Recognize

I happened upon this video the other day:

The guy in it, Akala, makes some good points. I am particularly taken with the phrase “normalized insanity.”

Also saw this guy:

When I watched it, I was like, “Whoa, Tim Wise is pretty smart too.” He quotes W.E.B Dubois, by referencing ‘the psychological wage of whiteness,’ that rich whites gave to poor whites years ago so they could better control them. Having spent the first 10 years of my life in various trailer parks on the bank of the Mississippi River (as a poor white), I can tell you the truth of this ‘wage of whiteness.’ I’ve seen it in action.

Neither of these men speak in hyperbole or romantic prose. They speak in facts. Put what they say together and it’s hard to deny.

Our society is racist and afraid of difference. It is. There’s no two ways around it. I could cite example after example that starts with European immigrants and explorers’ treatment of indigenous people and goes right on up through to today and the way many people view transgendered individuals. True, it’s not as bad as it has been. However, we’ve reached a point when many of us are waking up to the systemic issues that have plagued society since before any of us were here. Look, Ma, social media isn’t all bad! Racism, of course, is one of those issues. Many of us are seeing that those with power have not only let racism grow in strange, eerie, monstrous ways, but have, to some degree–intentional or otherwise–enforced its growth.

Does all of this mean those of us who point it out are anti-police? Or that I, or anyone who recognizes this racism, place black lives on a higher level than any other lives? No. There are several analogies out there explaining why #blacklivesmatter does not mean all other lives are worthless (I’ll link you to a few if you still need the explanation). I will also offer you this meme:

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It is basically a simplification of points made in Wise‘s speech. In order for things to change we must, as an entire people, work together and recognize that things need changing. We must see through the curtain of controlled racism that has divided and conquered us for ages, and we must, ourselves, change.

When the people change, society does.

It’s kind of how it works . . . .

These are hard truths for some. I know. But when I can regularly walk down the street in the middle of the night, in an area of town some consider ‘bad’ (they’re wrong but whatever), and have little to no fear of police harassment, while a black man my age can’t, there’s a problem. When a man running for president can get cheers from thousands of people when he blames his country’s problems on Mexicans or Muslims, there is a problem. When prisons, schools, and medicine, are corporatized, there is a problem.

When the few control the many (as has been the way since the beginning of our great oligarchy), there is a problem.

The problem is there. The best way to solve it is to first recognize it exists.

Dystopia NOW!

Recently The Novel Fox published my book FormerIt’s a somber tale about what is left of our society after a zombie apocalypse. It’s been said that it is something “new” in the genre. One reviewer posted, “This is not your typical horror story.” Another claimed, “Almost immediately, I could tell this wasn’t going to be the standard, technical, science fiction zombie novel.”

These are great complements and I take them humbly. But recently I’ve come to realize that my dystopian novel and all the others that serve as warnings for a possible horrible future are more than allegorical. Former speaks of racism and a society beholden to businesses. It speaks of weak, money hungry politicians and a powerless public. It speaks of disease and death. It speaks of NOW: racism, society beholden to businesses, weak/money hungry politicians, powerless public.

Yes. Most great sci-fi novels do this in one way or another and have for some time. They address certain aspects of current society that frighten and unnerve authors. They think, “What is the worse possible outcome of this current political, social, religious, environmental, etc, etc, etc. problem?” Then they write and we get books like 1984, Brave New World, The Walking Dead, World War Z, Planet of the Apes, Ready Player OnePhillip K. Dick’s entire library of work, and yes, FormerWe get to be afraid for the future, we get to be warned about what could come. We get to maybe, just maybe, see the horrible possibility of what’s at the finish line of the race we’re on. Hopefully, we can do something to prevent it.

But look around, kids. You can’t prevent what’s already happening. We’re living it. Sure, all things considered, the United States is doing okay . . . I mean other than this, this, this, this, this . . . ah . . . . You get the idea, right? It isn’t perfect.

