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, 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?