Monthly Archives: April 2010

Crime and punishment and zombies

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Frozen yogurt does not result, contrary to logic, when one puts yogurt in the freezer. A solid chunk of white ice results. It bears no resemblance to the delicious taste sensation that resides next to the fudgecicles in the grocery aisle.

This discovery is exciting—disappointing, yes, but exciting, and valuable to people everywhere who have way too much fresh yogurt sitting in their refrigerators. (Helpful hint: it unfreezes just fine.) But this is not the most exciting thing to happen in the past week. The most exciting thing to happen in the past week was my brush with the law.

The law came knocking at my door. Upon opening the door, I was reminded anew that manky old t-shirts and fluffy pink pajama bottoms, though comfortable, are not necessarily suitable for all occasions, especially if there is an interview with an officer of the law involved, and most especially if that officer of the law is really hot. (By sheer luck I had vacuumed and straightened recently.) My interview with the fire marshal and the police investigator thus got off to a smashing good start, with me abandoning my guests while I retreated to the bedroom to find clothes.

Though I did most of the talking, I was nonetheless able to form an impression of the two visitors. It was a favorable impression, and here is why: though Bubby was already napping on the couch, they did not disturb him, but contrived to sit on either side of him. (For those concerned about the suitability of the couch after Bubby’s interior design attempts, I’d like to note that there’s a new protective layer of cloth over the affected area).

The interview was a relief for me. I’d been wanting to talk to somebody in authority, not because I had much in the way of useful evidence, but because I wanted to share my thoughts about Bobby. Though I am of no use at all in determining how he dunnit, I’ve got some darn good insights into why he dunnit. Besides, he’s the subject of a serious criminal investigation; the people investigating him need to understand the entire person, not just the crime he committed.

Allegedly committed, I mean. There’s been no trial yet. I am at a disadvantage because I do not watch crime shows, and it’s been fifteen years since high school civics, but I do read a fair number of police procedurals and murder mysteries, so I have a grasp of the fundamentals of criminal law, i.e., everyone is innocent until proven guilty. I also have a law school friend, Ianaly, who is keeping me informed about some of the less obvious aspects of the law, though I’m not sure whether I should be grateful or whether I should block his email address. (Just kidding, Ianaly.) What he is teaching me about the system is not very pretty. I could try to paraphrase, but instead I’ll quote him ver batim. Don’t worry, I got his permission first:

Law enforcement’s job (and outlook) is to arrest everybody – everyone is a perp. They have to think like that – if they don’t, they get killed. The courts are supposed to sort them all out. The Public Defenders are supposed to make sure that even if the guy did the crime, the punishment is fair – and reflect to some extent services the defendant needs to become a productive member of society. The truth of it is, the whole system is so overwhelmed (mostly by the race-based crack v/ powder cocaine sentencing controversy, and heavy prosecution for small drug quantities) that everyone involved is just trying to process all those arrested. The truth of it is, if you go to jail once for a felony then you’ll always be a second class citizen. Forget having a normal life, living in normal places, having a normal job (or anything much above menial labor). Your only choices, once part of the system, is to become part of the system – which is why inmates in jail basically spend their time making contacts to become better criminals once they get out – not the other way around. The parole system is a joke. Can’t find a job? Back to jail.

Depressing, isn’t it?

What’s really, really depressing is to realize that all these folks are people. Some of them are bad people, guilty as sin, utterly deserving of their punishments—but they are still people, individuals who made bad choices. I’ve made bad choices before, too. Haven’t you? Mine didn’t ruin my life—but maybe I was just lucky. I’m not in a position to judge whether the people behind bars truly deserve to be there, but I am in a position to feel for them, regardless of the reasons why.

It may be ambitious for me to aspire to singlehandedly rescue all these people from their wretched existences, but I am pleased to report that at least one of them is not an entirely lost cause. Last night I received a letter from Bobby, the first contact I’ve had with him since the explosion exactly one month ago. There was not a hell of a lot in the letter—communication was never his forte—but he seems to be doing as well as can be expected.

Whenever I get to thinking about crime and punishment and justice—which is fairly often these days, go figure—I start fantasizing about switching careers into law enforcement. Just being interviewed by the police made me feel like I was helping in some small way. (It was also thrilling. Quite serious, but thrilling. I felt like I was in a suspense novel.) In my fantasies I don’t really see myself as a cop—though really, how cool would that be?—but rather I envision myself working with convicts, laboring toward rehabilitation with the wretched of the earth, the despised and despicable. In these daydreams I am a counselor or a psychologist, or sometimes a nun. (I can do as I please in my fantasies, thank you very much.)

Or maybe I should just work in a prison library. Booktalks would be a guaranteed success. I’d have a captive audience.

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Love Thy Neighbor: Fail!

