitator, “it depends. They could be either.”

“Depends on what?”

The facilitator went on to hem and haw about the nuanced differences between these two genres, but in the end, there was no definitive answer. I was somewhat devastated. That seminar had been my glimmering light of hope at the end of the uncertain tunnel down which I’d been charging aimlessly for too long. How could this be? Did no one know the difference between historical fiction and creative non-fiction?

“I think what you really have,” someone else suggested, “is a memoir.”

Photo by Mary Pelletier

Great. Now I have historical fiction, narrative non-fiction, and a memoir all rolled into one. As if writing the book wasn’t hard enough, now I had to figure this out. It was enough to make me want to give up. But as a writer, I get that feeling a lot, and I’ve grown used to overcoming it.

As I let the story stew for a few days, I began to explore the question of genre in general. Once upon a time – and it wasn’t that long ago – there were only a few ways that books might be categorized. There was romance, horror, sci-fi/fantasy, literary fiction, among others. If someone said the genre of a particular book, most people would understand how they meant to categorize it.

But since then, and I suspect largely because so many of these genres have been given bad names by terrible stories published within them, a number of subgenres have sprung up, making the jobs of publishers and agents slightly easier while giving new writers just one more thing to agonize over.

Another example is my first book, Dark Island. To sum it up, the novel is basically a ghost story. But the term “ghost story” more than likely gives people the wrong idea. While the first draft ten years ago may have been only a ghost story, the book has evolved to be much more about human struggles and the metaphorical prisons that we sometimes find ourselves in without ever having realized that we were headed down the wrong path. This is not a ghost story, yet the existence of the ghost in the story, and the significant role it plays, weakens its contention for simply being literary fiction. Some might say that it falls under the category of “fabulism”, a category so new that no one has even bothered to make a Wikipedia entry about it. Others still want to put it into sci-fi/fantasy, even though the only thing fantastical about the story is the ghost. Still others want to put it under a label with the supernatural, which wouldn’t be altogether inaccurate, but it would ultimately miss the point, especially when querying agents.

The young adult genre is also going through a major evolution, which has most writers and probably most readers a bit confused. Are YA books something that must include magical realism, fabulism, or science-fiction? Are they really targeting the ages of seventeen to twenty-two, or is the net cast much wider than that? Publishers, of course, want YA novels that will start with young adults but eventually appeal to (regular?)adults, but there are many YA readers who are much younger than seventeen, primarily because the language of YA has come to be a bit less sophisticated. Sophisticated language, then, can separate a novel out of the YA category, even though that is where it actually belongs. (It’s also worth noting that YA novels have tragically become something that the intellectual world of writers tends to shun– something that wasn’t always the case when the writing wasn’t so juvenile.)

So what is one to do? How can a writer be comfortable classifying his or her work? There aren’t any good answers to this. The first is simply to pick a genre that feels right to you, and stick with it. You may make an erroneous query here or there because of it, but if you’ve polished a novel enough to send queries, you ought to know it pretty well. Trust your instincts.

Second, find a mentor or trusted colleague who can help you to evaluate your own work. Then find another. Get as many industry people to read your work as possible, and take their feedback. Some of them will offer genre advice and some of them won’t, but simply hearing their thoughts and criticisms will help you to understand where your work belongs.

Finally, don’t stress about it more than you have to. Unfortunately, writers need to be marketers these days, but don’t ever forget that marketing is your second job, not your first. If an agent reads your manuscript and thinks it’s marketable enough to take on, he/she is not likely going to simply turn you away because you’ve mislabeled the genre in a query letter. If the agent really doesn’t dabble in the actual genre of your book, they will tell you where your work belongs and some of the more helpful ones may even give you further direction on better venues to which you might send your query.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to go back to my original classification of historical fiction for the piece about my grandfather. I chose this primarily because the characters are becoming more and more fictionalized, having only eight pages and an emotionally-reserved primary source to work from, and because the places involved are long gone now, with no pictures or descriptions to provide me context. I’m sure some will still say that what I’ve got is creative non-fiction or a memoir, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a writer, it’s that everyone’s a critic. Some people will tell me that I have something other than what I have. Some people will tell me that I’ve written a fantastic piece while others will call that same piece atrocious. There can be very little objectivity with the creatively-written word, and so when push comes to shove, the only thing a writer can really do is to follow his heart. After all, that’s usually what brings us to fill in so many blank pages in the first place.

 

And more on publication next week from Sorina Higgins

Glory with a Side of Nachos

By the time you read this, there is a good chance that the New York Rangers will have won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1994. There is a slightly lower chance that the Boston Celtics will have also won the NBA championship for the first time since 2008. But whether these things come to pass or not, there is one thing that is certain: in these few short weeks of the NBA and NHL playoffs, I will have consumed enough chili cheese nachos to make even Charles Barkley jealous.

Photo by flickr user roeyahram.

That’s because I, like so many sports fans, will spend as many of my free nights as possible this playoff season at the local sports bar. Of course, saying “local sports bar” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn instead of “local pub” or something equally pretentious is rumored to be a crime punishable by stoning, but don’t let these hipsters fool you: they like sports as much as anyone else. They may pretend to think that the Stanley Cup is merely an oversized vessel for holding PBR, but when the puck drops or the ball goes up or the first pitch is thrown, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a seat at any of the few sports bar in this neighborhood, and not just because we’re all too poor to afford cable at home, but because sports bars are where games are fully experienced as opposed to simply watched.

A sports bar is distinctly different from a bar that just happens to have a game or a match on the overhead television in that they specifically design their bar business around sporting events. They are the sorts of places where you know you’ll be able to catch all of the big games, but also where you will likely be able to catch some of the smaller market games, perhaps even sports like gymnastics and softball if there’s nothing major going on in the big leagues. Sports bars will likely have music playing during insignificant events, but when big game days arrive, the music is tuned out in favor of blaring broadcasters giving onlookers a play-by-play over the steady din of a live audience. A good sports bar won’t just have two or three televisions tucked in the corners, but at least a dozen flat-screens lining the walls like picture frames to ensure variety during things like playoff season and the Olympics, and certainty when the masses arrive for championship matches or that decisive Game 7. And of course, the signature of any sports bar worth the distinction is an offering of succulent bar food and a wide variety of reasonably-priced beer.

But what makes the sports bar experience better than watching the game from home? Isn’t a bar too loud, too expensive, and too crowded? How can one possibly focus on the game amidst so much distraction and inebriation?

These are all valid complaints for someone who merely wants to watch a game. But this isn’t about watching — this is about living. Sporting events are, by their very nature, energized, emotionally-charged, and social situations. To truly experience a game the way you would before the advent of television, is to get next to the action, to engage with complete strangers in the common pursuit of victory. Because when you boil it down, sports are about more than simply winning and losing; they are about community.

For reasons I’m not qualified to explain, the current state of human nature compels us to compete with one another. Whether or not you are a sports fan, everyone competes with someone else on some level. Most people won’t have trouble associating competitive nature with things like fighting for a better position or salary at work, or even perhaps for a potential date who has captured the attention of more than one interested party. But competition can happen on a more basic level, even simply that of trying to convince somebody that your ideas are better or more truthful than theirs. If I were to speculate, I’d have to attribute this to mankind’s need to be validated, as well as the universal desire to become something better than what we are, no matter how comfortable we may feel in our own skin. The pursuit of love, money, power and the like suggests that we are all subconsciously aware of our own inadequacies, however many or few they may be.

To compete at all requires that there be someone else to compete against, someone whose defeat will mean another person’s victory and subsequent validation. Thus competition, by its very nature, must be a social occasion because without the interaction of at least two human beings, there is really nothing to overcome. But where two are gathered, others will join because we are naturally social creatures and as such we also naturally gravitate towards social situations, interested and oftentimes eager to be a part of them.

So when one challenger engages another, a crowd almost always forms. People want to see who will emerge victorious, and for some reason (also beyond my understanding), we have a tendency to take sides, to favor one challenger over another. This breeds competition amongst the audience as well until literally thousands and, thanks to television, even millions of people have become a part of the main event. Once there, those who have taken the same side will naturally interact with one another, commenting on observations, strategies, amazing plays, rough hits, or whatever may be relevant for the particular game taking place. Wins results in celebrations and losses result in relative mourning, but all of these things were done historically in the presence and community of others, many of them strangers.

Television threatened to change all of that. Sports have been broadcast into the privacy of people’s homes for over fifty years, eliminating the need to be part of the bigger picture. Of course, one can still be social in one’s home, inviting friends over to watch a game, serving brews and maybe even some of grandma’s secret-recipe chili, but to watch at home amongst friends is comfortable, safe, and frequently dilutes the competitive factor. Friends watching together are likely to be, though they are not always, on the same side, meaning there is an entire component of sports — opposition — that is missing. Besides that, friends watching together can only celebrate with one another, not the collective family of both strangers and friends who stand unified behind a single team.

Sports bars respond to this threat by taking it’s very source — the television — and using it for a greater good, bringing the broadcasted events once more into a public arena and effectively re-establishing community between people who otherwise would not have experienced it together.

This public forum also re-establishes the competition. If you go to a sports bar, you’re not only going to find home-team fans, but also fans of the visiting team, the underdog, the enemy. Fans of both sides can share common space, pitted against one another, making best and talking trash in a truly visceral experience of rivalry and trial.

Not only is the competition re-established, but it is compounded. With the best sports bars out there having multiple televisions scattered throughout, there’s a substantial chance, at least during playoff season, that you’ll be able to watch more than one game at the same time. Consequently, someone who goes to the bar to watch the Celtics game might find himself cheering on Philadelphia or Chicago on the neighboring screen during halftime, period breaks, and timeouts. Add the beer and the nachos, and you’ve got a miniature heaven for sports fans.

Sports bars also bring some of the excitement of a live game into a smaller, more affordable arena. Between the huge crowds of people who swarm the stadiums for local events and the almost-excessive security one has to pass through to attend a live game, sports bars are a great alternative to the stress brought on simply by getting into the live event, offering still the energy of a live crowd, but without the numbers or the invasion of privacy. And in a world where even halfway decent Brooklyn Nets tickets fail to sell for prices lower than the Earth’s stratosphere, sports bars are a cheaper alternative for publicly viewing the big game.

Though watching at home has a time and a place (probably winter when it’s too cold to go anywhere), there’s no better way to take in a game than at a quality sports bar. Sure, at home you lower the likelihood that someone will spill beer on your, or that you’ll have to wait in line for the restroom, and certainly that you’ll have to put up with someone cheering on the opposing team, but all of that misses the point. Sports aren’t supposed to come with a cushy guarantee that everything will go smoothly and without anxiety or a struggle. Sports are gritty, and to properly experience them, we as the spectators need to be someplace equally as gritty. We need to be someplace where we can feel the energy, nerves, excitement, and disappointment of every brother and sister with a vested interest in winning. And most important of all, we need to be someplace that serves chili cheese nachos. Hold the jalapenos.

The Death of Live Music

One of the definitive moments of my life was my first live concert. I’ll protect the shred of dignity I have left by not disclosing the artist, but rest assured that at that time, they were one of the most popular acts in the country. The show took place at a major venue in Hartford, Connecticut, and I paid less for those tickets than I pay to see some local shows in Brooklyn today. I was twelve years old, but I felt like I had the world at my fingertips.

Immediately hooked on live music, I started saving my allowance to buy tickets to the next great show coming to town, much to the chagrin of my father who was tasked not only with driving me and my friends to the shows, but also with taking us to the Ticketmaster outlets to buy tickets. (You couldn’t buy tickets on the Internet then, and it was generally agreed upon that there was really no point in trying to penetrate busy signal after busy signal on the phone.) In those days — because it really does feel that long ago — ticket sales began on Saturday mornings, giving everyone with Monday through Friday work and school schedules an equal opportunity to land tickets. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn and my father would drive me down to the local donut shop — you know, when towns had local shops — for some early morning trans fat before making our way to the empty parking lot of the nearest ticket outlet in the next town over. There we waited for hours, always the first in line to get the best seats available for whichever band had captured my attention. It was, for a young man, a grand adventure that is now a very fond memory.

Nowadays, I question how many young people will have the opportunity to make such memories. The state of live music has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years, and so has the state of ticket sales, neither for the better. With quality and affordability stacked against them, I wonder — and frankly, worry — about the increasingly limited access to events that not only create lasting memories, but that also reaffirm over and over again the importance of live music in our culture.

The irony, of course, is that there is no lack of musical performances going on in America today. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more musical acts taking various stages across the country than ever before. But quantity has never been a very good substitute for quality, and live music is the furthest thing from an exception. That there are hundreds of musicians lining the stages of bars, concert halls, stadiums, festivals, and the like does not mean that the live music industry is thriving. Instead, I suggest it means that music, like so many other things, has become far more about business than it is about art.

Take one of the most basic venues for live entertainment: the bar. Now the functional purpose of a bar is to provide people with a place where they can socialize, engage one another in community, and otherwise unwind. What people don’t — or at least, never used to — go to a bar to do is to listen to live music. Live music, once upon a time, was part of the package, one way among many in which bar owners sought to placate their patronage. Now, at least in New York City, bar owners don’t want to simply deliver live music to their customers, they want the live music to bring in the customers. And they frequently don’t want to pay their live music to do so — they offer a late time slot on a weeknight, require a pull of at least twenty people (usually friends of the musicians), charge five to ten dollars at the door and a two drink minimum, pocketing more than half of the door charge. Those looking to unwind apart from the music suddenly have to pay a cover to do so, and those looking to support the music have to force themselves to either down two drinks in an hour or simply pay for a drink that will never be consumed.

From the standpoint of the art, there are a few problems with this business tactic. The first is that bars offer slots to artists primarily based on how many people they can bring in, not how good they are. So a tone-deaf, lo-fi, prog-rock, insert-any-other-hyphenated-descriptor-here band of college students with a collective total of 3,000 Facebook friends might be offered a gig over an accomplished solo jazz artist ten years in the business not because walk-in customers happen to enjoy noise rock, but because the individuals playing the noise rock will bring their friends into the establishment, even if only for an hour. Those friends become compulsory customers, and so a bar’s business will likely be much greater than it would have been had they brought in a more talented act with a smaller network. Suddenly the tone-deaf, lo-fi kids are being offered regular gigs despite the fact that the quality of music being performed is questionable.

By bringing in audiences of twenty people or more to tiny or no-name bars, it may appear that a band has a particular talent or appeal, even though the majority of that audience is friends who are simply looking to show support. Regular draws bring regular gigs, presenting the illusion that a band has achieved some measure of musical success when in fact, they have only so far been successful in strengthening a bar’s cashflow. Through self-promotion — still not a measure of musical prowess — this illusion spreads to larger venues, which means finally reaching a wider audience. The larger venues are no different than the bars in that they want to know how many tickets they will sell, not whether the music is of any notable quality. When a venue promoter believes that a band will bring in a large audience of their own, they use it as a springboard to bring other people in. “Look at what everyone else is doing,” they seem to say, “Don’t you want to do this, too?”

I don’t mean to say that buzzworthy bands never catch a break, but oftentimes, the wrong bands are given opportunities because they are better at promoting themselves than they are at playing music, and venue owners and ticket brokers are happy to cash in. It is at this stage where the cultural value of live music really takes a hit. While the quality of music presented remains relatively subjective — everyone has different musical tastes — the imperfect way in which ticket sales are handled has hurt music fans across the board.

As long as I can remember, there have been service fees associated with any ticket purchases made through a vendor as opposed to a box office. And while these surcharges have always been annoying, they were also nominal — maybe four dollars a ticket — so we dealt with it. Now, tickets sold through a vendor like Ticketmaster will cost the music fan somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen dollars on top of the list price — and that doesn’t even include receiving the tickets in the mail. Indeed, the only method of ticket delivery that does not include an additional charge these days is e-mail delivery, which means the consumer is now even responsible for his own printing costs. Why, exactly, have surcharges increased if the service provided has decreased?

More frustrating is the increasing popularity of presale tickets — tickets that can be purchased ahead of the release date by those willing to spend more. That isn’t to say that those who want to pay more shouldn’t be able to if it guarantees them seats to their favorite band, but true fans aren’t the only ones paying inflated pre-sale prices, and frequently, they are in the minority. Professional “scalpers”, or ticket resellers as they’ve come to be known, have access to significantly more funds than the average music lover, and ticket presales open the door wide for them to make the investment because they will only turn around and sell the tickets at marked-up prices anyway. The profits still outweigh the costs, leaving music fans with less access to regularly priced tickets on regular sale dates.

Ticket resale sites like StubHub and TicketsNow provide a platform for people to sell their tickets to any event, at any price set by the seller. Thus if I happen to purchase two tickets to see the Rolling Stones for $100 each, I can turn around and sell them for $1,000 each. It’s bad enough that the average Joe is empowered to make such disgusting profits off a ticket resale, but imagine the field day for the brokers. Because they have more resources to access tickets — as a business, they have more computers, phone lines, and agents seeking to purchase — they are more likely to actually land high-demand tickets. With entire teams of people working under brokers to secure tickets to the hottest shows, the access music fans have to those same tickets exponentially decreases. And I can’t help but feel that there is something fishy about the best seats to the best shows appearing on StubHub and TicketsNow within five minutes — barely enough time for the average person to complete a transaction — of going on sale through Ticketmaster, and for unreasonably inflated prices.

Unfortunate as it may be, I won’t deny that as long as capitalism is here, then business will need to remain a part of music so that musicians can make livings for themselves just as anybody else. But there was a time — and it wasn’t that long ago — when this was achieved with more harmony. Musicians were paid to do their jobs, ticket outlets and venues made money doing theirs, and fans had access to the bands they wanted to see at prices they could reasonably afford. Now at the grass-roots level, musicians aren’t paid fairly (if they are even paid at all) and at the higher levels, many fans are denied access to their favorite bands because of obstacles put up by venue owners and ticket sellers and resellers who are seeking to make a profit, regardless of whether or not they are promoting something of value.

All of this needs to be taken back to formula, so to speak. In a culture saturated with songs and sounds, we have grown to take music for granted, viewing musicians as dollar signs for those who would give them a platform to make a name for themselves. We need to remember that music is, first and foremost, a gift, one that is able to transcend the routine of everyday life, providing us an outlet for our thoughts, emotions, and our souls. It’s not the sort of thing that should have ever had a price tag on it, but since it does, then it is not merely a good idea, but it is our duty to ensure that the musicians who offer us this gift are provided for, without robbing audiences of the myriad other priceless riches that music will always, no matter the state of the economy, afford to culture around the world.


Happily Ever After

Fairy tales have been around as long as most any narrative style, and longer than many. The written fairy tale dates from the 13th Century B.C., and it is likely that the spoken form is even older. Yet despite this long history, people often fail to realize that fairy tales are one of the most important forms of narrative that we have, and should be celebrated by adults and children alike.

However, such praise requires justification. What even qualifies as a fairy tale? What separates it from general folklore, myths, legends, fantasies, and fables? And how, in a world where realism as fantasy far outweighs the truly imagined fantasy, do we effectively continue this age-old tradition?

The first two questions may prove the most difficult to answer. There is no standard definition of a fairy tale, and experts– equally undefined– don’t always agree on the components. Some insist that fairy tales must include a kind of magic, which seems like proper guidance until one considers that a great many of the famous fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, while exploring some supernatural themes, have nothing at all to do with magic.

