Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Inequities of Equality

How fantastic it would be were this blog post to find its way into the hands of President Trump. It is a message he needs to absorb. And Now. Written originally for Charlatan Magazine, I am posting it here for your enjoyment and contemplation. Are you the bullied? Or the bully?

Imagine for a moment that you lived somewhere else. Not in a different house or town, but somewhere other than the United States of America. Choose somewhere you aren’t free to make your own choices in life. North Korea springs to mind.

Bullying is age-old, it is everywhere, and is present in many forms. It is an epidemic, and it’s also one of the latest buzz words on Capitol Hill. They have even created a website dedicated to the education and eradication of bullying. www.stopbullying.gov. So very apropos.

Bullying is personified by the big kid pushing around those devoid of self-confidence, kicking sand in your face, grabbing lunch money and pushing you into mud puddles. You’ve seen it in movies and on TV, read about it in countless books and magazine articles, and more than likely experienced it first-hand at some point in real life. You may have been that kid trying to escape a monster in your middle school who tortured you for fun. Or maybe you’re the college student who, instead of enjoying the newfound freedom and reveling in new experiences, is hiding your Middle Eastern customs and heritage for fear of blind retribution. Or are you living in fear that the next time your spouse beats the hell out of you, it will be your last day on Earth?

Maybe you’re still the victim. Maybe you’re still the bully.

Perhaps you find it as comical as do I when bombastic celebrities have threatened to acquire a new address when their politician of choice (typically the President) doesn’t win election. All of them are still here, and more than likely will very much always claim to be permanent residents of this country. Their man didn’t win, and just as instantly as it began, their bellowing has subsided. Deft social media campaigns and shiny fundraisers and well-placed television appearances didn’t sway enough of the population into voting for their man. So they slink back behind their cameras, and in between screenplay lines, waiting for their turn again to sprout suddenly – and unapologetically – onto TV and into print in order to exert an unduly and unqualified influence on your opinion once more. Celebrity endorsement of politicians hasn’t exactly been a resounding success – especially if you have a mind of your own and are capable of deciding for yourself that which you find important and necessary. Innocent and harmless as it may appear, that is just one kind of bullying present in our culture.

Those are the kinds of things that were swirling around in my mind as I prepared to write my column. In the middle of the process, I was diverted to Washington, DC to serve as chaperone for my son’s 7th grade class trip. We made the rounds of all the usual monuments to leaders past, paid tribute to our fallen soldiers and watched the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. As we toured the grounds of the Capitol, I was more concerned with wrangling my subset of 12 year olds, than I was at being awestruck by the physically imposing omnipresence of the building, itself. Days later, as I recovered mentally and physically, I looked back on the group of us, children and chaperones together, sitting in the gallery of the House of Representatives. We were taking a brief respite from the endless walking. It is now, in hindsight, that I am able to make an ironic connection. There I sat, stage left, in front of the biggest bully pulpit in the nation.

For millennia, men have dictated to other men everything that encompasses life as we know it. Cavemen, then and now, rely on a strict behavioral code that has dominated concepts as simple as where you’ll live, what you’ll eat, and the people with whom you’re allowed to socialize. The definition of Social Stratification, as provided by sociologyguide.com tells us that, “Stratification is a hierarchy of positions with regard to economic production which influences the social rewards to those in the positions.” That is clearly evident when you consider the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

But what isn’t always clearly evident is the extent to which we live, every day, at the mercy of what others intend for us. We wander each day into and out of a space between compliance and fear, the far side of that spectrum is where you’ll find bullying and worse. No matter your gender or your age or your perceived social position, it is within you to put others in a position where they have no choice but to comply with your wishes. The American Psychological Association says that, “Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him[self] or herself and does nothing to ‘cause’ the bullying.” That definition notwithstanding, I challenge you to answer this question: Can not the definition of a bully be extended beyond the context of the individual?

Seated in the gallery, the sense of history was enormous. The mind of a 7th grader is possibly too innocent to fully appreciate that there was a time when a black classmate wouldn’t have been allowed in the building unless they were working. They wouldn’t comprehend it was from that very bully pulpit that free men governing other free men decided I should have the right to vote. From that bully pulpit, the Women’s Suffrage movement strode confidently into history and where still today, women continue to fight to have their demands for equality heard over the baritone din of XY chromosomes. With each passing day, more and more senators and congress people are sweeping their voting history and fire-brand rhetoric under the rug and coming out in support for same-sex marriage (no doubt themselves having been bullied into that position by their constituency and the fear of losing their next re-election campaign). And all but one of those children will never know that my grandfather, Joseph Vernon Sears, fought Santa Fe Railway (645 F. 2d 1365 – Sears v. L Bennett) from 1966 until 1981 because they refused him the basic civil rights afforded to him and every other person under the symbolic drapery of the Stars and Stripes slightly more than a year after the second Civil Rights Act was passed.

We teach our children to keep their hands to themselves, and to treat friends and strangers the way they, themselves, would want to be treated. We rarely teach them how to move within that space between compliance and fear – and when we do, it’s often too late.

With DC’s bully pulpit in my rear view mirror, and the aggression of North Korea looming in the distance, I understand fully that bullying may never go away. Whether we continue to close our eyes and wish we were somewhere else, or stand up to fight for ourselves and others, the way in which we choose to deal with bullying is what will change our lives.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Hold, please

I found this today. I wrote it years ago. It'll go up on my website (www.markvertreese.com) later, but this just hit me in the mouth. And I wanted to make sure I shared it. Now.


"Hold Please"

Khalindra Burton stared at herself in the mirror. Forty-two days ago, she didn’t recognize herself. The counselor told her she should be proud of herself; that so many people who come through the doors of a rehab clinic either leave because they can’t handle the pain of detox, or get kicked out for using. But she was different. She had made it through twenty-eight days of hell. She was clean and sober. And she was a success story.

Khalindra was a far cry from her former self. Once a promising news anchor at a major station in Charlotte, she’d been introduced to drugs at a friend’s party. It was Ecstasy, and although she had reservations about trying it, the peer pressure and pure curiosity got the better of her. She told herself that the habit was harmless, that the E just put a little more pep in her step. What she didn’t know then was that her problems had only just begun. From the occasional Ecstasy tablet, she very rapidly progressed to crack cocaine and then to heroin – the one that completely destroyed her life.

