Sunday, April 26, 2009

An Interview with James Ellroy (From October 2006)


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Community Comes Together to Fight for Educational Rights

Originally posted on

California is facing the biggest education spending cuts in history, as well as thousands of job losses for teachers working in South LA's classrooms. Community forums, like the one held on March 30th at the Baha'i Faith Center in Baldwin Park, are bringing educators, students and residents together to make a stand against what some believe to be a violation of the next generation's constitutional rights. Equal access to education, especially in Title I, low-income schools like Crenshaw High School and Dorsey High School, is being jeopardized in a state ranked 47th in the nation for per-student spending. Listen to this radio podcast at


Community Journalism: Honing the Voices of Tomorrow

Originally posted on Neon

Yesterday, I stood in front of a class of seniors at Crenshaw High School and attempted to explain blogging. I showed them how to log in to Blogspot, how to write and submit their posts, and how to link to their stories from MySpace. But then a girl in a long purple dress, second row, asked: "What's the point?"

"What do you mean?" I replied, unsure I had understood her question. "What's the point of blogging?"


For a moment, I was stumped.

What is the point of blogging? I wondered. And more importantly, what can it possibly mean to a noisy, over-crowded class of 17-year-olds, waiting for lunchtime to hurry the hell up?

I've been working with Intersections: The South Los Angeles Reporting Project since its inception in August 2008. Before the website was built, before the mentoring program had begun, before we changed the name from the ugly acronym "SLARP" to the user-friendly "Intersections," I sat with the two professors who had ignited the project -- Willa Seidenberg and Bill Celis -- and talked about the purpose, the point of it all, how to get the ball rolling, and where that ball could eventually go.

It would be a community forum and a hyper-local news website, focused on the areas of Los Angeles that usually fall short of media attention, unless the stories involve a body count: From Inglewood to Watts, Compton to the Crenshaw District, Intersections would serve the zipcodes that form the new incarnation of the old "South Central." Residents, community leaders and high school students would become a solid base for citizen reporting, while USC's own journalism students would be broaching their comfort zones and pounding the pavements, learning ethnically and culturally diverse reporting.

Eight months later, we're still officially pre-launch, but the Knight Foundation's J-Lab has honored Intersections with a $25,000 grant as part of its "New Voices" initiative. It's money that will certainly allow the project to continue and thrive, as well as expand into the many avenues it has the potential to traverse.

One of those avenues is the high school mentoring project, which has been running at Crenshaw High School throughout the 2008/2009 acadmic year and will be expanded to include other schools in South Los Angeles after the summer. It's this part of the project that lands me, and my fellow USC mentors, in cacophonic classrooms every week, from the senior seminar class to the ninth grade multimedia session. The senior class now have their own reporter's kits, with cameras and audio equipment, which they have used to produce projects on broad topics, from immigration to racial profiling to teenage pregnancy. The ninth-grade class are currently learning how to write, record and edit their own radio commentaries, the first of which they used to address the question: "Why don't youth take their education seriously?" The answer, in some cases, was again, what's the point?

It's much easier to explain to the students why they should enunciate their words when they're recording for radio, or how to use an editing program, than it is to explain why they should do any of it at all. In the end, what difference does it make whether they flunk or fly, post a blog entry or don't?

The answer, I tell them, is that it makes a lot of difference. "The stakes are high," I said last week to the ninth-grade class. "People are listening."

Things are changing in the media landscape. The power is shifting, and if they seize the moment and take their chance to wield it, it could make all the difference in the world. There are some, however, who find it hard to believe that the opinions and experiences of high school students, or even South L.A.'s residents at large, matter to anyone living beyond their own block. It's not surprising to feel that way about community journalism. I've even encountered professional journalists who believe it to be irrelevant, too far beneath them, to warrant attention.

However, it would seem that the opposite is, in fact, true. In the Internet Age, where niche markets are breeding, community journalism is finding a home like never before. Hyper-local news is gaining momentum and power. Unheard voices, ignored in the age of legacy media, are being given the microphone. South Los Angeles, especially, can benefit from this new media dynamic.

Consistent lack of coverage, combined with the arrogance of mainstream media outlets, has taken a harsh toll on the area. Last year, while I was reporting on a story remembering the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, I ended up sitting at a chili dog stand at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, being told that I "could never make a difference" as a journalist. Henry Watson, a South L.A. resident and one of the "L.A. Four" responsible for beating a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, almost to death on April 29, 1992, told me that South Los Angeles would always be shunned until it eventually rotted away from apathy. It was partially due to this feeling of forced isolation that the riots were provoked, said Watson, and it's only a matter of time before they happen again.

Another resident and one of Watson's entourage, Tony Falley, then told me to take a look at the intersection where we were standing. This area, the scene of so much violence and social upheaval in the early '90s, still looked exactly the same as it did before. The rioting hadn't made a difference. It hadn't put South L.A. on the map. The lack of balanced media attention had, instead, left the area to physically stagnate. "Our environment needs to be built up," said Falley. "As far as Florence and Normandie, where the riots happened, we don't have anything but the same stuff: a gas station and a liquor store."

