Sunday, October 30, 2005

Coleman Hawkins Can Play The Saxophone

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Recently, I’ve been getting deeper into the works of
Coleman Hawkins. Sometimes, when he’s playing on
my stereo, I feel that I could listen to this or that solo
a million times and still not hear enough of it. His tone
and his phrasing and, for lack of a better term, his soul
shine through in virtually everything he plays. I have
recordings of him playing with perhaps the schmaltziest
string sections ever to stink up a studio and, once the
Hawk starts blowing, they’re beautiful anyway. You
could take a tape of a thousand sumo wrestlers farting
and, if Coleman Hawkins was playing in front of it, it
would be transcendent. When I die, you can bury me
in a casket with Coleman Hawkins piped in and I’d never
notice that there was no other heaven.

I think a good deal of his greatness came from his ability
to maintain a recognizable creative identity that never
became stale or stuck in the past. His stuff from the end
of his career is obviously rooted in the work he did thirty
years before, but he was never a nostalgia act. He kept
up with the innovations of younger players and incor-
porated them subtly into his own art. Hawkins was hip
to Thelonious Monk when even those far into the jazz
scene tended to dismiss him as a crazy man and the two
of them made some grand music together. Later on,
Hawkins played a ballad session with a rhythm section
that included bassist Ron Carter, eventually to join Miles
Davis’ most groundbreaking group, and drummer
Andrew Cyrille, who would become best known for his
amazing work with the intimidatingly avant-garde
pianist Cecil Taylor. Hawkins, arguably the man most
responsible for the tenor sax’s pre-eminent position in
jazz, cast a long shadow. He was never mercurial, though,
he found his tone early and it was vast enough to encom-
pass everything from the end of Dixieland to the beginning
of the free scene. Instead of changing with the times, he
drove himself to wring every last bit of magic and beauty
from his own genius. He listened to others, true, but it
couldn’t sway him from his course. There’s a whole history
in his horn, and a lifetime could easily be spent just scratch-
ing the surface of it.

I like all sorts of music, but it’s mostly jazz that’s speaking
to me these days. That’s sort of a problem when you aren’t
even thirty yet. A lot of people my age are scared off or
bored by jazz. This I blame mainly on jazz critics and snobs,
who used to be and sometimes still are so eager to have
something special for themselves that they make it seem
like you need an advanced degree to understand Miles
Davis or Ornette Coleman or anyone else. Art doesn’t
need a translator. Jazz, like any great music, can be
enjoyed by anyone who wants to. It isn’t academic or
stodgy or pompous. It doesn’t need any decoding. Some-
one who’s only listened to punk rock their entire life can
put on a Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus song and get
just as much out of it as any scholar. Sure, there’s history
and theory behind it, but the only ones who need those to
draw meaning from something are the ones who want to
get paid to write about it. Everything you need to know
about Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker or John Coltrane
your ears can tell you. There might be more to them, per-
haps an interesting personal story or some significance in
the overall development of the genre, but this is gravy
when there’s so much beauty just in the sound coming
from your stereo.

Friday, October 28, 2005

I couldn't have attacked a finer pair of gentlemen...

Thank you to Mr. Berg and Mr. Norwegianity for their feed-
back about my little essay. They both make very good points
and I was glad to see they didn’t take my piece as an insult.
It was more my attempt to try and make sense of why I’ve
come to dislike political blogging. I used them as examples
because they are, in my opinion, two of the best, most well-
written, and energetic ones around and yet I still find myself
resisting what they do. That’s more my problem than theirs,
of course, but I felt it was necessary to try and get to the
bottom of my reasons for my pundit-blog burn-out. So,
again, thank you guys for your kind words and your thought-
ful responses...

Now, if you'll pardon me, it looks like I've got a weekend to
get to.

The dead man in the road

One time, when I was a teenager, I saw the body of a guy
who had just been killed by a bus. This was in St. Paul, out-
side the store where I worked all through my high school
years. I was straightening up some racks near the door
when a tall, black man rushed through the door hollering
about how we had to call an ambulance because the bus
just ran over somebody. The owner of the place was
working the cash register at the time and he was skep-
tical. He was a nice enough boss, but kind of paranoid:
whenever anything out of the ordinary happened, his first
instinct was always to consider it part of an elaborate plan
to screw him over. He was especially distrustful of the
people who waited for the bus outside the store. To him, it
only made sense that those who rode public transportation
would, as a rule, also enjoy conning and thieving from the
independent businessman. So, with the tall man standing
there shouting and panicking, he told me to go outside and
see what the hell was going on out there. Being a loyal em-
ployee, I stepped out and peered down the block to the bus
stop. There, in the gutter in front of the bench, was a crum-
pled up body. I couldn’t see his face and I couldn’t see any
blood, but it was obvious just from how he was laying that
he was dead. He was all twisted around and his back was
snapped and sharply bent. Further down the road, the bus
sat idling and a crowd had gathered around, pointing and
praying. I later learned that the dead man was an old
drunk who had been sleeping on the bench when the bus
pulled up to collect passengers. While they were getting
on, he rolled over and fell into the street. The bus drove on
then, crushing him beneath its back tires. I didn’t look at
him for very long. I rushed back inside and told my boss
to call someone, someone was dead outside, we needed to
do something. As he did, the tall man was shouting at him,
saying "You see? You see? You see?"

Thursday, October 27, 2005

True crime and philosophy 101 make filthy love in the fissures of my brain...

Yesterday I saw the documentary The Thin Blue Line. It
gave me a lot to think about. On one level, there is the case
the film dissects, which is fascinating in itself. Beyond this,
however, there is the provocative attitude the film-makers
take towards their work. Here we can see, I think, the idea
of a documentary as an active argument coming into its
maturity. Put simply, the director has a definite point of
view and he uses the tools his medium offers him to put it
across. There is nothing novel in this, of course–several
anti-Vietnam war films and a couple of experimental
French/Italian works had already taken this tack–but, with
this film, the approach attains a new legitimacy and eff-
ectiveness. The strategy is risky–artificial elements (re-
enactments, artsy shots, Philip Glass music) are abundant,
contrary opinions are downplayed, and the director’s
biases are obvious. In spite of this or because of it, the
film works beautifully and its method is, in the end, more
than justified.

