Dec 31, 2008

Stone steps

The accidents that made us

Sarah Anne was not German, not really, but if you had believed her you would have believed she’d come up with the whole country herself. She was insanely proud of the place and the people and would always, for any reason, argue for German superiority.

Sarah Anne was the daughter of immigrants, but was born in the U.S. and lived in the U.S. like every other citizen. She lived in the suburbs, drove a sedan, spent time online, and rented me a basement room. I think she maybe spent a year in Germany, after college, with her fiancé, but even that might have been the exaggeration of a three-month vacation with a very bored boyfriend. But none of that mattered, the only truth was she had a fetish for all things German, a fixation, and she wouldn’t let go.

First thing, when I moved in, she gave me some picture hangers. “These are better,” she said. “They’re German.” She told me I should throw away my mattress and get a German bed, which is basically a pallet and a pad. “I have a bed,” I said, and Sarah Anne said, “Well it’s awful. I have the German kind. It’s a lot better.” Sarah Anne believed in German superiority, and would always think it was important to say. Germans had better cars and clerks, washing machines and anything engineered, better houses, better desserts, better manners, better words, and better weather. Germans had a better way of drinking water, better beer, better transportation, better education, better towns and better traditions. I can’t remember all of the better German things, but basically, for Sarah Anne, everything German was always superior. If she had been a planet, Germany would have been her sun, because she just went around and around and around it.

I tried to not talk to her, and when I had to talk to her I tried to not say things like, “stick a braut in it lady, your family immigrated, OK? You have nothing to do with Germany.” But for Mary Anne, the accident of her heritage was very important. She hung on to it, thinking it gave her something important, thinking it gave her access to something right.

Martin Heidegger believed thinking was better in German. Philosophy, he thought, thorough thinking and the sort of thoughts that are deep enough and sturdy enough to bear to the real weight of thinking, they have to happen auf Deutsch.

This was a very German thing to think. This is the logic of the compound word: Singularity over multiplicity; unity over diversity. In German, it’s better to have one huge, long word to express an idea. The complicated compound is preferred. It’s better than having a swarm of ant-like words crawling all over a thought. In German it is better to be right than flexible, and precision is preferred to synonyms.

When this came up, in the seminar I took on Heidegger, none of us English-speaking philosophy majors considered it serious. What we wanted to know was how far this dumb idea, this linguistic prejudice, affected (or infected) Heidegger. None of us gave even a suspicion of credence to the idea that we were barred from thinking because of the language of our births. It was just not an idea we could consider. Not just because it meant we would never think thoroughly, but because the concept of linguistic superiority seemed so obviously absurd. We couldn’t just oppose the idea, because for us the question couldn’t be about German superiority, but would have to be about why the hell someone would think this. The idea that truth is only accessible in a single language was as unacceptable to us as the Jim Crow rule about “a drop of Negro blood” or as unacceptable as attributing Jewish paternity to Satan – We couldn’t even consider the idea in order to reject it, couldn’t consider it even possibly true, and couldn’t even accept the conditions of asking it as a question.

This, I know now, is part of the character of English. The language was born out of two languages dwelling together, developed as Norman boys tried to woo Saxon girls, as Saxon cows were sold for Norman meals, as unified language systems were cracked and scrambled. English is a language with at least two words for everything, from the third person of the trinity to excrement. English is a language of multiplicity, diversity, and flexibility. The greatest English writers are the ones who make up new words and new grammars, who take the language and bend it and beat it and batter it, believing not in Germanic rigidity, but in rhythm, uproar, and delicious riot. The language has flourished with ages of global trade, as an international language, in part, because it’s better when it’s mixed up. It’s better when it’s expanded with mutation and “misuse,” experimentation and play. So to be born into English means it’s impossible to think one language is somehow superior, or uniquely related to the nature and structure of being.

But we didn’t choose this idea, or come up with this idea, and we couldn’t escape it. Heidegger couldn’t unthink his thoughts on thinking, English-speaking philosophy students can’t take that idea seriously, and I can’t prefer compound-word contusions. I have nothing to do with it, anymore than Sarah Anne had anything to do with Germany.

