The Stranger

Haagen Dazs Berry Pickers in Washington State Go Out On Strike

Last week, over 150 farmworkers from Sakuma Farms near Burlington [Washington], a two-hour drive north of Seattle, walked off the job. The workers pick strawberries and raspberries. Sakuma Farms is a major supplier of berries to Haagen Dazs. The co-owner, Steve Sakuma, says chances are if you eat Haagen Dazs fruity ice creams, it's their berries that make them so delicious. Farm management has not returned calls seeking comment on the strike.

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1 Parent Complaint Suspends High School's Social Justice Curriculum?

The following piece was originally published by Anna Minard on The Stranger's website here.

It’s not every day that we get news tips from concerned high-school students fighting a curriculum change. But I got a call yesterday from Zak Meyer, a senior at The Center School (the public high school in the Armory at the Seattle Center), wanting to know if I’d heard the rumors about the suspension of his school’s race and social justice curriculum.

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The Great West Coast Newspaper War

This article was first published in The Stranger.

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Natural Justice

For those not in the know, the Punisher is an ex-cop named Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), whose entire extended family is wiped out in an act of gangland vengeance. The perpetrator of this outrage is one Howard Saint, played by John Travolta in a performance that echoes both his twitches in Face/Off and Mike Myers' Dr. Evil. The loss of Castle's family drives him, it seems, not so much crazy as beyond the law. The film refers to this as the realm of "natural justice" in an anarcho-fascist voiceover that may appeal to your inner torture specialist. It didn't appeal to mine, instead filling me with revenge fantasies about the film, the character, and my giggling co-viewers.

The Punisher is a Death Wish-style revenge-fantasy in tights, emphasizing elaborate tableaux of violence and torture. These set pieces are intended to convey delicate shadings of emotion, expressing by turns wit, the humor of slapstick, and, of course, the implacable force of that "natural justice." Given that this is a Marvel franchise, these goals will be pursued in as family-friendly a manner as possible. The operating aesthetic assumption is that violence is an art form (not, it should be noted, that violence in the cinema is an art form).

The film strings these vignettes of violence together, each incident escalating in intensity and explicitness. The initial gun battle that removes the Castles from this world is largely bloodless. The final set piece in which The Punisher offs Saint's family and underlings features a good deal of blood, although certainly nothing in the league of Kill Bill or The Passion of the Christ. Along the way we're treated to a torture session involving a blowtorch, a Popsicle, and a steak-sized slab of meat. Although it's treated as an elaborate practical joke, the scene depicts a genuine interrogation technique, something unlikely to provoke chuckles from a victim. A companion to this scene is another torture incident in which the film's number-two villain tenderly strips a pierced young man of his facial jewelry, yanking each ring out with pliers. This villain is clearly identified, naturally, as a homosexual and a sadist, unlike the straight sadists that comprise the balance of the film's protagonists. The scene is also the closest the film comes to sexualizing its kink. In the world of The Punisher, the genre trope of the celibate costumed hero clearly must be held in place with unusual, er, firmness.

The film's premise inverts Goya's Disasters of War, presenting human cruelty and suffering not as the grisly objects of moral opprobrium but instead as harmless objects of fascination and trivial amusement. My personal distaste for the subject matter aside, I rather imagine that the can-do, kill-'em-all, who-needs-international-law spirit of our national leadership lent wings to the funding of this film. Instead of making a film that aggressively explores the parameters of neofascism, torture, and sadism visualized as art and performance, The Punisher posits the necessity of these activities as a reflection of what's right and called for in the pursuit of justice. Instead of playing with whips and leather in the service of desire, torturing people before executing them replaces desire; horror masquerading as justice.

The film is not so much bad or lacking in self-awareness as it is, well, kinda middle of the road. Considered simply as a part of the recent Marvel juggernaut, director and co-writer Jonathan Hensleigh has created a film that is in the league of its labelmates. Despite this, the tension between the film's concept and the requirements of its execution make it a failure. I suspect that fans of the comic book will find themselves let down, especially if they are connoisseurs of the gore-and-violence genre.

I happened to see this film on a day when I awakened to the news of the citizenry of Falluja exerting what they presumably viewed as "natural justice" on a group of four American civilian security workers, burning and dismembering their corpses. The dead are people whose professional background might be similar to that of Frank Castle, former Special Forces members and the like. The night before the film, I chanced upon a series of photographs of an Iraqi journalist's forearm shattered by two AK-47 bullets, following the wound from incident to hospital. Despite personal fantasies involving explosive demolition of the screening I attended, after the Iraq photos The Punisher was unable to serve me in an escapist capacity.

Comically Bad

There are two kinds of superhero movies: those that successfully integrate the adolescent wonder of physical-law defiance with the (slightly) more grown-up wonder of human emotions, and those that don't. A better way of saying this might be that there are two kinds of superhero movies: Richard Donner's Superman and everything else. (Okay, and maybe the X-Men films, too, but that's all, really.)

Every other comics-hero-inspired movie -- and there have been many and will be many more before Hollywood moves on to its next big groupthink innovation -- takes its charter either from Tim Burton's horrible Batman, Joel Schumacher's even worse Batmans, or Sam Raimi's indefensible Spider-man, offering camp sensibilities in place of comics' convictions, rank sentimentality in place of comics' heart, and digital sleight-of-hand in place of comics' graphic ambition. Donner's Superman remains the only satisfying superhero movie because it's the only one that fully surrenders to the mythic character that gives (non-underground) comics an excuse to exist. Granted, the iconography in question was a lot friendlier and more familiar to a wide audience than that of, say, Hellboy (which I promise to talk about, eventually), but the fact remains that Donner's film -- written by Mario "Godfather" Puzo, of all people -- positively swoons with mythos, and with the human/superhuman figures whose emotional entanglements dot the mythic landscape. Maybe it was their background in advertising and pulpy ethnic melodrama, but the filmmakers did not waste one frame pretending they weren't making a movie about a dude in a leotard who came from space, or trying to have anything both ways.

