Christopher Farnsworth's Blog, page 16

October 12, 2010

There are days I believe we're going to make it as a species. When I think maybe — just maybe — we can resist the parts of ourselves that are shallow and vicious and hideous.

And then the Internet serves up this headline:

"Photos Reveal Abused Toddler Duct-Taped To Wall By Mom."

The story is about Jayla Hamm, a mother who thought it would be funny to tape her child to the wall with the help of her boyfriend:

High on drugs, Hamm held the boy in place while Corde taped his body to the wall of their Beatrice, Neb., home using bright-green duct tape, authorities said.

In some of the photographs, the boy, dressed in a red onesie, is seen hunched over, unable to escape, his wrists firmly taped to the wall behind his back and above his shoulders.

One photograph shows a smiling Hamm posing with her son, whose fingers have been wrapped in a thick shell of tape. In another, the boy's sippy cup is taped to a wall just beyond his reach, and he's crying as he struggles to grab the cup.

The happy ending to this story? Ms. Hamm gets to retain custody of her son.

You'd think that would be the worst humanity has to offer on any given day. Nope.

The family of a 7-year-old Trenton, Mich. girl who is battling a terminal illness has had to take on a very different battle: taunts about the child's condition from their neighbors.

Kathleen Edward is in the late stages of Huntington's disease, a genetic degenerative brain disorder, according to media reports. Her mother, Laura Edward, died of Huntington's last year.

Because of what the Edward family said was a longstanding feud with their neighbors, Jennifer and Scott Petkov, Jennifer Petkov posted images on Facebook of Laura in the arms of the Grim Reaper and Kathleen above a set of crossbones. Neighbors also say the Petkovs built a coffin, put it on their truck and drove past the Edward home, honking the horn.

When asked by a reporter from Detroit television station WJBK why she posted the photos, Jennifer Petkov said it was for "personal satisfaction" and because it upset the child's grandmother.

Seriously, you have to see the defiance and pride on Ms. Petkov's face when she talks about this:

Now that it looks like there might be some consequences for being moral fungus, the Petkovs have apologized.

"My husband is a good person and I hope he doesn't lose his job. I hope our family doesn't lose his job. I'm the bad person," Jennifer Petkov said Friday. "I feel horrible for what I've said and done. That little girl shouldn't have had to lose her mom like that and she shouldn't have to lose her life either. I just hope she didn't see those pictures."

However sincere Ms. Petkov is, I can't help thinking one way to make sure the little girl didn't see the pictures would be not to make or post them in the first place.

Back in college, despite my best efforts to remain in a tequila-infused coma, I learned about "guilt-based" cultures vs. "shame-based" cultures. According to this idea, a culture parcels out disapproval either by making you feel bad about what you've done — guilt — or by having other people look down on you for what you've done — shame. The U.S., due to its heavy Puritan base with its light topping of Freudian theory, is a guilt-based culture. People here are conditioned by societal and cultural norms to feel bad about the things they've done that fall outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior. This is an internal check on what's considered, by the culture, to be wrong. Japan, on the other hand, is a shame-based culture. People there are conditioned to feel bad when they are caught doing something bad — the disapproval comes from the larger society, not from within.

It occurred to me that America, with its large, mobile population, requires a guilt-based culture to enforce cultural norms. Shame is hard to load onto people who, for large chunks of our history, have lived in relatively isolated areas, and who change locations repeatedly, leaving old transgressions — and the people who remember them — in the last town.

But over the past few decades, guilt has lost a great deal of power as a motivator in the U.S. People just don't feel as bad about themselves as they used to. Case in point: there was probably a time in American history when someone who dressed as a member of the Nazi SS would try to hide that fact, rather than pose for photos. Likewise, someone under indictment for stealing government funds would probably not have the brass balls to ask for his severance pay. Or another politician using a federal indictment as a springboard to reality TV.

The word for this is shameless, because people like this literally cannot be shamed. It takes a culture that agrees on what is unacceptable behavior. We don't have that near-universal consensus in our society. Hell, there are even people who will stand up and applaud a child molester.

It takes a substantial effort to draw condemnation in a country as fractured as ours. But at least now we know where people are willing to draw the line. This is how far off the charts you have to go to draw public shame these days.

So congratulations, Ms. Petkov and Ms. Hamm. You have forfeited the human race.


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Published on October 12, 2010 09:24 • 97 views

October 6, 2010

Just in case you needed a reminder, Randy Michaels, Sam Zell's hand-picked guy to lead the Tribune, is pretty much just as big a douche as he seems. David Carr reports:

The company is now frozen in what seems to be an endless effort to emerge from bankruptcy. (The case entered mediation in September after negotiations failed, and a new agreement between two primary lenders was recently announced.) But even as the company foundered, the tight circle of executives, many with longtime ties to Mr. Michaels, received tens of millions of dollars in bonuses.

