The Soundtrack of my Summer of 1989

It was a summer of Tom Petty

It was a high school bachelor’s summer of staring at unobtainable girls and trying not to drown in Lake Erie (those are both different stories).

This story starts out more along the lines of…

I didn’t have a car when I turned 16.

Hell, I didn’t even have a license. I had to rely on my mother and friends to get around. My best friend, Scott, had a car. And a cassette player in the car. And neither of us had girlfriends at the time, so we ended up spending a decent amount of time with each other that summer.

That is a cover I’ve looked at for a long, long time.

We listened to a lot of his music when we would drive. We agreed on quite a few performers — the Doors, INXS, U2 — but in the summer of 1989, the tape that was the soundtrack for driving through metro Detroit and southeastern Ontario was Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever.

I was about six months from discovering Brent Bambury’s Brave New Waves and David Wisdom’s Night Lines on a static-y late night CBC Stereo signal from Windsor and London and being exposed to a great deal I hadn’t heard yet. At this point, I was still regularly listening to mostly classic rock. Between that and always having been a fan of the Beatles, I got into the Traveling Wilburys in 1988 (George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty). Full Moon Fever felt like a continuation of that (you’ll see why if you look at the contributors on it and the two Wilburys albums… and perhaps that’s the real reason why their second album was titled Vol. 3). And since Scott enjoyed Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, it wasn’t a surprise when we both enjoyed Full Moon Fever.

I’d be shocked if Scott doesn’t still have his cassette copy stashed somewhere. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the tape is long gone after snapping or tearing after hundreds of times being auto-reversed.

But I digress.

“Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” were three we played the most. The fun he and the others were having on the album was almost palpable and it was definitely contagious. “Free Fallin’,” in particular.

Something about it sort of encapsulated the feelings of Gen Xers in high school to me. Especially the third verse:

I wanna glide down over Mulholland
I wanna write her name in the sky
I’m gonna free fall out into nothing
Gonna leave this world for a while

I’m not sure if Petty was making a comment about his kids or what he was observing or had observed or what he felt as a teen (the video makes a lot of effort to try and connect three post-WWII time periods and find similarities between the teen girl in each, but I’ve never found the video to fit the song that well), but I found that song to be emblematic of what a teenager at the end of the 1980s was feeling and trying to come to grips with. As a generation, I would definitely say the Gen Xers were in a sort of free fall at that time — we were unsure of what was going to happen in the next year (let alone the next decade). It felt like we were all close to paralyzed with indecision and hope and uncertainity and ennui to all eventually be revealed as promise as the World Wide Web came into fruition and we realized what could happen (shame it’s all been wasted on becoming a massive channel that’s only about selling each other products and ideologies). “Free Fallin’,” to me, summed up where we were before all of that.

(One day I do want to explore those vampires in the valley heading west on Ventura Boulevard… but that’s another story.)

Tom Petty isn’t one of the first artists I discovered. He isn’t my favorite (he probably isn’t even in my top twenty). In the end, when we heard of Tom Petty’s passing yesterday it wasn’t the punch to my gut that David Bowie or Kurt Cobain or even Chris Cornell’s was. I was saddened, but not shocked or surprised or dismayed at the loss the world has suffered (and that isn’t to take away from those who do feel that). But…

But for a few short months in 1989, those lines summed it all up for me and helped me make sense of what I was going through. That’s priceless. For that alone, I wish him a good, well-deserved rest.

Too many fatheads

…I decided that I couldn’t afford to like everybody anymore, you know? I went on a low social cholesterol diet. No more fatheads.

Utah Phillips, “Mess with People”

I discovered Utah Phillips through Ani DiFranco. Rarely does a day go by where I don’t think about something he said (especially on the album The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere).

A couple of years back, I wrote a post opining about hollow Easter candy. I hate hollow easter candy. If you’re interested… go check it out here. I discussed the issues of form over substance.

The current state of social media has me thinking about this post and the issues of form over substance. I mean, we elected a game show host to the presidency as the ultimate realization of form over substance.

But that individual is not what this post is about.

It was the utterly insipid announcement Twitter made about testing a 280 character limit that started me thinking earlier today. Jack Dorsey then followed-up with a statement saying how proud he was of the team “solving a real problem people have when trying to tweet. And at the same time maintaining our brevity, speed, and essence!”

It’s “a real problem” he says. This service has existed since 2006 and this is “a real problem.” I feel like beating my head against a fucking wall.

I agree, Dr. Jones.

No, Jack. The real problem is the abuse. For example, as Zoë Quinn has pointed out time and time and time again (I don’t care what you think of her, you know she’s 100% right on this), Twitter is a haven for literal Nazis and trolls who love to play Nazi. In the past year alone, these trolls, others like them, and the environment they’ve created there have helped drive innumerable users from the site, inhibited Twitter’s growth, and destroyed any attractiveness Twitter once had as an acquisition… but Dorsey thinks the team really nipped a big one in the bud by testing out a doubling of the damned character limit.

Go team!

What sort of reality does he live in?

That sort of broke it for me. While my current Twitter account is from 2011, my presence on Twitter goes back to 2007. I’ve been active on that site for a decade. That’s a lot of time, energy, and (honestly) fun that I’ve put into it — but it has become work now. Twitter is supposed to be ephemeral. It’s supposed to be organic communities coming together and interacting. And for a long time, it was. I won’t blame GamerGate — I think the toxin was already flowing through Twitter’s veins prior to that. But GamerGate showed the trolls the “power” they had. It showed them the vitriol gave them a sense of control and they liked it. They turned ephemeral and interesting and quirky and communal into absolutes and poison and hate and spite — and good old 45 led the way with it. And they loved it.

And it led to the site not knowing how to react. And instead of coming up with ways to better fight the trolls… we get 280 characters.

Wheeeee. It’s form over substance all over again. Dorsey is so scared those literal Nazis will leave the service and make him lose more users that he simply won’t fight them they way he should.

So, for how, I’m done with Twitter.

As for Facebook: Russians played Facebook like a damn violin last year. They understood Facebook better than Facebook understands itself.

Why are we rewarding Facebook with our time? Why are we rewarding them with our data? Why are we allowing them to make money off of us when they allow advertisers to find ‘Jew haters’ (amongst other racist demographics). Facebook was so focused on their ads, on the form… they didn’t realize how they were lacking in substance.

Why do we continue to enable these sites that care nothing for their users? Why do we pay them with our data?

So, hey — Zuck? Jack? Until you guys care more about the substance than the form, I’m out. If Twitter can get its collective head out of its ass & start doing better by its users, I’ll come back. I’m not too sure about Facebook, though. That damage may be too extensive.

If you need me, I’m here. Drop me a line.

Papa Hemingway’s Blues

I’ve been in a Monkees mood lately, so I borrowed the title of “Papa Gene’s Blues” — I’m not saying the Freewrite makes Hemingway, or me, blue.

The typewriter’s paradigm has persisted, hasn’t it?
In a day where music is consumed via streaming services charging a monthly fee and the e-reader has done something similar with books, something as anachronistic as a typewriter should be should be dwelling in a disused basement alongside Babbage’s Difference Engine. It’s old. It’s obsolete. It’s of a bygone era.

Or is it?

The typewriter was the realization of moveable type at a personal level. A printing press at your fingertips! That sort of power — the power to essentially print your own pages (albeit slowly and one at a time) was a massive cultural and societal shift when they were invented 150 years ago. Mina’s ability in Dracula to quickly transcribe all of the journal and diary entries and letters and phonograph recordings was still an amazing phenomenon in the 1890s.

If we fast forward to the late 1970s and the Apple II, we see that the personal computer (and the later advent of word processing) changed the medium but not the basic concept. Yes, the ability to edit “on the page” became a game changer (I recall pain of that last typewritten paper I ever turned in — for US History in 1989, my sophomore year of high school — and its grueling mess of White Out). It was after that (and my mother upgrading us to computer with a printer) I realized how important and expedient it was to move to a computer to write and edit.

Fast forward once again and we are in front of our tablets and phones… using the same keyboard layout typists used a century ago. The medium has changed, but not the concept. Except in specialized cases, anyone from the 1950s dropped in front of a phone/tablet/computer with a word processor open on it would likely understand how to type on it. Sure, this hypotethical 1950s typist would not know what a mouse or touchscreen are or how they work, but a keyboard in front of a blank word processing or text editor window would make sense. In the past 40 years of paradigm shifts, the keyboard and its utility in personal writing has barely been touched — the output and the ability to manipulate it has simply evolved.

While the paradigm hasn’t changed as much as some think, it has become distracting. In 1996, as I was writing my thesis on a Mac Classic borrowed from the English department (and with no Internet connection), the distractions were few. When I upgraded to a Power Mac a year or so later and had a modem, email and games were a bit distracting (oh, the hours I lost to Civilization II). As the years rolled on, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls, SMS, etc., all started vying for my limited attention. And then, in the real world, came children.

It’s no longer as easy as it was 20 or 25 years ago to sit and write without something nagging me to pay attention to it. And I dare say I’m not the only one.

There have been various distraction-free word processors on all the platforms, but they still have all those tempting apps running in the background, waiting to pull you in and drag you into a Twitter discussion or chasing topics in Wikipedia. Some (myself included) have attempted to use older tech to get around this, but that then introduces the issue of the older formats, connectivity, and the issue where you are troubleshooting more often than writing.

In comes the Freewrite (formerly the “Hemingwrite” on Kickstarter — https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adamleeb/hemingwrite-a-distraction-free-digital-typewriter), a mashup of a typewriter, a Kindle E-Reader (the black and white one that looks like paper), and the cloud. For writers. Perhaps for others, but its initial target is writers.

The concept is simple and ostensibly borrowed from Hemingway’s writing process: Write (once it’s configured, of course). Just write. Worry about editing later (in fact, there are no cursor/arrow keys, so the only way to go back is to delete, and if you have to delete a lot… then it’s best to just move forward and go back later). Simply write and, when the piece is ready to edit, then you pick it up from the cloud and edit in your preferred word processor.