If you paid close enough attention to her on screen, you could tell that something was off. Even though you couldn’t put your finger on it, you knew a monster was hiding deep within her. Once bright and vivacious, her demeanor was slightly altered. Not one to be tardy, Khalindra began missing her early morning call times and wasn’t fully prepared for her production meetings. Heavy makeup was used to disguise her sallowing skin and the wardrobe department was taking in her outfits more and more. She shot up between her toes because that was the easiest place to hide the needle marks. It hurt like hell, but the reward was worth it. The talk of the set, and even amongst some of her peers, it was becoming clear that this wasn’t the same person they used to know. Just four months after that first, fateful hit of Ecstasy, she’d lost her job and was trying desperately to hold on to what was left of her marriage.

Never, ever did she do drugs in front of her kids, she’d told the doctor during a grueling orientation meeting and her first one-on-one. Khalindra trembled as she rocked back and forth, pawing slowly at her skin to stop whatever it was she imagined was crawling on her. If she’d only had one more hit, she said to herself while at the same time promising the doctor that she wanted to be clean. Her husband had discovered her secret after finding a baggie of something off-white and a needle she’d stashed amongst the seldom-used stuffed animals in her oldest girl’s room. They were fighting more and more about why she lost her job and how she was taking care of the kids and the house. He knew there was something she wasn’t telling him – and that it was destroying them. But drugs? And hidden in the playthings of his child? Hell no. Crumpled onto the floor and crying through her tears, she promised that she’d stop, that she would never do drugs again. He picked his wife up off the ground and dragged her around their room, forcing her to pack her own bags. He put her in the car and drove directly to a rehab. Get clean or we’re finished was the last thing he said to her. Not I love you. Not even good-bye.

Fourteen days clean, Khalindra stood in the mirror of her bedroom and silently battled the monster. It was 2 a.m. and her husband and children were fast asleep. They couldn’t hear the screams in her head and couldn’t feel the cold, drenching sweat that woke her up from a dead sleep. Before she knew it, she’d found herself sneaking out of the house, driving to the wrong part of town, and walking to the corner, waiting for someone she recognized. In a moment of clear thought, she turned around and walked back toward her car and pulled out her cell phone. She tightly gripped the card of the rehab clinic – the one she’d been given and told to call if she ever found herself wanting to use again. Khalindra saw her usual dealer walking toward her and she dialed quickly. The young woman who answered the night watch crisis line hadn’t heard the terrified begging in Khalindra’s voice. She hadn’t heard the words I think I’m in trouble and I need help. She hadn’t listened to a woman in crisis, sobbing from fear and pleading for someone to rescue her. Trying not to laugh into the phone at a joke she’d read online right before she picked up the line, she blurted out, “Hold, please,” and forever erased the hope of a young wife and mother and addict when a man half her age tenderly and knowingly smiled as he curled the monster back into Khalindra’s open hand.

Standing in the kitchen of their home that bright and sunny morning after she’d snuck out, he slowly shook his head and wept as he let what the police officer just said to him sink in. How was he going to explain this to their daughters? They didn’t even know what the word overdose meant. Jesus, they were only five and nine years old. They knew mommie had a problem, but he’d told them two weeks ago when they picked her up from the special hospital that she was fixed. He told them that she was going to be their mommie forever. And now she was gone. Without saying I love you. Not even good-bye.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Chapter 16

I was thinking about the upcoming Inauguration, and the event surrounding president-elect Trump. I couldn't help but think about Paul Brown, his own Inaugural address, and the similarities between the two men and their unlikely rise to the top. If you haven't yet read 'The Brotherhood', let this serve as a most fitting introduction. If you've already met Paul Brown, I hope you enjoy the first and (quite probably) the only Inauguration speech I'm likely to ever write. ;-)

Excerpted from, 'The Brotherhood'
by Mark Vertreese


Chapter Sixteen


PAUL Brown was sworn in as president on January 20th, a cold and rainy morning in Washington. It was without question the second most popular inauguration in history and a day that so many never thought they would see. More than a million people lined the Washington Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building, crammed together huddled under blankets and ponchos and plastics sheets. People climbed trees and poles and watched through binoculars from their balconies. They braved the elements just so they could say they were there for the making of history. School children and the elderly, farmers and CEOs, housewives and middle managers, movie stars and the homeless all mingled together for what they hoped would be the most exciting day of their lives. The entire world would be witness to Paul Brown being sworn in as the president of the United States.

A host of senators and Congresspeople filled the specially-constructed stands outside the Capitol Building. They were sitting in their assigned seats, chatting about what was about to happen and trying their best to stay warm. Few could believe what was going on. They exchanged carefully concealed looks; none of them thought this day would actually come. A black man in the Oval Office? “Never,” they once mused. “Twice?” It had to be a fluke.

It seemed that throughout the campaign, Brown was at such an advantage right from the start that there was no way any of the other candidates could have touched him. Justin, in fact, had engineered the campaigning and the election to make it seem as though Brown was the only man, black or white, running for the job. Justin didn’t want Paul to win in a landslide. He just wanted the man put into office as smoothly and as carefully as possible.

The Brotherhood was as powerful as ever. This campaign was a return to the political prowess and subversive tactics they enjoyed in the early years. The Brotherhood was a mighty force to be reckoned with. Although the older, more discreet members were dying off, there was a new guard now and they were just as hell-bent on preserving their own places in history, invisible though they may have been. It seemed like nothing could stop them. They were as strong now as ever, and as always, when they wanted a man in the Oval Office, no chances were taken. Polls were fixed, contacts in the television and newspaper and magazine industries were ‘called upon’, news coverage and debates with the other candidates were subtly slanted in Paul’s favor. The Brotherhood had no problem dismantling the clear political advantage of Paul’s opponents. After a significant amount of bad press, the other candidates simply dropped from public favor, and ultimately, out of the race entirely. Governor Scott, in fact, had been quietly offered a ‘significant role in the future’ for his playing the bad guy opposite Paul Brown’s dashing, white-hatted hero figure.