Tribune's board responded by saying Michaels has its full confidence. Then again, this is the Tribune Co. that defines "innovation" as putting a company into massive debt and using the employee's own stock plan to do it. Oh, and taxpayers helped out, too:

Mr. Zell's first innovation was the deal itself. He used debt in combination with an employee stock ownership plan, called an ESOP, to buy the company, while contributing only $315 million of his own money. Under the plan, the company's discretionary matching contributions to the 401(k) retirement plan for nonunionized Tribune employees were diverted into an ownership stake. The structure of the deal allowed the Tribune to become an S corporation, which pays no federal taxes, making taxpayers essentially silent partners in the deal.

As bad as things have been for the industry, Carr shows that Zell and Michaels have managed to make it all worse for the Tribune and the LA Times. It's really painful to watch. I used to buy the Sunday edition of the Times even when I didn't live here. Now it's like a shambling, necrotic version of its former self: a zombie newspaper.

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Published on October 06, 2010 10:12 • 19 views

October 5, 2010

Beau Smith is running "Wynonna Earp Week" over at First Comics News to announce his original graphic novel, Wynonna Earp: The Yeti Wars from IDW Publishing.

If you don't already know Beau, he's been writing comics since forever, as well as marketing those books to the wider world out there. He's the guy who made Guy Gardner — a second-string Green Lantern with a bowl cut — into an actual badass member of the DC Universe, among many other things.

His upcoming book is about Wynonna Earp, a descendant of the famous lawman who handles weird and paranormal crimes for the Black Badge division of the U.S. Marshal's Service. If I had to use the bad Hollywood math description, I'd say it was "X-Files" meets "Justified." But that doesn't really do it justice. Beau was kind enough to forward me the script, and let me sum it up this way: Yetis, explosions, massive ordnance, immortals, vampires, mad scientists, more explosions, hot chicks, cold beer, and a crack squad of Bigfoots. Bigfeet. Whatever.

If that's not your particular brand of vodka, well, we probably don't have much else to discuss.

As part of the ongoing launch, Beau has a short introductory piece about each part of the Wynonna Earp universe. Today's features Smitty, the gunsmith and veteran (read: old) marshal who works with Wynonna. Any resemblance to Beau himself is purely coincidental, I'm sure.

Wynonna Earp: The Yeti Wars hits stands in December. (The Diamond Comics Distribution Order Number is OCT100439.)

Oh, and it will include an introduction by me, unless someone in power comes to their senses before publication.

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Published on October 05, 2010 13:12 • 25 views

October 4, 2010

Book Chick City in the UK was nice enough to ask me to do a guest post for its Halloween month-long celebration. You can see it here, or you can take a look at the version with links below. If you're at all interested in what warped me as a child, this is everything you could want to know.

I never liked vampires as a kid. Still don't, even though telling stories about them now pays my mortgage. Vampires, you see, are frightening. They're not tortured souls, they're no

t romantic, and they're certainly not cute. They are fang-faced, blood-drinking monsters.

So, despite my antipathy toward vampires, I made it a practice to learn everything I could about them. It's a quest that continues today, and I'm willing to share what I know with you.

Be warned: these vampires don't sparkle. You turn your back on them for a minute, you're lunch. Good luck.

10. The Great Skull Island Vampire, from the Scooby Doo Show (1977)

Laugh all you want, but

this guy was the source of the first nightmare I can remember, and his influence sparked my lifelong fear and fascination with vampires.

Dog detective Scooby and his hapless human friends are at yet another haunted location, where they're enlisted to help their friend Lisa break the family curse that threatens to turn her into a vampire. (Seriously, Scooby and the gang got invited to the worst parties.)

I never really bought Velma's rational, scientific explanation that proved the vampire was actually sleazy Uncle Leon. It didn't matter that he was the only other cast member, and therefore the only reasonable suspect. Even at six years old, I knew the vampire was still out there, waiting in the dark.

9. Marvel Comics' version of Dracula, from Tomb of Dracula. (1972-1979)

The Seventies were a great time for horror, and comic book companies raced to cash in on the resurrected interest in the undead. The best effort was Marvel Comics' Tomb of Dracula, a book which had the unenviable task of making the Lord of the Vampires sympathetic enough to keep little snots like me interested, but not so sympathetic that we wouldn't cheer for the heroes trying to stake him through the heart.

Writer Marv Wolfman (a comics legend who also has one of the best names any author could ask for) managed to pull off this trick by consistently putting Dracula up against even greater evils, like, say, Satan. One panel that's still vivid in my memory is Dracula actually holding a cross, hands burning, as he defends children who were kind to him against a mindless group of zombie-like vampires.  Sure, he was protecting himself as well, having lost his vampiric powers, but this might have been the first time I had the spark of an idea that a vampire could do good instead of evil.

