Tuesday, October 12, 2021

"More Life"

  I normally like to let the story speak for itself, but I want to share some background on this one. I wrote this about four years ago when I was experimenting with elements of horror. The sign in the first paragraph was a real sign I used to pass every day on my way to work. It was the weirdest thing. It was one of those plastic banner signs, and it just said "More Life" with a picture of a guy who seemed to be living his best, and no other information. The building itself was so nondescript, as if it were trying to lay low or something - no windows, no other markings on the door or walls of the place. I saw that sign so often that I started wondering what could possibly go on in there that was such a secret, and the idea of some shady sci-fi horror thing came to me. I also tried to combine this backdrop with the idea of how all of our paper trail and personal data can affect what opportunities we have access to, especially our credit checks. In addition to all of the other financial inequities in the world, the idea that running a credit check can negatively affect your credit has always seemed crazy to me, like some kind of quantum economics. I'm not sure that it works as a story, but I know of at least five or six magazine editors who would probably say that it doesn't. Still, I hope you enjoy it.

    FYI, I finally looked up the business online after I wrote the first draft of the story, and they are a drug rehab center, and apparently do very good work in the community.


"More Life"

  “More Life – Live Your Life to the Fullest.” He had passed that sign every day on his way to work for the past few months, since the place had opened up in a little office next to a pizzeria, right there on Hollywood Boulevard. Even now, it still had the same plastic banner across the storefront, standing out against all the neon and electric signs of the surrounding businesses. It was just a brick-front building with a wooden door, no windows, no merchandise, no other indication of what they might offer, but the allure of that name – “More Life” – was enough to at least get Mike Bennett searching the internet, and now it had him pulling into one of only five parking spots directly in front of that wooden door. 

    Mike was really operating on faith here. He had found the website for the business, but it hadn’t actually offered much information, just more platitudes like the one on the sign, along with some vague promises of counselling and goal setting. It was really that plastic sign that did it for him. “Live Life to the Fullest.” More than anything else, that’s what he wanted, that’s what had passed him by. He sat in the car, contemplating his existence, too nervous to even get out right away. Forty-one years old, unmarried, no kids, teaching gym at the same high school he had graduated from, and he was sick of all of it. That was what made him fill out the questionnaire on the website, and that was the only thing that had filled his thoughts since he had received the confirmation email with the time and date of his appointment. 

    He looked up at the sign above his windshield, stroked his short, mostly gray beard with both hands, and then snatched the keys out of the ignition and popped out of the car, before he could change his mind.

    Mike crashed shoulder first into the door trying to open it, before realizing that it was locked. With no windows in the door, and no other sign of activity in the building, his heart sank a bit before he noticed the intercom just to the right. He pressed the call button, and within seconds, a sweet feminine voice startled him.

    “Good morning,” her voice a little louder than necessary, but clear and kind, “Mr. Bennett, I presume?” 

    “Um,” Mike felt the same anxiety he felt whenever he found himself in the presence of women. “That’s me,” he stammered. “I have an appointment.”

    “Of course you do,” the voice responded, and Mike felt as if he could actually see her smiling sweetly at him past the intercom, “We’re all looking forward to meeting with you.” 

    Mike just barely heard a click in the lock of the door, no annoying buzz or loud noise from the intercom to tell him to come in. He tried the door again and found that it opened easily.

    The inside of the place was the opposite of the outside in every way. From the cheap plastic sign and bare front of the office, Mike had half expected the inside to look like a driver’s license bureau or public works office. Instead, the inside was the plushest and most luxurious room he had ever been in. The floor was covered with the softest off-white, deep-pile carpet, and the walls were a clean white that was crisp and bright, but somehow comfortable to his eyes because of the soft lighting in the room. It was a small room, about the size of any of the hotel rooms Mike had stayed in over the years, with a single couch against the side of the left wall, black leather that looked as soft as the floor. The couch was flanked by two tall orchids, mostly white with small red centers to the blooms. Every wall around him was decorated with beautiful and puzzling artwork, an eclectic collection that seemed to fit together despite the varied differences in style. The one that held his attention was on the wall opposite the entrance, between the receptionist’s desk and another doorway in the back of the room. This painting was bright and colorful, but surreal, depicting a man emerging from the top of a tall tree in the midst of a forest, reaching out with one wide open hand to a sun that looked both warm and powerful.

    After a few moments of staring at all of the paintings, Mike finally noticed the receptionist sitting at the desk in the back of the room, smiling at him just as he had imagined she would. 