Hard-line conservatives scoffed at the idea of Paul Brown as president. Liberals could hardly control their excitement. Most of them could care less about who the president was; even though the majority of them were under the thumb of the Brotherhood, they still thought that they controlled the country. The president’s only roles were to balance the budget, sign legislation they ratified and smile for pictures with other heads of state. As far as they were concerned, he, like the Queen of England, was simply a figurehead.

President Sears and Vice President Martin were led through the dignitaries to their seats. Vice President-elect McCall and his wife appeared under the awning to mediocre applause. No one really knew anything about him. With the exception of George H.W. Bush, McCall was just as boring and behind-the-scenes as any other vice president who preceded him. They stood motionless for a moment at the top of the landing, long enough for the crowd to see them, and were led to their seats.

The air seemed to hold an electric charge, like lightning waiting to strike. The new president was ready. The crowd in the stands rose and people on the Mall snapped to attention, craning their necks and standing on shoulders for a better view.

Paul took a quick breath to settle himself as he looked down the corridor, outside to what lay before him. As was the conventional wisdom set forth for presidents before him, Julia was to walk down the steps first, Paul to follow by himself, an assertion of authority and poise not quickly lost on those who would bear witness.

Julia, both excited and extremely nervous, was at his side clutching his hand. Paul took time to look at the crowd and then at Julia. She was radiant, even in this dismal weather. He hoped he was doing the right thing. If he wasn’t, time had certainly run out, and there was no turning back. He leaned over and said, “Remember that whatever happens, I love you as much now, if not more, than I ever have.” She smiled and said she felt the same. With that, she kissed him on the cheek and said, “You’re going to make a great president.” The crowd erupted in delight as she walked down the steps to her seat.

“Now or never, sir,” admonished a smiling Secret Service agent, motioning Paul forward. Again, the crowd signaled their delight with an overwhelmingly passionate ovation. Paul stopped for a moment to waive and, through countless handshakes and smiles, finally made it down to his seat.

The crowd had never heard such an eloquent, passionate and symbolic inaugural speech. After all the singing groups and the poets laureate and the children’s choirs had performed, and the new vice-president and Paul were sworn in, he stood and walked to the podium. Paul Brown stared out into the crowd, sweeping left to right. He was amazed and deeply moved that so many people wanted to share this moment with him. He turned to look at his wife and their two children and smiled. Isabelle was sobbing uncontrollably. Against Justin’s fervent protests, Paul had not prepared a speech.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It is cold and wet and nasty. Even so, I see nothing but sunshine on the horizon and I feel nothing but warmth in my heart. Thank you for your patience on this, the most incredible day I and my family have ever experienced. Will you please excuse me for a moment?” He turned to four men standing off to the side and waved them forward. They quickly disassembled the top of the bulletproof rain shelter and returned to their positions offstage. Julia nearly fainted. The guests on the platform looked around at each other in silent horror; they all knew he was crazy and their suspicions were now confirmed. The people on the Mall were watching huge monitors and as they slowly realized what he was doing, they burst into applause.

Paul cinched up his overcoat and returned to the newly exposed podium. “That’s much better. I figured since you all were enduring this nasty weather, I should bear some of the load myself.” The crowd screamed their approval. This was the real man, a real person they had voted for, not some shiny, slick politician. The invited guests in the stands groaned in disbelief.

For the next twenty minutes, Paul Brown held the masses in his hands, delivering a speech that no one would soon forget.

“Once again, let me say hello. My name is Paul Brown, and my new title is president of the United States!” He threw his arms in the air to the overjoyed applause and screams of the crowd. “Throughout my campaign you heard a lot about me. You know where I was born, you know the names of my wife and children, and you know what I used to do before I got this job. From this point on, as long as I am the president, you can ask me whatever you want. That doesn’t guarantee an answer, but feel free to ask just the same. If there’s something you don’t know but want to, call the White House or email me.” Justin smiled smugly at the suggestion that Joe Schmoe would call the White House, fully expecting to speak with Paul to ask him a stupid question about the environment or his health insurance company. He realized there was still a lot of work to be done with Paul.

“From here on out,” Paul continued, “I am about the business of rebuilding this country. I am about the business of bringing family back into the home and turning it from a dirty word into something that we can all cherish and respect. I am about the business of making the economic foundations of this country stronger than you or I or our ancestors ever dreamed. I am about the business of making the rest of the world sit up and take notice. They will know by the end of my term that no one is equal in scope, depth, form or function, as we will be in the United States of America. I am about the business of change and it starts today, right here, right now. Are you with me?”

The rousing voices from the crowd and even from some of the people on the stands were deafening. The cheers went on for what seemed like an eternity before Paul raised his hands to quiet them down.

“I am not a revolutionary man. But, this is a revolutionary presidency. Change is upon us, ladies and gentlemen. If you remember my campaign slogan, I want you to shout it out loud!”

The crowd yelled back to him saying, “Take It Back!”

“Absolutely. This is your country. Each and every one of you owns this land. When the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock they brought with them the spirit of forging toward the end of the tunnel, searching for promise and opportunity. If you live and breathe in this country, I’m telling you that you harbor the same dreams and the same aspirations.

“In the 1700s and 1800s, slave ship after slave ship landed on the East Coast of this country, ferrying Africans to the American South to be sold like animals. When those Africans, those people, those mothers and fathers, were forced into servitude to make their masters wealthy and this country prosper, I can bet you that not one of them had the vision or foresight to predict that I would be standing here this morning, this greatest of days the American people have seen. But, with each African mother, father and child that was committed into the system of slavery came a hope and a passion for self-improvement that, like the Pilgrims, lent an air of success and a hope for great things to come. What the Pilgrims sailed across the sea to discover, and what the slaves of Africa were forcibly indoctrinated into, was the essence of the American Dream: Freedom. The Pilgrims had it and the Africans, now and in the past, fought for it. I challenge all of you here this morning to keep fighting. Keep the dream of your ancestors alive, for freedom is our one common ground.