It’s a device that has been dismissed by the more elitist of both the IT and writing communities as “hipster” due to its limited functionality and somewhat steep price. I’d argue many of us need a device with this sort of limitation and it’s worth the price and the scorn of these neo-hipsters who can pound-out a piece while being distracted, publish it to their blog (typos and all), and like to lord this over others. If you don’t see the need for a device like this, good for you. I do. I know others who do. If something like the Alphasmart Neo works for you and this is too much, too expensive, etc., that’s fine. No one is telling you to buy this. If you are telling people not to buy it, or that they are stupid for buying it, however, then I would kindly ask you to leave the auditorium at this time. Thank you.

Now, for those who are still around…

Do I think it’s a “finished” product? Yes. Is it complete? Not quite. I’d consider this a 0.9 release rather than a full-fledged 1.0 and there is nothing wrong with that since it’s clear it’s under development. I’ve read some complaints stating the machine shouldn’t have shipped without it being more “finished.” I think this argument has no legs, really. To make the statement a fully functioning device that does almost 100% of what was laid-out in the Kickstarter is “unfinished” is to basically not understand the entire concept (or possibly Kickstarter itself, but that is better served in another discussion). So, in that this is an evolving device and is clearly still setlling in terms of its feature set (which, let’s be very honest, what 1.0 version of a shipping product actually ever has its full feature set? Show me a dev or PM who makes the claim that their 1.0 is finished and flawless and I’ll show you an individual who might not have a firm grasp on reality or has a project team keeping them in the dark).

Instead, we’re looking at a device that does work but could use some additional features. And it has a team behind it that is actually working on delivering additional features.

So, in terms of what this is, how does it stack up?

HARDWARE

It’s almost retro enough for Gilliam’s Brazil or even Max Headroom (but not as technologically stripped as, say, Mad Max), but it’s a little too neat for either.

There’s no arguing — the hardware here is fully cooked. From the mechanical keys to the retro-styled switches and power button, this is a well thought-out piece of hardware. There are little imprections that, were the device coming off a regular assembly line, I would hope wouldn’t be there (the still existing flashing on some of the keys, for example), but they also add a bit to the charm of the machine.

I do have a few complaints.

First, I think there was a missed opportunity with the labels for the switches. Those look like decals or some sort of applique and considering how nice this piece of kit is, they seem a little cheap. Something that had been part of the machine would have been nice.

Another complaint is uneven lighting (a common complaint for E Ink backlighting). The Freewrite originally shipped with the backlight permanently on. A recent firmware update has come along to turn the backlight off. There aren’t backlit keys, so having a backlight on the screen seems a bit like overkill to me. (I do wonder if the USB port will power a little reading lamp? That could be useful.). And for something as retro hip as this, I find it an oversight there is not a mechanical switch to turn the screen’s backlight off and on.

The keyboard is almost exactly what they promised — nice keycaps, very good action. I did, however, find myself needing the appropriate dampeners for the key caps on the keyboard (and, while the keys were off, I cleaned-up the flashing mentioned above). I’m fairly hard on my keyboards and I usually bottom-out with each keystroke. Because of that fact, the dampeners made sense (and the fact that it will allow me to type when the click-slam of bottoming out isn’t really acceptable). I also seem to type faster with the dampeners in place. Obviously how you handle it is up to you.

Speaking of places it can be taken, there is the mobility factor. The built-in handle is nice (and seems to have a bit of a magnet to hold it in place when it’s stowed) and comes in very useful because the Freewrite is heavy. Considering how many Apple laptops I’ve had over the years, this feels like a tank (that isn’t necessarily a bad thing — I don’t want a device I will potentially use for writing hundreds of thousands of words to be skittering across the table at a coffeehouse as I’m pounding away at the keys). That said, the concept about this being portable is called into question because of the weight and the lack of a case or even keyboard cover. I’m of the thought Astrohaus should have had someone design a case or a sleeve or something for it. Something to protect it a bit when we move it around.

The biggest hardware issue (and this is an issue with E Ink as a whole) is the screen refresh. It is slow. The user can tweak it a bit (the screen refresh is marginally better with the smallest font than the medium), but an E Ink display is designed for static reading and the occasional page “turn.” It’s not for a regularly refreshing block of text. It’s a hardware limitation, but one that can be somewhat overcome through software. I’ve seen suggestions in the support forums for a change in how the text is displayed and I can wholeheartedly agree with that. Yes, this is supposed to act like a typwriter, but the reality is we aren’t putting these words on real paper — there is no carriage turning on its return, there is no paper to advance. As such, I’d argue the typing should occur from the top and progress down. Once you read the last row of text, it refreshes and you begin to type at the top of the window again. Considering how distracting the software is, and that this is the behavior E Ink is better at handling, and this approach should at least be an option for the users to choose from.

SOFTWARE

Well… it writes well. There’s little in terms of user-facing interface to the software on the machine itself. You can navigate (by keystroke) amongst different documents in one of three folders. You interact with the software when connecting to a network. That’s about all you see in terms of software interaction on the main screen. The software should get out of your way in a case like this. In that regards, it does precisely what it should.

The secondary screen has some software-related items and really could allow some user control. The “widgets” (for lack of a better word) are useful, but feel spread across three areas you have to toggle through. I want to see word count, time, and battery charge. No toggling. That’s pretty much it. The two clocks and other widgets are a step in the right direction, but status is probably the most important thing to have in that window.

Other than that, in terms of software, there’s little to review. Which is as it should be for this device.

WEBSITE

The core of the Freewrite is the actually the Postbox website where the preferences are set and maintained. There is also a growing and involved community on the site. Understanding how the controls work on the site is key to being able to use the Freewrite correctly. Really getting to know the site is important (especially once more features come about).

There are issues with the site. The lack of a real knowledgebase on the website or introductory documentation in the package is problematic. I’m the type who will poke at things and see what happens, then poke them another way to see if the work the same or differently. Regardless, I’m somewhat rare in that regard and even I’d like better documentation. I recently had issues with my wireless network at home (someone keeps stomping around in the 2.4GHz spectrum) and decided to segregate my 5GHz network off on its own. But could the Freewrite handle 5GHz? I couldn’t find any specifications as to what standard it uses for 802.11 (I was able to view the 5GHz network and add it, so it’s clearly using N or even AC — but where is that published?). I wanted to know what the maximum output on a USB charger should be. The port is USB-C, which is very forward thinking, but can I use one of Apple’s 29W USB-C adapters for speedy charging? Or will I kill the battery? (The power adapter question was eventually answered — 7.5W is as high as the battery will take, but you can pretty much use anything.) The Special and Send keys — what are they? Both can do cool stuff, but nothing tells me what functions it has. It’s those sorts of things that need to be better communicated.

Not being able to easily use the text you write without conversion is another issue. Currently, the Freewrite syncs to Postbox and then Postbox syncs to either Dropbox, Evernote, or Google Drive (or all three, if you want to set a provider per folder on the Freewrite’s switch). The text, when it reaches its destination, is currently saved as a DOCX file (despite the website and the Kickstarter site stating it would be saved as TXT — again, communication and documentation are a must) and that is causing quite a bit of gnashing of teeth and rending of breasts in the forums. To get the text for this blog post (roughly 1,700 words of this were written on the Freewrite itself, but I did have to eventually edit), I had to go through hoops to pull the DOCX into iA Writer on my iPad. It’s not horrible, but there are easier ways to handle this and the device should have the ability to make it as seamless as possible (a save to WordPress option, for example, which isn’t impossible due to the WordPress API, or working with Automattic to allow them to sync to Simplenote). Scrivener (on iOS, at least — I’ve yet to try on my Mac) actually helps solve this issue (as you can import the documents into a Scrivener project directly from Dropbox), but not everyone will want to use (or pay for) Scrivener.

A possible problem I foresee with this dependence on the website is Astrohaus not being able to afford keeping the servers going. This device is dependent upon their servers for syncing and settings. Yes, there is the promised ability to pull documents from the device via USB — in a future firmware update. What if it reaches the point where they don’t deliver and go belly up? Astrohaus has stated they are going to unveil that plan, but I would like to see that sooner rather than later.

FINAL VERDICT

I have to commend Astrohaus for sticking with the original vision. There were long discussions by backers on Kickstarter who wanted arrow keys and spellcheck and built-in dictionaries and bolding and italics, etc. (formatting is solved by using Markdown, though). Frankly, I’m just not sure how any of that would have happened having the final product in my hands. If the screen were a touchscreen… maybe? Maybe a stylus to allow you to strike out words and place the cursor? Even that seems a little much for this device.

The positives far outweigh the negatives, in my personal opinion. I’ve seen grumbling here and there. I’ve seen someone say it’s too expensive (it’s not cheap, no) and another (an IT project manager) make the claim the project clearly went off the rails because it was about six months late to deliver and doesn’t have all of its features baked-in. I would normally say that’s legitimate criticism, but this is a Kickstarter award (I’d love to see what projects they worked on that were 100% complete upon delivery). When I think of the big tech Kickstarters (specifically the Pebble), those were not fully baked when they went out to their backers either. We pay for the opportunity to be on the bleeding edge of someone’s possibly fantastic dream. I have an outstanding award for one Kickstarter that was supposed to deliver four years ago — but the guy is communicative and things are finally about to ship. Being the sort who knows thart life can get in the way of your other plans… I roll with it. I don’t expect a fully baked solution from a Kickstarter. Now, I also don’t expect Astrohaus to leave us hanging — I expect firmware updates for years to come (there’s a reason why companies like Blizzard have the following they do when they release upgrades to almost 20 year-old games in order to make them play on modern operating systems). If Astrohaus treats us well, we will treat them well. And I’m willing to go through these minor growning pains to get there.

Do I think there is room for improvement? Most certainly — note the observations I made above.

It works, it’s comfortable, it’s close to what they originally promised. It’s not for everyone, but as a geek with two English degrees and a perchant for writing long blog posts, I love this thing. I think the third or fourth iteration (if it makes it that far because, as is clear, this is a massive niche product and perhaps it will become solely a curiousity in the future) will be an insanely great product. For now, though, it will just have to settle for great (with caveats).

