|It's a long story|
29 October 2020
15 October 2020
This particular jack-in-the-box was a gift from a former student. And the kid who gave it to me was one-of-a-kind. As a seventh-grader he'd gotten himself into a remarkable amount of trouble, and by the time I got him as an eighth-grader his parents had tossed out all of his black clothes, his guy-liner, every piece of studded black leather, all of the things that he had worn or used to drive them crazy before the final time he'd gotten himself kicked out of school. When I met him, he dressed like a preppy, because his parents picked out his clothes and insisted he shut the door on the black leather and the emo music.
So when I mentioned that I had first seen Iron Maiden in concert as a high school senior in 1982, he decided I was alright. One thing I've learned in all of my years of teaching is that people can connect over the smallest of things. British metal band Iron Maiden was my point of connection with this young man.
His family moved out of state at the end of the year, and right before he left, he gave me the aforementioned jack-in-the-box. I was really touched by the gesture, and by how happy his family was with how much better this very intelligent young man was doing in school. So when his parents sent me a Facebook friend request before they left so we could stay in touch, I was happy to agree to it.
Three years later he killed himself. Over a girl.
I had another student once who robbed a guy in a parking lot drug deal after the guy (who was his dealer) showed him the big bag of money he had made from selling pot. So my former pulled a pistol, took the money, and jumped into a waiting car (driven by another former student of mine). The robbed dealer gave chase on foot. The robber used his gun and shot out the window as they drove off. He killed the the guy.
Both he and the driver are still in jail.
Just a few years ago I had a student who had been diagnosed with O.D.D ("Oppositional Defiant Disorder"). He spent his days at my school acting out, cussing out teachers, and doing no work. Once again I got lucky. I knew who Tupac Shakur was, and had seen him in concert when he was just starting out (how that came about is a long story in itself.). This kid loved Tupac.
So we got along.
But I wasn't very successful at convincing him to cut other people (students, staff, you know, everyone) any slack. So he was always in trouble. It was shame too, because he was a big, funny, goofy kid. A talented athlete, too. He played basketball on a really good AAU team. He just had no common sense and a get-out-of-consequences-free (for the moment) card.
He went off to high school and I wondered whether he was going to be able to stay out of jail.
He's been busted several times in the intervening years for a string of burglaries, and recently tried to rob a convenience store late one night. The clerk he tried to rob was armed and the two exchanged gunfire. Both were hit. And my former student ran off. He has since turned himself in to police.
These are real stories. This is literally "True Crime." I find it in no way entertaining. There's a human cost here that is painful to recall. And for me there's no escaping it.
And that's why I neither read nor write True Crime.
01 October 2020
This is Part Two of a three-part series. For Part One click here.
When I was a boy in elementary school I lived on a rural bus route far enough from school that if I missed the bus, it was either a long walk or a briefer, but not insignificant, bike ride to school.
Both my parents worked jobs that got them out of the house early, so if I did miss the bus, I was indeed on my own. My mother used to set the timer on the kitchen stove before she left for work every morning, and I knew that when that timer went off, it was time for me to go out to the stop in front of our house.
This was our system from the day I started 2nd grade until I moved on to junior high school several years later. In all those years I only missed the bus a couple of times.
His name was Greg, and we had been in the same class a few times, although that year we weren't. We occasionally played Foursquare or on the monkey bars at recess, and we were briefly in Cub Scouts together, but I wouldn't say we were exactly "friends." We just did things together, at school, and riding to school together.
Greg was a nice enough guy. Not really ebullient. Not flashy. He talked about how he already knew how to make French toast and how he made it himself for breakfast most days. As someone who had yet to move past mastering cold cereal, I was duly impressed by that. Greg was just "handy," or at least seemed so, in ways where I felt deficient.
Best of all, Greg wasn't mean. We didn't have a lot of "mean" kids at school. Don't get me wrong, every kid has it in them and we all channeled that regularly, and even with people we may have actually liked. But that was mostly kids trying things on, figuring out who they were and how they were going to get through their days. You know, "growing up." Most of the kids I grew up with weren't that kind of "mean," the sort of person who takes joy from actually making someone else miserable. Certainly not mean like Peter, the kid who stole my dad's stocking cap off of my head while my class was lined up waiting to get on the bus one afternoon in 5th grade. Boy, do I remember that guy.