Another commonly thought of component shirked by the Brothers, and a significant number of other fairy tale authors, is anthropomorphism. Apart from some of the heavy-hitters, like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Wind in the Willows, anthropomorphism is the exception rather than the norm.

It is more common for the stories to include mythological creatures– the naiads and dryads and dwarfs and goblins and so forth. Yet, fairy tales cannot be said to be simply myths because myths are, or at one time were, something believed to be true. Fairy tales never endeavor to suggest an actual historical event, which may be the reason that so many of them take place merely “once upon a time.”

There is also the question of a moral, which many people would offer as a device signaling that a story is a fairy tale. This is where the fairy tale may become mixed up with a fable. But fables are usually shorter, and are more anecdotal. They don’t imply morals as much as they dictate them, and usually not more than one or two at the end. Fairy tales, on the other hand, are often infused with morals or a particular moral throughout; the moral drives the story instead of being the point of it (although some do end with a moral lesson). Thus we have traditional tales like Rapunzel, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, which people generally accept as offering a moral message without necessarily identifying what that message is, and more complex fairy tales like The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy’s fantasy leads her to a better understanding of her reality, or MacDonald’s Phantastes, in which each advancement of Anodos through Fairy Land presents him with a new moral struggle and simultaneous revelation about himself. Both of these latter examples end with a fable-esque lesson; Dorothy learns that somewhere over the rainbow is not necessarily better than being at home, and Anodos learns “good is always coming…What we call evil is the only and best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.” So while these all have to do with morals, it is the way those morals are included in the story and presented by the author which leads the classification of “fairy tale”; in other words, a fairy tale may also be a fable, but a fable by itself cannot be a fairy tale.

It is somewhat surprising that one of the few things we can say about all fairy tales is that they do not need to have anything at all to do with fairies. Indeed, many of them do not (see Hansel and Gretel, The Light Princess, etc.). Interestingly enough, you’d also be unlikely to find many people who pick up a fairy tale actually expecting to read something about fairies, suggesting that even audiences have become somewhat desensitized to the literal name of the genre, further confusing the answer to the question presently at hand.

Perhaps the thing that makes a fairy tale different from its cousins is the fairy tale voice; that strange and varied tone that hints at a childish audience despite the fact that the story most likely wouldn’t be understood by anyone so young as that. It is a voice unique to each fairy tale author, walking the line between the innocence and brokenness of the world, addressing us as though we are children but with every intention of speaking to us as though we are adults. It is the thing that draws the child out of us while continuing to develop the adult within us.

Interestingly, it is this voice that creates the greatest obstacle to writing the modern day fairy tale. How it has come about in our culture that fairy tales are merely children’s stories is beyond me, but somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the tolerance not just for stories we find to be juvenile or fantastical in content, but also for any voice that threatens condescension. We baselessly insist upon intellectualism in the narrative voice, upon being spoken to only as adults, which is to say that we don’t much care for simplicity, innocence, dare I say even magic, to underlie the narratives we use to explore and understand the complex and confusing nature of humanity. As far as literature goes, we like a well-balanced meal and even the occasional fast food, but we seem to have tragically lost our taste for dessert.

The consequence has been an attempt to reconstruct the fairy tale narrative as though it were purely for our adult minds instead of appealing to our child minds at the same time. A glaring example of this — though not altogether a bad novel — is The Magicians by Lev Grossman. This novel-length “fairy tale” has been hailed as essential for those who are fans of Narnia or Harry Potter, but upon reading just the first three pages, it is clear that this story will be nothing like its predecessors. The narrative voice is the same you will find in most literary fiction, the subject matter has more to do with angsty college students and their exploits than it does with their adventures in whatever other worlds they visit. There is profanity, sex, drug use, and most any other thing you might expect to find in another literary piece about the lives of college students. The few exceptional moments where the story tiptoes on the border of fairy tale, such as the appearance of The Beast or the cave battle in Fillory, are overshadowed and cheapened by the attention given to predictable, sadly commonplace things like the reckless sexual behavior of the main characters and their inability to function as emotionally intelligent members of their world. It is in these moments that the magic is lost.

But Grossman’s work is not a failure as literature, just as a “fairy tale for adults.” That’s large in part because, as I’ve said before, the narrative style of the traditional fairy tale is already for adults. Changing the narrative in order to appeal only to adults ignores the fact that fairy tales are not merely a vehicle for escaping our mundane lives for a little while. Instead, they serve to remind us of the importance innocence plays when believing in something beyond ourselves; that to truly believe in something at all, one must receive it with the heart of a child, and for any heart to embrace childishness, it must also remember innocence. The adult-child balance in the narrative of fairy tales is part of what opens our minds to be transfixed completely by a world to which we do not belong. It is the difference between telling a magical story and merely a story about magic.

An exceptional example of a modern fairy tale in which this essential balance is maintained is The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente. The Wonderland-esque adventure of young September through Fairyland (different from MacDonald’s “Fairy Land”) is a non-stop tumble through a most bizarre, enchanting world in which September is not only faced with myriad trials of good and evil, but also with realizations about her own courage, insecurities, strengths and weaknesses. Where September differs from the characters in The Magicians is that she learns these things externally — we do not experience any of her complex emotional struggles through a narrative saturated with omniscient or introverted analysis of character motives or personalities. September learns these things, instead, the way most things are learned; not through deep, intimate introspection, but by the choices that she is forced to make every day, the choices that don’t allow time for introspective analysis. Topped off by an americanized Victorian voice, Fairyland is a rare, successful return to the narrative style of the fairy tale, giving some much-needed weight to the old maxim that if something isn’t broken, that ought to be a good enough reason to not go trying to fix it.

Despite some recent attempts to modernize the narrative style of fairy tales, I don’t think there’s much danger in the long run. Between the deep historical roots of the genre, the relatively undefined component structure of such stories, and the fact that these stories allow us to explore our humanness in ways which literary fiction simply does not, fans of the fairy tale can rest assured that this genre of literature is unlikely to disappear, or going through any successful changes. There will always be naysayers, always those who think of fairy tales as childish or silly, those who want to bring the fairy tale to the adults instead of bringing the adults to the fairy tales, and those who will refuse to take the genre seriously as an important part of our literary past, present and future. But in the end, I’d like to think that those of us who are happy to embrace adulthood without relinquishing the reigns of childish hopes and dreams, those of us who stubbornly cling to the whimsical, fanciful playgrounds of our imaginations, and those of us who are willing to approach the complexities of our humanness with what childish innocence we have left, will eventually, against all odds of reality, find our way to that place called happily ever after.

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The Devolution of Christmas

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For those who’ve forgotten, and those who never knew, there is a rich, diverse, and beautiful history of this holiday that has, for over two thousand years, quietly crept up on the others to be one of the most celebrated occasions around the globe. Here’s to remembering why.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, that’s the day Christ was born
There hadn’t been a Christmastide before that Spring morn
But a Yuletide there was, each December up north
As part of the pagan rituals of the Norse
For each winter solstice brought the threat of life’s end
With famine and frostbite as the annual trend
But those Norse never failed to keep spirits up high
They gave thanks to their gods until the ale ran dry
And they chopped down Yule logs from oversized trees
Dragging them home through the snow and the leaves
These logs they would burn for twelve days and twelve nights
While they drank toasts to Odin, and their faithful king’s might

Indeed, all of Europe was drinking their fill
The wines all fermented, and not a drop spilled
But it was further yet south, in the city of Rome
Where pagan traditions first found a new home
In Century Four, the Lord’s birth was declared
A national holiday by the church leaders there
With competing religions and the date up for grabs
The church schemed a plan to make Christmas the fad
Coincide with the pagans, the Catholics declared
So that Jesus might infiltrate their parties and prayers
Thus December was chosen, the twenty-fifth day
To celebrate the birth of a New Man and His Way

But there were strange side effects, for though Christmas caught on
The church couldn’t control others’ customs or songs
Thus the Norse gave to Christmas those Yule logs so thick
While the Lycians invoked a jolly saint they called Nick
Who gave to the needy, the timid and the poor
Putting gold in the shoes that they’d left by their doors
There’s e’en an account, they insist that it’s true
That he once dropped gold coins down a fireplace flue
And they fell into stockings that were hung there to dry
Though nobody since seems to understand why
A man so renowned for his wisdom and love
Was prancing about on the rooftops above

It was all so mysterious, so magical and strange
That folks started rumors to help them explain
So dear old Saint Nick was turned into an elf
With a stable of reindeer, and a sleigh for himself
And the children believed that each cold Christmas night
That same old Saint Nick would fill their hearts with delight

Meanwhile, back at the Middle Ages’ end
The Germans had started the next Christmas trend
Putting apples and candles on evergreen trees
Even in their own homes! if you can believe
This created a business for special treats to be made
To place on the branches, and if the children behaved
They each got a candy, and the most coveted of these
A peppermint stick that looked like snow in the trees
Well, I don’t have to tell you how these sticks have evolved
For I’m sure it’s a riddle that your children can solve

Now somewhere in there, Nick got mixed up with these trees
For presents began to appear underneath
Until people were so taken with that fat, jolly elf
That the meaning of Christmas became personal wealth
Each year lists grew longer so that all the North Pole
Could no longer keep up with all the demands from below
And people forgot all these things of the past
In favor of money and toys that won’t last
Dear Santa was fired by the Corporate Machine
The elves all laid off, on the workshop a lien
While people, instead, looked to cheap warehouse stores
A modern day miracle, God’s gift to the poor
They bought all their goods at a fraction of the price
Ignorant to all someone else sacrificed
The worst part of all, they kicked Jesus out, too
So that Christmas, it seems, now means something new

And now nobody remembers from where Christmas comes
All the festivals and cultures and praise for the sun
Or the charity or giving, how it spread through the land
Then was rightly taken up by our Lord, the Son of Man
Now it’s all about the Benjamins, Bentleys, and bling
And how much in revenues each store can bring
It’s no wonder with all these monetary distractions
We fail to find ourselves with curious reactions
To chopping down trees just to bring them inside
Singing songs about pagans and that thing called Yuletide
Or that rosy old elf whose first name is Saint
Or a babe in a manger looking unusually quaint

So this Christmas my wish is that we’ll stop to remember
The reasons we do what we do each December
To give thanks to the One who saved us from death
Who taught us to love, down to His last breath
Yet even despite how we’ve strayed from His way
If He returned to us now, I think He’d be the one to say
Speaking warmly and clear, with His love shining bright
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

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Formerly Known As

By the time you read this, the name Joshua Cacopardo will be no more. 

Well, not exactly. It will still exist in all of my historical academic and vital records. If any of my previous employers didn’t burn all proof of my existence in a therapeutic inferno, then they will also be able to vouch that Joshua Cacopardo did in fact legally exist. And then there will always be that pile of business cards I once dropped on 58th Street after three too many adult beverages turned my messenger bag upside down. But apart from these unsuspecting keepers of history, you will never again find this name misspelled on any mailing, magazine article, or unjust citation from the City of New York.

But the motive behind my personal rebranding isn’t what you’d expect. I’m not entering into the witness protection program, though I hear the benefits package is outstanding. I’m not converting to a new religion, nor am I running for office. I didn’t even have a hallucination following a tribal dose of Costa Rican ayahuasca, telling me that my old self needed to be severed from the new age, mystical me. Hell, I’ve never even been to Costa Rica. But that’s not the point.

Mr. and Mrs. Wise.

The point is, my impending name change is not the result of something that would either fascinate or impress people, and in fact my decision has already lost me the respect of two or three individuals who will likely find themselves in the company of half a dozen others before this is all said and done. This article is especially for them.

So what reason could I possibly have for willingly abandoning the identity that has connected me to countless friends and foes over the course of the last twenty-nine years? It’s simple, really. I’m getting married.

For those who find themselves confused, let me begin by clarifying: I am not a woman. I am a healthy young man marrying a healthy young woman. I have no more doubts about my identity than the rest of the twenty-something Brooklyn population. I have no daddy issues that might inspire me to change my name out of spite, and my soon-to-be wife did not strong-arm me at the pinnacle of a feminist coup. In fact, when the name discussion came up post-proposal, I think she was rather surprised that I offered to take her name following our nuptials. Once we decided to go this route, I subsequently presented my list of qualifications to our closest family and friends. Predictably, it was a mixed response. It is because of this mixed response that I felt compelled to share my reasons with you, the Rest of the World. (That, and I want you to know where to find me when the name Cacopardo removes itself from the interwebs, or whatever this thing is called.)

Let’s start with the easier pill to swallow: the practical. While I cherish my Italian heritage and find myself a bit wistful over the loss of a name to attach to it, let’s all be honest: Nobody, however well-educated, seems to be able to spell or pronounce Cacopardo. Most people suffer the same frustration with their names from time to time, but most people aren’t writers. In the world of publishing, your name is — and I’m feeling just a little nauseous using such marketing terminology — your brand. If you want people to be exposed to your work, then you need to make sure that people can find it. This is difficult to do when your name — the only tie to said work — is misspelled by friends, colleagues, and even the occasional editor.

Thus I decided a long time ago that I would eventually operate under a pen name in an effort to make sure that my bylines weren’t among the laundry list of obstacles to my success as a writer. In the past I’d considered using my mother’s maiden name or just making up a name altogether, but when it came up that Stephanie was rather attached to her last name, I began to wonder if taking her name wouldn’t be the best thing for both of us. After all, her name is an actual four-letter word in the English language (no jokes, please; this is a family magazine) and taking on an actual name instead of a pen name would ensure that I don’t forget who I am the next time I’ve been at a cocktail happy hour for too long. And let’s be honest: making Stephanie go from a functional four-letter last name to the more cumbersome “Cacopardo” doesn’t really say, “I love you,” as much as it says, “If I’m going down, you’re going down with me.”

Another reason for my unorthodox decision is that many of our friends have gotten married over the last two years and in liberal Brooklyn, women don’t simply defer to tradition without reason. Consequently, the stress of choosing a name was added to the list of pre-wedding stressors for many of these couples, and frequently, it took the spotlight. Like Stephanie and me, most of our friends didn’t like the idea of hyphenated last names, but for them, the agreements stopped there. Men and women alike had valid sentimental reasons for wanting to keep their names, and I frequently heard fears about losing one’s identity through a name change. Stalemates lasted for the durations of their engagements — one couple has now been married for over a year and still hasn’t settled on a common last name — and when they finally ended, the compromises seemed more like concessions. The beauty of matrimony was getting bogged down by the stubborn retention of “who I am” which loses sight of the fact that whatever you may be called after your wedding, you will be a changed person. “Who I am” becomes, by the very nature of marriage, “who I was”, and that goes for men and women alike.

At the risk of digressing slightly, there is another piece to this for Stephanie and me, which is that we are Christians. The answer to “who I am” is ultimately always found in Christ, not in a name. That said, my decision has regrettably found the most contention in the church, of all places. It seems that for as many individuals who support this decision, there are an equal number of people who believe that a real Christian man passes his name on to his wife, staking claim to her life and body like the good ol’ days while she glories in accepting it, thankful to him for saving her from the dreadful existence of an old, forgotten maid. About this, I have rather a lot to say. I’ll do my best to be brief.

I confess that I do not know where the practice of a woman taking a man’s name came from, but I can say this: If the church is indeed, as some have suggested to me, the authority that decreed a woman shall take a man’s surname after marriage, then that is all well and good, but we cannot then say that this is the Christian thing to do. It remains either denominational or cultural, but it is not doctrinal. Unless I am mistaken, the Bible — which ought to govern the church — does not say that a woman must take a man’s last name in marriage, and since the Bible is presently the only Christian authority we have apart from the Holy Spirit, we’d do well to mind it rather than speak for it under the pretense of being “the church”. Furthermore, we must not forget that while the church has done wonderful things for the world, it has also done many terrible things, guided by men’s greed and lust more than God’s love. We should always take pains to remember that as we seek to understand what it is that God is telling us versus what the world is telling us. That a church decrees something, alone, does not make it authoritative.

I’ve also heard the argument that the Bible indicates that a woman should take a man’s name because God named Adam, but Adam then named Eve, which suggests the practice of a woman taking a name given her by a man should continue in marriage. I think this is reading too much into things. First of all, Adam named Eve; he didn’t rename her. And while he may have named his wife, we can also deduce from the text that Eve named their first child, who interestingly happened to be a man. This suggests both that a woman may name a man as legitimately as a man may name a woman, and additionally, that if the Creation Story indicates a woman must take a man’s name in marriage, then it also indicates that only women should name children since that’s how it happened the first time around. Perhaps most significant, though, is that none of this has anything to do with renaming anyone, which I argue makes it all a relatively moot point.

What seems more important to the Biblical writers than who takes whose name is the idea of “one flesh”, and while a common last name is one of many important ways to symbolize this concept in marriage, it is not something clearly defined by the Bible. What we have in America (note that most, though not all, other cultures do not practice name reconciliation or if they do, the method is not a heated point of contention) is a cultural tradition, a mark of the clear separation between men and women, born out of patriarchal societies that were, let’s be honest, not altogether kind to women throughout the majority of history. That people seem to think that taking my wife’s last name should be in some way emasculating as a man and a Christian just goes to show how deeply rooted that oppression still is in our culture, even if we’ve come light years from it in the interim. Wearing a dress to my wedding would be emasculating; taking my wife’s name is merely unusual.

It’s laughable to me that in a culture where women can vote, work, run for office, lead in the church, and pretty much do just about anything else that men traditionally prevented them from doing in the past, it is somehow still unacceptable for a man to take his wife’s last name. A name doesn’t make a man; his actions and his heart make him who he is. In a culture that has made so many strides towards acceptance, it’s shameful that we’ve yet covered so little ground in the very institution (the church) that ought to be subversive in Christ’s name in the first place. In that vein, along with the interest of participating in progressive culture and not merely ideas, I’m proud to take this step forward in redefining not simply how we think about marriage, but also how we think about ourselves.

Loyal readers, dearest friends, and unfortunate web-surfers who just happened to stumble upon this article, I am pleased to present to you the newest evolution in my identity, the name by which I shall be known until the end of this life: Mr. Joshua Gregory Cacopardo Wise, or simply J.G.C. Wise. Has a nice ring, no? Pretty sure I can get used to it. Here’s hoping that you can, too.

Pen on Paper: A Defense of Writing

As if Americans don’t offer other countries enough reasons to think that we’re a land of complete morons who got lucky in achieving superpower status, the issue of whether or not cursive handwriting is a necessary skill for children to learn has recently been making headlines. In the latest blow to the demonstrated IQ of Americans in charge of anything, and the most significant victory yet for carpal tunnel syndrome, an Indiana school recently determined that teaching cursive should be optional, suggesting that script isn’t nearly as useful as the keyboards clicking away under so many fingers to today. The pen, it seems, may slay the mighty sword, but it doesn’t hold up very well against a matrix of plastic squares with letters printed on them. 

Photo by flickr user Bach Tran.

I thought about tackling this argument from the angle of logic, but the whole reason that teams of people have been duped into thinking the elimination of cursive holds any merit in the first place is that logic can simply be deflected by insisting that we are not depriving our children of learning their letters, we are only phasing out an obsolete system of communication. Pen and paper will still be used, but the primary form of written communication will be — indeed, has already become — electronic. On the surface, I can follow this approach, but there is much more beyond mere practicality that this decision does not take into consideration, namely the art of writing.