Expression and the right to offend

I was wrapping-up the audio version of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking (an excellent read) and reached the portion about the Boston Marathon bombings and her “a poem for dzhokar” (and the blowback she received) the morning after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Palmer describes what her thought process was when she fiddled with the poem, describes the reaction from her community after she posted it, and then the reaction of people who came across the poem as a news story. [1. “a poem for dzhokar” is not a particularly good work, and Palmer’s not going to be awarded anything for it. But it’s a thought, and it’s art, and it’s designed to provoke and make the reader think. As not just a parent but someone who worked at a university for 15 years, I look at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s pictures from the time of the arrest and I see a dumb 19 year-old kid. I see a kid who is unsure of his place in the universe, life as a whole, and who might have had a bit of hero worship for his brother (who was seven years older). I see a fool who just threw away his life and the lives of many other innocents for nothing.]

The attacks on her were brutal.

Was the poem it in good taste? Perhaps, perhaps not. Was it offensive? Most likely.

She posted the poem a week after the bombing. A lot of people’s emotions were still very raw… it was going to be taken the wrong way by a certain segment, no doubt. I suspect there are plenty of individuals who lashed out in the comments and on Twitter who were emotional wrecks and might have taken it differently two or three months later. They weren’t ready to express any thoughts towards Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or his family — and Palmer’s poem was making them think outside of the pattern they were comfortable with at that point.

I know artists and cartoonists, writers and poets, singers and songwriters. All of them, at some point, have had someone, somewhere, claim their work is offensive. Indeed, if someone is so fundamentally tied to a belief, the work may even be seen as blasphemous.

The more I thought about this, the more I recalled a bit by George Carlin. I think this is a good piece to add to this discussion — it hits on all the topics in the exact ways you’d expect Carlin to. (Let me warn you: This can be a pretty offensive piece. Carlin talks about joking about rape, feminists trying to control language, and the general stupidity of the American male. If you are easily offended, ignore the video and move on.)

Regardless of what you think about what Carlin says in that bit, he has the right to say it. And you have the right to be offended. You have the right to express your disapproval. You do not have an argument simply for the sake of an argument, you have to question who you are as a human being if you threatened him or is his family in response… and you certainly don’t have the right to tell him to shut up.

Simply put, he’s exercising his rights as a human being and an artist. You do not have to like what he’s saying or how he’s saying it, but if you consider yourself an adult and a human being, you need to allow for him to say it. Regardless of how repugnant you may see it, he has the right to say it.

Art, at some point, will (and should) make people uncomfortable. That’s not to say all art that makes people uncomfortable is in bad taste. For example, 2001: A Space Odyssey can make people uncomfortable (though I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who feels it’s offensive), whereas Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat can make many people uncomfortable and also make them feel it’s in bad taste.

We see it in other art forms across other media — James Joyce’s Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the videos for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” the songs “War” by Edwin Starr and “Cop Killer” by Body Count. Each of those make certain people uncomfortable for certain reasons, and more than a few find some of those to be in bad taste as well.

To bring in something more recent: Joss Whedon (the director of The Avengers: Age of Ultron) deactivated his Twitter account recently. He later said it wasn’t because of this, but it coincided with a mass of violent tweets aimed at him for supposedly (in Age of Ultron): equating Black Widow’s forced sterilization to being a “monster” and treating her as a damsel in distress [2. I don’t see anything anti-feminist in the characterization, but rather a reinforcement of many feminist critiques of society as a whole. She makes an excellent point about what choices were made for her, when she had no control over her own existence. As for being a damsel in distress — she was doing her job and was simply captured on the field. And she’s the one who leads the team to the base. Stark or Barton would have had to deal in the same way.]; and joking about rape by having Stark (if he is able to wield Thor’s hammer) say he’s going to reestablish prima nota. [3. He’s saying that once he lifts the hammer, and comes to rule Asgard, he’ll establish the rule that a ruler may sleep with any bride on her wedding night. I’m not crazy about the line, but I see where it was headed. Regardless of the things he’s done over all these movies, he may be a good guy, but he’s not a nice guy — and it feeds into the drastic differences mounting between his character and that of Captain America. Again, I think a different line could have been chosen, but I see why it was put in Stark’s mouth to say.]

Whedon offended some people with his choices. He has the right to. And they have the right to voice disapproval. When we all have a discussion, these sorts of things tend to work themselves out.

But then he was attacked. The vitriol was horrible. When you look at the attacks on Whedon, though, are they any different than the attacks on other individuals (regardless of what you think about her, does Anita Sarkeesian really deserve death threats? Or should you debate the topic better?)? Whatever merit a counterargument may have is completely undercut by calls for someone’s death. Simply disagreeing with someone else should not mean that other person needs to die — it means you need to do a better job at either defending your side (or ignoring that other person).

It all comes down to the right to offend when expressing oneself. And, for many, that’s an issue. This banner and tweet from Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan sum it up:

Such an attitude pervades the Internet — it is not just the stance of an Islamist party in Pakistan. As soon as some segment feels as though it’s being wronged, it starts prepping for battle. There is almost no corner where some variation of that statement above has not been bellowed-out with great fervor, sending the minions forth to attack and tear down and threaten those who have “blasphemed.”

How are the attacks against Whedon different than the ones against Sarkeesian? How are they different than the fatwā issued against Salman Rushdie when The Satanic Verses was published? How are they different from the lead-up to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices? Or the lead-up to the French Christian fundamentalists who attacked the Saint Michel theater in Paris in 1988 when it was showing the The Last Temptation of Christ?

An entrenched, fundamentalist attitude pervades a community in cases like these — and that community refuses to be criticized or have its notions challenged. Thus, they become violent (through words and, sometimes, actions). It seems it doesn’t matter what topic you’re speaking about, the fundamentalists will see blasphemy, and carried to its logical end, the price for blasphemy is the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

Expression is part of who we are. We have to have the freedom to voice ourselves. We have to have the freedom to offend and voice dissent to the offending thing. But violence is never called for.

For everything we love and admire, there is something we will find disgusting. For every Sistine Chapel, there will be a Piss Christ. For every Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” there will be a Bieber’s “Baby.” For every Citizen Kane, there will be The Room.

We have differing opinions. We will disagree on that which is offensive and that which is not. It is the mark of an adult to be able to determine why they are offended and voice why that is without resorting to violence (either emotional, verbal, written, or physical). And, sometimes, the mistake may be so small, so inconsequential, that we need to know when to walk away from it.

In my view, the recent controversy over the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” of Game of Thrones is an example of how to handle disagreement. There have been a few people who have taken the low road and been relatively vitriolic in their reactions, but most have taken a higher road and made their views clear (they won’t continue to watch the show or are canceling HBO, for example). The is constructive and useful, in my opinion. The discussion of why a rape is (usually) a relatively poor literary device for a writer to employ, the discussion of a rape culture and the surrounding media, and the overall back and forth on the topic has been healthy and fruitful (in my opinion). A discussion such as this helps us all.

We have to accept there will be things and people and opinions and stuff we don’t like. We have to accept we will be offended. We will be made angry. And we have to accept those things aren’t going away. There are ways to express discontent and make yourself heard — but you cannot expect to never be offended and you cannot expect anyone and everyone to agree with you.

Freedom of expression is a human right. That expression may be a painting, or a movie, or a book, or a crucifix in urine, or a blog post, or a simple tweet. If what I or others express is seen as offensive or blasphemous, that’s on you to deal with and find a constructive way in which to respond — do not attempt to make someone shut up or threaten violence against them. Do you want to treat each other like adults and discuss the difference, or act like children on a playground? My suggestion is to voice disagreement and debate (civilly) the topic. Perhaps, if you discuss it in a civil manner, you may find yourself at a point where the other person(s) agree with you. If you can’t discuss it in a civil manner, then just pull an Elsa and…

Maggie & 1994

It was 20 years ago (not today… still have a couple of weeks to go for that).

Disregard the fact I was recently single twice-over (my first real serious girlfriend had broken up with me just two weeks before my 21st birthday and the rebound relationship was just a poor choice for both rebound chick and me), or I was starting my senior year of college that fall, or Kurt Cobain (an artist I had, and continue to have, a great affinity and respect for) had killed himself in April. Disregard the fact I was clearly on the precipice of true adulthood and had reached the points where I had the ability to see my decisions had ramifications and that it was time for me to take responsibility for them.

Disregard those as they were things I was disregarding at the time. Had I not disregarded them, and been more introspective, perhaps it would have been more obvious to me I was at a special point in my life (and, later in the fall, such introspection might have saved me, and the girlfriend it was aimed at, the most stupid and hurtful relationship meltdown I ever caused… alas, I wasn’t, and it didn’t).

I was 21, after all. I had long hair, flannel, ripped jeans, an earring, a goatee, Chucks and combat boots (not at the same time, of course), and a grudge against the world because I couldn’t keep a girlfriend and my grunge muse had just offed himself.

A legend in my own mind. I was all that and I was performing at Lollapalooza (you can keep your bag of chips).

No, I wasn’t touring with the show or playing in a band. It was a single day and I was performing poetry.

Now, had you not been alive in the early-mid 1990s (or blinked for about ten minutes), you might have not seen the influx of spoken word artists (poets, only a little less rhyme-y) that flashed (and just as quickly disappeared) on the national scene. We were rock stars without a band (and, in most cases, a competent signing voice) and we wanted our art to be heard! It even made its way to MTV in the way of a few specials and some videos by the likes of Reg E. Gaines and Henry Rollins. I mean… it had to be cool, right? Henry Rollins was on MTV performing spoken word.

Do not get me wrong — there were (and still are) some wonderful performance poets, slam poets, and spoken word artists out there to this day. The Nuyorican Poets Café (one of the epicenters of this literary upheaval) was founded the year I was born and is still going strong. In all seriousness, if you have any interest in American poetry, you need to check this scene out.

But I digress.

My interest in the scene was likely due to the fact that I had some modicum of talent (not much in terms of the poetry, but more in terms of the performance) and there were girls all over. Had I been promiscuous and not a serial monogamist, I likely would have tried to get into dozens more panties (after all… I was 21 and single).

I had beaten back others in a qualifying poetry slam at Planet Ant in Hamtramck earlier in the month and was now performing at Lollapalooza. A surprising (and, in retrospect, humbling) amount of friends came out to support me at Planet Ant, and a good deal of friends, colleagues, mentors, and would-be lovers went to Pine Knob with me that day.

No, I wasn’t on the main stage. Or the second. And the third hadn’t been established yet.

