Friday, May 27, 2011

Remembering James

Cheer up, honey, I hope you can
There is something wrong with me
My mind is filled with silvery stars
-- Wilco, Radio Cure

The first time I saw James, he was sitting in the UNR Sagebrush offices. He was a bashful 19 year old who, when he stood, was tall enough to block out the sunlight spilling from the front door. This was in fall 1992 when I started going to UNR full-time after years of bouncing around with part-time classes. He was the production editor for the student paper and thanks to his droll wit, amicable nature and deep laugh, we quickly became friends.

One day I breezed into the Sagebrush to drop off my latest story on floppy disk. James grabbed me and started dancing around the room with me.

“James, what are you doing? I gotta get to class.”

Wiggling his eyebrows he said, “I’ve never danced with a lady wearing black leather gloves before.” Squeezed up against his 6-foot-6 frame, he waltzed me around the tiny photographer’s room until we knocked some stuff over. I was actually wearing my sweaty cycling gloves but in James’ world, ladies wear black leather gloves. That’s just how he was.


A lively assortment of computer geeks, cartoonists and budding reporters orbited around James. He had a small battalion of friends from Las Vegas who all wore the same uniform: khaki shorts, white t-shirts and mirror sunglasses. They all listened to the Violent Femmes, surely a mark of refined taste.

In fall of 1993, when I was 26 and rolling into my second year at UNR, my mother died. Death is rarely a head-on collision. It nearly always side swipes us emotionally.

I was in a daze after her death. James and I lived in the same crappy apartment complex. I went to his door at seven in the morning and he stood there, in his t-shirt and underwear, blinking out at me. I told him what had happened, about the terse phone call from my brother. James knew I had no car. I’d sold my '61 Chevy pickup to pay for rent while I was in school.

That afternoon, James dropped everything and drove me up I-80 to Nevada City, Calif., where my Dad lived. From there I flew with my Dad and brother to Washington to sort out my Mom’s miniscule estate.

James gave me a hug when he left me at my Dad’s. The three months after her death were full of insomnia, extremely poor decision making and a black hole of grief. And I was furious. That’s another thing about death. It makes you furious. You hunt around for a culprit, a reason why this person you’ve lost is gone. You want to arrange a search party or maybe a witch hunt, light torches and venture out into that implacable darkness to look for the love that’s gone missing.

About six months later, James, Tami Hilton and I went for a hike in the foothills above Reno. We made jokes about the ridiculously steep trail and the desperate need Nevadans have to walk toward anything that looks green and shady on a hot day. Bounding ahead, I kept stopping every few feet and yelling “Would you just LOOK at that view!” I’d dramatically swing my arms out and mockingly tap him or Tami in the face. He’d laugh and imitate me. James and Tami joked about how some sand dunes outside of Las Vegas were shadier than others. When you’re in your twenties it’s easy to laugh at the austerity of the desert.

Around this time, some of those especially bad decisions I’d made in grief caught up with me and led to a nadir of depression by July 1994. I don’t know if I got as low as James did, but I was pretty down. In his fumbling, distracted way James tried to draw me out of it and he patiently listened to my rambling phone calls when none of my other friends would.

Years later, in 2007 he shocked me in an email by saying: I wish I had been a better friend to you back then.

In December of 1994, the facilitators who ran that fourth-rate university glommed onto the fact that James hadn’t been attending class. They gave him the boot which was a good thing. He went back to Las Vegas, got on with an internet start up and rode the Dotcom Boom east to Massachusetts to work for Akamai. This enabled his life-long dream of opening a comic book store.

Between 1996 and 2004, I lost track of James. I caught up with him when I moved to Seattle and discovered a new form of procrastination called social networking. We exchanged emails, cute pet pictures and swapped blog posts. He told me about Massachusetts and I told him about Seattle. He sent me pictures of his son, who was the center of his universe. We railed together on our blogs about the fearful stupidity of Conservative America.

It’s unfair to James to say he was a saint or faultless. Even in college, he had mood swings and could fly into cynical, angry depressions that would leave his fellow Sagebrushers ducking for cover. In his defense, he was struggling with serious obesity and poor health. At times, when you’re overweight you’re the circus freak and I’m sure James felt compelled to play the Jolly Fat Man even when he didn’t want to. And there was his moodiness, which was years away from being diagnosed.


