How ‘Real’ is Story: What Treme Taught Writers

Writers are the greatest of story tellers, if only for the fact that the tools they have at their disposal give them the ability to tell the greatest version of any story.

Especially when writing for a book, writers get use interplay between plot and story, the two main elements that advance a novel, and make it relevant to an audience.

David Simon, the man behind the books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner, along with television series’ The Wire, Generation Kill, and adaptation of The Corner, Simon has taken a long time to develop a craft revolving around the story, and is a master of explaining how elements of story affect, and influence the future plot.

It’s now several years later after his last television series, Treme.  And while the series did not hold the attention of a viewing audience very well, there is a lot of hope, and a lot of lessons learned from the series for writers.  This is why I write about it today; it offers a glimmer of hope to writers who want to be at their best.

Treme is a different kind of television series.  Writers of all kinds who have seen it generally come away with a strong appreciation for the show.  The reason for this can be summed up as follows:  it’s not about characters going from one premise to an ultimate truth.  It’s about characters existing in their world, after it’s been flipped upside down.  It’s about the human condition, almost exclusively.

The show takes place in New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  It follows over a dozen characters who come from varying walks of life, and represent different parts of the cultural backbone of New Orleans; music, cuisine, venues, and dance.  From traditional jazz musicians, to New Orleans Indians, to gourmet chefs, and everyone in between, the focus is on the people from the large art scene in New Orleans, as they rebuild their lives in a city set for major changes that ultimately interrupt their usual routines.

In a typical series, one would expect to see growing animosity between the protagonists and antagonists.  One would expect to find a clear bad guy, and a clear good guy.

But what this series showed was that in real life, we have profound effects on one another, without being an antagonist at all.  It should be noted that Simon did go out of his way to make banks, real estate investors, and law enforcement appear as incapable saboteurs, who’s only existence is designed to ruin the world.  Removing this portion from the show, and we would have witnessed the purest form of real-life story ever told in any medium.

With that said, the characters go through challenges, as could be expected.  They all have arcs in fact.  But, whereas most shows would have a grand ending for the varying characters, Treme leaves the characters more or less where they were before, perhaps with more refined direction, some even with what would be considered large life changes, but all in all, they are not “forever changed” as is common practice in works of fiction.  This is where Simon’s version of storytelling really went for something bold.  Taking art and placing it ever so close to life, and then making us watch those lives unfold.

My educated guess is that ten or twenty years from now, we’ll discover that Treme was far enough ahead of it’s time that there will be a renaissance in its honor, leading to a half a dozen shows trying to capture this uber-real feel.

For writers, it’s a vision of hope to tell stories about “real” people going through “real” dilemmas, which may be out of reach for their audience (making them interesting!), but because traditional media leaves us expanding into fantasy, even in “real” settings, we as writers get pushed further and further from being able to tell story in reality.  That is the unfortunate condition we live in, a constant pursuit of fantasy, at every turn.

While general viewing audiences may not be ready to experience this type of storytelling, what likely turned them off completely is an unfortunate sub-narrative that Simon likes to place within his work, and if you’ve heard him speak, you know where it comes from: his latent socialism.

This is why Simon is not a pure storyteller.  He instead will try hard to push a political agenda into his stories, even at risk of killing his project.  This is why The Wire died after five seasons, and why The Corner only got picked up for a brief six episode miniseries, rather than a larger multi-season telling.  Try as Simon might, people generally don’t enjoy his political views as told through character’s story and experiences.  Maybe he should option his work in Russia.

This is also why people involved in storytelling should avoid taking political views to one extreme or another.  You ultimately alienate one half of your potential audience, and then don’t challenge the other half of the audience, leaving both tuning out your screams for whatever.

Simon would have you believe that New Orleans was a political story in post-Katrina life, but as we place distance between that event and the present, we find more and more that politics had less to do with the fall out of New Orleans, and more so to do with individuals and their views of New Orleans being a ‘post-apocalyptic world.’