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Because there’s a cool breeze blowing today, I slid open the glass door to my balcony. The screen door I kept closed to thwart Goblin’s dream of becoming Outdoor Jungle Kitty.

The screen kept Goblin in, but it did not keep the voices out. I had the ill fortune of overhearing one of my neighbors in conversation. This is the woman who, until three weeks ago, had a huge crush on my ex-boyfriend Bobby. He and I shared a mutual dislike for her, because she is prone to planting herself in the parking lot and waylaying passersby with her loud, extended, extremely tedious observations.

“People like Bobby can’t be rehabilitated,” I overheard her saying this afternoon. “They’re hardened criminals. Cheapest and easiest thing to do is put him to death.”

Deep breath. Okay. Everyone will be relieved, and maybe privately disappointed, to learn that I did not storm down the stairs to punch her in the nose. I did not even throw open the screen door for the purpose of haranguing her from my lofty balcony, which would have provided a nice sense of symbolism, with me preaching the moral high ground and her cowering below. Acts of either a symbolic or blood-letting nature were not really practical as I was not wearing pants. If you’re going to indulge in spontaneous violence or wrathful sermons, you lose a little something if you’re sporting stripey undies and the tye-dye shirt you’ve been wearing around the house lately that hasn’t been washed in five weeks.

Besides, I couldn’t move. Rage and horror suffused me—just like that, one second I’m fine, the next I’m staggered—but it didn’t drive me to action. It paralyzed me. I stared dumbly at the screen door and let the remainder of the conversation drift in. (It did not improve in quality.)

I know there are small-minded, hard-hearted, poisonous people in the world, but my neighbor’s words shocked me. Mindless cruelty, casuslly uttered, not even directed at me… I repeat: it staggered me.

I am opposed to the death penalty. Every once in a while innocent people are executed, and far too often completely guilty people waltz off with their freedom because they were privileged enough to hide behind very good lawyers. As it is practiced in this country, the death penalty is applied inconsistently and unfairly, with people of color and low economic standing disproportionately sentenced to death.

But even if it could be practiced fairly, I would be still opposed to the death penalty. I hold to the sanctity of human life, no matter how wretched and depicable the life. And as for people who argue that the death penalty is cheaper than keeping a prison alive, I have no adequate words to express my contempt. This is life we’re talking about. Some things are too sacred to be considered in economic terms.

If I am opposed to the death penalty in general, I am most especially opposed to the death penalty with regards to my ex-boyfriend. He did not—let’s be clear on this—he did not commit any capital crimes. More to the point, he is a troubled and damaged man. What he needs more than anything is help. He may well deserve punishment (though he has not even been charged, much less found guilty) but he does not deserve to be stamped out of existence like a pesky fly.

Since I passed my opportunity to play Smithing Wrathful Old Testament Jessica, the only course of action I can take is to intensify my job search efforts. There’s still, ah, basically nothing at all out there, but I haven’t looked in a week. That’s this afternoon’s project.

Not much else going on. I did find where Bobby is being held, and I wrote him a letter that I dropped in the mail just yesterday; I kept it brief, as I am not certain that it will find its way to Bobby, or whether he will write back. I found out that a chopped-up banana can do really wonderful things for a batch of chai.
I also found that I had way too much yogurt in my fridge, so I moved some of it to the freezer. I really hope it turns out to be tasty. That is how you get frozen yogurt, right? By… y’know… freezing yogurt?

Five-hundred year forecast

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Another birthday has come and gone, with all the characteristic bad grace that my birthdays always entail. It started that time in the second grade when I invited allllllll the little girls in my class to my party and none of them showed up. Insults to me and my person range from the mundane (that time when my lunch date forgot his wallet, so I had to pay for my own birthday meal and his, too) to the catastrophic (that time when I was still reeling from my ex-boyfriend’s suicide attempt—y’know the one I mean, the one with the explosion and the fire and the innocent victims and the prison time, I think I mentioned it here once) but my birthdays invariably find some way to be unpleasant.

I’m not feeling particularly older. I still look basically the same, except for having blue choppy hair. (No pictures yet, sorry.) My mental and physical facilities have not degenerated. Granted, my physical facilities have never been all that impressive, but if I cannot run a marathon at age twenty-nine, I take solace from knowing that I couldn’t run a marathon at age twenty.

What does make me feel older is the realization that I’ve been working professionally for five years. I got my master’s degree in 2005, and ten years ago I was finishing up my first year of college. This is, and I do not use the word lightly, impossible.

Three and a half years of that professional career has been here in Wilhelmsplatz. This too is impossible. When I was first hired, I felt guilty that I was drawing the superior salary of a Librarian II position, when in all honesty I didn’t feel like my work was harder than that of a Librarian I. I never felt so guilty as to ask HR to adjust my pay downward, but rest assured that it was a terrible burden on my soul.