I started riding to school with Greg because of Peter. On that day when Peter stole my dad's hat I missed the bus home because I stayed behind looking for it. None of the other kids admitted to seeing who had taken it, and I was afraid to leave school without trying to find it.
Bear in mind, this took place during the mid-1970s. Teachers were around, but it wasn't like it is now, when you can't walk three feet in an elementary school parking lot during morning drop-off or afternoon pick-up without having two or three staff members cross your line of sight. And it didn't even occur to me to ask a teacher for help.
So the bus left without me.
Within fifteen minutes I had given up the search, resigned to walking home and hoping my dad would forget about his stocking cap, and maybe never ask me about it. And all of a sudden, there was Greg, unlocking the combination lock on his bike chain, getting ready to ride up the long, steep hill that made up the first one-quarter of my coming walk home.
We started talking. Him asking me why I missed the bus, me telling him (I didn't yet know it was Peter who took my cap.). Me asking why he was leaving school so late, him telling me (getting help with math.).
Without either of us so much as suggesting it, we went up Stone Road to the top of that long hill together, Greg riding in slow circles around me as I walked. And then we also took the straight-as-a-preacher's-back, mile-and-a-bit stretch of Tieton Drive together until we reached my house.
As he was riding off, he said, "You should ride to school with me tomorrow."
So I did.
And I continued to for most days after that. And this went on for weeks.
And then one day, Greg didn't show up at my house, so I rode to school by myself. Greg wasn't at school either.
It wasn't something I questioned. I didn't find it odd. I didn't even give it too much thought. Like I said, Greg and I weren't really "friends." We rode to school together. And I liked him. He was a part of my day, but I didn't think of him as a "buddy."
Looking back, Greg was clearly something of a loner. During those rides we rarely talked, and never about his family. He never mentioned his parents. When he did talk about home, it was always about something he was doing, a project he was working on. But mostly we just rode together. Greg seemed pretty comfortable with long stretches of silence.
And that's what set us apart. I was a blabbermouth (there are some who would say that hasn't changed). I wasn't comfortable with silence. I didn't have "projects." In the afternoons before my parents got home (my mom bringing my two-year-old brother from daycare), I read Hardy Boys books and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, and played in the big empty barn on our acreage and fortified it as if I were the U.S. Cavalry fighting off the Sioux. I rode my horse. I changed sprinklers if it was the right season (and sometimes not even then.).
And I watched a lot of Star Trek. Okay, and Gilligan's Island. It was the '70s. We had three broadcast channels and PBS.
But Greg didn't show up the next day. Or the day after that. I thought it was odd, but wasn't really concerned. After all, I was ten.
And no one said a word about his absence at school. I knew something was up, but like I said, I was ten, and I didn't really know what to say or do about it. I just did what everyone else around me did: went about my day. I even rode the bus again a couple of times.
About a week went by before my mom told me that Greg had died. Now, this was in 1975 or so, and memory is an imperfect thing. I honestly don't recall how my mom found out about Greg's death, whether it was in the paper, or whether she heard about it from a neighbor, or even at work (she worked at a hospital), and I haven't asked her about it before sitting down to write this blog entry, so I can't really say how she knew, she just did.
I asked if she knew how Greg died. She said he'd hanged himself from the banister in his house. He'd used his own belt. I remember thinking at the time, "That's handy." It wouldn't have even occurred to me to use one. Being ten, I kept that part to myself.
I did ask my mother whether it was an accident, maybe he was just goofing around? Nope, she said. He'd climbed up there meaning to kill himself.
I remember wondering why he'd done it. I remember asking my parents why he might have done it. They both supposed there were problems in Greg's home, but no one seemed to know for sure.
Mostly I remember just being baffled.
In my quiet moments (yes, I had them. Not a lot of them, but I did have them.), especially when riding my bike to school, I would occasionally think about riding with Greg. I didn't possess the perspective or vocabulary to ask myself these questions then, but I have often in the forty-five years since: were we actually friends? Was Greg just sad, and kept it bottled up? I didn't really know the word "depression" then, and I certainly wouldn't have understood the concept to the extent to which I've come to comprehend it in the decades since.
But I did wonder. I still do.
