April 23, 2007

The Trench


I was born in the United States in a little town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains called “Golden” after the carrot that coaxed it into existence, I guess, way back when. There’s a sign that stretches over the main street of the downtown still that welcomes visitors. I grew up, for all intents and purposes, in Norman Rockwell’s America, Western-style: I shined shoes at the barber shop on the corner that was owned, and operated as it so happens, by the mayor of Golden at that time (Frank, was his name), and with the nickels I was paid, mostly to refrain from shining shoes, I suspect, I would go across the street to the 5 and 10 to buy Silly Putty and comic books. I didn’t speak a word of English until I was five or so, but it didn’t matter, and in truth, I don’t really remember not speaking English – but I do remember getting teased in Kindergarten, mercilessly.

I remember, too, being teased for not knowing the difference in pronouns – there’s no such thing in Chinese, right? – and I recall my classmates in the affluent upper-middle class neighborhood where I went to school, commenting that I looked like a Jap and why didn’t I go back to where I came from. First grade or so, it’s hard to look at that sort of thing philosophically. I don’t suggest that things were worse where I came from; in fact, I suggest that things were better. This is long about 1979.

When first reports started coming in about the shooting at VTech last week, one of the early reports on MSNBC proclaimed that the shooter was a Chinese national. Later, when it was revealed that the guy was South Korean, nobody bothered to make a correction. It didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

I stuttered – and badly – all through my early childhood. It led to a lot of time alone, unable to communicate, watching movies and television and reading the bookshelf of collector’s editions that my parents bought at some garage sale at some point somewhere along the line. In sixth grade, as part of commencement at my elementary school, a story that I’d written about my time in school was chosen to be read, by me, in front of the entire student body. My grandfather flew in from Taiwan to watch me deliver it – it was one of maybe three times that I saw him in his lifetime. I remember that he used to play cards with me. I think it was Crazy 8s.

The next day – hour – week – I stopped stuttering. I make a good portion of my living speaking now; I make the rest of it writing.

I think I stuttered because I had anxiety about my ability to communicate. I think that I didn’t end up a lot like Cho first, obviously, because I’m not insane – but also because I was able to make friends through soccer until I could make them through my ability to communicate. It’s tempting to say that everything happens for a reason because if you’re not dead, then it’s possible to justify everything. I want to paraphrase something from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, that every living being on this planet is a badass evolutionary killing machine.

Without forgiving a thing that Cho did, let me say that I was heavily in the therebutforthe camp for a while and it was sobering. Stephen King wrote something for the EW website about this mess – the suggestion buried in there seems to be that Cho happened because Cho didn’t have any talent.

I think that’s, all irony aside, really fucking fascinating. I think that it’s dead on.

David Halberstam died today. He was a helluva journalist and a damned graceful writer. His The Best and the Brightest is essential and mad-influential. His books on baseball ain’t bad, either. This is what he said last year at a conference about government criticism of journalists covering Iraq:

"The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on anybody who doesn't salute or play the game, and then one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around, and they've used up their credibility."

At the risk of too much solipsism, I substitute “war” for “film industry” and I think back on the reams of hate mail our review of Episode II generated at the time. Sometimes it’s better to be right than popular. The sad thing about film criticism in the United States is that in just a couple of decades of pinheads trying to make it as democratic a medium as film itself, it’s just about destroyed any chance there might be for actual film critics to make a living anymore. If any chucklehead with the ability to turn a cheerfully smug phrase can get a position at a major daily, why bother with the ones that make people angry? More, why hire your own when you can download wire? There are already only something like a dozen papers left in the United States that have homegrown book reviews – give it time and there’ll be five working film “critics” left making a traditional living in all of this great land of ours.

I can feel that stutter starting up again.


Ryan said...

I apologise for my ignorance and misunderstanding - what do you mean by therebutforthe camp?

