Sunday, May 30, 2010

Paranormal Investigation at Red Mill in Clinton, NJ, with TAPS Members

On Saturday evening I made the long commute to the Holiday Inn Express in Clinton, NJ (a whopping 10 minute drive) for a ghost hunting event at the famous Red Mill. I used to have an apartment very close to the Mill--I could walk to it in about 15 minutes. Until I saw the Ghost Hunters episode on the Red Mill, I had no idea it was haunted. I visited it years ago when I was still married--I remember thinking it was a pretty spooky place. But I hadn't heard any of the stories in connection with the place.

According to Bruce Peabody, who is on the Board for the Mill Museum, the Mill was a pretty awful place to work--at different times in its history it has milled grain, plaster, talc, and graphite. The rooms had little ventilation, working conditions were unsafe, and men worked 12 hours or more per day. Some of the ghosts alleged to be there are of a woman who committed suicide by drinking lye, an Irish worker who was assaulted and hung by his co-workers, and a crabby foreman who makes very unkind remarks about women.

I was not sure how this investigation was going to go--when it's a pre-planned event involving tickets, you wonder how credible it will be. I was pleasantly surprised--they broke us up into 5 groups, with about 13-15 people in each group, and we did 5 separate 45-minute investigations. There are 4 floors to the Mill, and a bunch of outbuildings. We worked with a different professional investigator on each floor and outside--on the top floor was Dustin Pari of Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters International fame, on the 3rd floor was a woman known as CC the Huntress, a very sweet lady who made use of dowsing rods, and was a fan of "instant EVPs" (doing a rapid succession of questions and immediately checking the results), Kris Williams of Ghost Hunters on the 2nd floor, and Bruce Tango (known, as he says, as "Dave Tango's Dad") on the 1st floor. The outbuildings were investigated with a local medium named Arlene.

Before heading over to the Mill, we had a "meet and greet" with the celebrity investigators, and a question and answer period, followed by a debriefing on the site, and a viewing of the Ghost Hunters episode on the Red Mill. I probably chatted the most with Dustin Pari, who is my favorite investigator of all time--he's very easygoing, not melodramatic, has an ironic sense of humor, and above all--reminds me of my nephew Tucker. I feel almost like Dustin is MY nephew. (We're probably fairly close in age, so that's rather silly, but still...). He was very down to earth, very nice (he declared us "best buds" since I'd been in the front row chatting on and off with him for 20 minutes), and during the investigation, he answered a lot of questions for me.

I want to mention a couple of things from the Q&A. First--someone beat me to the question about the Ghost Hunters episode at Leap Castle in Ireland. In this episode, the "elemental" that is supposed to haunt Leap Castle actually lifted Dustin up and dropped him to the floor. He said that the floor had been covered in straw, but he managed to be dropped at the spot where there was no straw, and stone floors are quite hard. What I didn't know was that this didn't happen when they were formally filming. He said that the team had come in with the attitude of being "Americans who were going to show these Irish how it was done", and didn't take warnings about provoking very seriously. He said that he and Dave were heavily provoking, joking around--the barometric pressure began to drop, and Irish investigator Barry Fitzgerald (now also on Ghost Hunters International) came upstairs, warning them to stop provoking. They laughed and dismissed his warnings, and nothing actually happened while the cameras were running. It wasn't until they were packing up that Dustin was picked up and dropped--it was picked up by one of the hand-held video recorders only, and not the entire event. He said it made him think twice, to realize that you couldn't go into an investigation and be disrespectful, no matter how skeptical you might be about the paranormal.

Another interesting question was from a woman who asked about "encountering Satan" during their investigations. Dustin said they never encountered Satan, and said that any encounter with Satan is rare, if not non-existent. (I don't personally believe in a literal being called Satan--it's clear that Dustin does, but I think we reach the same conclusion). Dustin said that Satan has little interest in our lives, and he has "bigger fish to fry"--giving the Holocaust and September 11 as examples. Demonic possession is extremely rare--most of it can be relegated to the realm of psychological disorder. I was pleased that he mentioned that Ouija boards are not doorways to the Devil ("Parker Brothers does not have a contract with Satan"), but did mention that the mental fitness of those using such tools was often the main factor in whether or not there would be trouble. I also give him kudos for dismissing as nonsense the notion that 3:00 am (or 3:15 am for Amityville Horror fans) was any sort of "Devil hour that mocked Christ". I first heard this said by Ed Warren, and it has been repeated on episodes of Paranormal State by Ryan Buell, who is no doubt quoting the Warrens. I'm not dismissing the Warrens outright, but I agree with Jason Hawes--you have to take what they say with a grain of salt. It's especially refreshing because I know that Dustin is a devout Christian, and I'm glad that he's not sidetracked by these kinds of superstitions.

