Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday, April 23, 2012

John D'Agata and Jim Fingal: The Lifespan of a Fact

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In 2010, The Believer magazine published a short piece by John D'Agata called "What Happens There," the story of Levi Presley, a real teenager who really killed himself by jumping off of the Stratosphere, a real hotel in Las Vegas. The piece (essay) had already been rejected once after failing to pass through the fact-checking process of the very magazine that had commissioned it. Believer picked it up, as you can see from the link, and published it, but not after finding out why the essay had already failed research 101. Maybe, D'Agata won writing 101, though, because "The Lifespan of a Fact" is the resulting book: Jim Fingal and D'Agata's back and forth about the facts (mostly fictions) are compiled around the essay- literally, the essay takes up the center of the page surrounded by the email exchanges- in a new, wonderful book. From the very first paragraph, Jim Fingal runs into problems. D'Agata's first paragraph (not, the same, you'll note as on The Believer's website) reads:
On the same day in Las Vegas when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, lap dancing was temporarily banned by the city in thirty-four licensed strip clubs in Vegas, archaeologists unearthed parts of the world's oldest bottle of Tabasco-brand sauce from underneath a bar called Buckets of Blood, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a thirty-five-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe.
Lap dancing wasn't banned, it was considered being banned. There weren't 34 strip clubs, the Tabasco discovery came on a different day, 450 miles away, near Buckets of Blood, but not underneath it. The tic-tac-toe game happened a month after the suicide and the woman wasn't really from Mississippi. The book continues apace. A couple things come up here: D'Agata is writing an essay based on some one's life, and not just on their life but on their tragic death. The moral of the essay (though I confess that I found the essay lacking substance) is supposed to be about the tragedy of suicide. The style of the essay is to really make the reader feel he is there, through a stream of facts that take you exactly to the hot day in Vegas. The problem? The facts are fiction, or half-facts, or sorta-facts based on interviews that may have happened, or not, or press releases that contain almost the same information, or not, or coroner's reports that are adapted for the sake of "streamlining" or "rhythm."

 I suggest you listen to this short piece of the guys back and forth to get a sense of the book- the tone is not really friendly, as each feels the other is missing the point entirely.

 D'Agata, for his part, thinks that the "essay" is a different project entirely than journalism, and Fingal thinks that D'Agata is abusing his post as an authoritative truth-teller. Sure, I would never know that the tic-tac-toe game occurred after Levi's death if I hadn't read the annotated version, but Fingal believes that D'Agata is manipulating the truth. Not far into it, he makes a "Note to self: John is not a journalist. Also not a nonfiction writer. He is, however, a writer of journalistic-ish texts that are not necessarily fiction. Got it." The tension is palpable. Each paragraph is as "fact"-filled as the one I've included, and both John and Jim are exceptionally frustrated with being a) perceived as nit-picked or b) perceived as lied to. As their relationship progresses, Jim gets more nitpicky, and John gets more into his argument. "I am not a journalist," he tells Jim. "I'm an essayist. OK? And this is a genre that has existed for a few thousand years. (Ever heard of Cicero?) So these 'rules' that I'm working under are not mine, but rather were established by writers who recognized a difference between the hard research of journalism and the kind inquiry of mind that characterizes the essay."

The back and forth of the book comes to a surprising end. I feel unresolved, and a little shaken up, as a reader of nonfiction- both in books and magazines. One has to wonder exactly how much each author considers oneself an "essayist" as opposed to a "journalist." And one has to wonder how many publishers consider themselves purveyors of "fact" as opposed to fact. If I had to chose, I'd probably fall on the side of Jim, especially when one reads an article like this, by Mac McClelland, who we already know themacinator has a mini-crush on. It seems that there is something slightly skeevy about using a fact, and using it incorrectly. Like taking some one's life in vain, and taking advantage of the reader. There's nothing wrong with fiction. On the other hand, there's the pesky essay.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Year of the Bugs: King Fish

You might be having de ja vu.  You might be right.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Joseph Wambaugh: The Onion Field

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In 1963 two career crappy criminals kidnapped two good cops, killing one and leaving the other a ruined man. The case led decades of judicial shenanigans, and surely cost the state of California millions of dollars. Although I had never heard of "The Onion Field" until I read "Popular Crime" the story seems well known, and almost everyone I mention this book to has read it. Joseph Wambaugh wrote the book in 1973, using transcripts of the many many trials, interviews, and an unpublished autobiography of one of the suspects/perpetrators/killers (who recently died in prison). The other suspect/perpetrator/killer (both confessed and have been found guilty multiple times) is still alive in prison, 50 years later.