A fellow psychologist here just gave a lecture about how the major factor in Cho's rage and subsequent actions - and indeed the rage of two teenage girls who just strangled another girl to death with stereo cable and buried her in their shared backyard - and two teenage girls who committed suicide after leaving a colour note "RIP STEPHANIE AND JODIE" on their MySpace - was loneliness, rejection and isolation. I'm very intrigued by that underlying thesis of Stephen King's article - ultimate failure, in being creative, and subsequently in socialising, in doing anything worthwhile. But as also mentioned, Cho's name is now going down in history - no one will ever forget this guy. What has been the subsequent media hysteria in the US? I've seen anger against violent media, against gun availability, against video games, against foreign students - how far and where else does this go?

Anonymous said...

there but for the grace of an outlet, go i.
my husband and i have been thinking a lot about Cho lately and how often we don't know what keeps us this side of that dark line.
first, of course, we're not insane. but the crucial second is definitely that we've found ways to excise our demons. of course, maybe it's just that because we are who we are, we have demons that can be excised.
anyway, just wanted to chime in and help out the above commentor. (i hope i have)
a great post, walter.

Benaiah said...

This is great stuff Walter.

I think that even wondering about "but for the grace of god there go I" (to answer Ryan's question) precludes you from actually going there. There is an extreme egoism necessary to think that your problems deserve violent answers, and even a second of wondering what other people think would prevent that. To quote from a DC comic book: "Contemplation of the philosopher's stone results in an automatic upgrade." Then again, dude was crazy.

I read his plays, and I don't think they obviously point to his eventual end. A lot of isolated kids blow off steam listening to death metal, playing violent video games or writing bloody poems. Only in retrospect is his play, Robert McBeef, shown to be a suicide note. It is about a man who is tormented by a aggressor and misunderstood by an authority figure until he hurts him "out of sheer desecrated hurt and anger." Crazy.

Benaiah said...

Oh, and I wouldn't have taken you for a baseball fan, Walter. I am a huge Dodger fan, though I can't really understand why- it feels absurd to care so much about something that is so monumentally unimportant. Maybe all of the best things in life are inexplicable.

Anonymous said...

I believe there are many, many socially isolated people not just in the US, but all over the world. Pinning Cho's actions on that alone isn't quite right, nor is the lack of creativity. I think it's the lack of passion. When you are not passionate about anything, you become dead inside. I say this because I have been rather socially isolated for the last few years myself, and I don't think I'm notably talented at anything as compared to many others, but my passion for things like movies and discussing them with others, or even just simple things like making stupid jokes with my family that only we understand and laughing at ourselves, keep the spark going, you know?

Alex Jackson said...

This is as good a time as any to mention this.

A few enterprising individuals have actually performed Richard McBeef on YouTube.

Dave Gibson said...

Despite having many of the interests and qualities included in the media-approved profile (loner, not good at sports, likes horror films) of the potential madman;
I was also blessed with a six-foot frame by grade eight—and sometimes I wonder if that’s all that kept me from being turned into an embittered victim by the end of High School—that, and not being nuts of course.

I was unnerved by how stage managed these sorts of “Big News” events have become; which is why I think the airing of the Cho video was a uniquely brave act from our usually timid corporate media ; forcing in some measure for the public to acknowledge the reality of the mundane, garden-variety sociopath behind the atrocities. This is a tad less comforting than the requisite images of the camera ready mourning and mawkish sentimentality which tend to follow from such events, creating the impression that gun violence primarily begets candle lit vigils and bad pop music rather than loads of corpses and shattered families. Guns may not kill people—but they sure make it a hell of a lot easier.

As for movies, does anyone else think that “Heathers” should reasonably be considered be one of the most prescient works of art of the 20th century? Lots of echoes this week—“Big Fun” indeed.

Cap said...

