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WesRecs

Vol. #75 - April 16, 2021

Hello from another week in America in which America has once again shown us how American America really is, no? I mean damn. You can hardly believe it some days with one thing after another after another. Sometimes it just feels like an endless loop of police shooting, mass shooting, outrageously cruel anti-trans legislation, pandemic setback, inhumanity at the border, rinse repeat.

Of course there are victories and inspiration and affirmation to be had but this week in particular really seemed to hit with wave after wave of B.S. But we forge on. Anyway I hope you are all holding up as well as possible and that you're excited about something this spring and that you have a solid week ahead. I'll keep this part of this week's intro short as I talk a lot about one part of my week below. I hope you enjoy another week with WesRecs.


As ever:
If you're newer to WesRecs thanks for being here. As I've often said: this is a compendium of the stuff I've come across (or remembered) in the last week that I think you might dig. It's long. I recommend perusing here and there, spending time with what interests you at a given point and maybe saving or coming back to what you might be interested in down the road. Some of it’s really serious, some of it’s fun & dumb. Go with what you feel, subscribe if it's something you like, and thanks again. I love you all. 
In personal news: as of this week I am fully vaxxed up!!! I am thrilled, grateful, and relieved. Yes, this doesn't mean I can't still get/transmit COVID, and I will still be wearing a mask out in public for a good while, and who knows what's going to happen with variant strains (and the inevitable next pandemic that we face) but by god this is a welcome development.

The pandemic is very much not over but on a personal level this feels sort of like the closing of a certain chapter in the madness of the last year. From those first pre-lockdown days when I was glued to the news and stockpiling food and meds while trying to get my roommates excited about handwashing, to the Tiger King era of wearing gloves everywhere and deserted streets and disinfecting my groceries, to protests and picnics in public parks, to taking my first subway ride in 5 months and tentatively dipping back into working backgroundon TV/film sets, to a surge in rates and thinking "nope! Too soon" and basically hibernating all winter, to double masking and being back to work on a more or less regular basis in the past 2 months it has all been quite a ride.

I have been extremely fortunate in the pandemic all things considered. I never got COVID, I didn't lose anyone extremely close to me to COVID, my living situation was stable and unstressful, I found ways to replace much of my lost income, and I got a yearlong pause/reflection period to consider my life, my values, my priorities, and my career that I never would have had otherwise. So I try to keep that in mind, especially when thinking about the millions of people in America who had absolutely hellish experiences front-to-back over the last year with illness, loss, unemployment etc etc. It's been an absolute meat grinder the world over so I can't be anything but mindful of that and grateful for me and those closest to me for making it through.

To those who intend to get vaccinated but are still waiting on the opportunity: First of all yes, get vaccinated. Second of all: I can only speak to my personal experience with the 2-shot Pfizer vaccine but - heed the warnings the medical staff will give you about taking it easy for the next few days after getting your second dose. I was told I'd potentially feel some flu-like symptoms about 12 hours afterwards but that they'd pass with some bed-rest, fluids and Tylenol. I should have taken things easy but I was just so pumped about getting this behind me, and it was a beautiful day in Manhattan, and I was free so I instead walked for several miles enjoying the sun, sitting on benches in both Riverside and Central Park, reading the plaques on monuments, and generally having a postcard worthy NYC afternoon. It was great....

...But then, like clockwork, almost exactly 12 hours later, when I was (thankfully) not in the middle of the city or on the subway I got absolutely ROCKED by chills, fever, fatigue, and aches. I've had some bad cases of the flu before but this was just unreal, especially in its suddenness. I was totally fine, feeling good, loving life -- and then I felt a slight chill, and then within 15 minutes my bones were hurting because I was shivering so hard.

