11.28.2015

call me lucky: a hilarious, heartbreaking, and inspiring movie

Barry Crimmins might be the most famous person you've never heard of.

In "Call Me Lucky," a documentary tribute to Crimmins created by Bobcat Goldthwait, an A-list of comics talk about the influence Crimmins had on them and their community: Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Margaret Cho, Marc Maron, Steven Wright, among others. Crimmins toured with Billy Bragg. He won a peace award, handed to him by Howard Zinn; the other recipient sharing the stage: Maya Angelou.

In his younger and wilder days, Crimmins was hugely influential in the rising stand-up comedy scene, although the word influential doesn't quite describe it. In Boston, he was comedy's midwife, and his club was its incubator.

Allan and I met Barry through a baseball discussion list in the 90s, quickly bonding over our politics and, for me, a shared identity as survivors of sexual abuse or assault. We stayed at Barry's place on the Cleveland stop of our 1999 rust-belt baseball tour, and went to a few games together in New York. We lost touch until re-connecting on Facebook. Barry is the master of the political one-liner, and his feed keeps me laughing about the things that anger me the most.

Call Me Lucky is a tribute to Crimmins, and a revelation of his personal journey, a glimpse at where his anger comes from, and how he has used his righteous anger to help others. For many people, Crimmins may seem like a paradox, raging at injustice - raging at almost anything! - but simultaneously overflowing with empathy and compassion. But Barry and I are kindred spirits, so I know there's nothing paradoxical about it. Barry is angry in a way I wish more people - especially more Americans - were.

At one point in Call Me Lucky, Crimmins says:
I feel like there's entire nations that feel like I do. There's entire nations. And you know what? That's why I don't give a shit about American dreams. That's who I am. That's the country I am. I'm of the country of the raped little kids. I'm of the country of the heartbroken. And the screwed over. And the desperate with no chance to be heard. That's what country I'm from.
This made me weep with recognition. A similar idea had been at the heart of my personal development, a key understanding of my self and my values. I realized that I had no patriotism, and I didn't want any. I realized "my people" were not others who happened to be born on the same land mass as I happened to be born on, or people whose mothers had been born into the same religion as my mother. My people were the people fighting for justice. In the fields, in the mines, in the malls, in the factories, in the streets, in the prisons. People working with others to advance the cause of justice, if only the tiniest bit. That is my country. I'm lucky to have found Barry Crimmins living there, too.

There's a lot of humour in this film. And there's a lot of pain, too. Don't be afraid of the pain. As Crimmins says, to paraphrase, if people can survive this, surely you can hear about it. You can witness.

It's a great film. Don't miss it. Call Me Lucky: website, Facebooktrailer, Netflix.

what i'm reading: ghettoside: a true story of murder in america

When we think of gun violence in the United States, chances are we think of mass shootings. These horrific events which occur with such regularity seem, to much of the world, mostly preventable. The public nature of the shootings, and the often tragically young age of the victims, capture headlines and a good portion of the 24-hour news cycle.

Yet murders occur every day in the US, and no one hears about them, except the grief-stricken loved ones and those who fear they may be next. Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America is about those murders - both one specific tragedy and what Leovy calls "the plague" itself.

Part sociology and part detective story, Ghettoside is a triumph of reporting, of analysis, and of compassion. This book is disturbing and extremely compelling, and it may change forever how you view both violence and the criminal justice system's response to it.

Leovy is a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and the plague she investigates is the murder of mostly African-American men mostly by African American men. It is this "black on black" violence that the media ignores, that the public never hears about, and of which thousands of people live in fear. It's a subject that's difficult to talk about, ignored for reasons both admirable (not wanting to be racist) and abhorrent (actual racism). The racism that often underlies any discussion of this epidemic draws two conclusions: one, that black people are inherently violent and cannot be controlled, and two, that the victims are not important. Leovy demonstrates how this pattern has been repeated throughout American history. While both conclusions are obviously wrong, few alternate theories exist, so the subject is largely ignored.

The murder of African American men is justly called an epidemic. African Americans make up just 6% of the US population, but are nearly 40% of all homicide victims. Homicide is the number one cause of death of African-­American males ages 15 to 34. And that statistic doesn't count the victims left paralyzed, or with traumatic brain injury, the cases known in this world as "almocides".

