Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Beep beep and beep beep yeah

Obituaries for my former high school classmates are coming faster and closer together as time goes on. This obit is for one of my classmates from the graduating class of 1965.

Beep is not her real first name, but my wife and I can’t remember what it is. Sally thinks it might be Susan. Whatever it is, her survivors and the obituary writer didn’t put it in her obit. I guess everyone just knew her as Beep.

Beep as she was when we knew her.

The obit mentions that she was the first female auto mechanics student in Utah.. That was a big deal in those days, and it got her some attention. If I hadn’t seen the obituary, and if someone had asked me what I remember about Beep it would have been that she studied auto mechanics with a shop full of boys.

The write-up also tells that after living in another state she had come back to Utah because of her relationship with Roger W. (her “first boyfriend”), who was also a 1965 classmate. Roger owns an automotive business, and was in the news in 1993 when he was tried for murder.

Roger in high school.

The story that came out is that a violent, psychopathic ex-convict named Daniels was getting 50% of the profits of Roger’s business through threats and physical abuse. One day Roger had had enough. When Daniels came at him with a screwdriver Roger shot him twice, in the face and heart, with a .357 magnum. What got Roger tried for murder was due to his next moves: he told some men to call the police, then went back and administered a coup de grace. He shot Daniels two more times in the back.

The prosecutor said that was homicide, not self-defense. In the trial it came out that Daniels was “essentially” dead when Roger put the second set of two bullets in him. Witnesses came forward to say they had seen Daniels beat Roger either with fists or shop tools, including a hammer. The jury believed Roger’s version of self-defense and acquitted him.

In the end Beep was with Roger. It says in her obituary that she developed diabetes when she was 12, and that’s a terrible disease. I am surprised she made it to the age she was when she died. I hope she and Roger had some good times together. It seems to me they both deserved it.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Another voice amongst the many: remembering the JFK assassination

As a Baby Boomer I’m just one more of millions who remember where we were and what we were doing on that day Kennedy was killed. For the record, I was a junior in high school, attending my daily gym class. The class was being held in the wrestling room because the school had rented out the gym for an electronics show. Dozens of men in black business suits had lined the walls of the gym with equipment, stereo, radios, televisions, all brand-new models for 1964. So when the news broke we were allowed to go back into the gym where everyone watched the unfolding story on multiple TV screens.

The story of the killing of a sitting American President, vivid as it is, becomes part of a larger story, because I believe the assassination of JFK was the beginning of what we call “The Sixties.” At least it was for me; in retrospect it seems all hell broke loose after JFK was killed. It could just be my perception, from where I stood then and through the next ten years. But for me the decade of the 1960s with its turmoil and excitement of whirlwind changes in society began on November 22, 1963, and ended in August, 1974, with the resignation of Richard Nixon.

It has been fifty years since JFK died. Fifty years! To put it in perspective, in 1963 the start of the First World War in 1914 wasn’t yet quite fifty years past. Memories of World War II were still very much with us, still fresh. That war had ended only eighteen years before. The veterans of that conflict were our parents and teachers, still young people in their forties when Kennedy was killed. A veteran and war hero himself, Kennedy was only 46 when he died.

None of those things went through my head during that awful weekend, from the first word of the assassination through the funeral the following Monday. (An incredible achievement, I now realize, mounting a state funeral of that magnitude with only a couple of days to prepare. It’s a story still to be told of the assassination, and I hope someone will tell us how it was done.) I believe collectively the whole country was depressed. It was as if on that weekend all of the business of America came to a stop. We all just put our normal lives on hold and watched television, while history was being made.

Watching some of the current TV programs about that weekend in 1963 has an effect on me. It reminds me of what was going on in my personal life, but also connects me, inextricably, to fellow Americans alive at a time when as a nation we went into a period of mourning.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The prejudiced ear

A big murder trial wrapped up recently in Salt Lake City. It was one of those trials that capture national attention, and the November 13 edition of NBC’s Dateline was devoted to the case.

Martin MacNeill, a doctor, was tried and convicted of killing his wife. One of the prosecution theories is that he killed her so he could be with his mistress. The wife was found, fully clothed, dead in a bathtub. She had recently had a facelift, and her doctor-husband prescribed painkillers, on which she overdosed.