Truth be told though, from a strictly quality of life, pragmatic sort of view, for most Americans, it isn’t as bad as it is for people in a good chunk of the world. I mean, Africa, for instance and its far-too-powerful warlords, AIDS epidemic, and general unrest seems worse. And don’t even get me started on the human rights violations in certain parts of Asia. Or how about those poor refugees who die trying to get to safety? Also, for those of you who find The Handmaid’s Tale particularly disturbing, theocratic governments (the kind of government that exists in the fictional Republic of Gileadexist today to various degrees of comfort for their people. And just to remind you that the First World is pretty damn culpable in all this, I’ll lead you here and here.

And that’s the point . . . .

Anyway.

Two things are clear to me now.

  1. We’re living in a dystopia and, despite our problems, the United States and a good chunk of the First World are the ones at the top of the ladder. We are the ones with the power to change things or keep our entire planet marching toward self-destruction. Right now, we are the hero’s enemy. I mean, if real life was Star Wars you can bet the First World wouldn’t be the rebellion. And we are, by and large, blind to it.
  2. I need to stop reading, listening to, and watching the news altogether. Just cut the cord. Go cold turkey.

Seriously though, do our sci-fi books, films, and television shows help people see the fact that we are living in a dystopia? To some degree, I think, yes, they do. On the other hand, They do not do so quite enough because there is always a subtle safety net. Most of the dystopian stories I know of take place in the First World’s future. It’s ironic then that many of the situations characters live through (The Hunger Gamesmuch? Much too much.) in these dystopian stories are, to some degree, actually taking place on this planet right now to real people.

These real people work in sweat shops. These real people fear for their lives from military, religious, or political overlords. These people work to die. These people suffer illnesses that are easily treated here. These people are living sci-fi authors’ fears. And now that we have the internet, we have no excuse to ignore it.

This modern-day dystopia is here, like a disease, slowly eating at all the world’s parts.

The question now though is: What’s the cure?

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The inevitable growth of hope in times of despair

After last week’s tragic shooting in Orlando, a certain ‘politician’s’ reaction to it, and today’s woefully expected senate decision, I was losing any semblance of hope for the future. In fact, my first go at this week’s post was titled “Donald Trump is the devil (and so is everyone else really).” I researched Trump, checked his background (son of an immigrant and married to immigrants BTW), and listened to several of his nonsensical speeches.

He actually used the phrase “proved out bigly” in a speech about how he is a friend to the LGBTQ+ community.

I picked up on the repetition in the way he talks, using so many words without saying anything at all. I noted his hyperbolic utterances and broad generalizations and felt fear as the crowds cheered. It was all so . . . depressing. I also went down racist/homophobic rabbit holes on Twitter. There’s more but I don’t care to share.

Anyway.

Somehow, thinking about these awful people and who I perceive to be the living embodiment of the worst Id that ever existed (Trump), got me to thinking about Mark Twain. I know, a strange jump. But not really. I mean, it makes sense to wonder how a man like Twain would have reacted to a man like Trump. What sardonic, witty series of one-liners would Twain have gifted us with, had he lived another 100-odd years to see this blowhard tip-toe toward the presidency?

Oh man, whatever they would have been, they would have been sweet.

Oddly, this got me feeling hopeful again. I admit it is genuinely strange how thinking of this led me back to hope. Maybe it’s just that the thought of Twain laying into Trump was so amusing it made me happy. I needed that. After all, I was genuinely sad. I mean, while mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, children, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends mourn 49 different murders; pundits, politicians, preachers, and social media mavens argue gun control, terrorism, immigration rights, nationalism, racism, and homophobia. I think what disturbed me the most was that we have done this before.

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Battlestar Galactica for the win.

Look, America has a long and storied history of violence and hate. Say what you will about how great a country it is, this cannot be denied. And I don’t know the solution to the mess we’re currently in. I think stricter gun control laws would help. I think less xenophobia and racism would help. I think a better public education system that isn’t hindered by state testing and federal mandates would help. I think more funding for veteran aid, mental illness research/assistance, and social services would help. I think fewer loopholes in tax laws for corporations would help. I think less money in politics would help. I think vocal opposition to ignorance, nationalism, and racism would help . . . .