We are stuck here. These are inescapable accidents. We are and always will be who we are, stuck in the language spoken before we spoke, before we were even conceived. We do not get a say about these things, and if we did, we could only speak with the language we knew.

The danger, though, is not in being bound by the gravitational force of our language, but in thinking we’re free. The danger is in thinking we have slipped the bonds, escaped our orbit and sailed clean away. What we do – what I do – is take credit for choices which were decided by accident before I was born. But there is no breaking orbit, and Sarah Anne didn’t engineer German engineering, and none of us can escape the accidents that made us.

Dec 29, 2008

Shutter grain

"He had closed his store permanently and was at home all day now. He and Miss Rosa lived in the back of the house, with the front door locked and the front shutters closed and fastened, and where, so the neighbors said, he spent the day behind one of the slightly opened blinds like a picquet on post, armed not with a musket but with the big family bible ... until a detachment of troops would pass: whereupon he would open the bible and declaim in a harsh loud voice even above the sound of tramping feet, the passages of the old violent vindictive mysticism which he had already marked as the actual picquet would have ranged his row of cartridges along the window sill."

-- William Faulkner, in Absaolm, Absalom!

Dec 26, 2008

Watching the sky

My Germany photos will be here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielsilliman

Dec 24, 2008

Hope incarnate

That a baby born out of wedlock, a boy born in the middle east, a placenta-covered, fleshy, helpless and screaming child is the intervention of God.

Dec 23, 2008

Train to Tübingen

The sun doesn't come out, on the train ride south. It doesn't come up, break through, shine forth. There're tracks and factories, farmland and frayed frostings of left-over snow, and the train goes south in the morning, into the morning of the first day, but the sun doesn't come.

On the Frankfort platform, platform six, the day is gray. Moving south, into some trees that are tall and thin and let the light filter in, the day is gray but the gray gets lighter, washing out until it's just translucent dingy sky.

A boy helps his mother into a long plush coat. Two women have their mullets dyed hot pink in exactly the same spots. Someone, somewhere, has coffee, and the smell comes down the length of the moving train. Two girls, behind me, talk all the way and I eavesdrop only as a technicality, since I don't understand any of this. The boy across from me kisses the girl with the big nose for four stops straight, without breathing, and then when she gets off, she looks at him through the window and smiles. She gives a self-conscious little wave.

I wake up when my book falls to the floor. I wake up knowing I'm on a train, but not knowing where the train is, or where it's going or where it's been. My book -- a little hardback -- starts to slide with a turn and I touch it with a toe, holding it. Somewhere, somebody laughs. I assume it's at me. Though logically it can't be, I assume.

I get off the train when everyone gets off and go to try to read the map. This is some sort of end, or anyway the cars all emptied here. The sky is variegated in versions of gray. The edges are turning like bad milk in coffee. I'm trying to see if I missed my stop and have to go back. The sign doesn't say where we are, in the agat type lists of locations and little boxes. But then I hear it.

I don't believe it. But I hear it. I turn around, not knowing where to look and, exhausted so I'm having trouble even seeing, I'm sort of shuffle-stomping, looking, I'm sure, like a blind elephant, and then there she is. Beth with a big grin. Beth bundled up until all I can see is her big smile and giant eyes and then she hugs me and says, "you're here. I can't believe it. Oh you're here."

Dec 17, 2008

Delta Flight No. DL0116


from Waking Life

It's a familiar feeling. Like swimming in spring, plunging into the water after winter, I remember this.

The room returns to anonymity, as I pack. My presence is put away, my permanence peeled back, and then there's just a couple bags in the corner. A couple things in a couple of bags and this is it. Now I own nothing but this. Now I've put everything away except some essentials, and most of those I'll hand over and let someone else handle, letting them loose and losing control.

There's freedom here, with my couple of bags and my print-out stand-by ticket, but only as I give up, let go, and let myself get carried away.

Traveling is like an exercise in learning to recognize control is an illusion, a self-delusion, something silly I imagine to make myself seem safe and seem like the center of things. But traveling, by bus or by plane, with friends or strangers, means the chance to let myself be free.

