Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why I Hate The USA: One Nation, Behind Bars

Every time I hear the US referred to as the Land of the Free, I don't know whether to laugh or to go on a cross-country killing spree. The US has more of its population in prison than any other country on the planet. That means we are not the land of the free. It would (literally, actually, no fooling, you idiot) make more sense to refer to ourselves as the land of the incarcerated.

Having more than one out of a hundred US citizens behind bars would be bad enough, but the nature and quality of US prisons makes the situation much worse than it seems on the surface.

Our system is predicated on false premises. The idea is that the threat of punishment discourages wrongdoing.

Haw! Haw! Haw!

This is based on a fairly clear misreading of human nature, especially the kind of impulsive, judgment-poor human nature that's typical of people who do the kind of shit that gets them locked up. And really, let's be honest -- it has its roots in a desire to punish.

The desire to punish is based in malice. It is sadistic -- it allows people to take pleasure in the suffering of others if they can convince themselves that the suffering in question is justified.

Justified cruelty is still cruelty. I say this as someone with a broad streak of vicious bastard in my character. I take great pleasure in the suffering of those I see as deserving of it. This is a vice. It only differs from garden-variety sadism in that it offers the oh-so-delicious spice of self-righteous indignation. (Well, that and I don't get hard behind it, thank goodness.)

This is a flaw. I don't like recognizing it in myself, and I try and keep it curbed. In the US this trait openly celebrated, incorporated into our social and political systems. It devours vast quantities of public wealth and destroys lives and communities.

And it does no good.

While there are people who react to prison by straightening themselves out, that ain't typical. Prison destroys people, then turns them out on the street with a stigma that makes them virtually unemployable. We are being made to pay money to have people broken to the point where they have difficulty existing outside the controlled environment of a prison. Ever hear the term 'institutional man?'

And I refer to men here, because the vast majority of prisoners in the US are men. And this is why in the US, men are statistically more likely to be raped than women.

I reached a conclusion a while ago that left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. I went to bounce it off a friend of mine. She's a former Marine, and a former cop, among other things. She's had enough contact with the prison system for me to feel as though she'd be able to set me straight on the subject.

So I asked her, "Is it an exaggeration to call most prisons in the US rape camps?"

She didn't have to think about it. She wasn't surprised by the notion -- didn't even blink.

"No, that's what they are."

It really, really bugs me when people gloat over the idea of someone going to prison and getting raped. And this isn't a right wing/left wing thing. I've known plenty of pinkoes who have relished the idea of certain individuals being forcibly sexually violated.

That's right, folks. The USA keeps better than one percent of its population in rape camps, and we think it's funny.

Fuck you, USA.

Of course, the rape camps are, as they always are, stocked on a basis of ethnicity. The number of black men in prison is an act of apartheid. And when you conjugate that with the notion of cheap prison labor, it doesn't seem a million miles away from being a covert return to slavery.

And never forget -- we pay for this. The prison system sucks a hell of a lot of money out of the public commonwealth and delivers nothing in return but broken humans. If I'm gonna pay for something like this, I'd at least like to see productive citizens at the end of the process.

Most significantly, the main reason people are in prison is because of the illegality of many popular mind-altering drugs. Our rum-guzzling, pot-growing founding fathers would be massively shocked by this one. John Stuart Mills would shit pills.

America has produced a drug culture of remarkable influence and potency. Look back on the old days of patent medicines -- our forefathers and -mothers were all messed up on hardcore drugs. You used to be able to buy cocaine and heroin at the fucking drugstore.

Republicans make a big noise about Democratic social engineering, but it's hard to see a more egregious example of social engineering than incarcerating more of our population than any Marxist government because you want to control what kind of a buzz people get.

To legislate what people can and cannot put into their own bodies is a fundamental violation of liberty. Period.

Most people in prison are there because of drug offenses. Why are we spending money to keep them from living productive lives, to render them incapable of leading productive lives?

Because a lot of folks love, love, love to see bad guys punished. And that leads them to believe against all evidence that punishment discourages behavior.

So it's easy enough to bitch about the situation. Here are a few thoughts on how a better system could be put into place.

First off, totally decriminalize all drug use. Let anyone use any drug they want.

There are people who take this stance who say that there wouldn't be any significant fallout from doing this. They are full of shit. May I suggest a brief perusal of Hogarth's Beer Alley and Gin Lane? If you lived in a lower-class neighborhood during the heyday of crack, Gin Lane should look pretty fucking familiar to you. This is what happens when unfamiliar hard drugs hit a community for the first time. And make no mistake, hard liquor is a hard drug.

