July 2006

Again, links I’m tossing somewhere convenient for myself.

  • The Simple Art of Murder (pdf) – Best line:  “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”
  • The Gilded Age – Wikipedia really does make one of the best starting points, sometimes.

Two weird dreams I’ve had in the last couple of nights:

In the first one, Hillary gets elected President in 2008 and appoints me – me, not some dream-me who actually knows squat about such a position – to be Commerce Secretary. The next few weeks are a whirlwind of activity as people try to get me ready for the job. I’m fairly torn, in the dream, between the honor of being the first openly gay Commerce Secretary and being just totally and utterly unqualified for the job. I am also torn because, frankly, I think Hillary’s more Lieberman than Lieberman. Eventually I turn to The Boyf at one point and say, “You know, I didn’t like her to begin with, but this Commerce Secretary stuff? It doesn’t get more half-assed than this.” I wake up when my car is in the motorcade heading to her inauguration.

Second dream is one I had last night, after checking my site logs and finding that a number of people have wound up here after googling for the names of the victims in those murders in my hometown. In the dream, I’m worried that my pseudonymity has been compromised, then it is – by one of my nephews posting a comment asking if I’m me and using my real full name to ask. (In waking life, I actually don’t care. The pseudonym is more of a joke than an attempt at hiding. I mean, yeah, I try to be discreet with personal information online, but I also know my real name is, at very most, two clicks from the page you’re looking at right now, and 99.99% of the people who read this already know me offline anyway, so whatevs.  Yeah, I use this pseudonym elsewhere online, but it’s as much an effort at consistent brand-identity – oh yes I did – as it is an attempt to keep my blog safe from people just randomly googling my name, which would be insane of them anyway because my real name is so remarkably generic.) Like many a superhero, I become concerned that those I love are somehow endangered by people in my far-away hometown knowing I have a blog – because, y’know, blogging about the kittens really generates the archnemeses – and attempt to eradicate all traces of my real identity from the interwebs. Eventually I awake wondering what the next foul plan plotted against me will be. Then I realize it was a dream and immediately wonder at how stupid my subconscious is.

Yesterday I griped that the current Times-News series on a triple murder from forty years ago was lacking in its open discussion of some of the things that doubtless contributed to the murder investigation and the community’s reaction, if not the murder itself:  the lives of gay people in the ’60s, the prejudice against them then and now, the community’s unwillingness to discuss them above a whisper and attitudes towards single, independent women.  I have to at least mostly rectract my complaints, as today’s issue included a story devoted entirely to attitudes at the time, a story that openly discusses the “compromising photographs” rumored to exist from the victims’ large parties (if the pictures existed, they were probably destroyed immediately after the victims were found dead) and some pretty detailed discussions of several thensuspects in the case.

So, I take that back.

That said, isn’t it enlightening (somehow, of something) to note how people who didn’t actually know the guys are quick to fall back on the rumors that the photos were of underage victims of sexual or drug abuse?

As I said yesterday, at least one of the major revelations of these stories – news that perhaps isn’t so new – is how quickly people will fall back into the attitudes and beliefs of that time, their personal prejudices, their personal beliefs.

40 years ago, in my hometown, three people were murdered. The crime has remained unsolved in the intervening decades.

This week, the hometown paper is doing a series of articles about the crime, its victims, and the subsequent investigation. If you want the whole story, you can start with the first article and go from there if you want to read the rest in its presented order. The short version is this: two gay men and a woman who was probably a friend of theirs were murdered, their bodies were abandoned, and when they were discovered five days later the law enforcement officials investigating the crime managed to completely and utterly botch the job. I’m sure they would take issue with that summary of things, but there aren’t very many ways to view an investigation that includes an unprotected crime scene, an officer driving the victim’s car halfway across the county upon its discovery (thus destroying any fingerprints, for instance, that might have been left in it) and a murder investigation that doesn’t even bother with an autopsy until a year after the murder – and then only on one victim.