Journalism, at its best, is progressive. It seeks to bring new ideas, new stories, and new voices into the sphere of public consciousness. But if journalists aren't willing to broach the barriers of their own comfort zones and step out onto a different block, the process is simply stifling.

I only hope that, before next week, I can figure out a simple way to tell that to the rambunctious teenagers at Crenshaw High School, the next time they ask: "What's the point?"


The Changing Face of Los Angeles, As In-Bound Immigration Slows

Originally posted on Neon

In-bound immigration is slowing in California, and the next generation of naturalized, immigrant children is growing. The number of U.S.-born children with legal and unauthorized immigrant parents has swelled in the last five years from 2.7 million in 2003 to 4 million in 2008. According to a study released by the Pew Hispanic Center, one in three of these children are living in poverty, which is double the rate for children of U.S.-born parents. Emily Henry spoke to Fernando Guerra, director of The Center for the Study of Los Angeles and political science professor at Loyola Marymount University, about the changing face of the immigrant stock in Los Angeles.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Nuclear Breakdown: Who's Nuking Who in WWIII

Originally posted on Neon

In 2006, I had a very detailed map of global nuclear missile range pinned to my bedroom wall. Why? I'm not exactly sure. But there was something refreshing about displaying an accessible, comprehensive two-page spread detailing mankind's biggest fear. I was brazenly exhibiting the most potent threat to civilization, nuclear war, like a piece of art.

It was ludicrous, but the map -- a pattern of multi-sized red circles over a gray world, with a picture of Kim Jong Il's head in the corner -- was a great conversation starter.

I was surprised to learn that, like me, pre-map, my friends didn't know who would be able to nuke who in a hypothetical World War III. This feels like an essential piece of information. But rather than being common, debated and analyzed knowledge, the topic of nuclear warfare seems sacred and shrouded in mystery. Its dark malevolence spreads silently like a strange kind of contagious disease. Among the populous, conversations about nuclear weapons play out like a game of Chinese Whispers, better known as the game of telephone to some.

So, in a hypothetical WWIII, who could nuke who?

Russia and the U.S. could nuke anyone, with 5,192 and 4,075 warheads respectively. Israel could pretty much take out Europe, Africa and the Middle East, as well as parts of Russia -- anywhere within a radius of 4,300 miles, with its 200 warheads. India, with 75 warheads, could do some damage to China. North Korea, with Dong-2, would almost match Israel's range, covering 4,200 miles. The United Kingdom has 192 warheads and France has 300. There are approximately 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world today.

Is it any wonder that we're all suffering from Nucleomituphobia? After 64 years pondering our nuclear mortality, fear of nuclear weapons has become a hereditary condition.

It began 1945, when the U.S. dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, killing more than 100,000 people and sparking a nuclear arms race that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Post Cold War, the term "nuclear war" became a profanity. Fear of nuclear war became fear of fear of nuclear war. Still, more than a decade later, media entities have to be careful not to "frighten" people with talk of nuclear proliferation. So, instead of being rationally examined, the threat becomes similar to seismic activity, brewing invisibly, random and chaotic.

But looking at the statistics neatly formulated into a pretty map quickly demystifies the on-going contest and underlying threat to mankind, even if it doesn't make it less scary. The Guardian has put together an updated graphic, now available online, that lists current weapon inventories and range, as well as the potential extension of North Korea's nuclear reach, should the Taepodong-2 ("an intercontinental-range, road mobile, liquid propellant ballistic missile," according to mature from the development phase.

What also becomes clear, as you contemplate the nonexistent red circles around the U.S. and Russia, is that both countries dwarf all other nuclear threats, because, unlike Israel, India, North Korea, and all other "nuclear" countries, the U.S. and Russia have unlimited range. It also becomes obvious that those responsible for initiating the threat of nuclear war should be the ones to extinguish it.

In response to North Korea's Sunday missile launch, President Obama announced a campaign to reduce atomic weapons globally.

But, as every president since 1945 has discovered, it takes more than good intentions to rid the world of the nuclear threat. Some believe that countries with the least need for nuclear defense should be the first to disarm. "If we examine the geostrategic circumstances of the existing nuclear powers, the two with the least zero security justification for holding on to any nuclear weapons are Britain and France," writes Ramesh Thakur for The Times of India. But, as Thakur explains, holding onto the nuclear horde is a vicious cycle. "Pakistan will not give up its nuclear weapons while India still has them," writes Thakur. "India's main security benchmark is not Pakistan but China. Neither China nor Russia will contemplate giving them up for fear of the U.S. This is why the circuit-breaker in the global nuclear weapons chain is the U.S."

In reality, it's going to take more than a "cut" in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile to make a significant difference and alter competitive attitudes. Anything less than all-out disarmament won't work and hasn't worked. The super-powers must first show concession, turn away from hypocrisy, and prove themselves willing to cede their nuclear arsenal before others will follow.

