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Monday, June 26, 2006

Field Report Epilogue from Seth Altshuler

(Readers, please note the 3 preceding posts before reading this one.)


Your letters made me cry. Not because I felt sorry for you, but because you brought life to the people you describe. Because of the sinful, hateful conditions that are very real in this world. I think you did an admirable job writing about this situation without injecting your own ego or exploiting the Tamil families with whom you lived. It isn't exploitation to present their story to as much of the world as you can. That's using your privilege compassionately and bravely.

As such, I'd like your permission to reprint your letter on my blog. I can edit it in whatever fashion you like, leaving out your name or not as you prefer.

It's only a handful of readers, but I think people need reminders about the sick crazy world out there. We're a bit insulated here with our electric blankets and air conditioned cars.

Let me know,


Feel free. I now realize more and more that this is their voice, so I need to use it. My main worry is that people (not including yourself and some others I know who do their homework) will simply take what I say and do nothing to understand more about it. I know it's not people's jobs to research everything their friends get into (especially me) but I want to have this be a forum for better understanding of politics and U.S. involvement and all the bullshit that goes along with it. Unfortunately, as with all news, it is hard to get a good picture. All I know is that things are pretty one sided at the moment, and people are fighting out of a corner...so they fight drastically. I admit, I am being self-righteous about this one, as it is one I know.

Things here are calming down, but the LTT is to put out a statement about where they will go from here. The BBC should be covering it.

Living in safety and some luxury is nothing to feel guilty about. The only thing that goes along with it is the responsibility to at least follow what happens outside of our circles. I know you and I try. I know we could try harder.



Field Report #3 from Seth Altshuler

Report #3 came several weeks after the first two posts.

I debated about writing again. I hope you’ll understand my reasoning, as I feel torn between what is glorification and what is revelation...What brings you closer to the people and what just makes a good story....What illuminates and what just reads.

I received enough worried emails to realize that I should write, as there was no way I was going to tell this over and over again. Here is what happened. And as lucid as the last few days are in my mind, I am not sure yet how to compartmentalize them, so they are floating.

I realized today on the 7 hour train ride to Colombo that my mass emails exploit what I am doing, as they shine on me. In my head right now, I shame those people by trivializing what they go through into a running journal of Seth. I am heartbroken about their lives and can not use it as a forum for good storytelling. I want to be fair.

Things changed very drastically in a very short time.

Violence increased tenfold in the last week, some of which was finding its way around me, though not in my face. I was invited to a huge Hindu ceremony on Monday with over 20,000 people, and upon returning we were re-routed by some local police. The road we take home had been claymore mined (remote devices that blow up buses) and killed some people on the way home. The other road we took, we later found out, was also to be mined but the LTT caught the guy. My guess is he died a torturous death.

Then a family was killed, then the bus incident in the ancient city that killed 65, of which you may have heard heard. During this time, Rohan (a member of the organization) came up and told me on Thursday that I needed to have the tournament this weekend, as the war was getting ready to start. That afternoon, as many of us were hanging out at the home, army planes began to fly over head. They could be heard, but not seen, as they only dive in to shell at the last minute. The women stayed with the kids in the house, and the men and I waited in the shade, watching to see if we were going to get bombed. The army shelled a town about 20 kilometers away, and shelled Kilinochi (where the office is and where I go for the weekends). Amazingly, no casualties that we know of yet. I kept thinking in my head about what I would do: Would I grab my shoes? Which direction would I run? Why am I here? How can I leave? The bombs really roll like thunder, and it is scary as shit… even from a distance.

It was decided that I would spend the night, meet with the kids tomorrow to explain that I was going, and then I would leave in the afternoon. Somehow I slept, but I kept waiting for the sound of a plane. No candles were used in order to limit the light visible from the sky, and everyone was quiet.

The next morning we divided up the jerseys and headed over to the first camp. It was explained to them in honest words. Having these kids on an open field in a large group was asking for serious trouble. In addition, having them away from their families should bombs be dropped elsewhere was not something I could stomach. Finally, I was becoming a target. I was not affiliated with the UN, or any other international organization. I was a Tamil sympathizer, living in the heart of Tamil territory. The army was beginning to bomb, and their navy was three miles off shore. Who knows to what extent I would have been a target, but no one wanted to find out.