While investigating the fourth floor of the Mill, I had the opportunity to ask Dustin about my mother's strange case. I think I've mentioned in earlier blog postings that my Mom has been plagued by some kind of being when she lays down to go to sleep--it either breaths in her ear, or makes these loud repeated popping sounds. In some cases she thinks she hears a voice. I've noticed she sleeps with her Latin missal and rosary beads next to her bed. My father never hears what she hears, and says she's just imagining it. But I did hear it--when I went to Florida for my niece's graduation, I drove back with my parents, and we shared a hotel room. I could hear this strange popping noise in my parents' bed. I thought it was my father--but then my mother said, "Brigid, do you hear that?" I said, "Yes, isn't that Dad?" She said, "No, it's not. It's that thing I was telling you about." So, I sat up, observed, and listened. Finally I said, "Mom, that's coming from YOU. You're generating that." But she has never believed me. Now, asking Dustin, he agreed that it could very well be a stress phenomenon, especially since my mother was past menopause. He said he has seen such cases, and the only way to dissipate the entity is through stress management via exercise and/or counseling. There are cases where people are haunted by entities, but often they invite them in for similar reasons, with a similar remedy.

CC the Huntress had some interesting EVPs while the previous group on her floor was present, and apparently an old-fashioned sewing machine started up by itself. Not much happened while we were there. On the second floor, we experienced Kris Williams' approach to ghost hunting. For one thing, she tries not to be too "serious"--we're sitting around hoping to contact dead people, how silly is that? She's also a great provoker--when nothing is happening, she starts saying provocative things. She related an incident on the Ghost Hunters show, when they were filming in a location that she thought was pretty lame. Nothing happened--she did her provoking and got nothing. As they were packing up, Steve Gonsalves asked if she was ready to leave. "Yes, this place is lame," she replied. Their DVRs were still running, and later upon review, Kris heard a man say, "Get that bitch out of here" after she made her comment about the place. So--back to what Dustin said about being respectful. Though Kris does have a point--if nothing happens, sometimes this rudeness is the only way to make things happen.

On the first floor we worked with Bruce Tango, who told us that an earlier group experienced movement in one of the drill bits hanging from the ceiling. It wasn't just a slight motion--it was an actual rotation, like a pendulum. When someone asked it to spin the other way--it stopped and began to spin the other way. During our investigation there, we heard a loud bang, and one woman felt something touch her--like a bug smacking into her head, but there was no bug. There were a few cold spots, but not much else happened. While working with Arlene, we went to the schoolhouse on the grounds, and the tenant house. She did some medium readings in the schoolhouse--they were relevant to others, but not me. Which is not surprising--I try not to hold onto those who have passed. The medium talked about her own experiences, especially in the tenant house. While she was talking, several members of our group heard footsteps on the level above us. No one else was in the house with us. I, sadly, did not hear the footsteps. I have heard that this is a common phenomenon in that building.

Usually in haunted places, I get a feeling in my gut, and my hairs stand on end on my body, as if electrified. I didn't have that feeling at the Mill, though I was experiencing on-and-off sinus headaches from the high humidity, and drastic temperature changes between the upper and lower floors of the Mill. The resulting shakes I had made it difficult to tell if I had any other sensations about the place.

All in all, it was an interesting investigation. I had a digital voice recorder running for all 4 hours of the investigation, and I still need to review it. Dustin Pari encouraged those with recorders to send any possible EVP clips to him at his website. I certainly will, if I find any in review.

I also recommend that local NJ residents become members of the Clinton Mill Museum--you would get free admission to the Museum, and information about a lot of ghost walks and paranormal events that go on there regularly. And it's a piece of history worth preserving, whether you believe in ghosts or not.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Religious Education?

Today I saw this post about the GCSE Religion exam in Great Britain. "GCSE" stands for "General Certificate of Secondary Education", and British students have to pass a test (or tests?) to obtain this. There was some disgust about the fact that secondary school students wouldn't be able to identify Mary or Joseph in a standard Nativity scene. Unlike the United States, Great Britain does have an official state church, even though they do accept other religions. The complaint in the article was that students spent too much time on world religions and not enough on Christianity.

Is that really the problem? I think it's the opposite problem--people aren't educated enough about ANY religion. The fact that we live in a modern, secular society doesn't change the fact that people do practice various religions. While I don't think anyone in a Western country is keen on having any particular religion foisted on them in public schools, the lack of historical education is, quite frankly, a problem. This is not about indoctrinating youth into a set of beliefs; it's about the religious history of civilization.

