Wednesday, December 17, 2014

FARE FORWARD - LETTERS FROM DAVID MARKSON by Laura Sims (a review - of sorts)

I won this book. Seriously. I joined Goodreads and won this book. I never win anything! (Okay, there was that one time I won lawn seats from Tower Records to see The Cure in concert. But Tower Records is a ghost now, and Robert and the boys played more of their manic-poppy stuff, not the cool-depressive stuff, so that doesn't really count, right?)

It wasn't a miracle that I won. It wasn't magic. I entered to win. At the time, my thought process was, "Hey, my friend from college just released ANOTHER book. My dreams of being a famous author are shot, so this should pour salt on the wound pretty well. But I can't really BUY the book. That would be some form of a psychological and masochistic suicide attempt. But if I WIN the book, then, hey, that's the universe telling me that I suck and that is a much more effective pain." I can't shut up in my own internal dialogue, help me.

Back in reality; however, my friend from college, Laura Sims, has had several books of amazing poetry published and I was interested to see what this new book entailed. And the record of a correspondence with David Markson was, to my mind, the sort of literary equivalent of trading jokes with Jonathan Winters over a coffee-fueled afternoon at Starbucks. Or sharing a karaoke stage with Leonard Cohen singing Tom Waits songs.

To clarify, I must admit I was not a huge reader of David Markson prior to this book. I always considered Markson to be a "writer's writer" or at least someone to read with an English degree tucked into your belt, prepared to be wielded at a moment's prompting. Being neither, I shied away from Markson's novels, not thinking I would not enjoy them, but that they may be too "difficult," a term Markson humorously uses to describe Sims' own poetry.

But I took a deep breath and opened the cover. Here is what I discovered. (You will notice that I did not do the obligatory quotation frenzy within this review. Most of what I write will be what I felt after reading the book. I like to say that I am more about the "groove" of a song than the lyrics, but we are talking about books, so aren't the words the important thing? Perhaps, but those words tell a much better story than I ever could, so go read the book yourself. Buy it though. Laura has a future to consider.)

Reading FARE FORWARD was a pretty fantastic experience. Honestly. I read the whole book in one sitting. That is not something that happened for me in almost 15 years. Through the pages, Markson comes across as an aging uncle at times, alternating between teasing Sims, trying to impress her (even though the correspondence began by Sims writing an "impassioned fan letter" to him), mentoring her, and more. This is not meant to minimize Markson, but it did humanize him, especially to a novice like myself who held him on such a pedestal.

I learned things about Markson I didn't know previously (mostly through my own forced ignorance of the man) like his method of using index cards for his novel creation, his humor, and also his pride in knowing his place in the history of the written word. Markson appears as someone very exacting in what his work means, how to read it, how it (and he) should be presented, and how his legacy is defined. Not in a negative manner, just as one who has accepted that he is who he is and he has created what he has. Not that he wouldn't hold a grudge, but he also seems to acknowledge the folly of such a course of action.

Concerned at first at only having half of the correspondence presented (Sims only shares Markson's letters, not copies of her own missives to him), Sims does a very good job of keeping the narrative going. Her notes on the text, smartly presented along with the corresponding parts of Markson's letters, provide a feel for how the conversation ebbed and flowed. This technique made the book feel less like a collection of postcards and more like a story was being told.

And that story...

This isn't Markson's story. We hear about his efforts at writing a novel. And we hear about his physical ailments. And we hear about his days and his evenings. We get to know him, however briefly, but we don't hear his story. Yes, he talks about his own doings and his own adventures, but we have to remember the context of these letters.

Markson is writing to a younger fan who is beginning and building her own literary career and life. We read Markson responses to Sims' engagement, to Sims' first book of poetry being published, to Sims' jobs and travels, and to Sims herself. We feel Sims' sweet sarcasm and gentle teasing of Markson in his returned barbs. We come away from the book feeling like we "know" Sims a bit more than Markson, even though we may "understand" Markson better at the end.

This is not a criticism. In a way, Sims has presented the first chapter of her memoirs through the eyes of David Markson. (How fantastic is that?!?!) One has to wonder with whom she will partner to lay out the ensuing chapters. In many ways, I find it to be a very innovative form, one which would no doubt be appreciated by David Markson himself. And given his obvious affection for Ms. Sims, I am sure he would be proud.

