Monday, May 31, 2004
In Remembrance

While you're enjoying your three-day weekend, bear in mind these two numbers:

74 78 - the number of American troops who have died in Iraq in May 2004, the third highest monthly total since the war began.
635 - the number of troops who have died since last Memorial Day.

Each and every one of those deaths was unnecessary.

(source)
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Saturday, May 29, 2004
Another Disturbing Thing

I was driving on Poplar today -- east again -- on the way back from a meeting at the Co-op. On the way, I passed a car dealership*, upon whose plastic marquee was written:

WE TORTURE AND HUMILIATE HIGH PRICES

I feel dirty.

*For locals, it's the one on the left-hand side (facing east), just past Parkway... y'know, the scummy used car lot. Yeah, that one. If anyone can get a picture of the sign for me, I'd appreciate it.
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Thursday, May 27, 2004
I Know This Exists, But It's Always Disturbing To Be Reminded

I was driving east on Park today, trying to dodge the repaving work on Poplar along with everyone else. I noticed that the SUV in front of me had a sticker on the bumper: "I Ride With Forrest".

"No," I thought, "it can't be what I think it is. It's gotta be Forrest Gump, Forest Whitacker, some cultural reference I'm not familiar with... anything but the Forrest I'm thinking of."

I managed to squirm my way into the next lane, and pulled up alongside the SUV on the driver's side. I got a look at the driver -- a very typical, suburban, soccer-mom-looking blonde woman. She looked absolutely nothing like a cross-burning, hood-wearing Klansman; I'd never have suspected it in a hundred thousand years.

But it seems it was true.
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On Michael Moore

I've been putting off blogging on the saga surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11 for a good couple of weeks now. Michael Moore is a difficult subject for me; as a liberal documentarian, he's a doubly evocative figure in my mind, and my feelings about the man and his work are often very mixed. Half of my response is simple; the other half is complex and frought with qualifiers that make it difficult to form any concrete opinion. And yet, Moore seems to require exactly such a concrete opinion, and so, rather than babble endlessly, likely making little sense to those not as familiar with the issues, I tend to simply remain silent.

But this is, after all, meant to be a blog about a) liberal politics, and b) movies (especially documentaries), so I feel like I'm undermining my purported reason for existence if I don't address this subject, especially as it may prove to be rather significant in both arenas.

As a liberal, my response to Michael Moore is very simple: I love him, and I want to see him succeed beyond all our wildest dreams. For years, when Rush and his ilk dominated both mass media and political publishing, Michael Moore was one of only a tiny number of really balls-out, aggressively liberal voices available, and we all came to adore him for it. He was bombastic, yes; he was loud and frequently obnoxious, but he was also extremely funny at times, and was our only antidote to the equally-as-bombastic-and-obnoxious Rush Limbaugh. That response is only heightened these days; even while liberal media progresses and grows (Al Franken's show on Air America beat Rush Limbaugh in New York City last week, an event that would have been seemed impossible only a few months ago), for much of the last few years, Moore has remained a very significant voice for liberals in America. He's flawed, but he's ours, and we love him.

As a documentarian, though... ugh. Suffice to say, my feelings on Michael Moore in this context are rather more complicated. It's not that I dislike his work -- I always enjoy his films as a viewer, and he's very good at what he does. But I remain very unconvinced that what he's doing should count as "documentary," and I fear that his effects on the genre will be much more negative than positive.

Contrary to popular perception, documentary film can be a rather contentious subject, and ideas about exactly what constitutes "documentary" vary widely. There is a general consensus that a documentary is any film that is about real things. That's not a simple statement, though... another well-known quote on the subject is that "dramatic film is telling the truth with lies; documentary film is tellings lies with the truth." Which isn't to say that all documentary films are inherently false or wrong, but that documentary films are much more heavily manipulated than most people think, and that the perception of "real truth" is not nearly as realistic as it seems to be.

Thus, in the wrong hands, documentary film can be a powerful tool for misinformation. A documentarian, who is not held to the same conventions and practices as a journalist, can tell enormous lies and make it appear to be god's own truth just by virtue of the "reality" of the source material. Documentarians tend to be mostly self-policing in this regard; an accusation that one's film is too heavily manipulated, one's perspective too warped, threatens the documentarian with the worst kind of failure. To make a too-manipulative documentary is to bleed off into the land of propaganda, a term which in itself makes no value judgement (some of the most innovative films ever made have been solid propaganda, and many would argue that propaganda is in itself an artform), but which implies the artistic failure of the documentarian.

So how does this relate to Michael Moore? Well -- again, pointing out that there's no value judgement inherent in this statement -- I would argue that most of the time, Moore's work often blurs significantly into propaganda. It's propaganda that I happen to agree with, yes, but that doesn't mean I can't see it for what it is. Moore manipulates his subjects heavily; some of his tactics are more akin to those used by tabloid journalists than by conscientious truthseekers. Whereas ideally the documentarian begins with a subject and a viewpoint, and allows those to lead her naturally to a conclusion, Moore starts with a conclusion and shapes his subject to fit. Sometimes the shaping is very natural, but sometimes it's quite aggressive.

I'm also acutely aware, however, that there is a long tradition in documentary of people declaring the work of others to be substandard or impure. Attitudes towards what does and does not qualify range from loose and all-encompassing to stringent and rigid; most of the films I love most would never qualify as "documentary" by someone's definition. As I have never cared for that game, feeling that the only person who can ultimately decide whether a given film qualifies is the person who made it, I am extremely hesitant to declare Moore's work insufficiently "true." I don't want this to become a question of being more-doc-than-thou. And yet, my opinions are what they are, thus much of my hesitance to discuss the matter.

Aside from questions of artistic merit, there are practical considerations as well. Regardless of his doc pedigree, like it or not, Moore has a tendency to dominate the market for documentary film (which is already suffocatingly small), thus inadvertantly undermining the success of the genre as a whole. Brilliant films -- films that were made with painstaking love and devotion over years in some cases -- have been overwhelmed by the Michael Moore juggernaut. Inarguably better films have had their productive life strangled off by the lumbering presence of this one man's work; recognition, funding, and precious access to viewers has been denied to worthier films because Michael Moore happened to release a film the same year.

