Dispatches Tagline
Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Learning From Cruelty

Monday, July 2nd, 2012: Odds & Ends, Society.

My weekend movie was the 2009 film Last Ride, in which Hugo Weaving plays an ex-con who makes his 10-year-old son an accomplice in an increasingly desperate flight from the law across the spectacular natural landscape of South Australia. The brutality of Weaving’s character finds one (of many) outlets at a remote water hole where he tries to teach the frightened boy to swim by throwing him in the water and holding him down: “C’mon you wuss!”

That scene instantly evoked a memory of my Grandpa Carmichael, my surrogate father, who told me he learned to swim because his father (great-grandfather Howard, who I also grew up with) threw him in the river and told him he had to sink or swim. Apparently, Grandpa had solved this childhood crisis on the spot via the sidestroke, which became his only swimming style.

By contrast, I had friendly one-on-one swimming lessons with the star of the high-school swim team, so until seeing the movie it hadn’t really occurred to me how terrifying that first experience could be. I tried to picture my great-grandfather – who was generally good with children – throwing my Grandpa in the river – a tree-shaded, muddy waterhole with low, muddy banks just like in the film – wondering what the father was feeling, what the son was feeling, how those feelings might be churning like the muddy water – or simply programmed by tradition. What sort of reconciliation would emerge later in safety, whether gratitude, respect, or lingering resentment.

People who haven’t experienced much cruelty may hold simplistic notions of what is cruel, and how “cruelty” functions in society and ecology. Richard Nelson, in his beautiful deer-hunting memoir The Island Within, reports watching a sea otter slowly devour a living salmon tail-first while the salmon watched itself being eaten. And most of us have seen TV clips of hyenas bringing down and feasting on a living wildebeest. How do humans benefit by condemning some behavior as “cruel,” and how much of this depends on the context?

The “cruelty of childhood” is an old cliche, and I certainly experienced childhood as the cruelest phase of life. I was one of the smallest boys in town and was bullied all the way up to my senior year of high school, first because I was small and later because I got good grades. The jocks and the tough boys were always verbally abusing me, threatening to beat me up, chasing me, punching and kicking when they could catch me. The neighborhood bully once found me out in the country in the woods by the riverside and shot me in the leg with his BB rifle. That’s when I found out I could run faster than other kids – I ran all the way home, leaving him in my dust.

My Dad tried to compensate for his absence by packing intense parenting into short visits. One of his favorite father-son activities was the old Scottish tradition of roughhousing, fighting for the sheer love of it, which in the old days often led to casual maiming and blinding. Dad was in his view trying to teach me to be a man, but he was huge and obese, so the contest was patently unfair and traumatic for me.

One of my ex-girlfriends grew up in a family where a lot of physical violence occurred and was mostly tolerated. They were all big, strong people with violent tempers. She told me of her younger brother throwing a cat off a bridge into a river, waiting for it to swim to shore and throwing it back in again, over and over. In some sectors of our society – sports and the military – bullying and brutality are considered essential to learning toughness and endurance. If you grow up isolated from cruelty, you may end up unprepared and powerless when you do meet it.

So where and when is it appropriate to learn about intimidation and physical force?

Or maybe the right question is how. In Last Ride, the father’s brutality really came out in how he treated his son – the same vicious way he treated the victims of his crimes. I don’t see my great-grandfather treating my Grandpa like that – I envision a firm but encouraging act. And in The Island Within, Nelson evokes the traditional hunter’s creed of respect for the prey – which raises the question of how and why we are different from the sea otter. I don’t buy the conventional answers to how humans are different from other animals; I’ve heard about the Asians who relish eating animals alive, and I can’t condemn them, not having the full picture.

After his first (failed) swimming lesson, the boy in the movie appears traumatized. And in the end, for other reasons, Last Ride won’t end up on my list of favorite films. But the glorious final scene shows how, in a cruel world, a hard lesson may be transformed into a moment of liberation.

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Justice Served

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012: Stories, Trouble.

After years of avoiding or being dismissed from jury duty, I was finally selected yesterday as a juror on a trial in which our county sheriff’s department had filed a criminal charge of assault on a peace officer, naming a 20-year-old man I will call Brady as defendent.

Brady is a convicted felon who at the time of the incident was living in a single-wide trailer in a trailer park on the outskirts of town with his mother and two 10-year-old boys, Brady’s brother and a cousin. Brady looks a bit like Justin Timberlake with the crewcut and stubble beard. We never learned the nature of his felony, since it wasn’t pertinent to the current charge. He was on probation for the felony conviction and has an admitted drinking problem, for which he was in a program called Drug Court, entailing daily monitoring and testing by county officers.

The night before the incident, Brady’s mother had left for the state capital to accompany a friend who was having a medical procedure. She had left Brady in charge of the little boys. On the day of the incident, Brady got up early, woke the boys and made sure they had what they needed, and left for his construction job at the historic downtown hotel which is being refurbished.