So we gave the Jerseys to the kids of the first camp (comprising 3 of the 6 refugee camps I was working with) and they ran around and we took pictures and then one of them showed up with a gift, which of course made me lose it. I thanked them in the ways that I could, and bid them goodbye.

The second camp (made up of the other 3 camps) was the one I was closest to. I spent time with those kids and the adults, ate with their families, laughed with them, and really grew to love them. They also created a small ceremony, and we handed out the jerseys and they gave me more gifts...all set up amazingly fast and with so much compassion and heart. The speeches were so beautiful and the words so honest that I really couldn't take it. As we gave out the shirts, they said that they wanted to have a world cup final with me as the referee. We all ran out to the field, set up a little opening walk out ceremony, and they played this game, in essence, for all of us. I can barely write this as I start to envision it, as it is so sweet and sad.

We finished the game, and many of them came back to the house for one final lunch. We ate and joked, and I slowly packed as we sat. The family also gave me gifts, and the stoicism of the men and the quietness of the women was lost in the end. It was the saddest thing I have even been a part of, and I hope for the sake of my future and my approach to the world that I never forget it. I had to leave and they had to stay. They gave faces and veiny arms and voices and hair and walking styles and mannerism to a tragedy I knew little of not too long ago. It makes me hate the world. It makes me certain no God would allow it, though they believe so firmly in their respective gods. I have pictures, and I have stories, but really all I have is the thoughts, which I can only share if I tell it honestly and fairly, with nothing but them in mind.

I drove away. I cried again to myself under my sunglasses and hat, driving through the cities that were shelled not long ago. You can't really tell, because they move on and go on about their lives so quickly and without distraction. I arrived in Kilinochi just in time to see the planes overhead as they bombed that vicinity as well. I saw the smoke rising in the distance and stood there with a group so used to this that I am afraid to think of what they haven't seen. I slept very uneasily.

So I suppose I should be grateful. I am alive, I am safe, and I will continue to be so. It is being arranged for me to go south and work in those camps, giving me an interesting perspective on the two sides, my contact here said. My heart isn't in it, but I came so far.

The reality is I don't want to forget. I need to remember this vividly, so as to not forsake their lives, should they lose them. But even on the train, I dreamt about other things, and at times enjoyed the view.

Seth updated this letter a week later:

I will be heading south this weekend to begin my work there. It will be good to see the other side of things and get a better perspective, as right now I feel mostly anger and confusion. I have calmed a bit, and the memory of those few days is already softening. I hate that shit. Things so seemingly important or traumatic can fade to normalcy in a matter of days. I guess we have to, as otherwise we paralyze ourselves.

Basically, I am fine and safe and headed south to do some more work. I'm done writing, and really even questioned writing this. I imagine you will understand.


Field Report #2 from Seth Altshuler

This is the second in a series of reports, republished from emails I received over the last few months. Seth's words, as usual, are printed below in blue:

I keep waiting for Sally Struthers or that Christian guy with a white beard to come round the corner with two refugees in his hands shooting an ad telling me that, for the price of a cup of coffee, I can feed them for a week. The reason I say this is because much of what you see here with aid is amazing. Some of it is, as one local said to me, nothing more than suits and contracts. The people often get treated as projects or causes, and the humanity gets lost. I have seen Unicef build amazing schools and Care also do some great work. I have then seen them paint everything they give away with a big emblem, lest anyone else take the credit. In this regard I am really glad to be associated with something local. When I am introduced or showed around the camps, they treat me differently. I have already visited each of the six camps where the kids I work with live. They are tragic, often solemn places with nothing more than the kids unending drive for fun (and their ignorance of the situation) keeping the place lively. Each one has a preschool and I usually go hang out there first, then hang out with the families, and walk home reinforced in my belief that these are some of the most resilient, wonderful people I have ever encountered.