Some argue -- hopefully correctly -- that in the long run, Moore's success improves the chances for all, generating more interest in documentary film among the disinterested viewership, and proving that docs can be commercially viable. This is possible, and there's some evidence that it's happening already, with the success (in documentary terms, at least) of films like Supersize Me!, The Fog of War, and The Control Room. I still worry, however, that if Moore becomes the template for documentary commercial success (much as The Day After Tomorrow is very much of the template for Hollywood commercial success), we might see the formation of a two-tier arrangement like that of dramatic film, with the "blockbusters" like Moore inhabiting the top, while the indies languish below, struggling with insufficient funding and recognition.

All of this is probably getting ahead of myself; as relatively successful as Moore's films are, I still doubt that he receives much of a payday from them (getting most of his personal cash from book sales and television). And hopefully, most of my anxieties will prove to be unfounded; documentarians, as a rule, hate to see anyone else doing well commercially anyway. (With a very limited pie, any one person getting a big share tends to translate directly into someone else going without.) Perhaps Fahrenheit 9/11 will prove to be a solid film in every respect and will reignite interest in the genre, making it easier for all of us to get noticed and, hopefully, paid.

Anyway, yes... Moore always presents something of a dilemma for me. As a liberal, I want to see his work recieve as much attention as humanly possible; as a documentarian, I wish he'd, y'know, go away for a while. I'd feel a lot better about the guy, though, if he'd do more to help the rest of the documentary community, parlay that enormous influence to the benefit of somebody else as well.

Obviously, I'll be writing more once I actually get to see the new film. Apparently U.S. distribution has been secured (no big surprise there), and the film will hit the cinemas during the first week in July, as planned. I am very much looking forward to seeing it.

PS: This is basically off-topic, but intriguing. Apparently Moore has an interview with Nick Berg, the American who was recently executed in Iraq, that he shot for Fahrenheit 9/11 while Berg was still safe in the United States. The interview isn't in the final cut of the film, and he's not releasing it to the public (at least not at this point)... but I have to admit, I'd love to hear what the interview was about.
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Wednesday, May 26, 2004
A Few Words From Our President

The legitimate one, that is.

Update: I watched the replay of the speech on C-span tonight, and I highly recommend it to anyone with a good fast connection. (It's just over an hour long.) Once Gore really hit his stride, it was like he was channeling a southern preacher (in a good way). We got to see the statesman he could have been, and the president we might've had. The comparison is extremely unflattering to the Bush administration. It was, quite possibly, the speech of Al Gore's life.

I also agree with the prevailing sentiment that Gore is running offense for Kerry with this speech. While Kerry keeps a low profile on current events (thereby maximizing his options as the campaign progresses), he's not in a good position to make angry denunciations. Gore, however, has no such pressing need, and thus can speak plainly... what do you think it would take to create a political system in which all of our politicians could focus on speaking truth, as opposed to pandering to the electorate?

C-span makes it tricky to link directly to the clip, so go to the website, where the video is still current on the front page. If they move it, you want clip #17708; it's well worth the time. Otherwise, read the transcript at the link above.
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Al Qaeda Puts A Bounty on Kofi Annan's Head


Heh.

Thanks Chris Sweetie.
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Monday, May 24, 2004
Oh Rapture, Oh Ecstacy

Air America is coming to Memphis!

(Scroll all the way down. This almost makes up for having 107.5 The Pig replaced by putrescent top-40 bullshit.)
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Some Would Call It Pathological

I'm not going to say much about Bush's whoopsie the other day... but this tiny little point is interesting, in an eye-rolling, how-fucking-typical kind of way.

Obviously, no grown man could be such a schmuck that he just falls off his bicycle without some kind of cause, right? I mean, that would be ridiculous. You don't want the President of the United States to come off like some poorly-coordinated doofus, do you?

The president was nearing the end of a 17-mile ride on his mountain bike, accompanied by a Secret Service agent, a military aide and his personal physician, Richard Tubb, who treated him at the scene, said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.

"It's been raining a lot and the topsoil is loose," Duffy said. "You know this president. He likes to go all-out. Suffice it to say he wasn't whistling show tunes."
LA Times

First of all, how handy that his personal physician just happened to be at hand when he fell of his bike. But more interestingly...

... there hasn't been a drop of rain in Crawford, Texas in over a week.

Now, I'm not saying that the Bush administration has been reduced to lying about even the tiniest, most pointless little details to cover for their boy's gross incompetence on every conceivable level... I'm just sayin'.
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Sunday, May 23, 2004
God Fucking Dammit

Why won't they put any of the really great episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on DVD? Huh? What gives? After several years of getting by with only the handfull of mostly-mediocre episodes available on DVD (and my precious collection of VHS tapes from the 1996 Turkey Day Marathon) hoping that one day the powers that be would see fit to put the classics -- "Untamed Youth" (my first), "The Day the Earth Froze" (my favorite), "Time of the Apes," "Teenage Caveman," hell, even "Gamara" (any of 'em!) -- on a medium that I can watch over and over without fear that I'll bugger my copy.

I was hoping that the four-disc collections would provide some improvement in this lamentable situation, but most of what I see is later Mike-oriented stuff and the lesser Joel shows. And that's just not good enough.

Let's make this perfectly clear... I'm an old-school MiSTie: I want Joel shows from the Comedy Central years ONLY. (Okay, maybe a couple of Mike shows, but only the best ones... as far as I'm concerned, that'll always be Joel's Satellite of Love.) I don't want anything from the SciFi Channel years, and I definitely don't want that crappy feature film they made. And don't even fucking mention the episodes after the original Dr. Forrester vanished... I never could get used to hearing Crow with a different voice. One of the finest television series the United States ever produced, and you can't get any of the classic episodes on a commercial label. It's an outrage!

Now get with the fucking program, Rhino Video. The market is here, all you gotta do is show some taste.

PS: I...uhh... still want the collections, though. My birthday is 5 December, in case anyone, y'know, feels like it.
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Saturday, May 22, 2004
A Night At The Opera

Okay... I have to start out by admitting that I'm not entirely clear on the vortex of accusations currently being levelled at Ahmed Chalabi, but it's starting to look as though the guy is rather uncomfortably tied to Iran. As in, possibly selling them our secrets. (Read all of Josh Marshall's stuff on the situation... he can explain it much better than I can.)