To put it bluntly: Donner and Puzo bought the bullshit. And to make a good superhero movie, you are absolutely required to buy it.

(Of course, Superman is also the only one of these films with a decent villain, in the form of Gene Hackman, whose off-the-rails brilliant performance as Lex Luthor more or less invented a whole school of postmodern acting... but let's leave that for now.)

The basic conceit of every superhero comic is that no matter how outlandish or implausible, all people, creatures, powers, and stories are equally credible. Man who can fly? Sure. Man with razor claws that shoot out of his knuckles? Of course. Massive red demon transported to Earth by Nazi black magicians but captured in infancy by U.S. Marines and raised as a crime-fighter? Natch. From there, the challenge of investing these inventions with essentially human characteristics alongside their epic burdens and responsibilities has kept the mainstream comics industry churning for three-quarters of a century, while most of the world has remained happily oblivious to its existence. I don't want to get into the whole thing of talking smack about comics nerds, because I most definitely was one, but there are recognizable root causes for why these publications are on the margins of popular culture. (I will posit, however, that words like "Hellboy" are key factors.)

The thing is, though I certainly would never have admitted it when I was younger (how much younger is for me to know), it's all bullshit. Highly inventive, artful, weird, beautiful even, but bullshit, categorically, undeniably. There are no men made of rocks. There are no adamantium claws. That's just bullshit. And bullshit is not for everybody. I, however, like it. The thing I keep recognizing as the parade of superhero movies marches on is that my willingness, my desire, even, to buy it -- I am, after all, in the movie theater -- keeps running aground of the incompetence, cynicism, and general tin ear of the people charged with bringing these heroes to the screen.

It's frustrating, as a movie viewer with superhero comics in his literal and figurative closets, to see the degree to which Hollywood has desecrated the form by embracing it. I can remember a time when nothing would have pleased me more than to see Marvel and DC's pantries get raided by film studios eager to spend as much money as possible. But with the notable exception of Bryan Singer's topnotch X-Men films (and possibly Ang Lee's perversely interesting Hulk failure), all the major studio adaptations of comics have been exercises in shying away from the true nature of the iconography they're cannibalizing. Nobody seems to buy the bullshit. They either try to dress it up as profound (Hulk), tart it up as young and hip (Daredevil), send it up as camp (Batman), or screw it up as much as possible (Spider-man). Worse than all of these, though, was M. Night Shyamalan's unbearable Unbreakable, an exercise in superhero existentialism that not only bought the bullshit, but was convinced that the it had Biblical gravitas. What Singer's films proved, like Donner's before them, was that by buying the bullshit and surrendering to both its charms and limitations, they helped transform it into something meaningful. Look, we all know that no one flies, but everyone wants to, and most of us will settle for seeing it. And almost anyone, if pressed, can admit that genetic mutation is a clumsy, childish metaphor. But that doesn't mean it's not useful. Metaphors aren't ideas, they're just vessels. Their operation, their very existence, requires faith. And faith is what is most lacking in the superhero movies of recent years. Not the faith of audiences to suspend their disbeliefs, but the faith of studios, producers, and filmmakers to suspend theirs.

The careful reader will have undoubtedly noticed by now that there has been no substantive mention in this article of Hellboy, the very film that occasioned it. There's a reason. Hellboy features the single best lead-character makeup job I've ever seen in a comics-based movie. It boasts one startlingly good special effect involving fire, and a production design that faithfully captures the look of the comic itself. Also, the performances of Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, and Jeffrey Tambor are skillful. These are the only recommendations I can make for this movie, which in all other ways -- incoherent story, uncertain tone, unconvincing action, insincere sentimentality -- is just bullshit. Excelsior!


After a teenager in Covington, Washington, turned his father in for growing marijuana, local TV news reporters and daily newspapers fell all over themselves calling him a hero. Was I the only pot-smoking parent who was horrified?

KIRO 7 Eyewitness News reporter Karen O'Leary does sanctimonious piety better than anyone else in local television news--and that's saying something. As a group, TV news reporters excel at sanctimonious piety, especially when a story involves drugs. Last week O'Leary, a.k.a. Our Lady of the Pursed Lips, reported on "a drug bust turned into a family affair." Aaron Palmer of Covington, Washington, was turned in to the police by his 17-year-old son for growing pot in his garage.

"Neighbors say the kid is responsible and hardworking, a member of the ROTC program," the scowling O'Leary intoned at the beginning of KIRO's coverage. Palmer was arrested late Tuesday night, and O'Leary was on the air Thursday with an exclusive interview with Trevor, "[who] told me about his gut-wrenching decision and the fallout from it."

Cut to Trevor, the busted dad's clean-cut 17-year-old son. Trevor showed O'Leary and her camera crew around his father's garage, the spot where his father was allegedly growing pot.

"It's messed-up," Trevor said, complaining about the King County cops who busted his father, tearing his house apart in the process. "They trashed it too thrashed."

Apparently no one warned Trevor that cops called out on a drug bust don't tiptoe through the grow room, or any other room in a suspect's house. Like all kids his age in Covington, Trevor is likely to be a "graduate" of Drug Awareness Resistance Education (DARE), a class taught by smiling uniformed police officers. In DARE classes, cops tell kids that marijuana destroys lives, people who smoke marijuana need help, and cops are the good guys who can provide that help. DARE doesn't warn kids that calling the police on their own parents--as DARE graduates all over the country have done--can result in their homes being torn apart.

Trevor shook his head and looked grim.

"It was affecting his behavior. It was starting to take over his life," Trevor said, sounding like a DARE pamphlet.