The movie concerns the murder of a police officer in Dallas
in the mid-1970s. The two people involved in the crime are
Randall Adams, a drifter in his late 20s, and David Harris, a
teenage delinquent. On the day in question, Harris has come
from his small town to Dallas in a stolen car, where he picks
up Adams, who has been hitchhiking after running out of
gas. The two then share an aimless evening, drinking beer,
smoking weed, and watching T&A movies at the drive-in.
Somewhere after the second feature, their accounts diverge.
Adams claims that he drove back to his dumpy motel, where
he then refused to let Harris stay with him. After Harris
drove off alone, he returned to his room, watched the end
of the "Carol Burnett Show" and went to bed. Harris’ story,
however, places the two of them on a seedy street two hours
later. Adams is at the wheel, driving without the headlights
on. A police cruiser flashes its lights and pulls them over.
Just as the cop reachers the driver’s-side window, Harris’
testimony goes, Adams brings out a .22 caliber pistol and
shoots the officer five times before speeding away into the

There are, as one might guess, problems with this version
of events, even though it–when buttressed by a couple
questionable witnesses and hammered home by a zealous
prosecutor–was sufficient to convict Adams of capital mur-
der. Apparently, "I was sleeping" isn’t the sort of alibi to
move a jury, even if it was most likely the truth. Because
of various pre-trial motions, they never heard about
Harris’ criminal record, which was prodigious for a 16
year old and the defense failed in its attempts to impeach
the credibility of the state’s witnesses, all of whom were
weird and all of whom claim to have seen a man resemb-
ling Adams in the driver’s seat shortly before the killing.

The film-makers are not bound by the rules of a Texas
courtroom and this liberty allows them to bring much to
light. The wider jury in the theaters was able to see Harris’
hometown friends marvel at his consciencelessness after
mentioning how he went around bragging that he had
killed a cop. We get to watch the prosecution witnesses
make asses of themselves in front of the camera and we
are encouraged to speculate that they fingered Adams
for reasons other than civic-mindedness and honesty.
Throughout all this, we get long interviews with the prin-
cipals, both of whom were in prison when the film was
made. The men are fairly articulate and they both, in
their own way, make compelling talking heads. Adams,
with his slow drawl, comes off as a reasonable fellow,
even when his bafflement gives way to anger. He is
convincing, sure, but it is clear that he wants to con-
vince. As his story progresses, it seems obvious that he
has said these things many times before, to many diff-
erent people. As sympathetic as he seems, I couldn’t
escape the suspicion that he might be an accomplished
manipulator going through a well-oiled routine, not an
innocent man caught in one of justice’s blind alleys.

These concerns are gradually calmed as we hear more
and more from Harris, whose fleeting smiles for the
camera become only more common as we learn of his
violent streak. Since the policeman’s killing, he has been
in and out of jail and the military, and he eventually
commits a string of aborted sex crimes before killing a
man in the process of abducting his girlfriend. He is, to
say the least, a creepy character, but the audience sees
flashes of the polite, down-south charm that made his
arresting officers so fond of him. He never seems to lie,
he just says things in such a way that there’s no need
for him to tell the truth. This leads us to the final scene,
which is one of the most chilling I have ever seen: as the
camera shows a small, dictaphone recorder, a tape of
Harris’ last interview with the director is played. On it,
Harris comes within millimeters of confessing the police-
man’s murder but never quite comes right out and ad-
mits it. By neither denying nor accepting guilt, it be-
comes obvious that Harris is enjoying the attention
and milking it for all its worth. But without his cheer-
ful smirk to diffuse his menace, the audience is able
to glimpse the man’s true nature. In his bland twang,
he tells us that the murder and its aftermath might be
all about Adams not letting him stay the night at his
hotel. The director’s carefully arranged and detailed
case is driven home here: we realize that we are listen-
ing to the voice of a man who could kill a policeman in
cold blood and then arrange for another man to go to
the electric chair in his place.

And, of course, the movie was eventually proven correct.
Following its release, Harris did finally confess to killing
the police officer and Adams was released. Last year,
Harris was executed. The movie that made these real-
life endings possible drew strength from the innovations
of its style and the passion behind its position, but since
then it has become important largely because it was right.
Its bias turned out to be the accurate one, which justified
the elements that might have otherwise been harshly
criticized. For instance, the director seems to be stacking
the deck in his favor when it comes to the interviews with
the state’s witnesses. He makes them seem like utter
freaks. Now, maybe they truly were utter freaks and
maybe he goosed and edited them into appearing that
way, but it doesn’t matter much now. Nor does the dir-
ector’s defense-attorney tendency to gloss over what-
ever may be damning while giving loving attention to
the exculpatory. In the end, this approach proved to
be the most reasonable one. I maintain that it would have
been reasonable even had Adams actually done what he
had been accused of doing. Had the bias been in support
of an erroneous position, this film would be less powerful,
less respected, and less well-known, but not of any less
merit as a document.

It is not wrong to take a position, after all. It is not even
wrong to take a position dependent on factually inaccurate
premises, provided one does so honestly. Once that pos-
ition is taken, one is allowed to make it look as attractive
and as plausible as possible through the standard methods.
They can ignore the evidence to the contrary and favor the
evidence that favors them. They can question the integrity
of those who disagree with them. They can run through all
sorts of sophistry and any number of impressive intellectual
arguments. This is all acceptable provided that the person
also accepts that their position is valid. The person is advo-
cating a mistake, but they’re doing so in good faith. The
answer to them, then, is a more convincing advocacy of
the true position, not the diminishment of the one who
hews to the false. The people who hold the position are, in
most cases, irrelevant to the position itself.