The first thing to get straight here is that writing — notably, the term that my teachers used for cursive; block letters were just called “print” — is not simply a means of communication any more than math is just a means of computation. But the increasing trend towards keystrokes as opposed to those of the pen suggests that America doesn’t recognize these same complexities. Writing, our culture seems to think, is only a means of relaying a message, and since messages are now primarily delivered through electronic media, there is no need for the antiquated system of curvaceous characters connected to one another. If this is the case, then our culture is wrong.

Writing — and I’m using the term now solely to refer to cursive writing — is, first and foremost, an art form, an extension of a person’s soul. If that sounds too mystical or new age to you, consider this: Do you not recognize immediately the handwriting of someone dear to you? Does it not, somehow, carry with it a tone, a level of voice, mannerisms, perhaps even other characteristics of the author himself? Can it not sometimes actually seem to speak to you as though the author is standing right by your side? Just like the uniqueness of our bodies and minds, no two people have the same handwriting. Eliminating script would be as detrimental to life as eliminating faces, robbing us of the fullness of our own unique arsenal of self-expression. This may seem a ludicrous comparison, but think about communicating with someone whose face cannot be seen. Does it not seem to be lacking something? Certainly, I can receive information from my beloved over the phone, but can her voice alone be a substitute for the fullness of expression I find in her eyes, her mouth, her entire body, even? I should think it obvious that the answer is an emphatic “no.”

In a similar fashion, script is a fuller expression of the written word, something that carries with it more than just letters on paper. A short demonstration: I have in my possession a small collection of notes concerning my grandfather’s whereabouts during World War Two. He was a prisoner of war, and hadn’t been heard from in nearly six months. Back then, long-range radio broadcasts often provided names and general locations of POWs. My great-grandparents didn’t have enough money for such a radio, but when my grandfather’s name was read out, three gentle souls — complete strangers to my family — had the kindness to write very short notes to my great-grandparents informing them of my grandfather’s reported whereabouts. Two of those notes were written; one of them was typed. Now for my great-grandparents, all three letters were of equal weight. They all three told my distant kin that which they so desired to know. But now, almost seventy years later, when I hold these tattered fragments of history in my hand, I am moved to tears not so much by the typewritten note, but by the few barely-legible swoops and swirls on the other two. That’s not to say that there is no gratitude for the typed note — surely the author’s heart was in the same beautiful place — but being so far removed from the situation as I am, the anonymity of the typed note feels disconnected, like a page torn out of an old book. The written notes, on the other hand, bring with them a sense of uniqueness, a sense of reality, a sense of compassion and community between two human strangers; indeed, an actual sense of life.

And that, at the risk of being too new age once more, is the very point: Writing, in some mysterious way, brings with it the essence of life. Think of the love letters that so few people are blessed to receive anymore, or the notes so sporadically sent from dear friends abroad. Would these things still be meaningful in type? Yes, of course. But would they bring with them pieces of the people writing them? I say no, they would not. And while a typed letter may be easier to read, thus more likely to convey the precise words an author intends, this once more misses the greater point, which is that writing carries with it life, and life is, by no means, easy nor is it perfect. We are complex creatures, and so it makes sense that our creations also bear complexities. We are imperfect creatures, so it makes sense that our creations also bear imperfections.It doesn’t matter if there are a few words in a written letter that are difficult to read, nor does it matter if it takes a long time to read a written letter — indeed, the imperfections of a written letter may be the very things that make it so full of life, so full of humanness. The sharp points and perfect circles of type, sans cross-outs and scribbled edits, make processed documents too formal, too precise to communicate the idea that whatever the document, it was created by a very imperfect person. There are times when this typewritten perfection is preferable, perhaps even necessary, such as with newspapers, textbooks, academic papers and works of fiction, where the life breathed into the work comes from elsewhere and the author, in some respects, ought to remain anonymous and authoritative. But when it comes to scrawled notes left on the kitchen counter, heartfelt thank-yous, casual “hellos” or the all-important conveyance of love, neither printing letters nor typewriting will do.

When it comes down to it, I don’t actually think that eliminating the teaching of script will eliminate script altogether. There is something so natural about it in the first place, and there must have been long ago or else the Roman characters we are all so familiar with would never have been connected with such eloquence in the first place. For whatever reason, we want to create writing that is beautiful, outside of ourselves, dare I say even magical. Eliminating the teaching will not eliminate the instinct inside of us to make something more graceful out of the alphabet. But what sort of script comes to pass from this longing without guidance will be sloppy, even sloppier than it already is, and it runs the very severe risk of leaving writers of all walks of life feeling as though something is missing, some refining of this part of the craft, some structure to the marks that they will inevitably make on the world. To rob our children of this important — and I’m going to go ahead and say necessary — skill will do nothing to better our society, make us more productive, give our children a leg-up in education, or make us a more well-rounded people. If anything, it will create a barrier, one that, when all of this shiny technology we love so much finally fails us, will leave our children far behind the rest of the world, depriving them not only of the ability to write fluently, but perhaps even more tragic, stripping them of the delicate splendor found in the penmanship of so many musicians, poets and storytellers. Script is not merely a faster means to an end; it is the very vehicle a writer takes to get there. To do without that is to do without the beauty, mystery, and majesty of one special gift given unto us by God for the goodness of our individual and collective souls.

Taking Liberties

There are certain values and practices that Americans hold dear above all others. Somewhere near the top of that list is the boastful enjoyment of free speech and expression — one of the few of such values that is supposedly protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Sadly, having been whittled down to shavings by overly-critical legal interpretations and applications over the years, the ideals of the First Amendment have finally begun to collapse in upon themselves. Most recently, a Second Circuit U.S. Appeals Court ruled that the use of public schools in New York City for conducting religious worship services could be perceived to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and therefore the Board of Education is within its constitutional right to prohibit the use of public schools for worship services outside of school hours. (Bronx Household of Faith, Robert Hall and Jack Roberts v. Board of Eduction of the City of New York and Community School District No. 10)

The first and most obvious problem here is that the language itself has been extended to meaning outside of what is reasonably implied by the words used. The Amendment clearly states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ” (emphasis added) It does not say that Congress shall not allow something that expresses religion and indeed, such allowance would only validate the rest of the Amendment anyway, which says that Congress has no right to prohibit such expression or private establishment in the first place. Inasmuch as the use of a school might be perceived to be an endorsement by the government of a particular religion, more so could the prohibition of the use of such space for religious purposes be seen as a violation of the clause allowing the free expression of religion given that the space in question may be used for other non-academic, non-government-related activities outside of school hours.

What is interesting here, though, is that the court’s decision explicitly states that it is not restricting the free expression of religion or even religious activities, only that it is reasonable to restrict “religious worship services” from being conducted on school grounds. This splits hairs between the idea of viewpoint discrimination, which would be a constitutional violation, and content-based restriction, which is considered viewpoint-neutral. In summary, the court says that it is okay for people to assemble in a school building, sing hymns, hear Scripture read and taught, and even to pray, but these activities cannot be done in the context of a worship service because then they become exclusive, and exclusivity is considered viewpoint discrimination worthy of a content-based restriction.

Another question considered by the court is whether or not the use of a government-owned forum as a venue for worship is, in any way, an endorsement of any particular religion. The court says that yes, someone may reasonably perceive the use of a government facility for hosting religious worship as an endorsement of that particular faith. But the application of law should not be entirely or even primarily determined by potential perception of the situation, but only by interpretation of the law, which must be done in a much more legalistic manner than the court has done here. To interpret the language, “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” to mean, “shall be privy to no religious worship practices” takes exceptional liberty in determining what the original language was seeking to convey.

Furthermore, the government takes no pains to exclude certain religious material from other government-owned or -endorsed materials, all of which may be perceived to be governmental support for the Christian or Jewish faith. United States currency, for example, proclaims, “In God We Trust,” which I would think a far greater endorsement of religion than the use of a public school since not all public schools host church services, nor do they all brand themselves as subscribing to any particular spiritual entity, yet all currency pieces contain this proclamation. We can also consider the Oath of Allegiance for those wishing to become U.S. Citizens, which ends with the phrase, “so help me, God.” This phrase is now optional, but the fact that it exists in the default suggests endorsement because it says that if you do not choose to exclude God from your oath, then the government will choose for you to include Him, indicating a preference. On the other hand, the government has not chosen for students and teachers to attend school on Sundays when Christian worship takes place, but only during the week when classes are in session, which means that the government is actually endorsing education, not the establishment of a religious ceremony which may be attended by people even outside of the school district, i.e., beyond the establishment of the government. Finally, the courts themselves still use Christian Bibles when swearing in witnesses. Whether or not this is an option for witnesses — I confess, I do not know — remains a moot point; it is the default, the choice of the government, and therefore may be reasonably perceived to be an endorsement of the Christian faith by the courts because it implies that swearing on the Christian holy book is more consequential than swearing on any other book.

The court, though, has dodged all of these criticisms by saying that it is not the expression of religion on government settings that is prohibited, but specifically religious worship. The argument, again, is that the activity of religious worship includes religious expression, but the expressions themselves do not necessarily constitute worship services, which are exclusive, and therefore might violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I should think, however, that most Christians would disagree with the idea that the forms of religious expression protected by the law do not constitute worship, and since it seems that “worship” more than “services” is what the government takes issue with, I think this is an important point. While I may not conduct a worship “service” in my home when I pray, prayer is most certainly an act of “worship,” as are the acts of singing hymns, reading and teaching Scripture, etc. I cannot say unequivocally for other religions, but it seems to me that any time a person removes him- or herself from the secular in order to be engaged in the religious, it is an act of worship, not simply an expression of my faith. If I say that I believe in Jesus, I am expressing my religion, but once I begin to speak to Jesus, I am engaged in an act of worship, going far beyond a mere indication that I prefer Jesus to Mohammed, etc. Indeed, Dictionary.com offers one definition of “worship” simply as, “to feel an adoring reverence or regard for (any person or thing).” By this definition, the court’s decision suggests that any time I set foot on government property, the government may be perceived as endorsing a religion because I am always feeling an adoring reverence and regard for my Creator, and therefore perpetually engaged in an act of worship.

The court also said that schools are perfectly within their right to prohibit the conducting of worship activities because such prohibitions do not effectively impede the expression of love or reverence for those activities. The court uses martial arts and horseback riding, among others, as non-religious examples. These activities may be rightfully prohibited on government property because such prohibition seeks “the objective of avoiding either harm to persons or property, or liability, or a mess, which those activities may produce.” (Bronx Household of Faith v. NYC Board of Education) But then the practice of religious worship would have to threaten either persons or property, risk liability for said persons or property, or threaten to create more of a mess than, say, a school cafeteria during lunchtime. How to quantify such things is beyond me, but it seems reasonable to deduce that a religious worship service would be, in no way, more dangerous or messy than a typical day at a school full of children or adolescents, and while activities such as horseback-riding are prone to significantly impair the forum before and after the event, church services are not. Further, the purpose of the forum — to educate children, which the Supreme Court found to also include moral instruction — is not impaired by a church’s activities conducted outside of the forum’s standard hours anymore than they would be if a prom were to be held on school grounds despite the fact that some students and parents may morally disagree with the practice of dancing.

If it has been deemed permitted and protected by the U.S. Constitution for individuals or groups who are lawfully occupying government premises to express religious views on those premises, including the singing of hymns, the reading of and instruction in Scripture, acts of prayer, and other individual components of worship, then it is contradictory and even hypocritical to prohibit the actual worship service itself since it consists of no more than the individual components for which the government makes allowance. If the mere existence of a worship service in a school building can be seen as the government making a law to establish religion, then so should be seen the use of religious language on government money or in government courts when swearing in witnesses or receiving new citizens. If the issue at hand is only to avoid giving individuals the perception that the government has established a religion, then we cannot rely on the First Amendment at all because it doesn’t address the perceptions of the public, but only the actions of the government, and specifically, the legislation. Since no law was passed establishing a religion, yet a law threatens to be passed prohibiting a specific expression of religion, it seems logical to deduce that the government actually finds itself much closer to a First Amendment violation now than it was when churches were merely indulging in that same Amendment’s provision for the free expression of religion.

The freedoms of speech and religion were enacted to prohibit religious persecution that resulted in oppression and death, not to shield the people of this country from any viewpoint, religious or otherwise, that might be in contrast to their own traditional family values or personal opinion. Such a shield would only reinstate the very same idealistic tyranny that the early Americans first opposed and denounced, thus infringing upon, rather than furthering, the luxury of freedom we tend to thoughtlessly take for granted today.

Subversive HR

A friend recently sent me a link to an online symposium hosted by Comment Magazine in which a handful of Human Resources professionals weighed in on the HR obstacles encountered in Christian organizations. Because I am a Christian working in Human Resources at a secular organization, I thought I’d give it a read-through. I couldn’t have been more disappointed by what I read.

To detail all of the responses would take up too much time here, but there were a few overarching themes that troubled me: that Christian organizations too frequently hire individuals who are not as qualified as they should be for the “ministry” (read: organization) to reach its full potential; that Christian organizations need to be more proactive in creating processes and programs to deal with suboptimal employee performance; and that Christian organizations require too much sacrifice on the part of their employees in terms of compensation and benefits.

The first criticism I have of these responses is that, Christian or not, they have raised issues that are not actually unique to Christian organizations, but endemic to all. Furthermore, the solutions the responders have offered are the same broad, idealistic suggestions I would expect to find at, say, the secular company I work for. The question Comment posed, if I understand correctly, sought to bring to light what is different about Christian organizations. According to the responses, nothing.

Take, for example, one of the prevalent complaints of Comment’s responders: too many Christian organizations hire individuals who are not qualified for the job, therefore the job isn’t being done at its full potential, and the church or ministry may be suffering. I consider this to be a very bold and potentially unfair assessment, especially when it comes without relevant examples. How have these organizations suffered? Merely in terms of not achieving a goal on a time or budget line? And how is a ministry’s potential measured? By money or numbers or other objective measurements? How does one effectively measure the impact of  the service of the church or ministry?

Again, speculation is difficult here because none of the responders went into detail about where these employees or ministries are lacking, but a Christian organization– and especially a church– ought to be more open to giving people an opportunity. Frequently, if a person doesn’t have all of the right experience for a job it’s not because he or she is incapable, but because no other company will give him or her the opportunity to gain the experience. Shouldn’t the church be more subversive? In a capitalist industry, being subversive in this matter would mean losing money, which is counterintuitive to the capitalist philosophy in the first place, but in a church, the goal is to serve the people, not the bank or the corporation. By giving those with less experience an opportunity to develop, the church or ministry serves not only the population it seeks to reach in the first place, but also the employees who help to provide that service, however imperfectly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Christians should just hire anybody off the street for a job that requires specific know-how. What I am saying is that Christians — whether at a Christian organization or a secular one — shouldn’t limit themselves to the “cream of the crop” in candidates the way typical HR practitioners would suggest. Not only is such behavior exactly the same as secular behavior, but it also limits the sovereignty of God in doing amazing things in the workplace. This may sound like idealism, but I say it is at the very center of the Christian faith.

Further treading the border of idealism, and rightfully so, is the idea that Christian organizations, above all others, should steer clear of the “processes” designed to evaluate and enhance employee performance. First of all, those processes tend to criticize more than they encourage employees. If an employee is not meeting performance standards, the default for most organizations is to fall back on a process for getting the employee back on track, but this assumes that all employee performance issues stem from the same thing, which is almost never the case. Further, such processes are too objective for what is frequently a subjective problem. More often than not, an employee fails to meet an expectation either because his or her thought process needs to be adjusted, or because he or she really doesn’t have the necessary skill set, in which case a performance review isn’t going to be very helpful even with an incentive plan to follow. A stiff criticism, finger-wag, or reprimand won’t be enough if employers don’t provide the tools for change, whether that has to do with thought processes or hard skills. A man can’t saw through a tree if all he has is a hammer.

Even more disappointing than the responses about performance reviews and hiring practices was the response about compensation and benefits. It’s no secret that non-profits are not exactly known for their packages, nor should they be. After all, they are non-profits, which means they aren’t supposed to be in business to make money — something that becomes problematic when we consider that they are still operating inside a capitalist structure. Something Americans fail to consider is that, if none of our businesses were turning profits, we’d all be as underpaid as the non-profit workers, suggesting instead that they are not actually underpaid, but that the rest of us are overpaid. As long as non-profits must still operate inside a capitalist structure, there will be a compensation chasm.

Highlighting the philosophy, however, doesn’t change the reality, which is that non-profit workers are more likely to struggle making ends meet than the rest of us. But predsumably, non-profit employees don’t take their positions for the pay; they work for non-profits because they believe in them and their causes. Those who work for Christian organizations should be people who believe in a cause — the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.  Christ didn’t pay his disciples — in fact, he required that they leave everything behind, and has told us that if we are to follow him, we must do the same. I don’t mean to saturate this commentary with idealism or fundamentalist Christian propaganda; I don’t imagine that Jesus intends for us to do without the things we need to live. I will suggest, though, that part of the reason that he requires us to leave riches behind is because he, himself, will provide all that we need while we are doing his work. Working for low wages anywhere, and especially in a ministry or church, can be a testament to the reliance Christians are told to have on Christ. If an employee passes up or leaves an opportunity at a church because of compensation, then that person probably isn’t the right fit for the post in the first place. A church is a place of worship and sacrifice, not capital gains. Does this mean that secular counterparts to Christian organizations will look more attractive to some? Of course. But that doesn’t mean the Christian organizations are the ones that need to make adjustments. Following the example of the world to win the service of others should be an intuitively dangerous road for any Christian.

Comment follows their first question with a second: How can HR be done with integrity? The answer is that HR must undergo reform. But this cannot happen unless Christian organizations themselves are willing to embrace reform. If the people who are involved in running Christian organizations are themselves not thinking like Christians, then a distinction between Christian and secular organizations becomes a moot point. Thinking like a Christian, though, does not simply mean being more gentle when terminating an employee or more tolerant of underperformance. It means intentionally engaging in the lives of employees in order to facilitate change. In my experience, the secular world discourages this if not through company policy then through — forgive the expression — the cover-your-ass legislation we’ve become so fond of in America. Everyone is afraid of lawsuits and consequently, we are hesitant to get too involved in the lives of our employees and coworkers. This is not a Christian response to HR, but a secular one. This needs to change in both worlds if HR can ever have integrity in any organization, and Christians should view themselves as charged with spearheading this change, regardless whether it means that a church or ministry will not be running at full potential all of the time.

In short, Christian organizations need to be more subversive when it comes to HR or they run the risk of being no different than the secular corporations that have been so successful at removing the “human” aspect from Human Resources practices.

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The Willful Death of a Luddite

As an avid reader, I’d kept a wary watch on the world of e-readers since the first practical edition of the Kindle came out. (I’m still at a loss for the use of the scroll bar on the side of the original device.) Like many readers, I was a little tentative about giving up my paper pages not so much because I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands, but primarily because my home library is tied directly to my ego, which risked a serious decrease in placation if people could no longer deduce from it how smart and worldly I really am.