"One of Trevor's biggest concerns now," O'Leary broke in, "is that he knows his dad will find out that he was the one who turned him in. That's because the sheriff's department reported it in a press release."

"He's going to blame me," said Trevor, who does a pretty good version of sanctimonious piety himself. "It's one of those fatherhood things. You want your kids to look up to you, not turn you in."

"A very strong young man," O'Leary said at the end of her report.

There's so much wrong with the story of the Covington teenager who turned in his dad for growing pot that I hardly know where to begin. O'Leary's performance on KIRO seems as good a place as any to start: People who work in mainstream media like to brag about their objectivity, their fair and balanced reporting. Over here in the alternative press, we get both sides of a story but we're allowed to take positions (repeal the Teen Dance Ordinance) and we're not afraid to grind our favored axes (build the monorail), unlike the men and women at daily papers and on television news broadcasts who pride themselves on being objective and balanced.

Except when it comes to drugs.

O'Leary's reporting on KIRO was a lot of things--hysterical, melodramatic, sensationalistic--but balanced wasn't one of them. The police said Aaron Palmer had "at least 40 plants," "bags of dried and ready-to-sell marijuana," and "scales to measure the crop."

But Aaron Palmer's lawyer disputes the police account. "Forty plants is a gross exaggeration of the actual number of plants recovered or seized," said Lisa Podell, the criminal defense attorney representing Aaron Palmer. Also missing from O'Leary's report was the reason why Aaron Palmer was growing pot. "Mr. Palmer uses marijuana for medicinal purposes," Podell told me. "He's got bad arthritis, knee problems, and back problems." Palmer's doctors were aware that he was using marijuana to treat his pain, according to Podell. Also missing from O'Leary's report was the fact that Washington state voters approved a medical marijuana initiative in 1998.

Confronted with a chilling account of a kid turning in his own father to the police, KIRO, KING 5, KOMO, Q13, and both daily papers stuck to the drug war script: People who use pot, very bad; people who grow pot, even worse. Aaron Palmer, Drug Lord. His son Trevor, Brave Young Man. If the cops say it was a commercial operation, it was a commercial operation. If the police praise a teenager for turning in his parent, then turning in your parents for having pot in the house is praiseworthy. The mainstream media is terrified of deviating from the drug war script, but is it too much to ask the mainstream media to get its facts straight? For instance, The Seattle Times reported that Aaron Palmer had been previously convicted of a drug felony, which isn't true, according to Palmer's lawyer. Guns were found in Palmer's home, as was widely reported, but they were locked in a safe and may yet prove to have been legally registered.

So where's the other side of the story the mainstream media is always promising us? Not just Aaron Palmer's denials that he was selling marijuana, but the other side of the pot story?

Comments from people who don't think marijuana is a dangerous drug were missing from every local news report I saw about Aaron Palmer's arrest. News "consumers" in Seattle and Washington state who rely solely on the mainstream media for information may not even be aware that there is another side to the pot story. So I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked when Keith Stroup, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told me I was the first reporter to call from Washington state seeking a comment about Trevor and Aaron Palmer.

"Whenever the public hears about someone who has kids having pot in the house, they get their backs up," said Stroup from NORML's Washington, D.C. offices. "But just because you smoke a joint doesn't mean you're not a good, loving, concerned parent."

Had the daily papers or TV "journalists" bothered to call someone like Stroup, they would've been able to offer their viewers and readers some balance and a little context: "Seventy-six million Americans, one out of three adults, have smoked marijuana," Stroup told me. "The vast majority of these people are good citizens, people who work hard and take care of their families. The problem is our laws, not good, responsible people who like to smoke marijuana."

Stroup told me of other cases in which children turned in their parents for growing or smoking pot.

"These thing are always sad," said Stroup. "When I hear of one of these cases where a child turns in his parent, I'm distressed by the damage done to the family." Fifty-seven years old, Stroup went to grade school during some of the darkest moments of the Cold War. "We were constantly told how bad it was in the Soviet Union," said Stroup, "and one of the things that was so awful about the Soviet Union was that Soviet kids were encouraged to report their parents to the police. A police officer was quoted in regards to the Covington story saying that the kid 'did the right thing.' Similar things were no doubt said about children in the Soviet Union who got their parents arrested. The result is, you've got a single father locked up, and a family fractured forever. It's hard to imagine why this should be the case. Who's been helped by this?"

Like me, Stroup suspects that Aaron Palmer's son was exposed to DARE propaganda at an impressionable age. Seven years ago, when Trevor was in fifth grade, the schools in Covington had DARE programs.

"A law-enforcement officer comes into a fifth-grade classroom and tells children how bad marijuana is," said Stroup. "DARE tends to place a special emphasis on marijuana, since that is the drug school-age children are most likely to experiment with."

Instead of telling kids the truth about the drug--the truth is far too positive, and we'll get to it in a moment--DARE officers are free to say what they like, and many, if not most, fill kids' heads with lies and horror stories: Marijuana is addictive; smoke marijuana on Monday and you'll be addicted to heroin by Thursday; all marijuana users wind up in jail; pot will ruin your life.

"Then they ask kids to be on the lookout for things in their own homes," said Stroup. "Every year in this country, a handful of kids, many meaning well, find rolling papers or a roach clip in their parents' rooms, and they become frightened to death that their parents are drug addicts, and they turn their parents in to the 'friendly' officer who lectured them about the dangers of drugs."

The DARE kids who turn their parents into the police--some have been as young as 10--expect their parents to get a lecture from a friendly DARE officer about the dangers of marijuana, just like they did at school.

"What the parents get, however, is arrested," said Stroup. "People who are good parents--good parents who happen to smoke marijuana--have lost custody of their children. Families have been torn apart."