We were squirreled-away in “The Revival Tent of the Rev. Samuel Mudd’s Little Spoken-Word Armageddon”… which meant we were in a fenced-off area of the parking lot. And it wasn’t a cool day. It was late July on an asphalt parking lot in metro Detroit. Thankfully, water was cheaper to buy at Lollapalooza that year than it was the year before, but I digress.

Regardless of all of that, I was performing on the same stage as Maggie Estep.

Now, to understand that sentence, you need to understand the context, which means you need to understand a bit about me.

There are two key parts to the sentence. The first is “performing” and the second is “Maggie Estep.”

First… “performing.”

I’m rather the introvert.

Some assume this is not the case.

As I mentioned earlier, I have some modicum of talent when it comes to presentation and performance. I estimate I’ve presented, performed, or spoken to a rough total 40,000 people in the past 22 or so years. That, alongside my strong embrace of social media, likely makes people assume I’m heavily extroverted to the point of being an exhibitionist (as evidenced by the fact I’m writing an essay for my blog about my experience at Lollapalooza the summer after I turned 21) and that it’s only a matter of time before I appear nude on Rolling Stone in some sort of parody or salute to the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono cover (the one where she’s fully clothed and he’s nude, entangled around her and giving her a kiss on the cheek).These people are wrong.

If you know me (and I mean truly know me), you know what my idea of a good time is (a handful of friends, good discussion, some music, some food and drink). You know I’m a brooding type who likes to have his space. You know I absolutely hate talking on the phone. You know that I get very nervous each time I have to take a stage. The confidence and swagger is a ruse.

But… girls. There were girls. My thought process? “I might be able to sleep with one of those girls.” (I was 21… stop judging me!) This was enough to get me past introversion and stage fright. Especially when you consider one of those girls could be (in my wildest dreams)… Maggie Estep.

maggie estep cover

Oh, Maggie.

I loved the look. The attraction was not solely about the look, but I loved the look. The slightly disheveled hair on the front of the CD, the black tights, combat boots, the lips (oh, those lips!) mixed with the Jersey/New York accent, all accentuated the mind inside that head of hers. Her work spoke to where I was (politically, mentally, and maturity) at the time, and I knew the mind had to match.

The attitude on her face made it clear if you, consumer of this CD, could somehow get past the disdain and manage to work your way into her panties and not have her tear you into tiny pieces verbally, the work getting there would be paid off in the sweetest damned reward (not just physically but mentally)…

She was not just the sex goddess of the western hemisphere, but she was the sex goddess of my mind.

It’s ebbed and flowed over the years, but I’ve always had a strong affinity for her work (even if some of it, in retrospect, is fairly immature).

Early in the morning on February 13 of 2014, I learned the news.

I flipped through the feeds on my iPhone as I was preparing for the workday and came across an entry to Neil Gaiman’s journal entitled “Remembering Maggie Estep.”

Now, I remember thinking clearly Gaiman had to be talking about a time in the 1990s he met her, or a reminiscence of sharing the stage with her or something fun… this couldn’t be a remembrance in terms of a memorial. Estep was only 50. She couldn’t be dead, could she?

I read on. She was dead. Died the day before from a heart attack.

The sex symbol of my then-modern literary awareness was dead.

I’ve thought on her death for these past five months. I thought about how my infatuation with her so clearly summarizes my 21-year-old self’s over-inflated ego and sense of self-importance. I’ve thought about all the lessons I learned in 1994 and how they all boiled down to Maggie Estep.

I was performing at Lollapalooza, yes… but I was performing on the SAME FUCKING STAGE AS MAGGIE FUCKING ESTEP!

There is very little memory of that day for me. I missed most of the concerts (not that I minded much, as Nirvana, the original headliners, were no more), rebuffed advances from a fellow poet (someone I really should have explored a bit with, frankly, because that would have been a better relationship than some of the ones I kept putting myself into prior to dating the woman who became my wife… but her age, 27 or 28, had me a bit freaked-out and I kept her at bay), I performed on the stage, took a literal soapbox out with a friend into the venue and perform (we were encouraged to “stand on our soapboxes” and perform for the crowd), sold a single chapbook, and bombed the main slam (likely due to my piece being critical of Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, who were headlining, and the fact that I didn’t have a stacked audience like I had at Planet Ant).

My main memory is of seeing Maggie, watching Maggie, meeting Maggie, and getting summarily dismissed by Maggie (no getting into her panties for me, it seems… not that I would have deserved to).

The thing that sticks in my mind is, having a literary name (“Geoffrey,” after Chaucer), when it came time to get a CD of hers signed, I told her my name was spelled like the giraffe at Toys R Us.

What did I do that for?

She looked confused, then tolerant, and then I had to move along. I looked at the CD cover she had just signed and what did she write? “I don’t know what your name has to do with a giraffe.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. And not in the good way.

If I could have hid in the group of concert-goers at that point, I would have. I would have just disappeared into it, like Liam Neeson does at the end of Darkman.

But, no. I had to keep up the ruse and perform.

My heart wasn’t in it. I was done for. Not only was my piece the wrong one for the venue, and I had precious few people there to vote for me, I just wasn’t up to pulling it off. I was deflated and dismissed. I didn’t even stick around much longer after the competition was over. I just took the swagger and left for home.

Now, had I learned the lesson and accepted the blow to my ego and learned to turn it around, the rest of that year would have been more pleasant, I think. But I choose to ignore it, and sweep it under the rug, and not really think about what it meant for me.

Honestly, Maggie meant nothing by it and was just confused by the clearly twitterpated 21-year-old in front of her. But had I thought on it, I likely would have learned a lesson then that ended up taking me another four to get through my head (but, again, I was 21…).

Five months ago, I realized I would never have the chance to thank Maggie, my combat-booted sex goddess of the performance poetry movement, for the lesson she inadvertently taught me that day (regardless of the time it took me to actually learn it), and I realize I need to thank her for it.

I realize that such a simple, minor thing in her life, and what I then thought was minor in mine, turned-out to be a massive change in the better for me. As overused as this phrase is, it was a true paradigm shift for me… my entire world was tweaked just a touch by that one little encounter. I highly doubt I’d be who I am today due to that.

We never know, do we? We can never tell when some thing or some one is going to make us something better than what we are? Sometimes it take years to realize it. Sometimes we never do.

I’ll never get the chance to tell Maggie. I hope she died knowing she had an impact (and I don’t use that word lightly). At least one of those who was enamored with her look and voice and mind is able to say she truly touched him, too (and it was so inadvertent she likely would have no idea why, much less still not know what my name has to do with a giraffe).

So, it’s too late for you to hear from me, but… thank you, Not Normal Girl.

Dirty Harry vs. the Invisible Man

In 1952 (60 years ago at the time of this writing), Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man was published.

In 1953, it won the National Book Award.

Invisible Man is a vital piece of American literature. Any student of writing should read it as it is, arguably, one of the most important novels of the 20th century for multiple reasons.

However, I’m not here to conduct a lecture. If you want to read Ellison’s great novel, go over to Amazon and pick up a copy. You needn’t have read the book to understand the gist of what I go into here.

I’m here to discuss the actions of a man who was 22 at the time that novel was published. Whether or not he ever read Ellison’s book isn’t something I know, nor does it really matter. This young man was working on breaking into a career in Hollywood, and he eventually did, getting his break in the western TV series Rawhide, and later having a long and successful career most widely known actors in Hollywood with great influence and clout. He has created great works of cinematic art (and some poor ones), and has greatly influenced the generations of actors after him.

He is, of course, Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood stood in front of the delegates at the 2012 Republican National Convention and proceeded to have a talk, of sorts, with President Obama (who, being a Democrat, was absent from those proceedings) by pretending the president was sitting in a chair to Eastwood’s left.

He is clearly intending to have a one-way dialogue, while also making asides to the delegates, with President Obama when he states “So I — so I’ve got Mr. Obama sitting here. And he’s — I was going to ask him a couple of questions.”

So, Eastwood is talking to, as one Twitter user appropriately called his or her spoof account, “InvisibleObama.”

The president’s campaign, naturally, shot back at Eastwood:


Now, just as this post isn’t about discussing Ellison’s novel, it’s also not about discussing politics. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve never voted for a Republican (though, keep in mind that doesn’t mean I’ve always voted for Democrats), but this is not about politics. I would be making this same exact observation if it were, let’s say, Alec Baldwin doing a similar bit about J.C. Watts at the Democratic convention.

This is a social observation. One that I think needs to be made.

Clint Eastwood, in that ad-libbed, impromptu, un-rehearsed bit summed up the attitude some of (not all of) President Obama’s detractors have had since day one of his arrival on the national stage:

They don’t want to see him, so he’s invisible to them. He is not white, so has no merit in their mind as a man, much less a president, so they completely dismiss him.

Make any arguments of substance you wish against him — I will gladly accept it.

I, for one, think health care reform should have been a single payer system and not echoed the Republicans’ reform efforts from 20 years ago. I want to see Gitmo closed. I want to see the PATRIOT Act repealed and warrantless wiretapping done away with. These are issues of merit.

But these are not the things I hear about from his detractors.

I hear vague fear-mongering — He’s taking away our freedom!

I hear conspiracy theories — His father conspired to make him president to turn the country into a muslim dictatorship!

I hear outright lies that attack the man’s basic identity as an American — He wasn’t born in the US. The birth certificate is fake!

He’s not our president, I’ve heard them say. I don’t think his wife acts like a First Lady. I don’t like to look at either of them. He’s not like us, and, because of that, we do not like him.

Yes, this is about the color of President Obama’s skin.

But, for these detractors to speak up and simply admit to their racism is something they are not prepared for and will not admit.

So they couch it by marginalizing, obstructing, and ignoring. They claim the work he’s done has amounted to nothing, that he has done no good, and that he is inept.

They call him a socialist (without knowing what a socialist is) and attempt to confuse the situation with non-defensible name calling and fear-mongering. And when they do criticize him, they do so in a way that trivializes who he is. They make him imaginary and essentially hurdle insults at him. This marginalizes him… not just as the president, but as a man.

He is to be avoided, shunned, and ignored. He is to be seen as nothing more than a shade passing through our lives. He is to be fought against and demeaned because he is “other” and, to his detractors, being “other” is scary because that’s not the way America used to be.

This is all done in order to tiptoe around their issues with his skin color, which is how these detractors have made him the perfect example of Ellison’s invisible man.