Think about this: I read a posting recently from a religion professor in a university who was teaching about the Crusades. A young conservative Christian student raised her hand, and wanted to know where the Protestants were in all of this. She seemed to be clueless about the fact that the Protestant Reformation took place about 400 years later. I've read similar accounts from professors who teach conservative Christian students in conservative Christian colleges. When questioned about the basics of their own religion, they fail. And when we talk about Christianity's intersection with American history--only look at the previous blog post to see how many idiots--including those in elected positions--still think that the U.S. was founded as a "Christian country".

Consider this as well: How many conspiracy theories are still extant about the Jews and a "Zionist plot"? How many people out there still think all Muslims are terrorists and linked with Al-Qaeda? And these are just the major monotheisms. I couldn't begin to tell you how many people ask me how I could practice Hinduism, when Hindus believe that all those statues are gods.

Ironically enough, those that oppose religious education the most vehemently are the very religious. There is a great fear that if their children learn about other religions, they will lose their faith in their parents' religion. To them I say--is your religion so flimsy and weak that it can't stand up to historical scrutiny?

This is not about teaching the Bible in class or some brand of Christianity. It's about teaching the basic facts and history of the major world religions--and about the impact of religion in society, and maybe looking at some of those religious works. There ought to be a History of Religions class that students have to pass before graduating from high school. There should be no editorializing, just the facts. Even the children of atheists would do well to understand the religious landscape and its context. It affects everything in our society, like it or not--and the negatives come mostly from ignorance.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Texas Zombies

Do you remember when this sign appeared in Austin, Texas?

Well, they weren't kidding:

You can read the full blog post on this here.

If this were limited to a small area of Texas it might not be a big deal. However, these folks make textbook decisions that affect the entire country.

There is no explanation for this except that their brains have been eaten. If you have children in grade school, be very afraid. They're coming for their brains next.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cartesian Chaos

Perception is so untrustworthy. Frequently your perceptions are based on how much your brain and/or your body hate you on a particular day. I’m sure someone with more math skills than myself could come up with a formula.

Getting up at 3am is not that big of a deal. I usually get up at 4am—this is just one more hour. Going to work is not a big deal—I know exactly what I have to do, and I do it. I get home before the rush hour, and if I don’t have a brief appointment somewhere, I’m at home making dinner and relaxing. I go to bed early because—well, I have to get up at 3am.

So, overall, no big deal, right? A little stressful, lots of things to do, but it’s not as if this is something new to my life. However, my brain and body feel very differently about this. According to my perceptions, I’m being trampled over and over again by a team of Clydesdales. And boy, are my brain and body MAD about it. I’ve never felt such anger about absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. John Foxx uses the metaphor of “having your skin scraped off by a lot of nice, friendly people” in a recent interview, in reference to different stresses of public life. I think it’s something like that, but Foxx is English, which means he’s better at hiding his feelings about such experiences. And he remembers to carry an umbrella when he’s out in English weather. I’m bad at both things, and Foxx is nice enough to only scold me about the latter.

But back to perceptions. For all the meditation I’ve done and still do, however many times I tell myself that reality is just an illusion, a game, not to take it too seriously—I am frequently annoyed that I still have to play politics with my brain and body, who do not accept this. They’re like the Tea Party of my soul—I have no choice but to put up with their loud protestations even though they’re idiots.

Speaking of idiots and idiocy, I learned that Bristol Palin, famous for being Caribou Barbie’s daughter and having a baby out of wedlock, is going to command a $30,000 per-event speaking fee. Apparently she’s planning to talk about moral issues like abstinence, which goes to show you that if you fail at something, you can make a killing off of it. I’d mention lemons and lemonade, but I hate old clich├ęs. It also makes me want to put my sign back up with the big “X” in the middle and the instructions “bang head here”. I thought I could put that away permanently when I stopped working for County government.

But seriously—I must be in the wrong line of business. $30,000 per speaking event when your only qualification is being the daughter of a pop tart? I think I’ve lived too honestly and intellectually, and have actually bought the old BS line that suggests I will be successful with both of those things. I guess success in this case means “personal satisfaction” and not “making a ton of money”. In any case, one hopes that Bristol has a better command of the English language than her mother. Not that it will matter to her audience—most of them can’t spell. (Ironically, they are usually the same lot that demands the U.S. be an “English-only” country. They’d have to leave.)

You see? I’m getting aggravated again. This sort of thing goes on all the time lately. Maybe I’m not living a sheltered enough life. Or maybe I’m not drinking enough beer. Of course, I’ve heard that neither of these things is good for you, but I heard that from the same people that said working hard at my academic pursuits would make me wildly successful.

I think I just need to remind myself that life is absurd, that my thoughts about it are absurd, that we’re all crazy, and I just need to remain centered and disciplined.