    “Good morning Mr. Bennett,” she said, and all of Mike’s anxiety returned to him with the way she cocked her head to the side slightly as she looked up at him, her light brown hair, drawn into a neat, long ponytail, resting on her left shoulder. “We’re glad you’re here. We’ve got all your information already, so you can just have a seat and Mr. Hansen will be with you soon.” 

    “This painting is so beautiful,” Mike struggled to even look at the woman behind the desk, just glancing at her every few seconds and looking at her maroon lips, just short of eye contact. “It ...” he reached a hand out to the painting, pointing to the place where the man in the picture was reaching upwards as well, “It inspires me.”

    The receptionist smiled even wider, and her green eyes opened in such a sincere way that Mike immediately looked back at the painting. “It is a beautiful work. I’m glad it moves you.” She shifted her position on the chair to turn around and look at it as well, and Mike allowed himself to stare at the back of her head, where her neckline met the collar of her white blouse. “It was painted by one of our clients.”

    “Really,” Mike tried to sound amused, watching her profile until she turned to him and he snapped his gaze back at the painting. 

    “Oh, yes,” she said, “In fact, every painting and sculpture you see in our offices was created by someone who has graduated from our process.”

    Mike looked again at all the paintings surrounding him, at the plush carpet and couch, at the beautiful receptionist with the kind eyes, and felt more out of place than he ever had in his life. He hadn’t really known what to expect, but he certainly didn’t expect this level of opulence, and he knew he didn’t have the kind of money or talent that it took to be a member of whatever club this was. 

    Just as he was about to excuse himself and walk back out to the parking lot, the door next to the receptionist’s desk opened with a click, and a man walked through it into the lobby. He looked slim but agile, muscular but not musclebound. He wore a finely tailored suit, but with such a modern cut that it made him look as if he was just as ready for an evening date at the bar as for his best friend’s wedding. The gray of the suit was somehow bright and shiny, without calling too much attention to itself, with a simple white shirt and a red tie, loosened a little.

    The man made eye contact with Mike as soon as he stepped into the room, smiled warmly and reached out his hand. “Michael Bennett, yes?” he said.

    Mike nodded, and gave the best handshake he could, trying to impress the guy as much as he was impressed by him. He couldn’t tell if the man’s face was really tanned, or if it was just his three-day scruff that made it look as if his face had color.

    The man released his handshake, but then reached up and gripped Mike around the upper arm in a way that made Mike feel less intimidated, as if this guy was just an old friend he had forgotten about.

    “I’m Alik Hansen. So glad you’re here, and right on time,” he said, squeezing Mike’s arm and slapping him gently on the shoulder. “Come on inside and let’s talk about what you want out of life.”

    Mike looked down at the receptionist, who was still focused on him, smiling as if she was so genuinely happy for him, happy that things were finally coming together for him. She nodded to him encouragingly, and Mike stepped through the door with Mr. Hansen right behind him. 

    Beyond the door was a short hallway with doors only on the opposite side, five doors in a row, spaced about ten feet apart. Each door had a frosted glass window that peered into the room beyond, where Mike could barely make out bookcases and couches. Only one door was completely solid and white, with no window at all. Alik opened the last door at the end of the hall, smiled, and gestured for Mike to enter. Mike walked into a much smaller room than the lobby, just a nicely appointed office with a bookcase along the back wall, stocked with medical books and philosophers, a small desk with dark wood grain and a small water fountain that bubbled water down a series of bamboo columns, past a couple of tea light candles.

    Still smiling, Alik placed a hand on Mike’s shoulder and pulled a leather chair away from the desk for him. As Mike sat down in the soft leather, Alik crossed over and sat in a similar chair on the other side. Again, Mike had that acute feeling of unworthiness, of being out of his league.

    “So, Mike, tell me what you want out of life.” Alik sat forward in his chair, perched with his hands folded in front of him, as if ready to hear important and exciting news.

    Mike looked into Alik’s eyes, and then shook his head and looked at the numerous books on the shelf behind him, and then at Alik again. “I’m not really sure,” he said, “I just want more. I think that’s what drew me in here to begin with.”

    Alik nodded and wrinkled his brow. “There must be something,” he said, leaning his head to the side and staring into Mike’s eyes, “something that you wanted to do, when you were younger, something that passed you by, something that you’ve given up on as you see the years slipping away from you.”

    Mike bit his lip and rested his sweaty hands on the edge of the desk.

    “Let me put it this way,” Alik rubbed his hands together and sat up straight, “have you ever said something like, if only I knew then what I know now?”

    Mike nodded, “That’s pretty much every day lately.” 