I don't want to hijack this into a thread about "What made Cho and all those others go batshit on their fellow man," especially since Walter's entry is so good and a contrast to this kind of reductionist conversation, but in response to Anon above, fulfillment, I think, is closer than passion. "Normal" people don't go postal because they have friends or family or books or movies or video games or sex or drugs or alcohol or whatever to give them something to do - things to look forward to, things to think about, things to dedicate themselves to to pass the time before they become inevitably dead. The distinction is that we're not always passionate about the things we do - 9-to-5 jobs and family disappointments tend to destroy the soul - but they occupy and drive and offer responsibility and sometimes hope, whereas our isolated apathetic misunderstanding and misunderstood Cho believed himself to have nothing. He believed himself to have no hope and was deeply jealous of the "rich hedonistic" idiots who seem to take up a dramatic amount of space on university campuses everywhere. Or, it just sounds like he didn't get laid enough, if at all. I too have bemoaned rich frat boys getting all the pussy they want while I miss out on having any kind of fulfilling relationship as the girls I'd have thought were worth a shit drink themselves to a stupor and prostitute themselves off to those same frat boys for attention. But there's plenty of other fulfillment in said sorry existence - as well as realisation and sentience and sanity - as not to gun down a school of people as a solution to my life. I think the entire point of the wonderful Finding Nemo says it best, as simple as it is. Family and empathy (maybe "love" also?) conquering hatred and fear and apathy.

I think the airing of the Cho video was a uniquely brave act from our usually timid corporate media

You're kidding, right? They've played that shit over and over like it was 9-11 again; Cho is a celebrity now, and most celebrities would kill to have that kind of press. The ballsy thing to do would have been to send everything straight to the authorities and be done with it. Instead, a great big fuck-off to common sense has created a lovely blend of hysteria in which the killer of 32 people can be seen sneering on TVs across the world, creating a much bigger monster. THIS is the face of an insane murderous lunatic - suddenly we have someone to hate, an icon to focus our hatred onto (and allowing us to scapegoat other similar icons, allowing for racial hatred and hatred of all other scapegoats) rather than acknowledging the bigger problems that has led to this - the "worst" campus shooting in US history (that there should be a "worst" should set off warning signs to anyone with common sense) - the problems with our God-blessed America, that isn't so perfect after all.

Screening this was a juvenille Michael-Bay-blockbuster move. Tune in now and see the biggest shooting murderer in US history! They'd have screened footage of victims being gunned down if they could have. Further, I can't imagine how the families of the deceased must feel with the mass media coverage of the person who took their loved one's life, nor how Cho's family must be dealing.

jer fairall said...

Walter's thoughts on Cho reminded me of
amazing piece, written just post-Columbine (yes, this is the correct link; it was, in fact, the unexpectedly poignant lead in to a review of an ABBA reissue). I was a quiet, bookish, largely friendless and slightly effeminate kid occasionally suspected of being autistic up until about high school, so the "therebutfore" argument resonates quite deeply with me. It shouldn't be even close to the end of the conversation, mind you, but certainly worth a pause.

Kenneth said...

I'm an Asian living in Virginia, I'm only a couple years older than that guy. Virginia Tech was just about an hour and a half away from my college. I didn't have any friends in high school, I got teased, I was small and skinny and nerdy.

And yet somehow, I don't feel the same way at all. I didn't think therebutforthe. I just wanted to beat the shit out of him and stuff him in a locker.

I'm sorry, but there are lots of lonely people in the world and they don't kill thirty random strangers. Concerned people tried to get this guy counseling, he wouldn't go. People tried to talk to him, he wouldn't even wave hi to them. I know it sucks to be lonely, and to be made fun of, I've been there, but this guy just wasn't fucking trying. And while hating fratboys and rich people is a fun hobby I've participated in several times, it's not much more evolved than hating Jews or women. My sympathy is very, very low.

Whether that guy was "insane" was arguable. He seemed to know who his victims were, what he was doing and why he was doing it. I'm not sure he could get an insanity plea across, but I'm neither a psychologist nor a lawyer.

Rick said...