“You know,” Paul said casually, as though he was talking to his best friend, Henry. “At one time we held freedom firmly in our hands like a child. We fed it and cradled it and loved it like no other. It was something that we never took for granted. Over the years, and due to a great deal of government action and inactivity, regulation and deregulation, that child, those children, that freedom, has been slowly torn from our grasp and is dying before our very eyes. That dream of freedom and the search for opportunity has been dimmed and removed from your vision. Take it back!”

The crowd screamed their delight and their approval. The invited guests in the stands looked at each other uncomfortably. This was not what they had expected. For years, the people of the country had voiced their opinions about this and that. They were unhappy with the rate of taxation. They wanted better and more effective representation from their respective senators and Congresspeople. They wanted the opportunity to express themselves in whatever manner they saw fit. They were shut out of the loop of important issues that concerned them, entrusting their elected officials to do what was right in their best interest, to do what they had promised when they were elected.

For years the powerful politicians in Washington had heard the cries of the people, but had never attempted to truly fix their problems. Politics had turned into a business of self-gain. To be elected meant that you were setting yourself on the fast track to wealth and privilege. Scandal while in office was the grist mill that guaranteed the $8 million dollar advance you received for your mid-life memoirs. The spirit of democracy, taking the visions and voices of the people, and turning them into something useful and beneficial to the country was no longer in the hearts and minds of those who had been entrusted with the future of the country. Public service equaled profit.

“I am here for you. I work for you. I am the employee and you are the collective boss. Not only do I work for you, but each and every senator and Congressman and woman that represents you is under your control. Men and women from this country, our United States, have fought wars all over the world to afford you with the right to call up your elected official and tell him you’re unhappy. Men and women have fought wars here at home, as well, to give you the opportunity to tell those same elected officials that they aren’t living up to their end of the bargain.” Paul unhooked one of the microphones from the podium and walked down the stage steps to the railing of the Capitol Building. The Secret Service agents were nervous enough without the complete bulletproof shield protecting him, and their hearts raced as Paul Brown walked back and forth along the cement railing as he spoke to the crowd. Julia couldn’t watch and discreetly averted her attention, pretending to waive and smile at imaginary people.

Paul held up his hand and counted as he spoke. “Freedom of the press, the freedom of speech and the right to gather in peaceful protest and demonstration, the right to bear arms, the right of the individual to protect his home, the woman’s right to a safe abortion. All of these freedoms and more are being taken from you. What are you going to do about it?”

“Take it back,” the crowd screamed. “Take it back.” For whatever reason, Paul instantly thought about that jerk, Jackson Curruthers, his earliest and most ardent antagonist. He thought about how Jackson turned his own campaign slogan around, flippantly telling Paul that he should take it back. Look at me now, Paul thought, grinning from ear to ear, silently wishing Jackson Curruthers to hell. Over and over again, to the pumping of Paul Brown’s fist and to the dismay of many, the crowd chanted “Take it Back.”

“I’m no politician. You should all know that by now. I’m just a businessman from the great state of North Carolina. I am the son of a farmer and an educator. I am the beneficiary of the Civil Rights struggle, not only of the sixties and for blacks, but also for women and other minorities. Right now, as always, I am obligated to the history of this country. I now hold the ultimate responsibility for the well being and benefit of each and every person who sacrificed family and home and pride to make this land what it is today and what it can be tomorrow. I was elected on the strength of my convictions, the content of my character and my willingness to sacrifice whatever it takes to see that we, as a people and as a family and as a nation, succeed beyond our wildest dreams.”

Justin chuckled at that. Paul Brown was not elected by any stretch of the imagination. He did not earn the trust of the American people. He had not demonstrated any skill at all necessary for running the world’s most powerful nation. This was not a construction and real estate conglomerate. This was not some silly board game with plastic houses and purple money. This was serious business. Paul Brown stood before America and the world but for the grace of the Brotherhood. So soon the rope tightened, Justin thought. It would be a shame for his project, his toy, to hang himself so soon out of the gate.

Slowly pacing the railing, Paul stared out across the sea of people. He was in awe of the power at his fingertips. He held the attention of billions of people around the world. “I’m not partial to wheeling and dealing for what the American people want. I’m not part of the ‘I’ll do this for you if you do that for me’ crowd. I do not bargain. Tell me what you want and I’ll try my best to make it happen. Tell your senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen what you want and they will do the same. Get involved in local and state government. If you didn’t vote for anyone in this election, I’m not talking to you. No vote, no right to complain. You’re just here to see the show.

“But if you did vote, then I am most certainly talking to you. If you think you can make a difference, stick your neck out and go for it. That’s what I did. Take a chance and run for that city council position. Get on the school board. Form a grass roots organization to get your voices heard. Hell, run for president.” The crowd laughed out loud and Paul laughed right along with them. Impossible as it seemed to him, he was preaching the gospel. “This is your country, this is our country, and it’s the responsibility of each and every one of us to see that generations to come have it better than we do now. Ronald Reagan, in his presidential inauguration speech, said that ‘In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.’ It’s your responsibility to turn your dreams, your American dreams, from just that into concrete reality.

“Take it upon yourselves to lead your family and your neighbor, your confidants and your enemies, alike. This is your country. This is your chance. This is your government. Take it back!” Paul pumped the microphone into the air to the cheers of his campaign anthem. The crowd screamed their delight and reservedly, the crowd on the stage stood and clapped. Paul Brown stood like a stone statue, hands raised defiantly in the air, staring out into the great sea of people. His breath was cold and the steam escaping from his mouth enveloped his face as it rose through the air.

Justin stood with the crowd during the everlasting ovation and stared at Paul, his hands raised in victory. This was going to be much more interesting than even he could have anticipated. Justin looked around at all the people chanting the phrase he found so ridiculous. They were captivated by this man’s words. Before Paul spoke, most of them could have cared less what he said. They really were just there to see the show. They had nothing to do with his election. They were merely pawns who thought they were performing their duties as Americans by voting. Those were the people who thought government had abandoned them. Those were the people who never thought a black man could be elected president – let alone twice - and have momentous influence over the American people.

