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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tragically Hip and other stuff

My copy of the Tragically Hip's new album, Now for Plan A, finally arrived in the mail today one week after it was released and over a week after I ordered it.  Yeah, I know, I could have downloaded it and been able to listen to it the day of its release, but I'm old-fashioned and wanted a physical copy of the album. I was willing to wait for the thrill of finding the package in my mailbox, ripping it open, and popping the CD in the disc player in my kitchen.

I get no thrill from downloading music, and in fact have had some horrible mishaps in which I've lost downloaded music into some electronic black hole, so I will probably be the last person on earth to continue buying CDs.

Once I have a chance to give it a proper listen with pen and paper in hand, I'll bore all of you with a little review in this blog.  I like what I heard when I played it earlier today, but it was more background noise as I was busy doing other things around the house.

Oh yeah, not only did I finish reading the Damien Echols book, but I finally finished the Dan Wakefield book I mentioned earlier. What a fun read that was. I'd characterize it more as a "guy book", as the two protagonists are young ex-GIs trying to navigate their way through sex, love, relationships, crazy conservative parents, and more sex. This is not to say women wouldn't enjoy the book, but I think men would certainly relate to it more--and some women may be turned off by these guys's absurd and naive attitudes towards women. (But keep in mind that this book takes place in 1954).


Damien Echols' Life after Death, and the West Memphis 3

I finished reading a great book called Life after Death by Damien Echols. For anyone who doesn't already know, Echols was one of the "West Memphis 3," a trio of teenagers who were wrongfully tried and convicted for the murders of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas back in 1993. Echols spent 18 years on death row, while the other two, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., were serving life sentences. Last year, the three guys, now in their mid-30s, were finally released from prison when they agreed to an Alford plea. The completely bizarre Alford plea essentially allowed the three men to acknowledge that the State of Arkansas has enough evidence to convict them while still maintaining their plea of innocence--and this allowed them to be released from prison. Makes no sense, right? Essentially, it allows the State of Arkansas to cover its own ass, because if the WM3 went to trial again, they would be found not guilty and would be able to sue the state for millions of dollars in damages. The case against Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley is flimsy at best.

If it sounds like I have become obsessed with the WM3 lately, I have. I don't want to go into too many specifics of the case. For that, I highly recommend the three Paradise Lost documentaries (the original Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and its two follow-ups). I have actually only seen the first and the third docs. I would be remiss if I didn't warn my readers that these documentaries are extremely disturbing and graphic, with crime scene footage of the victims (thankfully, only a few minutes in the beginning of each documentary) As someone with two young sons, this was difficult viewing. The documentaries, though, are thoroughly compelling and definitely worth seeing.

Your next question might be: why the fascination with these guys? First of all, I suppose I am flummoxed at what an absolutely botched investigation this was, and how these three guys were basically sent up the river because of some bogus claim that they were part of a satanic cult, when the reality seems to be that they were just three teenage metal heads with some interest in wearing dark clothes and reading about the occult. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley remind me a lot of kids I knew in school in Michigan's Thumb region. They were three boys who grew up poor, living in trailer parks with dysfunctional families, and with interests that diverged from the conservative folk who were in the majority. These guys could have very easily been with the crew of metal heads and "burnouts" at Caro High School. I feel that I know these guys, or at least dudes very similar to them.

Echols' story is incredible. I'm amazed at how this guy was able to, at least from all outward appearances, grow intellectually and spiritually in the most hellish environment imaginable. While in prison, he read voluminously, became a Buddhist, and became a writer and visual artist. There are still some people who are not convinced of his innocence in these murders, and I suppose it has to do with his personality and how he carries himself. He seems to be, by nature, an introspective and slightly aloof man. This has most likely worked to Echols' detriment, both during the trial, when he seemed to many people to be a cocky, preening, self-absorbed, and just plain weird kid (and certainly weird enough to kill three children). Even now he is criticized in some circles for acting aloof or unfeeling (particularly around his wife, whom he met and married while in prison). This is probably just his personality, and most likely what happens to a person when he's been eternally shafted by the authorities. Echols may feel the need to be constantly vigilent and always watching his back. After all he's been through, who can blame him?

The man is a damned good writer though, and I was absorbed by his stories of prison life and of his dark and largely unhappy childhood.

I can't imagine how a man makes the transition from spending his entire adult life in a 9' x 12' concrete box with a probable execution looming in the future--to suddenly being free (and in Echols' case, whisked away to New York City hobnobbing with the likes of Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder, and Johnny Depp). It seems that one would inevitably suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. I wonder if Echols has dreams that he is still in prison and either wakes up in a cold sweat or screaming. In addition, he has to learn not only how to function in the modern world of computers and smartphones, but how to be an adult. He has never had to pay bills, balance a checkbook, make appointments, drive a car, book a hotel room, grocery shop, or any of the other myriad tasks (both mundane and important) that an adult performs in daily life. I assume that his wife is helping him make this transition, and I hope that he and his wife can make their marriage work now that they are together and he is no longer in prison.

I have to admit that, though I do not believe that Misskelley or Baldwin were involved in the murders, I'm about 99% convinced with Echols. It seems that he was quite disturbed as a teenager, and there is something about his demeanor that seemed a little odd then and still does to a certain extent now. Perhaps my extremely tiny shred of doubt comes simply from watching too many movies in which a smart, cunning suspect has convinced the gullible authorities and public that he is innocent, but is later revealed to have pulled the wool over everyone's eyes and truly is guilty. However, it is always ill-advised to let someone's outward demeanor, rather than the facts at hand, determine whether you think he or she is guilty or innocent.

There are still three boys whose lives were taken from them far too early, and whose murders remain unsolved. I hope that someday the truth will come out and the true perpetrators will be brought to justice.