For all that his bit was, I must thank Mr. Eastwood. He underscored the specific thing this group of the president’s detractors have been doing since 2008: Treating him as if he wasn’t there, as if this invisible man might just fade completely away come January of 2013 so life can return to “normal” (a normal that involves a white male president).

This is no different than attitudes during slavery. The dismissal of any humanity the slaves had, the arrogance that they were simply property, and the thinking the slaves should know their place and stay in it… this is the same attitude. The slaves were the invisible men and women of the colonial times and the first 90 years of this country… they were there, but they weren’t there.

The Civil War began 150 years ago.

150 years, yet we still fight the same attitudes and have the same arguments.

Ellison’s novel was published 60 years ago.

60 years, yet Ellison’s invisible man, and the society around him, hasn’t aged a damn day for all that has happened in that time.

If you think any of the non-substantive vitriol is about President Obama’s policies, take a look at the old white man asking questions of the “InvisibleObama” on the chair and making up the answers and reactions.

Take a look at that and realize that has nothing to do with political disagreements. It has everything to do with telling President Obama he has overstepped his boundaries as a black man in America and needs to be put back in his place.

A list of Dracula-related movies for @NeveyB

Following-up on last week’s list of novels, I present my list of Dracula-related movies. I’m a little more opinionated on these so, please, forgive me if we differ in what we like. It’s not personal. 🙂

  • Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) — Excellent example of German expressionism and of silent film over all. Though it’s not technically a film version of Dracula, Florence Stoker (Bram’s widow) saw enough of a similarity (and she was right) that she sued on this over copyright issues and won. We shouldn’t have access to this because all of the copies were supposed to be destroyed as a result of the lawsuit (thankfully, wiser minds prevailed). I don’t care if you don’t like silent movies, you need to watch this is you have any interest in vampires on film. Also of note: This is where a vampire’s destruction by sunlight was created.
  • Dracula (1931) — Lugosi. That’s all I should have to write. See it.
  • Drácula (1931) — This is the Spanish language version of the Lugosi one (the English language actors filmed during the day, then their Spanish language counterparts came in and filmed on the same sets at night). Except for not having Lugosi and Karl Freund, this is the superior version.
  • Dracula’s Daughter (1936) — Not enough people know this movie. This is a direct sequel to the 1931 Dracula and it works. There’s some odd stuff (Van Helsing inexplicably becomes “Von Helsing”), but it is an otherwise great, and very underrated, sequel.
  • Son of Dracula (1943) — I wish they hadn’t made this in the way it was released. It’s the first time we see a calculating female human trying to use the count with femme fatale-style wiles. I think it’s the first mass media vampire story set in New Orleans. But the hangdog Lon Chaney, Jr. was the wrong person to cast as Dracula. Lawrence Talbot is one thing for him (the Wolfman, specifically Talbot, should be sympathetic). Not Dracula, though.
  • Return of the Vampire (1944) — Lugosi is back as Armand Tesla! No, Tesla is not Dracula… but he was supposed to be. Republic tried to license Dracula from Universal, but it fell through, so this planned sequel to the 1931 Dracula became a standalone movie set during the time of the German blitz. It’s quite good, but would have been better as a sequel.
  • House of Frankenstein (1944) — Welcome to the first of the monster rally movies. Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man are all running around in this one. It’s fun. This is the first movie with John Carradine as Dracula.
  • House of Dracula (1945) — The second of the monster rally movies. Dracula (still Carradine), Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man are all back. I find this one a little weaker than the first, but still work watching.
  • Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) — The end of Universal’s classic monsters comes, unexpectedly and in a great way, at the hands of Abbott and Costello. Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man are back, along with a cameo by the Invisible Man (voiced by Vincent Price). This is also the second, and last, time Lugosi plays Dracula on-screen.
  • The Return of Dracula (1958) — A decade passes, and this comes out. It’s a little-known movie now, but it has quite a bit of a following (I find it a bit silly, myself). Dracula attacks a man on a train and steals his identity, making his way to a typically idyllic Californian town in the 1950’s. He then preys upon the innocent young lady in the house he’s staying in. It’s decent, but it was rightfully overshadowed by another release that year…
  • Horror of Dracula (1958) — Hammer comes to the rescue, beginning the count’s reign of terror upon curvy German ladies (who all speak with English accents) with big busts and deep cleavage. The first one with Christopher Lee as the count and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. It’s a lot of fun, thought not true to the book at all.
  • Brides of Dracula (1960) — A sequel without Dracula himself. A rarity, but it does happen. Dracula’s spirit haunts this movie, though, as Cushing’s Van Helsing deals with some of the count’s progeny.
  • Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) — Lee’s count returns, and he is now a fixture in the horror movie pantheon.
  • Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966) — The third movie to have Carradine as Dracula. It’s not that good, but it has its moments.
  • Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968) — A direct sequel to Dracula, Prince of Darkness, we carry on with Dracula corrupting the people around him (this time it’s a priest) and going after lovely young ladies (both a blond and a curvy serving wench). It also has my favorite Dracula movie poster.
  • Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) — Continuing the story started 11 years earlier (as it’s a direct sequel to Dracula Has Risen From the Grave), Dracula is brought back by three upstanding gentlemen who are seeking higher and higher levels of hedonistic pleasure from a creepy Satan worpshipper. After the resurrection ceremony falls apart and the Satanist is… dispatched… by the three gentlemen, Dracula comes for revenge (using the grown children of said “gentlemen” to do the dirty work).
  • Count Dracula (1969) — It’s Lee again, but this is not a Hammer production. It’s a somewhat faithful to the book (though low budget) production by Jesús Franco. I recently watched this again after many years and, while the character of the count is treated relatively faithfully, I have a hard time suggesting anyone watch this. The story goes severely off the tracks after the count leaves for England. Close to a wreck, really.
  • Scars of Dracula (1970) — Someone at Hammer decided it was time to reboot the Dracula franchise after 12 years of continually resurrecting the count, and this was the first shot at doing so. It’s also the only Hammer movie I’ve not seen (it’s a bit rare, and the DVDs are a bit expensive), but I understand it’s decent… and bloody.
  • Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) — I haven’t seen it, but it sounds downright bad. Might be good for a rainy Saturday afternoon.
  • Dracula AD 1972 (1972) — The second shot at rebooting the Hammer Dracula franchise. Warner Brothers had quite a bit of success with Count Yorga (a vampire in the then-modern day), so it was decided to bring Count Dracula into 1972. There were… issues. Cushing returns as Van Helsing’s grandson (showing we are so far out of continuity with Stoker’s book, it would have just been best to give him a new name) who is living with his grown granddaughter (and she just happens to hang out with the wrong type of crowd).
  • Blacula (1972) — What to say? In 1780, the African prince, Mamuwalde, goes to Dracula with help suppressing the slave trade. Dracula, instead, turns the prince into a vampire and kills his wife. The prince comes along in 1972 and finds a woman who looks like his late princess. You know where this is going, so I won’t continue. But it does sound familiar, doesn’t it? Like another vampire movie has the vampire chasing after the woman he thinks is the reincarnation of his bride…
  • Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973) — Pretty much a stock sequel, with Mamuwalde chasing after Pam Grier now. Dracula makes no appearance in this one. If you liked Blacula, then I suggest checking this out (rent or borrow it, though).
  • Dracula (1973) — A made for TV movie by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, Winds of War) and Richard Matheson… with Jack Palance as Dracula! As odd as that seems, Palance actually makes it work and the story, which veers greatly off the tracks from the novel (Lucy is Dracula’s resurrected lover? This sounds awfully familiar…), is still well done. Well worth watching. A bit of trivia: You might see this dated as both 1973 and 1974. It was supposed to air in 1973, but was pre-empted by Richard Nixon’s announcement of Spiro Agnew’s resignation. It was then rescheduled for February of 1974.
  • The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974) — Lee actually slammed this movie before it came out. I can’t say I blame him. Hammer kicks the titillation up a notch here, and there are definitely some sexy lady vampires running around (or, rather, not running around, as some are in bondage), but it’s not that good of a movie. And, thus… Hammer’s series sputters to an end 16 years and eight films after starting.
  • Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1974) — I actually prefer this over its companion, Flesh for Frankenstein, but that’s not really saying much. Udo Kier does an excellent job playing the count. He decides to move to Italy thinking finding virgins to suck on will be easier in a Roman Catholic country (this count needs the blood of virgins, not just blood). It’s interesting. Warhol enjoyed the idea of playing with genre, shock, and pornography… but I think this (and Flesh for Frankenstein, for that matter) really fail at that. I won’t say don’t watch it, but don’t expect anything great from it… other than Kier’s count (which, had he been in the right movie, might have made him a bigger cult star than he is today).
  • Old Dracula (1975) — David Niven plays Dracula with a bunch of Playboy bunnies running around the castle! What could be wrong about this? Plenty. I think this, along with the Blacula movies, might be interesting to do a paper on for a film class (film studies students, you may have this idea free of charge).
  • Count Dracula (1977) — I like this. Not only is it fairly faithful, it has some strong parts to it that make it rise above the others. First, it should be noted this is a 1977 BBC production. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Doctor Who with Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor? the one with the long scarf? really? you don’t know him? you need to watch more television…) knows that the BBC was willing to air quite a bit back then… but the budgets were small. That’s the case here: Massive potential, hindered by a tiny budget. Louis Jourdan plays a dapper, cosmopolitan version of the count, but he and the other main characters actually take second stage to Susan Penhaligon’s Lucy and Jack Shepherd’s Renfield. It drags a bit during Lucy’s “illness,” there are a few things the count does that is out of character (the loving way he treats the brides after they attack Jonathan, for example), and the special effects are atrocious (mostly a negative film effect that’s just a touch too trippy). If you can look past the dated effects and the clear lack of a budget, this is definitely one to add to your viewing list.
  • Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) — The late 1970’s was a bit of a resurgence of the vampire. 1979 alone had this, a remake of the 1931 Dracula, a comedy, and then, four years later, came The Hunger. This, in particular, is my favorite of the group. There are some things, shot-for-shot, taken from the original movie, and I do not like this better than the original, but this is quite a bit of fun.
  • Dracula (1979) — Some people really like this movie. I find Langella lacking (and I like his acting) and I find Badham’s direction in serious need of someone to rein him in. Worth watching once. Wear sunglasses during the laser light show.
  • Love at First Bite (1979) — George Hamilton in a (then) modern-day comedic homage to Lugosi and Browning in NYC. It oddly works. Some of the more 1970’s references might go over the heads of anyone born after 1985.
  • Monster Squad (1987) — Mentioned here because, from what I can tell, there was no strict Dracula movie in the 1980’s. This follows in the tradition of the monster rally movies, and really could be considered The (unofficial) Goonies Meet Frankenstein (in reference to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). It’s cute.
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) — Oh, Mr. Coppola. Let’s take what is essentially a rape scene in the original novel, turn it into a romance between the count and Mina, then steal the basic premise of Blacula and Curtis’s Dracula, and then call it Bram Stoker’s Dracula when it has almost nothing to do with the story Stoker wrote! This movie killed my crush on Winona Ryder because it sucked that much. They just had to call it Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula to get around that (though I would likely still dislike the movie). If this is the only version you’ve watched, you need to read the book and watch another movie — you are only failing yourself by assuming this movie has anything to do with Bram Stoker’s story. Just writing this makes me angry once again about how poorly Coppola handled this story…
  • Dracula: Dead & Loving It (1995) — Again, some folks really like this. I haven’t been a fan of Mel Brooks since Spaceballs (and that, in my opinion, was also a bit weak). Worth watching once and checking out the send-up of the 1931 Dracula (with nods to others, especially Bram Stoker’s Dracula).
  • Dracula 2000 (2000) — I like this movie. It could be better, no doubt, but I like it. It’s a good update, the brides are more than just window dressing, it plays well in the New Orleans setting, and can even serve decently as a sequel. I feel like the Judas part is tacked-on, just for the need to have that explanation of what Dracula is what he is. There is no need to explain his background… let him be a monster.
  • Shadow of the Vampire (2000) — Not really a movie about Dracula, but about the filming of the original Nosferatu. I include it in this list because of its relation to that first movie. Well worth checking out.
  • Dracula 3000 (2004) — Orlock (Dracula) looks like a rejected Love at First Bite cosplayer at some sort of Alien LARP event. And they cast Erika Eleniak in a role where she doesn’t use her best assets. This movie is the worse I’ve ever seen (and, yes, I’ve seen Manos: Hands of Fate in its non-MST3K form). You will feel your jaw drop and smash against the floor when you realize how poor it actually is. Watch it when drunk. Then make sure you never watch it again.
  • Van Helsing (2004) — Another monster rally movie, which should be cool, but it wants so much to be everything for everyone that it is absolutely nothing to anyone. I really dislike this movie. It got the brides of Dracula right, but I don’t think it got Dracula or anything else right — especially Van Helsing. For masochists only (and those who enjoy watching Hollywood completely miss the point of their properties).
  • Dracula 3D (2012) — This is Dario Argento’s take on the story and it does seem to be massively different than the book. Looking at the stills, it looks like it will be a typical Argento-style flick. That may be good, it may be bad (and the reviews on IMDB seem to point closer to the “bad” end of that spectrum).