Eh, forget it. My body wants a pizza.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck reminds me of a rabid dog, with the difference being that dogs are smarter. (Yes, even rabid ones). My father watches him religiously, and I've never been able to sit with him through more than 5 minutes of that bat-shit insanity. (OK, you caught me--it's really more like 5 seconds).

In any case, if you're an American, you probably (I hope) know this already, and if you're not--well, I'm sure other countries have their resident crazies, I just don't know if a major network gives them a show or not. Actually, seeing some examples of the UK's hate-speech law in action, I'm betting Beck would be banned entirely. While I'm for freedom of speech, I have to confess that I wouldn't be particularly sad about that.

For your viewing pleasure--here is a satire from The Onion regarding Mr. Beck:

Victim In Fatal Car Accident Tragically Not Glenn Beck

And Lewis Black on Glenn Beck, totally on-point as usual:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Glenn Beck's Nazi Tourette's
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Marvelous Mr. Bierce

It's been a few days since I've done any blogging, but not without reason. May has been the Month of Panic, as I've got online lectures to record (14 of them, ranging from 1-2 hours each), stories to finish before going to Book Expo next week, unexpected visits from West Coast family, anxiety about bills as this is my last month without a 2nd/3rd job--and realizing after weeks of little sleep and non-stop work that I still have a lot more to do. So, not feeling any pressure or anything.

In talking with friends and co-workers in recent days, it's interesting how everyone has had a sense of feeling "trampled" these days. Lately I find myself getting irritated at selfish and uncivil behavior, even though it's pretty much the norm in our self-absorbed society. In such cases, where people may be wrong but you can't change them, there's really only one solution: satire.

I've forced myself to take some time out to relax over the last couple of days, and I've taken that time to do some reading. My book of choice is "The Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader". Bierce was an American writer from the late 19th century, well-known for his short stories and his ultra-cynical "Devil's Dictionary", one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. Bierce was a master of the art of "telling it like it is". The "Satanic Reader" features clips from news articles written by Bierce in various newspapers from the 1860s to the 1880s. The articles provide a glimpse into the social and political life of America on the West Coast (namely San Francisco) during that time period, and Bierce's cynical feelings are hardly concealed. What is remarkable is how little has changed between now and then. Here are some examples:

On religion in the "land of the free" (1869):

"Mr. J.G. Methua was arrested for giving a theatrical exhibition on Sunday. Mr. J.G. Methua would better have a care how he conducts himself in a country of equal rights. Sunday theatricals may be safe in the crumbling despotisms and rotten aristocracies of the old world, but not in the lusty young republic of religious toleration--not in a land of religious liberty! Rally round the Cross, O leathern-lunged elect, for the recognition of Christianity, and its relentless enforcement by law! Let us jam our holy religion down the protesting throats of the heathen and the infidel, so that they shall be brought to know God, and to love him as we do; yea, that they may hanker after him, even as a baby craveth rhubarb, or a cat lusteth after soft soap."

In a section called the "Fallacy of Democracy" we have the following:

The Versatile Lieutenant-Governor (1869)

"The Secretary of the State Prison Commission complains that the Lieutenant-Governor, who is ex-officio Warden of the Penitentiary, is selected without reference to his qualifications for that position, but for his fitness to take the place of Governor in case of necessity. He is selected with no reference to either, but is usually well qualified to take the place of the Governor or of the prisoners, indifferently."

Essence of Political Differences (1877)

"Judge Bradley says of the electoral commission: 'I firmly believe that the differences of opinion were honest, and arose from the different standpoints of individuals.' Not a doubt of it; seven members of the commission looked at the question from a standpoint of self-interest, and eight considered it from one of personal advantage."

The Pattern of Power (1884)

"The wrongs that the poor and feeble suffer from the rich and powerful transcend expression. The sufferers are themselves but dimly aware of them: 'tyranny', 'plunder', and 'insult' are mild terms to describe them. But redress there is none--there is only escape; the victims must emancipate themselves by acquisition of wealth and power. They cannot hope successfully to fight. They are a minority, and have neither the intelligence nor the means to cope with the formidable energies and exhaustless resources of the system that is to them an engine of oppression. Nine men in ten have in them the potencies and possibilities of rascality, which need but opportunity to develop. Let Socialists make the laws to-day and they would break them to-morrow. No sooner do the poor become rich than they harden their hearts to the miseries of the poor. In so far as it proposes to correct the evils of unequal fortune, Socialism aims to repeal the laws of nature."

On Prisons (1886):

"The newest 'fad' of the penologists is 'indeterminate sentences'--that is to say, criminals are to be simply sent to prison, to be, like patients in a hospital, 'discharged when cured'. This plan--which has the merit of Prison Director Hendrick's approval--will work first rate if God will agree to act as the discharging officer. It is hardly likely, though, that he would accept the position; he has long been out of politics."