The story is a remarkable demonstration of the state of law enforcement at the time, perhaps especially in jurisdictions unaccustomed to investigating murder scenes.

The thing that excites me about this series of articles is that I read basically everything there was to find about it when I was in high school. Twenty-five years after the murders, all I could find at the local library were the microfiche copies of the original articles in the local paper. Needless to say, there were aspects left unsaid in those stories. Now, the paper is willing to discuss the fact that two of the victims were gay men, possibly lovers. Now, the paper is willing to discuss that one of the victims had long been friends with African-American recording artists of the time and had been the victim of intimidation tactics when a black musician stayed as a houseguest for a few days in the 1960’s. Now, the paper will discuss the rumors from that time that two of the victims had been involved in drugs – possibly for sex – and the rumors that they had been with prominent, closeted gay men in the community.

What bugs me most about the current coverage, however, is what always bugs me about news coverage: that mix of prudish “good taste” and sensationalism that leads to articles that will discuss in detail the obvious sexual assault of the woman who was among the victims but will only mention in passing that the two men may have been in possession of “compromising photos” from various parties they threw in Hendersonville and Asheville. This may sound dumb, but c’mon. In the debate between “good taste” and telling the full story, pick a path and stick to it. There is rarely a middle way. If you’re going to frickin’ diagram the murder scene, including details about injuries to a woman’s anatomy, don’t suddenly get shy about the rumors these two guys were the hottest potential blackmailers in town. It’s not even a gender-equality thing here, it’s just… either tell the story or don’t. Y’know? This is the post-Monicagate era, ferchristsake. We can talk about these things, and we don’t have to use them as a teaser for the next day’s articles then bury them in a couple of single-sentence quotes before the jump.

And of course it bothers me that if the deal was that they were murdered for knowing a bit too much, perhaps even first-hand, about the proclivities of the various closet queens of the southern WNC mountains then an article that skirts that whole issue is itself an expression of the very silence that might have made these men dangerous. Likewise, a story that will so freely discuss the romantic history, and rumors thereof, of the woman who was the third victim – down to quoting her father as having said, “She still likes the men” – is also an expression of the same contemporary attitudes that made her a forgettable victim, easily dismissed either as someone clearly knee-deep in “trouble” or someone who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, as others insist.

Perhaps that’s the best purpose the story can serve, to document that the attitudes of the time are so quickly and easily reflected in the quotes that can still be obtained today, to remind us that we walk with those same burdens of acquired shame on our backs. Everyone starts off talking about what great guys Glass and Shipman were, always on time to work, always sharply dressed, always having people over for Sunday dinner or big parties, and then the next step of conversation – at least in the retelling – is to immediately leap from there to intimations that they were dealing, they were the secret boytoys of community pillars, that there were pictures, etc. There is no middle ground. They seem to universally be remembered either as perfect mamas’ boys or twin icons of vice. Likewise with Shumate; everyone who speaks of her either talks of her as an aloof intellectual with a taste for parties or as an innocent victim who somehow happened to go from picking blackberries on Old Mills River Road to being beaten to death on the other side of town with absolutely no intermediary steps.

I don’t blame the journalists of the Times-News, to be honest. It seems to me like they have tried to integrate and synthesize the two very different world views of that place and the two very different standards for acceptable discourse of that time and this, and in so doing they have reflected the cultural chasm that is at the heart of almost every small-town-life drama. Gay men living in a place and time when there were precious few outlets for what gay culture there was were forced into the shadows, forced into relationships made inherently sketchy by their clandestine nature, and people either ignored it or whispered about it, but no one sought to change it. Meanwhile, a woman who was divorced, independent and possibly addicted to prescription drugs is neatly pigeonholed along the lines of the ol’ sinner-saint framework. And still, forty years later, almost everyone is quick to rush back to those old positions.