Kitty Tucker's family was torn apart in 1999 when her 16-year-old daughter turned her in to the police for growing marijuana in her home. Tucker and her family lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and one morning she had a confrontation with her daughter. The girl had stayed out all night, so her mother grounded her. Furious, Tucker's daughter called the police to retaliate. "My daughter was scolded for misbehavior," Tucker told me on the phone from her home, "so she called the cops, thinking they would scold us."

"Our home was invaded by policemen without a warrant," said Tucker, "and they took away my plants." Tucker suffers from debilitating migraines and a painful neurological disorder called fibromyalgia, and smoked marijuana to treat her pain. Tucker's husband, who didn't smoke marijuana, was fired from his job with the Department of Energy. Both were prosecuted for growing marijuana. Tucker and her husband eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and were placed on probation.

Four years ago, when I was about to adopt my son, I worried that he would wind up in DARE classes when he reached the fifth grade. What if he found out I occasionally smoked pot and turned me in? What if he found pot growing in the basement of some friend's house and turned the friend in? Thankfully, in the last four years DARE programs have fallen from favor. Research into DARE's programs found them to be ineffective at best. A University of Kentucky study found that DARE had no measurable impact on later drug use; a six-year study at the University of Illinois found that children who had been subjected to DARE's scare tactics were more likely to use drugs in high school than kids who hadn't. The Seattle Police Department got out of the DARE program in 1998; Covington Elementary School (part of the Kent School District) dropped out of DARE two years ago. Of course, DARE might not be to blame. Trevor is a 17-year-old high-school senior after all, not a 10-year-old fifth grader. It could be that Aaron Palmer's son, like Kitty Tucker's daughter, was simply pissed at his dad for something and called the cops out of spite. The mainstream reporters in Seattle were too busy falling all over themselves praising Trevor to pause and consider his motives. Couldn't he be a vengeful adolescent lashing out at his full-time parent?

Many of us who don't fit the pot-smoking stereotype are reluctant to be open about our pot use. Considering pot's illegality and the stigma associated with its use, it's understandable that the average user might not want to go public. Unfortunately, the silence of casual pot smokers when other marijuana users or dealers get busted is helping to keep the War on Drugs roaring along. So I'm going to risk telling the truth: I am a pot smoker--and I don't fit the stereotype. I don't wear hemp; I don't have dreads; I don't think deodorant is a plot; I don't smoke pot on a daily basis; I don't have glaucoma; and I didn't vote for Ralph Nader. And unlike most people who've "experimented" with pot, I didn't start in my teens. I didn't smoke pot for the first time until I was in my 30s. (Note to The Seattle Times: One of the very first times I smoked pot was with one of your reporters.)

Here's what my pot use looks like: Every once in a great while, when my son is spending the night with his grandparents or sleeping over at a friend's house, my boyfriend and I rent some videos, lay in some ice cream and potato chips, and obtain one--one!--measly joint from a close friend. We put in a video, crawl into bed, get baked, and eat Doritos. We do this once or twice a year. We don't grow pot, we don't keep it in the house. Did I say I don't smoke pot daily? It would be more accurate to say that I sometimes don't even get around to smoking pot biannually.

According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, I'm one of the 20 million Americans who use marijuana at least once a year; 6 million use it at least once a week, and 3 million Americans smoke marijuana daily. The NHSDA puts current national consumption of marijuana at 7 to 10 million joints per day, or 1,200 to 1,800 metric tons per year. These figures may be low, since most researchers believe the NHSDA underestimated actual drug use. ("Hello, I'm from the federal government. Maybe you've heard of our War on Drugs? Hey, we were just wondering how much dope you guys have been smoking lately?")

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Americans spent more than $11 billion on pot in 1998. Marijuana is the fourth largest cash crop in the United States, behind corn, soybeans, and hay. It's the biggest cash crop in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia--and apparently Covington, Washington. "Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in America today, and is readily available throughout all metropolitan, suburban, and rural areas of the continental United States," according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The federal government and state governments will spend $40 billion this year in the war on drugs, with billions spent on the fight against marijuana, which the government insists is a dangerous drug.

The only trouble with the United States' war on pot is that pot is neither addictive nor dangerous--especially when compared with other, legal drugs. The government's anti-pot message is undermined by the life experiences of millions of Americans who have used pot and suffered no negative consequences. Meanwhile, 50,000 Americans die every year from alcohol poisoning; 16,653 people were killed by drunk drivers in 2000, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving; 25,000 Americans die every year of cirrhosis of the liver. Cigarette-related illnesses kill 400,000 Americans every year. Despite what the Partnership for a Drug-Free America would have us believe, it's simply impossible to overdose on marijuana. According to the Lancet, a European medical journal, "the smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health.... It would be reasonable to judge cannabis as less of a threat than alcohol or cigarettes."

While the mainstream media in the United States is inclined to praise a kid like Trevor ("hardworking," "a very strong young man," "brave"), mainstream media outlets in Canada are actively encouraging their government's moves toward marijuana decriminalization. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommended that "all cannabis preparations" be essentially decriminalized, the report was greeted with enthusiasm by the media. "The high use of cannabis is not associated with major health problems for the individual or society," says the British government, "[and] the occasional use of cannabis is only rarely associated with significant problems in otherwise healthy individuals." According to London's Evening Standard, "[the ACMD] makes it clear that alcohol is far more damaging than cannabis to health and society at large because it encourages risk-taking and leads to aggressive and violent behavior."

The Brits haven't discovered something we don't already know. In 1972, Richard Nixon's National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended that marijuana use and possession be decriminalized; in 1982, the National Academy of Sciences not only recommended that marijuana use and possession be decriminalized, but that lawmakers "give serious consideration to creating a system of regulated distribution." In 2000, a long-term study conducted by Kaiser Permanente found that not only was there no link between regular marijuana use and death, but that "marijuana prohibition presented the only significant health risk to the user." (Don't believe Kaiser? Ask anyone who was raped in a holding cell after being picked up for marijuana possession.) Kaiser recommended that "medical guidelines regarding prudent use... be established, akin to the common-sense guidelines that apply to alcohol use."