But coming to a worldwide agreement about nuclear weapons is an endless game of political tug-of-war. Sometimes it seems like the only way to achieve a nuclear free world would be to bypass the greed and nationalism of individual countries, and send in an independent entity to forcefully disarm the world.

Sound familiar? This kind of resolution is a fantasy, literally. It was the basis for the plot of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. That's about as close as we've come to a nuclear-weapon free world.


Getting Back to Reality

I don't hate the Internet, and I'm too young to be nostalgic. But, I do believe that actions speak louder than words, a handshake is more powerful than a Tweet, and a smile is more important than a smiley. While we're busy obsessing over our invisible actions, there's a whole world at risk of being neglected.

"We are creating a technology that will create a new world," said Renny Gleeson, speaking at the TEDxUSC conference on Monday, March 23rd. "Please, let's make technology more human, not less."

It's amazing and scary how quickly we have allowed technology to dehumanize us. I remember my first email account, which I created when I was 13 years old. I checked it once a month. Now, a decade later, messages route to my inbox every half hour or so, and I read and reply from the palm of my hand--even while I'm in bed. I watch TV over the glaring face of my laptop. I talk to friends thousands of miles away, in different continents and time zones, via a pop-up box in the right-hand corner of the screen. More and more frequently, I learn of deaths, and births, in my circle of family and friends via the Facebook news feed.

Human routines have changed dramatically and many of us now spend the bulk of our "reality" in a virtual realm. And it's not just emailing any more. The Internet is no longer just for practical purposes. In fact, maintaining profiles and updating Twitter in the feverish way many people do takes real dedication to online life. For some, it's innovative. For others, it's vanity.

"It's tempting to dismiss Twitter fever as a passing fad, the Pokémon of the blogosphere," writes Alessandra Stanley in her New York Times column. "But it's beginning to look more like yet another gateway drug to full-blown media narcissism."

What began as a technology for communication, for outreach and interconnectivity, has become wholly self-indulgent. We are transitioning into the Age of Narcissism. The end game in the new, narcissistic Internet age is not focused as much on receiving information and broadening understanding, but getting attention, grabbing followers and becoming a prolific "
mindcaster." Ironically, what seems to go unnoticed is that there are many, many talkers and very few listeners. In the end, it all adds up to a mass of meaningless static. White noise.

But while we continue to expand this invisible space, what tracks are we making in the real world? Are we becoming less "real," or does it just mean that the definition of "reality" is changing?

"If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain," says Morpheus in the 1999 movie The Matrix. As a perspective, The Matrix philosophy deems reality relative. What does it matter if you sit in a real or virtual café, if you send e-vites and e-cards instead of paper and cardboard ones, or if you romance prospective partners with digitized images and HTML code instead of subtle glances and sighs?

To me, it doesn't feel like the Internet is blurring the lines of reality. It feels almost as if the world is being divided, not integrated, into separate realms, physical and virtual. As half of the world sinks deeper into Internet obsession, the other half gets more visceral, more requiring of action, to the point that it's almost unbearable that so much time is dedicated to an inanimate being. What ultimately suffers is our relationship with the world, and each other.

For example, while I stare into this piece of luminous furniture, there are two people living on the grass verge outside my apartment, using a discarded couch as a home. This morning, a man wearing nothing but holey grey socks and a dirty, damp-looking blanket passed me on the street. A woman with matted hair and a weathered face collected plastic bottles from the dumpster.

I wonder, if for every minute we spend living our virtual world, we are sacrificing something in our real one. It may be as simple as eye-contact, or as strong as a conversation. It may be the difference between dedicating your life to bettering the Web, or bettering the World.
But all the moments spent staring at a screen must add up to a whole lot of distractedness from our surroundings, and the people in them. All those online companies making billions of dollars must be distracting a few of us from careers essential to nurturing human life, like teaching, social work and activism.

For every minute I'm looking down at my iphone while I'm walking, or plugging my ears with a personalized playlist, I'm missing the simple interactions that make humans feel connected. I'm at risk of becoming nothing more than a disembodied head, with a wireless adapter inside my cerebellum. I'm exchanging sensory experience for invisible existence.

Obviously, I'm worried. I don't want to be invisible. I like to feel, and I value meaningful action. But many of us are at risk of drowning in disposable meaninglessness while the real world suffers. Even human interaction, the most basic level of society, has been digitized to the point that we spend more time staring at screens than each other. And to what end? Fleeting moments of online glory?

Nothingness is accumulating, swallowing the land, like in The Never-Ending Story, but without the rolling, dark clouds and thunder. This storm is invisible, and its only sound is the tapping of a keyboard.