To be fair to those quoted in the stories, there are plenty of people who clearly did not hate Glass and Shipman for being gay, and there are relatives of Shumate who are quick to talk about her in friendly, even wistful terms. The second the story steps outside of that, though, and particularly when it gets to those charged with investigating the crime itself, attitudes very quickly return to the old strategies of ignoring who and where and when they were or immediately pointing to those facts as self-supporting explanations for what happened. If the Times-News wants to shed new light on the case, other than describing the crime scene in detail or being willing to mention, if only briefly, the seedier aspects of their lives, it could at least do them the service of discussing attitudes towards them in the same era – and now.

If they’re going to run a quote like “Word was they gave drugs for sexual favors,” from a retired deputy, there are at least two other questions they could ask:

So is that what got them killed?

Or did it keep anyone from digging very deep after they were killed?

Just some links I’m tossing up for myself, for NaNoWriMo planning & thinking:

Also, a general request for assistance:  what’s your favorite/most recommended book on the Victorian Era?  Any aspect thereof is cool – daily life, commerce, politics, whatever.

Two, actually:

  • There is nothing as precious as listening to a kitten snore.
  • Except for when he snores while lying flat on his back, legs everywhere, with his head cocked to one side.

I’ve had this conversation (translation: rambled lengthily at them) with so many friends recently that I guess I should blog it. I’m still working on 2012, and here’s the deal: for all that I am a neopagan with what most might consider pretty fruity-tooty religious beliefs, I’m having trouble buying a word of it. (“It,” in this instance, is the possibility that in six years some massive event of global consciousness-shifting is going to take place and create a do-or-die moment for humanity.)

It’s not that I think Pinchbeck is dishonest, or a scam artist – I am utterly prepared to believe that he believes what he’s saying – it’s that so much of what he has experienced or believes he has experienced is so subjective as to be almost useless when communicated to another person. For all that I have seen and experienced things that defy normal explanation (such as the story of the ghost of Wilson Library, for those who know me) and in which I believe just as surely as I believe in the chair in which I sit as I write this, I also know that those experiences are so subjective, so interpreted and reinterpreted by my own psyche and so mediated by my own ability to perceive and then process and retell those perceptions, that it would actually be sort of silly for me to expect anyone else to really believe me when I tell them.

At SwingOut this year, Bascha asked me to tell the gentleman friend of one of our fraternity sisters the story of one of these events. I do love to hear myself talk about myself – I have a blog, this is self-evident – and so I agreed, but when I was done, and he said, “See, this bothers me, because you seem like a credible person but I’m very skeptical about these sorts of events,” I clapped him on the arm and said, “Do be skeptical. I don’t expect you to believe a word of it, and if it were someone else standing here telling that story, I wouldn’t believe a word of it, either, because I am simply not the sort of person who believes in the imperceptible arcana of the world based on someone else’s word. Do not believe this story just because I’ve told you. I don’t gain or lose anything by your belief or disbelief, so by all means, cling to your skepticism, because it is far more valuable.”

I mean, that’s the only sane perspective I can come up with. Yeah, I’ve seen crazy shit. So do crazy people. I don’t think anyone necessarily gains from knowing that I’ve seen crazy shit – or, rather, from knowing that I believe I’ve seen crazy shit. If we went around taking everyone at their word on things no one else can or does see, it would take two seconds for us to be neck-deep in the worst possible hybrid of Moonie Scientologist Baptists. Seriously, it would be extremely bad. Individual people can believe whatever they want based on their individual experiences, imaginings and interpretations, and that is good and healthy because it indicates that they are at least midlly curious about the world around them, but in groups – and especially as a society – I think it is vital that we base our decisions and actions solely on the evidence available to us. Doing otherwise is what gets us James Watt saying environmental restrictions don’t really matter since Jesus is due back any day now, or Bush saying that God told him to invade Iraq. We don’t need the complex business of trying to hold together any society of two or more people muddled by things not all of them see or believe. So, skepticism: it’s a good thing.