    Alik nodded, “I understand. I was like that too, once.” He reached across the table and tapped the back of Mike’s hand, gripped it slightly, just for a second, and then sat back in his chair. “What if I told you that you didn’t have to get old, that you could feel as young as you are now, or even younger, for the next thirty years of your life? What if I told you that it wasn’t too late to take all the things that you’ve learned in life, good and bad, and actually use them to do the things that you thought had passed you by?” He cracked his knuckles on both hands, as if he was preparing to get down to some kind of serious business. “If all that was a reality, what’s the one thing you would want to do for the next thirty years?”

    “Movies,” Mike blurted out, “If I had it to do all over again, I would stay in film school and I’d be writing and directing movies by now.”

    “That’s great,” Alik said, leaning forward again, his eyes wide and encouraging, “So you wanted to be a filmmaker? Why did you quit?”

    “I was in the film program at University of Miami, I was on scholarship too, for the most part, …” Mike shook his head and scanned the books on the shelf, looked around the room, noticed that there were no windows.

    Alik tapped Mike’s hand again, and when Mike looked back in his direction, Alik pointed into his own eyes, “What happened, Mike?”

    “It was just,” Mike started, looked down at his lap, and then forced himself to look back into Alik’s face, “Just that everybody seemed to already know what they were doing, everybody was already so much better than me. I thought I had such good ideas before I came to that school, but everyone else’s stuff made me feel like I was kidding myself. Plus my folks kept telling me that being a director was a pipe dream, that it was all about connections.” Mike shook his head and rubbed the heel of his hand into his left eye, “So I changed my major to sports therapy, because it seemed safer. Now I’m not even doing that.”

    Mike could feel Alik watching him, maybe judging him, in the silence that seemed to last for a minute or more.

    “What if I told you that you could,” Alik looked away from Mike to the ceiling for a moment, “reclaim that time? Would you want that?”

    “I’m too old to go back to school, change careers and everything.”

    “Only if you say you are.” Alik tugged on the cuffs of his suit coat and leaned forward in his chair, “only if you believe that learning or pursuing your dream have anything to do with the number of times you have orbited the sun.”

    Mike felt his face flush and a surge of energy rushed through him at hearing these words. Before he was even aware, he was picturing himself writing again, holding a camera again. “See, I’ll be honest with you,” Mike looked around at the books on the shelf and the expensive desk and chairs, at Alik’s suit, “I don’t know if I can afford you guys, but that’s definitely the kind of talk that’s been missing in my life. That’s the kind of counseling I need.”

    Alik nodded his head and smiled, “We’ll talk money later,” he said, “but you should probably understand exactly what we do here, before we go any farther.”

    “Your website said you offer counseling and mentoring.”

    “True,” Alik responded, “we provide counseling and advice free of charge for all of our clients, because our program is so life-altering that many of them find it difficult to get their bearings afterwards.”

    “Free counseling?” Mike said, furrowing his brow, “and who are your clients? Rich people?”

    Alik chuckled and shook his head. “We do have several wealthy clients,” he said, “but overall, they come from all walks of life, even gym teachers aspiring to be filmmakers.”

    “So then how do I get into the program?”

    Alik sat up straight in his chair, his arms opened wide and resting on the desk in front of him. “How old do you think I am, Michael?”

    Mike looked him over again, the tailored suit on his athletic frame, the scruff, the short haircut parted neatly on the side, the deep blue eyes. “Thirties, maybe close to forty.” 

    Alik nodded his head, “Good guess,” he said. He stood up from his chair, walked slowly around to Mike’s side, and leaned back against the desk, his hands folded in front of him. “Would you believe me if I told you that in a couple of months, I’ll be celebrating my ninety-seventh birthday?”

    Now Mike chuckled, but Alik only smiled confidently back at him until he stopped laughing.

    “It’s true, I dropped out of college during the Depression, and made my fortune after the war.” 

    Mike looked at the door, at the tops of the bookshelf, anywhere they might have hidden a camera.

    Alik extended his hand. “Care to shake hands with a World War Two veteran?”

    He undid the button on his right cuff, pulled up the sleeve and exposed his forearm. There was a tattoo there, somewhat faded, but clearly an army tank with a couple of dice rolling in front of it, showing a three and a four. The banner underneath said, “Lucky Seventh,” in letters that looked like a Las Vegas marquis.

    “But…,” Mike started.