"Case Dismissed" (on bribery) (1871)

"We have the highest possible regard for Mr. Freelon, the Assistant District Attorney, but if we had caused as many murder cases to be dismissed in one week as he has, we should expect somebody to affirm that we were bribed. That nobody has made that charge against Mr. Freelon is extremely creditable to our community, and very fortunate for Mr. Freelon. If it were once made somebody would be sure to believe it, and would swear that it was the only intelligible explanation of his conduct. Let us give thanks that Mr. Freelon is above suspicion, and let Mr. Freelon feel grateful that we are above suspecting him."

And so on. Bierce was often criticized for "telling it like it is", and in my favorite response to that charge he says:

"...I had a thing to say which nobody else would say, and it was necessary to be said. One of the disadvantages of our social system, which is the child of our political, is the tyranny of public opinion, forbidding the utterance of wholesome but unpalatable truth. In a republic we are so accustomed to the rule of majorities that it seldom occurs to us to examine their title to dominion; and as the ideas of might and right are, by our innate sense of justice, linked together, we come to consider public opinion infallible and almost sacred."

Which is also why we need satire--it's a joke that's only half-joking. People can't handle "unpalatable" truth head on. More importantly, satire reminds us that we take ourselves and our opinions too seriously. We do know this, which is why The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report are all more popular than the regular news. They're not only more truthful; they remind us how absurd everything is.

Monday, May 10, 2010


It’s nothing short of a miracle that I got out of bed and to work on time this morning. Every day I wake up feeling like I’ve transmuted into lead overnight. Which is the reverse of alchemy, I think.

When I’m tired, I sometimes get crabby. I think I’m feeling fine, then someone does something stupid, and I’m ready to knock their head off. I like to think of it as being “a tad oversensitive”. You know—like getting a slight burn on your finger, and it’s just enough at the surface of your skin to sting and throb—not a big deal, but it can drive you absolutely mad, and you get over-caffeinated or ridiculously drunk as you slog down cold beverages, just to have something cold to put on your wound. Third degree burns never smart like that—you’ve actually burned away the nerve endings. I got a third degree burn once, and released so many endorphins that I was happy. There’s a lesson here somewhere, but I think I’d better avoid it.

After the library rally on Trenton, there were several articles in the news about the rally, and every single one managed to piss me off. Not because they reported on our concerns; because they all referred to us as “usually quiet librarians”. I find it staggering that news reporters have never set foot in a library. I have never met a quiet librarian. Actually, that’s not quite true—I’ve met a few. I’ve also met quiet accountants, plumbers, salesmen, artists, construction workers, and musicians. “Quiet” is not a personality trait reserved for librarians. If anything, librarians are quiet because the public insists that the public librarians be quiet. I recall a long debate in my library management class many years ago about whether or not libraries were places of quiet or places of learning (i.e., not quiet). It’s probably a mixture, but consider the following exchange I had with a woman about 8 years ago in a public library.

The woman was studying for a test, and looked quite agitated. She chose a seat in the Reference Room right next to the librarians’ desk. I wouldn’t be caught dead doing public desk service, but I happened to be walking through, and the woman who was giving the librarians dirty looks and exasperated sighs, stopped me, and said, “Aren’t they supposed to be quiet?? This is a library and they are so loud!”

I pointed to the rooms behind her. “Ma’am, do you see those rooms?”

She turned around to look, then looked back at me.

“Those are quiet study rooms. Those rooms are quiet. The rest of the library is noisy. They have to answer reference questions, so it’s always going to be loud here. ”

I don’t think she liked my answer. In any case, “the quiet library” and the “shushing librarian” are a lot of horseshit, and people use the stereotype to be demeaning. The only librarians I’ve seen putting a finger to their lips are Golden Dawn initiates. (You occultists out there can work that one out for yourselves...)

Anyway, when I’m tired, I also tend to pass by information I see on e-mail, on Facebook, and on various websites in a haze. It’s a bad time for me to read, because I read the same page 100 times, at least, and never get past it. Something has to be a bit strange for me to notice it.