It’s a long list of what I think would help, mostly though, I think hope would help. When a guy like me, a guy who strives to find the bright side in everything, is having a difficult time of it, you know hope is in short supply.

But it isn’t gone. All I had to do was think of Mark Twain lambasting Donald Trump and I was back on top.

Couple it with action and the monsters can be stopped. What action though?

That’s easy. All you have to do is base all of what you do on one driving idea:

Be nice.

Hope comes naturally.

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I’m not a great writer

I’ve tried to write today’s post several times. Unfortunately, I can come up with nothing relevant in the wake of the latest few incidents of gun violence. One is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. In a better country it would be, like, one dude accidentally blowing off his toe or something equally comical. But in our great nation, it’s 49 innocent people gunned down in a night club. Another is a bit more down-home and has the kind of psychotic aftermath that is par for the course these days. Finally, there’s this sad tale. Lord knows there are probably more . . . .

Anyway.

In the face of this violence and increased anti-gay, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant backlash I have a hard time keeping my thoughts in any kind of coherent order . . . .

You know, yesterday it was 100 degrees in Omaha. We celebrated my daughter’s 11th birthday. At my house there were 14 kids of various countries of descent, ethnicities, skin colors, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds. I don’t know about their sexualities and or gender identification. I didn’t ask (because, unlike some, I don’t care). Anyhow, they ran through the sprinkler, swung on a tire swing, ate brownies, potato chips, and hot dogs, played video and board games, climbed all over a wooden swing set in a sandbox, took photos, and generally were children in June in the Midwest. It was fun. Here’s a pic:

I guess this is actually a collection of pics. You get the idea though.

But I sigh and cry a little on the inside as I think about this party because these children who have, in the grand scheme of things, done nothing wrong, live in a world of hate and violence. In fact, they live in a country born of hate and violence. And sadly, compared to the state of affairs in some other places, it’s pretty sweet here . . . . There’s a sobering thought.

Anyway.

Statistically, some of the children at my daughter’s party will grow up to be part of the hate, where as some will grow up to be victims of it–particularly the girls because, I mean seriously. Go back and follow the link to the New Mexico killer story if it will hep you understand. Or perhaps you’d like to read over this article about rape? Thought you’d get out without seeing anything about that one more time, did you? Sorry.

Anyway.

On a national level our politicians offer prayer. Our stars offer outrage. I understand the prayer and the outrage. What I don’t understand is our lack of action. Hell, what I don’t understand is my lack of action. But then I think, what do I do? Do I suck it up and hope that when my kids and I go to school we aren’t killed by a bullied lunatic in need of massive therapy? Do I hope for the best when my wife and I go out for a night on the town? What other action can I take? I teach my children about the duplicitous nature of hate. I teach my students that bullying is wrong. I try to be nice, donate blood, smile at strangers. I’ve protest marched, donated money to good causes. I’ve written letters to the editor. I’ve volunteered. I’ve voted for people I think would make great representatives. Furthermore, I’m mortified by this. What else can I do? What else can any of us do?

The conspiracy theorists will tell you that our attention is being diverted by these and other such horrible events. If this is true, I wonder, how horrible must the events we’re not supposed to pay attention to be . . . .

Anyway.

The worst part is I don’t even feel the brunt of how messed up everything is. I’m a middle-aged white male in Omaha, NE for God’s sake. I don’t have to deal with the clear and present monsters of racism, xenophobia, and sexism the way many of my friends and family do . . . .

So, can we vote out the people who keep promoting greed, racism, xenophobia, lax gun control, perpetual war, and general ignorance? I’m beginning to think that’s impossible. Someone will simply replace the ones we defeat. The battle, it seems, is constant. Let’s be real for a second though, these politicians are not the illness. Rather, they are, collectively, a symptom of a much greater disease . . . us.

A few years ago my brother-in-law and I were discussing the state of the world. It wasn’t a pleasant conversation because, even prior to 9-11, the writing was on the wall. Violence and hate were everywhere then just like they are now, just like they have always been. He eased some of my worry with this morbid philosophy: The groups that promote things like racism and xenophobia are dying.