Most of the time, however, Dracula was a complete bastard. And though I would have sworn otherwise at the time, I found myself rooting for him.

8. The vampire teenagers of The Lost Boys (1987)

7. The redneck vampires of Near Dark (1987)

Vampires fell out of favor for a while, dispelled by the bright shiny rays of Ronald Reagan's Morning in America. Despite movies like The Hunger (1983), vampires became something of a joke, with Love at First Bite (1979), Once Bitten (1985) Transylvania 6-5000 (1985), and, to an extent, Fright Night (1985) playing the vampire mythos for laughs.

The Lost Boys and Near Dark brought the screams back. The Lost Boys were a slick, hair-gelled, leather-jacketed clique welcoming the new kid in town. The only downside to becoming one of the cool kids – losing your humanity and trying to feed on your annoying kid brother. On the plus side, you got to sleep with Jami Gertz, who was sort of the apotheosis of Eighties Hot Girl.

Near Dark, on the other hand, was truly frightening. Long before she won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow directed a story about a traveling clan of redneck bloodsuckers who could turn a bar full of shit-kickers into snack-packs in a matter of minutes. Atmospheric, moody and tense, there was no winking or laughing at vampire tropes here. Near Dark, unlike The Lost Boys, forced audiences to face the horror without turning away to one-liners or irony.

But both movies made it clear: fangs were for tearing out throats – not gentle love-bites and definitely not for giggles.

6. Blacula, from Blacula (1972)

There's not a lot to say about Blacula, except he's a hybrid of Dracula and Shaft. If you can't see how badass that is, I don't think there's anything I can say to make it clearer.

5. Angel, from "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" (1997)

There have been many, many attempts to make a vampire a good guy, but only Joss Whedon really captured the torment that would have to be involved in this dichotomy.  Vampires are, by their nature, evil. They take joy in the pain of others, and willfully cause suffering to survive. Angel, on the other hand, was cursed with a human soul after chomping the wrong neck, and a couple centuries' worth of good times became a massive, crushing load of guilt.

While his solo series had its ups and downs, it became more sophisticated than Buffy in how it faced the nature of evil. Angel never got to take a vacation, and there was no happy ending. He simply fought the darkness all the time. It might have been a losing battle, but it was the only one worth fighting.

4. Joe Pitt, from the Joe Pitt Casebooks by Charlie Huston (2005-2009)

Joe Pitt is not a teen dream by any stretch of the imagination. Turned as a punk kid in the Seventies, Pitt has tried to work within vampire society in the confines of New York, but just cannot handle authority. As a result, he's beaten, stabbed, shot, starved, threatened, broken, and banished to the sewers. Through it all, he survives. He has the instincts of a cockroach, and as low as his enemies go, he can always sink lower.

And yet, he's actually one of the few fictional vampires whose moral code is simple, honest and believable. He's fiercely loyal to the woman he loves, and he's willing to kill anyone who'd threaten her. Actually, he's willing to kill everyone, just in case they might threaten her.

3. Hammer Horror's Dracula, as played by Christopher Lee (1958)

I was lucky enough to grow up in a town with an independent TV station. Before it became a Fox affiliate, it had hours and hours of time to fill. This meant every October was stuffed with cheap horror flicks in a 31-day Halloween marathon. And that's how I saw almost all the Hammer Horror movies of Dracula before I was 13. As much as I appreciate Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula, Christopher Lee will always be the only true count for me. Seriously, the guy was simply terrifying, and seemingly unstoppable. He "died" in epic battle with Van Helsing – much better than even Stoker's original ending, he said blasphemously – but returned for the inevitable sequels.

2. The Night Flier, from the short story by Stephen King (1988)

Stephen King is a great writer. I honestly think The Stand is a contender as one of the great American novels. Give him pages and time, and he can create entire worlds for a reader. But his short works, like The Night Flier, are like hits off a crack pipe – addictive and lethal. The title character is a murderer who flies from one small airport to the next in a black Cessna, killing everyone he finds. He's tracked by a reporter who discovers the killer is an actual vampire, the rear of his aircraft filled with soil and turned into a mobile coffin. King takes the old, familiar vampire lore – the stuff that could seem faintly ridiculous – and makes it bladder-voiding scary. He'd do the same with Kurt Barlow in 'Salem's Lot, but to me, the Night Flier was always the creature of purer menace.

1. Count Orlok, from Nosferatu (1922)

It shouldn't be as scary as it is. It's a silent film, made with primitive filming techniques and special effects. It's not even a licensed production of Dracula, for Christ's sake. Bram Stoker's widow had to sue the filmmakers for ripping off her husband's work. But it is proceeds with the sleepwalking logic of a bad dream that just won't end. Max Schreck is possibly the only actor to ever be accused in urban legends of being an actual vampire based on his performance. While the movie is still a product of its age, any moment that Schreck is onscreen is eerie, disturbing, and filled with dread. Nosferatu shows us what a real vampire looks like, and its DNA is encoded in the blood of every worthy contender to the title since.