For writers, the idea of telling a story that focuses on typical people trying to keep their lives together is romantic, if for nothing else, it allows writers to stop trying to re-invent the ‘kill or be killed’ concept of most storytelling.

It’s also a lesson about establishing and maintaining an audience – stay out of politics.  Especially as writers of fiction, it’s not our place to tell people what to think about a given issue.  If they are consuming fiction, they most likely are not looking for that.  And even if they are, they probably need some story elements of fantasy involved, because a story about real people with real problems, over a backdrop of political ideology will undoubtedly wear out the audience.

Treme made that all too clear, despite its major triumphs.

Mass Transit in Seattle: The Greatest Example in Modern Times of Government Corruption

Many transit systems in the US are born out of the same weird “conglomerate” government approach.

Without getting into the same legal drivel they would like to hide behind, the basic idea is as follows:  municipal governments in a concentrated area reach a conclusion that mass transit is something they need to pursue together.  In order do that, they need plans, operations, and administration that is centralized.  But, local governments, when merely sharing a land border, have many different laws and governance between each other, how do they streamline efforts so they are not affected by a litany of differences?  In comes the idea of quasi-government:  Local governments sign agreements to financially support a centralized body that is not governed by them directly, and is not elected by citizens.  Instead, they appoint people to the board of this organization, and their job is to formulate the organization.

Now, the idea of centralizing such an effort makes sense.  It’s most efficient, makes the mission specific, and of course, unburdens their government  bodies from more layers of bureaucracy.

There is a couple of serious problems with this:  the main point is that this is an organization that acts like a government, by proposing and lobbying for taxes, and because they are the chosen experts in their field, it’s hard for the governments they lobby for tax funding to argue with their logic.  But even beyond this simple conundrum, there’s the issue of taxpayers not being able to scrutinize those that are controlling their tax dollars, their infrastructure, and their potentially their lifestyle.

This is wrong.  Our Constitution says it’s wrong (Taxation without Representation), all State’s have laws, or their own constitutions that outlaw the practice, and yet this idea of public mass transit becoming a sort-of/kind-of government agency, with no real oversight is being born around the country, because it fixes jurisdictional issues, centralizes services, and makes the project actually ‘work,’ when evaluating results.

Washington, DC, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the State of Maryland have done this with Metro.  The entire Dallas Metroplex has done it with DART.  San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, San Jose, and every other city in the Bay Area did it with BART.

These highly regional models work in areas where they answer highly regional problems.  Congestion, a lack of land to re-work to efficiency, and layers of planning, that complicate land use.

But where sea and air ports are controlled by State agencies, somehow no one thought that public transit on a mass scale should also be a State issue.

Some would say that the highly concentrated areas of population represent a certain set of problems the rest of the State doesn’t have, and that they shouldn’t be laying the same burden down.  Logically it makes sense.  If the ranch land doesn’t need a train, why should pay for one?

However, what is happening with Sound Transit hits on a whole new level.  They are arguing for State taxes, and city taxes, and county taxes, and on it goes.  They can’t get what they want in this jurisdiction, so they find it somewhere else.  Cost overruns, meh the tax payers will bank roll it.  If that’s not enough, they absolutely do not take no for an answer.

Recently, it came to light that Sound Transit willingly misled the Washington State Senate, on a tax bill that authorized $15 billion to be earmarked for Sound Transit.  What they didn’t discuss in the bill, and what was not clear, was that Sound Transit had not put an expiration date on the tax bill.  So, when time came to close down the funding, they argued there was no expiration, and ended up collecting $54 billion.

This would literally be criminal, for any other entity to deceive government in this manner, and yet, no charges have been filed.  Why is the State government being taken to task by a regional government?  This would literally not happen in any other relationship, and yet, when we look at history, public transportation organizations, like Sound Transit, use language as a weapon when going after tax funding.  They are their own maker, and thus, have a duty to protect themselves.  If they appropriately positioned in State government, we know this wouldn’t happen, because they would have a chain of command to explain themselves, or their funding could be halted immediately.

