I was re-reading an entry from my personal journal — I haven’t written in some time, and was thinking of writing something today — and I realized, as I read it, that what I wrote well over a year ago was almost exactly what I was thinking of writing today. The issue about which I had written is an issue I think about virtually every single morning, afternoon, and evening: what kind of world should we be building? What kind of world do I want to live in. The obsession I’ve developed is even bleeding into my fictional writing, through a piece I call The Afterlife Bus.
Readin’, Writin’, and ‘Ridmetic
Since I like to write, I also like to read. I tend to sleep in “shifts” — when I get to sleep at all — and my favorite time for reading is from about midnight to 3 a.m.
Most of my reading lately has been about worldbuilding, or about sentencing. In my mind, these two things are interrelated. That’s because our system of “justice,” and California’s convoluted and draconian sentencing schemes make our world a very ugly place.
So perhaps because, as I’ll mention below, I am distressed by the kind of world we are building, I find myself thinking a lot about building other worlds. Worlds I might like better. By exposing myself to ideas about how others engage in worldbuilding, I come up with a deeper understanding that (hopefully) informs my own efforts.
And, of course, along with reading about worldbuilding, there’s reading about worlds built. One of my current favorites is Randal Graham’s Beforelife stories. Lately, on nights when I’m not reading Sentencing California Crimes, I’m reading Randal’s work.
Randal is a Canadian law professor. Perhaps because he’s a law professor, he’s an absurdist. (At least, that’s what I’m going to call him.) Having lived in the absurd world of law, he knows how to build absurd worlds.
Perhaps that’s what it takes for this level of absurdity: experience with the world built by Law.
In any event, let me put in this plug for Randal: he’s built a really absurd and interesting world, which he calls “Detroit.” You can thank me after you read about it, in the comments below.
I may have mentioned that I like to write. Well, sometimes. If I’m being brutally frank, what I really like is to have written. I like coming up with an idea, and then birthing it, but not because I so much like coming up with ideas and birthing them.
I mean, coming up with ideas is fun. It’s easy. My brain just naturally asks itself questions. The other day, for example, I read a story about what happened in Havana, Cuba — and seems to now have happened elsewhere — with microwaves.
A story idea popped into my head, complete with title: Radio-Free Earth.
I even had the opening line.
It takes a special kind of sociopathy to knowingly destroy all life on Earth. But for much of the 20th and 21st centuries, such sociopathy was in plentiful supply.— Rick Horowitz, Radio-Free Earth (unpublished draft 2021)
So I wrote that into my Scrivener program, along with notes on the idea, where it came from, and what I thought I might do with it — along with a warning (already broken with the opening lines) that it needs to be written in a “non-preachy” way. And, who knows? Maybe one day it will become a piece of writing worth showing the world.
This sort of thing happens to me several times a day. If it weren’t for the birthing process, I’d probably be one of the most prolific writers to have ever lived. Coming up with ideas is easy; it’s the birthing that nearly kills you.
What this all adds up to, in my case, is ‘Ridmetic.
I call it “‘ridmetic” because mostly my thoughts seem to come in the form of ideas about what it would be like if only we could build a world rid of some of the more harmful things we find in our real world. Crime maybe — or at least the kinds of crimes where you actually die. Or maybe we could have a world where when crimes are committed, our focus is on reforming the criminal, instead of reinforcing criminal behavior. Or assisting in passing it along to the next generation.
Our current “justice” system — more appropriately viewed as an injustice system for all parties involved — is clearly not working. Nor could it. Not as currently conceived, considered, and constructed.
So warped is the American system of justice that each passing day finds me not only asking how it could be different — that is, what kind of world should we build — but what part do I want to play in it? Or do I even want to play any part in it, anymore?
The Afterlife Bus
The Afterlife Bus opens with the death of the protagonist. As it is right now, the story opens like this:
I was napping when he showed up.
I had locked the office door — it had been a rough day — kicked off my shoes, and laid out on the couch for a quick 20-minute snooze. Then I felt someone tickling my feet.
When I opened my eyes, he was standing there, looking at me. And tickling my feet.
Suddenly, he made a kind of twirling motion with his forefinger, and I felt myself being jerked right out of my body. My chest hurt a little. I felt slightly dizzy.
Then I saw myself lying there on the couch.