So here's the story that KIRO, KING, KOMO, Q13, The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer all missed: Pot isn't a threat to our health. The pot plants growing in Aaron Palmer's garage were less of a threat to his son Trevor than the case of beer in his fridge or the cigarettes for sale down the street.

Here's the story the mainstream media wanted to sell us about Aaron Palmer: He's a drug dealer. Never mind that Palmer denies dealing pot, never mind that he may have been growing pot for a legitimate and voter-approved medicinal use, and never mind that the recreational use of pot is harmless.

But suppose for a moment that Aaron Palmer was selling pot for profit--is that so awful? If using pot is harmless, why is dealing pot so awful? If there's no harm in consumption, how can there be harm in production and distribution?

"There's this absurd distinction," said Keith Stroup of NORML. "If you have an ounce or less, that's okay. But, my goodness, if you buy two ounces and sell one to a friend, you're an evil dealer.... But the reality is, if someone didn't take the risk of selling, none of us could buy."

That drug warriors are eager to lock up pot dealers comes as no surprise; what is surprising is the passivity of marijuana smokers when our dealers get busted. For pot smokers, the dealer is a Very Important Person, someone who vastly improves a pot smoker's quality of life. So how come there isn't more anger from everyday users when dealers get busted?

"Selling is different from buying," a daily pot smoker told me. Although he works in a field in which drug use can be assumed, the daily pot smoker would only speak to me if I promised not to use his name. We'll call him Henry. "Dealers run a much bigger risk, and they know it." And there's always another pot dealer out there, Henry points out. When one dealer gets busted, you move on to a new source. "I might get attached to a coffee shop in my neighborhood, but when it goes out of business, I move on to some other coffee shop. I don't mourn the shop."

Valid point, as far as it goes--which isn't far. When a coffee shop goes under, its owners aren't sent to prison for 10 or 20 years for meeting your cravings for caffeine.

To the hundreds of thousands of people in Seattle and across Washington state who smoke dope, I'd like to say this: Pot doesn't appear under our pillows in the middle of the night, left there for us by the Pot Fairy. Someone has to grow it and someone has to sell it, or no one can smoke it. In an ideal world, there would be a safe, legal, regulated marijuana market, and we could buy pot in cafés or state-run stores. But unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world--we live in the United States of America. While a legal, safe, regulated marijuana supply would be nice, no one I know who smokes pot is willing to wait on decriminalization. We want our pot, and we want it now, and we're quick to anger when people get busted for smoking pot or possessing small quantities for "personal use." (704,812 Americans were arrested for pot offenses in 1999, the most recent year that figures are available.)

But none of us makes a peep when someone gets arrested for selling pot.

This is, in a word, crap. When pot dealers get busted, pot smokers shrug and move on to the next dealer, and sanctimonious TV newscasters cluck their tongues, purse their lips, and shake their heads. (Does anyone for a moment doubt that someone in the KIRO newsroom is a pothead? Or that there isn't at least one small pipe hidden in someone's desk at The Seattle Times?) If I may borrow a catchphrase from the 1996 Dole for President campaign: Where's the outrage? Every day in the United States people who sell a harmless "drug" (and a plant that grows wild all over North America), a drug that's much less destructive than alcohol, are arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison for 10 or 20 years, or even longer. If American pot smokers had any integrity--if we were willing to put some of our money where our mouths are--we would create legal defense funds for busted pot dealers.

"No kid should have to grow up that fast," Trevor told KIRO's Karen O'Leary.

Watching Trevor on the news, I wanted to reach through the television set and choke him. Trevor was the picture of the preening, tormented adolescent, equal parts self-righteousness and self-pity.

"This sucks," Trevor told Q13 news. "Everyone I'm related to thinks I'm the bad guy. But everyone else... thinks I'm a hero."

Not everyone outside your family thinks you're a hero, Trevor. Sure, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an editorial on Monday praising your bravery and suggesting that "a local civic or service organization" offer you a scholarship (and once again mentioned your dad's guns without mentioning the safe they were in), but there are a lot of us out here who think you're a complete asshole. Oh, there may be situations in which a father or a son or a brother is morally obligated to turn in a family member: The father of Luke Helder, the Midwestern smiley-face pipe bomber, did the right thing; David Kaczynski did the right thing when he helped lead the police to his brother Ted, the Unabomber. But in both those instances lives were at stake.

Despite what you were told in your DARE classes, Trevor, your dad wasn't hurting anyone--not even himself. All your dad was doing, Trevor, was growing some pot--harmless, non-addictive pot. He wasn't forcing it on you, your siblings, or anyone else. Although what your dad was doing was against the law, the law in this case is unjust and idiotic. We have a moral right to resist and break unjust laws, something they may not have covered in your ROTC classes.

"He's going to blame me, I know it," Trevor whined.

Yeah, well, I suppose so. You are the one who called the cops on your father, after all. Who's he supposed to blame? Osama? You could've called your mother, you could've moved out. If you felt your dad was smoking too much dope, you could've called some of his friends over to stage an intervention. There were other options. But you called the cops, turned in your dad, and then watched as cops burst into your home, tore the place apart, and hauled your father--and your 15-year-old sister's father, and your seven-year-old brother's father--away. Your dad was a single parent; while you're old enough to be on your own, your seven-year-old brother isn't. So you not only forever fucked your relationship with your father, but you may have fucked your siblings out of a father. Nice work, Trev.

Maybe the DARE people will send you a T-shirt.