I was feeling much much better by the next morning and was totally fine by the morning after that, but I thought of two things as I was lying there in bed with a knit cap on chugging Tylenol:
  • Any question I had in the last year about if I was being too cautious with my masking, and distancing, and handwashing, and staying away from even outdoor shows & dining immediately evaporated. I experienced, for just one night, *very* watered down COVID-like symptoms. It was totally worth it for the health benefits and protection of the vaccine, but to think of experiencing that in a much more intense way, with a cough so bad you can't breathe, and having to stop and rest on the way to the bathroom (if you can make it at all), for anywhere from 7-21 days, with potential lifelong aftereffects just really crystalized for me what all of that caution was for and how worth it it was. One of the most infuriating things about all those people protesting shutdowns and mask mandates and pointing to COVID's "low" death rate of 1.5% never accounted for the fact that while most anything is better death, it is still awful and debilitating to be as sick as you've ever been for 2 weeks straight with a fear of being permanently affected hanging over you.
  • I thought of all of the people, especially in the early days of last March/April/May who actually did get COVID and how afraid they must have been. I mean here in NYC, where the streets were largely deserted, and sirens wailed seemingly every minute, and 800 people were dying each day how many people were as sick as they had ever been, while covered in every blanket and sweatshirt they owned, shivering their brains out in their tiny rented room in their Craigslist apartment, with roommates who were damn near strangers (and who were terrified of getting sick themselves), wondering if they should (or could afford to) go to the hospital where they knew they'd wait for hours in the same hallway where a dozen people had died that week. Just unreal. I don't want to in any way suggest that my expected/brief/unremarkable post-vaccine experience was comparable to that, but it did help paint a picture of it in a way I hadn't come close to before.
WesRecs is the weekly newsletter where I (comedian/storyteller/TV Host) Wes Hazard recommend a bunch of cool content (recs) to YOU (the person reading this). There's no particular reason for this other than the fact that I love curating stuff and I'm always excited to share items that I personally have found worthwhile, exciting, or necessary. If you like what you see please be sure to subscribe to get each week's edition delivered straight to your inbox and if you know someone else who might be into it definitely share with them. You can check out all past issues HERE.

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Race & Policing

Towards The Reduction Of Harm

For several years Fred Allen was the captain of the death house team of Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, site of the United States' most active execution chamber. He presided over at least 120 executions during his tenure, spending the last hours of their lives with each of the condemned prisoners, taking last meal requests, leading the 5-person team that escorted them to the actual chamber, strapping them down to the table (Allen's specialty was the left leg), and then preparing the body for retrieval by the funeral home once the sentence was carried out.

From what I gather watching this he took pride in the professionalism of his team and he strove, within reason, to accommodate the last requests of the prisoners in his charge, while working to ensure no execution came with any hitches or disruptions (except...you know...someone dying while strapped to a table as witnesses look on).

Then in 1998 he was tasked with executing a woman, Karla Faye Tucker, the first time that century that Texas had put a woman to death.  He and his team carried it out just as usual, nothing in the procedure differed from the other 120 in any meaningful way. But then 2 days later he started shaking uncontrollably while at work, unable to rein in a swirl of emotions he'd never felt before. He called the prison chaplain, and broke down and declared he could no longer do the job. After seeing to the deaths of 120 people he walked away from the job, sacrificing his pension, and is now firmly against the death penalty in any circumstance, saying no one has a right to take a life.

--
Watching this, and extended version of a clip that appeared in Werner Herzog's documentary profile of a Texas death row inmate, his family, and the families of his victims, I have so many thoughts. In no particular order:
  • This is powerful powerful viewing. Allen is clearly struggling at times with the emotion rising up in him and with the memory of his last execution and the time he spent with Tucker as her date approached. At other times he seems almost proud of the efficiency and order of the team he once led. When talking about his outlook on life now "living the dash" he seems so relieved and thankful for the chance to have reoriented his life. You're hearing all this and empathizing with him while at the same time remembering that for years this dude drove to work, punched in, and....killed more people than any American serial killer on record.
  • I'm reminded of Hannah Arendt's work on convicted Nazi Adolph Eichmann and her phrase "the banality of evil" in reference to the factory-like nature of much of the Holocaust. The entire enterprise was unquestionably "evil", but the majority of the people who carried it out were detached functionaries collecting a paycheck as they worked out train schedules to the camps and made bulk purchases of poison gas pellets on a government spending account. Today, a wing of a state building is devoted entirely to killing people and it's regularly mopped and swept, and the walls get painted from time to time, and somebody comes in to service the HVAC system, and people drive by it every day, and the people on staff there coach little league and volunteer at the food pantry and got to parent teachers conferences just like the rest of us.
  • Allen is clearly not the most articulate man, and you don't get the sense that he used to talk much in public about his emotions, especially on camera, but damn he really has something to say and it, again, is powerful. There are a a thousand professors or Nobel laureates I'd turn away from in order to hear him talk more about this experience. This man looked into the eyes of 120 people as they were expiring after getting to know them for a few hours and before preparing their bodies for removal. We truly cannot imagine.
  • It says a lot about our culture, our biases, and the irrationality of being human that Allen was able to complete his job straightforwardly without emotion or regret more than 100 times before finally breaking down for no other reason than his last prisoner being a woman. Karla Faye Tucker robbed and killed 2 people with a pickaxe, but seeing her sitting in the holding cell and having her thank him for all he'd done for him as her guard was enough to elevate his last execution from routine to transformative for him.
I stumbled onto the video above after encountering this video essay from Philosophy Tube about capital punishment. The "video essay" is not quite new as a format, but it is kind of having a moment and I've been watching more and more of them lately. I really enjoy the ones like this that have a clear point, are deeply researched and richly sourced, and which actually grapple with arguments that run counter to that of the presenter, but which ALSO have a tremendous amount of personal style, humor, emotion and visual flair.