Morning comes through the window while I'm packing and this is the day. I didn't make it happen and couldn't make it go away. To myself I say, "here we are."

Here I let go. Here I let myself drift away, surrendering to the sky and the security guy and schedules I have nothing to do with. Here I trust things to work out, even though I have no control. Here I have no say, except for surrender, for unmoored hope, and for how I tell the story.

Dec 15, 2008

The 10 books I'm taking to Germany:

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
Blade Runner, by Philip K. Dick (in German)
Dissemination, by Jacques Derrida
Go Down, Moses, by William Faulkner
Light in August, by William Faulkner
The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, by John Caputo
Sanctuary, by William Faulkner
Selected Poems by Robert Creeley
The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
Ordered everyone to come out
(My last crime story)

A men held for an $80,000 ransom was freed from a Clayton County mobile home, five days after he was kidnapped out of his Duluth apartment.

Clayton and Gwinnett county police -- detectives, SWAT teams, crisis negotiators, and uniformed patrol -- surrounded the 404 Fleetwood Trail trailer at a few minutes after midnight Friday. Gwinnett County Detective Sgt. Eddie Restrepo got on a bullhorn and ordered everyone to come out with their hands up.

Three men came out of the pink, tin-sided mobile home, the 37-year-old hostage and two men, who were allegedly holding him against his will, 20-year-old Salvador Ernesto Salgado and 19-year-old Juan Torres Tobar.

The short-lived siege ended a five-day long kidnapping, 48 miles away from where it began.

Read the full story @ the Clayton News Daily: Gwinnett kidnapping ends in Jonesboro seige

Dec 12, 2008

Homicides to Date

The press got all the facts (more or less), it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about.
                  -- Michael Herr


After two-and-a-half years as a crime reporter, this is the final tally of my dead.

... 98, 99, 100.

This was some way to keep track, a sticky note and a quote from Michael Herr, some feeble sort of system to make things succinct, even if it didn't really sum up anything.

My first murder victim was Michael Sendars, who was shot in the head with a .45, while smoking weed. The last, number 100, was Alesha Merritt, found strangled and dead on the floor of her bedroom.

In between one and 100, the names slip, scatter like animals in front of a fire, and all I have are the colorless numbers and little, unshakable details.

... 75, 76, 77.

The details come in rushes of remembering, unlike the long line of numbers. They come in flustered flocks, each free from the other but connected somehow. They come -- they come, each trying to carry the whole of the horror of murder.

I remember buttons, popped off and leading through the carpet, like a raped Gretel's bread crumbs. I remember the woman's head was wrapped with an ace bandage, before the house was burned down around her. I remember the man tried to say something, but only blood came out. No one could say what was in the note the murdered man wrote to his girlfriend. I remember the mattress covering the body, the wire hanger scratches in the baby's throat, the way the dead driver's car crashed into a pond, and I remember the black spot, where the body was burned near the "No Dumping" sign. I remember the man beaten with bricks, and his family said he wasn't homeless. I remember the man who asked the hooker for help, but she ran. I remember no one in the old motel thought it important to report the screams.

50.
51.
52.

I can't remember all their names. It seems like I should, like something as searing as death should be unforgettable, like tragedies should be unique, tragedies shouldn't suffer the losses of memory and time. It seems like I should curate the 100 names, though I know I can't and don't really think I'm supposed to. I just say is as an approximation of the guilt.

I turned it into a rite, writing about the murdered. I made it a religious ritual. It was a way to pray for the dead. It was a way to wish for resurrection, to believe the gospel, and hope for the salvation of this swamp of human shit.

It was a feeble sort of system.

I suppose it made this work seem more important than it really was. I know it left me with this sort of weight, heart palpitations and hunched shoulders. What I wanted to do was make people cry, make people empathize and wish, somewhere down where they weren't really thinking about it, for grace that's gratuitous. I don't know if that's even possible, though. I don't know, and I guess I can't know, if I succeeded.

... 18, 19, and 20. 21. 22. 23.

I'm done now. Two-and-a-half years, and at the end of today I'll get up from my desk, and walk away. I'm done now, and this is what I can say, I reported on 100 murders. I counted them, and I tried to write their stories so it'd break your heart.