Of course, much of 2012 is about the alienation many people feel from the world around them and the other people in it – in the context of advocating a breakdown of that alienation – and such skepticism may simply be another tool of maintaining that alienation. I don’t really have an answer to that, but I also don’t really feel that I need one. See, the nature of personal revelation – and I don’t doubt that many people have them, as these are the stuff of every religion and philosophy, even the ones without gods – is just that: it is personal. The idea of the koan – the Buddhist parables that challenge the seeker to discover the wisdom within them – may be the most applicable demonstration of this. Koans are meant to be tough nuts to crack, as it were. They are meant to be immune to a simple, rational explanation of them. The wisdom within them can only be received as a sudden revelation after contemplation and study. Even though the koan is passed from teacher to student in a form that can be rationally and objectively agreed upon, the lesson of the koan comes to each student in a moment of intensely personal insight. There is no explaining them. There is no Cliff’s Notes version of enlightenment. Revelations, and the signs and synchronicities that lead someone to look at the world in a unique way that shows them something they hadn’t seen before, are as much what the observer brings to the experience as they are the experience itself, perhaps even more observer than experience.

So, I sit and read 2012 and I think, “Well, that’s great, but give me something I can measure, something I can see and touch and poke and prod and photograph and bring out into the light of shared experience.” But I don’t get that, and I’m too skeptical to just take anyone’s word on pretty much anything, and at the same time that attitude is precisely opposite that which the author seems to recommend.

I will note that Pinchbeck is just as ready to call someone on it when he thinks they’re BSing or otherwise espousing some philosophy with something less than full honesty or full faculties. There are times when he comes out and says that he dismissed entirely someone’s claim or someone’s way of thinking. Much of what he shares of his own experience is told in a way that makes plain his knowledge that this was his experience and no one else’s. He’s an entertaining writer and a great storyteller. He seems earnest. It’s just… I’m skeptical. I don’t buy into the idea of huge life-changing events. It all smacks, frankly, of millenialism. Perhaps I’m simply too soiled by the skepticism and materialism of the world to open my mind to his way of thinking, but on the other hand, I’m not denying that there may be aspects of the world which we do not currently understand or comprehend – I can think of times in my life when I felt I had brushed against the Unseen & Unknown, myself. However, I haven’t brushed against his version of the Unseen & Unknown, and so while I find it an interesting story, and an intriguing idea, I don’t really plan to live my life in expectation that anything he says may happen in the future.

I guess, bottom line, what I hope comes to people who read his book is that they set it aside at the end with the feeling that it was interesting to hear his take on things. If hearing his take on things makes them more open to the Unseen & Unknown in their own lives, when it appears, then great. Maybe that’s his entire purpose with the book, I simply don’t know. On the other hand, the Unseen & Unknown do not appear to all people. Plenty of – perhaps most? – folks go through their lives without feeling they’ve ever encountered anything more than plain ol’ consensual reality, and that’s just the way it is. Maybe that demonstrates that people need thinkers out on the fringe of experience, such as Pinchbeck, to blow the dust off their ability to experience the Unseen & Unknown.

Or maybe that just means the rest of us are crazy.

I can’t remember where I first saw it, but I really enjoyed reading a Lovecraftian response to a 419 scammer.  Little did a realize it’s a bit of a cottage industry in its own right…

The long weekend (even for me, who has a 3-day every week) was celebrated in fine fashion by The Boyf, Katastrophes, Mr. Pink Eyes, Pants Wilder, Deadblob, Mr. Saturday and others. Saturday we had sushi around the corner from our house, then rented Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Mr. Pink Eyes tried half-seriously to get us to rent some bad, bad vampire movies, but we were strong. Instead we dithered over videogames for an enjoyable while, then when it came time to check out we realized that none of us had a membership to the evil video place in question. I remembered that there was a card for it that had literally fallen out of space-time to land in the floorboard of my car. I had not rented from Blockbuster in many, many years, but on checking the card in my car it turned out to be my card from, oh, seven years ago? Eight? Something like that. I handed it to the woman behind the counter as though it were a thing made of fairy dust, as though it were an illusion that would pass right through her hand and vanish with a tiny fwip! before we’d even have time to gasp. Instead, it worked just fine. I was shocked. I didn’t even know that card still existed. I don’t even know how it got into my current car when the last time I used it was… three cars ago? Yes. Three cars ago. How it came to be in my floorboard on the one night in a decade that I’d be at Blockbuster, I will never know.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit was pretty funny. I think it earned mixed reviews from my friends, and it was certainly lacking some degree of the madcap that can be found in, say, The Wrong Trousers, but it was still pretty hilarious. I think they’ve gotten very good at refining out all but the most visual elements of some of their gags, to the point that my favorite joke in the whole movie didn’t involve a single spoken word and didn’t even make itself apparent until it was practically already over.