I’ve made a list of random quotes and headlines that I’ve encountered over the last few days. Some are from Facebook, some are from Twitter, some are from various blogs/sites I read regularly:

“Cooler in Times Square contained water bottles. Everybody PICNIC.” (Fark)

“Headline: No charges for corpse parked outside Glen Oak High School. Great. Now zombies are going to think they can park wherever the hell they want to.” (Fark)

“The smell of napalm and iced coffee...” (FB)

“Be there, or be vaguely rhomboid” (FB)

“The modulated scream: pain in late medieval culture” (book title)

A photo of a grocery store with a section called “Friendly Bacteria” (FB)

“A crazed driver rammed at least 17 black cars throughout London, convinced the vehicles were ‘out to kill him.’” (Arbroath)

“ A council spent nearly £1,000 on a bouncer to protect staff at a library from '’unruly’ school children.” (Arbroath)

“Death wants to hump your leg” (FB)

“Twitter is broken? Does anyone care besides Justin Bieber fans?” (Village Voice)

“My wife has a copy of the book ‘How to Kill Your Husband’. She denies having read it, which explains why I am not dead yet.” (FB)

And—just for something different—here is the inside of the receiving vault at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which I visited for a nighttime tour last week. Awesome. (Though driving almost 2 hours home at 11 pm was not so awesome. Might explain why I’m tired...)

Sunday, May 09, 2010


If you live in New Jersey, you're hearing a lot of garbage about "sacrifice" these days, specifically from the Governor's supporters in relation to his budget. I'm not going to get into the politics of the whole thing, but I do want to offer some thoughts on "sacrifice".

What passes for sacrifice these days is a living example of the old cliche, "Give an inch and take a mile". Those who are strong and willing to make sacrifices are the ones who end up screwed. Let me give you some examples.

My boss and I were talking one day, and she said, "Did you ever notice that if, say, the local post office holds a food drive for a local food bank--those people in your community who are barely getting by or have nothing will bring in bags of groceries, while the wealthy won't give anything at all, or maybe one canned item?" While I am sure there are exceptions to this, generally speaking, it tends to be the pattern. My friend Liz works in a library where the biggest complainers about free programs (or having to pay anything for a library program) are the wealthy. Her boss told her, "Liz, that's why they have money. They never spend it." In our current state budget crisis, Governor Christie has repealed a tax put in place by the previous governor on people making over $400,000 a year (note: see update on this in comments below), and has handled the state's financial crisis by eliminating or severely crippling services for the poor, the handicapped, and the unemployed. When people complain he and his cronies say, "Hey, we're sorry to do it, but we all have to make sacrifices." Which translates to "the middle class and the poor have to make sacrifices. Don't bother my rich friends."You don't see the upper classes sacrificing anything.

Greed certainly accounts for some of this, but part of it is a social phenomena that revolves around our accepted responses to difficult situations. We want to have enough of everything, to be able to pay our bills, to have some extra for leisure, and perhaps for some favorite "toys" (a new car, a new iPad, whatever). However--there is never enough money. Spending increases proportionate to your income (and so do your taxes--unless you make huge amounts of money). And as spending increases, debt increases, and you need more and more money to pay it. Even the most frugal can run into financial crises--I had wiped out all my debt a few years ago except my mortgage, and then I suddenly needed a new furnace and a new roof for my house. Not cheap when you have a moderate income level.

There is a mistaken notion that salary increases will also increase your personal wealth. When I got my first big raise from $30,000 to $50,000 a year about 10 years ago, it was a $20,000 increase, but I ended up giving back close to $15,000 in taxes, Social Security, etc. So--I only netted about $5,000 in extra income for my troubles. As I said before--there is never enough money, and the numbers are deceptive. Perhaps this is why the rich want big tax breaks, but is it fair to make the poor and middle class pick up the burden? The economic collapse a couple of years ago shows you that the "trickle down" economics theory is pure bullshit. If you bail out the very rich, they won't spend the money to right things--they'll put it in their own pockets.

And this is my point about sacrifice. Sacrifice is fine for those who are willing to do it. Those who have plenty are more than happy to let those who are struggling make the sacrifices. Shows of strength and community solidarity are shrugged at by those who really could make a financial difference. They say, "Well, see, they don't need our help, they can take care of themselves," and start grumbling about laziness and "pulling oneself up by their boot straps" when those of modest resources are drained and in need of help. You dragged yourself through the alligator-infested swamp before, you can do it again! Don't be such a baby!

That is the grumbling of the new tea party these days, which is mostly made up of the wealthy. "I worked hard for my money, I'm not giving it to some lazy idiot who can't get a job" is one of their mantras. This is why they have their money--they won't spend it. They want the government to provide things, but they are appalled at the notion that they should put their money into the system to make it happen. And those in the middle class and below should think about this. I'm not suggesting that you should give up the value of sharing with others and supporting your community. But if you grew up on the values of Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree", throw that damn book away and start placing limits on your sacrifices. You're only being sacrificed by the greedy for the maintenance of their own monster.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