There's a lot going on here, besides that the book is extremely readable and depressing, even, I imagine, if you were already familiar with the story. (Have I ever mentioned that themacinator sat through the entire "Apollo 13" movie without knowing that it was a true story and that it was common knowledge that the astronauts survived? themacinator still cannot watch anything having to do with space...) One of the things that struck me was the way that the Los Angeles police department dealt with the surviving officer after the event. The officer was back to work within days of being kidnapped, emotionally tortured, watching his partner get murdered, and then chased around the eponymous onion field by a sociopath. He was not given psychological counseling. Rather, a policy was immediately issued that in essence said he was responsible for his partner's death: under no circumstances was an officer to give up his gun. The surviving officer was made to tell his story in line-up after line-up where officer could question him, basically a trial by his peers, and then his commanders released the damning order: against all evidence to the contrary, LAPD officers were to fight to the death, rather than assess the situation and give up their weapons as the two young officers had done.

As the book was published in 1973, I'm not sure if this is still the case in Los Angeles, but I believe that there are two things that have carried over: denying the psychological impact of police work and stressing the macho way out at all costs. I've discussed this before in the context of compassion fatigue in animal welfare, and when I worked in animal control, I worked at the intersection of animal welfare and law enforcement, but I would never claim to know anything about doing police work as such. What I do know is that I'm not familiar with any agency that "takes care of" its officers psychologically in an appropriate way, from animal control officers to SWAT teams. You can see this in Oakland, but I want to make clear that I am *not* condoning any of these incidents. Colorlines has done some amazing reporting about police involved shootings in Oakland, including their relationship to the Lovelle Mixon shooting of four officers. One of the things that strikes me about this kind of violence on the part of the police is the lack of institutional modernity when it comes to police officers. Maybe we can excuse LAPD in 1963 for allowing an officer to go back to work after the incident in the onion field and then coming up with a cowboy policy to blame him, but in the mid- to late- 2000s in the Colorlines article, I don't see any kind of excuse. When a police officer is involved in serious incidents, whether it's being involved in a situation that requires him to pull his gun and shoot someone or arriving on the scene of a mass murder like at Oikos, the department owes the individual officer and the community where he works a modern approach.

"The Onion Field" is a great read, and moving, I imagine for anyone, even who has never worn a uniform or met a police officer. The story is told with interludes from a "gardener" who turns out to be the shattered surviving officer, as well as from the point of view of each of the two criminals and each of the two cops as well a sort of birds-eye view of the events. It's easy to dismiss each of the crappy criminals as "ne'er-do-wells," but it's much harder, at least for me, to see the cops outside of the system that I've talked about above. The case turns into years and years of judicial morass that also takes down at least two lawyers caught in the madness of the criminals. The police officer, a witness, is completely without support, and too ensconced in the ideology of police officer as "tough guy" to ask for it or accept it when offered by his friends. I watch as the Occupy Oakland movement demonizes the police force, and can't help but see both sides of this: sure, the police have done some really awful things (again, I am not condoning the kinds of actions that I've seen them do), but I am also disturbed by the black and white approach of Occupy. Individual police officers have to do things that few other people would sign up for, day after day, with little institutional support. There is no excuse for bad behavior, but there is also no excuse for "The Department" to leave their officers out to dry, as in the case of "The Onion Field" and what we continue to see today.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Year of the Bugs: Do Not Use if Safety Seal is Broken

I missed a week. And I'm late posting this one. I blame it on the garden.