And I'll never know. And neither will Greg's parents, or the rest of his family, or any of the other kids he went to school with, now well into their mid-50s. I wonder how many of them even remember him? Does Ralph? Does Jack? Does Sheri? Does Terri? Does Rhonda? Does Brett? Does Gina?
I moved to Spokane a couple of years later and lost track of the kids I went to elementary school with, so I have no idea.
I'd had encounters with death before this. A cousin died of leukemia when I was six. Various great aunts and uncles passed away in the years before I turned ten.
But these relatives were ill for a long time before passing away. Greg just died. One day he was there, and the next he was gone. Snuffed out. And no one talked about it.
I didn't talk about it at school, and none of the other kids mentioned Greg's passing. I have no idea why not. Of course that sort of thing would never happen nowadays. Now, the school district would put out a statement about the sad news of a student's passing, and mention that grief counselors were on-hand to help the deceased's classmates cope with his death, should they require the support.
And I don't think that's a bad thing.
We might currently be a society that loves to talk a problem to death, but there are times when being open with kids about what's going on, encouraging them to ask questions and helping them make sense of the senseless isn't some scene out of a Woody Allen movie: it's a kind and humane thing to do.
But there is a line. Had Greg been murdered instead of taking his own life, would he be better remembered? Would his passing be more interesting to the public? If unsolved, would his death be fodder for message boards and true crime podcasts? Would there be a latent profit motive to discussing his last moments? Would speculating about them allow someone who knew him—maybe "rode to school with him, except for that final, fateful day..."—to cash in with the sort of "hybrid true crime memoir" one of my writer friends mentioned in my previous entry in this series?
I don't know.
I just know that's a book I could never write.
And I damned sure wouldn't read it.
In two weeks: the final installment of my "Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime" series, complete with Russian Roulette, a parking lot drug deal gone horribly wrong, and the goofiest criminal I've ever met.
17 September 2020
|The guy who prosecuted Manson and then wrote one hell of a book about it.|
|The comfort food of a literary non-snob|
06 August 2020
— Nathan Ward, from "Elmore Leonard's Gritty Westerns," in Crime Reads
|The Great Elmore Leonard|
|Patrick Leigh Fermor (Right) in Crete, 1943|
And that's all for now. Tune in next time when I break out the work of a Flemish diplomat and show how his long letters home from his posting in the court of the Turkish sultan helped inform the writing of a couple of my published works.
09 July 2020
"The pure ermine of the Supreme Court is sullied by the appointment of that political hack."— The New York American, March 17th, 1836
|The bust in question.|
|Chief Justice Roger B. Taney|
|Jackson lost most of his cabinet over the "Petticoat Affair."|
11 June 2020
Art certainly doesn’t need to be pure. But public statues invite public admiration, and if we can no longer admire them, it’s right to wonder if they should remain.
— Bendor Grosvenor, PhD, art historian, and presenter, The Art Detectives, on BBC4
So monuments have been having their moment in the news this week. Well, to be honest, they've been having their decade.
And not in a good way.
More in this kind of way:
Yep, that's a pic of a statue of Iraqi "strongman" Saddam Hussein toppling, shortly after Hussein himself was toppled from power way back in 2003. But in reality it could have been any of hundreds of "great" men (and it's nearly always men, the likes of Evita Peron notwithstanding.) whose day of reckoning eventually came: Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Hitler. Mussolini. The list of the leaders of failed regimes, brought low by their own hubris and overreach.
And close on their heels: the monuments they erected, testaments of their enduring power. So many of the iconic moments surrounding the end of a regime involve the destruction of the talismanic physical testaments of that regime's power. It's a cycle as old as human history, and has been memorialized time and again by great artists, such as the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his immortal poem Ozymandias:
|Percy Bysshe Shelley|
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The point, of course, being, that all such sacrifices on the altar of human vanity are doomed to eventually come crashing down.
So let's talk about all of these Confederate monuments arrayed throughout (but not limited to) the American South. You know, the ones we've seen recently being pulled from their pediments by protesters, when they're not being removed by public workers at the order of local municipalities or state governments.