Dan Savage is the editor of The Stranger, Seattle's weekly newspaper.

Why Spider-Man Will Not Be Amazing

Making movies from great works of literature is an enticing yet risky proposition. While the classics invariably provide rich characters, timeless plots, philosophical insights, and finely crafted drama, the expectations are sky-high; and the film versions (like the stilted 1974 rendition of "The Great Gatsby") are often doomed to failure.

Expectations are certainly high for the latest literary classic to find its way to the big screen. Stan Lee's "The Amazing Spider-Man," arguably the great American novel of the mid- to late- 20th century, is playing now at a movie theater near you, and I'm convinced it will squander the literary power of Lee's original text.

When I speak of "The Amazing Spider-Man" as the great American novel, I am referring to its venerable original serialized run (issues #1-200) from 1963 to 1980. During those monthly installments, the Spider-Man comic book series organically grew to mirror the generation that came of age -- somewhat dramatically -- during those times, from gee-whiz Kennedy-era teens to angsty Vietnam-era college students to malaise-ridden mid-'70s young adults to blossoming Reaganite yuppies. Indeed, America's convulsive mid-century adolescence is the nucleus of Stan Lee's undeniably existential hero, Spider-Man (a.k.a. orphan Peter Parker).

Spider-Man/Peter Parker was born in August 1962 -- Marvel Comics' affront to rival DC Comics' stiff, stodgy Superman, a grown-up in a fake city who fought intergalactic battles to save the universe. By contrast, Peter Parker lived in New York City, had real problems (rent, homework, the flu [ASM #87, panels 1-14], his sick aunt's medical bills), confronted topical stuff (the draft, LSD, crooked politicians, racism), and more often than not, lost battles with petty crooks.

Meanwhile, unlike Clark Kent -- that mild-mannered front for the heroic Superman -- Peter and Spidey are clearly the same guy. More often than not, while getting pummeled by Dr. Octopus or the Green Goblin, Spidey would be obsessing about Mary Jane Watson or biology class.

Most important to the drama, Peter was a teenager. This was key to Parker's existential importance. The "Teenager as Superhero" idea mirrored the cultural battle brewing between the younger and older generations in the '60s. Teenagers were beginning to recognize, as Peter Parker did when he got saddled with superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, that they could affect society.

As Peter Sanderson wrote in a 1992 essay commemorating Spidey's 30th anniversary, "In discovering his spider-powers, Peter likewise learns that he need not simply retreat from [the] world, but can make his mark upon it. The powers can be seen as symbolizing the strength of Peter's potential as a human being." (I elaborated on this theme in my 1995 essay, "Human Being = Super Hero/Super Hero = Teenager/Teenager = Human Being.")

Fittingly, the tension in Peter Parker's story comes directly from his decision to play a role in society. The adult establishment (his boss at the newspaper, J. Jonah Jameson; his best friend's father and chemical company CEO, Norman Osborn) lashes out against Parker at every turn.

Of course, this existential dilemma (wrestling with the ramifications of one's actions) makes "The Amazing Spider-Man" the perfect fabric for a film -- although not the film I anticipate Sam Raimi has made. Judging from the zippy TV commercials and foxy hype, "Spider-Man" looks to be a fast-paced, action-packed, colorful blowout along the lines of "The Matrix." Sure, "The Matrix" was a solid movie, but it was hardly a literary masterpiece.

The film version of Spider-Man demands something along the lines of the brooding, gritty, starkly realistic laments from Hollywood's '70s Renaissance (think "The French Connection," "The Last Picture Show," "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver").

I picture a scene shot from the interior of a cluttered, sweaty apartment. It's night. The window slides open, and Spider-Man kind of falls into the room, peeling off his mask, flopping onto his bed, and lying there for the next 10 minutes under a spinning fan.

We don't need two hours of Spider-Man thwipping through the skyline. A Spider-Man movie should be low-budget -- long, murky shots of Peter Parker sitting on his bed in his lonely apartment, head in his hands, fretting about his mixed-up life: What's wrong with my best friend, Harry Osborn? Why do the police hate me? How can I tell my girlfriend who I really am?

These dramas are the essence of the comic. The web-spinning, I think, is simply a colorful overlay, a literary device, used to distill and dramatize Peter Parker's personal problems. In fact, I'd go as far as to say (as I do in my opera, I, Clone -- based on "The Amazing Spider-Man" #143-149 -- which premieres this October in Brooklyn, NY), that Spider-Man's web-slinging -- like the land of Oz -- is a dream world symbolizing what's going on in Peter Parker's messed-up life.

Raimi's film might turn out to be a perfectly fine summer hit. I wouldn't know. I haven't seen it. All I know is, it's not going to be "The Amazing Spider-Man."

Josh Feit writes for The Stranger, where this article originally appeared.

What is it About Sumo?

Why, after a long career as not much of a sports person, do I suddenly find myself scheduling my life around sumo tournaments? How has sumo broken down my resistance when any other sport is hard put to hold my attention for more than a grudging moment? What is it about sumo?


I love it that the essence of sumo is so easy to understand. Two guys struggle in a ring. There are two ways to lose: touch the ground inside the ring with anything other than the soles of your feet, or touch the ground outside the ring. End of story. I've never seen another sport in which I could follow what's going on so quickly. Two, three matches and I was hooked.

It adds to the intelligibility of the sport that sumo wrestlers fight pretty close to naked. I can see every muscle; I can tell what a grip or a throw must feel like. (But aren't sumo wrestlers -- aren't they fat? They are; you get over it.)

Highly stylized television coverage helps make sumo an easy read. Before each match we see the two wrestlers' records against each other, both a lifetime summary and a detailed description of the past year's matches.

Then -- whoops, it's over. The average sumo match takes under a minute.

