Archive for the ‘ Thoughts & Musings ’ Category

Gun Crimes Have One Common Factor, and It’s In the Name

Here are some things that other developed nations have:

    • people with untreated mental illnesses
    • social stigmas against seeking help for depression, alienation, etc.
    • violent video games
    • violent movies
    • public spaces where people, by law, may not carry guns

Here are some things that no other developed nations have:

    • virtually unrestricted access to all kinds of firearms
    • our insanely high rates of gun killings (by an order of magnitude or two)

It’s not actually that complex.


I overshare my happiness. I undershare my sadness.


I overshare my rage with structural and systemic injustices, and undershare my anger at wrongs done to my person specifically.


I overshare my food and my drink and my hospitality. I will overshare yours, too.


I overshare the fact that I think you are pretty, and that I would be delighted to make out and/or go to bed with you (although usually not until I have had some beer for courage), and I wish that you would do the same. I undershare the amazing extent to which said making out and going to bed is smiled upon by all current participants in my romantic and sexual life, but only because it seems rude to talk about them when I am with you.


I will probably overshare “the deets” with said participants, but purely from a mental and physical health standpoint.


I overshare on digital spaces that feel like they are mine: my blog, my own Facebook feed; my writing. I undershare on all other social media.


I think you should do the same. Especially re: Facebook.


I overshare about anything pretty willingly, but only if you ask me directly. I undershare when I’m making my half of the conversation up as I go along.


I overshare about things I have read recently that I thought were interesting. This is not to show off; it is because I cannot carry all the interesting things I have read recently around with me all the time to give to you when it seems relevant. I would be happy to clip an article or e-mail you a link if you would rather read the full text and form your own opinions.


I overshare clippings and links, too. This seems to be embedded on the paternal gene.


I undershare the degree to which I worry that you have not contacted me recently because you are angry with me, or have decided you do not like me for some reason, rather than because there has been no real reason to contact me and you have other things to do with your time. Or I did until now.


I overshare my business cards. Why not? FedEx sells them in lots of like 250, and I don’t meet that many new people.


I overshare love.


I undershare love.


But I am, on the whole and when you come down to it, generally in favor of more sharing rather than less.

What about you?

People Who Do Stuff are the Peoplest People (A Reunion-Inspired Ramble on Self-Betterment)

College reunion! That magical moment when those battered and bruised by real life can crawl briefly back to the sheltered academe, where the most stressful decision is whether to go to the 2:30 lecture or just lie on the grass in the sun and make out with someone cute for the next hour.


A time for seeing old friends and meeting new ones, drinking like you’re 18 and getting hangovers like you’re not, testing whether the dorm beds can still hold an intensely active two or even three or more (they can), and finding out whether you can ride a mattress down a flight of stairs standing up without hurting yourself (you can’t).

The re-creation of our college days was pretty faithful, I guess is what I’m trying to say here.

Reunion is also a time for everyone to polish their “what I’m doing now” speech until it gleams. You spend a lot of time repeating the basic catch-up schtick, in greater or lesser circles of people who thank god they’re wearing those dorky nametags because you remember them as “dude who was super quiet and dorky in class but then always ended up right at the center of the loudest and craziest dance parties” or “girl who was always crossing the train tracks heading west when I was coming back east from my history seminar that one semester,” and what the hell were their real names again?

So having heard an awful lot of those thirty second life-summaries and the conversations that followed them, I have come to a fairly obvious conclusion, no less true for its simplicity: if you do stuff, you are a better person to be around.

grinnell-college-honor-gBy “do stuff” I mean get out in the world and interact. With the world, with people; whatever. Having things that take up your time and that aren’t specifically designed as entertainment (TV shows, games, whatever) is really fucking good for you.

This was observable from the conversations. It wasn’t just an issue of having more things to say words about; it was that the people who spent a lot of time on the road or engaged in their community or whatever were better at saying words. There was more give and take. Conversation flowed more naturally.

Grinnellians being, by and large, a go-out-and-do-stuff bunch (I felt woefully under-travelled by the end of Reunion), that meant that nearly all of the catching-up conversation circles were great. They were lively, fun, and very equitable, with lots of genuine interest in what people were doing, mostly because what people were doing was awesome.