In a time when attention is finally being focused on police violence against African Americans, Leovy makes a bold assertion: African Americans suffer from too little criminal-justice resources. And what resources are devoted to their homicides are the wrong kind, with the wrong focus.
This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.

African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation's long-standing plague of black homicides. . . . The failure of the law to stand up for black people when they are hurt or killed by others has been masked by a whole universe of ruthless, relatively cheap and easy 'preventive' strategies. . . . This is not an easy argument to make in these times. Many critics today complain that the criminal justice system is heavy-handed and unfair to minorities. . . . So to assert that black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception. But the perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin. Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.
Leovy guides the reader on a journey through a culture sure to be foreign to most readers, by following the solving and prosecuting of one murder, a murder that struck the heart of the L.A. police community: a homicide detective's son.

Along the way we witness the unending and almost unbearable grief of families who have lost loved ones to the plague. Their pain is compounded by the near-total absence of media attention, the reflexive victim-blaming that labels these deaths "gang-related violence", and the useless platitudes that surround this epidemic.
People often assert that the solution to homicide is for the so-called community to "step up". It is a pernicious distortion. People like [a key witness] cannot be expected to stand up to killers. They need safety, not stronger moral conviction. They need some powerful outside force to sweep in and take their tormentors away. That's what the criminal justice system is for.
In Ghettoside, the potential of this "powerful outside force" is personified by a few homicide detectives for whom the words dedicated and hard working are grossly inadequate. They are obsessive and heroic. The book's central hero is a detective named John Skaggs.
Skaggs bucked an age-old injustice. Forty years after the civil rights movement, impunity for the murder of black men remained America's great, though mostly invisible, race problem. The institutions of criminal justice, so remorseless in other ways in an era of get-tough sentencing and "preventive" policing, remained feeble when it came to answering for the lives of black murder victims. [Detective Skaggs'] whole working life was devoted to one end: making black lives expensive. Expensive, and worth answering for, with all the force and persistence the state could muster. Skaggs had treated the murder of [one young black man] like the hottest celebrity crime in town.
Seeing these men at work, it becomes obvious that if their vigor and determination were replicated at all levels of the criminal justice system, the plague would wither and die. Yet so few resources are devoted to this endeavour that the detectives are forced to buy their own office equipment.

One persistent and eye-opening theme of Ghettoside is how many homicides cannot be solved because of widespread witness intimidation. Witnesses fear for their own lives, and very rightly so, but fear more for the lives of their parents and children. Retaliation killings are commonplace. Again, the lack of resources devoted to African American homicides, as the legal/judicial system utterly fails the courageous witnesses who do testify. So unsolved murders give rise to more unsolved murders, and on it goes.

Another poignant theme are the scores of young men who desperately want out of the gangs, but who - literally - cannot get out alive. Many of them never wanted to join gangs in the first place, but were forced to choose an identity for survival. This way, Leovy shows us that every murder victim is an innocent victim - every single one. As a detective, standing over the body of a murdered sex worker, says: "She ain't a whore no more. She's some daddy's baby."

11.22.2015

things i heard at the library: digital divide edition (#20)

In library school we talked a lot about the digital divide, the ever-increasing gap between those who have access to information and communication technology, and those who do not. Public libraries are one of the very few institutions that exist to bridge that gap, however imperfectly.

What does the digital divide look like on the ground? In my library, located in one of the lowest-income communities in Ontario (and in Canada), we see the digital divide in action every single day.

This week a family worked on a visa application for the United States. They had to come to the library first thing in the morning, so we could special-book them a computer, as the process would take much longer than a standard computer reservation. With intermittent staff help, they worked on their application for three hours. There was no way to download and save the application, and no paper version. When they tried to save and submit the application, either the computer or the site malfunctioned (we don't know which) and they lost all their work.

Two days ago I helped a couple, two refugee claimants, access their application for legal residency in Canada. Prior to arriving in Canada, they had no computer experience at all. Their application is only available online. I was able to offer one-on-one help for 30 minutes - very unusual, and the only reason they were able to accomplish what they needed.

Yesterday a girl asked for my help saving her homework and emailing it to herself. She waited patiently for help, while the time on her computer reservation ticked down. She did not have a USB stick. As I helped her save her work, her computer time ended. Our public computers wipe out all customer information with each login. Her homework was lost.