The fact is that quasi-government doesn’t work, and that’s why our forefathers outlawed it.  They faced similar groups in their day, but they were known as something else, “tax collectors.”

That’s not to say that tax collection is wrong, because it’s not.  However, the tax collectors they dealt with were people empowered to extort money out of common people, keeping a percentage for themselves, and passing the rest on to the King.

This is the problem with quasi-government.  No matter how it’s structured, no matter how it’s “monitored,” it will always find a way around, for it’s own version of survival.

Mass transit is a needed function in our society – it should be housed directly in State government.

OKC Memorial: Did We Learn Anything?

I recently spent a long weekend in Oklahoma City to promote my recent project, an anthology of veteran’s which encompasses many veterans, from many walks of life, and many experiences.  With the exception of career, there is nothing any of us have in common.  Not in interests, culture, upbringing, style, attire, absolutely nothing.

As we all know, Oklahoma City has the displeasure of being the location of one of the saddest parts of US history.  On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh parked a U-Haul truck full of fertilizer and explosives, rigged to explode, targeting the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, found between North Harvey and North Robinson Avenues.

The bomb killed 168 people inside the building, and injured 680, and effectively destroyed half of the building, not to mention causing serious damage for 16 blocks.

McVeigh’s plot, which was assisted by Terry Nichols, came about because of their ideological views, and their disagreement with the actions taken by government at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.  In both instances, federal agents began investigations into firearms and other weapons acquired by the groups at each location, and whether it was legal to possess them.  In both instances, there has been wide disagreement about the volume of illegal weapons that each group had, but in the end, what was factually reported by our federal agencies was a small amount of truly illegal weapons, that on their own, may not have garnered the aggressive investigative efforts that the groups initially garnered.

However, while the motivation of these two men is still subject of some debate, what I want to talk about is their actions.  McVeigh had said publicly that he was not aware of a daycare being located in the building, making that discovery over the course of his “canvassing” or scouting of the building.

He passed over another federal building he targeted, because it had a florist shop.  But yet, when actually walking inside the Murrah Building, he managed to miss the fully-windowed day care, in the hall lobby.  He was asked about this on the stand, and said had he known there were children present, it might have given him pause.

Regardless, I can’t imagine the disillusionment McVeigh had to visit daily to carry out this plan.  And the fact is that he left the area, and if not for a traffic violation 90 minutes later, he might still be out in the wind today.

During my trip, I spoke to many long-time OKC locals, who spoke about the tremendous healing affect that this incident had on the entire city.  At the time, OKC was an unsafe place to be.  There were strong-arm robberies at will, muggings, break-ins, and wide spread violent crime that seemed to target strangers to the actors at an elevated rate.

But the sheer violence of McVeigh’s act brought the entire city together.  By and large, the citizens realized that life in OKC could not continue down the path it was, and maintain a place that people would want to live in, let alone spend any time in.

Since that ever tragic day, OKC has rebuilt much of it’s downtown, has worked hard to bringing relevant artistic elements to the area, to celebrate the many communities that make up the city, and to embrace the uniqueness and charm that only can be identified as being that of OKC.

Today we see a very similar scenario playing out at the national level.  We have extremists on the left and right scales of political ideology battling one another on city streets, throughout our entire country.  We no longer have room to speak with others, especially others that are determined to talk in rhetoric and circular logic.  There may be true value in ignoring such tactics, but it does not mean it’s wise to ignore the person.

It doesn’t mean you need to treat them differently either.  It does mean we need to decide individually what it is that we hold dear, truly.  I for one want an immigration system that will be followed and respected.  That doesn’t mean I want immigrants to be shunned, or foresaken, or to have previous agreements ripped away.  None of that holds to American values, and we would be foolish to engage in such third world politicking.

At the same time, there are people that want to vilify those like me who stand for a rule of law that is pragmatic, and sound.  They are extremists, just as those who chanted over and over again that building a wall is a solution.  We should not be so ignorant to identify that both these views are extreme, and truly have no business guiding our country.