This is why I’m always annoyed by cries of "bias" whenever
it comes to an argument. Anyone who holds an opinion hon-
estly assumes that their only bias is the truth. Any evidence
for any contested phenomena can always be countered by
evidence from the other side. Truth, of course, does exist,
but it often can be excavated through the process of com-
peting opinions working through a tangle of logic and fact
to justify themselves. Through bias, in other words. A bias
can be right. Bias can be the answer. This film’s bias led it
to a more whole truth than the courtroom process allowed.
In another world, it might have wandered right off the track
of what actually happened. There is authenticity in both
approaches, I suspect.

So there you have it. The Thin Blue Line: a documentary
about a murder and epistemology. But like a hundred times
less dull than that sounds...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Pundit Problem

The blog will never come into its own as a mode of ex-
pression unless its practitioners choose to discard some
of their cherished illusions. Not everyone can be a pun-
dit. What’s more, most of those who have already laid a
legitimate claim to the title should give it up. Being a
pundit is a horrible fate, after all, and I can’t for the life
of me figure out why so many seem so eager to pursue
it. Is it noble just to spout off? Is it a happy hobby to have
something righteous and fierce to say about every single
current event? No, it’s a trap. It’s a kind of drug for smart-
ish types–it starts out intoxicating and wonderful, but
quickly becomes a punishment you can’t quit doling out to
yourself. When you’re a pundit, every sentence you write
is a potential noose. You begin your career with breath-
taking freedom. You can be a wag, you can be a prick, you
mock the powerful and you can belittle all the awful fuck-
ers who disagree with you. This stage, fun as it may be,
ends quickly and you’re left saying the same thing over
and over and over again. It was your illusion of infalli-
bility that brought you to this point. You can say what you
like, perhaps, but you better not contradict yourself and
you better not slip out of the costume you’ve knitted for
yourself. If you’re the spiteful, brick-batty kind, you
better not want to get all winsome and thoughtful. If you
think you’re funny, you better not try to be smart or
deep or wise. If you’re painted yourself into a corner
with your all-encompassing ideology, you’ve got your
work cut out for you if you ever want to relent, recon-
sider or admit that the world is a more complex place
than an angry essay makes it.

This is why I’m whittling down my blog list, in the hopes
of replacing it with a roster of more human, personal sites.
Most "political" blogs, to me, give off the scent of dust and
rusty gears. They say the same things day-in and day-out.
They make up the same complaints, the same arguments,
even the same fucking insults. After awhile, you know
what they’ll say about any particular issue before they
vomit up their thousand words about it. These bloggers,
as if to make this shabby labor worthwhile to themselves,
try to cover over their long decay with ever-more flam-
boyant rhetoric and an overdeveloped sense of outrage.
It’s the pundits’ curse: how to be interesting after you’ve
shot your wad. You could, perhaps, grow as a writer and
tackle greater challenges. Or you could take the popular
"obnoxiousness" escape route and try to hide how dreary
your work has become with a shallow, unconvincing
show of unstinting, unshakeable self-righteousness. A
hair-trigger tendency to be annoyed replaces intellectual
curiosity and a silly faith in the rightness of your pre-
judices replaces a willingness to challenge yourself. A
blog is, in many hands, little more than a tool towards a
more secure thoughtlessness, a path back to a flat earth.
With your computer and five or six like-minded comment-
ers, the world becomes just as you like it, under your
omniscient command, and you can fight the battle for truth
and justice on terms that are all in your favor. But you’re
fooling yourself. You’re giving yourself a pacifier and you’re
giving the internet a little more noise. Its nothing to be
proud of.

I’m ecumenical about this. It’s a problem across the en-
tire political spectrum, even if it may seem more pro-
nounced in those sites that espouse a worldview I dis-
agree with. This site, for instance, may be better than
most of its ilk, but I think it can still be used to illustrate
what I’m talking about. When its author chooses to write
about his life, or music, or other subjects that similarly
concern him, he can be engaging, thoughtful and compelling.
He is a good writer and, at times like this, he shows a true
sense of humor. However, when he’s doing what he usu-
ally does–complaining about liberal editorials in the daily
paper or getting peeved about the Democrat outrage du
jour–his talents and sensitivity vanish in favor of what
seems to me to be knee-jerk fury. Sometimes, when I
read him in his too-common pissed-off mode, I feel that
even he is bored with the act. I’m sure he’s expressing
his beliefs honestly, but I can’t help but wonder whether
he sometimes thinks he’s dug himself into a hole. Of
course, around here the right-wing blogs are like a circle
jerk. They root for each other even when no one else
will, a built-in cheering section to make the questionable
seem obvious and the doubtful appear brave. Part of
this tendency, I think, is apparent in the way many of
these sites seem content to engage the most simplistic
and debased forms of their opponent’s arguments,
rather than the substantive and nuanced ones. It is a
simpler thing to shoot holes in a whiny screed or a
paragraph-long letter to the editor than it is to counter
the hated position itself. This blogger, at least, seems
to have the wit and ability to construct coherent, plaus-
ible and thorough positions, but he most often chooses
not to. Perhaps there isn’t a readership for it, perhaps
he doesn’t have the time. Whatever the reason, it’s a
pity. Although I vehemently disagree with him about
almost everything, I still see him as a talented person
dragged down by the norms of his chosen mode.

Just so you don’t think I’m unfairly targeting conser-
vatives, allow me to confess that I have similar feelings
for Minnesota’s pre-eminent liberal blogger. Reading
him is, for me, an unpleasant experience. We likely
have very similar beliefs, yet his way of expressing
them is so alienating that I’d almost rather be spend-
ing my time with the collected works of Rush Lim-
baugh. When he’s not bragging about how much traffic
he gets, he’s presenting values and opinions I hold dear
in a way that too often makes them seem shallow and
contemptible. Liberalism is not hysterical. Liberalism
is not bitter. Certainly, many people think it is and their
opinions are largely reinforced by those who are happier
to rant senselessly than to put together a reasonable
protest. With him, too often bluster takes the place of
passion and grievance takes the place of analysis. Some
may mistake swagger for authority and vehemence for
conviction, but that doesn’t mean that those of us on the
left should ape them. Conservatives, I think, have been
very successful in circulating the canard that liberals are
all a bunch of touchy-feely, unreasoning, weepy panty-
waists. To counter this, many on my side of the fence
feel they need to puff their chests out, bellow a bit, and
generally make as little sense as their counterparts on
the right. It’s an understandable reaction, but a futile
one. I envy this man’s wit, writing ability, techno-
skills, and unflagging energy. His site has directed me
to very many interesting articles and websites and
for that I’m grateful. And, again, I agree with him more
often than not. I only wish he’d tone down his bellicosity
a couple notches. Being a liberal these days is pretty
much a perennial frustration, but by responding to this
with thunder and hostility, we run the risk of becoming
even more marginalized. This is not fair, I’m afraid, but
it’s the hand we’ve been dealt. We can either blow it or
make the best of it. We’ve been doing the former for far
too long, I think.