I have had other conversations with other social circles that make a noticeable contrast. People who do not go out and do things, and who mostly interact via products designed specifically for entertainment, are much more prone to lapsing into silence or forgetting to offer the basic conversational prompts that keep things moving along.

Go out and do something.

Seriously. Whatever you want, but make it a thing, for its own sake, and get into it.

Hike a bigass trail somewhere. Go to Burning Man, or a foreign country, or a meditative retreat, or anything/where that’s not a business trip. Volunteer with a non-profit. Work a political campaign (no, just kidding; that was an utterly shitty experience in my brief brush with it, but at least it was a thing!). Join an improv group. Play rec-league sports. Whatever.

Because the corollary to my observations this last weekend is that it doesn’t seem to matter too much what you do. If you’re out doing a thing, you’ll come back from it ready and able to engage with other human beings.

And if you’re not out doing thing, you’re kind of not ready. So maybe work on that.

Learning to Love the Humblebrag

Humblebrags are growing on me.

The phenomenon is nothing new, but labeling it seems to mostly be a social media phenomenon, and so most of the examples come from social media as well: updates couched in the language of modesty that serve no function beyond highlighting the poster’s success.

“Exhausted after a measly 5k run — so out of shape” is a humblebrag. So is “Back from vacation in Europe – never had a moment to sit down – I need a vacation from my vacation!”

This is generally viewed as despicable. It combines everyone’s least favorite social media post (the kind that is all about the poster, with no room for discussion beyond “go you”) with a treacly disingenuousness guaranteed to stick in even the most forgiving craw.

humblebrag-urban-dictionaryBut like I said: growing on me.

The trick is to read them without a trace of irony. Gravely take the poster at their word; assume that they are sincere in acknowledging the limits of their achievements.

We are, after all, specks of dust hurtling through an infinite cosmos; collections of strange chemical impulses lurching about in a grotesque parody of rational action. The very peak of human ambition is ultimately meaningless. Congratulate your humblebragging friends for recognizing the impotence of their actions, and for continuing to endure the horror of life even in the face of its futility!

That 5k might not have been much, but at least they went another day without lying down to wait for sweet oblivion. That’s pretty good — if ultimately pointless.

The Death of a Rabbit (The Life of a Crow)

Yesterday I held a baby rabbit in my hands (and dropped it from my hands, briefly, onto the hood of a white car: red blood turned orange by smearing, subcutaneous fat).

A crow had been pecking at it. I chased the crow away, but, doing so, scared also the mother of the baby (or else some unrelated large rabbit that had taken an interest), and I wondered if it was worth it, to the bunny, to trade the familiar face for a moment of respite.

Inside the bank, I asked a teller for a cardboard box, “one of the small ones that you keep the rolls of change in would be perfect.”

When she asked why, I told her a little rabbit had been hit by a car in the parking lot. Her eyes turned wet: “Don’t tell me that!”

“I think he’ll be okay,” I lied, “If I can get him some shelter from the crows.” (He was not going to be okay. One leg was badly broken, the bone a throbbing bulge beneath matted fur. Flesh was torn and bleeding in many places.)

As she turned to get the box, she watched the crow fly by the window, our wounded rabbit in its beak.

And I thought, “How sad,”

And I thought, “Well, crows have to eat too.”

“Dead Man Walking” Brings Opera Into the Present

As I mentioned yesterday, Madison Opera invited me to come see their preview showing of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and write a bit about it.

I’ve done just that, but I’d be doing both the generous public relations team at Madison Opera and you guys a disservice if I didn’t first say: go see it, if you’re in Madison this weekend. The opera is showing Friday, April 25 at 8 PM and Sunday, April 27 at 2:30 PM, and it will be harder for us to be friends if you don’t take advantage while it’s here.


This was the first contemporary opera I’ve seen that does what opera’s supposed to do: it tells you a story, and tells it so goddamn hard you cry.