And then come the replays. Think how much you would know about baseball if you could see every game first from the catcher's perspective, then from the pitcher's, then the shortstop's, and then again the third baseman's. The time would be prohibitive. But because sumo bouts are so short, they can be replayed in their entirety two or three times, from different angles, as soon as they're over. As a learning experience, it's nonpareil.

On the other hand, the part of me that loves ramification and arcana is by no means starved in sumo. For instance, each way of forcing your opponent out of the ring or getting him to touch down is considered a special technique. There's pushing him down versus thrusting him down. There's ooching him out of the ring versus lifting him out versus frog-marching him. There's holding him by the sash with one hand or two hands, close to the front or around the back, versus holding him under the armpits, versus wrapping your arms around him. There's flipping him versus tripping him versus smacking him down. And of course each technique has a name and a history; each wrestler has his favorite techniques and his vulnerabilities. There's no lack of fine detail if that's what you're looking for -- even as the sand for multitude.


When Americans think of wrestling, they think of the WWF, wild and crazy 'hood-heads in Superman suits braining each other with stepladders and garbage cans.

Sumo wrestlers, in contrast, are models of restraint and poise. More than a year ago, a sumo wrestler named Wakanoyama clenched his fist in irritation when a decision went against him. I guess he'll live it down someday, but not soon.

One of the chief impediments to dignity in American sports coverage is commercial sponsorship. I was horrified at my first Sonics game to realize that play was stopping and the players were hanging around doing nothing in the middle of the game because they needed to break for a TV commercial. Mariners' games are disfigured with advertisements blaring from every loudspeaker, blasting from every scoreboard. Honestly, it perplexes me that people who think of themselves as sports fans don't rise up in protest.

On NHK, the Japanese TV network, there are no commercials during sumo broadcasts; none. Asahi beer and JAL airline spots run before and afterwards. Sponsors are allowed to give special prizes. Before the sponsored match, special sumo peons walk once around the ring, each carrying a banner with a sponsor's name and message and perhaps an image on it. The banners are all the same size. After the match, the winner makes a small prayerful motion (almost like a sign of the cross) over the envelope containing the prizes, takes it, and hands it to his assistant. No further mention is made of the prize-giver. But I don't want to give the impression that sumo is all chastity and faded violets. There's a goofy pageantry to the sport that I find captivating.

For instance, the referees wear kimonos of staggering splendiferousness, said to cost in the multiple tens of thousands of dollars, and adorable little black foldy hats, like origami. You can find referee dolls on eBay, often misidentified as geishas. Each referee presides over two matches; there are usually twenty matches in an evening, so you get to see lots of great referee costumes. The referee says only two things during a match, but he says them over and over: "You're still in you're still in you're still in you're still in" to assure the wrestlers that the match is still in play; and "Get moving get moving get moving" on those rare occasions when there's a deadlock. Immediately at the end of a match he must motion to the winner. If his ruling is in doubt, five black-clad judges gather in the center of the ring to discuss it. The referee carries a dagger to kill himself if his ruling turns out to be wrong, but these days he just offers his resignation, which is usually refused.

And then there's winning the tournament. A sumo tournament lasts 15 days. There are approximately 40 wrestlers, and everybody fights every day -- there's no elimination. The sumo committee decides who fights whom, on the basis of what matches will make for the most exciting sumo. The wrestler who wins the most matches wins the tournament. If two or more guys tie for the most matches, the playoff happens immediately, King of the Mountain style. As soon as there's a winner, the presentation ceremonies begin. The Emperor's Cup and many of the other awards are sized for sumo wrestlers, but the presenters are government lackeys. So again and again you have the spectacle of a wizened elderly bureaucrat groaning and tottering under the weight of what looks for all the world like a gargantuan bowling trophy. It's not dignified, but at least it's novel.

Up Close and Impersonal

Did you watch the Olympics on American TV? Neither did I. Apparently the broadcasters have decided (a) that they need a female audience and (b) that the only coverage women want is People magazine. Last time I checked, I was female, but I don't seem to match their focus groups. I do like knowing the people in a sport, but as athletes, not as sob stories. The one year I really enjoyed baseball was when I went often enough to start understanding who the players on my team were and how they interacted -- and then of course the next year they all went to other teams.

Sumo hits just the right mark for me. Because everybody fights every day, in different combinations, a sumo tournament has a novelistic feel. At the beginning of every tournament there's the excitement of seeing the cast of characters assemble, mostly old friends, some new faces. As the 15 days progress, the newcomers become familiar. We see our favorites recovering from injuries, trying new techniques, encountering old foes once again -- it's very like the later chapters in a Trollope novel, only of course with massive half-naked combatants instead of country parsons sipping tea.

There is sometimes a tiny little bit of background coverage. A sumo wrestler traditionally maintains a connection to the place of his birth, and occasionally after a particularly triumphant bout there will be a shot or two of his local fan club. It's felt that a sumo wrestler's first tournament after he gets married is likely to be particularly tense, or meaningful, or something along those lines. I think that's about it for intrusive personal observation.

The sumo interview is a little art form all its own. Remember Kevin Costner in Bull Durham telling Tim Robbins to practice up on his clichés? Sumo wrestlers have theirs down pat. "My opponent was very good, very good." "I was happy to have a chance to do my sumo." "Tomorrow I hope I will be able to do my sumo." You have to learn to read whole shoals and depths of personality in the angle of the head, the number of blinks, the breadth and symmetry or crookedness of a smile.

But really, isn't that enough? I don't care whether Musashimaru was dropped on his head when he was a baby. I want to see him fight.

The Thing Itself

There are no weight classes in sumo. If you like David v. Goliath, you can see it nightly in the sumo ring. It is literally possible for one sumo wrestler to weigh twice as much as his opponent -- and to get beaten.