    Alik nodded understandingly as Mike fumbled for words. He waved him away with an easy gesture of his right hand. “See, Mike, your body contains life, raw life. Every one of your cells contains life, a finite amount of it, and as that life runs out, your cells wind down like a clock and eventually die. We don’t really understand what this life is, or exactly how it works, but we have found a way to extract it from one person, store it temporarily, and then transfer it to someone else.”

    “Life?” Mike said, moving his chair backwards just a little.

    “Life,” Alik said, “every living person has it, inside of them, but very few actually use it. Unfortunately, most just bide their time. They exist, until they don’t. We can determine how much of this energy a person’s body contains, extract as much or as little as we want, and then give that to someone else, someone with plans to use it more productively.” 

    Mike rubbed his eyes with his fingertips and took a deep breath. “So you could tell me how long I’ll live.” 

    Alik shrugged, “No one could do that.” Then he smiled, “Well, not yet anyway. The truth is, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow and die, or you could smoke for forty years or introduce some other toxin or disease to your body that would attack your organs and cause a premature death. And all that life, all that potential, would die with you, untapped and wasted.”

    “Wasted,” Mike repeated, that last word echoing in his mind. He looked at Alik for a few moments, waiting for him to break, to let him off the hook, but Alik just smiled back at him. 

    “Okay, fine,” Mike began, groping for words, “let’s say I believe you. Let’s say you can harvest … life, somehow.” 

    “Harvest,” Alik said, “yes, that really is what we do? You catch on quickly.”

    “Right,” Mike said, “Thanks. But where do you get this life from? Who would be willing to sell it to you?” Mike pushed himself against the back of his chair, “That is how you get it, right?”

    “Of course, and we pay well for it.” Alik put his hands on his knees and leaned forward, his face closer to Mike’s. “Is it really that difficult to imagine someone wanting to sell some of their life to us? Take the person who gets sick, who’s abused their body or gotten some disease that’s going to cut their life short. If they could sell us the remaining years that are just going to die with them, wouldn’t they trade that life for enough money to set their family up for the next couple of generations? Wouldn’t you?”

    Mike’s eyes widened. He pictured Alik standing over the hospital bed with some kind of alien machine.

    “Or what if your intentions weren’t so noble?” Alek continued, “What if you simply wanted money badly enough to sell off ten or fifteen years of your life? What if you found it to be a fair trade, to live the next years in comfort and even luxury, instead of forty more years of poverty?”

    Mike thought about teaching gym for the next twenty or thirty years and then trying to retire on whatever money he was able to save, which, so far, had been nearly nothing, barely enough to cover a minor emergency.

    “Our clients are willing to pay so much to extend their own lives, that we can pass that fortune on to our donors, and even make ourselves rich in the process.”

    Mike looked for any crack in Alik’s demeanor, any sign that he was being pranked, and saw only confidence and sincerity.

    “I’m not rich,” he said. “I can’t afford this.”

    Alik rested his hand on Mike’s shoulder and squeezed, just a little. “I know,” he said, smiling warmly, “but not all of our clients are rich. Some of our clients come to us with nothing but talent and ambition, and the drive to change their lives. We believe in them, and we believe that even though they aren’t rich, that they are the kind of people who may have had a poor start, but that, if given another thirty or forty more years and a new identity, would change the world.”

    Mike still searched Alik’s eyes, waiting for a punchline. Alik kept his hand on Mike’s shoulder and leaned down until they were almost face to face.

    “I, myself, was just a grunt in a tank,” he said, “ at one time.”

    Looking into Alik’s eyes up close, he could see it. He could see the young soldier staring back at him, through eyes that had seen tanks roll over the bodies of dead soldiers and entire towns ravaged by war.

    “What if they don’t change the world?” he whispered, “What if they can’t pay you back?”

    Alik released Mike’s shoulder, sat back on the edge of the desk, and crossed his arms. “Mike, what we really offer here is time,” he said, his eyes narrowing and his facing losing its color for a a moment, “and time, just like any other product, can be … repossessed.”

    Mike slowly stood to his feet and held his hand out to Alik. “What do I need to do?”

    Alik smiled, shook Mike’s hand firmly, and clapped him on the back. “If I’ve made a believer out of you, then there’s some paperwork, a background check, and credit check, and then we’ll schedule your first appointment.”

    Mike signed a few documents that Alik placed in front of him, trying to read through the jargon, but eagerly scratching his name at the bottom of each page as he flipped through them. Alik smiled compassionately down at him as he waited for Mike to finish.

    “Well, that’s done,” Alik said, gathering the papers and verifying the signatures, “If you’ll give me a moment, I’ll get the process started.” He tucked the paperwork into a manila folder, and then gripped Mike’s shoulder encouragingly as he left the room.