Do Not Use if Safety Seal is Broken

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Garden Spring

They're calling this Occupy Spring. I think it's sort of ridiculous, and kind of an insult to Arab Spring, which really was revolutionary. I suppose the verdict is still out. And I suppose the verdict is still out on my spring, which, after all, is only about 10 games in. But a couple of weeks ago I decided that the end of my Winter of Hell was going to end on April 1, and it seems to have really done so, for the most part (there are still some odds and ends to wrap up). I think January 1st is arbitrary, so this year, New Years is April first. The A's have won more games than I thought they would win all month- granted, it's only about four, and the Phillies have lost more than I thought they would all month- granted, it's also only about four, but the most exciting thing that has happened is my garden.  I am supposed to keep a journal of the things that happen here, and since I've almost lost the ability to do this, I've decided to put it here, for now. Plus, I can sit out here, in one of my four garden chairs, on one of my two decks, looking at my almost assembled swing, with my laptop, drinking beer, and be reminded of what I'm talking about. So here we go: the first annoying garden blog on themacinator. I hate these blogs, I really do. Crappy pictures, annoying "I put these seeds here," "I dug that dirt there," posts. So skip it, really.

the sun came out
The thing to know about this yard is that a) it's giant, and b) it's extremely established. I guess there's a third thing: it's really really fertile. It seems like everything grows here, which gives me hope that I won't kill everything. My yard is bigger than my old house, I'm pretty sure. On March 30th, the Landlord and Master Gardener (I think he really is a master gardener) gave me a whirlwind lesson about the garden.  We set up a "doggy jail" that would be Mac's potty area, so that he wouldn't pee Jailand poop on everything, because he actually could kill everything, and quite quickly. There was a lot to learn, and in approximately 2 weeks, I think I've forgotten approximately 7/8 of it, even with notes like this. photo.JPG I ended up checking out an amazing book from the library (unfortunately out of print), "Sunset Western Garden Problem Solver," from the library that has amazing full color pictures of weeds. I've still managed to pull out half of my mache that has gone to seed and a whole bunch of things that I thought were grass but were some other kind of plant to be named later.

During my tour, the landlord taught me basic things that I have never done, and identified some plants for me. He taught me how to deadhead various plants, how much and where to water my lemon and orange tree, that I would need to replant the raised beds or that they wouldn't just grow again (right?), to add new soil to them since they were depleted, to add addendums to certain other soils since they were depleted, etc. He told me that some of the plants in the yard- the tomatillo and other plants that I can't remember- were volunteers. He told me I was welcome to kill the Camellia bush but that I probably wouldn't be able to. He directed me to someone who would sell me good, healthy plants. And I was off to the races.

I have spent time in the garden every day since then. Well, except for the many many days since then that it has been raining. Which has been good for my yard, and especially good for the weeds, and the plants that I've been pulling thinking that they are weeds. Rest in peace, plants that are not weeds but are now in the green waste (I've learned that you can't compost weeds or you replant them when you put down the compost.) When I moved in, I started eating everything that was growing. Most of the plants I thought were chard were actually beets. Beet greens are really good. Since I didn't know that they were beets, the beets had gone starchy by the times that my landlord came and told me what they were. So I'm continuing to let the beets grow until they go to seed so that they will replant and give us more beets and beet greens. Who eats beets, really? We have bumper crops of escarole Escarole that we can't eat or get rid of fast enough. They are literally all over the yard. We also had celery growing that I didn't know about in one of our raised beds, and I let it go to seed and pulled it yesterday. photo.JPGLast week I cleaned raised beds one and six which were full of chard and beets and who knows what else (I should have written it down) and filled them with new dirt, and then planted two kinds of determinate tomatoes- the kind that don't grow forever and ever and take over your yard. My next door neighbor, who also seems to be some kind of professional, gave us red plastic sheeting and these fancy water bottles with conical devices on the bottom that drip the water down to the roots. The sheeting keeps the tomatoes warm and the bottles have gravel in them to make the water drip slowly. My proudest moment so far was seeing that my tomatoes now have tiny little flowers on them! This means that not only have I not killed them, but they might actually be growing!