The aesthetic beauty of the place is the first of a series of dichotomies that I have found present here. Thick, palm-treed jungle mixed with ponds and fields. Birds, monkeys, and other wildlife are everywhere. I cannot help but see this place as a definition of paradise. Coconut milk, sleeping in the open, tons of stars… to say the area is beautiful is an understatement. This, rather obviously, lends itself to the irony that amidst this place of unending beauty are the remnants of a war-torn landscape and a tsunami blasted group of people. I sometimes hear the shells of the LTT army as they train a few kilometers away. My first reaction is that it’s thunder, but a clear sky says otherwise. They think it is funny when I react, which says a lot.

People here really want to talk about what has happened, as no one ever really asks them. I do about an interview a day with people varying from 16 year old kids, to mothers, to sports officials, to leaders of local government. One guy even took a full day bus ride to come visit me because he heard there was an American here coaching soccer. He is a coach in another town, and he wanted to talk about sports as a form of mental rehabilitation. We spoke for a few hours, and then he headed back for another three hour bus ride home.

But that, to be honest, remains the sweetest of exchanges so far. More are like this one: I went with about 7 guys to this coconut tree they said had the best milk (shit all tastes the same to me) and as we walked the guys began to chat. I have a translator supplied by the organization with me all the time. He is a great guy and doesn't seem to mind relaying everything. They had a few machetes in their hands, and as we walked they showed each other moves and techniques the LTT army had taught them. It was actually quite frightening to see these smiley little guys showing each other good ways to gut a human. Even their faces changed a bit. It showed the Jekyll and Hyde of humanity, for as much as I want to see them for nothing but the kind people they are, I couldn't help but also see that these people do and will kill other people, regardless of the nobility of the cause. I can get swept up in the ideals, but the realities of their war are far beyond my understanding or temperament. I hear stories from guys I spend lots of time with about when they saw bombs dropped on schools that killed 50 thirteen year olds. I see the shrapnel still embedded in one of my friend's knees. I see the old soccer coach who has one arm. I see the pictures of the dead family members. The orphans. The widows. The seven families living in tiny one bedroom refugee camps. I hear the stories about the large number of woman who died in the tsunami because their hair got caught in the thatch fences that surrounded their home (this happened a lot, apparently.) I see the anger in their faces when they talk about this war. It is an anger I will never know, easy though my judgments may be about non-violence. I heard a story about a guy's friend who was captured by the army and tortured. He now lives in a bed, because they put a hollow pole up his rectum, slid barbed wire up the pole, pulled the pole out, and then the wire. The shit goes on and on and on. I never know what to say.

On an even sadder note, I mentioned the nun who was working with the orphans in that beach town I went and visited and where I was going to go and try and do a camp....it was shelled last night. They are once again displaced. The army sends a bomb once in a while to keep them moving and nervous. It appears that no one was killed, though some were injured. We have cancelled all plans there, as there is nothing we can do.

Again, things are soft and gentle and things are hard and bruised. There is no good way to segue out of that type of topic, so I'll just move on.

The flip side of all that is that I spend a ton of time playing with these kids, and it really is amazing. After going around to all the camps and doing introductions and small ceremonies and eating tons of curry and listening to speeches, we finally arrived at the day when the camps would begin, which was another ceremony of candles and flags and moments of silence for the dead and then an explosion of kids running around pegging each other with soccer balls. I do two camps a day at two different locations. The first day we had thirty at each. The second day around 70 at each. It goes up and down, but we average about 50 for each one, with a dedicated core of people ranging from 6 years old to 35 year old men. Some of these kids ride 6 kilometers every day to get there. Some of them ride the six kilometers home to eat, and then back to go to the second camp. We ended up getting more balls to accommodate, and I basically run around like crazy for two hours or so at a time trying to make things work. It always does, in a chaotic sort of way. There is no doubt in my mind that they are having a good time with it. Some of the old fathers come out and watch, and someone always makes a bucket full of tea and some cookies to eat at half time. The work is really tiring, especially in this heat. But as corny as it sounds, seeing these little shits come running to us as we get to the field waving thumbs ups and throwing dirt at each other makes me find the energy. The kids, as always, make things fun and easy. They make me just give up the charade of a drill when I see them wrestling in line. I came here to make them laugh and have fun and forget things. However they want to do it is fine with me. I wonder sometimes about the worth of my project versus something more sustainable and more tangible, but I also see that this is how I can help.