Before the match each wrestler rinses his mouth out and wipes his body. He raises his arms and stamps his feet. He scatters a handful of salt. The two wrestlers come to the center of the ring, squat, and face each other, crouching forward and often glaring. They go back to their corners for more salt, scatter it, and return to glare some more. All these actions have symbolic meaning, but for the spectators they mean time to get ourselves worked up.

Sumo is pretty close to no holds barred. A few things are forbidden -- eye gouging, hitting with the fist, biting, hair pulling, choking, kicking in the stomach or the chest, hitting both ears at the same time, attacks on the genitals. Everything else is allowed. Push, trip, slap, throw -- if you can imagine it, they can do it. Sumo structures the whole year. There's a tournament every two months, January, March, May, July, September, and November. So sumo addicts have 15 days of intense sumo activity followed by six weeks off, and then 15 days of sumo again. Sumo is to the sumo fan what the sea is to the Irish -- never far away.

How To Watch

I pay Dish Network an extra $25 a month to get NHK, the Japanese TV network, which works out to a little more than 15¢ a bout, but of course I want to watch every bout. Before you start handing out that kind of money you'll want to watch in a public place. On your behalf, I've telephoned a large number of Japanese restaurants in Seattle, asking whether they have TVs and whether they get NHK. Nearly all of them have pointed me to the one place I knew already -- Uwajimaya.

In case you happen not to know it, Uwajimaya is a marvelous pan-Asian grocery store, one of the gems of the region. Both the store in the International District and the one in Bellevue keep their TVs tuned to NHK during sumo tournaments, and you can easily insert yourself into a nest of fans. Cheering consists mainly of calling out the name of the wrestler you want to win the current match, like "Toki! Toki!" or "Dejima! Dejima!" I loved the wrestler Musashimaru from the first time I saw him, but I didn't get how to say his name. People smiled cheerfully when I called out something along the lines of "Mushi! Mushi! Rama!" and nobody chased me away.

Do you need to speak Japanese? Not at all. In a short while you'll come to recognize the names of the wrestlers and some of the most common techniques for winning. It doesn't matter that you have no pronouns and prepositions to string them together into sentences. NHK does have an English-language feed, but the commentary doesn't, to put it mildly, add to the experience; think Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and then dumb it down a notch. I prefer to watch in Japanese.

So mark your calendar -- the next tournament starts on the 5th of November. It will be here any minute.

Barley Blair is the pseudonym of a little old lady who uses a kimono for a bathrobe.

Hamlet Revisited

Michael Almereyda's new adaptation of Hamlet is a thrilling surprise, a contemporary reading of the play that comes closer to tapping its potential as a paradigm for human conflict than any version on film. Text is cut, liberties are taken, but this is no revision. The deft intrusions of contemporary life--Claudius' ghost appears on a security camera; the "what a piece of work is man" speech is interrupted by a cell phone; "to be or not to be" is spoken in a Blockbuster Video store where Hamlet is surrounded by placards reading "ACTION"--play not as clever-clever transpositions, but as perfect illustrations of the play's immortal truth and infinite mutability.

Impressed as I was by the film, when I sat down with Almereyda and star Ethan Hawke, I still couldn't shake the question that arose the first time I heard of the new film's existence: "Why?" Why Hamlet? Why now? Why again?

Did the impulse to make the film come from the play itself, or were you looking to explore certain ideas about the culture -- individuals vs. corporations, for example -- and realized, "Oh, of course, Hamlet!"

Michael: The first impulse was to work with Shakespeare, and then, almost reluctantly, I came around to the feeling that the most exciting and available, charged adaptation I could come up with was Hamlet -- even though it had been done so many times, and seemingly to death. Everything in the movie really does derive from the reading of the play, thinking about the tradition of it, and thinking about how contemporary reality refracts or reflects what's in Shakespeare's plays. It's an attempt at Hamlet; it doesn't pretend to be definitive. But it's heartfelt and it does have things that are new. And it was as intimate and urgent as we could make it.

Shakespeare adaptations always tread the line between defending the sanctity of the language and modernizing the context to keep audiences interested. Yours feels inherently contemporary, not just like a novelty update.

Michael: Even the archaic language feels contemporary. Four-hundred-year-old text sounds very alive. That's just proof of how great Shakespeare is.

Ethan: It's clear in the movie, this idea of feeling oppressed by the weight of a society entirely oriented on making money, like you might feel oppressed by a dictator or a king. Hamlet's last line, "The rest is silence," comes from somebody that's been seeking some kind of peace, some kind of authenticity, and not being able to find it. And [since the film is] set in this modern world -- we're inundated with advertising, with sounds and noise of all kinds. I think you get that all from the play, but we have them be modern noises.

Hamlet's struggle in your film is primal and real, but not so vaunted that he's unassailable as a character. I mean, I don't think anyone would say he's a coward...

Michael: Well, I think a lot of people would say that, but whenever you say that, you say more about yourself than you do about Hamlet. An essay by a guy named Harold Goddard pointed out that there's nowhere in Shakespeare that you can see that murder is good. Killing never leads to anything good. Shakespeare never endorsed murder. So he played devil's advocate in this play by making the whole plot-pivot be this character's inability to kill, and playing into the audience's impatient bloodlust.

But if the ghost is the projection of the vengeful side of himself, and the play is the battleground of these two warring Hamlets, the frustration, I think, isn't that he doesn't kill Claudius, but that he can't resolve this struggle within himself.

Ethan: [Not acting] is his most frustrating quality. But it's actually in many ways, really admirable. He doesn't want to kill this guy. It's what's really beautiful about the guy that gets destroyed.

Michael: But I think it's a false hypothesis to say that Hamlet is weak, Hamlet is cowardly, that he should kill Claudius. In fact, he's justified to resist. Vengeance is not a good thing. Murder is not a good thing.

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