The sad fact is that very few of us have important things
to say every single day of the week. The stress that comes
from trying to do this results in even the best bloggers be-
coming caricatures of themselves. There is, I feel, a sinister
ease in fuming about the daily headlines. It might even be
therapeutic. But this is deceptive. Nothing goes forward,
it’s all indulgence and animosity. There’s no dialogue, except
between people who think alike and the occasional troll com-
ing along to steal some attention for him/herself. The form
is a dead end for most, giving them something to do but
nothing to think about, an outlet but not a true forum. The
funny thing is that most bloggers collaborate in their own
irrelevance. They get a website where they can say any-
thing they want and be read, theoretically, by anyone in
the world. And what do they do? They play-act like Al
Franken or Sean Hannity, they spend their leisure time
battling strangers over differences in opinion. It would
better, I think, if we could accelerate time to the point
where this enthusiasm has worked itself out of our na-
tures and we use this tool for better purposes. Sharing
gardening techniques, for instance. Or maybe porno-
graphy. If we all were expected to have our own porno
blogs, I imagine most of us would become much more
circumspect and, perhaps, much more creative.

Anyway, when I read a blog, I’m no longer looking for
someone to express my opinions more frothily than I
can. I’m comfortable in my opinions and I have no need
for them to be reinforced a hundred times every evening.
Nor am I looking for someone to tell me what to think. I
consider myself a reasonably intelligent person: I can
make up my own mind about whatever is happening on
any particular day. I don’t need a guru or a daily talking-
points reminder. What I want instead is someone who
can tell me stories, factual or otherwise, that I haven’t
heard before. Someone who has a unique perspective
on something, whether I wind up endorsing that per-
spective or not, is more valuable to me than someone
who can be snarky at the drop of a hat. I’m interested
in those who have a position that gives them access to
facts and experiences that I am not able to get to as
easily. A stripper who has funny stories about her
clients or a mortician relating their workday travails
is far more fascinating to me than yet another guy who’s
pissed off about George Bush or Howard Dean. I think,
truly, that most people on the internet have something
interesting to say. If--for whatever reason--they refuse
to say it, nine times out of ten you’ll find them in some
dank corner of the web, trying to work up the will to
jump back into the stupid fray that the world becomes
through their computer screen.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Liberal Smasher Will Smash You, Liberal!

There used to be a car that would sometimes park near my
apartment, a battered, rusted-out old import painted a
gruesome green and plastered everywhere with strange,
possibly-homemade bumperstickers. These would be slap-
ped at odd angles in unusual spots, as though the owner
intended them not only to convey his political philo-
sophies, but also to cover over all the worst scrapes and
dents his bad driving had brought. I liked to stop and
read them as I walked by. They made little sense, but
they were entertaining in their frothing rage. Chiefly, they
concerned the Second Amendment and how much better
it would be to shoot anyone who interpreted it in anything
less than the most flagrantly permissive manner. There
was, also, I think, a little bit of bile directed towards Hilary
Clinton, a little more for the French, and maybe one or two
snipes at the dreaded ACLU. What was most striking about
the car, besides how awesomely crappy it looked, were the
words painted in black on the hood: "LIBERAL SMASHER".

I always thought that was amusing. I mean, who did this guy
think he was kidding? His shitty beater would fall to pieces
if Barbra Streisand so much as breathed on it. You take the
most mincing, sissyish, oversensitive, latte-drunk "liberal"
to be found in the silliest right-winger’s wet dream and put
them up against the "Liberal Smasher" and, I’m sorry, but
the angry man’s fancied-up Honda Accord would lose in
the first round. I, for one, doubt that the thing could even
make it around the block without vomiting up its entire
transmission. It looked like King Kong had used it as a
buttplug. This was a car that couldn’t smash Alan Colmes.
This was a car that, were it to brush up against Michael
Moore’s stomach, would fall into a sobbing heap of lug
nuts and scrap metal. Liberals had nothing to fear from
this vehicle.

Its owner, I suppose, is a different story. You have to
wonder about a man so consumed with bitterness that
he’s willing to deface his car in such a way. This guy
hates liberals. He probably goes every night to his fav-
orite right-wing blogs and his favorite Fox "news" shows
in the hopes that one of those hideous hacks will give him
yet another reason to hate liberals. I imagine him as an
outrage addict, a man who longs only to loathe. There
are a lot of these people out there. For the most part, they
suffer disappointing and fearful lives. They aren’t happy
if they aren’t complaining. They don’t understand any-
thing without someone to blame. Often, they blame lib-
erals. You don’t like the way the country’s going? It’s
the liberals. You’re fed up with this war we’ve got on?
The liberals are the ones making us lose, dammit! You
haven’t seen a good movie in months? Well, that’s be-
cause those liberals refuse to make them. High taxes?
Low wages? Long lines at the liquor store? Liberals, lib-
erals and–let’s see–liberals. Maybe this guy even blames
liberals for the pitiful car he has to drive.

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe it was a just a car own-
ed by some run-of-the-mill conservative with a weird
sense of humor. Because if I had a primer-and-rust
colored Ford Escort with a dragging bumper and a hood
held down by bungee cords, I might find it hilarious to
slap a thousand Paul Wellstone stickers on the thing and
call it the "Conservative Crusher". I wouldn’t expect any-
one else to get the joke, though.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"...They continued to do this for a long time sometimes even after it was dead."