Chalabi, as it happens, is one of the biggest reasons we're in Iraq at all right now. He's the one who fed us "information" about WMDs, he's the one who assured us we'd be greeted with flowers and cheering crowds, and he's the one we'd (nearly) installed as the new leader of Iraq. We've been supporting the guy to the tune of $335,000 per month ever since we invaded. He was our man in Iraq. But was he also Iran's man in the Bush administration?

Like I say, I don't know much about it; maybe all of this will fall apart; Chalabi seems most like a huckster, and I'd be surprised to find out that there was such a well-thought-out plot involved. But still... talk about poetic justice...

Remember back in the 80s, back when Saddam was "gassing his own people"? Around that time, Saddam was involved in a hugely destructive war with Iran, and was "our guy" in that conflict. Which isn't to say we didn't do a little business with Iran, too (see "Iran-Contra Affair" for details), but Saddam got far more of our largess and weaponry than Iran did. In fact -- this is amusing, you'll like this -- the U.S. sold Saddam chemical weapons (that's right, the same stuff we now call WMDs), which he used not only to "gas his own people," (more than likely), but also to kill thousands of Iranians.

See where this is going?

So we sell WMDs to Saddam; he uses them to kill Iranians. Twenty years later, an Iraqi with ties to Iran convinces an American administration (made up of mostly the same people who were in power during the Iran-Iraq war) to invade Iraq on the basis that they still have WMDs. The basis for that invasion turns out to be entirely bogus, and in the process of invading and occupying Iraq, said American administration sees its credibility torn to shreds, its reputation in the gutter, and its military power shamed and humiliated before the entire global community. Now that's payback.

I don't know if that's how it really went, but you have to admit, it's a fucking great story. Josh Marhsall thinks so, too... and I agree, it has to be an opera:

Who could miss the duet between Chalabi and Ali Khamenei in which the dark secret is revealed or Richard Perle's haunting, despairing aria at the beginning of the final act, in which this hawk of hawks, friend of Israel, swordsman against terror, and deacon in the high church of moral clarity confronts the shattering truth that he's played the cat's paw for what the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to this just-released article from Newsday, has determined was (horribile dictu!) actually a front for Iranian intelligence.

Of course, as with all classical tragedies, while the fates may not like you, it's always your own weaknesses that screw you in the end.
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Just A Few Bad Apples...

... like Pfc. Lynndie England, Spc. Jeremy Sivits, and... Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez?
A military lawyer for a soldier charged in the Abu Ghraib abuse case testified that a captain at the Baghdad prison said the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in Iraq was present during some "interrogations and/or allegations of the prisoner abuse," according to a recording of a military hearing obtained by The Washington Post.

(...)

[Capt. Robert] Shuck noted that the abusive tactics deployed on Tier 1A of Abu Ghraib were not a secret.

"All of that was being questioned by the chain of command and denied, general officer level on down," Shuck said. "Present during some of these happenings, it has come to my knowledge that that Lt. Gen. Sanchez was even present at the prison during some of these interrogations and/or allegations of the prisoner abuse by those duty [non-commissioned officers]."
Washington Post

Obviously, if the highest-ranking officer in Iraq knew what was going on at Abu Ghraib, the "bad apples" line is now a greasy spot on the metaphorical road. Of course, the allegation hasn't been confirmed at this point... but something tells me the folks at the top know this scandal's got some big, hairy legs.
US ambassador to Germany seen as possible successor to Rumsfeld: press

US national security advisor Condoleezza Rice (news - web sites) has asked the US ambassador to Germany Daniel Coats if he would like to become defence secretary should Donald Rumsfeld step down, it was reported.

It's getting interesting, eh?

BTW: The number of detainee deaths now being investigated as homicides is up to 37. Looks like those few bad apples have been awfully busy.
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Of Sourdough And Bitter Failure

Friday night again, and I am vexed as ever. I've been particularly reclusive over the last week -- the shoot is approaching imminently now, and I'm storing up as much of my desire to interact as possible, not to mention taking the last opportunity I'll have for a month or so to sleep as much as I generally like to. And I still don't want to talk about politics and the state of the world; it doesn't bear thinking about.

My mother gave me a couple of small cartons of morels tonight; she said her boss had gotten some in a shipment (she currently works at a supermarket wholesaler, though not for much longer), but that he didn't want all of them. (!) She handed them to me and said, "I thought you might be able to use them for something." Now, you have to understand, morels are generally considered the finest field mushrooms available, second only to truffles in terms of desireability (and possibly equalled by porcinis in some eyes.) And they weren't dried morels, either... these are fresh. It was a bit like being handed a white truffle and being told, "here, see what you can do with this." I'm honestly a little intimidated by them... I'm a reasonably good cook, but I'm no gourmand, and morels feel rather out of my league. I'm afraid that whatever I do, I won't be doing them justice, and I'll have blown a rare opportunity to use genuinely great ingredients; it's not like I can afford to buy more if I screw it up. (They're really ugly -- they look more like some weird marine mollusc than a fungus -- and they smell, well, woodsy.) I'm thinking it'll have to be one of three things: 1) I could try to work them into some kind of creamy sauce, but I don't really favor that option; 2) I could just cook 'em in some good butter with some herbs and have 'em with steak (but where would I get a steak worth eating with them?); or 3) I could get some other interesting, cheaper mushrooms and make a stock. If anybody else has any ideas, let me know, I'd appreciate the advice.

In other culinary news, my first attempt at home-reared sourdough was a real disappointment, although basically successful. I cultivated myself some wild yeast (although it was touch-and-go there for a while), and over the course of several days, managed to take that yeast and successfully raise a couple of loaves. Things looked very promising until I slapped 'em in the oven this afternoon... my shitty, ancient electric oven just wasn't up to the task, and while I got an acceptable spring in the oven, they sprung in the wrong place, splitting through the bottom edge instead of through the slashes in the top crust; and then my parchment paper started to scorch, which burnt the bottom crust of the loaves... that really sucked The top crust, which should have been thick and crackly, was thin and weak; and the flavor of the finished, cooled loaves was okay, but nothing special: not very sour at all, and a tad on the salty side. The flour I use has a reputation for being a bit salty-tasting at times, but it's the best I can get, so I'll keep using it.