photo.JPGMy other proud moment so far was when I finally finished hand weeding the majority of a large, oddly shaped plot in the yard. A normal person would have dug or hoed the whole thing, but I am not a normal person.  There were some tiny little flowers- johnny-jump-ups- that I wanted to save. So I painstakingly pulled up all of the weeds (and some of the non-weeds) and dying miner's lettuce, and worked around the tiny tiny johnny-jump-ups, then added addendums and painstakingly hoed it in without killing the johnny jumpup's. Oh yes, I did.  photo.JPG Yesterday I planted two rows of carrots at C's request, and today decided to plant some marigolds because you can't eat everything, you know.  You can, however, eat beans, and yesterday C spent hours carefully taking down a very strange wooden structure that the landlord had built on a beautiful 6x4 plot near the rear of the yard. Then she built tee-pees out of bamboo and we planted a couple kinds of beans. I almost cried today because one of the leaves of one of them was eaten by something. (This was actually the reason for the marigolds- C thought they were supposed to be smelly enough to keep bugs away, but the guy at the nursery told me this is a myth- there's only one kind that smelly, and they don't carry them, or they don't grow now or something, and I love marigolds so much that I was already gonna buy them.) I was disappointed with the beans when we pulled them out of the carton yesterday- their roots seemed both too spindly on some and too pot-bound on others (told you this was gonna be one of these posts), but as my neighbor says, this is all a science experiment.

photo.JPGMy back-fence neighbor introduced herself yesterday while we were out- she also is gardening. It's her third year back there and she's planting vegetables only in a little victory-garden style. She gave us chives and offered mint and lemons and we gave her oranges (which we have a billion of) and beet greens and tarragon (also in surplus). The poppies are still going crazy, as are the purple things that I think are aluminium. The wisteria seems to be about half way done- we have it front and back- and the little mini roses on the tree are crazy pretty. Our rose bushes are just starting to come in, and the bird of paradise is doing it's thing. The camellias are nuts, and I don't think I can keep up with the trash they spill, let alone try to kill them. Soon I have to trim the trumpet vine, as it is taking over also. And now to weed between the bricks- my daily task. Oh, and finish this beer.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Gordon Goldstein: Lessons in Disaster

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In the early 90s, up until his death in 1996 McGeorge Bundy, often called one of the "architects" of the Vietnam War and Gordon Goldstein were engaged in writing a memoir of Bundy's times in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as well as the lessons he learned. When Bundy died in 1996, Goldstein carried on with the project, though it morphed into something different. What it morphed into, without ever mentioning George Bush or Iraq, is a series of six lessons Bundy learned and reads as a play by play of mistakes made by Bush/Cheney. I could go through Bundy's role in the war in detail, but bottom line is that he was an adviser who had a lot of power in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations when the Vietnam war really became the mess that it became. The reason I kept reading the rather dull book is because it really was a book that proves the cliche "history repeats itself" or whatever it is that teachers tell you in grammar school about why you have to study history to avoid past mistakes. Cheney/Bush (as I heard Seymour Hersh describe them today) didn't believe in this adage, or maybe failed grammar school, and should have read "Lessons in Disaster," because now Goldstein needs to write "Lessons in Disaster, Volume II."

To start with, Bundy got his Very Important Job in the Kennedy administration because of who he was. The introduction, titled "Legend of the Establishment" basically draws a picture of McGeorge Bundy that could be the introduction to a book about Bush with the difference that Bundy was actually quite intelligent. Bundy was a man from a powerful, influential family with an impeccable pedigree. The catch was that he had zero education or experience in foreign policy or Vietnam or military, or really anything that qualified him for the position he was given by President-Elect Kennedy: "special assistant for the president or national security affairs." Nor, once ensconced in the administration, did he seem particularly interested in learning. When tasked with making very important decisions about the direction of the Vietnam war, he was often told that none of his ideas were going to work, for example by high-level military experts who did experimental war games, he went ahead anyway. Like George Bush and his war based on fake yellow cakes, Bundy had a history of academic achievement but an extreme lack of intellectual curiosity or open-mindedness. Clearly, there are comparisons to draw here: impeccable, incurious men in important positions have huge parts in vast, unwinnable wars. The differences are there, though: Bundy appears to have been a man of integrity and brains, and not many will accuse Bush of these things. Further, Bush made the decisions, and Goldstein emphasizes that Bundy belived that "Counselors Advise but Presidents Decide." One of Bundy's most important themes (passed to us through Goldstein) is that the Americanization of the (Vietnam) war could only have happened under the Johnson presidency. Bundy could stress his point to any president, but ultimately, it was Kennedy or Johnson (or Bush) who would make the decisions. Under Kennedy, Bundy advocated the same thing that he advocated under Johnson: Americanization of the war. The steps were only taken under Johnson. In this schema, Bundy was only as much of an architect as far as his superiors used his plans. Bush, on the other hand, could take or leave the plans that were handed to him. Until Goldstein writes the book, it's not clear whether he was a president in the Kennedy (hear the advice and go your own way) or a Johnson (take the piss poor advice) kind of guy. What is clear is that Goldstein and Bundy got the lessons right.