A post on Dracula-related novels for @NeveyB

Wow… I’m gone to write a novel and I don’t update my real blog in something like eight months! Weird how that works…

But now I’m back!

And, somehow, still dealing with Dracula. I think he’ll be hanging around for a while…

Anyhow… a discussion came up with @DraculaBites and @NeveyB on Twitter a few weeks back about novels related to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As we talked, I said I’d come up with a list of books related to it for @NeveyB.

So… here’s a list.

It’s best to start with the fiction. I’ll do another list for non-fiction, and also movies, later.

Clearly Bram Stoker never wrote a sequel, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t leave us with a treasure trove of things for other writers (myself included) to run with and create our own sequels (or other Dracula-inspired works).

This is by no means complete, but this should be a good start. I’m not going to cast aspersions on these works — some of them have fans, some of them have detractors, and that’s fine. I’m a firm believer in enjoying what you want to enjoy and telling other people to jump from a cliff if they harangue you about it.

Let’s start with the sequels (direct and indirect). There are other sequels in the works, and I will add them here as they are made available for people to read.

  1. Yes, I’m putting my book, The Heritage, first (it’s my list and my blog… I’m allowed to be biased). It follows Jonathan and Mina’s son, Abraham “Quincey” Harker, through an adventure from 1938–1939. It will be available in a few years.
  2. In terms of “official” sequels, Freda Warrington’s Dracula the Undead from 1997 is the first. Penguin commissioned Warrington to write this sequel for the centennial of Dracula. It was given little attention and I only found it when I started digging around while working on the research for my book. It goes down some familiar paths, but stays within the universe Stoker created (including having quite a bit to do with the Scholomance).
  3. The next book is considered the actual official sequel by Stoker’s estate. Written by (his great-grandnephew) Dacre Stoker and a fellow named Ian Holt, the similarly named Dracula the Un-Dead was published in 2009. The reviews are mixed on this, and I think each reader has to make their own determination on this book. I strongly believe there is merit in this book as a vampire novel… but perhaps not as a Dracula novel.
  4. Tony Lee’s comic book series Harker — From the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (2009) is as direct of a sequel as one can get, taking place the year following the novel with all the characters (including Renfield). It’s a very fast read, and actually uses the Countess Dolingen from “Dracula’s Guest” (just as I do). It might be difficult to find, but it’s available through Comixology (if you use their service for electronic comics).
  5. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (2005) is a sequel, but focuses very heavily on the tenuous connection between Count Dracula and Vlad the Impaler. If you aren’t one to accept that connection easily, be forewarned.
  6. Bloodline (2006) and Bloodline Book Two: Reckoning (2007) by Kate Cary are direct sequels showing a vampiric Quincey Harker in World War I and thereafter. I haven’t read them, though I understand Dracula himself plays heavily in these.
  7. Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula works aren’t necessarily sequels as much as they are an alternate storyline where the count won at the end of Dracula and goes on to marry Queen Victoria. This is a massive romp through the real and literary history of the 20th century, intertwining the two so tightly and expertly that, if you have to choose between this and Harry Turtledove, this is the alternate history series you should read. The series consists of Anno Dracula, The Bloody Red Baron, Dracula Cha Cha Cha, and the soon to be published Johnny Alucard. He’s also written a treasure trove of novellas and short stories tied to the series. The best way to see an entire listing is on Wikipedia.
  8. The Tomb of Dracula comic book series from Marvel (1972–79) is an excellent example of the horror comics of the 1970’s. By this point, Hammer Films and their franchise had brought the count into the then-modern world (in Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula), but no one was really paying attention to them at that point. Instead, it was Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan who shaped the popular view of Dracula in the 20th century through their work on this comic book (and the relaxation of the Comics Code in the early 1970’s is directly related to this and the other horror comics of the time). There are issues that can be skipped, but picking up the collected editions of this and Dracula Lives! would be worthwhile for a fan of the count, the old Hammer movies, or non-sparkling vampires with attitude!
  9. Paul Witcover’s Dracula: Asylum (2006) is a sequel, but not to Bram Stoker’s Dracula… it’s a sequel to the 1931 Universal movie with Bela Lugosi (which is curious, since the Dracula’s Daughter from 1936 is a direct sequel, and the count’s remains are pretty much destroyed in that movie)! I hadn’t heard of this book before today and plan on checking it out soon.
  10. This is something I just came across, but there is a series called The Dracula Horror Series by a fellow named Robert Lory. There are no less than nine books in the series and Dracula is back in them, under control (or perhaps he is doing the controlling?) of a wheelchair-bound older man named Damien Harmon. The first book is named (appropriately) Dracula Returns. The Groovy Age of Horror has write-ups on all nine books.
  11. Also over at The Groovy Age of Horror are write-ups on Peter Tremayne’s loose trilogy of Dracula books. Again, I just came across these. The first (Dracula Unborn) seems promising, and the second (The Revenge of Dracula) and third might be interesting to check out (it’s curious the third, which seems to be a romance, is titled Dracula, My Love… the same as a title in the section below).

The next group is made up of the books written as part of the periphery of the original book (think of how Wide Sargasso Sea relates to Jane Eyre):

  1. Dracula, My Love by Syrie James explores Mina’s desire to be with Dracula. I’ve not read it yet (I own it), but it sounds interesting.
  2. Renfield: Slave of Dracula by Barbara Hambly is a retelling of the book from Renfield’s point of view. Hambly is no stranger to vampires, having written the excellent (and not Dracula-related) James Asher vampire novels (Those Who Hunt the Night, Traveling with the Dead, Blood Maidens, and the soon-to-be-published Magistrates of Hell). Again, I have yet to read this.
  3. The Book of Renfield: A Gospel of Dracula by Tim Lucas is another retelling from Renfield’s viewpoint (and, again, I haven’t read it).

Then, finally, the retellings of the original books:

  1. iDrakula by Becca Black is a modern-day retelling of the original book using text messages and email to recreate the epistolary nature of the original. I have read this. It’s well done and is a quick read.
  2. Fangland by John Marks is another updating of the story, and this one does its best to stay away from the name “Dracula.” The Harker name appears, the epistolary format is used once again, and there are travels to eastern Europe… but it seems to stay away from simply retelling Dracula or retelling it with a twist. Again, I have yet to read this.

As I mentioned above, this list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a start.

See anything I missed? Drop me a line in the comments.

Writing a sequel to Stoker’s classic

It’s been a long year (exciting when it comes to my son and wife, but otherwise close to dull). My blog has been rather quiet over the past year. I’ve just been busy and, frankly, unmotivated to write anything over here.

So, how do I solve the doldrums that come about from a year like this? Easy: Make something.

The thing I’m going to make is a sequel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I know, I know. I’ve read (and watched, when it comes to movies) a lot of sequels and adaptations, too. Some were well done (I’m fond of Terence Fisher’s Brides of Dracula), some were not (Dracula 3000, anyone?). Some would have been better as standalone works (Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt’s Dracula the Un-Dead comes to mind), and some had to twist a few things from the original story for the new story to work (such as Marvel Comics’ The Tomb of Dracula and Dracula Lives!).