All of us in Reference work spend approximately 40% of our time on the public service desk. The rest of that time we spend on different projects. As the Electronic Resources Librarian, part of that time is necessarily spent with databases and computer instruction, but there are plenty of other projects to occupy my time—collection development and readers’ advisory and writing for our book blog and recataloging graphic novels. All of the librarians are busy with behind-the-scenes activities.

Lately, however, my guilt about my salary has evaporated. This is too bad. Guilt is my favorite emotion. I am a guilt connoisseur. I am a superb feeler of guilt, and forgive my lack of modesty, but I must boast that my ability to feel guilt has been honed to such an exacting degree that I can and do feel personal responsibility for the burning of Rome and propagation of the Bubonic Plague.

But try as I might, I can no longer muster the energy to feel guilt about the extra money I’m paid to be an Electronic Resources Librarian. My job has become much more difficult since I started, noticably in the last year. This is because the library’s role in computer instruction has started to consume my life. Computer instruction has been an important element of public library service for the past twenty years or so, but lately my library has been doing a lot more, be it at the reference desk or in formal classroom settings.

I will freely admit that this is partly my own fault, and in fact I will probably talk it to death if I ever get a job interview. I have made extra efforts to recruit instructors, to offer a wide variety of classes, to accommodate the needs of the patrons who avail themselves of our public computers.

More than anything, though, the need for computer instruction is increasing due to societal factors beyond my control. When I first graduated from library school lo these many years ago, I figured that computer use was already ubiquitous, that it had already invaded the work lives and leisure hours of, essentially, everybody.

Apparently I was mistaken. When I first started teaching classes here, the students were primarily older white folks who had a passing interest in using a computer. That group is still there, but these days I’m seeing more and more variety in terms of age and race, and country of origin, too.

The recession surely is playing a role. If you had a nice job in contruction through the 90s and early 2000s, you might have never needed to touch a computer. But if you lost that nice job and needed a new source of income, you’d realize that you couldn’t even bag groceries without filling in an online form—which you can’t do, I might point out, without an email account, and I might further point out that you can’t get an email account if you don’t know how to read a captcha.

This evening I taught Intro to Word. When I teach it, I usually go over elementary formatting options, things like changing your typeface or bulleting your lists—but that can’t be taught without concurrently teaching general computer skills. It’s easy to change a typeface after you’ve highlighted a word, but first you have to know how to highlight. And it’s not essential to know about Copy & Paste to use Word, but gosh, it helps.

I feel bad for the people who don’t know how to use computers. I feel really, really bad for them. (Also guilty.) Computer use is no longer a luxury. It is part and parcel of modern life. It has transformed the way we communicate in a way that has only been seen once before, when Gutenberg printed a Bible.

I am not the first person to draw the parallel between personal computing and movable type. It’s not so often you get two worldwide communication revolutions, they’re sort of noticable. But it’s easy to look to the past: what about the future? What will be the next technology to offer radical improvements in the communication of thought?

I have an answer already: telepathy.

Really. Where else do we have to go? We already have the world’s recorded information available at hand: it’s online, it’s been televised, it’s been written in a book somewhere. Only catch is that first someone has to put it online or film it or publish it. That’s a chore unto itself, and then you have to consider that a lot of good information never gets recorded at all.

Mind-reading would fix everything. No one would have to record their thoughts, because they’d be instantly and automatically available for viewing, and no one would be able to censor out things you needed to know. This would have universal and immediate impact, most notably in that everyone would be able to find out for sure who exactly was willing to sleep with them.

Five hundred years separate Gutenberg and the internet, so I figure we’ve got another five hundred years before we’re all reading each other’s minds. Well honestly I can’t see it happening at all, in five hundred years or five thousand, and furthermore I was being completely facetious, it’d be just awful if everyone had telepathic powers, but if it ever does come to pass I hope that people have flying cars. If you’ve got to have your privacy completely annihilated, I think you should at least get a flying car as a consolation prize.

How not to win friends and grow emotionally

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Hi. Happy Easter.

Easter: a more impressive holiday than Christmas. Anybody can be born. Happened to me, and to you too, I assume. Not everybody can wake up again after being dead for three days. The only problem with Easter is that I don’t get presents like I do at Christmas.

Another national holiday that results in my getting presents is my birthday, coming up Tuesday. Stores are closed today for Easter, but you can still do your last-minute shopping tomorrow.

It’s a little strange: in practice I usually avoid talking about very personal things here. For the sake of privacy, I use a very light tough with topics concerning friends, family, and lovers. Oblique references are usually the most you’ll get out of me. But I’m making an exception to talk about Bobby and the explosion. (For those of you just tuning in, the full story is here. And for bonus reading material, take a close look at the first paragraph from the post that immediately preceeded the explosion. The dream I had was eerily prophetic, I think you’ll agree. Too bad it had to be stingy about the specific details. What good is a prophecy you can’t act on?)