Lost homework is a daily occurrence. Almost all homework is accessed and completed online. Teachers are supposed to "confirm that students have access to the technology required for the homework assignment". Having a library card is considered adequate access.

Much frustration and heartbreak could be avoided if families invested in a few USB storage sticks and gave each child her own. But parents have no idea this is needed. We can't speak to the parents about this because they're not in the library. They are either at work or home with younger children. Their older children ask to use our reference-desk phone to call home when they need a ride.

Another daily occurrence: children who cannot find an available computer on which to do their homework. Our library has 22 public-use computers. We could double or triple that number and they would all be in use every hour of every day.

has the whole world gone crazy? again? terrorism against muslim people as a "response" to paris attacks

Some facts.

1. The likelihood that you will be killed in a terrorist attack is extremely small. You are much more likely to be hit by lightning, killed in a car crash, have a heart attack, or meet your death hundreds of other ways.

2. Most documented terrorist attacks are perpetrated by people who are not Muslim. And this doesn't count anti-abortion violence or women being killed by abusive partners, which are forms of terrorism.

3. In 2013 and 2014, more than 316,000 people in the United States were killed by guns. 313 Americans died in terrorist attacks.

4. After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, violence against Muslim people in the US and Canada have skyrocketed. Mosques have been burned and vandalized, women picking up their children at school have been attacked, people have been shoved, spit on, forced off planes.

5. In the UK and Europe, it is even worse.

* * * *

Yesterday, in my library, a woman called to alert us to a "security threat". She said she saw a woman wearing a hijab and carrying a backpack. Her two daughters were in judo class in the community centre, and she was "concerned for their safety".

Our senior librarian informed the caller that we don't call the police based on what people are wearing, and in a community centre and library, many people carry backpacks for their books, their swim gear, their lunch, and so on.

The librarian who took the call was seething, and I was close to tears all afternoon. This in Mississauga, one of the most diverse communities in the world, and in 2015. How can this be happening?

I've seen the small kindnesses and demonstrations of support that follow some of these incidents. They're important reminders. But hate is so loud, so destructive, so contagious and so addictive.'

How can we stop this madness?

Sometimes it seems very clear that human beings are incapable of learning from their past.

11.11.2015

remembrance day: 11 anti-war books

Remembrance Day readers' advisory: eleven books to help us contemplate the reality of war, and thus oppose it.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

2. War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Christopher Hedges

3. Catch-22, Joseph Heller

4. The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang

5. Regeneration, Pat Barker

6. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

7. Comfort Woman, Nora Okja Keller

8. Why Men Fight, Bertrand Russell

9. Hiroshima, John Hersey

10. The Deserter's Tale, Joshua Key and Lawrence Hill

11. Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic

11.08.2015

my inner teenager decorates my office

Every time I have moved - many, many moves, more than I care to think about, over many decades - I have carefully removed from bulletin boards and walls dozens of buttons, cartoons, photos, quotes, and postcard images that seemed to define my life. I have saved almost all of these in shoe boxes, file folders, and manila envelopes, those then layered in plastic tubs that now live in our apartment storage. They don't take up a lot of space, and as old as they are, when I have occasion to look through them, I never feel that I can part with any.

When I think about it, it seems strange that I haven't outgrown this habit. It seems adolescent. But there it is, my inner adolescent. I print out a quote, or peel off a bumper sticker, and it goes on the wall or bulletin board or desk. I do much less of this than I used to; I used to cover huge spaces with this kind of stuff, and now it's only a few pieces here and there. But the habit remains.

Here are a few cartoons that I recently packed away. "Peanuts" from childhood, others from when I was freelancing, and one from grad school. Click to read more clearly.










And two that are still up.




Also on the walls: quotes from Orwell and Amelia Earhart, a postcard image of Rosa Parks being fingerprinted during arrest, a reproduction of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of Easter 1916, a postcard of Picasso's Guernica, and pictures of Joni Mitchell, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and Robbie Robertson.

On top of the desk hutch: David Ortiz bobblehead, small bust of Charles Dickens, Leela (from Futurama) action figure, 1996 Atlanta Paralympics mug, baseball from a Yankees-Orioles batting practice (tossed to me by Dion James), empty can of Kilkenny ale, several tiny Wishbones dressed for various roles, Lou Gehrig statuette, Charles Dickens finger puppet, and many photos of our dogs who live in my heart.