But I am not alone in my fear. Already, there are voices speaking out in concern for what the Internet is becoming, and more importantly, what we are becoming because of it. Back in 2007, Andrew Keen warned in his anti-Internet polemic, The Cult of the Amateur, that the Internet is "cannibalizing culture." Keen argued that Wikipedia and blogs were diminishing the quality of information and threatening knowledge itself. "On a Web where everyone has an equal voice," writes Keen, "the words of a wise man count for no more than the mutterings of a fool."

Soon afterwards, social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook were being blamed for accelerating humanity's intellectual demise. Now, Twitter is the source of evil.

"It's like stalking someone, but without the inconvenience of sitting in a car outside their house on a cold, rainy night with a loaded gun in your lap," says
Brian Unger of NPR.
"Somewhere, amid all this connectivity, some people still do things," writes Loren Steffy for "And that doing, that accomplishment, matters more than simply talking about nothing. Me watching you doing nothing still equals nothing."

The critical voice that first appeared in Keen's fairly obscure book has now infiltrated the mainstream. And as the Internet continues to age and we gain in retrospective wisdom, criticism of the technology and its broader implications will grow.

Our children, the post-Internet generation, will complain about our online activities. They will tell us to "Stop being so virtual and get real," according to Morely Winograd, co-author of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics. Then, maybe a new brand of hippy, hippies 2.0, will emerge, intent on re-connecting with sensual experience, physical communication and the terrestrial world. Their motto: Actions speak louder than AIM.


CNN: (TED) Technology, Entertainment, Design Conference at USC

One of the challenges in the world of digital innovation is the ability to recreate the human face. During his talk at the TEDx USC conference, Paul Debevec explained that while computer graphics in movies and video games have exploded in recent years, audiences still notice inconsistencies in digitally created human faces (a reason why many video game characters wear helmets, as in “Halo 3″).

But Debevec, associate director of graphics research at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, said that digital-imaging technology is fast improving. The work is painstaking and precise, requiring a multi-layered process to capture the skin and facial expressions in different forms.

From oil levels in the pores to the way wrinkles move, the human face is documented and the computerized data merged to create a life-like resemblance. In the near future, the technology Debevec is developing will be applied to whole human bodies. The aim is to create near-flawless digital human clones, with differences subtle enough not to be caught by the audience.

The results, as Debevec showcased at the TEDxUSC conference, have already been seen in “Spiderman 2,” “Hancock,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Didn’t notice? That just means it’s working, he said.

“We leverage a lot from the fact that computers are literally a million times more powerful than they were when we started,” said Debevec. However, his work won’t be putting actors out of work anytime soon. Fundamentally, he said, good emotional acting will always be the basis for virtual characters.

Read more from CNN


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Trapped in Purgatory

Originally posted on Neon

He watched his father die of starvation. It started with bouts of diarrhea as the digestive system broke down, and before long, the body was unable to process even the morsels that were offered. There was no food, other than the bark scraped from trees and occasionally, a life-saving potato. But the famine deepened. After his father's death, his 7-month-old daughter wasted away. Fearing that his own end was fast approaching, he decided it was time to escape North Korea and search for sustenance across the border.

For the sake of this story, his name is Paul. He is a North Korean refugee seeking asylum in the United States Revealing his real identity would jeopardize his chance to find peace and finally forget the horrors in his past. He is a wanted man, at least, by the government that betrayed him.

Speaking at an event at the University of Southern California Wednesday night, Paul captivated the audience with a tale of struggle and despair. He had crossed the border into China, travelling from city to city in an effort to escape deportation. But he didn't speak the language. He was an outsider who, riding the bus one day, was captured by Chinese officials working in alliance with the North Korean government, and thrown back to a fate much worse then the one he had left.

"There is a secret treaty between China and North Korea to return immigrants," said guest speaker and immigration lawyer Sharon Joung. The Chinese government adheres to a policy of "forceful repatriation" for North Korean refugees, as a favor to its neighbor. Upon his return, Paul was sent to prison for "political treason."

As Russia came to realize in 1999 when it returned immigrants to North Korea, the North Korean government openly executes those guilty of "political treason." Those first-time offenders able to avoid death are sent to a political prisoner's camp. According to Joung, North Korea currently holds an estimated 200,000 political prisoners, "who are subject to forced labor, beatings, torture, starvation and execution."

Paul, with Joung translating, described the prison he was condemned to as "like the hell in the Bible."

"They would make us work for 10 hours consecutively and make us run while we were working so that we can't sit down and rest," Paul said. "At night they would start beating people, saying that it was 'part of the punishment.' A lot of people were put to death because of that beating."

At the time of Paul's internment, North Korea was suffering a famine that lasted from 1994 to 1998 and killed approximately 2.3 million people (although figures vary from 600,000 upward, depending on the source.) "At first," Paul said, "when it started out with one or two people dying, it was an unusual thing. But then it got to a point where so many people died that we didn't even feel anything."
Paul was released after three months, but quickly embarked on his dangerous trek once again. During his second attempt to hide in China, he met a Christian missionary who taught him the Bible. "I became a Christian," Paul said. "I became part of a team that was training North Korean refugees to become missionaries. There were about 300 North Korean refugees that were secretly being educated about the Bible."