WAMFEST: Eugene Mirman and His Pretty Good Friends

WAMFEST was pretty much everywhere last week. If you don't know what that is--it's the Words And Music Festival organized by David Daniel in the creative writing department at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and curated by Wesley Stace (a.k.a. John Wesley Harding), who is FDU's artist-in-residence. This year's WAMFEST got a lot of attention, mainly because of the last day--Bruce Springsteen teamed up with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky in a session called "Jersey Rain" (Pinsky and Springsteen were both born in the same hospital in New Jersey 9 years apart). I didn't go to this particular WAMFEST event, as I was at the rally against the NJ Governor's budget cuts for libraries in Trenton. WAMFEST this year also included John Doe and Exene Cervenka of X (which I missed because I was sick), and Stace in conversation with poet Paul Muldoon (which I missed because of a doctor's appointment). However, I did attend the WAMFEST event on Tuesday of that week, which included Eugene Mirman and His Pretty Good Friends.

Last year I posted a YouTube video with a graduation speech given by Eugene Mirman at his high school. He had read us the draft of that speech at last year's Rumpus/McSweeney's party at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan. I enjoy good comedy, and I think Eugene Mirman is excellent. So I was happy to be in the front row for this particular event. (It helps when the event is one building over from where you work.)

There were 4 comedians in the troupe that afternoon--Leo Allen, Kumail Naanjiani, Michael Showalter, and Eugene Mirman (in that order). Leo Allen brought his (or someone's) copy of the Brothers Karamazov onstage to try to look more intellectual, since he was at a university. He then recited the Fairleigh Dickinson University joke that was repeated later by Kumail Naanjiani--one I've never heard before. He expressed how pleased he was that this was "Fairleigh Dickinson", and not "Very Dickinson", or "Not at All Dickinson". I'm surprised no one has made that joke before--or that they didn't know about the "Fairly Ridiculous University" joke. What I remember most about Leo Allen's routine was his account of being in a McDonald's at 3AM, with a mentally retarded McDonald's employee, and another employee who was clearly high. Allen was drunk, so he said, "mentally, we were all on the same level." He noted that you have really sunk to the lowest point possible when you go home with McDonald's food and look at Internet porn at 3 in the morning. "If you reach down for that french fry you've dropped while jacking off.."

Kumail Naanjiani took the stage next. I couldn't help but think that he looked familiar. Later it hit me--when I saw the Found Footage Festival Volume 4 show, they had a clip that I loved called "Beggars CAN be Choosers", in which they spoofed a video dating clip. They were all saying what they weren't looking for in a woman. Naanjiani was the guy who said, "If I had to say what I didn't want, I would say, no drug users. Actually--there are probably some pretty nice drug users out there. Can I...can I take that back?" So, if you've seen Found Footage Festival, and haven't been on Comedy Central lately (I haven't)--this is that guy. He was very funny--he talked about the video game "Call of Duty", which very realistically puts the player in war zone situations. There are games for earlier wars (like World War II), but there are also versions for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Naanjiani noted that he was Pakistani, and avoided these games initially on principle, but then ended up playing a game at a friend's house, and threw principle out the window. One level in the Afghanistan game is actually the name of his own hometown. He figured he would have an advantage there, as he already knew where everything was. But he noted that all the road signs and such were in Arabic, and they speak Urdu. "You would think, after 3 years developing every detail of this game to be perfect--someone would have Googled 'Pakistan language'. But no..." He talked about his childhood experiences with movies (he saw a Disney movie--I can't remember which one now--and when he was upset about the ending, his mother said, "Animals can't talk. Stop crying." But when he watched The Elephant Man--not knowing what it was about--he said to his mother "Good thing this is just a movie," and she said "No, this one is real.") He mentioned Paranormal Activity, and how scared his wife was after seeing it. He told her, "It's just a movie." But he went home and dreamed that night that he and his wife were the people in the movie--and when he woke up at 1am having to go to the bathroom, he had to bring his cat Bagel with him, reasoning that the cat would sense something weird before he would.

Michael Showalter's act appeared to be an experiment in "unexpected" comedy--where he just says things, the audience comments, and he lashes out at the audience. He later said, when asked, that he was basically unprepared. I don't think he was joking. In any case, I had a hard time warming up to his brand of comedy. He did do enough research to know that Fairleigh Dickinson was a person, and argued with a guy who said the school was founded in 1942, not 1948 (the guy in the audience was right). I thought it was more interesting that most of the students were totally clueless about the university's origins. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised.

Eugene Mirman was last, and was incredible. He read quips from cocktail napkins that he liked to give out as fortunes ("have a baby--it will save your marriage"). He also joined one of the "Tea Party" sites, so that he could look at people's profiles. He brought some of the pictures posted to that site. He managed to infiltrate with a few of his own, which were hilarious. ("Taxation without Tea? No way, Mister Obama-Hitler-Stalin"). At the end of his routine, he told his famous joke about the 12-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome (leading to Mirman's CD, "God is a 12 year old boy with Asperger's).