In short, do not choose this book if you are looking for a biography of David Markson. It makes no claims to be such a tome. but it is a fascinating sketch. It is a photographic essay through the words of snail mail - brief moments in time, frozen and shared to allow his story told around it and be grounded. As such, it accomplishes a grand task - it brings Markson down from the "too-revered-to-read" bookshelf and into my hands to read and enjoy. And for that, this book is indispensable.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Harrowing Times

Quite often, when there is a serious and important issue of note, I will look to the words of people much wiser than me to share thoughts and opinions with which I agree and/or think are important for discussion. But the situation in Ferguson has so many facets that I wanted to speak my mind on them. I have no doubt that some of my friends and family will disagree with some of my thoughts, and I may even lose a friend or two, but my hope is that if we are friends it is because we have a healthy respect for each other and are not closed to various views. For some reason I feel a need to do this. In random order ---

1. Does racism exist in our current society? Of course it does. Anyone who says society is post-racial is dangerously foolish. Are things better than 100 years ago? or 200 years ago? Obviously. But that doesn't mean it has been eradicated. Sometimes racism is just blatant and ugly (e.g. KKK resurgences). That is easy to see. Other times it is couched in nicer language and manipulated to appear "rational" to some (e.g. Some opposition arguments against our current president). This is often harder to see, especially to someone involved in the same group as the speaker. And sometimes you don't even realize it is there until it is pointed out by those to whom it is directed (e.g. The case of the Washington professional football team's name). Those times often cause confusion and disorientation (and occasionally defensive postures) by those who honestly never realized the ramifications of certain words before. 
I am a white male. I grew up in a middle-class household. I do not claim to know how a minority or oppressed individual feels about certain words or actions taken against them. I try to be sensitive to it. Personally, I try to never engage in it. In addition, I try to speak up in opposition of those I believe are incorrect and hurtful, in addition to minimizing the importance of those who speak with such hatred. I will never understand completely how racism cuts to the core of individuals, but I want to try to make this world better. Is that naive? Perhaps, but I choose to think that at least it is the right thing. 
Now, was racism a part of this shooting in Ferguson. Probably. In part. I don't think Officer Wilson went out of his way to shoot a black teenager dead. But I do believe he was more inclined to believe he was in danger because Michael Brown was a young black man. 
I have heard lots of people say that police officers feel this way because of the crime and violence they see on the street in their work. This may be true, but I think that argument is walking into a movie an hour after it starts. I believe the culture of the police force focuses on certain groups, which in turn pushes those groups into the margins. In those margins of society, crime becomes a more likely option, albeit a less accepted choice to other groups in society. 
In short, it isn't exactly a chicken-egg situation, but it does tend to lean more toward a nature-nurture debate.
(Item 1 wasn't supposed to take that much time, I apologize.)

2.  Is it the police versus the people? In short, no. I know several police officers, former police officers, etc. Friends, family, in-laws, etc. I respect the work they do. Are there some bad apples? Of course there are. Do those bad apples abuse their power? Of course. Is it an overwhelming epidemic which is inherent in the profession? I don't think so. I think most police officers are good and honest men and women who truly feel a desire to serve the fellow citizens. However, when something goes wrong, citizens do not feel like they have a place to turn. And here is where a large part of the confrontation comes. 
From a very young age, we are taught to see police officers and other public officials as helpers. People who look out for us. People who try to do right by us. People who protect us and keep the bad away. But then we are also faced with the physical reality that these helpers are imposing. They strike fear, even into those who are innocent. They are armed with lethal weaponry. And let's face it, as youngsters, while being taught that the police are good, we are threatened with "going to jail" or "being arrested" if we break the rules, even though we are young and still trying to figure out what those rules are and why they exist.
If our community does not come in contact with the police often in difficult situations, then we are cool with cops. But if our community sees police officers as a daily part of life, and our friends, families, and neighbors show fear or even contempt for these officers, then cops become the antagonists to our lives, not the friendly helpers we are taught to see.
That dynamic between the police and the people is challenging and quite often becomes its own driving force. Did the distrust between then public and the police contribute to this shooting? Did the police perception of certain groups of society, through intended marginalization or not, lead Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown to have an angry confrontation rather than a peaceful discussion? I do not doubt either of those things. And both are so ingrained that there is no quick and easy solution.
(Item 2 wasn't supposed to take that much time either. Again, I apologize.)