His theory is that racism and its brethren are obsolete ways of thinking and have been since mankind wandered out of the cold caves of pre-history. And, when looking at the big picture, we haven’t been here that long. So, slowly but surely, the hate, the violence, and those who breed them, will end. To survive as a species, you see, we need love and acceptance, and if mankind is good at anything, it’s surviving.

But I don’t know if he’s right anymore. I don’t know.

Great writers point out mankind’s foibles and offer up solutions, paths toward change and progress.

Today I’m not feeling like a great writer. Today I’m feeling exhausted and confused.

Mistakes

We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all failed. We’ve all had regrets. We’ve all said things we wish we could take back . . . or typed them on social media . . . . and wished [continue to wish–sorry by the way (yes, I’m talking to you)] we could go back in time and stop ourselves from hitting the ‘POST’ button. Case in point, some of my mistakes have been public. I’ve written dumb things on social media without thinking, things that probably made me come off as an ignorant idiot to people I wish wouldn’t think of me that way. Some of my mistakes have been on this blog. I know that because I’ve gone so far as to go through old posts and delete the ones where I think I’m coming off as an ass. I know it’s the Internet and nothing is ever truly gone, but a guy can hope.

At least I can rest easy knowing that my mistakes, my failures, and my regrets have helped me grow and learn.

I bring this up because my 10th year at Bellevue West High–my 14th as an educator–has been over for a couple weeks now and that has me thinking about learning. Shocking, right? And now, no matter how hard I try to suppress it, I am pondering what I can improve for next year because (spoiler alert) I made a few mistakes this year . . . and the year before that . . . and the year before that . . . .

I’m just as stunned as this guy in a beard mask, this bald guy, and this dog-man-thing over the fact that I’ve made mistakes.

Anyway.

It’s okay because the act of learning is all about making mistakes and gaining knowledge from those mistakes. Failing is embedded in the process. In other words, failure is intrinsic to learning. Let me repeat that for parents in bold, red, all capitalized text:

FAILURE IS INTRINSIC TO LEARING.

I should know. I’m a straight up baller at failing. Which means I’m basically the smartest man in the room.

But seriously, as an educator I’ve watched as our society has taken the ability to fail–to make mistakes–away from our students and now, a little over 10 years into this strange and disheartening concept, we’re reaping what we’ve sowed.

And it’s frightening. Students who don’t know how to fail do not know how to deal with trial and error–the first building block of learning. The word “fundamental” I think can be used to describe it.

Anyway.

Students who don’t know how to make mistakes don’t think they can. Students who don’t know how to fail have trouble dealing with the reality that they do, in fact, fail . . . often because they know so little. They also are quick to point out when others fail but have trouble seeing their own reflection in the mistake mirror. I guess the same could be said of many adults too . . . and most of us graduated way before No Child Left Behind passed . . . and was repealed . . . and had its name changed to Race to the Top . . . . But at least those of us who know how to fail, know how to learn from said failures, right? In theory anyway . . . .

Anyway.

I veered off this week. I’m sure I had something else in mind when I began typing. What it was, at this point, is anybody’s guess.

Hope you learned something though.

Or maybe I failed . . . .

Good thing I can try again next week.

Stories and birthdays and poems . . . and books . . . oh my

It’s been a pretty solid couple of weeks for me. My yearbook staff at Bellevue West High released another successful annual. Want to know something I haven’t mentioned? The book pictured below marks the first time since I took over yearbook production five years ago that the journalism department is financially in the black. Since I inherited a five-figure debt along with the yearbook, this is kind of a big deal.

2016 Bellevue West High Yearbook
Look upon my work, ye mighty and despair.

Also, about a week ago, Picaroon Poetry published my poem “Strange Baby Days” in their second issue. You can check out the digital magazine here. It comes highly recommended . . . by me.

To top off this month of publications, MidAmerican Fiction & Photography was kind enough to see something worth publishing in my short story, “Jack in the Box.” With an editorial intro that reads: “This is one of those stories every editor wants to see. One that grabs us and interests us from start to finish. You are going to like this one,” I can’t help but be proud of this little guy. I hope you read it and like it too. It has meth and dinosaurs, what more could you want from a story set in the Midwest?