“What the he—,” I said.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, looking over at me lying on the couch, eyes closed. I looked like I was still asleep. “You’re dead.”
“Why does my chest hurt?”
“Lingering effect of almost waking up before I yanked you. Heart attack. It’ll pass, along with the dizziness.”
“So, that’s it?” I glanced at myself again. “I’m dead?”
“Yep. That’s it. You’re dead.” He turned and walked toward the door. Without either thinking about it, or wanting to, I started to follow.
We passed through Serena’s office. Ironically, I had let her go home early today. As he passed through the glass of the locked front door, for just the briefest instant, I saw a kind of foggy — maybe frosty — outline of his body on the glass. Almost before I knew what it was, it was gone.
When I went through, the same thing happened for just an instant. I thought to myself, if Serena had been here, she’d have seen that. Her skin would have already been tingling, and her eyes wide as she felt “someone” pass through her office.
Serena believes in this shit. I never did.
Well, I didn’t. I guess I do now.
“Where’re we going?,” I asked.
“It’s not like the movies. You don’t see any wings on me, do you?”
“Oh, shit! I’m not goi—“
“Relax. Relax. You’re not going to hell. That’s not what it’s like anyway, all that religious mumbo-jumbo. We’re going to catch a bus.”— Rick Horowitz, The Afterlife Bus (unpublished draft 2021)
Working Out the Why
I just started reading a book called Blueprint for a Book: Build Your Novel from the Inside Out, by Jennie Nash.
In Blueprint, Nash quotes a former Pixar storyboard artist (Emma Coats):
Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.— Jennie Nash, Blueprint for a book: Build Your Novel from the Inside Out (2021)
And I think The Afterlife Bus is driven by a few things, but mostly relating to what I talked about above. In some ways, it’s an existentialist look at who I am, what it is that I’m doing, and me asking the vital question of whether or not I want to keep doing it.
Or since, as seems quite likely given how I think I’m built, I’m not going to quit, how am I going to keep doing it? Will I keep doing what I’ve always done? Or will I rebirth myself, as I do the things I write, into something with a better message? Or, at least, one I find more palatable? Because the way things are, although I don’t actually know how to quit, I sure do want to.
The “why,” then, is that I must tell this story so that I can read this story. So that I can know what it is that I want to do. Call it platonic self-examination.
And, if it turns out to be a story you, or someone else, might like to read? So much the better.
The important thing is that I’ve worked out the why: it’s so I can work out the why.
The Journal Entry
I intimated at the start that this post grew out of reading my last journal entry, from over a year ago. I’ve done a little writing since then, just not in my journal. I think the reason is this theme, this idea that I’ve become obsessed with. Well, in the journalist form of a journal entry, it’s just a little too depressing.
Here’s the (slightly edited for public consumption) entry:
Sometimes I feel like being a criminal defense lawyer is taking years off my life. The only part of it I really enjoy is helping people by talking to them & listening to them so they can get out what they need to get out.
As to their cases, too often I feel like there isn’t much I can do. Our legal system is a draconian shambles. There is no concern for whether what we do is just, or for whether it makes our world a better or a worse place. Too often, it makes it worse.
There is a scene in Fiddler on a Roof where a man declares, “We should defend ourselves! An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth!”
Tevye says, “Very good. And that way,the whole world will be blind and toothless.”
This pretty well exemplifies our criminal “justice” system. Though perhaps a slight modification fits as well, “We should charge everyone for violations of laws, even where they don’t really fit, or if there was a temporary lapse in judgment which is not likely to be repeated.”
“Very good. That way everyone will be convicted and rights-less.”— Rick Horowitz, Personal Journal Entry from 2020
More lives will be ruined.
What Kind of World Should We Build?
I’ve written about tikkun olam before. The more I think of it, the more I think it’s why I became a criminal defense lawyer. To heal the world.
We don’t heal the world, though, by making everyone blind and toothless, convicted and rights-less.