I spend my nights with my host-family playing marbles and cards with the folks who stop by and bullshitting about why I look so old. They are so unbelievably kind and will not accept anything I try to give them, monetary or other. My total relinquishment of privacy, from the brother who puts a chair in front of me and just stares at me to the three snoring guys sleeping around me, is my only complaint. But I keep every sign of annoyance as distant as I can. How could I possibly be ungrateful for what they are doing? The food is great, albeit super hot, and the two puppies that live there are no longer growling at me and slowly becoming my friends.

Things are hard and tiring, but they are going amazingly well. I can't help but be relieved and grateful for all the events leading up to this, as it is what I had hoped and more than I expected.

Some of you have offered to send financial help or letters, and I greatly appreciate the sentiment. My time here is too short and the mail system too crappy to make that a possibility. However, I have written my parents and we are going to work on setting up a fund that will be sent to the organization I am working for, the North East Youth Action Organization. They are really fantastic, and this way you won't send money to Sally Struthers.


Field Report #1 from Seth Altshuler

Stave It Off is very excited to publish a series of email updates from our good friend and colleague Seth Altshuler as he describes his work with Tamil orphans and refugees in war-torn Sri Lanka. I could not be more proud of what Seth is doing or more happy that he has given me permission to reprint his (slightly edited) letters here. One benefit to this is that a new crop of readers will hear something about his work, spreading some additional awareness of this situation. I encourage you all to leave comments for Seth on the Epilogue post, as he'll be checking back later to hear your feedback. I hope you find his writing as insightful and inspiring as I do:

Hello to you all. Anyone who decides not to read all this jazz is still a good human.

What has happened since I got to Sri Lanka:

After arriving in Colombo, I flew to the north to a place called Jaffna, which is currently occupied by the Sinhalese (Government Army), though it is Tamil Territory. The Tamils are the people in the North and the Sinhalese are those in the south. The civil war here is between these two sides and covers a lot of complicated and intense history, of which I am trying to understand. The two sides’ hatred and distrust actually dates back to the beginning of the written books of Buddhism, and has had periods of peace and war, interspersed with colonization and other issues. It is very complex, to say the least.

Jaffna has a curfew of about 5 o'clock, and then becomes a ghost town. People there are killed routinely and violence is expected, though it usually happens about 5 miles away from where I stayed. I walked around a bit in the day time, and found the place to be a little edgy, but not what I was warned it would be like. I got a chance to talk to some people and was even invited into a military bunker by some 20 year olds with guns. I respectfully declined. I tried my best not to seem pro-anything, and found that by just smiling and being interested in people (not politics) that everyone was quite kind. I found out the next morning that two people were shot coming out of a store at 6. Clearly my sense of security was false.

The next morning I spoke to my contact in Kilinochi (In Tamil territory) who has been arranging everything, and he told me that the odds of the military letting me through are slim, to say the least. He let me know that he had already begun trying to arrange a backup plan for me in the south, as there is no violence there. We agreed that I would try to get through the 3 military checkpoints and get to where he is, but not to keep my hopes up. We arranged a Taxi driven by a Tamil man who would tell the border guards that I was not actually going to Kilinochi (this is the Tamil capitol) but rather that he was my guide and that he was taking me to the ancient cities which lie some miles south in Sinhalese land. When we actually got to the checkpoints, I kept giving the guards Vitamin C grapefruit candies, which they ate the shit out of, and got through without too much trouble. Here are these guys in fatigues sucking on throat lozenges, all the while me and this guy who doesn't speak English are sliding through areas only the UN and other NGOs can go. Basically, I got really lucky.

So I am here. At the moment I am sleeping at an orphanage for little girls who lost their families in the war and to the tsunami. I spend my nights playing a kazoo with them, which I never should have given them. I hear that shit all night long.