Contemporary opera often has a whiff of desperation about it: “Look how modern and experimental we are being! To hell with tradition! Tradition is for old people, who will soon die and stop donating (although we’re totally going to bug them in the programs about legacy gifts). Mozart? Puccini? Never heard of those guys. Listen to our atonal growling!”

Heggie’s Dead Man Walking doesn’t do different for the sake of different. The music is unmistakably modern, but draws more on American roots than 20th century minimalism or post-modernism for its sound. There are bits of gospel, zydeco, and even Elvis in the orchestration.

Beginners can get into it. That’s very important. And I dare say someone who gets into this one could also get into the standard repertoire, because (and here we come to my thesis at last), Dead Man Walking is, at its heart, about opera as much as it is about anything else.

Opera is Some Heavy Shit

I’m as guilty as anyone of giggling over the ridiculously implausible scenarios of classic tragic opera. (The last time I did this for Madison Opera, in fact, the result was a very tongue-in-cheek play by play of Don Giovanni, which is generally seen as a “fun” evening of opera despite being about rape, murder, and more murder.)

That’s a culture and a tradition Jake Heggie doesn’t seem shy to take on with Dead Man Walking.

The plot is right at home in the same canon as Don Giovanni, Il Trovatore, Tosca, and other rape/murder/revenge/execution stories. There are corrupt churchmen, unrepentant rapists, bereaved parents seeking death in repayment for their slaughtered children — all the hallmarks of a fun night at the opera, in other words.

Which is pretty fucked up, when you think about it. And Dead Man Walking does not shy away from the fucked-up, beginning with a graphic on-stage depiction of the rape and double-murder that starts it all before segueing into a quiet hymn sung solo by the character of Sister Helen Prejean.

Dead Man Walking is about capital punishment. But it can’t remove itself from the context of the opera house, and that makes it about what we as audiences find entertaining, too.

Death should not be trivialized. The show makes that very, very clear, from the opening brutality to the heartrending quartet sung by the bereaved parents near the end of the first act all the way through to the Gothic-sounding chorus on the march to the Death House. It’s a condemnation both of capital punishment itself, and of people who can accept it. (“Just doing my job” sings the warden, in a deep and appropriately villainous bass.)

There are a lot of things in there to make any opera-goer think, first time novice or jaded expert alike. I filled quite a few pages with notes, on everything from the Christ symbolism (cruciform gurney, guards talking about selling the condemned Joseph’s clothes, etc.) to the troubled role of Sister Helen’s celibacy (more than one parent criticizes her for not being able to understand what having a child is like, and near the end her exchanges with Joseph become deeply sexualized: “Have you let me in, Sister Helen?”/”Oh yes, so much more than I ever imagined.”)

But really, if you’re in Madison this weekend, or if you’re ever somewhere it’s playing, you should just go see it for yourself. Seriously.

Info is here for the Madison Opera production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.

Our Bizarre Handling of “Debts to Society”

Fair warning: Madison Opera has asked me to come write about one of their new shows again, so that experience will be informing the next couple of posts here on MA101.

If you’ve been reading for at least a year, you may remember last April’s Don Giovanni live-blog. Since the current show is Dead Man Walking, a contemporary opera based on the real-life story of Sister Helen Prejean’s work with prisoners sentenced to death at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, coverage will be a little less light-hearted this time around (although in an ironic twist, Dead Man Walking would be a perfectly appropriate alt-title for Don Giovanni, too).

So here are some heavy thoughts in anticipation of further heavy thoughts about crime, punishment, America’s criminal justice system, and all that.


Justice statueThe idea of retributive justice for crimes, especially violent crimes, is about as old as human civilization. So is crime, which suggests that retributive justice isn’t a great deterrent.

Seriously. I’m all for experimental social science, up to a point, but we’ve been trying to prevent anti-social behaviors like murder, theft, etc. by demanding equal retribution (or as close to it as the law can approximate) for at minimum 4000 years now.

The data does not show this system as working very well.

Retributive justice hasn’t actually come that far since the Code of Hammurabi. Probably the biggest evolution is that these days we try to legally codify victims out of the equation, and treat penalties other than monetary compensation for provable expenses as part of a “debt to society” rather than an act of personal vengeance carried out by officers of the law. (Not that you won’t hear impassioned cries for vengeance in most prosecutors’ closing arguments.)