Christianity is considered "political treason," Joung later said. "In North Korea, by law, if you cross the border without permission, if you encounter a Christian or even enter a church, that's considered political treason and you will be sent to prison for years."

"In North Korea, what the government fears most is not a nuclear weapon, but the religion of Christianity," said Paul.

But Paul continued to teach others about Christianity, despite the harsh punishment he faced by doing so. He travelled to South Korea through Mongolia, the route of most refugees attempting to escape the North and avoid the Chinese, and began building a church for North Korean refugees. During that time, 200 fellow missionaries, including many of Paul's friends, were captured during a visit to China and sent to political prisoner's camps. These men, even though they held South Korean citizenship that was granted to them automatically when they entered the country, were not protected by their new government. "I was very disappointed," said Paul. "I realized that my safety was not protected by my South Korean citizenship."

According to USC doctoral student Eunice Kang, whose research is titled "North Korean "Refugees?" The Inadequacies of International Refugee Law," North Korea frequently send spies into the South, many posing as refugees, in order to repatriate those who have fled. With China, Vietnam and Laos all sharing the communist ideologies of North Korea, refugees are surrounded by unfriendly forces no matter where they turn.

Not only does automatic South Korean citizenship do a poor job of protecting North Korean refugees from being seized by their previous government, but it also extinguishes their ability to seek a safer life elsewhere. International immigration law determines that the right of asylum will be denied to those who have been granted "firm resettlement" elsewhere, Joung explained. Because their South Korean citizenship is considered "firm resettlement," North Korean refugees are unable to seek asylum in the United States and other countries. Couple this dilemma with the fact that North Korean refugees have no means of safe escape other than through Mongolia to South Korea, where they are immediately strapped with citizenship, and their plight seems unavoidable. They are trapped.

"I believe the South Korean government is unable to provide the necessary protection, but I do believe the U.S. can," said Paul. "That's why I'm here."
There are currently 200 North Korean refugees waiting to be granted asylum in the United States. From 2004 to 2007, only 37 refugees were accepted.

Joung and her law partner Amina Diaz, of the law offices of Chan Yong Jeong in Los Angeles, are trying to convince judges that the "firm resettlement bar" to North Korean refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. is being unfairly interpreted. "North Koreans are not given choices as to where they seek asylum," said Joung. "The South Korean citizenship should not be working against them."

Judges are "not applying the North Korean human rights act as it should be applied," according to Diaz. North Korean refugees are "treated like second-class citizens" in South Korea, forced to live in housing blocks specifically for North Koreans, given restrictions on travel and assigned security officers who keep track of their every move. "The condition of their residence is so substantially restricted that they can't be considered resettled," said Diaz.
Paul's words seemed hard to form at times, as he stood in front of a crowd of Americans, trying to describe the hardships that had brought him here, hoping for safety at last. He is one of the lucky ones.

"I made a choice," he said. "I thought: either I can just die [in North Korea] from starvation, die on the way out from being shot, or I can find a way to get somewhere else. So I thought I'd just take a chance."


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Short Story: "The Snowman" (2006)

My hands aren’t looking the same as they used to. They look short-nailed and scraggly, dry. It’s all part of this bodily decay that’s happening I’m told. I’m going to start shrivelling up now that I’ve reached my twenties. You grow up and then you grow down. But that minute, that less than millisecond of time, that tiny significant fragment that is barely anything at all – a speck of dust on a speck of dust – that’s where the story begins. The moment when you reach the peak and you start to fall. We’re not always hurtling toward death from the moment we are born – no, no, no – there is period of time when the body really does want to live. It wants to live so much that it grows like a sunflower toward the bright blue heavens, you’re arms and legs get longer, you’re torso gets longer, you’re brain gets bigger, everything working together to make you the strongest being alive. Your body begins with a preconception of its own immortality.

Then you realize – you have to, you’re forced to in some way or another – that death exists and that it will get you too. You don’t fight it anymore, maybe you’ll accept it when it comes, maybe you’ll scream and wail and barricade the doors, maybe you’ll give it a run for its money.
Or maybe you too will disappear like the rest of them.

A man kisses his girlfriend goodbye, walks to the train station and has a coronary heart attack, just shy of the whooshing train doors.

A woman says “good morning” to her neighbour as she lets her dog out for its morning pee, and then has a stroke in the kitchen. The dog barks for an hour.

A child catches pneumonia from a day at the swimming pool and dies a week later. People spontaneously combust. Aeroplanes fall on houses and bears get hungry in the woods.
We have every right to be afraid.

But man has found a way to stave off death, to make its bite less swift, to make its call less unexpected, by putting the Welcome mats out.

And you thought that this was going to be a story about man’s insignificance in the face of death – the Romantic Movement that Nature is, like God, spelt with a capital letter, and we are mere – mere – mortals who have nothing to give and everything to take. But who’s thinking about that when you’re seven years old, building a snowman?