But the process, as always, was worth it anyway. There are two kinds of serious bakers: those who love bread and bake because it's the only way to get it warm and fresh, and those who bake bread because they love to bake, and bread is fun. I'm much more the latter... bread is good, but I prefer baking it to eating it. It occured to me today that I always bake more during times of stress or anxiety... kneading dough as a meditation, a way of centering and calming one's mind, getting back in touch with your own immediate reality. Bread has an alchemical, archetypal quality that makes it especially satisfying... you take four basic ingredients -- water, flour, yeast, and salt -- that in themselves have little or no individual character, and through careful, hopefully insightful manipulation, you turn them into one of the most evocative and comforting substances on earth. I've read that the smell of baking bread has demonstrated usefulness as an anti-depressant; I believe that. It seems to work for me, anyway.

And I'm still thinking about getting the hell out of Memphis... y'know, I've been in Memphis (or at least connected to it) for more than a decade now, and in all that time, I have yet to form much of a bond to anyone I've met here. Now, admittedly, I'm slow to warm up to people, and I tend to take my time forming bonds -- I consider myself very fortunate if I can carry one good friendship away from any given place, and generally I've done well in that regard. But here in Memphis... I dunno, I just don't seem to be able to really "connect" with anyone here.

Which isn't to say there aren't some great people in Memphis, people I genuinely like and care about and consider friends. There are, plenty of 'em. But -- apologies to anyone reading this who thinks I might be selling them short -- I don't think I know anyone here whom I'd still know, say, a year after I moved away. The sense of disconnectedness is pervasive, and I don't feel like I'm really "involved" in anything, I mean, on a deep level... and maybe that's my own fault. But it does feel like a big missing piece, and probably has a lot to do with why I've never thrived here.

(My posts seem to be leaning more towards the longwinded-and-personal variety lately... but hey, it's my damn blog, I'll post whatever I like. ;P)
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Friday, May 21, 2004
I really can't bear it

Every day, there's more of this.

Do you pray to Allah?" one asked. "I said yes. They said, '[Expletive] you. And [expletive] him.' One of them said, 'You are not getting out of here health[y], you are getting out of here handicapped. And he said to me, 'Are you married?' I said, 'Yes.' They said, 'If your wife saw you like this, she will be disappointed.' One of them said, 'But if I saw her now she would not be disappointed now because I would rape her.' "

He said the soldiers told him that if he cooperated with interrogators they would release him in time for Ramadan. He said he did, but still was not released. He said one soldier continued to abuse him by striking his broken leg and ordered him to curse Islam. "Because they started to hit my broken leg, I cursed my religion," he said. "They ordered me to thank Jesus that I'm alive."

The detainee said the soldiers handcuffed him to a bed.

"Do you believe in anything?" he said the soldier asked. "I said to him, 'I believe in Allah.' So he said, "But I believe in torture and I will torture you.'

I don't want to write about it anymore... not right now. I couldn't put it much better than this anyway.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Crazy Fundies III: Revenge of the Fundies

In Bush's White House, fundamentalist, Rapture-oriented Pentecostals are being invited in to chew over our foreign policy regarding Israel:

The e-mailed meeting summary reveals NSC Near East and North African Affairs director Elliott Abrams sitting down with the Apostolic Congress and massaging their theological concerns. Claiming to be "the Christian Voice in the Nation's Capital," the members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. They fear an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza might enable just that, and they object on the grounds that all of Old Testament Israel belongs to the Jews. Until Israel is intact and David's temple rebuilt, they believe, Christ won't come back to earth.

Abrams attempted to assuage their concerns by stating that "the Gaza Strip had no significant Biblical influence such as Joseph's tomb or Rachel's tomb and therefore is a piece of land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace."

... and Catholic Bishops, in a blatantly partisan move, continue to make pro-choice John Kerry's access to communion a political issue, even while ignoring the pro-choice positions of several prominent pro-choice Republican Catholic politicians, including NY Governer Pataki, and CA Governor Schwarzenegger (I still can't get used to writing that). But is there even a hint of their losing their tax-exempt status, even though taking a clear partisan stance is in direct violation of tax-exemption rules? Fuck no.

But in Texas, liberal, tolerant Universalist-Unitarians have been informed that they're not a "real religion", and thus are no longer exempt from taxation.

Does anyone seriously believe that the fundamentalists haven't taken over the party?

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Monday, May 17, 2004
A Bit of Good News

See, this is my America.

And as somebody over on Kos pointed out:
If God frowns on this, why did he arrange for 70's, low humidity, and not a cloud in a sky across the entire commonwealth?

Sure, there's plenty of bad news to be had today... but fuck it, the death and destruction will still be there tomorrow, and I'm in the mood for a wedding.

Appropriately, the big day falls on the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education (ie, the desegregation of public schools). You just can't beat love and tolerance, eh?

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Sunday, May 16, 2004
Why Memphis Sucks

(Warning: bitterness ahead)

Tonight was the big fundraising party for the film we're commencing to shoot in barely over two weeks. It was quite a spread... we managed to wriggle our way into one of the nicest reception spaces in town (a vintage industrial building-turned-art space), we had enough booze to completely incapacitate more than a hundred and enough food for twice that many. We had poets, dancers, a band, DJs, even an opera singer who regularly performs at Carnegie Hall. We had art and other assorted goodies up for auction, we had the entire cast and crew, everybody dressed up in their bohemian finery, and for what?

Fuck all, that's what.

First of all, thanks to the handful of non-cast-and-crew who did show up, and as a party, it was fun. But as a fundraiser, it was 75% failure. The hope was that the event would snare us around $20K -- and that should have been perfectly possible. As a director, Morgan's got potential, and his last film did well enough to arouse the interest of most people who saw it. If he's lucky and persistent, he could be quite big one day. In any respectable city, that should be enough to snag a measly 20 grand for a friggin' movie.

But here in Memphis -- which, as I've pointed out, sucks ass -- there is no such financial support upon which to rely. I'd be surprised if we cleared more than $2000 tonight. Which is absolutely pathetic.