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On November 22nd, 1988, Paul Ingram–a high-ranking
deputy in the Olympia, Washington sheriff’s office and the
chairman of his local Republican party–was arrested by his
colleagues for molesting two of his daughters, Julie and
Erika. After first claiming that he could remember nothing
of the crimes he was accused to, Ingram eventually confess-
ed, telling his interrogators that " girls know me. They
wouldn’t lie about something like this," and that "I really
believe that the allegations did occur and that I did violate
them and probably for a long period of time".

The charges first arose when Erika, 22 years old at the
time, was acting as a counselor and sign-language inter-
preter at a retreat sponsored by the Ingrams’ funda-
mentalist church. There, a guest speaker named Karla
Franco gave an emotional presentation in which she
claimed that the Holy Spirit had revealed to her that
someone in her audience had been sexually abused as a
small child. Later, as the retreat was ending, Erika tear-
fully announced that she had been molested by her father.

Soon Erica and Julie, then 18, moved out of their parent’s
home and went to the authorities with their charges. In-
vestigators quickly located a letter Julie had written to a
teacher of hers five or six weeks before the arrest. In it,
she wrote:

I can remember when I was 4 yr old he would
have poker game at our house and alot of men
would come over and play poker w/my dad, and
they would all get drunk and one or two at a time
would come in to my room and have sex with me
they would be in and out all night laughing and

The revelation of other adults being involved in the abuse
greatly changed the course of the investigation. Ingram’s
poker games were attended by many high-ranking sheriff’s
officers and various well-known Olympians, so these
charges were nothing short of explosive. When questioned,
Ingram reluctantly gave up the names of two men he had
worked with in the past and both were promptly appre-
hended. His daughters also accused the men, yet both ve-
hemently denied any guilt. As this was happening, Ingram’s
wife, Sandy, and the rest of her children were being
interrogated by the sheriff’s office. When pressed, all
of them failed to deny that sexual abuse had occurred in
their home. Often, and especially with Sandy, the
horrific memories were recalled in discussions with the
family pastor. Observers and interrogators alike noted
how, prior to the emergence of a new recollection, the
Ingrams would appear to fall into a "trance", as though
the misdeeds and traumas of the past had to force
themselves through everyday consciousness. By this
time, Ingram had confessed to participating in the filmed
rape and torture of his daughters.

From here, the story becomes very strange. This is
from a statement Erika gave on December 30th of
that year:

There were many men there & some
women. They chanted as I was carried
out. It was cold out middle of the night
and all I wore was a nightgown. My
mother walked with us to the barn from
the time I was taken from my bed until
the time I we were in the barn. There
was a table inside the barn. There was
also a fire. All the people around the table
including my mom & dad wore a gown & a
hat resembling a viking hat with horns.
There was a lot of blood everywhere. There
was pitchforks in the ground–that was
also used to threaten us with. The sacrifice.
They would lay it first on the table then
the high priestess would say words then

the baby would be put on the table & all
of the people including my mother & father
circling the table would stab it with knives
until it died. They continued to do this for
a long time sometimes even after it was dead.
Then they would all walk to the pit and
chant and the high priestess would carry

the baby and put the baby in something
white then put it in the ground. Then they
would bury it. The baby was a human baby
about 6-8 months old. Sometimes they
would use aborted babies. They would tell
me this is what would happen to me also. They
also would say you should not remember this.
They would say it over & over again like a

At around this time, Julie was claiming that her father
and his accomplices had forced her to get an abortion
when she was 15 years old and had also cut her body
repeatedly with a knife. However, a medical examin-
ation arranged at the investigator’s request revealed
that she had no scars at all. The same proved true of
Erika, who was making similar statements about forced
abortions and violent physical abuse. As the charges
grew more perverse and nightmarish--eventually encom-
passing sex with farm animals, multiple infant sacrifices,
and encounters where defendants urinated and defecat-
ed on their victims–the prosecutor’s case against the
accused men began to fall apart. Ingram himself had
confessed, but the other men had refused to and–as
their court dates drew nearer–the state had little to
no evidence against them besides these steadily
escalating statements.

A social psychologist, Dr. Richard Ofshe, was brought in
by the desperate investigators to buttress their case. Ofshe
is a specialist in cults and mind-control, and the police
believed that the phenomenon of brainwashing could help
explain how someone could be an upstanding, Christian
Republican sheriff’s officer by day and the leader of a
murderous, depraved Satanic coven by night. Instead of
an answer to this question, Ofshe found that Ingram was
incredibly suggestible. He made-up a crime that fit in with
the general run of the man’s confessions–that he had once
forced one of his sons to have sex with his daughter–and
asked Ingram if he remembered such an episode. At first,
Ingram claimed not to but, after a modest amount of direc-
tion, he wound up writing out a detailed statement confess-
ing to the suggested episode.

With curious phenomena like this, and without any sort of
physical evidence to be found, the prosecutor was forced
to drop all charges against the two men Ingram and his
daughters had accused. However, Ingram himself wasn’t
so lucky. When he attempted to retract his previous con-
fessions it was too late: he was sentenced to twenty years
in prison.

* * *

Lawrence Wright’s book about this case is one of the most
fascinating things I have ever read. It is a penetrating
study of American credulousness. This is, under it all, a
story about believers. The Ingram family believed that
God and Satan walk the earth, doing good and doing evil.
Paul and Sandy Ingram believed their daughters, so much
so that confessing to sick and murderous acts seemed
easier than calling them liars. The daughters, for their
part, probably came to believe the wild charges they were
making. After all, the police believed them, their counse-
lors and psychologists believed them, their pastor believed
them. In the rabbit hole that the case became, believing
became synonymous with innocence, salvation and truth,
while disbelieving became, at best, simple denial and, at
worst, a sinister and cruel cover-up.