I spent the other day at one of the refugee camps, as I am going around and being introduced by the organization I am working for (North East Youth Action Organization… funded by the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization.) I met a Sri Lankan nun at one of the camps who was teaching some 6 year olds in makeshift school donated by UNICEF. She spoke a bit of English and told me a lot about how it all happened and how the war has made things all the more difficult. I have arranged a two day program with her and her orphanage (there are plenty of orphans,) which I am really looking forward to. My plan is to stay at a camp on the coast for the majority of my time and to make little trips out to other camps to do one or two days with other kids. I have candy and soccer balls and bubbles. They love it. There is no shortage of people who need help in all its forms. I see UN trucks and World Vision people and Oxfam folks all day long. Though there is a lot being done here, it clearly isn't enough. I am really glad to be here and honored that these people have welcomed me as they have. I am working with an amazing organization and for even more amazing people. I thank my stars.

The EU has just passed an embargo on the LTT (the Tamil army) and it is possible that things will get ugly. I have an escape plan with some other NGO people and really am not worried about my own safety, should things get bad. My concern is not really my own health, but more what I will have to face if I am escorted out while they all stay here. I can't imagine.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Sources of Income

I took a backpack full of CDs (from my recent library purges) down to Sonic Boom on Tuesday. I sold a stack of crap I didn't want anymore for $130 and felt pretty good about that. Then I realized that that only pays my rent for about one week. I'm going to have to do better if I want to support myself during the upcoming days of underemployment. Perhaps I can start selling my other belongings: furniture, books, plasma, kidneys, etc.

Today, however, everything changed.

I've accepted a position with JFS in their clinical counseling department. I'll be the assessment specialist there starting July 17th. I'll keep a caseload of therapy and case management clients as well as doing intake for most of the agency's departments. Having done a little bit of everything at JFS, they decided I would be a good fit for a job that requires someone who can do a little bit of everything. Bully for me.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Years ago my apartment building was maintained and operated by a middle-aged couple named Pat and Mike. They puttered around the building greeting everyone by name and offering warm smiles, and managed the remarkable feat of respecting your privacy while also being genuinely interested in your welfare. They hosted yard sales for all the residents, lovingly resurfaced all the wooden banisters and vintage fixtures, and made everyone in the building feel like a valued community member. When the fifth day of the month came along and you had forgotten to pay the rent, they'd drop by and remind you that it was due. And on the day they left, the residents threw them a going away party.

One night back in those days Soapy and I returned to my apartment complex after a night of Saturday drinking. Soapy drank me under the table, matching my every Guinness with an RC Cola of his own. As we approached the back door we noticed a handful of nickels and dimes scattered on the ground; and once inside, we saw a set of keys, some quarters and a five dollar bill on the floor of the stairwell. Soapy, significantly quicker on the draw than me, froze in mid-stoop as he was about to pluck the bill up off the floor and pointed at it. The bill was smeared with red liquid. Closer examination confirmed it was fresh blood. Immediately transforming into Encyclopedia Brown and The Great Brain, the two of us starting looking for clues.

Clearly some foul play had occurred. No one would drop that much money (and their keys) without noticing, but there didn't appear to be anyone in the vicinity. Scoping out the area, we found a large streak of blood low on the wall heading downstairs toward the basement. We followed the trail and found another large patch of blood on the underside of the stairwell... A strange place to smear your body fluids and further evidence that something pretty weird was going on. We did a quick survey of the laundry room, the only open door I knew about down there. Every time I looked behind a corner or opened a washer or dryer I half-expected to see a crumpled dead body before me. But we found nothing more of note.

At this point I phoned Pat. It was late, but this was too scary not to wake her up. She padded down the stairs in her slippers and bathrobe a few minutes later. We showed her the blood stains and described where we found the keys and the change. Looking at the key ring, she picked it up by the one that appeared to match our mail keys and headed for the front lobby. Cool as a cucumber, she checked the key against each mailbox, until at last it turned and opened one of them... Number 304.

Outside the third floor apartment we couldn't hear anything or see any light coming from the crack under the door. Pat knocked and then again more loudly. There was no response. Sensing my next move, she said, "No, we can't just let ourselves in. We have to call the police if it comes to that." She told us that 304 was occupied by a single woman who had recently left a bad relationship. My mind flooded with images of some sort of violent abduction that resulted in a bloody struggle and strewn money. It quickly became the only conclusion that made any sense.