But curiosity continued to nag at me. Could e-readers really be better than books? While my other friends were on the verge of taking blood oaths that they would never abandon their precious print, I was secretly checking back at Amazon two or three times a day to see if the Kindle prices showed any signs of dropping. When Barnes and Noble followed with the Nook, it was just one nudge further to the dark side..

“E-readers have competition now,” I thought. “They must be cool.” And as we all know, being cool is far more important than being intelligent or worldly.

Believe it or not, though, the scale-tipper had nothing to do with my ego. Instead, it had everything to do with being cheap. Both the Nook and the Kindle — and probably every other e-reader out there — offer free editions of most every worthwhile out-of-copyright text available. Forget the fact that for the price of a Kindle I could have also purchased approximately 37.8 of these texts from Barnes and Noble. I wanted a full thirty-eight, and I wanted to be able to buy them from the comfort of my bathroom. From Great Expectations to The Divine Comedy, an e-reader would allow me, at the push of a button, to enlighten myself beyond my junior-year English teacher’s most inebriated dreams. Two days after my birthday, the price of the Kindle finally dropped. The time had come to make my move into the future of literary technology.

Checking over my shoulder in case any of my bookworm friends were eavesdropping with a battle-axe, I quickly clicked through the order page, guilty as an eight-year-old boy sifting through the swimsuit section of his sister’s J. Crew catalogue. My order complete, I closed my browser window and picked up a chewed copy of Dracula, opening to a random page just in time for one of those whom I betrayed to come around the corner.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Reading. Obviously.

Because Amazon wanted me to know that I’d made the right choice, they sent the Kindle overnight so I received it the very next day — this at no extra charge. I liken this to when Anakin’s first task as Darth Vader was to annihilate the Jedi: immediate gratification vindicates even the worst decisions. Opening my Kindle was like switching to a red light saber. It was the most glorious feeling I’ve known since realizing that Greedo did, in fact, shoot first.

My new treasure in hand, I was faced with the task of purchasing my first book. While this might have been a challenge for most people, I had no trouble with it. That’s because I’m a writer, and therefore broke. Thus my first purchase was not a purchase at all, but a download of one of those free books that had me drooling all over my roommate’s keyboard. This granted me the ability to try out my new e-reader with no extra financial commitment while simultaneously perpetuating the vicious cycle that ensures that all writers remain broke forever. Because I’m the kind of guy who likes to do my part.

Since I was already reading it in a massive anthology I never planned to take anywhere except maybe to my living room, I downloaded “Phantastes” by George MacDonald. The very fact that I was able to hold the text in one hand — turn the page, even — as opposed to fumbling around with the  five-pound compilation was more than enough to satisfy my e-reader skepticism. Except for the threat still posed to my life by those sworn to Liberty, Equality, Printing Presses or Death, I felt what few inhibitions I’d had surrounding e-reading evanesce like so many of the fallen trees that are forced to untimely deaths for our reading pleasure. (Take that, activists!)

But this isn’t about the perks of the e-reading device itself. Anybody can visit a high-schooler’s blog to read about those. No, this is about the rapture of having an entire catalogue of literary classics at your fingertips, any time you want. On a train to Boston and sick of reading chick lit? Download Sense and Sensibility. Have better taste in books? Try something by Robert Louis Stevenson. Interested in the effect of hallucinogenic substances on little children? Alice in Wonderland is available in multiple editions. Didn’t pay attention in high school? A Tale of Two Cities can bring you back to those youthful days of rebellion faster than a dose of cigarettes and Sunny D.

And it doesn’t stop with nostalgia and train rides, either. I’m already thinking about buying Kindles for all of my unborn children. Not only do kids like buttons more than book pages, but the fact is that kids are — let’s be honest — not very smart. How hard can it be to trick them into reading a book just because it’s on a battery-operated screen? After all, kids will engage in most anything as long as it’s on an electronic screen. (I’m fondly reminded of Game Boy’s 2.6 inch square of optical carnage.) Not only that, but with their selections limited to free books, I won’t have to worry about them reading books I don’t approve of, with the exception of a few James Joyce novels, which I’m hopeful my kids will be smart enough to recognize for what they are in the first place. E-reading will also conveniently result in the notable absence of beaten, torn, and shredded tomes scattered across the 150-square-foot home I expect I’ll have when I’m fifty. And, since it’s likely that my kids will be smarter than everyone else’s kids, they’ll know enough to find my Kindle and break it instead of their own, preserving their own for the future.

Indeed, it is in the future where the e-reader with the free books really pays off. When my kids reach high school, they won’t have to suffer the indignity of those battered, bruised and peed-on copies of books they hand out in most public English departments. They won’t have to be mislead on exams by inaccurate notes scribbled in the margins, nor will they suffer discipline for scribbling their own inaccurate notes in the margins, nor will they have to pay twenty dollars for a five dollar book when they lose it before the lesson ends and the teacher sees an opening to make some extra beer money. All of that disappears with the free books available on e-readers. And by the time my kids are in school, it will be well after 2019 and any book worth my children’s attention that isn’t currently out of copyright will be by then. I think the point makes itself: E-readers are not just a sleek, modern choice to make your kids look cooler than someone else’s kids. They are an investment.

Granted, there are drawbacks to e-readers, but there are also drawbacks to bars, and that doesn’t stop us from patronizing them as soon as we can get away with it. And just the way a bar is only one means to consuming an adult beverage, so also are e-readers only one way to enjoy the magic of literature. Sure, they can be a little expensive at first, but just like a bar, the more drinks you have, the less money you’ll think you’ve spent. And in the long run, that’s what good literature is really all about: Getting you to believe something that simply isn’t true.

The truth is that I’ll never give up print books entirely, and I don’t think anyone else will, either. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll spend more money when you tally up all of the times I’ll buy a Kindle edition and a print edition of a book. (Well played, Amazon marketing team.) But my continued patronage of print novels will not be for the greater good promoted by literary snobs, nor will it be because I like the acrid smell of urine wafting across my face as I flip through the pages of a twenty-year-old library book. In fact, it won’t even have to do with the cost of books. No, in the end I will continue to buy hard copy books because they represent a slice of history, the bitter toil of one man or woman and their editor, seamlessly bound by the spine of impossibility and perched proudly on the shelf of time, where it will forever whisper to me, “You can do it, too, Josh.” And because I’ll need something to throw at my kids when they break my Kindle.

Hope Between the Bars

A few months ago I wrote a rather scathing column criticizingthe American prison system, specifically regarding its practical function as a punitive institution versus its theoretical function as a rehabilitative one. The article focused primarily on what politicians and lawmakers ought to be doing differently if we are to truly rehabilitate inmates and lower recidivism rates in America.

To some extent, my criticism missed the point. Yes, government money should be dedicated to the reform process. Yes, politicians should stop hiding behind legalese when determining what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. But the point I did not make — and the point I hope to make now — is that prison reform, like any other social reform, should not be left in the increasingly incompetent and untrustworthy hands of politicians. Inmates cannot be viewed as mere statistics for policy and legislation, nor as unforgivable sociopaths who deserve punishment more than they do reintegration. They need to be viewed as humans, not monsters. They need to be seen with sympathy, not fear. Most importantly, they, like any other human, need to experience love.

Loving that which we do not understand — and especially that which we fear — is a difficult hurdle for most people. We give our hearts to what we know, not because it is so much more lovable than anything else, but because it is safe, familiar, and essentially, non-threatening. Yet the only way we are able to come to know anything is through interaction and experience. Prisoners rarely have this privilege with the outside world. Many fell victim to crime in the first place because of a lack of healthy, substantive social connection, and keeping these victims — and yes, even criminals are victims — in isolation for so many years as a follow-up, all but guarantees that such a connection will never be made. Now more than ever it seems that we are content to “lock them up and throw away the key”. We are a culture hellbent on bandaging a wound without ever applying the ointment necessary for healing. For most people in any circumstances, that treatment begins with a simple ear to listen.

Enter Between The Bars, a project initiated by the Center for Future Civic Media, which is a collaboration of the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies. Between the Bars integrates handwritten letters with standard blogging technology to provide a platform for inmates to share their stories, thus hopefully establishing even the vaguest connection to the outside world. Inmates not only have their stories published, but readers can comment, tag, and even subscribe to RSS feeds on the blog. Inmates are then able to read responses from the public, thus maintaining interaction with the very society they one day hope to reenter. This bears more significance than it may seem at first glance because many inmates have no family, no friends, no visitors, and no correspondence with other human beings. They have, essentially, been forgotten.

This is, perhaps, the greatest tragedy faced by inmates. We think of them not as individuals with faces and names, but as a population, an inventory on a distant shelf lined up and numbered, some thrown into the streets after so many years, others set to expire. For many there is no hope left in this life, and for those who believe that this life is all there is, that is a terminal blow. To no longer be seen as a human being — to no longer be seen as a life— is to be denied the essence of our creation. Through ignorance and indifference, we deny the very life we claim to be protecting when we remove criminals from society.

But giving inmates the opportunity to reach us, the very people who have rejected them, can only be powerful if those people are willing to receive them. What is therapeutic for an inmate, what is truly rehabilitative and even redemptive, is for us to once more see them as human. A man convicted of murder is a monster until we understand his own brokenness — a brokenness that, even if embodied differently, we all share. Killing someone is horrible, but is the abuse, neglect, and violence so frequently suffered by the perpetrators of these crimes any less horrible? When we are able to see the poverty in other peoples’ lives, we are able to reconcile, sympathize, empathize, and most importantly, forgive. This is not some sentimental flower-child idealism stated without consideration for the complexities of this calling — I do not mean to minimize the pain and hardship of victims of crime. But one man’s pain does not justify the perpetuation of someone else’s. Crime can never be abolished by disregarding the criminal, but only by loving him, and there can be no love without forgiveness first.

To put it more practically, the prison population should not be seen as an offshoot of society, some extra class cast to the side as undesirables. They need to be seen as part of our society, as those who require our support instead of our contempt. Giving them access to share their lives through digital social media is both a massive and a minute step towards that integration. Once more, if we are able to see inmates as part of who we are collectively, we should find it easier to see their humanity, thus making it more likely that we will find our hearts changed enough to offer them the love that most of us have never had to go without.

Unfortunately, even a private project as necessary as Between The Bars has fallen prey to the imposed sovereignty of policy and procedure. As of December 16, 2010,  the site and all of its archived content has been shut down until further notice, citing administrative issues. Whether due to lack of funding, insufficient manpower, or the treachery of political agenda, we cannot say for sure, but for whatever conglomeration of reasons, the thin ray of sunlight that had briefly pierced the cold stone of this country’s prison walls has been, for the time being, stamped out once more. The blog staff hopes that the site will be back up and running again soon; perhaps even by the time this column is published. Until then, Between The Bars has done the indispensable service of reminding us that no matter the crime, no matter what wickedness mankind continues to demonstrate towards one another in haste or greed, in passion or pride, there is not one who should be denied the infallible, impenetrable, merciful sovereignty of love. That responsibility, of course, rests not with the government nor with the law, but with us.

photo by: miss_millions

In Defense of NaNoWriMo

About nine years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a book. This came as no major surprise to the people who knew me. After all, I’d started drinking at a young age, and I’d demonstrated an uncanny ability to make foolish decisions. Writing a book was only the next in a list long enough to, well, fill the pages of a book. I’m pretty sure my family was just happy that my decision didn’t walk the line of anything illegal– except plagiarism.

Excited about my epic new undertaking, I sat down and wrote the title at the top of the page, demonstrating that I knew absolutely nothing about how to write a book, despite having read a substantial number of them without pictures by the age of twenty. That title stayed at the top of that page for months with no words to follow. I thought about the plot frequently, but not as frequently as I thought about other things, like eating cupcakes. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that eating cupcakes seemed both conceivable and enjoyable; writing a book appeared to have neither quality.

At that time in my life I read only BBC News because I was convinced that the British were somehow less biased and more put- together than the Americans. (I was also drinking. A lot.) This proved to be one of the worst decisions of my life not only because it surreptitiously led to the delusion that writing might be a good career move, but also because I started do things like saying “row” instead of “argument” and inserting the letter “u” in words that — let’s be honest — don’t really need them. But overall grammar aside, the real disservice done unto me by the BBC was cluing me in to what had been, for five years prior, a well-kept secret: November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo.

The postmodern premise is simple: You compete with countless other writers around the world to complete a 50,000 word novel — that’s 1,667 words a day, or roughly 7 pages — in thirty days or less — the month of November. I say it’s postmodern because you don’t actually compete with anyone. There are no prizes, no rankings, and no consequences if you lose, except that people may laugh at you. Being far superior to most other people, however, I didn’t figure this risk applied to me, and I immediately clicked on the link and signed myself up for thirty masochistic days of sub-par plot lines and character development, forsaking all other people and duties in the name of I’m still not sure what. Because I was successful at hitting the word count the first time, and because so many of the other NaNoers I met liked to hang out in bars, I was compelled by such positive reinforcement to inflict this suffering on myself every November for the next five years.

If you possess even a vague shred of sanity, you’re probably asking yourself or the guy next to you furiously typing on his netbook why someone would do something like this outside of jail. Assuming that the guy next to you hasn’t reached his word count for the day, let me shed a little bit of light.

The thing that typically gives a person the green light to NaNo (yes, it’s a verb in our little world) is the fact that other people are doing it, too. And as most of us learned in college if not before, we’re much more likely to do something stupid if someone else is willing to do it with us. In this way, NaNoWriMo has a lot in common with acting in daytime soap operas and watching any movie featuring Keanu Reeves.

Once fate has been set in motion, however, there are some rewards to be reaped in the end. The first is that, whether or not you hit the 50,000 word mark, most people end up with a really solid base for a bonafide novel. This may seem a small reward, and let’s be honest: it is. But if a novelist is only putting the pen to paper for a tangible reward, then that novelist will probably only ever be successful at failure, because statistically speaking, writing books does not earn most writers a living. Only steady writing gigs, like horoscopes and obituaries, are likely to do that.

Second, undertaking NaNoWriMo, like most two-faced pleasures, gives an aspiring writer the urge to do it again. Even if you botch the whole ordeal, you can’t help but think to yourself that it was actually kind of fun in a I-hope-God-didn’t-see-that sort of way. The next eleven months of your life will pass by without much thought, but by October, everything you see, every unsuspecting person you know is fodder for a NaNo project. Will you lose friends? Definitely. Will your family ask you to change your name? Most likely. Will you need a liver transplant when November ends? It’s always a toss-up. But in the end, you will look back with nothing less than fondness, and if you want to be a novelist, you’d better get used to looking back. After all, most of the greats didn’t become successful until they were dead.

Third, NaNoWriMo is a great way to meet people whose imaginations are even more frightening than yours. No matter how many times you’ve mused about apocalyptic CIA operatives, radioactive cockroaches, or whether or not zombies can reproduce, there’s always someone else who’s taken it a step further. In the world of NaNo severed heads will rat out murderers, fairy tale princesses will have lobotomies, and nuns will explode, not because these things are central to any particular plot line, but because apart from most NaNoers being rather twisted, the NaNoWriMo organization actually promotes word count over content. (The website actually says, “Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality.”)

And that may be the only drawback to NaNo, apart from the insanity it stimulates. With over 169,000 manuscripts scribbled down in only a month’s time, most of the content is shoddy at best. For the dedicated novelist, this doesn’t matter much because the NaNo novel is essentially just a rough draft. But for the amateurs and first-timers among them the accomplishment of a first novel gets passed around to family and friends like bed bugs, yielding roughly the same return as a church offering plate. A potty-training toddler gets more effective feedback, and probably more encouragement, too. Why? Because while most people are hesitant to constructively criticize or give an otherwise honest opinion on the musings of a loved one, there are few who will tolerate a child who never properly learns how to pee.

Fortunately, most NaNo writers are not hellbent on becoming vocational novelists, and for the ones who are, each November is, despite the obstacles, a new springboard to that dream, a fresh sheet of paper begging a would-be author to fill it with crippled dogs that can dance or children who never learn how to pee. In short, the point of NaNo is not to create good literature, but to stir the imagination, to challenge someone who is probably already an egg or two short of the dozen to sublimate that black sheep creativity by tying together randomness and weirdness into something cohesive, even if ridiculous. Most of all, the point is to have fun.

Overall, National Novel Writing Month has become an annual reminder that just as reading is essential to our culture, so also are the writings that engage us to do so. Even if sometimes suboptimal, NaNo stimulates the imagination with asinine, inappropriate, frequently unintelligible works of fiction, giving every writer a platform to be heard, a reason to create, and most importantly, something to do in jail. Because most of us will probably end up there eventually.

Autumnal Resolutions: JC Oktoberfest 2010

For showing up at the end of the calendar year, autumn is an ironically fertile season for new beginnings. Kids start school. Farmers celebrate a new harvest. The Jews celebrate a new year. I celebrate a new reason to hate people who complain about summer.

This year, during one of those infamous Labor Day picnics where millions of Americans across the country, instead of mourning the loss of joy cast over mankind through the brilliance of summer’s sun, blaspheme her holy name by proclaiming autumn to be the greatest of the seasons, a friend of mine poured lemon juice on the open wound by declaring that we should all state our Autumnal Resolutions.

For those of you who feel like you might have missed a memo, fear not. Autumnal Resolutions have never been an American tradition and, God-willing, they never will be. After all, there is very little to which autumn calls us to resolve, except maybe to sleep all day and stay home until sometime in May. But I generally like to surround myself with people who don’t grasp these obvious facts as easily as I do, because if there’s one thing more important than determining which season is the best, it’s making sure that when all’s said and done, I’m still the smartest person in the room.

This intelligence gap, however, meant that I was outnumbered and would indeed have to suffer through the lukewarm aspirations of those who are lesser than I. And if there’s one thing more important than making sure that I’m the smartest person in the room, it’s making sure that I’ve got the cleverest aspiration so that people will still think I’m cool, even when I disagree with the principle.

Unlike most people who make resolutions, I like to set a low bar. There’s no sense in dreaming up the impossible or even the improbable, because then you just have to tell everybody you failed. And nobody likes a failure. And life, of course, is all about how many people like you.

With a nil level of challenge set for myself, I declared that my Autumnal Resolution was to drink as much seasonal beer as possible. And for all of you ale connoisseurs out there who like to talk about hops and spices and malts instead of important things, like wondering what hops are in the first place, don’t expect an academic breakdown of sensations here. When I say the bar is low, I mean there are field mice that would struggle to pass underneath it. I don’t intend to seek out the scarcest or the most authentic autumn ales, mostly because drinking beer shouldn’t be that challenging, I don’t care what season it is. More importantly, my elementary appraisal of mostly bottled beers serves the greater purpose of challenging the rising belief that drinking beer is a classy thing to do. As fraternities and rednecks demonstrate ad nauseam, drinking beer is not classy. Drinking scotch is classy. Drinking beer is just fun.

What my friends in the park didn’t know about my lowball resolution amidst their jeering was that my mission was, in fact, already underway by the time I thought of it. Sometime in late August I saw that the first autumn ale of the season had quietly slipped its way onto the shelf at my local C-Town. That moment is always one of mixed emotions for me; excitement over the beer, but utter devastation at what it signals. And when utter devastation rears its merciless form, I frequently find that buying beer is one of the best things to do. Thus commenced the JC Oktoberfest of 2010.