I've believed for a few years now that some places just aren't conducive to certain activities. Places seem to almost have a will that partly determines what kind of things go on there... I first stumbled upon this theory in Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography. My film school in London was located right in the middle of Covent Garden, a stone's throw (literally) from the West End theater district and very near Soho. But to get to Soho, you had to cross a patch of pretty rough turf along Tottenham Court Road. Soho was already a bit rough -- by day it was the media center of London, but by night it's a world-class red-light district -- but by and large it's as safe as anyplace else in the city. This patch along Tottenham Court Road, though, was nasty... it seemed that when prostitutes and junkies could no longer hack it in Soho, they rolled into the gutters along this bit of unhappy real estate.

But I was stunned to discover that -- completely in spite of human intervention -- this small triangle of land, no bigger than three of four city blocks total, had been the home to much of the city's human refuse for nearly two thousand years. Even back when London was just a collection of shacks by the river, the land that it now beneath Centrepoint Tower was a leper colony; later on it became known as St. Giles after the church that once sat where Centrepoint now stands, which was primarily a mission serving prostitutes, those consumed by gin, the sick, and any other derelicts who wandered by. Today, Centrepoint is one of the largest homeless shelters in Europe. None of this was intentional, but this patch of London has always been, and still is, a place where society's outcasts gather. And there are lots of other such sites in the city; clearly some locations are just meant to fulfill a specific purpose.

But to get back to my original point, by this logic, clearly Memphis is not meant to be a place where anything terribly creative happens.

I know what you're thinking: "What about music? Isn't Memphis completely overrun with musicians? Al Greene? B.B. King? W.C. Handy? Elvis Presley, for crying out loud?" Well, yes... but in terms of supporting any meaningful innovation in music, Memphis hasn't produced jack shit since the early sixties (at the latest). Which isn't to say there aren't good musicians here; there are some great bands currently inhabiting Memphis. But not one of them has found success in this city, they've all had to go elsewhere to make their mark... which is really, really sad. (Memphis' biggest musical product in the last ten years? Justin Fucking Timberlake. That pretty much sums it up.)

There's an enclave of creative types in Midtown, clinging to their incestuous little outpost on the barren tundra that is the Memphis art scene. They're good people, doing their best considering how little they receive for their efforts. But in terms of vibrancy and genuine creative life force, these folks can't begin to approach the situation that exists in other places. Two coffee shops, a bar, and an independent bookstore does not a Bohemian Paradise make. But without a support structure for creative people, a city can only descend into suburban wasteland. A decade or so ago, people took to Midtown with the hopes that they could create a pocket of urban vibrancy; a decade from now, if things continue as they have so far, they'll give up on the task. We can keep building sports stadiums (we currently have three sitting within a single three-mile area), or we can drop a fraction of that cash to make Memphis a more culturally interesting place to live. It's a pretty simple equation.

Not that it matters to me... fuck this city, I'm gone at the first opportunity.

(BTW, sorry I've been kinda depressing lately... obviously I'm not too thrilled with my lot at the moment. I've been in one place way too long; clearly it's time to start seeking some new opportunities.)

(Correction: the road in London I'm referring to isn't Charing Cross, it's Tottenham Court Road. Look, I haven't been there for over two years now, my mental map is getting a little fuzzy. And hey, I was close.)



2:31 AM ::
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Thursday, May 13, 2004
My God... It Really Is Hobbiton

I haven't seen the Berg video yet, and I don't intend to see it anytime soon. I've hit my limit, and just reading about the incident provides more than enough of an image to cope with; my instinct for psychic self-preservation has kicked in, and that means no Berg video for me.

But I've read the arguments on both sides, and I'm just not buying the line that Berg's brutal, horrific death somehow justifies our torture of prisoners. Not being quite as bad as the very bad people isn't, y'know, a standard of behavior I can believe in. I might write more about this later.

Anyway...

In a (very appreciated) effort to make me feel a bit better about the world, Chris sent me this bit of news from New Zealand. It probably didn't produce quite the reaction in me he was intending. Reading this, all I'm thinking is: we torture people; New Zealanders walk to school in their PJs to protest torturing people. This really isn't doing anything but encouraging me to leave.

Not that it's entirely connected, but Bill Hicks did a great bit about being in London during the LA riots that I can identify with in this case...it's all the more apropos when gently applied to New Zealand:

So I'm trying to get news of the riots... and, uh, all my friends here trying to sympathize with me. "Oh, Bill, crime is horrible. If it's any consolation, Bill, crime is horrible here too."

Shut up. This is Hobbiton, and I am Bilbo Hicks, okay? You live in fairyland.

Of course, in reality, Bill loved England -- the only place where his particular brand of genius was fully appreciated and supported, while his native United States generally ignored him -- and when he died, he was already making plans to move to London. Hobbiton or Los Angeles? The decision's not a difficult one.

My point is... erm... well, I'm not sure I have one, to be honest. But New Zealand (Australia? Canada? Ireland? Anyone?) is looking pretty goddamn good right now.

"I thought, 'Poor guy, he must be scared. I wanted to share his humiliation'," said the young activist.

(...)

He hoped his fashion statement would achieve results. "I think the Americans should be punished..."

If anybody needs me, I'm gonna be under the coffee table, curled up in the fetal position.* God bless New Zealand.



*not really

PS: Yeah, I know this kid isn't typical, and I'm sure he's lucky he didn't get his newspaper-reading ass kicked for this. I remember what school's like... no doubt he'll get it for something else. But he's obviously a good kid -- may all of mine be as cool as him. Even if he's not a typical kid, I'll accept him as being among the best of 'em.
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Hangin' With Mr. Baker

I got to spend much of this evening doing something I haven't gotten to do in waaaay too long: sitting around talking about filmmaking.

Tonight the Co-op hosted a special workshop by Kelley Baker (aka The Angry Filmmaker), a guy who has worked closely with lots of people you've heard of, but still slogs away making these wonderful little documentary shorts and indie features on his own time. It was one of the more useful workshops I've had the pleasure of attending -- and remember, I spent three years in a well-known British film school. Kelley provided a much-needed whiff of oxygen; he's exactly the kind of filmmaker I most admire: entirely down-to-earth, completely lacking in pretention or obvious ego issues, no bullshit, and all about the love. After the workshop -- which, like I said, was great -- a number of us walked half a block to the Young Avenue Deli and sat outside (in what is likely to be one of the last cool, pleasant evenings until October), sharing onion rings, chili cheese fries, beer and soda. We stayed for hours... we easily outlasted the band that was playing tonight. I really wish I could do that more often; it would do me a world of good.