This episode took place as large parts of the therapeutic
community were encouraging their clients to "recover"
supposedly dormant memories of abuse. The emotional
difficulties of a great many people, mostly women, were
being attributed to unresolved issues connected to abuse
that they didn’t know they suffered. Various techniques
and processes were used in order to help these people
remember this alleged abuse, and–for the suggestible
or unlucky–this resulted in vague feelings of unhappi-
ness becoming vivid scenes of torture and incest. These
scenes were then treated as real happenings, even if
they couldn’t have possibly occurred, even if this ap-
proach would further harm the patient.

This trend among counselors dovetailed with a growing
obsession among the nation’s evangelical Christians:
Satanism. Self-proclaimed experts traveled from church
to church, delivering hair-raising lectures on the ubiquity
and deadliness of Satanic cults. They were often said to
include the wealthy and powerful, who maintained their
high status in legitimate society by making frequent
sacrifices to the devil. One "authority" on the matter
estimated that these rituals–in the United States alone--
claim 50-60,000 innocent victims per year, a number
that more than doubles the nation’s actual murder rate.
With Communism quickly becoming moribund and Al-
Qaeda far away on the horizon, large swaths of the pop-
ulace apparently needed something secret and fright-
ening to menace them: organized Satanists filled that
role nicely for a couple of years. That they didn’t exist
wasn’t the important thing.

From these two related phenomena came the concept
of "Satanic Ritual Abuse", which for awhile was a charge
bandied around so often it even got its own acronym, SRA.
The most famous example of this was the McMartin pre-
school debacle in southern California. You’ll remember
that here a group of child-care workers were charged
with 360 counts of molestation, based largely on the
accounts of impressionable children, all of whom were
thoroughly coached by the investigators in what they
were supposed to say. Closer to my home, the Jordan,
Minnesota affair was similar, without the devil-worshiping
business. There an actual sexual predator attempted to
lighten his sentence by naming various citizens as accom-
plices in his crime. Hysteria followed, naturally enough, and
even these days it’s not uncommon to find people around
here who steadfastly believe that there was some sort of
kiddie-rape ring on the loose down there.

This brings me back to our peculiar American gullibility. In
a lot of ways, we are a country of suckers. This has been
manipulated by authorities from various areas–religious,
political, and medical/psychological–who have found that
the best way to maintain and enhance their authority is
by exploiting this credulousness to keep us terrified.
"Satan is real," they say, "The enemy is at your doorstep."
We believe them again and again. As a nation, we’re the
suburbanite who drives through the inner city with his
heart pounding, the doors locked, and the windows roll-
ed up all the way. We know that terror well and we pre-
fer it, this frightful Other that’s out to get us should we
ever fall from grace, should we ever wander into the
wrong neighborhood. The things we should be afraid
of, however, we gamely ignore: our lives being poison-
ed from a thousand subtle sources, our happiness frit-
tered away in favor of empty comfort, an existence of
slowly diminishing opportunity. Better to be in a panic
about Islamists establishing Sharia law in North Dakota
than to worry about the world leaving you behind. Easier
to fret about lurking Satanists or the incestuous father
that never was than to confront the quieter nightmare
that your life has become. A scared populace is a docile
populace. In a complex, corrupt world, we prove time
and time again how much we prefer to stay shivering in
the corner while our futures spin further and further
out of our control.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Urban Chit-Chat

Walking home from the coffeeshop a few minutes ago, I
had an interesting, if brief, exchange with a staggering man
wearing a strangely-striped windbreaker and thick, old-
person style sunglasses. This last detail is perhaps im-
portant, since it was dark out. He came toddling down the
road towards me, and whatever menace he might have
wished to convey was undercut by the fact that he was
about six inches shorter than me, fifteen years older
than me, and unable to move very far without a lamp-
post or parking sign to cling to. Here’s what we discussed:

HIM: Hey. Hey. Hey.

ME: Hello. How are you?

HIM: What’s up? What’s up, man?

ME: Oh, not much.

HIM: You gonna get home safe tonight?

ME: I expect so.

HIM: I’m a killer, you know.

ME: Alright.

HIM: What’s up?

ME: Not much.

HIM: Huh? What's that? What you saying?

ME: Not much.

HIM: Shit.

By this time, I was already about ten yards on down the
block (I’ve been doing the inner-city living thing for years,
so I know you don’t stop to converse with crazy, chemically-
altered street people with sunglasses on in the dark). He was
still making sounds behind me so, when I felt I was far enough
away, I looked back and he was dangling from a signpost,
swearing obscurely at me, doing these broad, drunken ges-
tures that I suppose were intended to be threatening.

I guess I didn’t make a new friend tonight.

A bunch of drunken meatheads with a losing record + a gaggle of Dixie escorts + some boats = cheap, cheap outrage...

Perhaps you've heard of the Vikings Sex Scandal? To
me, it mostly proves that Minnesota is hard up for scan-
dals. A week or so on, we’re still salivating about our half-
assed football team and their floating orgy. By now, the
sixteen people who weren’t aware that athletes often
cavort with strippers and behave like louts have had the
time to get over their shock, yet talk radio and blogs and
local newscasts haven’t given up flogging the issue. The
basement pundits and the smarmy know-it-alls are blue
in the face from pretending to gasp for so long. The gentle,
upstanding citizens of the northland have been told that
they are aghast, AGHAST at the transgressions of their
sporting men so often that most of them now are, even if
they weren’t before. These things take on a life of their
own and, through the magic of chatter, a sleazy party attend-
ed by a troop of semi-talented jocks and their imported
girlfriends takes on a whole new significance.

For instance, Katherine Kersten, the Star Tribune’s hack
conservative, takes the reaction to the episode as a heart-
ening signal that society at large is beginning to hate sex
as much as she seems to. Right-wingers can be entertain-
ing when they go apeshit drawing specious parallels be-
tween the events of the day and their own personal dislikes.
Few have a greater gift for this than Ms. Kersten, who can
segue from anecdote to statistic to stern moral pronounce-
ment with the kind of virtuosity only the finest think-tank
fellowships can produce.