I would like to offer my heartfelt gratitude to everyone for their support and prayers from these past few weeks. Thank you to the folks who pitched in at the library so that I could work from home, the friends and family who’ve listened to me, and the friend who wrote me a letter. And thank you, Jacqueline Carey, for writing some long historical fantasy novels for me to escape into.

One other thing I am grateful for: I am not pregnant. Whew.

Yesterday I had a very long talk with Bobby’s brother. It’s funny, Bobby had been adamant that I not meet his brother, warning that the two of us would not mix. Well geeze, Bobby, if you didn’t want me talking to your family, you maybe shouldn’t have tried to explode yourself in the building next door.

Ah well, nothing like a violent domestic tragedy to forge new alliances—though I advise against pursuing this deliberately. I’m pretty sure there are easier ways to make friends. Be that as it may, yesterday’s conversation was cathartic. It helped me to talk about everything with someone who knows Bobby. The conversation also brought me up to speed on the latest details, to wit:

  • Of the three innocent people who were phsycally injured, everyone is expected to recover, including the man who suffered the third-degree burns; he is in good condition.
  • Some people have been allowed to return to their homes. Others have not.
  • The gas company, the fire marshall, and various other officials had never seen anything quite so destructive. They are amazed that Bobby survived.
  • Bobby is in custody, currently being held on parole violation while the police build a case against him.
  • In Virginia there is a three-strikes law. This is Bobby’s third strike. The length of his imprisonment will see him released when he is in his seventies.

As for me and how I’m doing, well: the phrase “robust mental health” has never applied to me. I’ve lived with chronic depression for… er, for my entire life, near as I can figure. (Do babies come out of the womb with depression?) This latest incident has not exactly improved my spirits.

That said, I am back to functioning. Being able to stay at home this past week to nurse my wounds has helped. Chopping my hair off and dying it blue helped a little, too. I am in a pretty lousy mood, but I am not paralyzed.

Looking at the long-term picture is kind of scary. Having your recently-ex-boyfriend leave you a suicide note, botch his suicide, hurt innocents and destroy property, and land in jail for the rest of his life—not to mention the part about discovering that he is a pathological liar—is not something you exactly recover from. It is something you learn to adjust to, but it marks you forever.

I am speculating, of course. Despite my own formidable research skills I could not find any professional literature on “Ex-boyfriends, pathological—failed suicide attempt via explosion—fire, innocent victims, property damage, and lifelong imprisonment—recovery from, and prognosis for, friends and family.” Was there something wrong with my search terms, I wonder? Surely there is a body of research in this subject area.

But I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that this will shape me in a fundamental way. I am not a mental health professional, but I have gained rather a lot of amateur experience in the field, and anyway it’s just plain common sense telling me that this is the sort of thing that will impact me profoundly.

“Maybe it will make us all stronger,” Bobby’s brother said dubiously, grasping for something positive to say about the whole wretched experience. Guess there’s gonna be some really, really, really strong people emerging from this.

Right. You want emotional fortitude wrought  by trial and fire? I got it right here. If you can overlook the small matter of my tremendous emotional damage, scars, and baggage, I am fucking invincible.

Anyway, now that I’m busy being all emotionally strong and stuff, I have a four-part plan. I already did step one, “Drastically alter personal appearance.” Steps two through four are as follows:

  • Find out where Bobby is being held. Strike up a correspondence of letters.Though I am indescribably angry him, it will do me no good to vent that anger. Instead I will send him thoughts of love and empathy.  Maybe I’ll be able to give him hope that compassion can exist in the bleakest of situations.
  • Refrain from dating anyone else for a long, long time, possibly ever. There is a rather horrible trend among my romantic partners for relationships that end very, very badly. Bobby has set a new standard. I do not want to exceed that standard.
  • Land a new job someplace far, far away. This is a very attractive part of my strategy, because—believe me here—I am no longer keen, at all, on living in this fucking apartment. Traces of Bobby are everywhere. Unfortunately this part of the plan will be difficult to implement, because, and I apologize for the pervasive swearing, there are no fucking jobs out there. The other night I scoured the job listings nationwide, and excluded those that did not meet my three criteria: 1.) The job must be in a physical climate that suits me; 2.) The job must pay a living wage; 3.) I must be at least remotely qualified for it.

“Yes, I’m aware that I don’t meet the position’s minimum requirement of having three of more years of experience at the director level, in point of fact I have zero years of experience at the director level, but I’m hoping to distract you from that by turning your attention to this book I wrote, see? …Oh, you don’t have a copy? You should buy it. You should definitely buy it. At fifty-five dollars it is a steal.”

A final thought, to any library employers in snowy mountain regions who might be reading this: Giving me a job with a decent salary would be an awesome birthday gift. Don’t let the blue hair scare you. I am very nice, and also I wrote a book.