I want to do something different. I want a logical sequel that doesn’t try to shoehorn the characters from the original story into it and something that doesn’t retcon Stoker’s original story in order to make the new one work. I will try to stay as true to Stoker’s text as possible. Thus, when I started this project, I had to set down specific ground rules to write by within this world. They are:

  1. I am using the text of the 1897 edition, not the 1901 Icelandic version. If you prefer to view Stoker as the “editor” of the book and not its author, I will likely disappoint you in the following statements. Stoker wrote Dracula and his influence over it continues to this day (I, for one, do not subscribe to the idea that the “author is dead” and think Barthes, were he alive, could go hang himself).
  2. The book’s world is not our world. Consider it a parallel or mirror or alternate world/universe or whatever you may like, but the book’s world is not ours.
  3. I consider the book’s world akin to the world of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In Watchmen, superheroes exist and are a fact of life for the inhabitants of the world. Since that’s the case, there is no entertainment with superheroes in it. If this book’s world is a sort of a “Stygian Earth,” one where monsters exist (no matter how little- or well-known that fact is), then their entertainment would tend not explore that side of imagination. It allows for the readers (and the characters) to let go of the 20th century presumptions of the sub-genre and walk into this piece as something more fresh and new, unconstrained by the past century’s burdensome vampire conventions. I can shed the poor Lugosi imitations (“I vant to suck your blood!”), the cinematic conventions (no more destruction by sunlight!), and the romanticizing of the vampires over the past 40 years (Interview with the Vampire, Twilight). We bring ourselves right back to the first square after Dracula.
  4. Stoker himself may have existed in the book’s world, but Dracula does not (nor does any of Stoker’s other fiction). As such, Bela Lugosi will never play Dracula on stage or screen. Christopher Lee and Frank Langella will never feel the bosoms of their prey pressed up against them (nor, for that matter, will Amanda Donohoe slink around on-screen to a snake-charmer’s song).
  5. The journals, diaries, notes, and letters (the originals and Mina’s transcriptions) are in the book’s world. They are in a private collection and very few people know of them, but they exist. In that regard, Dracula’s text is preserved in this world and can be read (more or less) the same way we would read it.
  6. Since I’m accepting Stoker’s book doesn’t exist in this world but the events within it do, then I need to accept all of his book, warts and all. That means, for example, the Borgo Pass is not the very welcoming and scenic vista a real world traveller would see, but the great, treacherous gash in the mountains Jonathan and the others encounter. Or, even though Van Helsing believes the Count to “have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk,” Count Dracula is ethnically Székely (the real Vlad Țepeș was Wallachian) and possibly not Vlad (or, in the book’s world, perhaps Vlad was Székely and not Wallachian). Significantly, whether Count Dracula and Vlad Țepeș are one and the same has nothing to do with this story (and, really, that question has little to do with Stoker’s story either… it’s merely window dressing). Again, the world in the book is not our world, and for that reason there’s little need, in my mind, to reconcile Stoker’s mistakes with their factual equivalents. The book’s world is its own darker version of ours, and thus can work with rules, people, and locations that are slightly different than ours and I’m not looking to fix Stoker’s mistakes when I can simply be telling my own tale.
  7. The events in Dracula take place in 1893. Elizabeth Miller has made an excellent case for the alignment of the dates and general events in Stoker’s book for taking place in that year. Regardless of the actual publication date, Miller makes it clear the book takes place in 1893, which means Jonathan wrote his note at the end of the book in 1900. Since, as I wrote above, Dracula never existed in this book’s world, we needn’t worry about Stoker and his editor’s lack of proper continuity.
  8. Our esteemed and/or contemptible Count is not in this book (nor will he be in anything related to this book). I am of the thought the reader witnesses the destruction of Stoker’s Dracula in November of 1893 each time we read the book. Count Dracula is gone, nothing more than swirling dust in the (fictional version of the) Borgo Pass now. Outside of his influence upon the surviving characters, there is no bringing him back as a presence in the story, regardless of the number of young, curvy ladies with deep cleavage (à la Hammer’s string of vampire movies from the 1950’s to the 1970’s) who may be thrown at his corpse. (Note: This is not to say I have an interest in doing away with the aforementioned young, curvy ladies with deep cleavage in the course of this story. I enjoy Hammer’s vampire movies immensely, even the bad Dracula ones from the 1970’s. I think the Hammer movies made it okay to interject overt sexuality into a story about vampires, and that is for the better. I just won’t be using young, curvy ladies with deep cleavage to resurrect the Count.) Stoker describes a look of peace on Dracula’s face in the split second between Quincey Morris and Jonathan Harker’s blades pressing into his flesh and his subsequent disintegration. He wants this. This final destruction is what he craves, but cannot give himself. Dracula desires his final death. He has been trotted-out innumerable times over the past 114 years… I say we give the Count a much needed rest.

Those are the basic ground rules. I’m sure I will come up with others as I move along.

With those ground rules down, it was time to explore something much more fundamental to the idea of doing a sequel to Dracula: Can a sequel to Dracula work when a pivotal character from the first book doesn’t come back in the next book? Let’s be honest: How does Wide Sargasso Sea work without Jane, but Heathcliff doesn’t… even with Heathcliff himself in it? How come all of the sequels to Stoker’s Dracula (and I’m leaving out Newman, etc., since they change the story of the original book and create alternate history) always have him return?

No doubt the authors of those books see the ability to mine those characters for more story. Dracula has become such a major part of the public imagination that his character practically begs for the blood of young, curvy ladies with deep cleavage so he can continue to terrorize the descendants of Abraham Van Helsing. By creating such a villain, Stoker made himself immortal (without having to succumb to vampirism himself). But, what so many don’t get, is Dracula is not about Count Dracula. He’s a rather minor character. The story is more about the band and their character growth, not the vampire’s desire to prey upon the well-endowed ladies of Victorian England. But, more so than the band, Stoker’s book is truly about the fear of the unknown. The fear of the other. It’s truly about Victorian England slowly losing its grasp on power and fearing the rising influence of the peoples in eastern Europe. It is a book of classic horror that hooks itself into the western mindset of superiority over, and fear of, the backwoods, and backwards, peoples to the east.

The book also uses a very popular convention later overly used and pummeled to death in late 20th century slasher movies. The convention of the “proper” girl being tempted, but ultimately surviving, and the girl with the more libertine impulses succumbing to the evil is used to an extreme in Stoker’s piece. He uses the word “wanton” to describe both Dracula’s brides and Lucy at points throughout the book, painting them as outside of societal norms and as sexual beings, unconstrained by acceptable relationships (the three brides share Dracula, and Lucy has three suitors and later Dracula). Thus, Lucy and the brides, because of their basic dismissal of Victorian morals for women, are sexual predators Stoker is looking down upon. Mina, dear, sweet Mina, is very clearly held up as a paragon of Victorian womanhood (even going to far as to completely eschew the concept of the “New Woman”). Stoker wrote Mina so that she knew her place (so to speak) and, thus, survive the temptation to wantonness that the brides and Lucy embraced.

He also touches on class in his book. Jonathan and Mina, being the forthright and good people they are, are moving up in the world through hard work and doing things the right way (well, and Mr. Hawkins’s well-timed death doesn’t hurt). Lucy, on the other hand, is a bit of a gold-digger, and that, along with her “wanton” ways, dooms her from the start.

So, aside from class, Dracula, in the end, is about two things: 1) xenophobia and how the west is just better off staking the east’s old world traditions in the heart and moving on; and 2) keeping women (and their sexuality) in their proper place. Dracula is, at its heart, a very proper Victorian English book (written by an Irishman…!) that reinforces proper Victorian English ideals.

And that’s the point where I think other sequels to Dracula fail.

A sequel to such a work has to either build upon, endorse, repudiate, or entirely supplant the original ideas. Just having the original characters running around, flashing crosses around while trying to save the young, curvy ladies with deep cleavage of England from Dracula (yet again) isn’t a compelling story. It might be enjoyable to watch, but it’s ultimately insubstantial.

It’s time to walk away from Dracula being in a sequel to Dracula. So, with no Dracula stalking the pages of a sequel, where does it go? As far as I can tell, no one has tried a direct sequel without the Count in it somewhere, but I believe a blank canvas of a character was handed to us by Stoker at the the very end of the book.

Quincey Harker.

Quincey Harker’s been explored in a few pieces before: Marv Wolfman used him (as “Quincy” Harker, presumably for copyright and trademark reasons) in the old Tomb of Dracula series from Marvel as a modern-day (for then) version of Van Helsing. Kate Cary used him as more of a villain in her Bloodline books, and he was also in both Freda Warrington and Stoker & Holt’s sequels as a child and young man.

The issue I take with that is Quincey, the character, comes across entirely under-utilized by Warrington and Stoker & Holt (Wolfman and Cary use him to much greater effect, but I think there’s more to him than either of them went into, either). Quincey has had a heritage thrust upon him that neither he nor his parents asked for. I’ve never bought the idea that Jonathan and Mina kept Quincey in the dark (as some of the sequels point to; it’s an easy way to rehash and summarize Stoker’s book if things need to be explained to Quincey at some point). In Jonathan’s note at the end of the book, Van Helsing makes it very clear that there is much for the then-young Quincey to learn about that time (and about his mother’s role in particular). In many ways, Quincey is a late Victorian John Connor (from The Terminator) in how he has been given no options in his life. He is the son of vampire hunters, vampire hunters who destroyed an old and powerful vampire, and his parents’ friends are already making plans for him in the very young years of his life (as well they should… being the child of the Harkers means he will incur the wrath of those who want revenge).

So, Quincey Harker will be the central character in a story that picks up 45 years after the original. I am lifting Stoker’s idea of telling the story using the epistolary convention, which lends itself beautifully to a blog. Following queues from both Max Barry’s Machine Man serial in 2009, and Michael Gordon’s very entertaining (and currently ongoing) “Bite-Sized Dracula” Twitter & blog serialization of Dracula, I think a serial release makes the most sense. I could write it all now and release it as a single volume, but I think Bite-Sized Dracula has helped to reinforce that an epistolary novel, released serially, does an excellent job building suspense on the part of the reader.

You will be able to read my book for free (both as it is posted and afterwards). If you really end up liking it, there will be ways you can help support me monetarily (and there will be book-related incentives for those who do support the project). At the end, I will bundle it all up and self-publish it (both physical and ebook) as a collected work (including an edited version of this post serving as either an introduction or an afterword).