Finally, today is Memorial Day, which is a big deal. It’s a significant holiday for the United States and I’m glad we have it. I’m not as well versed in its history or importance. The great writer, Julie Rowse, is. You can check out some of her thoughts on it here.

Coincidentally, this year Memorial Day is also my daughter, Addisyn’s, birthday. She’s 11. I made this for her. It is inspired by The New York Time’s “One in 8 Million” project.

So yeah, I have had some good times recently and I like to share them. I hope you enjoy the poem, story, and video too. I’m sorry, Internet, we only published 750 yearbooks. There aren’t enough for you guys. Maybe next year!

For my nephew upon his graduation from high school

You were born a few weeks after I moved out of my parents house. My sister named you after me. I never really figured out why . . . . I’m sure you wonder sometimes as well. I mean, look at us. We’re different, you and I. Me? I’m a romantic dreamer with delusions and grandeur, childlike whimsy, and a sense of wonder that defies my 38 (nearly 39) years. You are a stoic, mechanically inclined, solid thinker with determined eyes and far more strength of character at 17 than I had in those bygone days of my youth . . . . But I don’t want to write about me. I don’t want to write about your mother and her strange decision to make her only son my namesake. Unfortunately for you, she did, which keeps us irrevocably connected. It also doesn’t help you that I’m a writer.

So today, the day after you graduated high school, I want to write about you.

You didn’t have it easy when you were a baby. I’m going to gloss over some of the more specific parts, but let’s be honest, back then your birth father was an immature deadbeat. And your mother, God bless her, was confused and scared. That tired, old saying comes to mind, “They were too young to have kids.” But were they? He was, to be sure. He possessed a complete lack of understanding on how to father, something I would have thought somewhat intrinsic until I became a teacher . . . . Whatever he is to you now, whatever level of forgiveness you’ve granted him, we must never forget his betrayal when you weren’t old enough to take care of yourself. Really, bad parenting is nothing more than the ultimate betrayal, isn’t it? To survive, you, your mom, and your older sister bounced around a bit, going from apartment to your grandparents’ house, back to an apartment, and forth to your grandparents’ house again . . . and again . . . and again. It’s a story as old as time that oftentimes leads to less than desirable results for the children involved. I know. I’ve been teaching for awhile now. I’ve seen what such living conditions, even when they don’t last long, even when there is at least one loving parent, can do to a child . . . . I’ve seen it a lot.

But those less than desirable results never occurred in you. The madness of those early years faded, if not from your memory, than from having any lasting detrimental effect. Your mother found some stability that resulted in three more sisters for you. In a way, your mother and the man she married, your adoptive father, have already broken what was sure to be a cycle of bad fathering and weak children. In other words, the bad things, the really bad things, haven’t occurred for you or to you and I don’t think they will. The list of reasons for this is long. I mention your mother and adoptive father. But they have had help. There have been more people involved in molding you than I think you know. The same can be said for anyone.

Truth be told though, more than your birth father, more than your adoptive father, more than me, or any teacher, uncle, or friend you have, it’s your grandfather, my father, who has had the biggest impact on your life. I see it in your mannerisms and behavior. I see it in the way you walk and talk. I see it in the literal and figurative shadow you cast. He has shown you how to be a man. He has shown you how to find your silent strength and use it to help people, to love. At times, seeing you makes me wish I would have paid more attention to him growing up. But that’s the regret of any child of a good parent, isn’t it? There are many who have touched your life, but he’s the one I see in you the most. He’s the one I’m happiest to see there. He’s the one I’m jealous to see there. He’s the one who will be there long after all the others have fallen to the wayside and you are the man you will become.

For your graduation present I offer you this small phrase, something to remember when times get tough, when decisions you never thought you’d have to make come screaming at you like a freight train on cocaine (because they will):

  • If someone tells you to be a man, don’t. That’s cliche, dated, stupid, and ignorant. Be your grandpa. Like you, like me, like all of us, he’s eternal.

Oh wait. I forgot this one. And it’s the most important:

  • Never change your name. It’s got a nice ring to it.

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I love you.