The ones that were mass-produced for profit not in the South, but in New England. Heads special ordered and matched to a previously cast body, either standing, or mounted on horseback. Losers of a brutal war which left over half-a-million Americans dead, memorialized over a thirty year period, beginning a generation after the end of that war. And all as part of a largely successful, long-running attempt to stave off many of the long-term impacts of that war: a movement romanticized as preserving the memory of a glorious "Lost Cause."
|...and Ron Reagan too!?!|
Think Gone With The Wind, or Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn playing future Confederate cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart, in the top-grossing 1940 western, Santa Fe Trail. Or go back further, to (Southerner) D.W. Griffith's ground-breaking 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, the first film shown in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson: Southern-born and raised, progressive in most things save race relations, single-handedly responsible for reversing the racial integration of the federal bureaucracy which had been carried out by his predecessors.
|Not like they were trying to hide anything.|
So, you know. Pretty much an early example of spin-doctoring, in service of white-washing (pun very much intended) the despicable practice of lynching.
This is the background against which the statues currently being pulled down or placed in storage across this country were financed, constructed, shipped, mounted, raised and dedicated. Art as propaganda, in service of a monstrous composite lie: the notion that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery (it was), that the South didn't really lose (it did), and that society did not need to change in order to reflect the status of newly-freed former slaves.
As a nation we are still wrestling with that last part. And the conversations being sparked by the current round of protests are long overdue. Either we as a people will address the wounds inflicted by the vile practice of slavery and the on-going systemic oppression which sprung up in its wake, or we may well find ourselves in the same position as the great and powerful Ozymandias.
|Feet of the Colossus of Ramesses II, Ramesseum, Luxor (Thebes) Egypt, the Ozymandias of Shelley's poem.|
31 October 2019
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
(First line from Charlotte’s Web)
"I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt; I fear; I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul."
I have always loved this opening (From Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest). Talk about scene as character...
"The night was clear and fine above us. The stars shone cold and bright, while a
California is the true protagonist of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels, as Archer would be the first to admit. In The Drowning Pool, Archer takes a dip in the ocean because the Pacific "was as close as I ever got to cleanliness and freedom, as far as I ever got from all the people ... There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure." Macdonald could anatomize the Golden State like few others. Also from The Drowning Pool, here's Archer pulling into a suddenly prosperous burg: "The oil wells from which the sulphur gas rose crowded the slopes on both sides of the town. I could see them from the highway as I drove in: the latticed triangles of the derricks where trees had grown, the oil-pumps nodding and clanking where cattle had grazed. Since 'thirty-nine or 'forty, when I had seen it last, the town had grown enormously, like a tumor. It had thrust out shoots in all directions: blocks of match-box houses in raw new housing developments and the real estate shacks to go with them, a half-mile gauntlet of one-story buildings along the highway: veterinarians, chiropractors, beauty shops, marketerias, restaurants, bars, liquor stores. There was a new four-story hotel, a white frame gospel tabernacle, a bowling alley wide enough to house a B-36. The main street had been transformed by glass brick, plastic, neon. A quiet town in a sunny valley had hit the jackpot hard, and didn't know what to do with itself at all."
Macdonald lovingly crafted an entire fictional California geography. Several of his books are set in Pacific Point, which "rose from sea level in a gentle slope, divided neatly into social tiers, like something a sociologist had built to prove a theory" (The Way Some People Die). In the penultimate Archer novel Sleeping Beauty, the town is under threat from a man-made ecological disaster. Archer is returning from a getaway to Mazatlan when he spies oil out of the airplane's window: "It lay on the blue water off Pacific Point in a free-form slick that seemed miles wide and many miles long. An offshore oil platform stood up out of its windward end like the metal handle of a dagger that had stabbed the world and made it spill black blood."
Instead of driving home he heads to Pacific Point to witness the destruction firsthand. "From the hill above the harbor, I could see the enormous slick spreading like premature night across the sea. At its nearest it was perhaps a thousand yards out, well beyond the dark brown kelp beds which formed a natural barrier offshore. Workboats were moving back and forth, spraying the edges of the spill with chemicals. They were the only boats I could see on the water. A white plastic boom was strung across the harbor entrance, and gulls that looked like white plastic whirled above it." Archer joins the handful of people at the shore's edge, their mood grim. "They looked as if they were waiting for the end of the world, or as if the end had come and they would never move again."
Things get worse from there.
And there you have it, something for everyone looking for input on the importance of setting in great storytelling. Thanks to all of my friends who chimed in. You guys are the best.
Thanks, and Happy Halloween!