I agree with what anonymous said about lack of passion being a driving force behind Cho's actions. If Cho could have interacted properly with other human beings, he could have compensated for his lack of passion and sense of purpose by doing what most other people do under those circumstances; get married and pump out a few kids. Creating a forced lifestyle and stringing yourself along would have been a good way to counteract feeling dead inside. Isn't that what everyone else does?

Kenneth said...

Note: Since I wrote my last post, I read a little more about the details of that guy's autism and maybe I do have a little sympathy for him. At the same time, though, I see very little of myself in him and am very thankful for it.

rachel said...

So Cho was socially inept, untalented, dispassionate, insane... what are these assholes' excuse? I don't want to imagine that these people would rather see their daughters die than imagine them having sex, but, what really, what are the options? ("What are the options" being the question asked, no doubt, by rape victims in Great Britain and South Carolina.)

In other news, George W. Bush received a Purple Heart the other day. I wonder where he'll keep it, if he'll take it out and stare at it in moments of distress, when he begins to feel something of what he's done.

Walter... you should listen to this. After these last two horrible weeks, it's probably the only thing that's kept me safely from brink.

rachel said...

THE brink.

Also, he should do well to never see the light of day again.

jer fairall said...

I enthusiastically second rachel's endorsement of Patrick Wolf's The Magic Position. Album of the Year? Quite possibly.

rachel said...


Rick said...

Anyone see The Office tonight? Andy becoming jealous of a high school kid was great.

Anyone have any other new music recommendations? Nothing has blown me away in a while. Though I did really like The Hold Steady's newest album. And Grizzly Bear has a very hypnotic, decent one out. But nothing ive listened to lately has taken me over, like the first few times I listened to Flood by They Might be Giants, or Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth. A lot of indie rock is creative these days, but to me a lot of it just doesn't feel as creative and original as it seems. I know Walter loves Bright Eyes, but I would take Leonard Cohen over him anyday. But I heard his new album is pretty good, how is it Walter?

rachel said...


Lupe Fiasco
The Pipettes
Love is All
Of Montreal
Paris Motel
Cold War Kids
Camera Obscura
Neko Case
The Go! Team (not to be confused with Ok, Go; these are not the treadmill guys)
The Rosebuds

rachel said...

Fuck, forgot Immaculate Machine.

Jefferson said...

Rick: Try Okkervil River.

I'm holding my three-week-old son, my first child, in my other arm arm as I type this one-handed, well after his bedtime. I don't want to apply blame to bad parenting, but I pray I can serve him better than Cho was served. Several years ago, Jeffrey Dahmer's father wrote a memoir of his family, trying to come to grips with his own role in what his son became. I don't ever want to be in his position.

If some screenwriter/producer team were to try to make Cho's story into a movie, they'd start an outline and get to the part where they ask, What's this guy's motivation? And then they'd be stuck, and the project would die.

That's how you know something is senseless: when not even Hollywood tropes apply

corym said...


If you like Bright Eyes and Leonard Cohen, I have one suggestion: M Ward.

M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward, M Ward.

Listen to "Right in the Head." Then listen to "Sad Sad Song." Then listen to "Chinese Translation."

If you aren't a fan after that, I don't know what to recommend for you.

Brendan said...

Nina Nastsia, On Leaving. Get it.

I'd guess that this isn't much of a Country / Old-Time / Blues or Parlor music crowd, but download Jolie Holland's song "Damn Shame", and see if you don't buy her whole album, or all of them.

When I lose faith or interest in modern music (often), I remember there are lodes of unsung treasure to be mined in the 78rpm past. Look up the Reverend Robert Wilkins or Sampson Pittman. Lots of the early Sun Records rockabilly pre-figures your 1960s garage band stuff that pre-figures the Indie rock of today. Good stuff to be unearthed there.

Grant-Lee Phillips's new CD is nice, if kind of breezy and thin for him in theme and arrangement. Very strong melodies. And his voice is amazing.