But what I most appreciated was the validation of everything we're trying to do here as meaningful and worthwhile... Kelley affirmed for all of us that this foolish filmmaking endeavor is both possible and worthy (he even reassured me that I probably will be able to pay of my student loans... eventually, at least), and that there is a side of filmmaking that isn't steeped in cynicism and raw self-interest, that there are still people who makes films because they just love to make films. If people like Kelley Baker got the recognition that we provide to Hollywood, we'd have a far more vibrant and interesting film culture to enjoy.

So thanks, Kelly, I really needed that. Hope you come back by the next time you're down this way.
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Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Renouncing Jack Kerouac

I've been doing my best to avoid blogging lately. Firstly, because I've got too much to do as it is... we start shooting Morgan's film on 5 June, and we've got the big fundraising banquet in less than a week. That's occupying most of my free time.

Most of my reticence, however, comes down to the simple fact that there's really only one thing on my mind where politics is concerned (see recent posts for details), and I'm trying to avoid thinking about that particular topic as far as I'm able. It genuinely makes me physically ill, and I have no idea how to cope with it emotionally or psychologically. But a lot of stuff is going through my mind, and maybe it'll come into clearer focus if I get it down in writing... maybe this'll get somewhere before I'm done; maybe it won't. I'm not making you any promises.

For me, the last four or five years have been largely about neogiating my relationship with the country in which I was born. That's been hard, because the United States has become a moving target in that time... the country I refer to now is not the same country it was when I began this process.

I have no particular attachment to the US; I've felt strongly since I was a child that my future would ultimately lead me elsewhere, although I can't explain why. And I feel no special sense of pride or loyalty for the US. Maybe it's because I happen to be short on both family and roots -- there's very little here for me to identify with, or to keep me from leaving. Maybe it's just a touch of wanderlust that fell to me completely at random. But it's definitely in me. When people talk about patriotism, I genuinely don't know what they mean by the word... what is patriotism, why do they think it's a good thing to have, what am I supposed to do with it? What separates patriotism from nationalism? Why am I supposed to be "proud" to be an American, when I had nothing to do with it? I'd have been just as happy if my parents had fucked in Canada, or Italy, or Japan... not so much in Somalia or Bangladesh, admittedly, but the point is, it was an accident, the luck of the draw, for better or worse. What's to be proud of in it?

At the same time, obviously I identify as an American. I can't not; it's my culture -- such as it is -- it's where I was raised, it's my frame of reference for the rest of the world. That's not to say it's better or worse than anything else (I don't think there's such thing as "better" or "worse" when speaking of culture... society, like water, seems to find its own level wherever you are.) But it is, and always will be, my own. I'm not one of those people who believes that I can adopt another culture... I could live in India for 80 years, and still I'd only be an Indianized American. But, having lived and come to identify with another culture, even briefly, I'm now something other than what I was, and part of a frightingly small minority in the US. Because I've discovered first-hand that (whisper it) there are good, noble societies outside the United States, by current parlance neither am I a "good American." It's an awkward position to find oneself in.

The trajectory has hardly been simple, though... to my surprise, I felt far more "American" living in London than I have ever in the U.S.; similarly, I feel more "foreign" now than I did when I was actually a foreigner. For a while, during my last year in London, I became infatuated with America; I was grossly romanticizing the place, carrying these Kerouac fantasies around in my head while I walked around Covent Garden. I was appalled when I came home and discovered that the place was as crass as I'd remembered once thinking it was, only now it was faintly alien as well. I remember being morbidly fascinated with an enormous American flag that flew over a nearby car dealership... seriously, it was ungodly huge, it had to be at least thirty feet long, several times the size of the Union Jacks that flew over Parliament in London. I regarded it as an anthropologist might... is it meant to be an attraction? An advertisement? What message, exactly, is it intended to impart? Somewhere I had lost the vocabulary, and all the stars and flags and eagles and other symbols of "America" began to seem bizarrely overwrought. (I also remember all the food tasting painfully salty, wondering why everybody was shouting all the time, and wishing people would stop being so in-my-face friendly. I had been solidly Anglicized and Londonized without ever realizing it was happening.)

Anyway, not long after this return, fateful events transpired, and everything took an enormous shift. I still wouldn't say I was "patriotic," but I was probably as close as I've ever come to being so, and I was a great deal more tolerant of it in other people. I was as affected as anyone by the destruction of the World Trade Center... it felt something like the sudden death of someone you didn't know that well, but were fond of... I remember wishing I could see the standing towers just one more time. And there was a universal sense that we'd collectively lost something that maybe wasn't crucial to our identity, but was valuable nonetheless.

Since then, things have gotten steadily worse, but in an elusive way that's hard to quantify. This might sound familiar to anyone who's lived with someone who was abusive, or had a drug or alcohol problem, or to anyone who's struggled with depression... there's a certain weight you feel, something slowly wearing you down, and things happen from time to time that make you feel sad or angry or hopeless. But if you try to explain to someone else how you feel, you realize how slippery the sensation actually is... you can recount events, you can try to describe the monster but you discover that it's almost impossible to name it while you're still so close to it. As long as you're in the middle of the problem, you can't see it for what it is. But sooner or later you hit a point where perspective becomes possible, where you can catch enough of a glimpse of light that you realize how dark things have become.

Everything that has recently transpired has become that point of perspective. Some horrible process began with the destruction of the World Trade Center, and has reached a very noticeable low point (please god, let it be the low point) in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. I've been thinking for days that there is a connection between these events -- not just the false, propagandistic connection that a certain kind of pundit draws, but a more profound connection. And I think I'm beginning to figure out what the nature of that connection might be.