But I feel very strongly that the social cost of living in a rape-camp culture is far more damaging to the USA, socially, economically, and morally. And over time, the culture learns to absorb the effects of the availability of hard drugs -- look at the role gin currently plays in British culture.

If you drink alcohol, coffee, or smoke tobacco -- hell, if you eat fast food and drink soda (take a look at the research on their effects on brain chemistry -- it ain't hyperbole), you are a serious drug user. Get over it and stop pointing fingers at people just because their dangerous mind-altering chemicals aren't your preference.

Next, get rid of incarceration as a punishment. Only incarcerate those who have demonstrated an inability to function in society without harming others, and make their incarceration dignified and humane -- one that reflects the highest values of our culture rather than the most abject.

Instead, make the fuckers work for a living, and make them pay for what they've done in dollars. After they've paid off their victims and the court costs, then leave 'em alone. Make it so that employers know that someone who's been through the mill of the legal system is someone who's probably a good employee. Education and halfway houses. This would be cheaper than prisons, and by returning people to society as contributors and taxpayers rather than fundsuckers, we earn interest. Every citizen should be regarded as an investment. (That's socialism, right there. And that's a subject for another essay.)

And somewhere out there I can hear the bleating. "But that means that people would commit crimes so they could get jobs!" Make similar educational programs available to everyone. Again, invest in a healthy culture. "But why should we treat criminals --" Stop right there and ask yourself the question, "Why am I so eager to punish people?"

When I asked myself that question, the answer was simple. "Because I'm kind of an asshole." Breaking a law doesn't make someone an asshole. Hurting others out of foolishness and unbridled self-interest makes someone an asshole.

And when I think of our prison system, I can't help but think that we're a nation of assholes. Land of the free, my ass.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Missus Is Going Away

Another detail from the missus's garden. Click on the image -- it's kinda sweet at full size.

Well, the missus's mother, printmaker and teacher Ruth Leaf, is in the hospital. At first we were scared, then things seemed okay, but now we're worried again. Not to go into the details but it seems she's got a blood infection. So the missus is going down to Venice to take care of her for a while. She'll be gone at least twelve days.

I'm pleased and proud that she's doing the right thing, but I ain't looking forward to it. And since my new school schedule is throwing off band night, I'll be a little extra isolated.

Since Karen's gonna have a lot on her mind anyway, I'll avoid resorting to liquid companionship while she's away. (For those unfamiliar with my peccadillos, this is Oaf Latin for, "I won't get disgustingly shit-faced drunk.") Allison is splitting for a month to go to another writer's retreat; I think I might hang out a bit with her old man. Social drinking will still be allowed.

On the other hand, I'll be back in school. And I like school. Had my first photography class yesterday. It's taught by my Illustrator instructor from last year, so I know it's gonna be good. Turns out that photography is her real interest.

I found out that I'll have to get Adobe CS4, and it looks as if it'll be cheaper for me to buy the student version than to get an upgrade. I'll need an SLR camera and a macro lens to do the kind of work I want to do. I'll need to get Lightroom. I'll find out what I'm gonna need for my 3D class this afternoon. It looks like somewhere in the neighborhood of 2k for expenses this semester, which right now seems like a nightmare. A delicious, wonderful nightmare in which the purchase of toys has been mandated.

On the other hand, I think I'm starting to develop some marketable skills. Every investment is a gamble...

And while I'll miss Karen badly while she's away, having some time for really focused creative work is going to be good at this juncture. I'll be able to devote the weekend to Anomalocaris, then devote the week to the novel. With any luck I should be able to finish the first round of line edits by the end of the week; then it'll just be a matter of keeping up with the critiques as they come in.

At that point, my focus will shift to polishing the synopsis for the entire work, all three volumes. I have a fairly-well structured outline for volume three and I know all the main dramatic arcs for volume two. I suspect that the writing on them will go fairly quickly -- it's not knowing where I'm going that slows me down.

It'll work out. I'm just worried about Ruth.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It's Magic Realism

I don't even know why I hang out with these guys.

One issue that I've been concerned with as regards my novel has to do with marketing. Or taxonomy. I've written about genre before, on its origins, its relationship with literature, and some of the things I like about it. But last week, when an agent asked the question, "What genre is your novel-in-progress?" on his blog, I had no good answer. Here's what I wrote in a comment on his post.