I was.

Yep. I admit it. I was one of those kids. I spent a lot of time staring at things – the grass, the moon, a puddle – I would spend all day just staring and inspecting all the elements of my landscape. I don’t know what was going through my head when I was seven, but I remember it being very silent and very hopeful. I was waiting for something and looking for an appropriate scene for it to be unveiled to me. I thought that if I stared long enough at something beautiful, something massive and triumphant, I would be shown something that no-one else knew but that everyone wanted to. Life was filled with waiting and looking and keeping my mind focused in case anything came through. I would watch the fish, analysing the movements they made in the Land of Pond, the colours as the light painted their scales and ricochet off the water. I would watch the clouds – for hours sometimes – I’d lie on the grass and play with the clouds, twirling my fingers around them like ribbons. And then I’d watch the moon. And that was the focus – the homeland of images – for me. The moon. Big and round and fat, tiny and slithery, winking, smiling, crying, red, silver, pink, blue, open, closed, ominous, invisible, incorrigible, enduring. My eyes always returned to its face. As a kid I was like a moon-goddamn-radar. Even during the day – that part of the day when you can see it up there in the sky looking out of place and apocalyptic – I would point and cheer and feel safe, like meeting an old friend who knew me as well as I knew them. And I knew everything about that moon. I still do. We grew up together.
At night, when the curtains were closed and the room was bathed in the half-light of my red lamp, I would look at my hands. I would inspect them. I would turn them this way and that in the light and make sure that I knew them really, really well. I’d play games with them and make shadow-puppets. My hands were an awesome toy that was attached to my body and with me all the time. I felt very joyous about that. No one could take them away from me, even if I had been bad or sulky or just plain annoying, I could always look at my hands and they would say “hiya buddy! Wanna play?” and I would say sure, I’d love to, and we’d live happily ever after for that evening. There was so much to do with them! At times, I must say, I felt almost overwhelmed. I dabbled in Origami, I took up Violin, I baked bread, I did handstands, I picked up bucketfuls of red clay from roots of upturned trees in the woods and made sculptures, I did all of this – and infinitely more – with those amazing tools that God had attached to my arms.

And then there was The Snowman, and I realised that not everyone else in the world wanted to create things with their hands or make beautiful music or shadow-puppets. And I knew that life was going to be a bit of a struggle then and that I would have to toughen up or forget what I was looking for. One Friday night, at 10pm, I was looking for my Snowman’s hand. His nose, mouth, eyes and other hand were all in my pyjama pocket, but one hand was still out there somewhere. I had to move slowly and silently across the double-baked snow which was frozen and thawed and frozen again so that it was more like freezer snow than sky snow, and louder too. It wasn’t packing under my feet like fresh snow – the new snow that makes a delightful sliding ‘pop’ under the weight of Wellington Boots – it was breaking like shards of white-painted glass. And I had snuck out of the house with absolute, brilliant deviance, and I wasn’t about to blow it by treading too heavily. Rosie – my pink-cheeked doll with three toes missing since the dog had chewed them off – was keeping the fort safe. She was packed into my bedding in the exact same manner I would be sleeping, with just her hair – the same colour and texture as mine – poking out from the covers and draping across the pillow. It was foolproof, despite the fact that she was one-eighth my size. I imagined that if trouble came, Rosie would spot the hall light as it came drifting through the slowly opened bedroom door and she would grow momentarily. Perhaps she would even snore. She would never do this to my face, but she would do this to save me. Toys have to keep a secret pact that they will never show their powers to their children, but Rosie – the smart, blue-eyed scamp – would have found the loophole and would use it to save me.

In the meantime, I had to do my part and try my utmost to keep her from having to break the rules or even bend them. I didn’t want her to get into trouble when it was me who should take the rap. So I tiptoed across the snow in just my socks. Pyjama-clad and freshly bathed, I slipped quietly down the stairs – ignoring the 3rd, 5th and 6th because they squeaked (and boy, that 5th/6th dilemma was hard to figure out. I couldn’t jump two entire steps without falling and disrupting the silent world with a God-awful clattering, but if you knew exactly the place to stand on the 6th step – a little to the left and as close to the wall of the previous step as possible – you could make it with only a few seconds delay to your overall stair-scaling time. I, of course, knew how to do this and had practiced many, many times – sometimes even, during the day in full view, without anyone knowing what the hell I was doing. I was a quiet, good kid and they had no reason to suspect me.) I shimmied across the hallway wall, staying carefully out of the light cast by the ajar living room door. I spent a full five minutes opening the back door cautiously, slower than it might have seemed physically possible and utterly noiselessly. A mouse, asleep in the letterbox, would not have stirred. Then I’m off – out – into the night. I had to be careful not to let myself get too excited. I had to remember that, as successful as that part of the mission had been, it was only a part of the mission. Celebrating now would be devastating. It would be foolish to let the triumphant yelp in my stomach come flying up to my mouth. I put my hand over my potentially treacherous lips and swallowed the excitement down, like a spoonful of syrupy, banana-flavored antibiotics.