The journal entry I quoted above goes on to talk about what, specifically, caused me to write that particular entry:
My client did a stupid thing: she agreed to smuggle a package for an inmate who made her feel loved. From all appearances, she is a very nice person. Not your seedy, nasty, criminal-type. She struck me more as a person who in a tough time in her life, & suffering low self-esteem, got caught in a web where this prisoner could manipulate her, and take advantage. She has no prior history. She always seems like a really nice person.— Rick Horowitz, Personal Journal Entry from 2020
To cut to the chase, closure on that case came years after it had started. By that time, she had met a person more suited to her. Someone who cared about her, had a good life, and wanted to share it with her. They had a child by the time the case was resolved. And it did resolve well enough, under the circumstances. I didn’t get exactly what I thought we should have, but neither did the District Attorney.
They wanted two years in prison. They wanted to take her away from her new child. For a crime that she is highly unlikely to ever repeat; in fact, she is highly unlikely to ever commit any crime again.
The court is unconcerned. The judge does not even want to think of the baby, and refused to look at the picture I tried to show him — indeed, it seemed to make him angry.
If, instead, the picture were of a crime victim, and being shown to inspire a more serious sentence, the court might have shown it around itself! The DA would have blown it up poster-size!
In a death penalty case, I would be allowed to show a picture of my client as a child in a plea for mercy. I could talk about her infancy, and show her as a laughing, happy baby before life destroyed her. But this judge does not want to see this baby. Why? Because he would have to think of the crime that he, the judge, plans to commit.
And for what purpose?— Rick Horowitz, Personal Journal Entry from 2020
A Non-Fiction Story of Mitigation
I don’t know exactly what motivated the judge in that case. In the end, I wrote what takes up most of my writing energies these days: a Mitigation Statement that told my client’s full story. The prosecution had all along insisted a two-year prison sentence was the only acceptable resolution. There was a message to send. And if we have to scorch the Earth, ruin a woman’s life, and potentially damage her bond with her new baby?
So be it.
As I said, they didn’t get what they wanted. And, after the Mitigation Statement, the newly-assigned prosecutor stated he’d never seen one so well-written. He ended up agreeing that probation — not prison — was the best resolution.
Really, though, the best resolution would have been a recognition that this was a one-off event in the woman’s life. A Penal Code section 1001.83 resolution would have been better.
But, of course, the Primary Caregiver Diversion statute passed by the California legislature is virtually ignored in almost every county in California. Because it apparently requires buy-in from prosecutors, and prosecutors already refused to buy in before the legislation was ever passed.
End of the Line?
A recurring theme in The Afterlife Bus is that the protagonist — modeled on me, of course — bounces back and forth between quitting, and not being ready or able to quit on his own. Having noticed some kind of string, or light, or thread, or mucous dragging behind him, he asks Death (or, as this particular version of him is known, “Bob Wood”) what it is.
“Oh, shit. You aren’t ready to go yet, are you?”
“Well, I hadn’t really had much of a chance to think about it.”
“What do you mean, you’ve been talking about dying constantly lately. You told all your friends. You told your wife.”
“Yeah, but, I mean…I guess I hadn’t really thought about it. And I really miss my wife. I’m worried about her.”
“Oh, well. There’s nothing I can do about it. If the severance isn’t complete, you’re going to go back, no matter what I say.”
“You can’t just cut it, or something?”
“Do you want me to?”
“Well, then I can’t. It doesn’t belong to me. It’s yours. I’m just a facilitator. I facilitate the movement to the other side, for those who are ready to go. Clearly,” he pointed at the light-string, “you’re not ready.”— Rick Horowitz, The Afterlife Bus (unpublished draft 2021)
Bob Wood comes along to “facilitate” often enough that he grows tired of it. (Maybe I should name him after my friend, Eric Schweitzer!) The (as-yet-unnamed) protagonist is never really ready. He just likes talking to Bob.
The story, I now realize, is my attempt to puzzle out what I want to do. It’s not a question of dying, but of quitting. And, like the protagonist in the story — he is, after all, as I already said, modeled on me — though I sometimes talk about it, I’m never really ready.
Because this much, I know, is true: my fight to build the kind of world I want to live in may never meet success; but if I give up the fight, the kind of world prosecutors and judges want to see — everyone blind & toothless, convicted and rights-less — is the kind of world I’m going to be living in.
Don’t forget to modify the comments button by adding a slug!
I’m intrigued by the premise of the book. How close are you to finishing it?
I honestly could not tell you how long it will take. I’m working on it almost every day lately, but not for long periods of time. I am still mostly at the outlining stage, although I have written parts of it, when certain scenes have popped into my head.