My first taste of fall this year was Blue Moon’s Harvest Moon. Blue Moon always makes a very distinct seasonal ale, uniquely different from the others, and their fall beer is no exception. Harvest Moon has a more intelligent balance than most pumpkin ales, offering the fullness of pumpkin flavor without the overpowering richness of brown sugar that has so many other pumpkin ales thickening my tongue and inducing massive sugar headaches later on. Though ultimately still on the sweet side, Harvest Moon is a well-rounded beer worthy of opening the fall season, if for no other reason than because their brand strategy of naming beer after the moon cycles is really cool.

When push comes to shove, though, I don’t really care for pumpkin ales. The complexities too often turn to riches, which leave me feeling more sick than satisfied. So I drank the Harvest Moon as quickly as I could, anticipating my next stop on the autumn beer tour. Leaving my fortunes to the distributors, I next ended up with Sierra Nevada’s Tumbler, described as an autumn brown ale, though it should probably be labeled an Oktoberfest. This beer makes an uncommon departure from Sierra’s typical heavy-on-the-hops approach, going the traditional autumnal route instead of fresh-roasted malts, leaving less of the bite while hinting at smoke and chocolate. Best of all, Tumbler goes down smoother than other Sierras, which means you can drink them really fast in the interest of moving on to the next fall brew on the shelf. After all, the autumn ale season is about quantity, not quality.

The cornerstone of any fall beer, of course, is the Oktoberfest. The real Oktoberfest started as a horse race in Munich commemorating a royal marriage in the year 1810, during which time a special brew by Spaten was served en masse to the people. The Germans quickly realized that beer was far more interesting and enjoyable than horses or royalty, and so the festival continued annually as a beer fest, inspiring copycats the world round. At such festivals, Spaten’s Oktoberfest is still served in liter-sized mugs, blonde waitresses wear pigtails and the classic St. Pauli Girl corset, and the only thing on the menu is bratwurst. This is what Oktoberfest means to serious beer-drinkers and Germans. However, as I am neither, I’ll talk instead about the festival’s global offshoot: the Oktoberfest brew.

The majority of autumnal ales in America are classified as “Oktoberfest” ales, but I’m pretty sure that very few people know what that really means. We just like the name. And the “k” in “Oktober.” But there’s more to these brews than aesthetically-pleasing misspellings. Oktoberfest seasonals are, unequivocally, the finest beers out there. They make up the sole reason to look forward to the doldrums of fall (that, and pipe-smoking, but that’s for another article altogether). From Blue Point to Sam Adams to Magic Hat, each Oktoberfest is slightly different from its cousins, but they all share similar characteristics: caramel, toffee, heavy malts, hints of hops, and a robust amber color I’m convinced is designed to make me feel like I’m drinking the dead leaves right off of the ground. By nature of the ingredients, Oktoberfests almost always turn out to be the smoothest, most drinkable beers, and as a result, they also almost always lead to late mornings and the distinct impression that fall went by awfully quickly, without leaving much trace of memory. This, I’m assuming, more than seasonal characteristics, is why Oktoberfest is only brewed once a year.

Last year, I remember settling on Blue Point as the superior autumnal ale of 2009, but the jury is still out for 2010. Sam Adams always holds its own as a top contender, but then so do the locals, such as Brooklyn Brewery’s Oktoberfest and Post Road Pumpkin Ale. (Surely there are some tasty local beers wherever you live, too, even if Brooklyn’s are better.) Also not to be ignored is Victory’s Festbier, which humbly foregoes the title Oktoberfest, but brings with it all of the characteristics you’d expect from something effectively called “party beer.” For those of you who, after reading this far, still think drinking beer is classy, I recommend the earthier, more subtle brews offered by Hacker-Pschorr and Ayinger on tap (pass on the bottles) at your friendly neighborhood biergarten. And whether on tap or in bottles, you can rarely go wrong with the pioneer of all things Oktoberfest: Spaten.

But care must also be exercised when sojourning through the world of autumn ales, for there are impostors out there as well. Hofbrau, for example, seems like it should be a pretty authentic contender, but their Oktoberfest comes out more watery than expected, hitting the palate like a pilsner, and a boring one at that, shamelessly blaspheming the holy name of Oktoberfest that it bears. And of course, there’s the laughable contribution from Michelob, which should be outlawed in the very Constitution of the United States. If you venture to drink this, be ready for people to laugh at you, or worse, block you on a social networking site. They won’t be joking, and they won’t be your friends anymore, either. (And remember how important it is to be liked by people.) Responsible drinking means remembering this even when you’ve already had a few and that Michelob is whispering, “Why not?” to your uninhibited ears. Just as you intuitively know not to wear your underwear for more than three days in a row, you should also know not to seriously regard Michelob as a true Oktoberfest beer. Some things are just inherently wrong.

By the time you read this article, the season will be half over. That means you’ll only get to have half the fun I’ll have had by now, but that’s to be expected, since people generally only ever have half as much fun as I do. But don’t let my superiority complex rain on your parade; October still has plenty of beer to go around. Contrary to the example set above, I don’t recommend beer-drinking as an Autumnal Resolution, mostly because I don’t recommend Autumnal Resolutions at all. But if you find that you absolutely must commit to something during this season where all the life around us is dying, then ale is surely the thing, not because fall doesn’t offer anything else to celebrate, but because none of those other things offer clever marketing schemes or an alcohol content higher than 5.5% ABV. And alcohol content is, after all, the most important ingredient for any new beginning.

photo by:

Operation: Make Quilting Manly

One Sunday last fall, a friend was gathering people for dinner and asked me if I wanted to join. I respectfully declined, but this particular friend is not so easily rebuffed. He wanted to know why, and naturally, the less I wanted to tell him, the more he wanted to know. He badgered me for what could have only been another ten seconds before I abandoned my feeble protests and told him the truth.

“I’m working on a quilt, and I have to finish it by next weekend.”

The author's handiwork.

Silence ensued, followed by an uncomfortable chuckle from my friend. He didn’thave to ask if I was serious; I could see the question in his eyes.

To his immediate chagrin, though I believe he has now come to terms with my unorthodox hobby, I was, in truth, quite serious. Surely much of the surprise came from the fact that I’m a guy, and as best as my generation seems to know, guys don’t quilt – even I’ll accept that as informed ignorance. After all, you don’t usually hear of men sitting around discussing fabric patterns and thread colors. (Indeed, every time I use the word “bobbin” I feel like I should take my shirt off and lift something really heavy, making sure that all of the nearby women see it happen.) But I’ve learned that, uncommon as it may be, I’m not the only one. There are others like me out there, other men unafraid to wield the mighty needle, and like all uncertain minorities, we need a voice, a spokesperson, someone who isn’t afraid to stand tall and proud behind a full beard and a hairy chest proclaiming that, by God, we are men and we are quilters. Unfortunately for the rest of them, I’m the only one who writes for a nationally-recognized online magazine.

I began quilting longer ago than I’d care to admit, when I unwittingly rolled my teenage self out of bed early on a Saturday morning, due in large part to the vicious morning sun screaming through my bedroom window. Meandering through an unusually quiet house, I found in the kitchen a note that my mother had left behind for me.

“I’m at Gen’s. Come by when you get up.”

Gen was my mother’s best friend and, conveniently, the mother of my best friend. I knew her quite well and since she and my mother were both frequently guilty of asking me to do things whose purpose I didn’t understand, I thought very little of this vague command on a Post-It as I retreated, zombie-like, to my bedroom for my torn- up Chuck Taylors and any pair of shorts presenting the illusion of having been washed in the previous three months. Satisfied with my otherwise-sub-par wardrobe choices, I climbed into my beat-up 1983 Chevy Blazer and made my way across town to whatever unknown fate awaited me.

The day’s task, I learned, was to make a quilt for a young woman who was very dear to me, and because of that mitigating factor, I was petitioned (and agreed) to help. For the two days that followed, I spent just about every waking moment with two of the most maternal figures in my life sorting through and sewing fabric– which might take a stab at the developing manhood of most teenage boys, but not this guy. Oblivious to all that was obvious in the world, I didn’t realize how dangerously close I was to being feminized.

But even odder than the circumstance was the result: I actually enjoyed what I was doing, and not just because I was doing it for someone I cared so much about. I liked hearing the  precise ripping of the fabric as the rotary-cutter methodically sliced through each strip and square. I liked the slow deterioration of the impossibility I felt as yards of fabric (quickly, in that case) came together to form an unspeakable, meticulous work of art. I liked the boyish rush of seeing it almost complete, yet having to maintain the discipline and patience for the tedious, time-consuming conclusion – attaching the binding. I realized that, like it or not, my days of quilting were far from over. More importantly, though, I realized that if I was going to embrace this, if I was going to take on quilting as part of who I am, my very identity, then somehow, no matter the odds, I needed to make this a masculine hobby. But how?

First and foremost, I needed to stop quilting with my mother. Sure, it was a great excuse to bond, but so was sitting on her lap when I was five. A time comes when a boy has to get off his mother’s lap, not because it’s wrong to sit there, but just because it’s weird. So, just as a day comes when a boy declares his developing masculinity by saying, “Mom, I’m going to sit on the floor and have a tea party with my sister instead,” so also the day came when I declared my quilting independence: I would make my own quilt in my own apartment in Brooklyn, NY. On that day, I ventured into The City Quilter with the same nervous confidence as a high-schooler buying a pregnancy test (“It’s for my parents. Really.”) and was pleasantly surprised to find that, although fully staffed by middle-aged women who probably like cats, they took me more seriously than perhaps I took myself. They helped me where I needed it, let me be when I preferred, and before long I was on my way home, ready for my first undertaking as a solo quilter.

Materials purchased, the second step was to buy beer. Why, you ask? Because beer is the staple of the American man’s masculinity. So what if I’m threading a bobbin? It so happens I’m also throwing back a brew, wiping my mouth on my bare arm while I’m at it. Beer would be my trump card, my impenetrable defense should any of my roommates come home and think to jeer at me. Flowery patterns and ironing boards be damned; I was a quilter drinking beer.

The third step was to make my surroundings as masculine as possible. Since my apartment isn’t all that feminine to begin with, the most important thing to consider was the background noise. With no DVD player connected to the TV, my first choice– watching The Godfather — was nixed, which meant I had to fall on the back-up plan: my Guns N’ Roses library. I settled on the Use Your Illusion albums followed by some live tracks to keep me thinking of manly things like mullets and cigarettes as I measured fabric.

For two days I worked alone in this perfectly-masculine home quilting studio, gradually becoming comfortable enough to forget the potential that one might perceive the gender of my activities to be a bit questionable. The prep work complete, I was just sitting down to sew the first stitch when my roommate returned from a weekend away, stopping in his tracks just inside the doorway. I swear I saw one of those cartoon thought-bubbles over his head, empty but for a throbbing ellipsis to match the blank stare on his face.

“What are you doing?” he finally asked. I told him I was making a quilt, obviously. He asked me why. I gave a perfectly sound explanation for why the quilt itself was being made, but what he didn’t seem to grasp was, why was I the one making it? I took his point as the color rushed to my face for the second time in days.

Don’t give in, Cacopardo, I thought to myself, What you’re doing is okay. Perfectly natural. Perfectly masculine. Drink another beer, you’ll see.

Though he was eventually kind enough to acknowledge the work that goes into it, I’m not sure my roommate was ever convinced that my craft was anything less than grandmotherly (which would be inaccurate since most of the quilters I know are only mothers, not grandmothers). It was that same week when I confessed my pastime to the other friend mentioned above, and I think we all remember how that turned out. In general, Operation: Make Quilting Manly was, regrettably, a failed experiment.

None of this, however, has stopped me from my quilting practice. To date, I’ve completed three imperfect quilts, with a fourth on the way. I’m thankful there are still a few who take me seriously. (Mostly just the women at the quilting store and a friend of mine who I’m pretty sure has questioned my sexuality at least once.) Regardless, the time has come not only for the world to accept male quilters, but for men to get in on the fun. (Stop laughing. Now.) In all sincerity, this hobby not only is a great way to be creative and constructive without having to do too much thinking, but it’s also a way to make sure that you stay warm when winter comes around and the gas company starts double-charging for each unit of gas used. Of course, if you’re the transcendental type, there’s the fact that quilting allows you to create a unique, personalized blanket for a loved one, an unrivaled expression of affection that reaches down and touches the very core of the beloved’s soul. But then you’d better be sure you draw blood with the sewing needle, or burn yourself with the iron in the process. Otherwise, you’ll just look like a sissy. Or in my case, a sissy who drinks beer.

Cruel and Usual

 

Ever since the institution began, and certainly since the 1970s, the American death penalty has been an object of insatiable scrutiny in the criminal justice system of the West. Europe is appalled that we still have it. The Middle East is appalled that we don’t use it more frequently. In some states it’s non-existent, others it’s little more than a myth, and there are still some that can’t seem to get enough of it. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Texas.) So the debate will go on until the unlikely day when the federal government abolishes executions altogether.

Yet even while the fires of the capital punishment debate show no signs of cooling, a recent Supreme Court ruling has started afresh a new debate, rooted in the same constitutional criticism as execution-abolition. With executions on the decline while recidivism has been inching its way up the charts over nearly three decades, those lovable lefties have taken up the faithful arms of that pesky Eighth Amendment once more in order to propel the next Great Debate: life imprisonment for minors.

The Eighth Amendment states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines be imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” That’s it. Seventeen simple, highly interpretable words, upon which universalists, liberals, and abolitionists have stood tall and proud on ethical, moral and political soapboxes to proclaim all that is wrong with the punitive branch of our justice system, particularly when it comes to the death penalty. For some, execution of any sort is seen as cruel and unusual, though it is, ironically, one of the most consistent forms of punishment throughout history, which surely excludes it from being unusual. Then there are the conditionalists who insist that only some forms of execution are cruel and unusual, as though we might be able to convince the condemned — or even ourselves — that we really do care for their well-being if we poison them instead of bludgeoning them to death; firing squads are mean, but hanging is okay; gas chambers leave a bad political aftertaste, but electrocution gets a majority thumbs-up. Still yet there are the legalists who rightly point out that the certainty of someone’s guilt is rarely substantial enough to take his or her life — perhaps the most tolerable and certainly the most logical of the arguments. And then at the farthest liberal end, the place where idealism trumps truth, there are those whose only wobbly leg to stand on is the one that says everyone deserves a second chance. But while an unstable footing may be enough to prop up the Eighth Amendment against death, it only touts social idealism and naivety when positioned against the argument of life in prison.

The case highlighted here is that of Graham v. Florida in which Terrence Graham, a minor at the time, was given a plea deal to avoid a guilty judgment in an alleged armed robbery. One of the terms of that deal was a probationary period, which he allegedly violated, sending him back to court for adjudication for the original robbery. At that time he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

The argument, which the Supreme Court upheld, was rooted in the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and cites a series of other cases in both recent and not-so-recent history which have set precedent to define what is “cruel and unusual”. Without getting into the nitty gritty, the Court’s majority opinion is summed up by Justice Kennedy, who argues that a minor should have an opportunity to change. He writes, “Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope.” This, he says, makes the punishment both cruel and unusual.

But Justice Kennedy is operating on an idealist principle which says that the prison system is designed for reform rather than the truth, which is that prison has much more to do with punishment. For years the criminal justice system has been trumpeting to the media about incarceration’s rehabilitative qualities– how it shouldn’t be seen as an entirely punitive measure, that there is much more to it than locking them up and throwing away the key. Sadly, Justice Kennedy, a would-be conservative who can’t seem to stop drinking the liberal draught, has enthusiastically pledged to sing along.

The truth is, though, that no matter how many educational programs, social workers, religious institutions, or other rehabilitative measures are put into place within prison walls, the system itself will continue to keep itself in business as long as it continues to put the problem children together on the playground without supervision. Indeed, such a metaphor breeds a sense of irony because it is exactly in the school system where we see a similar sociological phenomenon. Take children even from well-to-do families and put them in the best educational institutions around, but the ones who have a penchant for trouble will not only find it, but they will find each other, and from these associations they will often go on to break more rules than they would have had they never met.

Prison is exponentially worse because it only houses the troublesome ones; strictly speaking, there are no “good” social influences. There is frequently street or even gang mentality in prison: demand respect by instilling fear even if it means resorting to violence; the weak will cling to the strong in order to protect themselves, and any opposition perpetually risks life and limb.

Even outside of violence, in the regular day-to-day of prison life, social interactions will, if innocently in the beginning, veer down the wrong path. Inmates will surely make small talk as humans are wont to do, except unlike the world outside prison walls, no one is going to start a conversation with, “So, what do you do for work?” Clearly, nothing anymore. The more natural icebreaker becomes the Hollywood favorite, “So, what are you in for?”

I bring up the obvious to point out the subtle: inmates frequently talk about crime. For a few, it’s all they know. And given the choice between slowly muddling through high school equivalent education or anger management courses, teaching inmates theories with little hope of opportunity for application, or learning from one another about how to get further, faster, the majority tend to sway towards the latter, thus perpetuating the very criminal mentality the system claims to be reforming. So when the “second chance” comes around, ex-offenders become re-offenders, recidivism rates hover at a staggering two-thirds for re-arrest and fifty percent for re-incarceration (so much for rehabilitation), and criminals find themselves right back in the over-crowded system that has already failed them once.

Herein lies the true violation of the Eighth Amendment. To merely prohibit life imprisonment for a minor only looks good politically. But practically, when that minor is released from prison in twenty or even ten years, he’s still going to have a long, uncertain — and yes, frightening — road ahead of him. He has learned only how to function in a unique population subset with no real understanding of how the world outside is working. (Think how much society changes in ten years, let alone twenty or more.) To send him back out into that now-unknown world with fifty dollars, no identification, and a list of homeless shelters to be turned away from is far crueler (though I’m afraid not very unusual) than to keep him in prison for the rest of his life. Even in the cases of ex-offenders being released to family and friends, to do so without further guidance than a weekly tousling with parole officers (who, often times, are ill-equipped themselves to deal with the trials of the parolee’s societal reintegration) is to set them up for failure. Well-intentioned as family and friends often are, they are just as often unable to shoulder the burden reintegration presents, and perhaps more often become part of the problem.

In fairness, it isn’t the High Court’s job to create new laws, only to uphold or strike down the rulings of lower courts. But as long as legal precedent will be the result of the Court’s decision, it would behoove the system to take further action. If Justice Kennedy and his liberal cronies want to make a real difference in the justice system, they should have a few conversations with their buddies in legislation about how we can provide the rehabilitative services offered in prison post-incarceration, rather than piously denouncing one punishment as unconstitutional while the alternative is hardly better and possibly worse. With the billions of dollars the federal government pumps into policies governing education for those who already have it, money for those who should share more of it, and wars that should be dwindling down instead of revving up, surely there can be some reallocation towards reintegration, among other things. Then, and only then, will we be able to adhere to the principles and intentions of the Eighth Amendment while simultaneously moving one step closer to providing some of those in need with a second chance that may actually have the sustenance to bear the fruit the system presently pretends to grow.

The Problem with Twilight

Before they became all the rage amongst sixth-graders, I wanted to write a story about vampires. I rode a wave of inspiration for about fifteen minutes before abandoning my project to the towering junk pile of books I never finished writing.