I think my novel holds together as one solid entity but when I analyze it in terms of genre?

Total schizophrenia.

My main interest is in character and prose style, so maybe it's literary.

But it's based on my life experiences, so there's a strong element of confessional memoir to it.

It does feature adventures in which an alternate fantasy world is saved, so it's obviously quest fantasy.

But the fantastic elements are rationalized in a speculative fashion, so it might be science fiction.

It deals intimately with the nitty-gritty details of life at the bottom of the blue-collar ladder, so it's social realism.

Much of the material is disturbing on levels ranging from the spiritual to the physical, so it's horror.

It's intended to be funny and there's rarely a lot of space between jokes, so it's humor.

One of the central themes is redemption through love, so it's romance.

The plotting and a storyline involving a drug deal are clearly noir.

I was once asked to describe the damned thing in five words. What I came up with was, "Autobiographical horror with sick laughs."

And that's the thing -- since I started the novel by wandering blindly through the wilderness, I wound up chucking in elements from sources ranging from mythology to pop culture. I put in everything I love in a book. Hell, in my comment I didn't even mention that the influence of cyberpunk -- "How fast are you? How dense?", cute fat chicks, ultraviolence, speculative evolution, coming of age, mental illness, garage bands, drug culture, art, moral issues, and surrealism are all important parts of the book.

When his follow-up post pointed out that if you couldn't say what genre you wrote in, other people were going to decide where it was shelved in the bookstore. I had an answer to that -- it gets shelved with Jonathan Carroll, Christopher Moore, and Neil Gaiman.

But what he said made me nervous because I didn't have a name for what I'm doing. You need a label when you enter the marketplace -- and I am bringing this work to the marketplace. Without a label it's hard to sell a book, hard to place a book, and it's much easier for a book to disappear into the cracks.

Well, last night in my writer's group, Deborah said something to the effect of, "My favorite kind of book is magic realism, and this is perfect magic realism."


Of course, this is kind of an abject realization for me. Because I've spent a certain amount of time bad-mouthing magic realism. Basically, my position has always been, "Magic realism is just a pretentious word for fantasy. Don't fucking try and tell me that Fritz Leiber and Avram Davidson deserve to be stuck in the genre ghetto while the fucking Magic Realists get accepted as valid literature."

But recently I've taken to referring to myself as pretentious. Because I am trying as hard as I can to write something of literary value. My focus is on character first, prose style second, and vision third. By vision, I mean the creation of images in the head of the reader. The fantastic elements are there because I love a monster -- but artistically, I'm drawing from mythology, psychology, and surrealism to create my world rather than just, well. Writing up my D&D campaign or doing another fucking vampire novel. Most of the art I've done in the past two years has had the intention of inspiring the novel.

Like I said, I've become a pretentious son-of-a-bitch. And like I said, Magic Realism is pretentious fantasy.

So that's what I'm writing. I'm a Magic Realist.

I feel so dirty. Can I call it Gonzo Magic Realism? Please?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sidewalk Daisy

You can expect more posts like this now that school's started. Here's a treated photo that I took out at the Albany Bulb. Below is a sample of today's chunk of the novel. Copyright 2009, Sean Craven. As if I should have to say so...

“Hey,” I said, “does the album have a name yet?”

“It’s called Sidewalk Daisy,” Lulu said.

“No it isn’t,” Willy said. “The lead guitarist for an album called Sidewalk Daisy is a twelve-year old girl named Kimberly with a little heart over the i.”

“You get to pick names when you start writing songs,” Lulu said. “So until then you are allowed to shut the fuck up and that is the law.”

To go from hearing Lulu and Willy singing along to an electric guitar to the insane lushness of Sidewalk Daisy was amazing.

Willy’s bluesy guitar could have been recorded any time in the last forty years, but underneath it Lulu’s electronics were like nothing I’ve ever heard — lush, sweet, so complex you couldn’t take them all in. As I listened hard and tried to figure them out, the hairs on my arms rose and my skin prickled. I went back to being lost in the fog, the sound I had followed. I heard the same sound in her music.

The vocals were where Lulu’s background came through. There are places back East where they sing British folk songs in more archaic forms than they do anywhere in England and it’s my guess that Lulu came from one of those places.

At the same time the rhythms and guitar melodies were African, brought over as work chants by the slaves. That was Willy’s contribution. He and Lulu had taken the blues and country ballads and fused them together all over again. It was the birth of rock coming out of a little black laptop.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

My Luncheon With Megan

Another sample of the missus's handiwork.
It's even crazier in real life.