As I said, the WTC attacks felt like a loss, even though (thankfully) I didn't lose anybody myself. But the torture scandal has created a far more painful loss, worse in that it was self-inflicted. And every week in between has contained a loss of some kind or another, the gradual chipping away of something we desparately need, happening so slowly that it's hard to tell from one day to the next exactly what's changed. It's not until you wake up one day and find your society asking itself unthinkable questions -- what exactly is torture? has the US committed it? how much torture is too much? -- that you can clearly see how agonizing the loss has been.

And... since all this began I have often felt as though I were being squeezed, rejected, spat out. Part of me wants to hang on, to resist the urge to give up, even though I suspect I could find a more agreeable life elsewhere; what my people go through, so shall I, etc... some latent martyr complex expressing itself, perhaps. My contributions are not valued here, my opinions are not respected, my voice is not heard (or if it is, it's dismissed and ignored), and I am not treated as a valuable citizen. Nobody, it seems, considers my future, or the futures of my children; nobody is working to prepare for the many impending problems we face, blithely assuming that my generation and those behind me will do the work, however unpleasant, and bear the expenses they incur. And nobody even considers the needs of the rest of the world, a place that few Americans can even conceive of apart from 1) places to attack; and 2) places to go on vacation (and possibly 3) places where our clothes and electronics are made).

My little Kerouac fantasy has been killed, and stomped on a few times for good measure. I don't know what I was thinking... I just can't see that America anymore, and I feel like a fool for ever having bought into it. Now I'm waiting for the election. I have no great hopes for it either way -- I think it'll be messy and prolonged and full of spite and rancor -- but if it goes well, it might provide a small bit of hope that we're not as sick as I'm afraid we are. But it's going to be a turning point for me. There's very little holding me here, in either practical or cultural terms... were it not so difficult to emigrate, I likely would have left already. If the election goes badly, and if I can find a way to leave, I will turn my back on the United States. I am an American whether I like it or not, but even more than that I'm human, and if I am to be asked to choose between patriotism and humanity, humanity is going to win every time.
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Thursday, May 06, 2004
The Torture Never Stops

By now, I'm almost numb to this stuff.

U.S. soldiers who detained an elderly Iraqi woman last year placed a harness on her, made her crawl on all fours and rode her like a donkey, Prime Minister Tony Blair's personal human rights envoy to Iraq said Wednesday.

The envoy, legislator Ann Clwyd, said she had investigated the claims of the woman in her 70s and believed they were true.
source

It's not that I don't care... I do. That's part of the problem.

Other photographs show wounded men and corpses. In one, a dead man is lying in the back of a truck, his shirt, face and left arm covered in blood. His right arm is missing. Another photograph shows a body, gray and decomposing. A young soldier is leaning over the corpse, smiling broadly and giving the "thumbs-up" sign.
source

It's one of those times when just not giving a shit would be really helpful... I wish I could be as dismissive of all this as some.

Two Iraqi prisoners were murdered by Americans and 23 other deaths are being investigated in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States revealed on Tuesday as the Bush administration tried to contain growing outrage over the abuse of Iraqi detainees.
source

But in a small way, I feel responsible for all of this... as if, because I can't stop it, this somehow reflects badly on me, too. And there's only so much a person can absorb.

6. (S) I find that the intentional abuse of detainees by military police personnel included the following acts:

a. (S) Punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their naked feet;

b. (S) Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees;

c. (S) Forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing;

d. (S) Forcing detainees to remove their clothing and keeping them naked for several days at a time;

e. (S) Forcing naked male detainees to wear women's underwear;

f. (S) Forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped;

g. (S) Arranging naked male detainees in a pile and then jumping on them;

h. (S) Positioning a naked detainee on a MRE Box, with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes, and penis to simulate electric torture;

i. (S) Writing "I am a Rapest" (sic) on the leg of a detainee alleged to have forcibly raped a 15-year old fellow detainee, and then photographing him naked;

j. (S) Placing a dog chain or strap around a naked detainee's neck and having a female Soldier pose for a picture;

k. (S) A male MP guard having sex with a female detainee;

l. (S) Using military working dogs (without muzzles) to intimidate and frighten detainees, and in at least one case biting and severely injuring a detainee;

m. (S) Taking photographs of dead Iraqi detainees.

source

The worst thing is, on some level it is making me care less. Our fatality rates remain high for the beginning of May, but as it becomes more and more obvious that our troops were more broadly complicit in torture than any of us would like to believe -- even if it was only a tiny minority of soldiers at a small number of facilities -- I am forced to admit that I'm having trouble looking at those deaths in the same way.

8. (U) In addition, several detainees also described the following acts of abuse, which under the circumstances, I find credible based on the clarity of their statements and supporting evidence provided by other witnesses (ANNEX 26):

a. (U) Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees;

b. (U) Threatening detainees with a charged 9mm pistol;

c. (U) Pouring cold water on naked detainees;

d. (U) Beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair;

e. (U) Threatening male detainees with rape;

f. (U) Allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell;

g. (U) Sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick.

h. (U) Using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.
source

But then again, at this point I'm having trouble feeling that way about anything at all. Like I said, I'm almost numb.

The various detention facilities operated by the 800th MP Brigade have routinely held persons brought to them by Other Government Agencies (OGAs) without accounting for them, knowing their identities, or even the reason for their detention. The Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center (JIDC) at Abu Ghraib called these detainees "ghost detainees."

On at least one occasion, the 320th MP Battalion at Abu Ghraib held a handful of "ghost detainees" (6-8) for OGAs that they moved around within the facility to hide them from a visiting International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) survey team. This maneuver was deceptive, contrary to Army Doctrine, and in violation of international law. (Findings and Recommendations, Part II, No. 33)
source

How much more are we going to find? How much worse does it get? And will any of our leaders take responsibility? How can this kind of thing happen, and not elicit anything but cowardly, defensive rationalization from those who presided over it? How can we, the Americans who were against this war, shore up our own humanity and sense of justice against barbaric violence done in our names, but against our will? And what has America come to when we have to sit and argue about what exactly constitutes "torture," so we can figure out whether the United States has been engaging in it? (And what the fuck is wrong with these prison guards, anyway? What kind of mind comes up with this shit? And who the fuck let 'em into the military?)

A couple of nights ago on the "Daily Show," Janeane Garofalo said that at this point, she'd consider a vote for Bush to be a character flaw. Me, I'd call it a moral failing.