However, I’m not so certain that people who are mad at
Vikings are, as she confidently asserts, unable to explain
why. She is apparently in communication with a less ar-
ticulate circle than I am. No one I’ve spoken to has any
trouble stating why they think the Vikings are a bunch of
overindulged, asshole swine. Largely it stems from the fact
that they had a couple boats jam-packed with professional
sex-workers and yet they still had to grope and hassle the
unlucky, college-aged servers. A good deal of malice also
comes their way for being heinously overpaid man-children
who strut around as though they rule the planet even though
they–put plainly–suck at their jobs. I guess I live in a liber-
tine bubble or something, because no one I know is upset
with the team because they fuck women they don’t intend
to marry or because they’re representative of some kind of
cultural decline or whatever.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Today's Apropos of Nothing Anecdote

At my college, there was a theater professor who was
old and gross. He might have, at one time, been a bril-
liant teacher or a fine artist, but by the time I went
through there he was a grizzled, sagging creature who
was content just to make nineteen year olds run around
a stage in skimpy outfits. All the pretty girls ended up in
his plays and, if he fancied them, he’d let them know which
way they could stand to show off their breasts most appeal-
ingly. He was sort of a running joke. You could get a reliable
rise out of the theater chicks by accusing them of sleeping
with him. If you were drunk enough or tasteless enough,
you could embellish the encounters with the sorts of sounds
he would make as he struggled to achieve the geriatric-on-
post-adolescent congress he so obviously longed for. In this
oddly common undergraduate game, I regret to say that I
had the trump card. I had the golden gossip on the pervert
professor. The reason for this? Nothing other than the fact
that we had once shared a bathroom break.

Let me explain. One time I went to a play in the basement
of my college’s strange, labyrinthine fine-arts building.
When intermission rolled around, I had that I’ll-piss-all-
over-myself-if-I-don’t-get-to-a-toilet-right-now feeling.
So I shot off to the toilets, but the men’s room closest to
the theater had an honest-to-goodness line. As a man, I
wasn’t used to this situation and–furthermore–I wasn’t
physically able to cope with it. So I ran further and fur-
ther into the bowels of the building until I found another
men's room. I ducked inside and bellied up to the pisser
and let go a stream that was, to me, awesome in its
strength and duration.

Halfway through this sweetly satisfying interlude, the
door swung open and this professor came waddling in.
He peered at me for a moment, muttered a raspy hello,
and sidled up to the urinal beside mine. I stayed silent. I
had to get back to the play, but my bladder wasn’t finished
yet. I tried to hurry it along, but I was more or less stuck.
Next to me, the professor undid his belt and his zipper
and he worked his way through his undergarments until
he was ready to take care of business. That’s when he
made the sound.

This sound, I feel it’s not inaccurate to say, became legend-
ary among the artsy-fartsy set at my conservative mid-
western college. This was my sophomore year, and I was
still getting requests to recreate it at my graduation parties.
Freshmen were hauled up in front of me and I dutifully did
the sound for them. The sound gave me a popularity that,
I’m sorry to say, my wit and charm and Brad Pittesque
good looks couldn’t achieve alone. Now, in the interests
of having something to write about, I will attempt to put
down the sound for posterity here. I don’t know if it will
translate into letters, but here’s my best effort:


I’m not too proud to say that the sound, there in that dirty
art school toilet, terrified me. It sounded like an unholy
cross between George Bush laughing and a hog call. Even
more hideous, however, was the racket that followed. That
Wilford-Brimley looking fart went like he was holding a
fire-hose in his trousers. I didn’t even wash my hands, I
didn’t even zip up. I had to get out of there before the
whole basement flooded with his urine. It was as though
he hadn’t gone once in my entire lifetime.

I collected myself somewhere halfway down the corridor.
I fixed my fly and went back to the play. It was about a
future world with no free will. I remember that it sucked.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

All Across The World, Jazz Snobs Have Messed Their Pants

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Last Tuesday, Blue Note Records released the sort of
compact disc that causes people like me to get all weird
and overwrought. You see, for decades it was a jazz
critic commonplace that the Thelonious Monk-John
Coltrane partnership was transcendental, life-changing,
historic, and any number of other big time adjectives.
Yet, these same critics would invariably then complain,
no one thought to record those few months back in 1957:
a few stray tracks put down in the studio and a very low-
fidelity tape made by Coltrane’s first wife was all there
was to document such a legendary, storied period. For
saxophone-freaks, this was a particularly egregious
lapse: 1957 was the year Coltrane became Coltrane after
all, the time when he jettisoned his bad habits for good
and decided to remake himself into the greatest musician
of the 20th century. In an era where major (and even
some minor) artists churned out four to six albums a
year, this lapse in his discography seemed like a kind
of cosmic joke.

If that’s so, the punchline finally came this year, when
it was discovered that our humble, frequently-denigrat-
ed government had been holding one of the Jazz Dork
Holy Grails all along. Deep in their archives was a tape
of the two men, along with Shadow Wilson on drums
and Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, playing a Carnegie
Hall benefit. Now, some forty-eight years after their
collaboration, we finally have a high-quality, full-length
document of the great partnership. Thelonious Monk
is at the height of his powers here and John Coltrane
is at last realizing his: the music they made together
deserves all the hyperbole their cults have thrown at it.

But you don’t have to know any of that to enjoy the
album. It is beautiful regardless of history, a thrill
even without the intricate backstory that appeals so
much to obsessive people like me. Listening to Monk’s
tricky, dancing piano work on "Monk’s Mood" remind-
ed me of the way it felt to love jazz before I knew any-
thing about it: like it was something glowing, mysterious,
and eternal. And when Coltrane comes in on that same
number, with a mournful, low mutter that rises to
become waves of slow, electric sound, the effect some-
how manages to be both hypnotic and electrifying at
the same time. Most of the way through, the men play
the song as a duet and here we can have one of the
rarest of artistic experiences: two geniuses working
together on equal footing, a single brilliance emerging
from a pair of very different, very idiosyncratic aesthetics.