This really digs into the "why?" of modern capital punishment, the arguments offered for and against it in the legal & philosophical realms, and some major cases in Britain that both tested and tanked those justifications.

If you want a little more depth to the arguments surrounding capital punishment than you're going to find on American cable news or your uncle's Facebook feed this is a decent place to start.
If you've been with me here reading WesRecs for any amount of time you know that I've shared countless prison abolition arguments, think pieces, resources etc. It is one of the central issues of our time, it touches every aspect of life in America, and I believe in it fully. All that's to say that pretty much nothing in this thread from a former employee in a prosecutor's office is an argument or observation that hasn't been included in some other piece previously featured in this newsletter. However this is one of the best such items that I've personally ever come across because it is direct, lucid, and wide-ranging while anticipating and responding to the inevitable arguments of the skeptical and it is grounded in personal experience which itself gets grappled with brilliant stuff and def worth your time.

Things Read

Worthwhile Words

The Exquisitely English (and Amazingly Lucrative) World of London Clerks - Bloomberg

In last week's WesRecs I included an article about the amazing degree of precision & pre-planning that's in place for the inevitable coming of Queen Elizabeth II's passing. I definitely recommend checking that out and if you love to read about the intricacies of other arcane corners of official/administrative British culture I think you'll enjoy this one about a curious piece of their legal tradition.
 
Clerks—pronounced “clarks”—have no equivalent in the U.S. legal system, and have nothing in common with the Ivy League–trained Supreme Court aides of the same spelling. They exist because in England and Wales, to simplify a bit, the role of lawyer is divided in two: There are solicitors, who provide legal advice from their offices, and there are barristers, who argue in court. Barristers get the majority of their business via solicitors, and clerks act as the crucial middlemen between the tribes—they work for and sell the services of their barristers, steering inquiring solicitors to the right man or woman.

Clerks are by their own cheerful admission “wheeler-dealers,” what Americans might call hustlers. They take a certain pride in managing the careers of their bosses, the barristers—a breed that often combines academic brilliance with emotional fragility. Many barristers regard clerks as their pimps. Some, particularly at the junior end of the profession, live in terror of clerks. The power dynamic is baroque and deeply English, with a naked class divide seen in few other places on the planet. Barristers employ clerks, but a bad relationship can strangle their supply of cases. In his 1861 novel Orley Farm, Anthony Trollope described a barrister’s clerk as a man who “looked down from a considerable altitude on some men who from their professional rank might have been considered as his superiors.”

...

The huge sums that clerks earn, at least relative to their formal qualifications, both sit at odds with the feudal nature of their employment and underpin it. In some chambers, clerks still refer to even junior barristers as “sir” or “miss.” Housden remembers discussing this issue early in his career with a senior clerk. He asked the man whether he found calling people half his age “sir” demeaning. The reply was straightforward: “For three-quarters of a million pounds per year, I’ll call anyone sir.”
A solid thread of to-the-point writing advice.

Things Seen

Watched Recently By Wes

You like maps? Then you'll love this stylized floor plan world map with each country's size proportional to its population. Found here.
This video is so profoundly strange. Made 10 years ago, and recently reappearing on Twitter, it features then NY State Senator and current Brooklyn Borough president/ NYC mayoral candidate Eric Adams in his apartment giving a lesson on how concerned parents can...search the rooms of their kids for "contraband" as if they were correctional officers tossing a prison cell.