What can I tell you about the piece right now? It begins just after Quincey’s birthday in 1938 as three individuals come looking for him in the Pampas. And you will get to meet them on November 2, 2011, when I start releasing The Heritage serially at quinceyharker.com.

The embedded bureaucracy

When we hear complaints of “socialism” and “the never-ending war,” and so on, many of those complaints are aimed at the sitting president at the time.

Can we justifiably aim those at the sitting president? Or is he (possibly “she” in a few years?) simply caught in a situation that has rolled out of control, snowballing its way out of DC and all over the citizenry, like some sort of politician-fed Blob? And, if that is the case, who is in the role of Steve McQueen?

I chewed on this in 2008 as I decided who to vote for. I voted for Obama (and probably would do so again) but I think his promises of change were a little lofty. He came across as promising drastic change to both his supporters and detractors. The reality is, neither group properly thought out the role and ability of the executive branch of the government. And I’m not sure Obama’s campaign really foresaw the extreme partisanship (but, even then, dialing-down some of the more lofty expectations might have made more sense).

I voted for Obama not just for his promise to get us out of the wars, but also because I believe health care is a basic human right. I wanted to see him follow-through on those items.

But would have it been different under McCain or any of the other candidates who ran in either party (Tancredo and Kucinich included)? Does the president have enough power to actually affect the country to the point of drastic change?

Or is the president simply a steward at this point?

I think Penn Jillette brought up an excellent point in one of his early “Penn Point” videos. Start about 2:21 (I suggest watching it — my post won’t make sense otherwise):

So according to Jillette’s friend, Obama promised to end the war, got into office, and then learned high-level, top secret information that convinced him to stick with the previous administration’s strategy. Thus, in Jillette’s mind, that possiblity would essentially negate our voices within the democratic process and place true power within the embedded bureaucracy of the federal government (by which I mean the higher-level civil servants and appointed officials who make entire, decades-long careers working for the government).

Do the bureaucrats hold the true power?

If you think about it, Eisenhower’s view of the “military-industrial complex” clearly shows that he was warning us of that in 1961. He originally saw it as the “military-industrial-congressional complex” (and dropping “congressional” so as to not upset the members in Congress who were clearly the target of the statement and needed to be looked at more closely) focusing on how Congress is in the back pocket of special interests (not just the military, at least now), specifically the ones who can make lots and lots of money for a representative’s district or a senator’s state.

That means Congress is part of the bureaucracy and needs to be shaken-up, right? Just as the Tea Party suggests — throw Pelosi and Reid out!

But… who comes in at that point?

Nancy Pelosi has been a member of Congress since 1987. Harry Reid has been in the Senate since the same year and was in Congress from 1983–1987.

Their counterparts are John Boehner (started in Congress in 1991) and Mitch McConnell (started in the Senate in 1985).

It is currently looking like Reid might win his race (narrowly) and that Democrats will lose the House. That means Boehner is expected to become Speaker of the House if this holds.

See a pattern?

Will the Tea Party actually make their newly-elected representatives stage a fight within the chambers of the House in order to place someone more sympathetic to their views in the Speaker’s chair? Possibly. Unlikely, though, as the Tea Party is going to affect very few of the seats as a whole. They simply could not do anything meaningful to substantially change the leadership of the House, even if their favorite candidates sweep every single congressional election. The fight on the floor would be put down before it even started.

Look — I disagree with almost everything related to the Tea Party, but I admire the fact the grassroots members are attempting to affect change. It’s what the left did in this country in 2008. But the reality is we cannot shake up Congress by simply placing the same faces in charge. Even David Frum (a conservative from the second Bush administration who actually has the ability to reason and has gotten into hot water with his fellow conservatives) explores what effect the Tea Party might have… and it isn’t lasting.

On the other hand, however, as we’ve seen in Michigan, instituting terms limits on legislators eventually leads to an extreme lack of institutional knowledge and the inability to get any work done in a hyper-partisan environment. 2010 Michigan is a victim of 1992 Michigan’s inane term limit politics. Any voter with ties to this state and who supported the term limits in 1992 need should be ashamed of themselves, because they are partially responsible for the crap this state is going through right now (congrats, asshats, for the inexperience and rampant idiocy in our lovely state government).

But I digress…

So, we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. Either way, the embedded bureaucracy of the special interests-congressional complex continues because term-limiting them seriously affects the ability of the body to do its work, but allowing ancient old-boy-network types like Strom Thurmond and John Dingell to keep clinging-on to their seats for decades is not what the founders envisioned.

There is a way out.

I have yet to read it, so I am unfamiliar with her entire argument, but Arianna Huffington, in Third World America, calls for full public financing of elections. Her argument? “If someone’s going to own the politicians, it might as well be the American people” (172).

Imagine: Each candidate is provided with a pool of money to run their campaign with. There’s no need to go through the asinine steps of raising money, no need to kowtow to special interests, no need not to speak one’s mind and be truly representative of the peoples’ interests. Imagine what a presidential candidate with public funding could actually honestly say about things like Israel’s settlement policies in the occupied territories. Imagine what it would be like to have a truly honest race, where we didn’t have to listen to sound bites or watch some MILF wannabe from some BFE state wrap herself in the flag and try to be a populist. What an amazing time for American politics that would be.

But public financing of elections is only one step, however.

If the embedded bureaucracy of career government employees (and, again, I’m not talking about a secretary, or an FBI agent, etc., but of policy makers) doesn’t change, then there will continue to be not a special interests-congressional complex but a special interests-government complex. The people who run things behind the scenes and actually hold the power, have the contacts, and know how to pull strings.

Case in point: Pete Rouse.

Ignore the fact that the Tea Party is going to elect people who will either be ineffectual or will bow down to the great orange Boehner as soon as he steps on their toes. Look behind the scenes at people like Rouse.

Pete Rouse has been in Washington since 1971 (yup — that’s 39 years; Nixon was still in his first term, the Vietnam War was still on, and the Beatles had only broken up the year before) and has worked as chief of staff for Tom Daschle and then Barack Obama in the Senate. In fact, he held such strong influence in the Senate that he came to be known as “the 101st Senator.”

He was never elected. The people never chose him. Yet he has been referred to as a senator.

I’m not picking on Pete Rouse. I agree with most of his politics and think he will serve the White House well as the Interim Chief of Staff. I bet I would enjoy talking with him in person.

Let’s look at Dick Armey (always, in my humble opinion, a good one to poke fun at). He was in office until 2003 and then, that same year, became a lobbyist for DLA Piper. Now he claims to be, through FreedomWorks, a leader of the Tea Party… and, the shocking thing is, he seems to be accepted in this role. The man was on Capitol Hill for eighteen years, became a lobbyist, and then became a supposed proponent of “lower taxes, less government, and more freedom” (while still being a lobbyist at DLA Piper; he was not asked to step down from his lobbying role until the health care debate last year). This is someone a supposed grassroots organization is supposed to take their lead, or, rather, “manifesto,” from?

How many Pete Rouses are in the staff of congressional representatives? How many Dick Armeys are now employed as lobbyists and influencing the votes of their former colleagues?

True change isn’t just about the elected officials. We, as voters affect change via our representatives, and that’s where the change starts. The key is not just public financing of elections, though, but of electing people who are truly committed to helping dig out the embedded bureaucrats and act as representatives within the democracy. In order to do that, we need an educated and interested electorate…

Which is the third issue at play here.

People simply don’t care. Charles Rangel gets re-elected time after time after time not for any legislative actions he’s taken in the last 20 or 30 years, but simply simply because of the name recognition and power he’s cultivated in his home district. And then we turn to see Russ Feingold, arguably one of the most productive and bi-partisian senators I’ve ever watched, is fighting for re-election against an opponent who’s funding himself (remember what I wrote above about public financing?) and running against Feingold as a Washington insider.

Elections should not be about removing people simply because they’ve been in Washington for a long time. If that were the case, then Rangel would have been gone a long time ago. This is about the electorate not being educated about how its government functions, or what its (the electorate’s) responsibility is.

For the record, the Tea Party adherents get it wrong: “We the people” elect our representatives to go to Washington to make decisions as our proxies. They can solicit feedback from their constituents, but they are under no obligation to do so. We elect them, within our representative democracy, in order to make the judgements for us. We entrust that power to them and, if they break that trust, then we are to make sure we know if that and that we do what we can to make sure the person is no longer elected. But they are not beholden to our every whim — they are supposed to make these decisions on their own. I think the case for this was made better by a much better writer than I will ever be:

…Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience, — these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution…

-from Edmund Burke’s Speech to the Electors of Bristol, November 3, 1774

Of course Burke was referring to the British Parliament, but the structure of our government is fashioned heavily off of our former mother country’s. So… our representatives are elected, by “We the people,” to use their best judgement as our representatives. It is not their job to blow the way the wind does in the district, it is their job to weigh the issues in front of them and use their best judgement to come to a conclusion.

I can hear some of you still asking: “Who do we blame? The president, or Congress, or long-time government workers, or the lobbyists? Who is to blame for all of this?”

I refer to the never quoted line of Eisenhower’s address that comes after the line mentioning the “military-industrial complex” (the emphasis is mine):

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

So, to answer your question as to who is to blame…

We are.

We are the ones responsible for where we find ourselves. We have not been “an alert and knowledgeable” electorate. We have simply allowed ourselves to be deluded by the political rainmakers, the Jim Carvilles and Mary Matlins of this world (who enjoy politics solely for the figurative game of chess they get to play, not because they truly believe in the people they are working for), into thinking we have binary choices and that our candidates must fit a specific mold. We’ve allowed this hyperpartisan chess game to shape how we govern ourselves and expect government to act.

It’s more than digging-out the embedded bureaucracy. We must take responsibility for our (lack of) actions. At that point, the embedded bureaucracy can be reformed.

Take a deep, long look at the ballot you are about to cast (or should be casting) next month. It’s your responsibility, within the structure of our democracy, to be educated on those races and those proposals. Liberal, conservative, libertarian… whatever, you call yourself, please attempt to educate yourself. In Michigan, a good place to start is publius.org. Check “teh internets” for similar sites in other states, or start with Project Vote Smart.

Think about this like squeezing a pimple… a deep, painful one. It’s going to take some work, and it’ll be messy, but with some effort and a little Clearasil afterwards, that spot should clear up nicely.