Paul Brown had brought them all to their feet.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Let Me Clear My Throat

Let me start, simply and pre-apologetically, by saying that friends should not let friends drink and blog. That is a certainty I believe will ring more than true should this post fall on deaf ears, or be delivered in a manner which is absolutely unbecoming of Magnolia Rambling.

Having started this blog as a stream-of-consciousness outlet, it doesn’t pay to argue with the fact that I can say whatever I want, no matter what shape I’m in, and if you choose to Ramble On until the end, that is a choice you’ve made – and one that I fully support.

Let’s see if five Stellas (slight exaggeration) and three shots of 1800 (NOT an exaggeration) will lend either credence or confusion to the next many paragraphs.
It’s January 2016, and I sit in my hotel room of a lovely resort in Phoenix, AZ, at the end of a very fulfilling and personally-connected National Sales Conference. The company I work for is irrelevant, and unless you’re already privy to that information, it isn’t worth mentioning. Suffice it say, once a year I get to shake hands with people I’ve only emailed and with whom I’ve only spoken on the phone. We exchange pleasantries, we talk politely – and sometimes not so politely – about clients and the trials & tribulations that make our jobs a never-ending source of amusement, bewilderment, and success. Every year I see the same people, engage in the same handshakes, avoid the same people to whom I have no intention of speaking, and hug my friends and colleagues without whom I couldn’t imagine doing this day in and day out. But today was different.

And I think I know why.

Thanks to Facebook, the ubiquitous method four hundred and some-odd of my ‘friends’ use to keep in touch with one another - or at the very least either show off some part of their lives, or a platform they use to profess their political and moral views to an unsuspecting populace – somebody posted a video of Steve Harvey. He was speaking to the studio audience of his show, “Family Feud,” and giving them an inspirational talk about taking a chance on starting something new. He talked about jumping.

I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, so I sat patiently and waited for the big reveal. What the hell is he talking about? Why do I have to jump? And where the hell am I jumping?

Short of the long, Steve told the audience that nothing ever comes from sitting your ass on the sofa, watching life go by. To start a new business, to follow your dream, to take a path even less than well-traveled, in pursuit of your own happiness, requires you to make a leap of faith, to jump.

He started talking about some religious stuff, quoting this and that from the Bible, at which point I glazed over a little bit, but came back to the essence of what he wanted to impart. If you want to succeed at something which has the power and ability to bring you joy on a level as yet undiscovered, you must jump. It was a powerful message, but one which I decided to lock away in that place you only access when something triggers a memory or thought, and you remember, “Shit…that was on my mind [however long ago] and I’m just now remembering what I’d promised myself I would do.” It isn’t a place where you intentionally put things out of sight or mind, or a place where you purposefully let a dream or an ambition or goal atrophy; it’s just a place where thoughts go which may or may not be recovered in time – or at all – to satisfy whatever caused their origination in the first place. Jumping was in that space today and someone said something to me that I’ll not soon forget.

Now, let me preface this by saying it is highly unusual for one to attend a National Sales Conference and NOT have a beverage or two. It is also highly unusual for one to attend a National sales Conference and NOT take advantage of the stolen moments one has with a peer or co-worker to lament their current position and desires for what the future holds. It was at just this kind of tete-a-tete with someone whom I revere, and whose advice I count on for direction, when she told me this: “You’re in the meat of your 40’s. Why are you not doing what you love?”
Oof. I just shook my head.

We carried on with the conversation, and she was seemingly oblivious to the fact that she’d just rocked me to the core. In one fell swoop, she had complimented me and driven me to a deeper introspection of myself than I thought possible after a single Amber Ale. And she was right. Hands down.

I tell you all the time, whenever I get the chance, that I was born to write. You all know that I’m not religious, so I don’t cater to having been blessed with this ability; divine intervention would be wasted on stringing multiple sentences together when it should be applied to making sure no one ever goes hungry again, or dies at the hands of an abusive spouse, or is forced to make a decision between caring for their children or their next fix. But I digress.

I have an innate ability to communicate with the written word. I know it. And I enjoy doing it. I am boastful and prideful and unabashedly unashamed to tell you that. I will make you cry. I will make you laugh. I hope to make you think. And I strive to lend whatever I can to the education of man and woman such that we learn that we are one people, loving one another no matter what, until we no longer walk this earth.

I am in the meat of my 40’s, and I am letting myself down. In the process, that means I’m also letting you down. Whether you Ramble On, whether you read my short stories, or whether you’ve read my novels, you have not gotten from me all that I can deliver, and certainly not all that you deserve.

I would hope that I am not alone, that I share a kinship with other writers and that we share a particular space and time in the universe wherein our thoughts are never settled, and the erratic creation of ideas are the constants our brains juggle every day. I’ve written previously about for whom writers write. When our pieces are adored and inspire the evolution of our next piece, we are more than happy to put fingers to keypad hoping to outdo what we’d just released to the world. But when our confidence is low, or we are distracted by those things which lend nothing to our craft and sap our enthusiasm for the creation of worlds or the dissemination of ideas or dreams, the writing is supplanted by ‘lazy’ and nothing is fit to touch the page. It is not writer’s block. We always have something to say, and if you don’t see it in print in one form or another, rest assured we’ve mentally tackled whatever has fired our synapses over and over and over again.

I am in the meat of my 40’s and I have so much to say, so much to communicate, so many more books to write. Lazy is not something I can afford.

I am a husband, and a father, and an employee, and a student (of life and of copywriting, my latest checkbox). I am also a writer. I live for my wife and my child – and the written word. I am an employee because I have to be. I am a student because I want to be.

I’ve told a co-worker, and probably the one person on the planet who loves my writing more than I do, that I’d commit to finishing ‘The Jewel Box’ by the end of June. She told me she’d check in with me in March. LOL!

Lazy wants me to put it off. Sit on the sofa. Chill.

Steve Harvey wants me to jump, to take that chance at accomplishing something transformative and genuinely fabulous for my soul.

I’m in the meat of my 40’s and I have so much more to say.