Update: Worse and worse.

HERSH: This kind of stuff was much more widespread. I can tell you just from the phone calls I've had in the last 24 hours, even more, there are other photos out there. There are many more photos even inside that unit. There are videotapes of stuff that you wouldn't want to mention on national television that was done. There was a lot of problems.

There was a special women's section. There were young boys in there. There were things done to young boys that were videotaped. It's much worse.
source


Washington Post

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Tuesday, May 04, 2004
The Right-Wing Mind

Rush Limbaugh -- Republican mouthpiece, recovering drug addict, and father of the right-wing radio phenomenon -- had this to say about the photos of Iraqi prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib:

You know, if you really look at these pictures, I mean I don't know if it's just me but it looks like anything you'd see Madonna or Britney Spears do on stage. Maybe you can get an NEA grant for something like this. I mean this is something you can see at Lincoln Center from an NEA grant, maybe on Sex in the City: the Movie. I mean, it's just me.
source

Got it, America?

Madonna:



Just Like Madonna:



Britney Spears:



No Worse Britney Spears:



"Piss Christ," Funded By The NEA:



Practically The Exact Same Thing:



See how there's no moral or ethical difference at all between these things?
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Monday, May 03, 2004
Housekeeping

I think I've finally got the archives working properly... if the links are still functional after a week, I'll consider myself victorious.

I've been meaning to post about the torture-of-prisoners scandal, the loss of Fallujah, and everything else that's going on... but y'know, sometimes you just gotta back away to protect your sanity. I've been doing nothing but reading cookbooks for two days; it's done me a world of good. Maybe I'll be ready to hit the ever-worsening news again tomorrow.

In the meantime, remember Lcpl Boudreaux and his two pre-teen Iraqi chums, and their cardboard sign? Well, have some fun with the Lcpl Boudreaux Sign Generator.
12:43 AM ::
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Saturday, May 01, 2004
Happy "Mission Accomplished" Day



(It's funny, the picture seems more comedic than heroic this year. Seriously... look at the guy in the background closely. He's got "derf!" written all over him.)
1:34 PM ::
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Two Dreams

I had two very strong dreams this morning; I'm definitely open to interpretation, although I've listed my initial thoughts below.

#1: My Father Dies

I'm at my dad's house (which is actually my grandmother's house); I'm visiting him for the first time in years. In the evening, he goes out to run an errand; I stay home. The dream jumps forward -- I understand that it's now hours later -- and I get a phone call from the hospital telling me my father has died. My grandmother and aunt show up; they don't know yet, and I have a very difficult time figuring out how to break it to them.

The first thing that hits me about this dream is that it's firmly based in reality: my dad really is dying. And I really haven't seen him or talked to him in... well, about seven years now. And the last time he was in the hospital (the first time I found out there was anything wrong with him), I really did have a very difficult time trying to figure out if/how to tell my aunt and grandmother (who've also been cut out of my dad's life). So far, I still haven't told them... my reasoning (or rationale, if you prefer) is that my aunt most likely wouldn't be especially sympathetic or even interested, and my grandmother's not really in any kind of condition to deal with that kind of news. Probably my dad would also not appreciate the stress it would create; his wife had to go behind his back even to tell me about it. Anyway, the point is, much of this is stuff I have had / will have to deal with in my real life, either recently or soon. My father's death is almost certainly not more than a few years away, so this is definitely coming.

I also notice that it plays very similarly to the main storyline in the one graphic novel I really love, "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth." The scenario in which my father's death occurs in the dream is almost identical. And that makes sense... I always think about my dad when I read that book.

(Hyperdictionary.com says this: "Dreaming that your father is dead, forewarns that you need to proceed with caution in conducting your business. " Which really isn't terribly helpful.)

#2: Destruction At Home

I'm at my mother and step-father's house, in my room. It's very early in the morning, before sunrise, and I'm in bed. A little buzzy thing -- a very, very small airplane/helicopter thingy, the size of a hummingbird -- flies up to my window and hovers just outside. I get up and have a look; I notice it has a tiny camera mounted on it, and it follows my face wherever I go. I play with it for a few minutes, holding my finger against the glass just in front of the lens, following it as it moves around the obstruction. Then I get freaked out and try to hide from it; the best I can do is to hide my face from it, but it still hovers, watching me. Then -- as I understand it to do not every time it shows up, but sometimes -- it explodes. It's not a big explosion, just enough to break the window and send some sparks and embers flying onto me and my bed, but it scares me. I run out of the room.

As I go down the hall and into the living room, I'm shocked... the house is completely wrecked. A lot of the furniture and other stuff is gone; and everything that's left is badly broken. The house is intact, but everything inside has been nearly destroyed. I wander through the house with a flashlight, surveying the damage, trying to figure out what happened... it seems as though not a single thing has been left unharmed. Was it a burglary? A tornado? What the fuck?

I find my mother in the living room, calmly sitting on the remains of a sofa in her nightgown, reading. She tells me that the devastation was caused by a fight between her and Rick; they were fighting about a two-week business trip she's taking to England. Then she tells me that she bought a second ticket for me; I'm incredibly grateful, and don't mind about the damage anymore.


This one's harder, and not at all like my current reality; Mom and Rick have fought only once that I know of, and that was relatively sedate. In terms of impact, this looks more like my mother's relationship with Bob; they often had sudden, explosive fights in which things were damaged, sometimes including the family's day-to-day life. But that's another story for another time; I don't think that's what this dream was about.

My initial reaction is that this dream's about the war... I feel like I'm being intruded upon, watched; it's clearly "Them" on the other end of that camera. Maybe this is some latent paranoia expressing itself. But the feeling that my home is being torn apart by conflict is very strong; that part seems quite obvious to me. And the ticket to England -- my ticket out of the U.S., which I think / fantasize about quite often -- also seems to tie in. Why it comes from my mother (who's not sympathetic to my feelings about the war) is a bit of a mystery... maybe the dream version of my mother actually refers to the self-protective part of my psyche? After all, Jung did say every woman in one's dream is an aspect of one's anima.

(Here's Hyperdictionary's thoughts on the interpretation of house, mother, destruction, and ticket.

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