These days my favorite song to play is the old Dylan number, When I Paint My Masterpiece. The Hon. Richard Talleywhacker and I do it G-C-D, and I'm enough of an amateur to take real pleasure in improvising to that chord progression.

So the song has been running through my mind quite frequently lately. Which has had me thinking about the whole idea of masterpieces. The word 'masterpiece' usually refers to an exceptionally well-done work. But that ain't what the word means.

A masterpiece is a work executed by a journeyman that is of sufficient quality to demonstrate to your teacher that you have mastered your craft. When you paint your masterpiece, you've graduated. You're no longer a journeyman. You're a master.

I bring this up because yesterday I had lunch with Megan McDonald. More than any other one person, Megan is responsible for the fact that I'm a writer. While I've written about this elsewhere, I don't think I've blogged on the subject.

I've always figured I'd be a writer eventually, but art wound up capturing my attention in my early twenties. It presented a more gratifying level of challenge -- it was hard as hell but I could see myself improving. Writing? I always figured that was easy. That on some level I was entitled to be a writer regardless of whether or not I actually wrote. And the people around me had the same feeling.

Imagine my shock when I found myself writing professionally, only to discover that writing was a bitch and a half and I wasn't any good at it.

I'll spare you the details -- I started in on them and they threatened to hijack the post. But just before the turn of the century, I sold an idea for a web cartoon to a company called Mondo Media. That was where I met Megan.

At this point I had written one solid short story and had a stack of manuscripts at home but nothing really finished. Nothing disciplined. So when I was confronted with the need to actually write scripts? At first, I choked. Big time. Megan was the one who held my hand during the development process, teaching me about scriptwriting and story structure and so on.

She and I hit it off well. One day she was complaining about some of her co-workers, so the next time I came in to the office, I brought her an ice-pick with a chunk of cork on the tip. This wasn't casual; I loved that ice-pick. It reminded me of Red Harvest. But sometimes you just know when somebody needs something. She's also the one who I referred to in my Chili con Carnage recipe.

Anyway, my show foundered, and the quality of the scripts was the reason why. I was just getting a handle on them when I was shut down. But Megan turned around and gave me a regular assignment writing Thugs On Film. She also brought me into a few other shows. If Mondo hadn't shut down production in the wake of the dotcom crash, I'd probably still be working there. Basically, I got paid to learn the rudiments of writing.

Megan is a pro. She's worked as a story editor and script reader for years. She's got a few scripts under her belt, and has gotten some notice with them. Honestly, she's been someone I look up to. She's one of my teachers, you know? A particularly important one. In addition to the support and aid she gave me personally, I wouldn't have joined a writer's group if I hadn't read the interview with her at the above link. And if I hadn't joined a writer's group? I wouldn't be a writer now.

Since then, we've seen each other periodically. We talk about getting together a lot, but you know how that goes. And we've given each other critiques from time to time.

So Megan wanted me to look at a movie proposal she's working on, and after I gave her some of my thoughts she asked if I had anything for her to read. So I sent her the first four chapters of the novel.

If I had wished for a particular reaction, it would have been the one she actually had. The word 'saleable' was prefaced with about six 'so's. She felt that it wasn't just fiction, it was literature. When she finished the first four chapters, she was actually angry with me for not sending her more. And when I told her how complimented I was that a working pro would turn to an amateur for advice, she said, "You're not an amateur. You're a professional who hasn't been paid yet."

I need to tattoo that on the inside of my forearm for ready reference in case I experience a failure in nerve at any time.

It was a great lunch. Beer and burgers at Triple Rock, our typical conversation -- we now have matching troubles at either end of our spinal columns so we had good commiseration, war stories, and advice for one another. Messing with her movie idea was a blast -- I ain't telling you nothing, but this is a movie that should be made. And the fact that I was able to make a contribution really felt good.

Hell, Megan even paid. And since I didn't know she was gonna do that, I drank as much as I wanted to, instead of being polite and only having one. What a pal!

When I walked home, I found myself in an oddly elated mood. It wasn't just the fine, fine brown ale. And it wasn't just the praise. When I pinned it down, it kind of took me by surprise.

I felt as though I'd graduated, in an odd sort of way. I'd presented my teacher with my masterpiece and it was accepted. I'm not a journeyman any more. The student has become the master.

Someday everything gonna be smooth like a rhapsody when I paint my masterpiece