That has the conscience-soothing effect of making punishments more impersonal — it’s not your legal opponent or the jailer or the executioner punishing you; it’s society! — but it also suggests that society has a stake in the punishment.

And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we also get a say?


Here is the reality of a convicted criminal’s “debt to society”: it is something that you, a random member of society, will never, ever be paid.

In fact, you’re paying for it. Locking people up is expensive. The average cost of incarcerating a federal prisoner in America for one year was just under $29,000 in 2011; it’s probably gone up slightly since then.

So if, to use the common phrase, a convicted felon is released after “paying his debt to society” with 25 years behind bars, society (meaning you and your fellow taxpayers) has actually ponied up three-quarters of a million dollars, give or take, as punishment for his crime.

Which begs the question: how many of you really feel like you’re getting your money’s worth on that deal?


What do we really get when we lock a prisoner up?

There are three basic arguments: security (potential threats need to be kept away from members of society), deterrence (demonstrating penalties will scare other potential offenders into following the law), and pure retribution (people who have made other people suffer should, as a moral imperative, be made to suffer).


Of the three, security is the most compelling. You don’t want a demonstrably violent offender running around the streets with access to weaponry; you don’t want a proven thief out there unsupervised. In the short term, some people genuinely do need to be separated from the rest of society, at least until the causes underlying their initial crime against society have been analyzed and corrected. In some cases that’s quite easy; in others it’s not, and would require a substantial social service infrastructure working on behalf of convicted criminals.

But if you can get to that point — if you can remove any motivation to commit crimes — there’s no longer a security-based need for incarceration. At that point any further imprisonment is wasted expense, at least from a security standpoint.

As far as creating a secure society goes, money spent on eliminating root causes of crime is a better investment than money spent on long-term incarceration.


So then we have deterrence, or the idea that people are less likely to commit crimes when they know they will be imprisoned or harmed if they get caught.

It’s a fairly easy notion to dismiss; the evidence against it is all around us. We’ve been mandating death or imprisonment for violent criminals, as I said, for literally as long as recorded history, and violent criminals are with us still.

The very best anyone can do is argue that retributive penalties reduce serious crime through deterrence, and if that’s your bag you can make a nice career out of compiling case studies and statistics for or against varying degrees of harshness.

But any argument along those lines willfully ignores the larger picture, which is that overall the method does not work. It just doesn’t. The same basic crimes are still plaguing human societies 4000 years since Hammurabi’s time. Punishing criminals, in and of itself, is demonstrably not a sufficient solution, and anyone who wants to actually eliminate crime has to look beyond simple deterrence.


Which leaves us with the third and most distasteful argument for hurting or imprisoning people in the name of justice: that they deserve it in a pure and moral sense; that someone who has harmed society is inherently in need of punishment regardless of its practical effect.

Human history gives us deep cause to be wary of any group consensus that decides some people inherently deserve punishment. Pick your horror story: honor killings, stonings, sodomy laws, the Holocaust; whatever.

Any argument based on the idea that there are some behaviors or characteristics which automatically mandate a punishment regardless of circumstance relegates some subset of humanity to second-class citizen status. I’d like to think most of us are uncomfortable with that idea.


So where does that leave us?

With an inadequate notion of how society should be repaid by its offenders, mostly.

The blunt reality is this: beyond the short-term need for public safety, incarceration provides little benefit to society as a whole. (Execution, the theme of Dead Man Walking, provides even less, and additionally burdens the society that performs it with an inherent barbarism and hypocrisy, but that’s a subject for another day.)

If we really want to think about crimes as being committed “against society,” rather than against individuals, then we also need to think about how society can be repaid in ways that benefit everyone — including the criminals, who are, after all, members of society themselves.

Right now, we’re not doing that. The only people being repaid are the increasingly privatized owners and operators of our prison system, and you should really be asking yourselves what they did to deserve a cut of the money every time someone gets convicted of a crime.

Because right now, it’s not just the convicts who are paying that elusive “debt to society” — and it’s not society that’s getting paid.



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