Adams was a Transit cop and then an NYPD cop for over 2 decades, so I don't doubt his practical experience here but just...WHY??? Who is this video for? He wasn't being so clearly earnest this would be high comedy. Why are there 2 separate guns? How is a crack pipe a conversation starter? Why would a teen old enough to be holding an ounce of weed still be playing with baby dolls? WHAT IS THIS????????

If you live in NYC please don't vote for Eric Adams. Not specifically because of this video but for a million other reasons. If you need a good laugh though? Tune in.

I had to know more about what's going on here so I checked out an interview with the former NY Sate Senate A/V who got drafted by Adams to shoot this mess back in 2011, some great stuff here.

We Interviewed the Guy Who Made Eric Adams’ Bizarre ‘Contraband’ Video - Vice
 
VICE: Where did the idea to make this video come from? Were you ever given any kind of pitch?

Matthew Kulvicki
: With Eric, it wasn't really a pitch. It was like, “I want to make a video about looking for drugs in your house tomorrow.” He wanted me to do my thing, which was basically following him around as he speaks and making sure I could hear him. And then there was a staffer—she came into the office and was like, “Matt, are you working on the senator’s video?” And she said, “He told me to go out and buy weed and a crack pipe. How does he think I would know how to get a crack pipe? Who does he think I am?” 


...

What was the experience of making the video like for you?

So we go in to shoot the thing, and he tells me that he's going to look around and point to things, and he's going to talk to the camera. And he said, “I'm going to put this revolver in a pillow.” He was talking to himself and also kind of talking to me, like, “That’s where that would go, right?” 

And I'm thinking, No, I probably wouldn't put a revolver in my pillow. But I’m not gonna tell him that. Usually, you put that between your mattress and your box spring, if you’ve watched any movie ever, but I was like, “OK.” He had another pistol in a jewelry box that he pulled on me, and you can see my reaction with the camera. He didn't warn me that there was a second gun in there. He was like, “I'm just gonna wander around the room and find things.” 

The whole thing was insane. I knew it was gonna be bad when we got there—at that point, I'd already done a few [videos with him]—but I was a little bit shocked with this one. “There are no First Amendment rights in your home”—I didn’t know he was going to say any of that stuff. I didn’t know there were gonna be guns. I didn't know how much drugs he thought was a normal amount of drugs to put in a doll.

So I came across the 2 videos about capital punishment in the Race & Policing section above because I had a random mid-week realization that I had totally forgotten what Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism was all about.

Back in my undergrad years I took a course on Kant's political theory that I found largely....confusing. I just wasn't there yet. In the years since, after consistently being reminded of the fact that he's considered one of the most towering/transformative philosophers to have ever lived, I've always wanted to get closer to understanding his work enough to see why exactly he has the reputation. This mainly consists of reading a "Kant for dummies" type book very few years and dipping into YouTube when I have a free minute while eating or whatever.

I distinctly remember being in the Panera bread next to the Regal Fenway movie theater in Boston maybe 8 years ago and reading one of those pocket guides and *finally* getting the central nugget of his Critique of Pure Reason. It was a true (if minor) light bulb moment, I was so happy to finally have a clear vision of something I'd failed to grasp for so long. Fast forward to earlier this week and every shred of that progress had been lost to the sands of time and trivia. This is pretty damned common in my experience. As someone who gorges on random multi-disciplinary facts and trivia for hours every day I have discovered that I have a one-year retention rate of *maybe* 30%. Meaning that of all the endless information that I compulsively/contentedly frolic through I can be pretty sure that I'll have forgotten 70% of it 12 months later (at least in the sense that I'd be unable to cough it up in a matter of seconds while being quizzed in a competitive environment). Rather than just crying about having a sieve mind I've discovered the best counter is to just... LEARN A  LOT OF CRAP. The majority of it will vanish like tears in rain, but if you aim for volume (and find a way to be actually interested in what you're learning) you'll find that 30% of a lot of crap is.... still quite a lot of crap.