2016 is going to be a very busy year. And I’m ready for it. Let me clear my throat, crack my knuckles, and try to blow you away.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Perspective : evitcepsreP

You know, a lot of times when I decide to sit down and tap out a blog post, I've thought about some aspect of it for a day or more. I think about the title, or the subject matter; I decide whom I think my audience might be and what they may or may not think about the topic or my approach. Sometimes I don't think of any of that, sometimes I don't give a crap what somebody is going to think because I'm just writing down my thoughts...a stream-of-conscious dump into my laptop. But I've always (99.99% of the time) had an idea in my head that I felt compelled to share with my 12 followers, and whomever else just happened upon my blog, either as a result of seeing it on Facebook, or maybe they misspelled the site they originally intended to visit. I don't know.

Today, tonight, I'm flying by the seat of my pants. The idea/topic came to me as a result of a conversation I had moments ago with my wife. And it spoke to me. That's kind of cheesy and lame, but it's true. My wife and I do not argue. We debate about stuff and we talk to each other when something we see or read or hear bothers us and we like to see how the other one feels. Not unsurprising, but my wife is usually the person to start the conversation. :-) She is very good at expressing out loud her emotions and what she's thinking, where I'm much better at conveying that on paper. I don't know if it's ying/yang, but it works for us.

I posted a video, or actually a piece of a video on Facebook today. It was by a fella named Tim Wise, and it was titled, "Tim Wise Schools Audience on White Privilege." I watched the whole thing and posted this comment as I shared it with my Facebook friends: "It's been a while since I've found myself speechless after a FB video. Tim says so much, and makes you think about so much. I was attracted to his cadence and impressed by the delivery and diversity of his audience, while being touched by his words and emotion. I'm going to have to watch this again, and search YouTube for more." Some of you may have seen that post and read that comment. I didn't get any comments on it so I'm not sure who watched it. Other than my wife.

With the explosion of the myriad ways we can communicate with one another all over and across the world, with the litany of arguments we can inspire, and the innumerable points and counter-points of opinion each person with access to a digital soapbox can conjure up, I was struck tonight by something I don't always consider before I hit that 'Post' or 'Tweet' or 'Share' button. It is with light speed that our ideas shoot out into cyberspace, waiting for a like or funny comment of approval, but we don't always think before we share what we think others should find insightful. And, listen, I'm not talking about cat videos or recipes for those nasty almond bourbon blondies your aunt can't stop raving about. More often than not when we post or tweet or share, we are digitally signing that statement and providing our approval of the concept or topic or argument. But what I wasn't taking into full consideration until my conversation with my wife was around: perspective.

My lovely is blonde and blue-eyed; I'm a black male. And I shared a video about white privilege.

Now, on its face, those three things can probably co-habitate without a problem. I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere. A white girl, a black guy, and a video about white privilege walk into a bar... Okay, maybe not.

Where I thought I was being educational in posting Tim's video, the perspective from my wife's point of view wasn't something I had taken into consideration.

The wonderful thing about our digital age is that we can say anything we want. The bad thing about our digital age is that we can say anything we want. Chris Rock can call white people 'Cr*****s' all day long and it's supposed to be taken in stride as part of his comedy and world view. But if my wife or George Bush or my neighbor objected to the video I posted in a way which was unflattering or even questioned why they were continued to be associated with oppression and racism in 2015, they would be labeled as racist and maybe even insensitive to the plight of blacks in this country. I surmise the reason I don't have any comments about the video is because people don't know what to say. And if they do know what to say, maybe they are more connected to the concept of perspective than I was earlier today - maybe they don't have any intention of walking into a trap which I unintentionally set. Or maybe they bypassed the post and the video altogether.

There's a double-standard in the United States where race is concerned. I know for a fact that my wife didn't own slaves. And neither did her grand-parents or great grand-parents. But there is an automation of association applied to white folks and their alleged general condemnation and mistreatment of blacks for socioeconomic and cultural gain. The same automation of association can be applied through the opposite lens when focused on black folks in this country. But where my posting Tim's video was, in my mind, thought-provoking and historical, the other side of that perspective was one of a blanketed application of a racism that is both untrue and unwarranted. How long will our generations have to apologize for something over which they had no control? How long will these automations of association continue to tint the conversations (both public and private) which damn the real progress we could be making toward healing rifts both real and imaginary, socioeconomic and political, local and nationwide?

Does it start with considering yours and the opposite perspective when posting or tweeting or sharing? Does it start with a conversation between a white wife and a black husband about how a video made her feel, and the ability of that husband to appreciate and learn from her point of view? Is it the responsibility of anyone putting their opinion on Facebook or Twitter or whatever to add a disclaimer? I'm shaking my head on that one because that's unrealistic. That wouldn't happen with someone hell bent on disseminating their opinion and only theirs. You can't expect there to be delivered any semblance of balance when the poster is filled with vitriol and an unwillingness to hear out or learn from the other party (and I'm talking about emotionally opining, not taking facts and evidence into consideration). I posted something earlier this week about Michael Vick and for about an hour (maybe more), I was engaged in a back and forth with those who supported him and those who vehemently opposed his actions and weren't blown away by the person he is today. I think we all had a very good, very honest, very open Facebook conversation, and I think that although everyone left the conversation with their opinions unaltered, at the very least we were all able to appreciate each other's perspective. I might be overstating that, but I'm hoping it's accurate.

Here, I am speaking specifically about racism, but you could easily replace it with any one of too many subjects from sexism to the fight for equal rights to the separation of church and state to the debate over national gun laws to the I believe this to the I believe that. Naturally, were racism an easy topic to bring up in mixed company, with easy resolutions to age-old theories and positions, we would have solved the equation by now. But in times when we still harbor whatever it is that we think makes us different, from wherever or whomever or whatever put it in our heads - and continues to endorse its proliferation, and the veritable kaleidoscope of experts and pundits and media outlets 'helping' us finalize our position, one favor you can do for yourself is to purposefully consider the other perspective. You will not always agree with the debaters or the haters, but the benefit of discourse is that even for only a brief moment you can put yourself in someone else's shoes and argue from their point of view, you'll have done more in that moment than those of us who'd sit on our positions come hell or high water. And it might keep you from finding yourself in a place you'd hadn't intended, right or wrong. Not all black people are slugs and not all white people are racists. And neither group should be so permanently and unapologetically tied to a past they cannot undo.