Now, I guess I need to explain the miraculous something that had happened earlier in the day. I had been cooped up in school, hands cradling my sleepy head, listening to Mr Warthrop explain The Water Cycle, when a stirring beside me from Katie Prichard and Isabelle Basingstoke attracted my attention. Both their heads had turned toward the window and they were now staring fixedly outside. When I followed their gaze I was immediately struck by a feeling that I can only explain as the inner turmoil of silenced yelp. My stomach bubbled joyfully and I could almost feel my pupils dilating, swelling like cotton, to take in the entirety of the scene. On the other side of the dusty-grey windows was a magical world of whirling whiteness. Snow was falling so thick and heavy that it had already carpeted the playground and the “nature trail” in an immaculate, even spread. More heads began to turn, and a low mummer started to rise. I knew that by break time we would be in a state of collective hysteria, quite literally breaking through the classroom door to be unleashed upon the world. I could not feel sorry for the immaculate snow, waiting so peacefully beyond the confines of the scrap-book walled classroom. It wanted us to come and play with it, to wreak un-self-conscious havoc, to set it free from natural order and stain the blank canvas with our tiny footprints.

When the time came, and Mr Warthrop dismissed the half-standing troop before him, we burst outdoors into the Narnia of our dreams. We stamped our feet and pressed our footprints deep into the luminous floss. By the time school was out, we had completed the second miracle: we had transformed the clean sheet of blankness outside the window into the black, slushy aftermath of uninhibited fun. Chunks of mud and grass attached themselves to snowballs and coated our snowmen like a wild fur. My wet toes were numb inside my shoes, my fingers burning and my face flushed with cold. My trouser legs were wet and clumps of ice hung in my hair. As my classmates and I flooded through the gates with our parents, we breathed the collective sigh of a job well done. It had been a successful day.

Home was warm and my skin tingled. My mother had nurtured the fire to an invitational level, and while it danced in oranges and blacks I could hear it expel a satisfied ‘ahhh’ as it eased into a steady flow. But a child’s work is never done. The playground may have been a corrupted space by this time in the afternoon, but the back garden – my back garden – was completely intact. It was my own, private world and it had waited for me all day. I yelped when I saw it, bouncing from foot to foot and pleading with my mother to hold dinner off for later and let me straight at it. As I bounded out the back door, knowing that time was short, I couldn’t help but pause on the final step and admire the glow.

That perfect image of even, bright whiteness was with me as I stood out there once again, in my pyjamas, in the darkness, in secret. I recalled the afternoon’s exertion, starting at one of the garden’s fluffy sheet and rolling it up, rolling, rolling, rolling until my fingers were blistered beneath my gloves. Then to another corner, rolling again, picking up clumps of mud and stray hairs of grass, tweezering them out with my frozen pincers, until I was left with a ball of snow the size of a bicycle wheel. Up went the smaller ball onto the larger, my red face puffing for air as I lifted it, and suddenly, the first semblance of life appeared. A body, good and fat, ready to become my best friend.

When the darkness came and I was forced inside, I sat on the sill of my bedroom window, inside the curtains with the heat of the radiator below, and stared at my snow man. His bottle cap eyes stared back, glistening with sentiment unsaid, as he waved up at me with arms made from twigs and hands, real hands, wearing my gloves. The snow stuffed inside them had turned to ice by now, but I could still see the shape of his fingers, the curve of his thumb and the fleshy pouch that was shaped like a chicken leg. They were my hands, inside those gloves, forever waving. I pressed my face against the window and stayed there until I heard the creak of the sixth step and my mother’s voice, calling for me to brush my teeth.

When I came back, the snow man was gone. No face stared up at me, no arms, no hands waving. Just a muddy mound in the darkening garden, footprints across it like the afternoon playground. My eyes felt spicy with tears. I wanted vengeance, I wanted justice, but mostly, I wanted my snow man. I wanted to see him waving up at me, just long enough to wave back a goodbye.
It was here that I first knew loss, at seven years old, standing in my Rainbow Brite pyjamas with a trembling lip and red eyes. It was this moment that separated the world for me into creation and destruction. Every day afterwards, I would see the people around me fall into one sphere or the other. I would mourn again, and continue to feel loss throughout the years of my life. But I would always remember that hands could create hands in the snow.

That night, I chose not to lay out my welcome mat to death. Instead, I vowed to fight it, to plot against it, to sneak into the darkness and defy its awful grin with a grin of my own.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Pre-Screening Prep Boosts Watchmen Experience

Originally posted on Neon

With a line sweeping around the building into the depths of an unusually cold Los Angeles evening, the Vista Theater on Sunset Boulevard was one of many across the nation experiencing Friday-night frenzy for "Watchmen". After all, when was the last time bona fide geeks were nourished by a decent superhero movie? Not since "The Dark Knight" in July 2008. It has been a long winter for followers of the comic book kingdom. Hence, opening weekend for "Watchmen" racked up a cool $55 million in nerd money. Although the figure was lower than projections, wire reports said that sales of the comic book are bolstering profits. More than a million copies have sold since the debut of the "Watchmen" movie trailer, and sales are said to have spiked since opening night.