At the same time, I respect that there are those that view my words as some sort of threat.  Technically they might be.  But there is no intention of threatening anyone, and having sound, pragmatic law is not a threat to anyone, except to those that break the law.  Perhaps that sounds circular.  But consider our past.  If we did not have sound laws that respected a true view of right and wrong, would we have made it as far as we have?  Would the US still be what it is, after nearly 250 years of existence?

I appreciate ideology, it’s a great place to start from.  But ideology can’t be the only thing guiding rules, law, how we think, or what we fight for.  When you do, you produce extremism.

And quite honestly, one need to go no further than 620 North Harvey Avenue in Oklahoma City to see what raw ideology produces.  The aftermath of which is something too hard to stare at.  Admittedly, I cry so much when I visit the Memorial that I can’t even make it to the museum.  This time I got in the door, and 45 seconds later bolted back out.  I don’t want to live in the aftermath of the Memorial every second in this country, everywhere I go, and I don’t believe anyone else here wants to either.

It’s going to take everyone who’s shouting for their cause to sit down, truly consider what it is they are saying.  If all you are doing is spouting ideology, you are not helping, and it would be best for all of us if you stopped and found a quiet place to park yourself.  You are adding only vitriol, in both what you say, and who you say it to.  It’s not going to produce anything positive.

Be honest with yourself, no matter where you sit on the spectrum, because more than ever we need both sides to accept that there are some very wrong things they are promoting, and there are some very right things they are promoting.

If you are idolizing people within your spectrum, that’s not helping us either.  No matter who’s President, they are only as effective as Congress, and we haven’t had an effective Congress in many years.  You can’t blame that on any President.

Don’t think of this as a call to centrism, because it’s not.  True functioning ideas to fix problems need to prevail, no matter where they come from.  Fabrications, “full-court presses,” and ideology are not going to help us get any of the solutions that we truly need.

In the beginning I mentioned how the group of veterans that I worked with on this project, Walk with Warriors, came from very different backgrounds, and very different places in life.  But somehow, we came together, vividly.  We didn’t know each other before, and it may be difficult for us to stay in touch after, but we came together as one and continued in that vain as we worked to promote our project, and reach an audience we didn’t define.  Time will tell if we were successful, but we tried, and never fought with each other over ideology.  It may seem a small, mild example, but it’s people working together.  I’d like to think if we can do this, then the rest of us can do this too.  We can be big boys and big girls, who sacrifice our ideology, for what it is truly fair and beneficial for all.

For my part, I think after visiting the Memorial, I’m going to search my own ideas and see what really matters, because it’s only fair that if I issue this call to action that I embody it.

Perhaps the future will find me in an even better place.  Until next time!

Friday Night Opinion: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray Must Resign

I know most people are living in or near Seattle.  Mathematics and statistical distribution says it’s not possible.

But I must comment on one of the worst scandal-not scandal’s I’ve seen in some time.

Ed Murray is the embattled Mayor of Seattle.  The reason he is embattled is because it has come to light that his adult past may not be as “clean” as we’d all expect of a mayor.

First, some men that are younger than Mr. Murray came forward alleging that when they were teens, he paid to have sex with them by offering them drugs as well as cash.  Allegations like these never look good in public, but I would agree that these allegations alone are not a reason to resign.

But, those allegations started gaining traction in the form of court hearings.  Murray, continuing to run for re-election, boldly said that these allegations were part of a “right-wing conspiracy” aimed to take him down.

And that’s the point that I had to raise an eyebrow about his involvement in these alleged past discretions.

If you know anything about Seattle politics, they haven’t had a conservative, or “right-wing” anything in the city since James Braman, who last served as mayor in 1969.  Since then it’s been an onslaught of progressively aggressive left-wing ideologues, with Murray being the most recent iteration of that group.