The wife...the doctor...the mistress. A deadly mix.

During the trial, as is the norm in cases like this, the 911 call he made when he called to say his wife wasn’t breathing was played for the jury, and we all got to hear the hysteria in his voice. There was a whole follow-up of things he said to first responders. When introduced to the jury his statements at a time of crisis just didn’t sound like they thought a man who had just lost his wife would speak.

It always strikes me during such moments in a trial as to whether it is fair to introduce evidence that was created at such a moment. Often what the caller says doesn’t ring true to the listener. It often sounds fake. If the caller is very emotional it can sound forced. If there are no histrionics it may sound like the caller is emotionless, and doesn’t care.

But really, how does anyone know how someone else will react during such a stressful time?

What if the caller was innocent, yet was overwhelmed by events? MacNeill screamed at the 911 dispatcher who asked if he was performing CPR, as if his credentials as a physician were being challenged. As it turned out, the jury didn't need to hear that call. They had plenty of other evidence on which to find Dr. MacNeill guilty, but that 911 call piled on to the other events and didn’t help. According to published reports the jury considered it part of his “over the top” response to his wife’s death.

The prejudice comes in when we condemn someone for not having what we think is the proper reaction. I have heard a lot of former jurors in other trials say they didn’t think the defendant sounded sincere, or didn’t act like they imagined they would in similar circumstances.

In the book, Alien Hand Syndrome and Other Too-Weird-Not-To-Be-True Stories by Alan Burrows, the author addresses that prejudice in a chapter called “Cognitive Glitches.”
     The false consensus effect is the tendency of individuals to assume that others think and act the same way as they do. It applies to such things as opinions, thought patterns, attitudes and behaviors.  Essentially, false consensus is an expression of the average person’s complete inability to comprehend the thought processes of another. The effect is so powerful that subjects asked to envision someone with a different attitude or opinion will often imagine the other person as mentally deficient or deluded. This bias severely limits the ability of humans to understand or predict the behavior of others.
Is there a standard by which we judge how other people react? I think it would be prudent for a defense attorney to call a psychologist who could explain the false consensus effect. Whether it would do any good or not to tell people that just because they wouldn't overreact to a 911 operator they shouldn't assume everyone would act as they expect.

I assume someone who has willfully killed a spouse and calls 911 probably wants to make it sound real, so they do an acting job. That in itself will sound phony. Human beings, especially when lying, are acting and we may think we’re up to being convincing, but folks, unless you’re a trained professional, don’t try it. Most people will be too kind to tell you they think you are lying, but that is no indication your acting is working for its intended audience. I believe Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep could be standing over a dead body, holding a smoking gun and still convince police they didn’t kill anyone. False consensus syndrome or not, I know I couldn’t match their acting abilities.

Finally, if I had been on that jury I would have found Dr. MacNeill guilty of murdering his wife. But I believe my decision would have been based on evidence alone, not on how I think he should have sounded when speaking to others in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s death.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

MAD History of Sex

Mad magazine takes the whole history of sex, from Adam to now, and compresses it down to a few pages. Funny history, funny subject!

Copyright © 1974, 2013 E.C. Publications, Inc.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Three examples of telling a personal story successfully

I like to write, and I write this blog to be read by others. I also like to read good writing. It gives me intense pleasure, but it is also a learning tool. I think telling a personal story can be a really good way for a writer to communicate with readers. I’m giving examples today from three writers I think tell their personal stories well.

David Sedaris is a well-known author, essayist and humorist, who has made his way to the top of the best-seller lists and is also in demand as a speaker, reading from his own work. That would be the apex of the profession.