You should buy it. You would like it too, I think.

(And just a side note here about the benefit Monk and
Coltrane were playing. Besides them, the bill included
Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, Ray Charles, Dizzy
Gillespie, and Billie Holliday. The highest ticket price? Four
dollars. In an age when even the most wretched nontalent
feels comfortable charging $60.00 for nosebleed seats,
that’s enough to make me cry. Those shabby beatnik
bastards never knew how good they had it...)

Friday, October 07, 2005

Women: Why Do They Hate Mustaches So Much?

I often think that a little bit of fur on my upper lip
would complement my appearance nicely. It would
be stately and dignified, yet also masculine and rug-
ged. By concealing the area between my nose and my
mouth with a rim of bushy, tawny hair I would send a
clear message to the world. Here I am, my luxurious
facial growth would whisper to all, a man with a mustache.
A man of his word. A man’s man. A man not to be trifled
with. What’s more, creating this beautiful and stylish
mouth accessory would be so simple. All I would have to
do is stop shaving there and the rest would take care of
itself. In three to six months I would have myself a
glorious badge of awesome macho-hood that would, con-
veniently enough, also help to catch a great many crumbs
and bits of food that might have otherwise just fallen to
my floor, never to be eaten.

Yet every time I mention my facial hair ambitions to a
member of the fairer sex, their reaction is dishearten-
ingly uniform. Grow a mustache, Kevin, they say in their
sweet and ladylike tones, and I will never be seen in public
with you again. Oh, I’ve heard some terrible things come
from those lovely lips: mustaches are "disgusting",
they’re "so gross", they’re only worn by "perverts and
cops", a man with one would "never get laid for free for
as long as he let that prickly, wretched abomination dis-
figure his face". They say your gender is more sensitive
than mine, but this is–apparently–a base lie. Your rancor
gives you away, girls. Beneath your gentle exteriors, within
your noble souls, lurking somewhere beyond your tradition
of charity and decency and nurturing beats a heart choked
with contempt and loathing. It saddens me a bit, I have to

But I could understand and reconcile myself to your strange,
estrogen-induced idiosyncracies were they at least con-
sistent. Because you know–although you may feebly deny
it–that if some guy came strolling down the street decked
out head-to-toe in scary dragon-and-naked-chick tattoos
at least seven-eights of you would cry out "Ooooooh! Look
at him! He’s got tattoos! What a rebel!" But should regal
Mr. Mustache make that same walk, the condemnation
and hostility would be universal. Mr. Mustache has suffer-
ed your scorn long enough, I think. Mr. Mustache doesn’t
want to hurt you. Mr. Mustache only asks you to love him.

Won’t you–oh won’t you?–let Mr. Mustache into your heart?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Done...done...sweet Jesus, at last I'm done!

I just finished a story that’s been messing up my mind for
a long time now. I started it in Paris way back in July and,
ever since, I’ve been struggling with it. It’s been a slow,
grim battle, but victory is mine. The last sentence has been
written, the final period has been placed, and the hazards
of my sloth and incompetence have been slapped into sub-
mission by my sheer writerly resolve. Now that the war
has been won, I can even indulge in a little nostalgia over
some of the more grueling campaigns. The hours I spent
staring at the page, my life ticking steadily by without
dredging out so much as a single coherent sentence. The
panic I felt when I realized that the geography of the Bene-
lux states DID NOT CONFORM with the scheme I had set
up in my fictional world. The sweet relief when I found a
way to write over that ghastly fact so that no one–unless
maybe they live there–will ever know. Oh, and the un-
stinting ordeal it was to convey the narrator’s inner tur-
moil without allowing the prose to "purple" too much.
That turmoil is over now, both on the page and in my
life. Yessirre, I’m free, free, free of that evil, evil, evil

At least until I have to go back and revise it. But I’m try-
ing not to think about that right now.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

It might surprise you to learn that a conservative blogger has made a misleading statement in order to support a dubious thesis...

The "Anti-Strib" is saying that "Minneapolis is reporting
a 23% increase in rapes this year". Interestingly, the
source they link to doesn’t say that at all. What that
article actually says is that there have been 23% more
rapes in downtown Minneapolis this year than there
was last year as of September 27. It might seem like a
fine point to these people, I know, but I think if someone
really wants to show our cruelly-biased local daily what’s
what, they ought to be a little more careful with their facts.

This feels like fishing to me. If someone wants to criticize
the smoking ban, God knows there’s enough ways to do
it already. They don’t have to go dragging in horrible sex
crimes to make their point. Especially when "the evidence"
for this proposition is fairly speculative:

Still, drinkers need to monitor themselves and
their friends, Sexual Violence Center Executive
Director Gail Emerson said. Don’t over-imbibe
or leave drinks unattended.

City and county smoking bans may even contri-
bute to the problem, Emerson added. A bargoer
who can’t bring her drink outside to smoke either
"gulps it down"–problematic in its own intoxicat-
ing right–or leaves the cocktail unattended, which
is more dangerous, she said.

Note the "may" in the first sentence of the second paragraph.
Note also that "the problem" is "over-imbibing" and leaving
drinks unattended, not–which I think the Anti-Stribber im-
plies in his posting–the problem of rape itself. What’s more,
we are told of no incidences where someone was
raped due to these behaviors and, from there, that those be-
haviors were the result of the smoking ban. We’re simply
told it could happen, which is true enough (and, it need not
be said, terrible enough), but still this is not the same as actual
evidence that it does happen, and it is happening more than
before now that we can’t smoke in bars. People leave their
cocktails unattended when they go to the bathroom or when
they go outside to talk on the phone, after all. They gulp their
drinks for any number of reasons. While it may be correct to
warn that the smoking ban encourages women to do these
things to a greater degree, that still doesn’t give its op-
ponents the right to use a frightening statistic to stoke out-
rage against their disliked policy. To do so is highly irrespon-
sible, an abuse of the facts in service of an agenda.

Of course, given the quality of the discourse over there, I
have to admit I’m not too shocked.