Dec 10, 2008

All these things

Makayla Denise Valley, only a year and a half old, was apparently punched repeatedly until she died.

Her head was bashed into a hard surface, until her brain began to bleed, and her liver ruptured, leaking red-brown into her belly until it was swollen and distended in the autopsy photos shown to the jury in the murder trial.

The jury of nine women and five men saw more than a dozen photos of the dead baby Tuesday, as the murder trail of Philanders Lamont Bowie moved past alleged confessions and questions of lies to scientific evidence. A 27-year-old from Louisiana, Bowie allegedly wanted to stop his girlfriend's child from crying, and beat her to death in 2005.

He has been charged with child abuse and murder. His former girlfriend, Candace Jakes, testified against him last week. She has not been charged with anything.

In the first autopsy photo shown to the jury, as Medical Examiner Laura Darrisaw testified, Valley was spread-eagle, naked except for her diaper, bloated and covered in red and purple bruises. In other photos, showing the dead baby's stomach and face, the scattering of bruises seemed to be uncountable. In a final photo, left lingering on an overhead projector as the jury took a morning break, the child's skin was starting to look like plastic, in death, and the stomach was opened to the deep, disturbing red of the fatal wound.

"This is not a normal child," said Darrisaw, an expert in children's autopsies. "This is a severe beating that this child had."

Darrisaw testified the Valley suffered "multiple strikes with a fist," and had "just lots of bruises" on her face, head, back, arms, chest and stomach. "This is not like a boxing match, going 10 rounds. This is a child, who sustained all these things with a short time, and then dies."

Read the full story @ the Clayton News Daily:
Jury sees photos of dead baby, in murder trial

Dec 9, 2008

I guess I believe the experts, when they say journalism is dying. I don't have any evidence they're wrong. But, sitting here in a newsroom, I realize that I don't care. So what if it's dying? So is the sun. So are the Biblical withering grass and flowers. If the industry, and everything on paper, really does eventually pass away, it doesn't change anything.

I'm usually a pretty pessimistic person, but when I think of journalism, I have a hard time being gloomy. You know why? Because this is a fantastic job.

Maybe it's just me, but I love being a reporter, and if people ever stop reading papers, I'll thank them for having read them at all. Because being a reporter has been great.

Read the final column @ the Clayton News Daily: Thanks for reading

Dec 8, 2008

But just blinked

Mills also urged the young murderer to make things right.

"My plea this morning is that you ask God to forgive you," she said. "I forgive you, but your heart has to be right if you want to see God in peace. However, I am not a judge in the courts, or of this world. But one thing is for sure, God will have the final say. All that he requires of me is to forgive and love and I openly say that I forgive, whether you ask for it or not."

Winslow, wearing an olive-brown suit and shackles, didn't say anything, but just blinked.

The 17-year-old has been arrested and brought to juvenile court at least once a year since 2002, when the then-11-year-old was charged with battery, according to court officer, Michael Richards. Winslow has had charges of battery and assault dismissed, according to court records; has been sentenced to probation on charges of trespassing and burglary. A few years ago, Winslow walked away from a car wreck that killed two other teens, who had allegedly been fleeing from police in the stolen ride. They died, but Winslow only suffered a scar on his right eye.

"Jeffrey Winslow is a danger to himself and to the community," Richards said, during the sentencing. "This officer is not sure if the detention can change Jeffrey, but for three years, he would benefit. He would have around-the-clock guidance and supervision."

Read the full story @ the Clayton News Daily: 'His blood yet screams for justice'

See also:
Winslow guilty of murder
4 said to connect juvenile to murder
Juvenile murder trial starts
Mourners talk of lure of 'fast money'
Judge: Prosecutors can't have another delay
Judge rules again DA is 'negligent'
DA: We weren't 'negligent'
Juvenile murder trial would be first of its kind
Murder suspect to be tried as juvenile
Facing indictment delay, murdered boy's mother asks for justice
Teen murder suspect to be tried as adult
Teen murder suspect could be charged as adult
Arrest made in Flint River teen's murder
Family struggles to deal with murder, funeral costs
Police seeking information about shooting suspect
The ways we measure

Joel said it so I couldn’t quite tell how big of a boast it was. We were standing in the farmers market, where the Christmas trees were cut and stacked, fluffed and set up for sale, and Joel pointed at the one he had standing in the corner.