Some people who knew James may choose to mull over the details of his death. Again, the compulsive need to mount up a search party, light torches and go into the endless dark to look for a culprit or a reason for our sudden unifying grief. Some people may choose to blame James’ spiritual beliefs or the lack of them. We seek cool reason where it does not live. With death we still want to categorize people, use highly subjective religious dogma to induce answers. We all want to be saved yet we know the truth. All stories, even in comic books, move deathward.

I have lost interest in the details of James’ death. I choose to remember him on that hot, dusty day when he, Tami and I were hiking in the Sierra Nevada foothills with Reno stretched out east of us in the afternoon light. Ahead of us there was a stand of aspen shading Hunter Creek and Tami was holding our water bottles. James was wiping sweat from his brow, patiently waiting for me to get the water filter going so we could drink from that stream.

Hey James, would you just look at that view.

-- Mel Murphy
Seattle, Washington
May 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Agony and Ecstasy of Maoism Meeting Mindless Consumerism

I just saw Mike Daisey's funny/sad opus, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

Seattle Repertory Theater had a sardines-packed-in-a-can vibe. My seat was smack dab up against one of the theater tech's work stations. But for over two hours, Daisey was a dynamo of brilliance on stage.

Most people by now know the gist of the play -- Daisey, a life-long computer geek and die-hard Apple fan -- recounts his ups and downs worshiping at the altar of Mac and his intrepid visit to the monolithic FoxConn factory in Shenzhen, China where workers literally kill themselves making iPods and iPhones for consumers in North America and the rest of the western world.

With stand-up comedic humor and a keen perspective on social trends, Daisey verbally bounces back and forth in time between his earliest experiences with computers to the horrific revelation of what life is like for the modern factory worker in China. He recounts interviews with 14-year-old workers who have crippling arthritis in their hands from thousands of hours spent polishing iPods. People who make iPads literally don't have the dexterity to use them, and anyway, no one in China can afford to buy one.

This play got me thinking about my Dad. In 1987, he was one of couple dozen US attorneys who traveled with then AG, Edwin Meese, to China for the Joint Session on Trade, Investment, and Economic Law. Supposedly they went under the auspices of helping then still mostly Communist China to "westernize" their court system. Although, maybe Meese just wanted to compare notes with Chinese censors?

Anyhoo, I don't know if it really worked. I mean, Tiananmen Square happened just a few years later and today people are still in prison in China for protesting. The Chinese government also imprisons practitioners of Falun Gong and harvests their organs (when they're not encasing them in plastic so their remains can go on tour in the US). Also, being from the Tibet province in China really sucks. If you're Tibetan, just speaking your own language can get you thrown in prison.

My Dad made a point of recounting to me (I was 23) how ridiculously hard young Chinese people worked. He mentioned one young man who worked 10-hour shifts in a Beijing restaurant and then skipped off to his other job in the bowels of a factory some where. Then my Dad gave me the Critical Look. (Several years later I took a job as a wildland firefighter and worked 10 to 16-hour shifts fighting wildfires in insane conditions. I know, lazy me!)

My Dad was from the WWII generation. The Boot Strap Generation. The War Effort Generation. He exalted mindless labor above all else -- especially when someone else was laboring on his and my step-mother's behalf, like the hapless construction workers who built their second home for them.

It's easy to glorify and admire mythically tireless workers, especially when you're not the one running the chainsaw or, in the case of the FoxConn slaves, polishing the iPod.

Ironically, my Dad admired an ethos that was in direct opposition to the era he came from. American idealism and individuality have no place in Maosim where the worker is told he/she is exalted while simultaneously being exploited and worked to death by the State.

Daisey succinctly ties these two philosophies together in his play. China wanted to "modernize" and the US wanted dirt-cheap labor, devoid of real unions, to manufacture all the toys and gizmos Americans have been told endlessly that we are "entitled" to as free Capitalists so long as we can afford them. The mindless consumerism of the West has met the (faux) tireless Communist worker at the nadir of Orwellian dystopia in Shenzhen. It's the place where dreams of the future go to die.

Anti-suicide nets installed along the roof of one FoxConn building in China.