I learned something today.

I hope you did, too.

And the next time you're poised to post or tweet or share, maybe you'll think about me and my wife and George Bush and my neighbor.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

For Whom Do You Write?

It is a simple question, really, but one with myriad answers - and perhaps even non-answers, alike. For whom do you write? Do you even know? Hell, do I?

When I sit down at my stone tablet and chisel, ready to compose something witty and hopefully life-altering for my audience, what actually leads me to what I want to say? For my blog, I'm able to do what I want, write what I want, and say the most off-the-wall nonsense that sneaks into my brain because that's exactly what the blog is for. Read at your own risk, right? I'm not writing for anyone but myself, and I might just be the only person who'll ever READ it!

Just kidding. I have twelve committed followers. I'm pretty sure they read this stuff, too. Although....

Okay, so what about when I write/wrote (?) for Charlatan Magazine? Ah....structured creativity, right? Meh, kinda. My editor would tell me what the topic was that he wanted me to write about - a little insight into the flavor of that month's issue - and he'd set me off on my own, ready and able to come up with the most electrifying and educational material the Internet gods were poised to offer up in support of whatever I THOUGHT best conveyed what I gleaned from our conversation. My column went by many names while I wrote for them, but they were opinion pieces at heart. I was tasked with making sure to ask sufficient questions so the reader could form their own opinions about the topic, possibly using what I supplied as the kindling for a dinner party conversation, a water cooler chat (not likely...who still has water coolers?), or maybe even try and impress that hot guy or girl with a couple of lines memorized from my column about why we form groups. I can't tell you how many people I'm responsible for hooking up. At water coolers. You get my point.

But, wait, I'm also a novelist. Wow, say that ten times fast, and it just sounds like you've said something quickly over and over again. Hm...

Anyway, I'm a novelist! That sentence works much better with an exclamation point. And it is with that exclamation point that I scream how freeing it is to create my very own worlds, to give breath to characters, and to brutally murder anyone who doesn't go along swimmingly with the plot twists I've created. I invent fantastic scenarios of deceit and intrigue; I weave prose through my novels and I perch main characters and fluffers, alike, on pedestals by allowing imaginative and manipulative and scary and profound words to slip past their tongues and into the hearts and minds of my readers. Say that ten times fast. (It's okay to laugh or roll your eyes at that.)

Do I create novels for an audience? Do I write my characters in such a way as to appease my readers or find myself listed in Good Reads or so I can get great reviews on Amazon? Nope. I just write.

The more deeply I found myself falling into the quicksand that is writing, pulled along by my absolute love of the written word, and my 100% egotistically insane ability to communicate to my fellow man, the more I found myself caught off guard by people asking me whom I think my audience is. That wasn't a question I had EVER EVER EVER asked myself when I first put chisel to stone and created my first short story. I had no intention of sharing what I'd written with anyone other than my mother, and maybe my sister. They were the only people for whom I wrote in the beginning and they were the only people I wanted to please when it came to writing. But I didn't write things I thought they wanted to hear/read. (NOTE: Funny story about my first attempt at a novel is coming a couple of paragraphs from now. Please read to the end.) I wrote what I thought I wanted to say, what I wanted to express, what I found interesting, whether they liked it or not. Naturally, being my mother and sister, they fawned over my musings with the appropriate amount of 'that's fabulous' and 'okay, I think I've read enough to make him feel good, even though the story was dreadful'. And I thank them for it. Not everything I wrote was good. Not everything I'm GOING to write will be good. But what they did for me in reading each and every piece of drivel I tapped out was give me the confidence to continue honing what I was good at. Nobody who loves you is ever going to tell you that what you wrote sucks. That's what teachers and literary agents and editors and pre-readers are for.

I love it when people ask me about my audience and I tell them I don't really have an audience. Maybe it's because I write so many varied things - from columns to my attempts at comedy to political fiction to general fiction (and now fictional autobiographies). Truth be told, I don't WANT to have an audience relying on me for the next 'Novel X'. Okay, stop. That wasn't a knock or a cheap shot at anyone. For all of my fellow writers who just guffawed at that statement, and may have been personally offended by something imaginary they read, it's okay. I'm with you. Shake your head and fists and tell me that I'm wrong. Because to you, I am. To you, you're making money (please, Lawd!) by writing a specific genre, or maybe by contributing to the growth of a specific genre. I have a friend from high school, Jeanette Battista (hey, girl!) who writes wonderful novels about fictional worlds - and she does so poetically and very well. That is her niche, and her audience adores her for it. And THAT is the beauty of writing. You have the ability each and every day to get up and write exactly what you want. For whom you want. Or no one at all.

Here's the story:
When I was in high school, getting better and better at creative writing, I found a book in my sister's closet. It was (drum roll and angels singing)...."Hollywood Wives", by Jackie Collins. Holy HELL was that book dirty. And simply wonderful for the imagination of a high-school kid who thought he knew his way around a tablet and chisel. Well, I got to writing, using every bit of my brain power I could muster, trying to replicate the absolute filth I'd read in Ms. Jackie's own hand. I had about two chapters in the can. And then my mother found it. And that's when I heard my mother curse for the first time. And then she threatened me that if she ever read anything like that by me again, she would do something unspeakable to my physical person! (Okay, so I don't really remember WHAT she said, but she was devil-on-fire PISSED and I never forgot it.) And I've never written to an audience since that day. LOL

So back to what I was saying.