Downstairs again, we decided to do a thorough sweep of the area before calling the cops. Soapy and I were checking the laundry room again when we heard Pat cry, "You guys! Come here!" Standing at the half-open sliding door to the utility room, Pat looked terrified. We rushed to the opening and saw what she had just discovered: A pair of clothed human legs sticking out from a huge pile of wadded up clear plastic. Soapy immediately strode forward to check out the scene. I stood next to Pat, repressing a sudden feeling of queasiness.

Soapy motioned us over. The legs were still attached to a body. The body was still breathing. The body was bleeding a bit from the head, and smelled heavily of booze. A different picture of what happened began to form in my mind. Pat immediately recognized him as a new tenant, "George! George, are you alright?" George's reply wasn't quite intelligible.

"C'mon buddy, let's get you to your apartment, eh." We helped him up and supported him all the way to the door of his basement apartment. "These your keys?" He nodded. "And this must be the money you dropped man." We watched him stagger to the bedroom before closing the door behind him. Pat explained that he was pretty upset lately, having just returned from living in Japan and that he hadn't found a job yet. Again, I was amazed at what she knew about each person in her building and how much she seemed to care about their wellbeing.

Soapy summarized, "So Drunky Smurf here must have dropped some change outside trying to get his keys out of his pocket. Once inside he fell over and hit his head low on the wall, dropping his keys in the process. Looking for something to press against his wound, he pulled more change and a fiver out of his pocket and pressed the bill against the wound before dropping it as well. Then he must have stumbled down to his basement apartment, running up against the bottom of the stairwell to steady himself. But he dropped his keys, so he couldn't get inside. Rather than go search for them, he staggered to the utility room and collapsed on a pile of plastic."

"Oh, and I'll bet his mailbox key just coincidently also opens #304. Only so many shapes of locks before they repeat themselves," I chimed in, making a mental note to go back later and check if my key opened any other boxes.

Pat thanked us both for our help, asked that we not mention it to anyone and padded back upstairs to get some sleep. And every time I talked to Pat after that I felt a special bond... That we had solved a case together and that she could trust me and my friends to help out in a tough spot.

But things have changed... In the same way a locally owned general store is replaced in your life by a Walmart. Now when the fifth day of the month rolls around and I've forgotten to pay rent, my new building manager lovingly puts a "You have 10 days to pay rent plus a hefty late fee or vacate" warning under my door. I no longer feel any sense of community or ownership toward the building. I no longer pick up an errant piece of garbage in the hallway. I no longer really wish to live in that building. And the anemic, obligatory hellos that issue from the mouth of my new building manager ring false and hollow like the unfulfilled promise of capitalism.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

Shining Beacon of Bummerism

From the BBC television series, The Singing Detective:

What do you believe in?


Come again?

Malthus… but mandatorially. Compulsory depopulation by infanticide, suicide, genocide or whatever other means suggest themselves… AIDS for example, that’ll do. Why should queers be so special?

I see.

I also believe in cigarettes, cholesterol, alcohol, carbon monoxide, masturbation, the Arts Council, nuclear weapons, the daily telegraph and not properly labeling fatal poisons. But most of all, above all else, I believe in the one thing that can come out of people’s mouths: vomit.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Still Processing

Arguing over whether or not it's okay to pantomime shooting two people in the back of the head is pure folly. I really do understand that the assassination of innocent civilians, even those striving to look and act like Paris Hilton, is never really okay. Adding to the collective violence and intolerance in the world is a bad thing. However... I feel some need, despite already having been thoroughly thrashed in this argument, to talk about this some more.

I feel silly about my previous stance… As if I still raged about being a jilted high school loser, spurned by the cheerleader babes and swirlied by letterman jacket jocks. I feel like I painted myself into the trenchcoat mafia, bristling for my opportunity to go Columbine on everyone. This is not the truth of the situation at all.