Sunday was The Day We Cleaned The House. It has to be capitalized like that. It has to be turned into an Event. I mowed the lawn, we vacuumed, we swept and mopped, we washed floor mats, we cleaned the back deck, I mowed part of the back yard, and so forth and so on. By the time it was over, I wanted to lay down and die. Sunday was also the day I started playing Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, which is a fun little action-platformer. It is not exactly a difficult game (at least, not so far), but it’s very entertaining. It’s just hard enough that I get the satisfaction of having succeeded, but not so hard that I can’t breeze through most of it. Recommended if you haven’t played a modern platformer in a while.

For part of Sunday, in order to keep the kittens occupied while The Boyf did work he didn’t want them to disturb, I holed up in the bedroom with the cats and Sight Unseen. It’s easily the creepiest ghost story I’ve read in a long, long time, and it’s built around a really clever idea. A sci-fi ghost story? I’m sold.

Monday was The Day We Ate. I hit Chapel Hill Comics for the week’s bag, tossing Astonishing X-Men into my lineup on being told it’s written by Joss Whedon. Picked up the first two trades and the three most recent issues to give myself the whole run. So far, yes, if you’ve seen X-Men III then in some ways you’ve read this. The major difference is that Astonishing X-Men doesn’t make you want to slap everyone involved in its making. On the other hand, the 2nd trade’s main story-arc is, frankly, dumb. It’s entertaining, but the core idea is just… well, it’s hackneyed, but I can’t say why because at least two friends have asked to borrow it. Still, it’s entertaining. And the third arc, which starts with issue 13, looks to be a lot more interesting. I also picked up the first four issues of Doc Frankenstein, which makes me giggle with glee. Frankenstein, advocate of science and rationale, goes toe-to-toe with the Church. I like it. I like it very much.

After that, it was off to Driade to hang with Deadblob for a while, where we eavesdropped on an extended family repeatedly testing their children’s memories of mundane trivia about their relations. Questions like “What does daddy cook for breakfast?” and “What color are your eyes?” and “What is Uncle Bob’s last name?” do not, at least to me, suggest a methodology of engaging small minds and checking them for fact retention. Instead, it just sounded like they were making sure the kids had their new identities down pat. I kept waiting for “Where have you always lived?” and “What do you do if the phone rings and you answer it and a strange man tells you ‘the mongoose is loose in the stream?’ Yes, you hang up and bring daddy his guns, that’s very good.”

That evening, a whole slew of us met up at Chez Gingerbread to grill and eat. We grilled a lot. Then we ate a lot. Then we sat around and played Mario Party 7, with Katastrophes taking the crown.

And finally, on Tuesday, I spent the day playing WoW, as several of us did some practicing for our 45-minute UD Strat run. When we are really on top of our game, the five of us are simply a wonder to behold. We’re just really, really good at WoW. It was so nice to spend a long, hot day inside, doing nothing serious, just enjoying myself with friends and kittens. I really don’t think it gets better than that.

Today, back in the office and vaguely numbed by how much there is to do. Earlier I walked outside right at 9pm to take a break and found that the sky had turned such a color that I could not tell what was sky and what was cloud; one was very, very deep blue-black, the other grey. Either night had just fallen and the lights of the city were starting to reflect from the clouds, or the sky was something just shy of utterly dark. Either way, it was beautiful. It’s that kind of thing that keeps you going when you’re ready to throttle some customers to finish out the day.