11.05.2015

what i'm reading: thoughts on "go set a watchman"

I wasn't planning on writing about Go Set a Watchman, the surprise second - or possibly first - novel by Harper Lee. I am among the legions of readers who were shocked, thrilled, and confused at the sudden appearance of this book, and I didn't think I'd have anything noteworthy to add to the conversation. And indeed I may not. But reading the book, I was so surprised, and so saddened, that I was moved to weigh in.

Most media attention to Watchman focused on the mystery and doubt surrounding its origins and publication, and the revelation that Atticus Finch is, in this book, a racist. When I read it, only one thing struck me.

It's awful.

Taking a more generous view, perhaps Watchman is an early draft. No author should ever be judged by an early draft. And first drafts should never be exposed without the writer's express wishes and consent. If first drafts were exposed and circulated, most writers would never put pen to paper or fingers to keyboards. It would be too embarrassing.

Worse, it would impede the trial and error, the free flow of ideas, the re-writing and re-writing and re-writing, that is at the heart of the writing process. Most writers struggle to suppress their inner editor when getting out a first draft. Knowing that no one will read that draft is what allows them to write it.

If Go Set a Watchman is an early draft, then it's a perfectly serviceable early draft. As a draft, it's a literary study, a curiosity, like Ralph Ellison's posthumously published work. And if it's a draft, it shouldn't have been published and distributed and marketed and reviewed as a finished novel.

But if it's a finished novel, it's awful.

So why do I say Watchman is awful? One, the writing is terrible. And two, the plot is not credible.

One reason To Kill a Mockingbird has endured, one huge reason for its popularity, is its accessibility. It allows readers to ponder important themes through language that is simple, clear, and direct. By contrast, the writing in Watchman is convoluted, contrived, and sloppy. There are crazy run-on sentences, changes of tense and voice, and dozens of nonsense paragraphs that an editor or writing teacher might call "throat clearing": something the writer needed to get her train of thought going, that is later deleted.

I ask you, what is this?
With the same suddenness that a barbarous boy yanks the larva of an ant lion from its hole to leave it struggling in the sun, Jean Louise was snatched from her quiet realm and left alone to protect her sensitive epidermis as best she could, on a humid Sunday afternoon at precisely 2:28 p.m.
On a recent episode in my M*A*S*H re-watch, Radar enrols in a writing "correspondence course" - the 1950s equivalent of a University of Phoenix degree - and uses his new-found writing "skills" to dress up the daily reports, with amusing results. A good portion of Watchman is not far from such a joke.

Occasionally, the lovely, simple writing I associate with Harper Lee pokes through. Then it's back to the thicket. This supports the idea that the book may have been an early draft.

The plot itself is a complete mess. We're asked to believe that Atticus Finch has been going off to meetings of a White Citizens Council for decades and his daughter, who lives and breathes in his shadow, never knew. She had no idea about her father's political views at all, even though we're told that the private Atticus and public Atticus were one and the same. Jean Louise's dear friend-and-maybe-lover Henry holds the same views as Atticus, but Jean Louise wasn't aware of that, either... even though everyone in Maycomb seems to talk about the Supreme Court and the NAACP as if they live next door.

There are mini lectures about the South, about white southerners' relationship with slavery, about the early incarnations of the Klan. They stand out awkwardly as if on billboards, bearing no organic relationship to their surroundings. The rambling flashbacks are contrived and disjointed. If this hadn't been an Important Book, I would never have finished it.

Harper Lee's reputation and place in American literature - and everything To Kill a Mockingbird means to us - have been irrevocably changed by the appearance of this strange mess of a book. That, to me, is very sad.

Scott Timberg, writing in Salon sums it up for me, in a column titled "The Atticus Finch of your childhood isn’t ruined: Read Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” for the early draft that it is".
Nearly every novelist has a shelved novel in his or her close[t] or desk drawer: Trying out ideas that don’t work out is how writers learn. And novels go through enormous revisions over time, especially with an assertive editor. “Watchm[a]n” may tell us less about the transformation of the white South or Atticus Finch himself, and more about the financial pressures that lead what could have been framed as a work of scholarship into a vehicle for explosive front-page news.