A few short years later, Stephanie Meyer would lead a parade of the tragically postmodern faux-undead in what is perhaps the most disappointing resurrection of an otherwise timeless monster. Now people ask me if I regret not finishing, that maybe I could have had some stake in the recent vampirical pay day. My answer is always no, which is typically met with accusations of jealousy. Don’t I wish I’d written a story like Twilight, they ask.

Now if a person has to ask me that question, they obviously don’t know me very well, because the answer is unequivocally no. But the Kool-Aid being served on the Twilight bandwagon is potent, and so I don’t take offense at such sentiments, misguided as they may be. In fact, I’ll even do you the favor of offering up my justifications for, up until now, ignoring everything that has ever spilled forth from the Twilight series.

First and foremost, Stephanie Meyer didn’t actually write a story about vampires.  Instead, her version of the undead takes the fearsome mythological demons and turns them into emasculated prairie dogs, simultaneously delivering them up on an implied sexual platter to the freshly-excited hormones of the prepubescent and the perverted longings of the hopelessly romantic.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with fictional creatures evolving – I take very little issue with the Twilight vampires being able to wander around in the sun – but disregarding the root truth of vampires, which is that they are demonic and evil, and depicting any of the lot of them as capable of love for humans is irresponsible, and at the very least, ludicrous. As such, Meyer not only successfully bastardized the nature of vampires, but worse, she also encouraged (though I’d imagine unwittingly) a shamefully false sense of truth about that which is wholly good and that which is wholly evil.

Fantastical stories of romance have always been big sellers. From the Bible to Shakespeare to Danielle Steele, the tales that makes women swoon and men snicker (while swooning secretly so you’ll think we’re big and tough like the guys in those stories) continue to rank as The Most Read Stuff On The Planet. Trashy romance does exceptionally well; in fact, it makes up for the bulk of fiction novels sold. And granted, the rippling biceps described by the likes of Nora Roberts rarely, in reality, belong to men with a romantic sense of equal potency, but we tend to accept that on the premise that it is still within the potential of a man’s nature to behave as they do in those novels.

Meyer’s world, on the other hand, immediately breaks down in the consideration of nature because it is, by no means, natural for a vampire to fall in love with a human. And before the naysayers have a chance to play devil’s advocate here, let’s remember that one of the most defining characteristics of the undead is that they eat people. A vampire falling in love with a beautiful woman would be tantamount to me falling in love with a well-bred cow, and while you can argue that such a thing is disturbingly still within the realm of possibility, you should also admit that you wouldn’t want anything to do with me if that’s how it went down.

Such is not the case with dear Edward, whose warm tenderness manages to capture the hearts of women both fictional and otherwise as he insists that eating people makes him feel like a monster, although he seems to have accepted drinking animal blood as harmless enough.

And therein lies the rub: conflicted or not, Edward is a monster, not a man, and the consequence of Meyer’s fiction is that we are no longer able to see that through the trees. Not only that, but with his charming good looks and fairy-tale sensitivity, Meyer has made the monster into one of the Good Guys.

This is problematic because – whether we realize it or not – what we see, hear, read, and otherwise assimilate affects the way we see the world around us. For adults, perhaps this is permissible; we all need a little reality break from time to time. But Meyer’s base audience is not adults, but young adults who remain as easily-influenced as children while simultaneously being slammed by the same desires as their elders amidst the first inklings of developing a world view and morality – a dangerous recipe when it comes to stories as seductive as Twilight. In quiet suburbia, where no one understands poor Bella in a new and unfamiliar world, she finds solace in the mysterious bad boy with the intoxicating eyes, a wild smile, and an unclear sense of rebelliousness. After a flirtatious dance in a circle of mounting sexual tension, the bad boy sweeps the innocent girl from her feet and shows her what life (or is it death in this case?) is all about.

Still, the story of the good girl and the bad boy is as old as any story involving human nature, and I’ll even concede that vampire stories are often, if not always, sexualized in some way or another. Indeed, sexuality is part of the seductive nature of vampires, and arguably what makes them so dangerous in the first place (if you believe in mythological creatures, that is).

The problem with Edward and Bella – and most other surfacing stories of the undead – is that the seductiveness of the vampire is glorified, not condemned. Even in Bram Stoker’s original masterpiece, Mina feels nothing but wretchedness after being taken by Dracula; she dedicates herself to his destruction after the fact. Bella, on the other hand, takes a taste of damnation and decides to roll it around on her tongue for the rest of eternity. (An unfortunate irony, no doubt driven by the success of such stories, is that one of Bram’s descendents recently tarnished the revered name Stoker by publishing a sequel to Dracula which consists mostly of bloody lesbian sex, glorified alcoholism and morphine addiction, and, like Twilight, the choice to turn to the darkness for the sake of love.)

What’s worse is that both the Dracula sequel and Twilight are only extreme examples of a phenomenon happening to the modern vampire – indeed, even the modern monster – the world over. In our consumerist culture of sex and excess, fear has taken a backseat to desire. Monsters suddenly have feelings. Where feelings remain neglected, gore, sexuality, and general debauchery act as the springboards for tainted stories of torture and abuse, while other tales of misplaced redemption impair our ability to recognize evil for what it really is.

Whether rooted in mismanaged eroticism or flat out perversion, we have over-humanized creatures which, despite their appearances, have very little else in common with mankind. If the creatures themselves were the ones redeemed, then there might not be much to complain about; almost every decent work of literature relies on symbolism to convey a message.

But when the symbolism suggests that we humans can somehow safely cross to the dark side through a heart of erotic love, thereby finding some sense of eternal happiness, we jade ourselves and misguide our youths, thus further perpetuating the merciless consumerism which drives the majority of people and cultures. There’s nothing wrong with Eros and there’s nothing wrong with redemption. But the conveyance and use of such themes, like any other, bears a sense of responsibility which stories like Twilight disregard, while the people who read them continue to empower authors to propagate gross sublimation within the consumerism of a deprived race – namely, mankind.

Ultimately, this is the challenge and the curse for all artists: to commit to a responsible delivery and depiction of the stories and symbolism we use to better understand our world. A created world entirely devoid of evil wouldn’t do much good in helping us to better comprehend our own reality, but neither does a world where the evil is glorified – not only as desirable, but also as the thing which ends up being chosen. We will always have a choice between good and evil, but the idea that evil might ever be permissible as the right choice is both a tragically naïve idealism and a detriment to society as a whole.

If I ever do write my vampire story, I think I’ll make Bella and Edward part of its beginning. Five hundred years after Twilight, when the vampire couple is spending a romantic evening on a country hillside with a eclectic assortment of barnyard animals, innards spilled out on a picnic blanket in the worst distortion of prix fixe since Manhattan’s West Village, they’ll be seduced by Qumran, the vampire evangelist who convinces them that people are, after all, the finest of cuisines. Emotional and psychological chaos ensures, driving the Twilight twins to embark on a raging killing spree, numbing whatever human sympathy is left in them.

Then vampire-hunter extraordinaire, Abraham Van Helsing, ninety-seven years old but hell-bent on ridding the world of demons, will swoop down from the time machine he was secretly building with Jack Seward after the death of Count Dracula, single-handedly drop-kicking the heads off of all the world’s remaining undead, starting with Bella and Edward. Having put stakes in their hearts and garlic in their mouths, Van Helsing retires back to nineteenth-century England where, faced with the decision to properly publish his successful sojourn through time and his second victory over the damned, he decides instead to settle down in the isolation of a quaint villa in Messina, quietly passing from this life to the next without a single mention of the undead lovers he so valiantly slew. After all, some things are better left in the dusty, crooked confines of our imaginations.

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Whatever Happened to Due Process?

There was a time in my life when I regularly exercised a very reckless lack of judgment. During that time, I decided that the most satisfying future I could pursue would be in the world of law. Since I was transferring schools anyway—more reckless judgment—I jumped at the opportunity to change majors as well. Armed with a stubborn persistence and what I interpreted to be omniscience, I set off to change the world through the fisheye lens of the criminal justice system.

As it turns out, cynical people like me don’t really find much reception in the justice system. (I know. I was surprised, too.) But as I took my first steps into the world of justice, I found it difficult to be any other way. How was it that the United States of America, arguably at the helm of the greatest justice system in the world, could still see so much corruption, so much frivolity? How were men and women dodging murder verdicts based on trial technicalities while I couldn’t even get out of a speeding ticket? Something had gone unquestionably awry.

Yet much of the corruption is subtler than it seems. Indeed, while some legislation has evolved into ludicrous formality, there is no doubt that it once had roots in the protection of human rights.

Take, for example, the Constitutional right to due process. Any person tried on American soil is entitled to a trial and cannot be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” But entitlement should not be the same thing as requirement and due process of law should not mean fruitless formalities, both things that the State of Arkansas ought to consider in the case of Abdul Hakim Muhammad. Muhammad is accused of killing one military private and injuring another in a shooting at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas last June. Once in custody, Muhammad said that he wanted to plead guilty, citing religious reasons for his actions. Arkansas, however, does not allow a suspect to plead guilty to a capital crime. Informed of this, Muhammad thought he was being led astray and most recently wrote a letter to the judge, bypassing his attorneys, stating that he is guilty, he wants no trial, and he stands by his actions as an act of jihad. So far, Muhammad must still plead not guilty and be tried for his crimes.

The overarching theme of what’s going on here is that the justice system—driven by an increasingly corrupt world of politics—is focusing less on discovering truth and serving justice and more focused on the political and social ramifications of its actions; in other words, the system is now riddled with laws which function more as clauses to cover the State than they do as statutes to protect human rights.

Forcing Muhammad through a trial brings up a number of major concerns, not least of which is that he could very well be found not guilty. The logical man would say that doesn’t seem possible, but the justice system no longer operates on logic but on politics and in this case, politics says that there may be technicalities in the time leading up to trial where a jury legally cannot convict Muhammad. These technicalities once acted as protection against human rights, but they have been corrupted largely by idealist defense attorneys who treat legal proceedings like a philosophy class where semantics hold more sway than truth. To people such as these, criminal justice is comparable to a high school debate team and the result is that some criminals who deserve to be punished are walking the streets which American people otherwise believe to be safe.

Admittedly, though, if Muhammad goes to trial, he likely will be found guilty, which brings up a different concern: tax dollars. If it isn’t already bad enough that the people of any state have to foot the housing bill for convicted felons, it is downright unthinkable to require the people to pay for a trial for a man who is happy to confess, entirely apart from duress, and accept the penalty. The cost of a pointless trial on top of the cost of even a single year of holding a convicted felon in a maximum security prison or death row tops out at hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the risk of sounding callous, why spend more than we have to?

The root of the answer probably comes from a deep history of coerced confessions and botched trials. With DNA evidence rescuing hundreds if not thousands of people from life and death sentences, cost considerations carry less weight as mitigating factors when the possibility of an innocent man paying for a crime he didn’t commit remains. But to go so far as to prohibit a guilty plea can only be relevant when there remains a very distinct question of truth, such as when a man confesses but then maintains his innocence later on, as in as the tragic case of Amanda Knox. But while Knox’s confession may have been coerced and was certainly retracted, Muhammad has all but boasted of his guilt, and he’s continued to do so for seven months. Under such circumstances, it seems that Arkansas’ law needs a bit of tweaking.

The law, however, is unlikely to be tweaked, because whether it’s wasting resources or truly saving innocent lives, it covers the government’s back, which seems more the more likely interest for the State in the first place. Rejecting a guilty plea in a capital case proclaims that Arkansas will not see any man martyred, whether for religious reasons or otherwise. Rejecting a guilty plea from a self-professed Muslim extremist tells the world that America gives even radical religious zealots a fair shot. There’s no religious bigotry here, no animal bloodletting. Just good, clean, criminal justice protocol.

The truth is that the protocol is not clean and it has very little to do with justice. States are endlessly embattled in a similar struggle when it comes to the death penalty, as the states which still execute inmates seek to prove to opponents that there is somehow a method of taking another man’s life which doesn’t amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Granted, that while the Constitution remains as interpretable as the Bible, there are certain words and phrases in the Bill of Rights that simply don’t leave much room for evaluation. Killing a man by its very nature is cruel and unusual. Waiving your right to a trial is, by its very nature, due process of law, as long as the accused has been given the right in the first place. Muhammad obviously was and if he’d rather not be tried, if he’d rather simply confess and go to the gallows, then it should not be the burden of the people to see his way through the system simply so the State of Arkansas can boast a clean conscience.

The criminal justice system was designed to discover truth. Instead, it has become a place of political struggle where too many lawyers care too much about the game, too many judges care too much about appointments, and too many governors and legislators are more interested in appearing compassionate when the system they work for is still based in punishment, not rehabilitation. If Americans want to be the nice guys then we should do away with prison altogether and find a way to help offenders become functioning members of society, not force unwanted trials on criminal suspects, burdening already-strained American citizens in the process. Those who make their beds with determination to lie in them should be allowed to do so. The criminal justice system has plenty of other problems to deal with.

Happy or Merry Something or Other

 

My girlfriend and I recently decided that we should take a page from the English Christmas book and say “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas”. Not only does it sound quainter and more cheery, but it dodges political incorrectness. (The last observation was entirely my own, lest anyone think my girlfriend to be as eccentric as I am.)

My satisfaction was quickly dashed when I remembered that saying anything involving Christmas at all might be perceived as insensitive, since not everyone recognizes Christ’s birth, even as a day to get spoiled with presents and honey-glazed pork goodness. I’m supposed to say “Happy Holidays,” which I think Americans like better only because we think alliteration is cute, despite the fact that an embarrassingly large number of people don’t actually know what alliteration is.

But then even “Happy Holidays” would be insensitive, because it suggests that all people recognize some holiday or another in the month of December and there are those, I was reminded not so gently one year, who don’t celebrate anything at all. I thought about bending it by thinking of the word “holiday” the way Europeans do – as time off from work – since I think most people tend to get at least a little bit of that this time of year.

Then I remembered how many people, myself included, are unemployed and probably won’t find anything happy about their indefinite “holidays”. The last thing I want to do is give out paper-cuts and lemon juice for Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or whatever other occasion you’d prefer I reference).

As I thought about this more (did I mention that I’m unemployed?), I realized that there really is no way to wish anything cheerful to anybody without running the risk of hitting a nerve. I’m pretty sure that this doesn’t have anything to do with a desire to discriminate or offend any particular person or group of people, and I’m certain that it doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas at all. I think it has to do with us as a culture taking far too many pains to find fault with the words people choose when attempting to deliver otherwise innocuous messages.

As beautiful as thing as it is, language has always been a difficult thing to navigate – even relatively established tongues like English continue to evolve, quietly rendering parts of themselves obsolete, unbeknownst to the people using them. But keeping up with the elusive pace of linguistic evolution has very little to do with the time we spend taking offense to things which were never meant to be offensive, finding fault with things which were never intended to be binding doctrinal statements, and generally (I would argue sometimes purposefully) misunderstanding the ideas that people are trying to communicate in the first place.

A recent non-holiday case-in-point is the lambasting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received from the media when referring to the progress on freezing Israeli settlements as “unprecedented.” Since her declaration, I haven’t seen the word “unprecedented” outside of quotations, as though it’s now a contaminated specimen, radioactive and only safely handled with lead gloves. Never mind that some progress was made in Israeli. Never mind that Secretary Clinton thought a little encouragement would be more effective in maintaining good relations than authoritarian chastisement.

“Unprecedented” may have offered a little more coddling than was deserved for a partial freeze. But it is not as though she said the mission was over, nor did Israel seem to think that a partial freeze would eliminate U.S. pressure. It was a simple act of diplomacy for which her countrymen threw her under the bus.

The criticism isn’t limited to politics, either. Just a few weeks ago, bad girl Kate Moss made the foolish, though not surprising blunder of saying that “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” is one of the mottoes she lives by. While a little public outcry over this is understandable and probably necessary to make sure she knows she made a boo-boo, the suggestion that she was endorsing eating disorders – which, incidentally, the rest of her statement made it clear that she was not – began to look a little bit like overkill.She probably should have kept that little morsel of modeling advice to herself. But when did we start taking her seriously in the first place? Honestly, people. It’s Kate Moss. Thoughtfulness has never been one of her stronger points, not to mention that anyone who looks to Kate Moss for a dose of profundity or philosophy probably has more to worry about than one poorly-phrased life motto.

Part of the problem is that we neglect to consider context and intention. When Don Imus stupidly made offensive remarks regarding the Rutgers women’s basketball team, he deserved to be chastised, because his intention was to add insult to injury. But when Kate Moss vomited her precious pearls of size wisdom, she was, sadly, giving an honest answer to an innocent question, even if those words should have been chosen more carefully. When Hillary Clinton gave what she’d hoped to be positive reinforcement to Israel, it wasn’t a concession of policy, even if it was a little over-zealous. And when I say “Merry Christmas” to a stranger passing by, I am most emphatically not trying to indoctrinate the world with Christian morals, a fat guy riding a sleigh (can I say “fat guy”?), visions of sugar plums, or creepy claymation cartoons.

That’s not to say that most of us couldn’t use a little refresher course in self-censorship. As far as I know, thinking before speaking is still a desirable character trait and something most of us will teach our children even if we never learned how to do it ourselves. But dancing around the things we’d really like to say, the messages we really need to convey, doesn’t do any service to the gift of verbal communication. If anything, it twists it and uses it to manipulate people rather than just laying the cards out on the table. Why should I say “Happy Holidays” when I mean “Merry Christmas,” especially if my purpose in doing so isn’t to include other cultures but to avoid being labeled a bigot?

This all boils down to the need for more tolerance – not of other cultures, but tolerance of being offended. Instead of taking every word or phrase as a personal attack on a policy, creed, or preference, we should invoke that age-old rhyme regarding the sticks and the stones. I’m not sure when nit-picking language became a crucial part of our culture, but it needs to stop if we ever hope to be able to communicate the things that are really on the hearts and minds of the American people. At a time when the world remains involved in an exhausting war, the economy can’t make up its mind about living or dying, and the long-term comfort of the country is as foggy as it’s ever been, forgiving others for exclusive or poorly thought out statements seems to be the very least we can do not only for each other, but for our individual sanity.

Maybe I will say “Merry Christmas” this year. After all, I live in Brooklyn. A little holiday-related verbal sparring in the street might just make the lot of us feel at home. And of course there’s always that chance, that little glimmer of Christmas hope, that those two little words will cause some Grinch-ly heart to swell threefold, a crooked-tooth smile will spread across the face of my unfamiliar neighbor and he’ll look me right in the eye and say, “Happy Kwanzaa to you, too.”

Blind Justice?

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the American justice system is American culture itself.

After all, it’s doubtful that the writers of the 222-year-old Constitution had any idea of the future judicial leniency often granted to a pop culture swollen with household names – people who, despite the lack of valid importance ascribed to them by anything more than brand-recognition, behave as though they are above the law, failing to use what little wit may have been bestowed upon them to understand the damage they cause to an ailing justice system. It’s also unlikely that any legislator over the past two centuries cared one way or the other if the person violating the statute was a celebrity or a hermit; corrupt as our politics are, the time has not yet come to encourage the conspiracy theorists. When it comes to crime, America has been mostly made up of legislators who are dedicated to passing criminal statutes in favor of justice and human rights for all people. There is no special treatment in law-writing.