We've already covered "Counselors Advise but Presidents Decide." Number 2, "Never Trust the Bureaucracy to Get it Right," stems from Bundy and co.'s bungled attempt at regime change in Vietnam that ended up making things much worse for the American cause. Clearly, this is a lesson that America has not and may not ever heed. Goldstein/Bundy's third lesson is "Politics is the Enemy of Strategy." Johnson, the men believe, made decisions in the year before he was elected and post-election about ignoring and Americanizing the war that Kennedy would not have made with the knowledge that he was elected and carried a strong mandate. If this isn't a truism that belongs on every president's wall, I'm not sure what does belong there. Clearly not "in God we trust," which seems to be what's painted in the White House now. Lesson four, "Conviction without Rigor is a Strategy for Disaster," while written about Vietnam hardly needs explaining as it relates to Iraq (#2) or Afghanistan. With no will to fight the war, no consistent agreement on how it would be fight, and the resources not appropriately allocated, the war had no "oomph" behind it. Disastrous. One of the most interesting parts of "Lessons in Disaster" comes with lesson 5: "Never Deploy Military Means in Pursuit of Indeterminate Ends." Although I've often suspected this, perhaps cynically, the people behind Vietnam had no real goal in Vietnam. They didn't have one, they didn't have a means to get there, and most of them, including Bundy, didn't really see this as a problem. I now feel less cynical in saying that I don't believe Bush/Cheney have a real goal in Iraq. "Regime change," maybe, area stabilization, maybe, oil, probably, but after reading this book, I'm willing to bet that it's not articulated anywhere or with a clear strategy of how to get there. Finally, just to drive the point home that Bush coulda/woulda/shoulda looked back to history, the final Lesson is "Intervention is a Presidential Choice, Not an Inevitability." There was no Vietnam War until Bundy, cohorts, and most especially Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson ensured that it happened. There was no Iraq war until Cheney/Bush. Intervention is a presidential choice. History repeats itself, unnecessarily.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Joan Burbick: Gun Show Nation

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I have been trying to figure out how to write a review about this book as the tragedy of Trayvon Martin's death is all over the news, and often all over my mind. Then, today, a man shot and killed at least 7 men at an Oakland college in what hasn't yet been called a massacre, but what feels like it. Trayvon's killing was in Florida, where the gun laws are extremely week, and his killer has not been arrested, in part due to a ridiculous law known as a "stand your ground" law, which allows people to shoot without retreating when they feel their lives are in danger, and allows police to play judge and jury and let the suspects go when they say their lives were in danger. Trayvon was an unarmed kid, and the incident plays out very much as an incident of "walking while black." The incident today was in California, which has strict gun laws, and of course it's too soon to tell, but was probably a case of a man with serious mental issues. The issues have nothing in common, of course, except that innocent people are dead, and they are dead because of guns, while I've been reading this book and trying to write this review.

Which means that I'm not really going to write a review, especially since the book is a wonderful, in depth look at the connection between the construction of white masculinity in the US as it relates to guns, and it's going to take me awhile to get into that argument as it relates to these two cases.  It certainly does, but it's very complicated. Joan Burbick's "Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy" is wonderful, and should convince people on the fence about guns that we need to change the conversation, and that the arguments we hear about the second amendment are historically based, but not just in the 1700s- they came from a very specific moment in time and were driven by the needs of a very select group of white men and gun manufacturers.  This isn't about protecting freedom. This is about the freedom of to live: literally.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Year of the Bugs: You're It!

Good hiding spot, though!

Year of the Bugs: You're it!