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Published on October 04, 2010 09:03 • 77 views

October 1, 2010

Lord knows I'm no fan of Meg Whitman, but the whole scandal about her employing an illegal immigrant for nine years is another sign of how stupid and broken our politics have become. If hiring an undocumented worker — knowingly or otherwise — disqualifies you from public life in California, then the only people left to do government work will be the guys standing around at Home Depot.

I admit, it's sort of funny to watch Whitman's campaign impaled on the same spike of "blame-the-brown-people" tactics that she's been using in this election. (Her web site, apparently maintained by the only people in the state who don't watch the news, still includes gems like, "We are never going to solve the problem of illegal immigration as long as there is strong demand for undocumented labor.") But that still doesn't mean any of this is right. And for those who would sputter, "I never hired any illegal immigrants," I just say, pull the other one, it plays "Jingle Bells."

The fact is, we all get something from illegal migrant labor, whether it's tomatoes at the grocery store, or lawn care, or a nanny/housekeeper at $12 an hour. (Spanish lessons for your toddler included.) On a bigger scale, Employers love illegal immigration because it keeps wages low, especially in some of the hardest, most dangerous jobs we have to offer. (Given a choice between typing all day for no money and picking produce in the hot sun for $10 an hour, I know what I'd choose. And apparently, I'm not alone. If you feel otherwise, conveniently, here is a place you can go to take a migrant laborer's job.)

There's more than a little irony that Meg, who talks so tough about turning in undocumented laborers, couldn't bring herself to do the same thing. Other people are calling her a hypocrite, but that's the one redeeming thing I see in this whole mess. I'd like to think it's because she realized she was dealing with a human being, and not a campaign issue. But then the cynical part of me says that she probably realized if she did have her housekeeper deported, there would be no way to hide that from the press.

Either way, she chose not to have someone she called "part of her extended family" jailed and sent back over the border. That was probably the right thing to do, even though both she and her housekeeper were breaking the law. It's easy to talk about deportation when it's just the faceless hordes. It's something else entirely when you have to look at the person.

Living here, you cannot untangle yourself from the economic benefits (and drawbacks) of illegal labor. It's simply too big a force in the market, and as free marketeers like Meg love to remind us, the market controls everything. The people who have to fix this are the ones with their hands on the giant levers of power. Until they do, I find it hard to blame the people who come here in response to our blazing neon "Help Wanted" signs or the people who are trying to make ends meet with every bargain they can find.

There are good reasons why Whitman shouldn't be governor, not least of which is trying to solve the problems of cheap labor with cheap talk. Hiring someone who turned out to be an illegal immigrant, however, doesn't even make my list.

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Published on October 01, 2010 09:25 • 27 views

A British woman takes a picture of what could be an angel, a "naked Buzz Lightyear," or possibly a bee.

My vote is for Mothman. But then again, my vote is almost always for Mothman.

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Published on October 01, 2010 08:17 • 18 views

September 29, 2010

First, as I'm walking to work, I see a banner headline on the LA Times about a gun battle at NBC's studios in Burbank. I stop and do a double-take. It's actually a full-page, wraparound ad, done in the same style as the Times's actual front page. Not sure what they were advertising — I assume it was a new Fall show, or maybe an elaborate joke about the devastation wrought by Jeff Zucker in his tenure at NBC — but I got one clear message from it. Any credibility the LA Times owned is now puddled around its ankles, like a clown dropping its pants for cheap laughs. (The fake story was especially moronic in light of the actual gun battle that took place in LA yesterday.)

Then CNN reveals that James O'Keefe — the guy who made the heavily edited videos of himself as a fake pimptried to "seduce" and videotape one of its reporters while she was doing a documentary on the new conservative activism. One of O'Keefe's confederates apparently got an attack of conscience about the Joe Francis method of journalism and tipped CNN. I don't feel that CNN is off-limits, by any means.  They're one of the outlets that helped create O'Keefe by turning him into a flavor-of-the-month. But what O'Keefe planned was pure ugly — A blindfold? Fuzzy handcuffs? — and the fact that this little snot has a national platform is a sign that the gangrene infecting our media has gone too far; it's time to amputate.

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Published on September 29, 2010 09:33 • 23 views

September 28, 2010

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Published on September 28, 2010 09:09 • 29 views

September 27, 2010

1. It's great when some people reveal themselves as huge douchebags. For one thing, it saves the rest of us the work of finding out on our own. Yes, I'm looking at you, guy who's proudly slashing salaries at America's public libraries:

"A lot of libraries are atrocious," Mr. Pezzanite said. "Their policies are all about job security. That's why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We're not...

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Published on September 27, 2010 17:03 • 38 views