“The tallest tree on the market,” he said.

The tree was scraggily on the one side, untrimmed and shaggy up high, with gaps between the branches below. But the tree was tall. It was up above the edge of the roof, jutting green past the rain gutter in a long, waving, waggling stem.

He said “on,” not “in,” and I don’t know if he meant the farmers market, the rows of sheds and this imported forest of fresh-cut trees, or if he meant the market in some more abstract sense. Did he mean this square of cement, this competition of Christmas tree farmers outside Atlanta, or of all the hillsides of Frasier Firs in North Carolina?

We all choose how we want to be judged, but who was measuring, in his mind?

Was he waiting for the approval of the customers, the young families or the fancy ladies or the wholesale buyers? Was he waiting for me?

“Look at that top,” Joel said. “It’s got to be … four or five feet above the roof.”

He was overestimating, though. Exaggerating. It was only about three feet past the roof, and that was a wild wiggle a Christmas tree farmer would trim, on a shorter tree.

But this one was the tallest tree. This one was reaching up where none of us could reach. And even if it was a little ugly, even if this measurement was a little Freudian, in the cheap connotation of compensation, if height was what mattered, than this tree was the tallest.

If I accepted that, judged it like that. Then none of the other stuff mattered. If I saw as a tree, and didn't worry about what it meant or make it all literary, then the questions wouldn't persist and this, the tallest tree, would just be.

(How did it grow this tall? Did he always know this is what he was doing, or did he just let it grow, ignoring it in some corner, some shadow? Was it a conscious decision, to hold himself to this standard, or did it seem like there was no other way to measure?)

I looked up at the tree and he looked up with me. I held a camera and Joel had a orange chainsaw. We were quiet, and the tree leaned into the building and into the sky, and we watched it, appreciatively, just looking at the way it didn’t really seem to belong here.

“How tall is it?” I said.

“Twenty-two feet,” he said.

“And how tall are you?”

“Four-foot-nine,” he said.

Tree Farmer

Dec 6, 2008

"What kind of shit is this?"
      - Candace Jakes, responding to a photo of her abused and murdered baby

Dec 4, 2008

Odetta, who gave voice to the Civil Rights movement with her powerful and dynamic singing, who said “The folk songs were — the anger," and who wanted to sing at Barack Obama's inauguration, died on Tuesday at the age of 77.

May she rest in peace.

Dec 3, 2008

Babu Sassi

Up near the top of the tallest building in the world, a crane operater lives in his crane. They call him "the Indian on top of the world," and he's something of a cult figure, a legend, like a cross between Mr. Kurtz and John Henry.

It's an act, they're saying at my new favorite blog, of revolution. Because "Sometimes just making yourself at home is revolutionary."

Dec 2, 2008

In This Spot
In This Spot

Standing in the spot where her son died a year ago, Janice Williams cried.

The winter wind flattened the tears as they traced down her cheek to her chin. She wiped them away. Standing there in front of a boarded-up gas station, in front of discarded tires and torn-apart pumps, she held tightly to a framed photo of her son, and she cried.

"My son was laying out here and all I could see was his feet," she said, and then she apologized for crying. "I'm just upset," she said.

David Nave, Jr., 19, was shot and killed at the vacant Shell station on Tara Boulevard, near the Mt. Zion intersection, on Nov. 27, 2007. He was shot three times by sheriff's deputies, who shouted "Stop running!" before they fired the fatal shots into Nave, according to witnesses. The day of the 19-year-old's death, Sheriff Victor Hill got on TV and said the shooting was justified, but now, a year has gone by and Williams is still waiting to see the evidence supposedly supporting that conclusion.

"I just don't understand why this had to happen, when he was doing so well," Williams said.

Read the full story @ the Clayton News Daily:
Questions unanswered, a year after shooting