The problem comes long after legislation, and often long after laws have been enforced as prescribed by the statutes. Nobody cares, for example, if Mr. Smith next door gets dragged away by police on charges of child molestation. In fact, the neighbors will probably fuel the media with cliched (and probably unfounded) character statements – “I knew there was something off about him,” or “I once saw him kill a mosquito and I knew then that there was a deep cruelty in that man’s soul.”

Case-in-point: the homicide of Annie Le. Within days of arresting suspect Raymond Clark, CNN’s disgraceful current affairs personality, Nancy Grace, found herself a sleazy character witness to assist her in viciously slandering a potentially innocent man on television, unfairly biasing the public, and worse, making it very difficult for Clark to get a fair trial. Never mind that the New Haven Police Chief hadn’t released any details about the evidence they’ve found. Never mind that the news media didn’t actually have a shred of admissible evidence implicating Clark in Le’s murder. As far as the people were concerned, the man was a killer, and even if Clark is innocent he’s going to have a time of it trying to convey that message to the public after all of this bad publicity, especially when low-lifes like Grace can’t even be held for slander if a jury should find him not guilty.

But while media lynch mobs effectively destroy the due process of the Constitution – the ironic postmodern effect of the First Amendment trumping the significantly more important Fifth Amendment – there is one redeeming factor here: even with a crippled due process, the justice system is still allowed to do its job. No one sends a petition to his local judge asking for the immediate hanging of a murder suspect, and most judges and juries don’t let media frenzies and public opinion distract them from the facts of the case or the conditions of the law.

The larger problem comes from the opposite case, when a person has enough evidence against him to warrant a trial and suddenly the powerful world of culture baselessly interjects the man’s innocence, stalling the justice system with foolish petitions supporting the man’s release. I am, of course, referring to the Roman Polanski case: he has already confessed and pleaded his guilt to a savage and all-but-unforgivable crime and then gone on to commit another, but Hollywood big-shots like Harvey Weinstein, Pedro Almodovar, and Monica Bellucci have shamefully either denounced his detainment or even gone so far as to call for his release, demonstrating complete ignorance of what the justice system is or how it works. (Incidentally, if Monica Bellucci is going to tell the courts how to carry out justice, then someone from the courts should write her a letter telling her how to act.)

So what is the difference between the case of Raymond Clark, a man who has not yet been found guilty but may as well have been in the public eye, and Roman Polanski, a man who, after confessing his guilt, ran away from the consequences of the law only to be greeted warmly with calls for pardon three decades later?

Some might argue that the only real difference is the amount of time that has elapsed. After all, Polanski’s crime was committed over thirty years ago, and while time may not heal all wounds, Polanski’s victim suggests that it may be enough of a band-aid to forget about them, so long as no one comes along and rips the thing off.

But the Polanski case, with all due respect, isn’t about his victim – and to some extent, it isn’t even about his first crime; it’s about his second crime, which invalidates the time-elapsed argument. He made a plea deal with the courts – in layman’s terms, he agreed to confess his guilt in exchange for a lesser punishment. But Polanski wasn’t punished at all. He fled the country before the United States handed down a sentence, and then apparently dodged US capture through significant understanding of loopholes in international extradition and detainment laws – two slaps in the face of any justice system.

Now that he’s been captured, the US requires that he be held accountable for using the plea deal as a way to skip town. The thirty-year-old sex crime is, frankly, something of a moot point; Polanski now has another statutory violation to answer for and anyone who calls for his release over the indictment on rape is failing to recognize that he now must be indicted for evading his sentence. He is a fugitive of American justice on two counts, regardless how many notable films he’s produced in the process.

Others argue that Polanski has done wonderful things in the artistic world over the last three decades. While this may be true in the eyes of some, others would argue that Polanski’s work is nothing special, that he simply has a good track record of completing the task to which he’s been set, and some might even say that his work is not at all compelling. No matter the viewpoint, this essentially breaks down to an assessment of Polanski’s employment record. And what does a man’s employment record have to do with justice? Raymond Clark is said to have had an excellent employment record, but that hasn’t stopped the media from tearing him apart like a lamb in a lion’s den. Again, Polanski supporters have no basis in justice (though neither do those who like to smear Clark).

And that is the part that is more concerning than anything else. Raymond Clark may very well be guilty, but ultimately, it will be up to a court to seek out truth and then carry out justice, whatever that may be. He doesn’t have a team of celebrity buddies vying to have the system let him get away with a horrific crime.

The debate over Roman Polanski, however, has already demonstrated how justice is lacking not so much in the criminal system (unless they let him off the hook), but in society. The call for Polanski’s pardon indicates that popular culture – sadly, the most influential role model America seems to have – not only misunderstands the situation, but misunderstands the law. The justice system is not some spoiled child insistent on holding a grudge that should have long since passed. It is the system that has been implemented to protect the public and to remind us that legislation is a serious thing and violators cannot simply be pardoned because they managed to dodge the authorities for a significant period of time, making a few movies along the way. If such were the case, we might all commit heinous acts and jump the border for a few years.

Roman Polanski is undoubtedly guilty of two crimes, one of which he admitted to and another which requires no forward admission – even a monkey might recognize the cowardly act of leaving the United States to avoid punishment. Not only does the United States have a judicial and Constitutional duty to hold him accountable for his deeds (over which, by the way, he’s shown no remorse), but all of the would-be Mother Teresas of Hollywood – and anyone else who scribbles his name on a petition – need to think about the actual facts and details of Polanski’s offenses and, more importantly, about society as a whole. No matter how much money a man has, no matter how influential an artist he is, and no matter how well the world recognizes him as a celebrity, he must be held accountable for his actions, good or bad.

Having powerful friends isn’t bad, as long as those friends use their power responsibly. In the meantime, we need to stop preventing the American justice system from doing its job, especially if we intend to complain about its ineffectiveness later.

The Hunt for the Real Autumn

Each year around this time, without fail, New York City is abuzz with the residents’ autumnal alacrity, having had had quite enough of the sweaty summer season. Enthusiastic praise is given first to the colors, then to the smells, eventually the tastes, and finally to the sensation of a crisp breeze wafting through city streets. With warm smiles anticipating the romance of a fairy tale, friends look at me with shining eyes and ask, “Don’t you just love the fall?”

Immediately, suspicion wells up within me. “Where are you from?” I ask, already knowing the answer to be one of three American states.

“California,” the majority of them say, though a few hail from Texas or Tennessee.

“That figures,” I mutter, sometimes under my breath, sometimes loud enough to be certain I’ve been heard. My response is always followed with the question: What is that supposed to mean?

It means this: I grew up in New England. What’s that supposed to mean, you ask? It means that generally, when it comes to autumn anywhere else, I’m emphatically not impressed. The mediocre color splotches available in Central Park plummet far below the standards of “fall foliage;” I’ve never even seen a pumpkin in the concrete jungle; and on the rare and coincidental occasion that I’ve caught a whiff of anything remotely resembling freshly-baked-pie-goodness, it has rapidly been followed by the smell of two-week-old-baked-goodness-tossed-in-the-garbage-pail, which – in case this part wasn’t clear – spoils the mood entirely.

Oh, yes, I love fall. But expecting me to love it anywhere except New England (with the possible exception of the real England) is like expecting a second-grader to like an uninspired apple over the sugary bliss of the candy kind; the very thought embodies futility.

Fortunately, New England isn’t far from New York City, and you need not burrow deeply into the northernmost parts of the region to experience some of that fairy-tale-fall that has warmed my heart for so many years. If you’re in the neighborhood, and you are up for a far-north frolicking or just a day-long getaway, here are a few spots to visit to make your autumnal adventures far more magical than any other place America has to offer. (With apologies to the rest of America.)

Gillette Castle, East Haddam, CT – Perched high above the Connecticut River, Gillette Castle, originally known as Seven Sisters, was the residence of actor William Gillette, famous for his stage portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. One only has to spend a few seconds on the property to understand why Gillette fell in love with it. From the garden, the view stretches for miles, trees splashed in every color of autumn clustered close together and running along both sides of the Connecticut River all the way to the horizon. For a bird’s-eye view of the fall season, there are few options superior and none quite as convenient. An added bonus is the mysterious nature of a castle fashioned with secret passages, spy-holes, and even its own personal underground railway. Pack a picnic lunch to eat amidst the leaves fallen on the grounds below the castle, or make a night of it camping at the foot of the mountain.

Northeast Kingdom, VT – The furthest of the fun times, the scenic drive alone merits mention, let alone all the quaint comforts of cozy New England offered in the Northeast Kingdom.Unlike some of the more densely populated parts of southern New England, the Northeast Kingdom boasts full-length hayrides through the grassy plains of the least commercialized farmlands in the region, foliage paddles along on the Clyde River, harvest fairs, hiking through the crisp forests of the Burke Mountains, and the New England autumn signature Great Vermont Corn Maze. To satisfy your taste buds, stop off for some quality unfiltered ale samplings at the Trout River Brewery in Lyndonville or hit up the Cow Palace in Derby for their famous elk burgers. (For those overly-zealous carnivores, you can even “meet the meat” in the backyard, posing for pictures with someone’s future lunch if the elk are unsuspecting enough to approach you. No sudden movements, people.) Best of all, at least for earth-conscious New Yorkers, it doesn’t get greener than the Northeast Kingdom, and thanks to a geotourism program being developed in conjunction with National Geographic, your presence there will actually help to sustain the region’s natural environment.

Hudson Highland/Fjord, Cold Spring, NY– Okay. Technically, it’s not New England, but lest my regional snobbery paint me to be too exclusive for my own good, let it be known that upstate New York offers most of the same nostalgic delicacies as the rest of New England. The Hudson Highland and Hudson Fjord provide an all-encompassing experience of autumn’s natural beauty, only a couple of hours north of the suffocating faux-fall of New York City. Offering views from far above the Hudson River as well as the unique experience of a glacier-carved valley between the highland mountains, few sites in the northeast have such a robust selection of scenery. After a sojourn across the Bear Mountain Bridge, visit some of the town’s antique structures, go kayaking along the river (don’t forget your wetsuit), picnic at Little Stony Point State Park, or, if you’ve had quite enough of nature, visit Main Street for the best small-town shopping along the Hudson.

Natural Bridge State Park, North Adams, MA – Home to the only naturally formed white marble “bridge” in North America, the park offers, amidst a kaleidoscope of colors, a 13,000 year old bedrock marble bridge formed by eons of glacial movements. Visit Hudson’s Cave, made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne in An American Notebook, or just watch the Hudson Brook bubble through the park’s naturally formed gorge. For nearby nature adventures in North Adams, visit the stunning Berkshire Mountain trails, two other state parks, and vibrant local waterfalls. If town tourism is your fancy, make sure to check out Mass MoCA for a healthy dose of contemporary visual and performing arts.

Lyman Orchards, Middlefield, CT – What would autumn be without apples? Whether you pick your own or buy from the fresh piles inside, Lyman Orchards boasts some of the finest fall fruit in the country. Running the ninth-oldest family-operated business in American, the Lymans remain dedicated to preserving their land and homegrown produce for generations to come. After lunch on the beautiful patio deck overlooking the orchards, get lost in the yellow glow of the unique sunflower maze, stay traditional with the classic corn maze out front, or tromp through the pumpkin patch and find yourself the perfect piece for jack-o-lanterns, rich pumpkin bread, sugary pie, and roasted seeds. Don’t forget your golf clubs!

For a list of the best places to see foliage throughout the season, check out Yankee Foliage’s peak map.

No matter what your New England autumn adventure looks like, be assured that when you return to your humble home, you will scoff heartily at the question, “Don’t you just love the fall?”

“Oh, yes,” you’ll say. “I do love the fall. And I guess this is pretty nice, too.”

Four Year Hibernation

A four-year absence is a risk for any band, especially in a musical climate as diverse – dare I say saturated – as today’s. It’s more than enough time to fade into distant memory, a once-fresh album turned into another of nostalgia’s trophies, another rising star fallen from the sky and rendered obsolete by those more eager to shine their lights, even if they don’t shine as bright.

That said, four years can also be a much-needed break, a time to regroup, play with some new sounds, rekindle some old ones, and see if there is enough steam left in the engines to create yet another studio piece different enough to earn the acclaim of fans and critics, yet familiar enough that people don’t wonder what happened to the band they came to know and love. Some pass the test; many fail. The rest find themselves in an uncertain musical purgatory, inches away from tipping the scale in one direction or the other.

It was 2005 when the rock band Doves released their last album, Some Cities – a hiatus of epic proportions for a band that only found its legs five years earlier. But while success and stardom are largely attributed to the fans who support the music, credit should be given where credit is due – such as when a band decides to take its time (likely against the wishes of any agent or record label) to produce something worth the fans’ attention. And let’s be real: The love of the music community is much easier to win back after an absence than it is after a bad performance. And after Doves took a seemingly-perpetual hibernation flight south, they’ve at the very least managed to woo us into a reminiscent dinner-and-a-movie with a reasonable possibility for a goodnight kiss.

While it would be an overstatement to say that the band has come miles with their 2009 release, Kingdom of Rust, a satisfying progression can definitely be seen. They’ve done away just about every hint of the pop sound that detracted from their last effort, indicating that the boys from Manchester have given up on trying to please the mainstream and have focused more on trying to please themselves. Songs like “Spellbound” and the current mainstream crowd-pleaser “Winter Hill” have more in common with late-era David Bowie than they do with any of the amateur youth weaseling its way onto the charts and the lush melancholy of “Birds Fly Backwards” boldly spits in the faces of those who say Goodwin’s vocals drag through the soggy swamps of melodrama.

But what holds the attention is the band’s increasing diversity in song style and sound. The title track, for example, manages to successfully teeter the tightrope running along a country-style rhythm with guitar leads preferring to channel something of Blind Melon, while the keys accomplish both what we’d expect from Doves as well as what we’d expect from Pink Floyd. Fast-forward to the ballad “10.03” and you’ll find the simplicity of a repeating theme which builds to epic proportions – including a forty-seven second crescendo which culminates in the song’s mutation to a dynamic rock piece where fuzzy gain and subtle overdrive trade places, rotating between three guitars as they drive us to the twenty-second denouement consisting of the original ballad theme. Dynamic reverb shifts on “Birds Flew Backwards” seem to take us in and out of whatever dream songwriter Jez Williams was floating in and the vaguely psychedelic powerhouse anthem “House of Mirrors” reminds us of The Killers, sans the screeching treble levels.

Of course the trouble with having a distinct musical potluck on a single album is that an embarrassingly disappointing track is infinitely more likely than it would have been on a more homogenous project. For the Kingdom of Rust effort, that embarrassment comes in the tune “Compulsion,” which can’t seem to help but to pitifully scream undertones of Blondie’s “Rapture,” and which also makes the mistake of thinking that the album needed – or even that fans wanted – anything vaguely resembling a dance track. But since I’m not convinced that lambasting an honest mistake in an ocean of otherwise stand-up work makes the situation any better or worse, I merely suggest skipping track eight whenever it comes about.

What cannot be skipped – on the contrary, what deserves much praise – is the album’s opening act, “Jetstream.” It’s hard to tell if Doves made a concerted effort to dabble in tones of electronica on this number, or if it was the happy result of messing around with some keyboard or another which they’d never before discovered – but either way, the result is beyond impressive. While it may have been misleading for the band to kick off the record here, it’s clear why they would do so. “Jetstream” sucks you in from the get-go with a clean, single-channel guitar riff followed by distant, eerie vocals over a matching guitar melody.

What starts as tantalizing electronic layers quickly turns into musical foreplay, teasing the audience for two minutes and forty seconds before bringing us into the beat they really have in store, underscored with subtle techno-beats and acid-trip keyboard effects which, even sober, bring to mind a barrage of something colorful plummeting through a cloudless night sky. The only disappointment with this track is that there isn’t another like it in the band’s entire repertoire, let alone on Kingdom of Rust, which has the effect of tragically overshadowing (though certainly not to the death) the rest of an otherwise-satisfying record.

In the long run, four years is a long time to wait for anything less than stellar. I won’t go so far as to say Doves got lucky this time; the album earns itself more credit than that. But if they don’t turn around a quick follow up and stick a few tour dates on the 2009 calendar, the band may find it difficult to come out of their next season of hibernation.

Love,
Zombie-fied

Love is a strange thing.

Yet stranger, still, are the things that cause us to fall in love. For some, flirtation begins with arrogance – a haughty tango between the mind’s sharp wit and the heart’s fragile emotion. This quickly turns into verbal sparring, more often than not in public, and with so much inflated pride now at work, it is difficult, indeed, to know whether it is affection or affront which is the binding tie, if there is any bond at all. Such is the familiar tale of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, the two protagonists of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

That’s right. And zombies.

In a daring, yet happily successful undertaking, Seth Grahame-Smith has taken Jane Austen’s celebrated classic Pride and Prejudice and expanded it to include an absurd subplot of a strange English plague which has turned those afflicted into “unmentionables” – more commonly known as zombies. While keeping the whole of Austen’s novel in tact, complete with social commentary, irony, and masterful literary technique, Grahame-Smith takes a few liberties (to say the least) with the characters and their circumstances.

Take a look at Elizabeth Bennet, for example. She retains her overdeveloped pride and uses it as often as in the original to reject marriage proposals and propriety, but she also has another reason for doing so: she is one of the world’s finest zombie slayers. Having studied in China under the direction of Master Pei Liu of Shaolin, she has not only her own pride at stake, but her honor and duty to her master and country as well, all of which take priority over settling down with a husband or behaving the least bit ladylike. As a warrior, Elizabeth is, perhaps, even more an example of feminine independence and strength than she ever was in the original, and it remains this soldierly distinction that most catches the eye of Mr. Darcy. Yet a notable difference between this version and the classic is that because Darcy, too, is a warrior, we actually have a binding tie between the couple, and one that had never been so objective and discernable in Austen’s original.

Then there is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, benefactor to Mr. Collins and aunt to Mr. Darcy. True, her distaste for Elizabeth is still the result of class distinction, but what prevents Lady Catherine from acknowledging Elizabeth as an even remotely capable zombie slayer is that she trained in China instead of Japan. (Lady Catherine is so partial to the ways of Kyoto that she has her own host of ninjas who, in one of the finest additions to the story, are methodically [and graphically] dispatched by the obstinate Miss Bennet.) In keeping with her original character yet putting the focus on the fight against the zombie plague, Lady Catherine refuses to give credit where it is in fact due, and the more Elizabeth proves her skill, the less inclined Lady Catherine is to hold her in any esteem at all.

Perhaps the most entertaining of character deviations is the change made to Charlotte Lucas just before her marriage to Mr. Collins. In an unexpected twist, Charlotte is bitten by an unmentionable and must accept that in due time, she will become one of the stricken. Though it goes against her training, Elizabeth agrees not to kill Charlotte until she has transformed completely, leaving her to marry Mr. Collins whose perpetual oblivion prevents him from recognizing Charlotte’s impending zombification, setting up such comedy as in the following dinner scene:

…Elizabeth’s eye was continually drawn to Charlotte, who hovered over her plate, using a spoon to shovel goose meat and gravy in the general direction of her mouth, with limited success. As she did, one of the sores beneath her eye burst, sending a trickle of bloody pus down her cheek and into her mouth. Apparently, she found the added flavor agreeable, for it only increased the frequency of her spoonfuls. Elizabeth, however, could not help but vomit ever so slightly into her handkerchief.