Wesley Stace led a Q&A afterwards that was brief, and the event was over by 5:30. I came home that evening to no power and another attack by the attack tree in my yard. I heard from a friend that a massive thunderstorm had come through around 4:00, and actually cracked one of her windows. I have to say I'm glad I missed it.

Monday, May 03, 2010

(Not) Safe

"Exploring places like (the Nike Battery in Holmdel/Hazlet), perilous or not, is what kids live for, and I hate to think of a world that is made so 'safe' that no such dark, forbidden places exist anymore." -- Weird NJ #34, Author unlisted, p. 62.

My sister was visiting my parents this weekend, and we typically spend a lot of time sitting around my Mom's kitchen table shooting the breeze about everything. One thing we discussed was how overprotective society has become regarding children. When we were kids, we would come home from school, drop off our bookbags, and head out the door to play with our friends, go bike riding, or whatever. My mother's only stipulation was "be home in time for supper". We occasionally got into trouble, and occasionally were injured. On the whole, though, none of us were any worse for the wear. It was easy to develop an imagination under such circumstances--you were free to chart your own course. There were too many children in our family for my Mom to let us get too involved in extracurricular activities. But I don't think that was a loss. I'm horrified by how over-scheduled kids are today. There is no time for them to be imaginative on their own terms.

Halloween has always been a favorite time of year for me, even after I was too old to trick-or-treat. So it's rather sad to hear about how Halloween has been watered down over the years. My sister was telling me that when my nephews were young and in the school Halloween parades, they were told they could only dress up in "safe" costumes that were not scary. Even kids who dressed up as pirates weren't allowed to have cardboard swords. Finally, because so many right-wingers felt Halloween was a "Satanic" holiday (because they are "idiots"), Halloween parades and celebrations were discontinued in some schools altogether in her area. Even where I live, kids are only allowed to trick-or-treat between certain hours, in certain places--and not necessarily on Halloween itself. As far as I'm concerned, that destroys the fun of the whole thing.

But fun aside, I do think kids suffer from being kept "safe". Life is not safe--it's not realistic to pretend everything is rainbows and bunnies. Our psyches are very dark places, and the external world is a dark place, too. If kids never get to grapple with that, what are they going to do as adults when seriously bad shit happens? There needs to be an outlet for our darker impulses, and no one should be treated as psychotic for having "darker" interests. If there is no outlet, then you really DO have to worry about psychosis. Ignoring such things or pretending they don't exist doesn't make them go away, and they often appear very inconveniently and sometimes dangerously when they are repressed. When my sister lived in rural Pennsylvania, she lived in a very repressive religious neighborhood, that also had one of the highest rates of rape and murder in the state. If this surprises you, it shouldn't.

I've already blogged about fear as it is presented in film, so you know I am not a fan of movies about zombies, serial killers, or splatter-gore of any kind. I prefer what Ransom Riggs calls "The Thing Without a Name", because that is truly what we are afraid of. But I also like local legends, folklore, and the sense that a place could be different or somehow "magical". As an adult, I realize that there are plenty of scientific reasons why magical places can be just that. Still, I like the "unseen" and "unexplained" factors, and don't discount them. To take those away, in the name of either reason/science or ignorant fear, destroys part of the mystery of being human. Even when you can explain things scientifically, that doesn't take away their mystery. And to trample such things in the name of religion is just plain idiotic. It means the religious practitioners have truly forgotten what it means to have a soul, and to be a whole person.

We all have a "dark" side, and my darker thoughts or imaginings can typically be seen in my writing. I haven't yet ventured into the supernatural with my writing, though I do have some fiction that would qualify as "magical realism" that hasn't been published (nor is it yet in publishable form). But when I'm reading, I tend towards authors who write about ghostly things, particularly late 19th century and early 20th century writers like M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Manly Wade Wellman. (I have to admit that I'm burned out on Edgar Allan Poe). It also seems like children's and young adult authors in the 1960s and 1970s wrote a lot of supernatural fiction, and some of them I still continue to re-read, like John Bellairs and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. They wear well with age, for whatever reason.

My bright spot (so to speak) today was a package in the mail containing Jack Prelutsky's "Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep", with fantastic illustrations by Arnold Lobel. I discovered this book through another blog, The Haunted Closet. You can see images from the book, and a particularly ghastly poem called "The Ghoul" at the link. I wonder if publishers would publish this kind of book for kids today. I don't know the answer--I'm just glad I was a kid in the Seventies, before the world became overprotective. I wouldn't want to be a kid now.