Yeah, high school did suck, but not for me personally. My murderous fantasies were not motivated by personal suffering. I had friends that gave me rides when I had no car. I did well in my classes. I joined societies, and clubs and teams. I had excellent teachers. I had girlfriends. No one ever tried to push me into a locker. No one ever kicked my ass. So why did it suck? Because I witnessed (i.e. I made myself aware of, and I refused to look away from) other people suffering all around me. I always empathized with the freaks and geeks. The fat, the poor, the retarded, the insufferably dorky, the gay, the shower-phobic, the pimpled, the nerdy… all the collective misfits… those were my people.

And I got sick and tired of telling the other kids to quit messing with Joe. They sure got a kick out of forcing the retarded kid that rode our bus to say things like, “I’m gay” to everyone, or getting him to tell other kids, “Fuck you asshole.” And I got tired of Marty following me around when he was afraid of another beat down. He sprinted between every class for fear of being caught by someone, but there was no safe zone when he had to wait for the bus… except when he figured out that I could protect him. And passively, I did… the way a tree might protect you from falling rain. And I got so sad hearing how many of my friends had been sexually abused. Like Jen who lost her virginity when she was date raped. Or Allen who was forced to kneel down and kiss the bare asses of his older brother’s baseball team buddies on one of their camping trips. And I was even more saddened when I thought about the fact that during most of these events, people looked on and said nothing. We hurt out of insecurity and refuse to stand up to the hurtful due to even more insecurity.

And it wasn’t just high school. I remember being horrified when I saw elementary school kids salting slugs, or using magnifying glasses to burn the legs off of insects one at a time, or when I heard about people setting fire to cats. I wasn’t even sure if it was okay to give peanut butter to a dog. Even that level of cruel prank seemed wrong to me.

In short, the world has always appeared to me to be full of either unkind or indifferent souls. Individually we tend toward cruelty and defensiveness. We hurt each other with astonishing creativity and zeal, or we blind ourselves with steely resolve. And collectively… we allow genocide to happen in our names, we tacitly approve of imperialism by enjoying the lifestyle that it affords us, we ride on the backs of half a world enslaved and we don’t care. We worry about celebrities and their love lives. We actually care about what line of products Louis Vuitton will design next. We don’t do manual labor, but we work out compulsively so that we can be thin. We wear the right make up, the right scents, the right clothes, the right brand-named accessories so that we can fit in perfectly… so that we can belong to the ruling cultural aristocracy. Our insecurities are so consuming that we cannot escape our destructive need to belong to a set of successful, beautiful, blithely happy people. And we establish our place among them with acts of cruelty… by degrading our neighbors and classmates, by physically and emotionally raping them, by beating them, by excluding them, by humiliating them. Or we refuse to jeopardize our status by stooping down to help someone being abused.

Even if they don’t truly exist, I’ve grown to resent that class of people. They and their desperate wannabes might appear harmless, but they are a most dangerous enemy. They validate the idea that we should all refuse to witness the real human condition around us, and instead look to our celebrity gods and goddesses for inspiration. Why look at suffering, at torture, at genocide, at inequity when we can look at fashion magazines and check out hip new dance clubs. They confirm for us that it’s okay to turn away from our universal human obligation to steward this earth and its inhabitants. They tease us with the simpler option.

But regardless of how much anger and frustration I feel toward these people… these silly shallow people relentlessly seeking happiness at the bottom of a sales receipt… they do not deserve death. They don’t even deserve mockery. Pity is what I should feel. But it’s a lot easier to pity the victims of the world than the perpetrators.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

SIFF Lords

O and I managed our first Seattle Internation Film Festival showing last night. We saw Carmen in Khayelitsha, a South African adaption of the culture-clashing tragic opera Carmen. The film was shot entirely in the Xhosa language, complete with all the popping and clicking sounds you might think incongruous with opera, and it was beautiful. Occasionally modernizations suck (see West Side Story) but I loved this take on Carmen. Gypsy culture was transformed into township culture with some gang-related thuggery, dive-bar dancehalls and South African street life. The neighborhood of Khayelitsha shines as a major and welcome character in this retelling. Opera purists will cringe at some of the liberties taken with the libretto and the way street sounds and African rhythms are periodically injected into the score. It was exactly what was needed, however, in order to reach me. I'm still not interested in buying a season ticket to the Seattle Opera, but this was pretty outstanding.

Real women have curves, baby!