Mind you, we’re only scratching the surface here. There are zombie attacks on balls, dinner parties, traveling carriages, even one on Darcy’s Pemberley estate. And every time, either Elizabeth or Darcy is there to swing a Katana sword, fire a pistol, or in the most delicious cases, just start throwing punches. There are multiple mentions of Elizabeth “disregarding modesty” with high kicks to zombie skulls (and in one case, Mr. Darcy’s) and where male bonding is concerned, there is no better activity than an organized zombie hunt, the unmentionables lured into the open by heads of cauliflower placed in fields. (Zombies, apparently, mistake the vegetable for stray human brains.) There are even some violent additions to Wickham’s story and a unique alteration to the plot that prevents Jane and Bingley from marriage. All of this without losing a sentence of Austen’s original tone.

And that is perhaps the most refreshing, yet surprising thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Despite the expansion, it remains solid literature. Granted, there is some innocence lost and much absurdity added, but because Grahame-Smith intended to be as serious as he did ridiculous, all of the additions are written in Austen-esque English, compromising neither style nor structure in the novel’s delivery.

This also means, for those of us who feel a bit guilty when reading any sort of “fluff,” that the book functions as one of the few zombie stories we can read without having to justify it to our literarily critical acquaintances. And while it can never replace the original in high school or college English classes, it will undoubtedly be more appealing to teenage boys who must otherwise be threatened with month-long prohibitions of internet access in order to pick up any novel associated with an academic requirement.

Much as the characters in the original Pride and Prejudice cannot be taken too seriously – indeed, that is their common downfall in the first place – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ought to be taken with an equal grain of salt. To take some of the most eccentric characters in classic English fiction and give them something even more ridiculous than themselves to dabble in cannot be construed as an honest attempt to achieve weighty or sincere literature. It can, however, be seen as a light-hearted way to revive and reconnect with a work which, though it will never die, may grow stale from time to time.

While there will forever be critics who disagree, there is very much a place for such well-constructed literary blasphemy as Grahame-Smith has committed and we all might benefit from thus opening our minds to the carnage and hilarity delivered herein. That is, unless you’re the sort of person who prefers eating brains to embracing their more conventional uses. But then I like to think that even zombies have something akin to a sense of humor.

Who was Neda Agha-Soltan?


The grave site of Neda Agha-Soltan.

Who was Neda Agha-Soltan?

It seems there isn’t a journalist in the world who hasn’t asked the question. Through her death, her life has captivated the hearts and minds of people both free and otherwise all over the world – yet few for the same reason.

To those who oppose Ahmadenijad, she is a martyr, one of the most recognized and honorable ways for a Muslim to be remembered. To women worldwide and especially in the Middle East, she is a symbol of strength and courage. To Westerners, she is the face of consequence, the casualty of a ruthless, smooth-tongued regime that refuses to let go its hold on a country ready for change or its contempt for countries it feels have stood in its way. To all people, she is the power of imagery breaking through banned media to show the world what Iran’s president prefers we do not see.

Within hours of her death, Neda became all of these things to all of these people, yet she did so having hardly taken part in anything to do with a protest or a rebellion. In fact, all she really did was to stand by and watch.

With the Iranian ban on media coverage of the protests, we’ll probably never know the full story of what happened to Neda. But between eyewitness accounts and two grainy cell phone videos – one before and one after her death – we can deduce enough: she went to the protests with her music teacher, apparently just to watch. There is no evidence that they were more than bystanders; Neda is not described as being particularly politically active, and the video taken of her before her death only shows her and her teacher standing by and looking on. The video shows that the protest she was watching began to intensify with backlash from weapon-wielding forces. Fearing for their safety, Neda and her companion decided to leave. When the next video starts, Neda has already been shot.

The Iranian government has suggested that the shot was fired by a member of a terrorist organization who mistook Neda for someone else, a tactful appeal to the red buttons of a world sensitive to senseless extremism – and a viable cover, since small, one-off terrorist acts are difficult to trace to a person or group. Others speculate that the Basij, Iran’s sanctioned militia force, is responsible for her death (though the government denies the militia’s involvement in anything except riot control). Others are still looking for someone at whom to point the finger. But no matter who pulled the trigger, we at least know that a trigger was pulled.

Mistake or no, Neda died as a result of protests – protests which may never have reached the level of violence they have if they were, at the very least, allowed. What the world has been given a taste of, then, is not graphic imagery splashed across television and computer screens intended to shock the public, exploit the innocent, or satisfy the morbid curiosity of a Western culture almost entirely (and thankfully) unfamiliar with the violent face of death, but instead a truthful scene, the reality of what atrocities come to pass under a true tyrant – a man who makes Americans’ claims of the Bush administration’s dictator-like qualities seem but a children’s story, and a poorly-written one at that.

In this way, Neda has become a universal symbol of oppression that transcends the boundaries of race, gender, religion, and the like. For Americans, this bears with it the shocking realization that while we make a lot of noise (and do little else) about a single scent of tyranny wafting from the White House, there are others out there being killed by governments that care more about being in control of their people than they do about the people themselves.

Perhaps the most captivating thing about Neda, though, isn’t her life or her death. It is not seeing photos of a beautiful young bride-to-be with a gentle smile, or even the horrific image of that same woman’s face covered in her own blood only seconds after the life has left her.

No – what is most remarkable about Neda’s death, what has drawn the attention of the world, is not who Neda was, but who she wasn’t. She wasn’t a political activist or a criminal, and by all accounts thus far, she wasn’t someone who went against the grain much if at all. So how did she end up dead in a Tehran street?

There is no logical answer to this question, and that may be what has instilled both fear and anger into the hearts of both Iranians and Iranian supporters worldwide. If an innocent woman who was not a protester can be shot dead, allegedly by her own government, then what power remains in the hands of anyone outside of Ahmadinejad’s administration? Worse, are there any limits to the power that Ahmadinejad has?

After all, whether it was outright rigging or not, we can say with certainty that something fishy took place in the recent election, and the state response has been to ban protests, ban the media and thereby the outside world, and react to any opposition to such bans with violence and ultimately murder, all the while telling nations like America to stay out of the way.

If we smell the air deeply enough, however, we find that the fear isn’t all on the side of the Iranian protestors. Indeed, much of it comes from Ahmadinejad himself. He knows that the people are not on his side and he seems to think that ruling with an iron fist and a sharp tongue is the best way to beat them into submission. But tyrant after tyrant in history learned that forcing people to support your government will eventually backfire. From Babylon to the English Empire to Nazi Germany, the same lesson is reinforced: the tighter you squeeze, the more will slip through your fingers. Ahmadinejad has been squeezing the Iranian people for years, and Neda’s death, rather than being any sort of catalyst, is probably more representative of the proverbial straw sending the camel to the chiropractor.

Who was Neda Agha-Soltan? Nobody but a woman living her life in the best way she knew how. Perhaps the better question is: Who is Neda now? She is a tragic icon. She is a martyr. She is a sign to the world that all is not well in everyone’s backyard.

But above all these things, the one thing she must be to the world is a warning that along with any loss of freedom comes the loss of human life. As sad as it is that such senselessness is what pushes people to the brink, we may hope that Neda’s unnecessary loss will at least, in time, not be in vain.

A Human Revolution

Against the backdrop of a deepening blue, the murmurs of an eclectic crowd rise up and fizzle into the open space above East 7th Street. The sun hasn’t quite set as The Human Revolution takes the stage – a cozy corner atop a generous East Village roof – but an early start means anything except an early finish at this makeshift venue. “We’ll go all night if we feel like it,” says the band’s frontman, the charismatic man in the well-worn hat known simply as Human. “Nobody else parties the way New York parties.”

And Human has some authority to speak on the subject. In the month of May alone, The Human Revolution tackled fifteen venues in ten US cities from Portland, Oregon to New York City, promoting their new album, Love Revolution, and perhaps more importantly, a much-needed message of peace, love, and unity.

Like their New York set, the new record kicks off with the classic rock ballad, “To The People,” the opening lines grabbing the listener’s attention with immediate references to September 11 and the war that followed. Melodic pedal steel layered with a gentle electric lead and a soothing violin sets a somber mood, but is in no way indicative of the musical experience to come. Quite the contrary, the album pace picks up considerably with bluegrassy banjos on “Chuck The Raven” and the distantly ska-rock anthem, “Public Servant,” but the reason for choosing this tune as an opener is clear: Human has a message to deliver, and before we get too hasty with our dancing shoes, what’s more important is that we keep our ears open to listen.

With the call to attention out of the way, Love Revolution turns to what really defines the sound of The Human Revolution: a self-described “mystic country jam rock” ranging in style from Charlie Daniels’s fiddle to killer Clapton-esque licks and Willie Nelson politics. On the tracks “Consumer” and “Fear Not I,” Human successfully dabbles in solid reggae beats and island sounds, giving us the only musical taste of “mystic” on the album (the rest is left up to the lyrics). We even glimpse a brief lyrical rap on the bridge to “Soul Revival,” immersed, of course, in an ocean of harmonicas and rhythmic jams which keep the listener wondering if The Human Revolution can be classified in a sub-genre at all.

And that is, perhaps, precisely one of the things The Human Revolution seeks to, well, revolutionize: the way we look at music. Since the grunge era of the Nineties, when bands like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins were lumped into an “alternative” genre of rock ‘n’ roll, sub-genres of rock music have popped up across the world, breaking sound-styles down into categories like indie (it’s a style, not a record label association), alternative, alternative rock (apparently there’s a difference), college rock, goth rock, post punk, trip-hop, electronica, and avant-garde; in short, there are enough sub-genres for all musicians to feel like they’ve done something unique and original. Yet while The Human Revolution has necessarily followed suit at least in part, their focus embodies far more than just the sound.

Take the title track, for example. Immediately following a powerful lead guitar intro, Human sings, “I’ve got two people inside myself, one who wants to fight, and one who wants to pray,” and then, “We’ve got to rise up and sing, dance around and play/The Love Revolution is right here, right now, it’s today.” Particularly during what’s been labeled “The Great Recession,” there are few people who haven’t felt sentiments at least vaguely similar to the dichotomy Human presents, but what medium besides the irresistible groove of country jam rock ‘n roll can really convince us that what we need to do is to stand up for what we believe in, dancing and singing all the while?

That’s where the true potency is found in Human’s songs. Though from time to time it may come across as idealism, Human employs what is actually a very pragmatic way to say the things that so many people are thinking. Speaking to me while on the road to Virginia, Human says, “I’m a very spiritual person. I believe in the power of prayer, but at the same time, I think we have to engage the world.” But “engagement” doesn’t mean hostility, no matter how angry we may feel from time to time. “You can’t fight violence with violence. The way to ‘fight’ the wrongs of the world is to be loving, to serve and help the planet.”

What sets The Human Revolution apart, however, is that their message doesn’t only appear on paper. They actually practice the lot of what they preach. Consider their current tour: The rotating-member band has traveled from Portland, Oregon to New York City on only eight gallons of petroleum-based gasoline. “We travel in a van designed to run ethanol, biodiesel, or just SVO (straight veggie oil). Sometimes refueling puts us a bit out of the way, but it’s worth it when you consider what we’re still saving both in terms of money and the earth.” Such feats as this put songs like “Conversion” in a very different light, one bright enough to call the American people out of the carbon caves we’ve been living in for most of our lives, yet not so bright as to blind us with reckless idealism and intangible hope for a cleaner future.

The pill, then, that seems like it might be hardest to swallow is the one that delivers the message of spirituality along with the organic, hug-your-neighbor, cut down on carbons and cut out the corporation vibe. In an increasingly atheistic nation, infusing feel-good beats with any idea even vaguely indicating a spiritual authority is risky business. But we’re not becoming atheists because we can’t tolerate God; we’re becoming atheists because we’ve become complacent in taking God seriously, another agenda The Human Revolution makes no bones about addressing.

Taking a lead from less-religiously-reserved reggae artists (though he does not identify as Rastafarian or Jewish), Human sends another important message to the American people in “Fear Not I”: “For as long as I walk upon this land, I know that Jah will protect me…Money it will come and go, I will have no fear of poverty/I will spread the abundance when Jah give it to I, for money will not make I free…” The exact opposite of hard to swallow, the medicine The Human Revolution offers tastes sweet, soothing as it goes down, and if we take it in the proper doses with some regularity, we’ll find that the spirituality they promote does, in fact, have the power to heal during these confusing and broken times.

Far from idealism, The Human Revolution offers a positive and powerful message of reform desperately needed by the American people perhaps now more than ever. While newspapers fill their pages with stories of suicides, crimes, illnesses, and hopelessness related to economic downturn and increased cultural strife, Human has done just the opposite. He and his band have reminded the world that there is always hope, there is always goodness to be had and life to be enjoyed, and none of it has to rely on money or any of the myriad popular vices we’ve come to accept as a way of life.

A human revolution? Maybe. Or maybe it’s really just a human reminder calling us back to the way we once were, and the way we were supposed to be in the first place.

The rest of The Human Revolution’s tour dates are available on their website, as are their albums (also available on iTunes) and booking information. Because the musician lineup rotates, there’s no guarantee that every show will have a full set-up, but you can be sure that whatever you get, it will be full of hope, love, and a danceable groove.

Arancello, or
How One Italian Combats The Summer Heat

Despite my northern upbringing, I’ve always been partial to the summertime, and increasingly so as I get older. The beauty of autumn, the magic of winter, the new life of spring – it’s all just ad copy in my book.

Sure, there is a weekend in the fall when I like to return to New England for no reason other than to see the brilliance of natural leaf color painted beneath the vast expanse of Connecticut sky. And yes, if we find ourselves fortunate enough to have anything resembling a white Christmas, I can still be found making snow-angels and trying to catch flakes on my tongue. I’m not opposed to the seasons, nor do I sulk until they end, leaving me with only three months of the stuff I like best.

But the isolated pleasantries of a season are not enough to warrant the profession of my love. I much prefer a season that boasts of little else besides pleasantries, where those very same novelties we cling to in other times of the year are naught but icing on the bright, yellow cake of longer days, fewer clothes, and cheerful smiles.

“But what about the summer heat?”

Indeed, what to do about the one obstacle to the utopian season. But the complaint is nearly moot in this day and age. Air conditioning – whether you choose to use it or not (ahem, New Yorkers) – is readily available and much more affordable than ever before, thanks to “energy saving” units. Ice water remains plentiful, ice cream becomes a justifiable necessity, water balloons are making a comeback, and water pistols never went out of style in the first place. In fact, summer offers more variety than any other season in fighting back against the element with which it attempts to oppress us. The rub is to find something new, something different, and in this case, something alcoholic.

My proposed solution? Arancello.

“Doesn’t he mean ‘limoncello’?” No, I don’t, although since limoncello tends to be more popular, I’ll include the recipe with lemons as well. But lemons hoard too much of the limelight (haha) of summer, and I propose that there are plenty of other refreshing, tropical fruits to be paid mind during the dog days. Thus, I’d like to take this time to say a few words about one of my favorite summer beverages that does not involve our little yellow friend.

The name “arancello” comes from the Italian for “orange,” which is “arancia.” Because of this, arancello is sometimes spelled “aranciello,” and in typical Italian fashion, there is no stone rule about which spelling is correct, though “arancello” remains more common.

I was first introduced to the beverage by my aunt during a brief stay in Bergamo a couple of years ago. After dinner, she brought out a large, glass bottle and I could already tell from the condensation on the bottle that it was cold. I’m talking arctic cold, here. It also appeared to be full of thick, cloudy orange juice.

“What’s that?” I asked, not so much out of impatience, but because I got the sense it was precisely what she wanted me to do. She didn’t answer verbally at first, but smiled with a glint of something like mischief in her eye.

“Just drink it,” she said, “but only a little sip!” She poured the liquid into a tall shot glass and, as instructed, I sipped. I’d imagine my expression was well worth the suspense.

It was rapturously sweet, and I was tempted to roll the arancello over my tongue a few times to take in all of the orange and sugar, but no sooner had I considered it did I change my mind as a subtle, pleasant burn began to creep over my taste buds. I swallowed, and the burn lost all quality of subtlety, dispersing through whatever maze of pipes stretch and twist through my insides. But despite what sounds like the miserable experience of swallowing something equivalent to rubbing alcohol, there was something else about it, something entirely counter to its nature which made it not only tolerable, but delectable: it was served ice cold.

There will doubtless be skeptics among you that such a potent alcoholic drink could be any sort of desirable summer companion. This is where the serving temperature of arancello becomes vital. Even in the dead of winter, warm arancello would be disappointing, if not vile; the sugar content is simply too high and the strength of the alcohol too intense. The beverage must – I cannot put enough emphasis on “must” – be stored in glass containers in the freezer. The refrigerator simply will not get the job done. Because the alcohol used is 150-proof or higher, there’s no need to worry about the stuff freezing; I’ve had the same bottle of arancello in my freezer for months. (Just make sure to shake it from time to time so all of the orange doesn’t settle on the bottom.) If, by some chance, you have access to a shock freezer, use that for storage.

The mantra here is: The colder, the better.

But enough stalling already. Let’s move on to more important things – the recipe.

You’ll need:
• 5-6 large oranges (or 9-10 lemons for limoncello)
• 1 liter 150-proof or higher clear alcohol (over-proof vodka or grain alcohol works the best)
• 1 liter water
• 1 kilo (2.2 lbs) granulated sugar

Begin by peeling the oranges with a vegetable peeler. It’s important to get as little of the fleshy, white part of the orange as possible; all you really want is the zest. Once the oranges are peeled, use a funnel to disperse equal parts of the vodka into three liter-sized bottles. Distribute equal portions of orange zest into all three bottles and cork or cap. Shake each bottle vigorously and store in a cool place. (Those of you without air-conditioning this summer may even want to consider the refrigerator for storage during the steeping process.) Shake each bottle two to three times daily for 20 days.

Twenty days later, bring the liter of water to a boil, leaving at least two inches above the water level for the sugar. Slowly stir in all of the sugar so the water becomes a simple syrup. Let the syrup cool for about five minutes, then distribute evenly across the three bottles. Shake the new mixture in each bottle and return to storage. Continue to shake each bottle 2-3 times a day for another 20 days. The mixture should appear to be a cloudy, orange color.

Once the arancello has steeped, transfer to glass containers without any zest. (Note: If you leave the arancello in the containers with the zest, it will ruin the flavor over time.) If you have an empty “handle” jug lying around, that works really well, and cuts down on the number of bottles you’ll have in storage. Seal the container(s) and put them into the freezer. Arancello should be ready to drink in about three hours.

Serving suggestions: Serve in tall shot glasses and sip. If you are throwing a dinner party, try drizzling a moderate amount of arancello over a colorful fruit salad or vanilla ice cream for dessert. The stuff is pretty versatile, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Just remember that it’ll take another forty days to make more if you run out!

I’ll admit that if the heat if the summer really bothers you that much, nothing – not even the magic of arancello – will bring you the relief you desire. But I can also tell you this: If arancello cannot alleviate your discomfort, it will most certainly help you to forget about it for a little while. That said, please enjoy responsibly!