Anyway, this video is very well done and it helped me recapture that that (very very minor) understanding that I came to while working on my steak and cheddar sandwich and creamy tomato soup w/ asiago croutons all those years ago.
Random Viewing
  • This is a short sketch about COVID immunization. It features one guy and is filmed on a phone and it is great both for being so outlandish but then also very true-to-genre (if you like comic book/anime style plotting. Hints of Mandarin from Iron Man and Darth Vader. Solid stuff.
  • Nothing is more cringe-inducing than the dating profile of a man who is insecure, delusional, and has no idea of how to relate to women as actual people. Here's a comic reading of a few gems.
  • Like, I think, most kids who grew up in an even vaguely Christian household I went through a period where I was convinced that God was watching my every action and utterance, and even my thoughts. So that whenever I had an even sorta "sinful" thought (as minor as wishing that the villain in some action movie would die) I was wracked with fear of eternal damnation and would silently apologize. Thank God (pun intention indeterminate) that that passed. Anyway here's a very good web comic about how it's simply impossible to introduce a child to the notion of an omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent God with a strict moral code + the idea of eternal damnation, and for that not to cause them profound stress and comical confusion.
  • So you're saying you've never wondered what it would be like if the Sun was shaped like a giant banana instead of an orb? Well don't worry, someone has done the wondering for you.
  • This video of a dog bath gone wrong is something your great aunt might share on Facebook, but I watched it and for some reason I just laughed and laughed so...um..maybe trust auntie's sense of humor now and again??? I dunno.
  • This is the most funny/sad thing you'll watch about fatherhood (and son-hood) this week.
  • Had the realization this dude is definitely going to be president one day. And if you scoff at the idea just remember how improbable the last few years would have seemed to someone only as far back as like 2006.

Things Made

By My Own Hand

I was part of a show about history and monuments. At 34:38 here you can see me participate in a virtual group mixology session making a colonial era naval cocktail.

Word of The Week

Up That Vocab Game

Kench, v
[ kench* ]

Obsolete. rare.
Meaning: intransitive. To laugh loudly.

Origin: representing Old English *cęncean < *kankjan , from the root kank- , found in Old English gecanc mock, gibe, cancęttan to laugh noisily, cackle, cank v., Icelandic kank gibing, kankast to jeer;

*I've checked all of my usual sources and it would seem that yes, the appropriate phonetic pronunciation for kench (and for similar instances like bench and henchman is just...kench)

Somebody Said This

Words To Admire

I straight up pasted this out of the Wikipedia entry on the Sinking of the Titanic, which I was browsing this week. It seems to be sourced from here. Bleak, but damn, these are some wild quotes from survivors of the tragedy.
 
Those in the lifeboats were horrified to hear the sound of what Lawrence Beesley called "every possible emotion of human fear, despair, agony, fierce resentment and blind anger mingled – I am certain of those – with notes of infinite surprise, as though each one were saying, 'How is it possible that this awful thing is happening to me? That I should be caught in this death trap?'"[187] Jack Thayer compared it to the sound of "locusts on a summer night", while George Rheims, who jumped moments before Titanic sank, described it as "a dismal moaning sound which I won't ever forget; it came from those poor people who were floating around, calling for help. It was horrifying, mysterious, supernatural."[188]

The noise of the people in the water screaming, yelling, and crying was a tremendous shock to the occupants of the lifeboats, many of whom had up to that moment believed that everyone had escaped before the ship sank. As Beesley later wrote, the cries "came as a thunderbolt, unexpected, inconceivable, incredible. No one in any of the boats standing off a few hundred yards away can have escaped the paralysing shock of knowing that so short a distance away a tragedy, unbelievable in its magnitude, was being enacted, which we, helpless, could in no way avert or diminish."[187]

Fun Facts

Trivia To Bend Your Brain

  • There are more Amazon employees than Americans named Sarah.
  • eBay is called eBay because in 1997 the company's co-founder, Pierre Omidyar, discovered that his first choice for the company name "Echo Bay" (a recreational area near Lake Meade, Nevada) was already taken by a Canadian mining company.
  • The popular image of bears loving honey is a bit misguided. While some bear species will indeed often seek out beehives for food they are actually focused on devouring the entire have including the bees themselves and their larvae as they are a rich source of protein.
Copyright © 2021 Wes Hazard -- Comic. Poet. Performer., All rights reserved.


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