His latest essay in The New Yorker for October 28, 2013, is nostalgic, funny and tragic. “Now We Are Five” is a story about Sedaris’ large family, their yearly beach vacation, and the sister who killed herself. We are grabbed right away by Sedaris’ opening lines:
“In late May of this year, a few weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday, my youngest sister, Tiffany, committed suicide. She was living in a room in a beat-up house on the hard side of Somerville, Massachusetts, and had been dead, the coroner guessed, for at least five days before her door was battered down.”
From that point Sedaris introduces himself into the narrative, and then goes into a long story, interweaving himself, his parents and his five siblings and their years together at the beach, all while telling of the most current beach vacation, where they had their annual vacation with their 90-year-old father. Tiffany, the suicide, figures in as part of the overall story, and in Sedaris’ way, in a memory by a non-family member that ends in a punchline:
“The day before we arrived at the beach, Tiffany’s obituary ran in the Raleigh News & Observer. It was submitted by Gretchen, who stated that our sister had passed away peacefully at her home. This made it sound as if she were very old, and had a house. But what else could you do? People were leaving responses on the paper’s Web site, and one fellow wrote that Tiffany used to come into the video store where he worked in Somerville. When his glasses broke, she offered him a pair she had found while foraging for art supplies in somebody’s trash can. He said that she also gave him a Playboy magazine from the nineteen-sixties that included a photo-spread titled “The Ass Menagerie.”
Sedaris has many fans. I am an admirer of his writing. He makes everything about his life interesting, and I highly recommend his books. You can read the essay I have quoted from at the New Yorker website.

Eddie Hunter is a great storyteller. He has a blog, Chicken Fat. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, and he writes often about his hometown. I met him through the old Prodigy bulletin boards circa 1993 and through his posts immediately recognized him as a keen observer of human nature. Eddie is what I’d call a “first draft” author; he writes it and posts it. I have told him with a good editor he could be another humorist in the Southern tradition of Lewis Grizzard. Eddie’s blog is a grab-bag of cartoons, comics, jokes, observations and anecdotes like this very funny story he tells of himself as a young sailor in the early 1960s. (I have taken the liberty of some slight editing, but nothing to take away from Eddie’s style.)
“At one of the many neighborhood bars between where I was stationed, NAS Lakehurst, New Jersey, and Lakewood, New Jersey, one time returning from the movie theater in Lakewood I dropped in a "Dew-Drop-Inn" kind of joint.  Back in the mid 60s the bars and lounges had video jukeboxes. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer.  Next to me was a middle-aged lady quietly weeping.  I looked at her and might have asked her was she OK.  She told me it was her and her husband's 25th wedding anniversary.  He was a chicken farmer and would not dance with her.  He resented having to take the time off from the farm to take out to celebrate.  He sat beside her, looking straight ahead, listening to ever word we said, and occasionally glanced at the person talking.  Finally, I leaned over to him, and saying in a joking manner to ‘Come on, dance with your pretty wife.’

He turned around and glared at me and said, ‘You dance with her, Butterball!’

I laughed like he pulled a good one, and said, ‘Oh no, I'm not the dancing type.... ha ha!’ ’

He stood up to show me his enormous size, pushed his ball cap back to get a better glare on me, and said, ‘Dance, Butterball! Dance!’

I looked at my watch and said I had to run.

I hit the parking lot running. 

My lesson for that day was not to meddle in other people's business.”
Not only is Eddie an observer of human behavior, he can tell a funny story about himself. It is what your English teacher always told you: “Write what you know.”

Eddie (left) and former Mad editor Albert Feldstein. Like me, Eddie was raised on Mad.

Pervocracy is another blog I follow, if only because I find the idea of BDSM foreign. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying sex while being tortured, but apparently, as I have read in this blog, it is a way of life.

From a posting calling “The Sexcalator,” the female author opens with two startling paragraphs :
“By the time I was out of my early twenties, I'd done some fairly hardcore BDSM.  I'd been beaten, whipped, cut, bound, shocked, peed on, done most of the above naked in front of strangers, and frequently during sex.  Which raises the question--where do you go from there? When you're so young, and you've already had such intense experiences, what's left?

Cuddling on the couch, for one.  Or having slow sleepy sex at the end of the day.  Or — not to make this sound like ‘but then I discovered that sweet gentle love was the most daring of all!’ — getting beaten some more, not necessarily in a harder or more shocking way than before.”
She isn’t asking us to accept her sexual interests as moral or immoral. She is telling us what she has done, not asking for approval. It is what it is, she is saying. This is confessional writing, but it also is a look inside the mind of someone who may be doing something we have only heard of, but never done.

In that way I find her story not only titillating, but well written. It instantly portrays to me what she finds sexually exciting, and that is the goal of any good writer: to get the readers immersed instantly, and keep them interested until the point is made and the story reaches its end.

Bettie Page being bad? Or just having some good, sexy fun?