The boys went to school that day and returned home in the afternoon, where Brady met them after getting off work, again making sure they had what they needed for the evening. Then he went to the gym, where he regularly tried to work out the stress of his probation and all that micromanagement of his life by the county. In early evening, the sheriff’s department got a call from someone at the school, expressing concern that the boys were unsupervised at home, and a junior officer was dispatched to the trailer to make a “welfare check.” He found the boys alone and was told Brady was taking care of them. His superior, a sargeant, arrived a few minutes later.

At the gym, Brady got a call from a neighbor who said the trailer was surrounded by cops, so Brady raced home and skidded to a stop behind the junior officer’s vehicle. He saw the two officers standing outside the door of the trailer and shouted “What the fuck are you doing here?”

The junior officer, standing at the door, on a small porch at the top of three steps, said they were conducting a welfare check on the two boys, and Brady, now at the bottom of the steps and increasingly agitated, responded “Show me your warrant!” The officer mentioned the welfare check again, and Brady started up the steps.

The officer, who was larger than Brady, shoved Brady in the chest, and they both fell backward onto a small cement landing containing a large rock. The officer, on top of Brady, turned him over and cuffed his hands behind his back. The two officers pulled him to his feet, marched him to the nearest patrol car, and pushed him into the back.

While the sheriff’s officers waited “for Brady to calm down,” the junior officer went into the trailer “to make sure the boys had something to eat,” despite the fact that the primary goal of the welfare check – to ensure that the boys had supervision – had been met. When the officers returned to the patrol car, Brady apologized for his initial hostility, and they released him from the car and the cuffs. Then Brady’s mother arrived, back from her trip, and the officers explained why they were there and departed.

That night, the junior officer opened a report describing the welfare check, but omitting the incident with Brady.

Brady had bruised a rib in his fall on the rock, and the next day he and his mother filed a complaint at the sheriff’s office.

Finally, four days later, the junior officer completed his report, claiming that Brady had “charged up the stairs at him in a threatening manner” and he feared imminent physical harm, and the department filed a criminal charge of assault.

In the trial, the only witnesses to the incident were the two officers and Brady. The boys had been inside the trailer and only came to the windows after they heard the men crashing to the ground. But the officers’ testimony was vague and conflicting. Neither could remember precise dates or times, and the sargeant admitted under defense examination that when he thought Brady was “charging” the junior officer, Brady could equally likely have been trying to get into the trailer to make sure the boys were okay. During the incident, both officers had recorders on their belts which they had failed to turn on, so there was no objective evidence of the exchange between the three men.

Both the boys and their mother were brought in as witnesses for the defense. It was clear the boys idolized Brady, and they both seemed like good boys, but it also became clear that Brady’s younger brother had been coached by his elders on what to say, so their testimony didn’t do us any good. The mother was nervous, flustered and inarticulate, her voice seemingly ravaged by cigarettes, whiskey, or worse, so she couldn’t do much good either.

Brady had been serious and subdued throughout the proceedings, but when the boys were brought in, you could tell he was concerned for them. His own testimony was articulated simply and straightforwardly, with concentration and apparent sincerity. He said he wasn’t threatening the officer, he was just trying to get into the trailer to see the boys.

The judge in the case was a pleasant, mild-mannered woman who mostly just let things roll. Both the prosecuting and defense attorneys were big men with huge bellies; the defense attorney resembled 1950s TV personality Captain Kangaroo and had a distinctive rocking gait and dramatic gestures. The state prosecutor – our paid servant – repeatedly misrepresented the facts we had been shown and the testimony we had heard, in an obvious attempt to cloud our judgment. His voice and arrogant presentation reminded me of Agent Smith in The Matrix movie. The defense attorney, on the other hand, overstated his case so much that we were kept hours beyond the expected close of the trial.

After the opening testimony of the two officers, I had made up my mind that there was ample reasonable doubt about what happened at the steps of the trailer. But during the hours that remained, I agonized a bit about what the other jurors – all women, all strangers – where thinking. What if a majority believed Brady guilty? Would I have to sacrifice my convictions for a unanimous verdict?

Finally we found ourselves alone in the jury room. One of the women laid a notepad with notes on the table in front of her, looked at me and said “You’re the foreman!” The other women all chimed in “Yes!” I sighed, considered for a few minutes and agreed, always unwilling to shirk responsibility. I asked the woman across from me to share her notes. They turned out to be points of doubt that we all agreed with. I signed the Not Guilty form and we returned to the courtroom, where the judge read our verdict, Brady and his attorney rejoiced, and we jurors were quickly led out of the building into the mountain sunshine, where the cottony clouds of monsoon season were mustering around us in the sky, their bellies darkening under the weight of impending rain.