Walter, I enjoyed your review of Inland Empire, and I'm depressed I haven't seen it yet. It played 2 hours away in Columbia SC last weekend, but my car was broken down. The little art theater down the street is playing Black Book right now.

jer fairall said...

Okkervil River: yes!
The Go! Team: yes!!
Phoenix: yes!!!

Also currently in heavy rotation here:

Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
Bright Eyes, Cassadaga
Busdriver, RoadkillOvercoat
Sage Francis, Human The Death Dance (out May 15)
Emm Gryner, all of her albums (I'm seeing/interviewing her tonight)
LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Living with the Living
Scissor Sisters, Ta-Dah!
Laura Veirs, Saltbreaker
Voxtrot, s/t (out May 22)
Wheat, Every Day I Said a Prayer For Kathy and Made a One Inch Square (out May 22)

rachel said...

jer: I haven't heard Veirs' Saltbreaker yet, but I'm a big fan of Year of Meteors. Saw her open for Colin Meloy; just really charming, lovely work by her.

I've been thinking about how to describe Patrick Wolf's album for those who haven't heard it, I think this does it: imagine the depth and ambition of a Sufjan Stevens record, with the laid-back, assured vocals of Jens Lekman, back it up with the immaculate synthwork of the best Nordic bedroom artists (Sigur Ros, Magnet), then shake it up with the foot-stomping giddiness of I'm from Barcelona and Boy Least Likely To.


In other words, it's sort of the perfect record. That is, it incorporates all the best things of bands I already adore. It is shockingly pleasing, layered, handsome. Heaven.

Walter_Chaw said...

Indispensable stuff, guys, thanks Rachel for the list - will endeavor to catch up on all the bands you mention.

Haven't heard the new Bright Eyes -am thinking of catching him in town this Summer, but have to admit that the bloom has fallen off the rose a bit.

rachel said...

Yeah, I find it sort of bizarre that I have to troll so diligently for music I like. You'd think that as an unabashed lover of pop music, I'd be satisfied by the radio like someone into explosions can be satisfied bythe multiplex. Yet radio is a failure: the shit they play is so dirge-like, whereas the indie music blogs, which should be focused on shoe-gazing swamp, turn out to be the best resource for bands at all animate. It's like it's hip and cutting-edge to be listenable: I'll never get it.

Question for everyone: what's your favorite band of all time? I think I'd have to go with Sparks.

Rick said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I already enjoy The Pipettes, Of Montreal and Phoenix. I will check out all the others that were listed. I already checked out M.Ward on Myspace, he sounds great. Oh, and Of Montreal was on Conan the other day with a good performance. About every DJ on SUNY Albany radio has them in their rotation. And I forgot to mention, Yo La Tengo has a great and very diverse new album out, you guys should give that one a listen.

rachel said...

rick: I actually got to interview Of Montreal's lead guitarist Bryan Poole (aka The Late B.P. Helium) for our college radio. He seemed like a very sweet and interesting person. I just wish I'd been more capable in my duties; I had never done an on-air interview before and only had a day's notice to get my shite together. Also, the tech stuff kept bustin' up. Ah, well.

Mostly we discussed their process of preparing for the live shows; because the frontman, Kevin Barnes, tends to build each song on his own, the other musicians have to decide what to play out of that intricate puzzle (that is, there is no "guitar part" until Poole comes in and extracts one). Also about how they have a large frat fanbase that really enjoy the shows despite their glam/Space Oddity aspect. (Find on the intarweb the pictures of Barnes performing naked in glitter.)

jer: Just at a glance, your blog looks great, I'm looking forward to checking it out. Tell us how the Gryner interview went.

Also: what's your process of finding/vetting new music? I tend to scout music blogs for inspiring mp3s, then go to a show, THEN download/buy the album if the show went really well. It's funny, I know lots of people who either don't read any music blogs but go to tons of shows, or are the opposite. I can't imagine consistently skipping one of the steps, I just don't have the concentration to keep my interest up otherwise.