If you're lucky, you'll get to write for people who enjoy your product. For me, that is the ultimate goal: for people to simply enjoy what I'm putting in front of them. I do have one caveat, though, that I think probably requires some full disclosure here. I don't write for a particular audience, but I DO always write my main characters (and I'm talking about novels here) as minorities and women. You read all the time that actors and actresses of color don't get roles for one reason or another, maybe having to do with BEING a minority in the industry. I make it a POINT to write strong minority and women characters, but I don't write FOR minorities or women. Does that make sense? A great character is a great character no matter their ethnicity or color or sexual perversion...eh, proclivity, eh, persuasion, eh, preference...or whatever. Write well and the character will be fully adopted by your reader. I firmly believe that. Shonda could have made Olivia Pope anybody under the sun - she didn't HAVE to be a black girl...could have done the same job as a white girl...but the writing is what captures you, and it's what brings you back each week, and it's what makes us all want to be Gladiators. (Except for a little bit last season when I thought maybe old girl had fallen and hit her head - but she's back and the writing is stronger than ever.) Okay, I digressed a little there. I write to provide entertainment and enjoyment, with a side eye on helping minorities and women achieve their dreams in Hollywood. Everybody's got a dream. What's yo' dream? ('Pretty Woman' reference, you're welcome).

Listen, here's the thing I want you to take away from the rambling and whatever dangling participles you identified. If you're a writer or want to be a writer or think writers are cute and you're trying to hook up with one at the water cooler by slaying them with a witty reference from one of my columns, you're in luck. Or if you're a reader who absolutely gets down with authors and novelists and doesn't give a shit about water cooler chattery (trademark), instead you burn your eyeballs through a book a week, know that there aren't ANY limits to what you can write OR to what you can read. It might take years of broken stone tablets and mangled chisels, or maybe you think you've read every shitty author out there, salvation might just be right around the corner. Somebody out there is writing something for you. And, hopefully, like me, they're writing something for themselves.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

We The People

(Originally published in 'Charlatan Magazine', 2013)

I believe Thomas Jefferson would be in hot demand these days on the lecture circuit. He would be the guest of honor at Sunday morning talk shows and political debates and college roundtables. His written prose and verbal stylings could quickly enumerate his points, confound his antagonists, and make more confident both his allies and general supporters. I imagine Mr. Jefferson reading from his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, telling them that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God…that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.”

Are we to interpret that as meaning a true separation of church and state relies on the secular actions of government, while not being counseled by the opinions of the religion of the land? Or does it mean something else? And which is ultimately more important? Man or his God? I don’t know.

What I do know is that in 1947 the Institute for Sex Research was founded at Indiana University, no doubt a delicious piece of dinner party trivia one unleashes during a lull in the conversation. Headed by Alfred Kinsey, a pioneer in the field of true sexuality research, observation and education, the Institute allowed those in America who were willing to go against the crushing social pressures of the day, and uncloak the scandalous stigmas surrounding sex and sexuality to a point some found dangerous, sacrilegious, and morally contemptible – no matter what it was they were actually doing behind closed doors.

As part of his research, Kinsey developed the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale – oft plainly referred to as the Kinsey Scale. Along its axis, it is theorized that every man and woman on the planet falls between 0 and 6; 0 being exclusively heterosexual, and 6 being exclusively homosexual. Kinsey, himself, argued that with respect to males specifically, “the world is not divided into sheep and goats,” and that there are certain varying levels of attraction to the same sex, landing them somewhere between 1 and 5. Wikipedia tells us that there have been variations on a theme, and that some scales use a wider variance, sliding between 0 and 10. Were Kinsey alive today, would he also be so inclined to research, observe and educate on the sliding scale of religion and secularism, and their effect felt here and abroad? Would he also have developed such a scale for us to self-identify in terms of extreme piety and the belief in nothing? It certainly begs the question.

160 years before a sex researcher would subtly divide the human population on a scale with which few would publicly identify for fear of labeling themselves (or outing themselves) the Preamble of our Constitution was written, in part by Mr. Jefferson, et al, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It is, to this day, one of the most beautiful sentences to have been drafted. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.” Wow.

If the Founding Fathers could have foreseen The Year of Our Lord, 2013, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and John Adams might have been tempted to ask for a rewrite. For surely they would be asking themselves what went so horribly wrong with their design? What happened to the union? Where did all of this hate come from? And why is everybody so angry with everybody who isn’t like them? Is this what they were attempting to install? Is anything different? Have we, in 226 years, not grown above division?

By the time James Madison got around to writing the Bill of Rights in 1791, significant arguments had been made for the establishment of a limited government; one in which the citizens governed each other. They had already made strides toward forming a more perfect union, a republic where the power is held by the people and their will is carried out by those they elect to office. Determined to be utterly free of religious persecution and willing to die for that freedom among so many others, the very first line in the very first amendment states unequivocally that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

But if that’s true - if it’s really, really true - how have we found ourselves in this position today?

Where has the commonality of freedom gone? Why must one identify with the conservatism of the right and vilify those whose views are passionately secular? And why must those who aren’t washed in the blood of their creator take such offense to that which is believed to be sacred and holy and for the everlasting benefit of mankind? Battles rage across the country and across the planet, hinging often times not on economics or territorial disputes, but on the sliding scale of morality and religion that has divided us for centuries. How has the oil and water relationship between religion and the state become so diluted in America as to allow this unyielding evisceration, what some would deem spitting in the face of the First Amendment? To what lengths will the secular fight back, and against whom do they seek to prevail?

North Carolina, Alabama, and Texas, and myriad other states are contemplating legislation written by the far right and funded by conservative corporations with big pockets and giant donations. It is argued by their opponents that no good can come from restricting rights of the individual whether it is in terms of their ability to marry or to obtain an abortion. We are not seeing the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, as more and more often the ear of the public’s representative is held either by the religious right, or someone who takes great benefit (more often financially and less often spiritually) from their religious affiliations. If the secular world were the holder of the purse strings and exactor of more dubious pressures, would things be completely different? Would there exist the freedom for anyone to do absolutely whatever they wanted? Would laws be enacted that punish those who are true believers, those who act in defiance of a secular plan so as to lift up the name and voice of their God? Or can there be a true common ground on which we can all stand? Is that such a crazy idea?

Christian or Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist, atheist or agnostic, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, 0 to 6, 1 to 5, or somewhere in between, we all have a responsibility to the legacy of our Founding Fathers, and the adoption of a true republic. We must work hand in hand with our friends and enemies, alike, to fairly and passionately govern ourselves, and do our level best to ensure that the United States of America continues to be a more perfect union. So help me God. Or not.

Otherwise, what’s the point?