Murray, along with support of the majority of current Seattle City Council, has ushered in the left’s economic scourge of raising minimum wage to $15.00 an hour.  They’ve made a mess (yet again) of both the drug and homeless problems in the city, they’ve gone after property owners in Seattle, who in their opinion, are charging too much for rent for certain apartments – going so far as naming a law after a landlord which is prompting a legitimate lawsuit, and the final piece of Murray’s tenure, instilling an income tax against what his council has defined as the “wealthy” of Seattle.  In case you’re not catching the theme, these are all examples of major pillars of the far left argument concerning their version of economics, which is suppose to place the common person first, ahead of those that are high earners and innovators.

And for those that are further perplexed, here’s the straight dope:  These kinds of moves within any government, can’t be accomplished by the first group in support of them that has achieved a majority of office.  It takes years, upon years, upon years to get the right kind of momentum going.  Usually, somewhere between 40 and 50, and we’re at 48 years of progressive liberalism in Seattle.

There certainly are conservatives in Seattle and Washington State, but to think that they could organize such an effort to take down an openly gay mayor is comic relief at it’s finest.

The fact that Murray uses that reasoning for these allegations only helps solidify them.  Though it will take a court to sort the mess out.

But, if that wasn’t enough, more problems with Murray’s past came to light, to include a very damning report from his life in Oregon, where he had adopted a child.  In the report, the investigator who was looking into accusations of child abuse, made clear statements that the adopted child Murray had should have been removed from the home by the State of Oregon, and there was a strong likelihood of both physical and sexual abuse occurring in the home.

It’s this revelation of fact that causes me to put my foot down and state loudly that Ed Murray must resign.  He’s argued that he won’t leave office, because it would cause more problems, with a power vacuum occurring within the council.

The main problem with this, whether the media mentions it or not, is that Murray is failing to respect the desires of the citizens of Seattle.  Despite politics, despite ideals, no citizen in any citizen wants a child abuser as a mayor, nor should they have to accept that.  Murray effectively makes the argument that citizens don’t care enough about their own city to work to remove him, which is essentially the only option, since it is clear the council is not going to take action to remove him.  These issues with Murray started to break publicly around February of this year.  It’s August now, and the council has verbally said they’d like him to leave, but they’ve done nothing to remove him, which they have some power in.  But more to the point, if they truly stood for children’s rights, which they’ve invoked about four dozen times over the last five months, you’d think the first thing to do is begin removal proceedings.  There’s no legal grounds for Murray to sue, he serves at the pleasure of citizens, and there’s nothing in law that stops council members from energizing the cause.

And considering that Kshama Sawant, who is the biggest liability on the council, if you read the link news story, you would think this is a no-brainer for them to get started, since she stuck her nose in the business of the City of Seatac, which also had a push for a $15.00 an hour minimum wage.

But of course, while the council has strict rules on their members getting involved in other municipalities politics, they didn’t enforce it with Sawant then, which then allowed the politcally-motivated Seatac judge to dismiss the criminal charges on the worst legal grounds ever uttered in a court of law. 

And since it’s clear they’ll let a council member act criminally, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’ll let a mayor, whether or not the statute of limitations has been reached.  But this is why the citizens of Seattle need to take this effort on.  Because until they do signal their supreme interest in having ethical leadership, this kind of terrible circumstance is going to continue to visit this fair city multiple times.

On a side note, this might be the reason that voting down party lines is a bad idea.  It gives people the chance to fast-track themselves, despite their inability to maintain a proper life.  Of course, that idea can be used subjectively, but I think this example states it very well.  While there is no question that no one helped Murray do any of the despicable things he’s been accused of, or been found to have done, it is clear that due to a liberal-friendly media, a liberal-friendly citizenry, and delegates, advisers, business leaders, really a whole apparatus of political “clergy” who were friendly to a politician like Murray that has allowed him to serve as long as he has without anyone digging into his background.

It ought to be concerning to citizens that it took until May 2017 for the child abuse investigation to be made known, seeing as Murray has served in as a State Representative in Washington State for several terms before becoming mayor.  Those findings were made in the 80’s.  How was the press not capable of finding this out?

All the more reason for citizens to take over their own cause, which is the city, and forced Murray to resign, or face recall.