The movie's evangelical abilities prove that there are two types of people who watched "Watchmen": the nerds and the others. The former, having studied the graphic novel and understood its worth in the canon, are more likely to have consumed the movie with scholarly interest. The latter, only able to watch it superficially, are bringing home bad reviews. Out of the loop, clouded by confusion, many of these movie-goers, who expected another 300, are seeking to bridge entry into this world by picking up "Watchmen" at their local bookstore.

And their studying will pay off. There is nothing better than watching a book-based movie as a scholar among scholars. You will know this if you have ever been to a midnight screening of a Harry Potter movie and watched the school-uniformed masses discussing the imperious curse in the aisles.

At the Vista on opening night of "Watchmen," novel character Rorschach himself was standing at the door ripping tickets, with his trademark ink-splotch mask and dirty fedora hat. The theater was full to the brim and more, but wanting to accommodate all the die-hard enthusiasts who waited in line smoking weed and chomping hot dogs, Vista officials unpacked folding chairs and lined them in the aisles for straddlers.

I studied "Watchmen," one of Time magazine's 100 best novels (yes, novels) with a level of fascination I hadn't felt since the Harry Potter phenomenon or Frank Herbert's "Dune" series. Watchmen, which many, including myself, mistakenly refer to as a comic book, is a graphic novel set in an alternate 1985.

According to, "theme in graphic novels, which are usually about 60-120 pages in length, tends to be more mature than in many comic books." "Watchmen" is no exception. Richard Nixon is in his third term as president, and the world stands on the brink of nuclear war. The story follows a group of retired superheroes who were once active vigilantes before they were forced out of commission by "The Keene Act," a national law passed in 1977 that outlawed "costumed adventuring."

Unlike the primary-colored superheroes of traditional lore, these characters are neurotic and grimy. Morally ambiguous, sexually deviant, emotionally and mentally plagued by subconscious terrors, each "superhero" is more human, and more messed-up, than the usual suspects. Superman may have isolation issues, Batman may be teetering on the edge of amorality, but Rorschach, one of the few watchmen who retained his vigilante ways despite the Keene Act, is completely psychotic.

The Comedian, played to perfection by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who was widely seen in "P.S. I Love You," is downright blood-thirsty and full of aggression and apathy toward the human race. Despite being the nuisances of the "hoods" (aka superheroes) in the graphic novel, both Rorschach and The Comedian shine in the movie, lifting energetic applause from the audience at the Vista.

Rorschach's defining line comes after a violent clash with another inmate during his prison stay. "You people don't understand," he announces to the convict congregation, many of whom he, himself, had landed there, "I'm not locked in here with you, you're locked in here with me!" The Vista erupted with applause and laughter at this point and a renewed respect for Rorschach's character swept the theater.

I was impressed by how closely the movie adhered to the dialogue of its original form. The neatness of the narrative flow was also admirable, especially considering the disjointedness of the graphic novel. The action scenes, deemed "un-Watchmen-like" by many critics because of their tendency toward the supernatural rather than the realistic, were as dynamic and beautiful as a Quentin Tarantino production.

Some of the casting choices, however, weren't as vibrant as I had hoped. Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter (aka Miss Jupiter or Silk Spectre II) was disappointing. Akerman lacked the personality required to pull off Jupiter's energy and strength, rendering her character more annoying than feisty. The sexual chemistry between Jupiter and her love interest, Nite Owl II (played by Patrick Wilson), was also non-existent. The sex scene was extremely graphic, void of electricity, and long and awkward, like that of a bad porno movie.

Matthew Goode was a poor choice for the character of Adrian Veidt (aka Mr. Metropolis). He seemed too puny and mean to achieve a believable incarnation of the novel's most traditional-seeming superhero. I always imagined Mr. Metropolis a balanced character, whose likeability was just as high as his tendency to irritate. But Goode's version was unlikable from the outset; his character's many redeeming qualities completely disappeared. Instead, what appeared on screen was a cliché, British-accented nemesis--minus the moustache.

I can imagine that seeing "Watchmen" as an "other," without having first experienced its original form, would be a disappointing experience. After all, this superhero movie isn't even a superhero movie. It isn't an action movie either. It's not a love story or a redemption drama. Its "explosive ending" isn't really explosive at all, at least not in the way that stories about good versus evil tend to climax. But this isn't a story about good versus evil. The lines are less definitive, and the world is grey. Whatever you see in "Watchmen" depends on what you seek to see, how you interpret the words and what you image on its pages. This movie is just one vision, one interpretation. That's all it can be as a movie. If you don't like it, read the book, and see something different.