3. Did the grand jury make the right decision in not moving forward with charges against Darren Wilson? In my opinion, no. I am not a legal expert, but my understanding is that a grand jury looks to see whether a trial should be held based on the evidence it is presented in a given case. To me, an armed man shot and killed an unarmed man. That's all the evidence I need to see to say it should go to trial. Any other argument or criticism of witness accounts, etc. can happen there. Reading and listening to reports on the grand jury action, it seems they were trying the case rather than just looking to see if it should be given further examination through the court system. In my mind, this could have been an opportunity to A) bring open and transparent communication into the process, B) provide those in support of Michael Brown a fair and non-biased method to bring to light the issues with which they are concerned, and C) allow the Ferguson police and Officer Wilson the opportunity to completely clear their names. By not going forward with a trial, even with the testimony and evidence turned over to the public, all three of those things become more and more difficult to obtain in time.

4. Are protests regarding these events a good thing or a bad thing? In my mind, peaceful protests regarding this situation in Ferguson is a very, very good thing. It sparks interest. It sparks people to reflect on all sides of the matter. And, the most important thing, is that it sparks conversation. And conversation about those things which we disagree with in society is what helps a society move forward.

5. Is the rioting surrounding these events a good thing or a bad thing? Rioting is rarely ever a good thing. And in this case, all the rioting appears to be doing is shift the conversation away from the important topics at hand. Instead of bringing people together for communication and understanding, it seems to force people with differing opinions to entrench themselves even further. This is a sad thing. 

6. Why did a black teenager who was suspected of stealing some cigars shot six times until dead? Probably lots of things played a part. Racial tension in Ferguson? Fear? An argument that got out of control? Probably all of the above. But in my mind, the biggest reason Michael Brown is dead is our society's obsession with guns. I'll be completely honest and say straight out that, yes, I am one of those liberals who want to take your guns away. I have all the respect in the world if you want to own an antique flint-lock rifle and defend your land from invading lines of foreign armies. But that isn't what I am talking about here. I will also state that I am not going to start quoting stats or gun death rates or amounts of gun accidents, or anything like that. I've read those stats and arguments and they are compelling to me. But they are not compelling to everyone. I am not trying to change anyone's mind here; I am just trying to share my view. And ask a number of questions.
The argument goes something like this - Cops carry guns to protect law-abiding citizens from bad guys who have guns. (As an aside, if every law-abiding citizen can carry a gun, why do we need someone to protect us, as we can protect ourselves? Isn't that how the Cold War Arms Race argument goes? Anyone else see a flaw in that?) So we accept that cops should carry guns so that they can shoot those bad guys who may shoot me. Lethal defense from a designated officer to defend the defenseless from being killed. Okay. But what if the individual killed by the police officer did not have a weapon which could injure or kill a law-abiding citizen? Even if Mr. Brown had absconded with cigars, he would have had to force someone to smoke them for years to become a fatal health threat. 
Now, I have never gone through police training. But aren't police officers trained to minimize the risk in a situation? Aren't they trained in several different methods of bringing down an assailant? Aren't they able to wrestle to the ground, strike, use a club, use a tazer, etc.? Aren't there any number of non-lethal forms of control and restraint that a police officer is trained to use? So why was this police officer's first instinct to go for his weapon? Even if he was attacked by Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown did not brandish a weapon towards Officer Wilson. So why would Officer Wilson pull his weapon. And once he pulled his weapon, why did he fire 12 shots over the course of the confrontation, hitting Mr. Brown six times? Why was the display of a lethal firearm not sufficient enough for a police officer to bring his assailant to a less agitated level?
My biggest issue with all this, is one that is related to so many tragedies in our society. In general, if two people get mad at each other to the point of a fight, they will punch, or kick, or wrestle, or whatever they can do hand-to-hand. If it gets more heated, perhaps someone will pick up an object to use as a weapon. Even if the weapon is a sharp knife or heavy candlestick, it still needs to be used by the person. Force has to be exerted. In order for one of the fight's participants to be killed, lethal force needs to be used. 
It's hard to kill someone. You have to use a lot of energy. And the other person is going to fight back. It is hard to break through human bone. It is difficult to get just the right angle on a punch or thrust to cause fatal injury. Not impossible, but hard. Very hard. It should be. It is taking a life. It should be the most difficult thing in the world. It takes time. It is personal. It is intimate. It screws with your mind and your emotions. It is a part of you forever. 
Now pull a trigger. 
Done. Even if you were the strongest person in the world, it probably would take you at least the amount of time it took to read the last few paragraphs to kill someone with your bare hands. But even if you were weakest person in the world, it probably would take you less than the time to read the last paragraph's four words to kill someone. 
You are detached from the action with a gun. You pull a piece of metal with one finger. Slightly. Probably not too much harder than you just clicked your mouse button. And because of that miniscule action, someone is dead. You don't feel like you killed someone, you just twitched. And it happened at a distance. Not only are you more mentally removed from the person's death, but you are physically removed from it as well. 
And I could go into pages and pages of examples about accidental deaths regarding guns. One of my biggest fears is having my children around guns of any kind. I am not very concerned with a too-often-occurrence of a mass shooting at a school than I am of one of my kids being shot accidentally. I'm not even as worried about a gun going off accidentally and harming one of them. (chances are my kids won't be too close to Plaxibo Burress' legs any time soon, but really, that accidental shot could have hurt someone else who was completely innocent.) It isn't even because I think the owner of the gun would be careless with it (although a lot of people are) and they would be hurt. It is because children are curious. By nature, they are curious. And clumsy. And when it takes such little physical energy to fire a projectile of such lethal measures, the slightest stumble or twitch or shove or whatever could end up in a gunshot wound and/or death. How many stories have you seen of children being shot by a gun in their own house? How many stories have you seen of a child looking at a parent's gun, or a grandparent's gun, or another close relative's gun, out of pure curiosity, and having it discharge and kill that child? How many stories have you seen of a child using a readily available handgun and playing good guys and bad guys with their sibling, only to have one of them wind up dead. Children don't understand death well, if at all, and the further the consequence of the action is physically removed from them, the less they understand the finality of it.
A gun is a very odd invention to me. It is an item which is built to inflict the most damage possible to its target. In short, it is built to kill. I have heard even the strongest gun advocates say that you should never aim a gun at someone unless you plan to kill that person. Because that is a gun's use. To kill.
So to pull this back around, why did Darren Wilson pull his gun on Michael Brown if his intent was not to kill Michael Brown? And even if Officer Wilson thought Mr. Brown was trying to take his gun to use it against himself (I honestly don't know if that occurred or not), once he had control of his weapon and Mr. Brown did not, why did the shooting occur? (see items 1-5 above) And what if Officer Wilson did not have his gun on him in the first place? What if he had a cigar in his holster instead? And why isn't anyone trained or taught to consider these things BEFORE a tragedy occurs?