We can never know exactly what happened between Brady and the officer, but it had become clear to us jurors that the junior officer had been the aggressor in the incident, that he had exceeded his duty by entering the trailer against Brady’s wishes, as a form of intimidation, and that days later, after Brady filed a complaint, the sheriff’s department had decided to retaliate with a criminal charge, seeing Brady the convicted felon as an easy target. We, on the other hand, saw Brady as someone working hard to turn his life around and be a responsible caregiver for the boys. If the sheriff’s department had its way, Brady would have ended up in prison, and the boys would be left with a broken family and a discouraging experience of an unfair society.

And I was reminded again that the people who are paid to serve us sometimes try to harm us instead. It was only the incompetence of these officers that betrayed them in their shameful mission.

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The Bell

Saturday, July 14th, 2012: Places, Special Places.

First of a series about places that have become special to my friends and me, as we’ve ventured there together year after year to share good fellowship, and sometimes to witness the mysteries of creation.

The Bell was first discovered by James and me on an exploratory outing with a bottle of cheap wine, long ago in the mists of memory before my adult circle of friends had begun to crystallize. The ferry plowed the rough swells of the bay, carrying us out to the tall, green island, past rugged headlands and lush valleys in which stately antique buildings stood vacant but well-tended among groves of palm trees. We stood on the open upper deck, where a salt wind tugged at our hair and gulls swooped hungrily at the rails.

We made our way on the ring road around the darkly forested island to a point high above the water where we could see the great bridge opening westward on the ocean, and from there we scrambled precariously down a faint, crumbling game trail to a small beach of dark pebbles, where we drank our wine, talked, and occasionally waded a short ways into the cold, churning surf. The Bell stood above us, long abandoned and windswept, on its rock that jutted into the bay toward the distant bridge.

Hours later we realized it was high time we headed back to catch the last ferry, but the wine had sorely diminished us. We couldn’t retrace our steps up the precipitous slope, and ventured around The Bell to a long sandy beach with more high crumbling slopes. The tide stopped us at the end of this, and desperate, we began to claw our way up the trackless slope, grasping roots and branches and treetrunks, finally stumbling gratefully out onto the ring road and the way back.

Years later, after my bohemian inner-city loft had evolved from its early turbulence and drama into a hard-working, hard-partying, cohesive community of ambitious young artists, actors and musicians, I led the whole extended family back to the island with a full supply of wine, baguettes, cheese and fruit, in search of the looming Bell. It couldn’t be seen from the ring road above, but again I found an obscure game trail which halfway down the steep slope brought our destination in view, still far below. From there, the narrow dirt track fell off steeper and steeper until it became a landslide. The more confident among us started onto the slide, digging our shoes in for traction, but when we coaxed one of the girls into following, she froze in place, staring at the sharp rocks on the beach below, veering into full panic. None of us had solid footing, but after a tense debate we tottered, slid, and formed a human chain to lower her down. The subsequent debauch found us all laboring successfully to put the incident behind us, as we lay like kings and queens surrounded by our brilliant domain: the sparkling bay, its windblown yachts, its distant bridge and city arrayed for our pleasure as we lounged and played on a broad pedestal of weedy cement, both stage and balcony, high above waves flashing like broken glass in the sun.

Behind us in a small grassy lawn loomed the Bell suspended from its wooden frame, taller than any of us, a stupendous weight of bronze turned grey-green by a century of salt spray, waiting for our primitive driftwood drumsticks to ring it into complex resounding polyrhythms. And below and around our platform, the sheer, black rock hosting a feral garden of agave, yucca and flowering shrubs, anemones crowding in the tide zone, and a fringe of crashing waves out of which the occasional seal hauled itself up to bask.

The pattern was set, and henceforth for more than two decades, through thick and through thin, my friends and I made bohemian expeditions across the bay and carefully down that hidden landslide path to the Bell to celebrate nature near the city but seemingly a world away, to refresh our perspectives, expanding horizons that had been shrinking and confining us in the repetitive toil of our days. Despite millions of people living around the bay, never did we find evidence of other visitors; the slippery slope that was part of our adventure helped keep our secret. On each arrival, time itself seemed to expand as all our senses came alive. Once, we were surprised by historic square-rigged ships emerging from the mist and firing cannons at each other in deafening blasts of black powder. Another time, we saw a horde of giant jellyfish advancing suicidally across the waves, from all directions as far as the eye could see, to be tossed limply on the rocky beach where their soft iridescent bodies flowed over the dark stones like molten glass. And another time, John frightened and amazed us by swimming out into the powerful breakers where none of us had ever dared to go.

We who discovered this place were experimental musicians and performers, and we saw the rock and the Bell from the beginning as both stage and living instrument, seemingly timeless, primitive, and rooted in the wild elements like the temples of the ancient Greeks. There, drumming on the Bell itself was always the central experience, and the holy of holies was to stand inside while your friends kept it ringing around you, and you felt cradled by a great humming, keening, rumbling womb. And always, we hesitated as long as we believed possible before leaving to catch the last ferry back to the city, our bodies exhausted and our spirits restored, wondering when we’d see our Bell again.

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