If you've read this entire piece, thank you. I did not know it would be so long. But to sum up, why did Michael Brown die in Ferguson at the hands of the police? It seems like there were a lot of issues, a lot of really deep and hard issues to face down and ones that will take lots of time, understanding, and conversation to correct. Whether you support the police, the Brown family, the citizens of Ferguson, the left, the right, the majority, the minority, anyone, or no one at all, none of these issues will fade by simply closing the book and looking the other way. It is not business as usual any more. It probably should never have gotten to be business as usual. But if we are going to make a conscious effort to advance our society, we need to make a conscious effort to actually do it. Everyone.

I'll end by using the same method I started off saying I normally do - borrowing other people's wisdom. Thank you again for listening.

from the Diety himself - "I've said it before and I'll say it again: next time I'm making everybody purple." @TheTweetOfGod

"Be excellent to each other." - Bill S. Preston, Esquire
"Party on, dudes!" - Ted "Theodore" Logan

Friday, February 28, 2014

My Take on the Best Picture Nominations for the Year 2013

(To begin, imagine a huge musical number with lots of glitter and glam, with lyrics referencing the biggest movies of the year. Imagine singers and dancers and choreography and camera cutaways to audience members. Imagine the orchestral swell and the stage giving itself over to the heart of the musical beast. Imagine the glorious gowns and perfectly tailored tuxedos. Imagine all of this and then imagine the giant golden idol that everyone here salivates over - Oscar. Have you imagined all that? Good. Now, go put your head in the oven, because there will be none of that here.)

Oscar time! Nine movies have been nominated for Best Picture this year, and as a last-minute attempt to help the Academy voters, I have put together small synopses/reviews of each film. The kicker is that I have seen exactly zero of the following films, so please forgive any inaccuracies.