    It seemed like an hour before Alik returned. Mike took his phone out for a minute to play a game, but then thought better of it. He knew he was being tested and didn’t want to fail the exam. Instead, he counted the books on the shelf across the room, counted the words in the titles, counted the knots in the grain of the desk. 

    When the door opened again, Alik came in, this time followed by the beautiful receptionist. She was smiling in an excited way, her green eyes more like jade now.

    Alik was not smiling at all.

    In fact, Alik sat on the edge of the desk, his eyes cast downward at Mike, his face set like stone in a scowl. He folded his hands and bit his lip.

    Mike smiled outwardly as he looked from Alik’s face to the receptionist. She brightened even more, her teeth so straight and white and perfect.

    “So, can we get started?” Mike said, after a moment’s hesitation.

    “No,” Alik shook his head slowly, “I’m afraid we can’t.”

    The receptionist placed her hand gently on Mike’s shoulder, her fingers lightly rubbing.

    “Is it the background check?” Mike asked, “It can’t be the background check. The school gets one on me every other year, fingerprints too.”

    Alik pressed his hands together, as if in prayer, and brought them to his lips. “It’s the credit check, Michael. I’m afraid you don’t qualify for the process.”

    Mike stuttered a little laugh before he saw the seriousness in Alik’s eyes and posture. The receptionist squeezed his shoulder in reassurance, almost imperceptibly.

    “But,” Mike began, “It’s just ….. You said there would be time to pay it back.”

    Alik stood and rubbed his hands together. “True, there are options for payment, but there are other factors that these criteria reveal to us.”

    “I mean…” Mike halted, “I’ll pay you back. I want more life.”

    Alik shook his head mournfully, holding his hand up palm outward. “It’s not a matter of time or intention, Michael. A simple credit report can tell us so much about who you are.”

    Mike looked from Alik’s eyes to the receptionist’s smile, and she squeezed his shoulder just a bit harder.

    “A man like you, Michael, lacking in ambition like you, could have a thousand years and still wouldn’t ever be able to repay such a loan. You would have the best of intentions, but you would just never quite get around to the task of becoming great.”

    “I could …,” Mike sputtered, “I want to ….”

    “No, Michael, those years of life would be wasted on you,” Alik said, nodding to the receptionist and then grinning apologetically down at Mike, “But in someone else’s hands, perhaps, someone more ambitious and passionate. Those years added to someone with real potential and drive could result in untold benefits to mankind.”

    Mike looked from Alik’s face to the receptionist whose smile was somehow menacing now, her eyes like green fire, her beautiful face both youthful and timeless.

    Mike felt his whole body flush hot and his back tensed up into a knot. He tried to leap to his feet, but the receptionist gripped his shoulder hard and forced him back down into the chair. Her fingernails dug into his flesh through his shirt. When he tried one more time to get up and twist himself free from her grip, he felt her fingers close like a vise around his collarbone and heard a loud cracking noise like a gunshot as she snapped it in two.

    “Don’t worry,” Alik said, grunting just a little as he scooped up Mike’s limp and lifeless body and helped him to his feet, “Superficial damage like that doesn’t reduce the amount of life we are able to extract at all.” 

    Alik wrapped Mike’s good arm around his own shoulder and shifted the broken man’s weight onto his. The receptionist, still smiling, still beautiful and radiant, opened the door wide for both of them, and even through the pain ravaging his shoulder and the fear infiltrating his mind, Mike found himself smitten by her, just for a moment. He winced a sort of smile at her as Alik walked him into the hallway.

    Each step was excruciating especially as Mike bumped into Alik’s hip on every other step, but Alik moved as gently as he could until they reached the windowless white door in the middle of the hallway. 

    “Just think of all the joy you are bringing the world, and how much advancement will be made because of your sacrifice, Michael,” Alik said as he pulled keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. 

    The last thing that Michael saw before he fainted was what looked like a pure white dentist’s chair, with wings on both sides that looked as if they could fold down over the chair like a cocoon.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Hero Worship

I'm listening to The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr, and it's really fascinating. It's his attempt to unite research in psychology and the inner workings of the mind with the most effective styles of storytelling, and I recommend it for anyone interested in either psychology or fiction. For instance, he applies the sense of self as seen by psychology to the practice of creating or analyzing character in fiction. In the second chapter, "The Flawed Self," he writes,

"Our brains are hero-makers that emit seductive lies. They make us want to feel like the plucky, brave protagonist in the story of our own lives. In order for us to feel heroic, the brain craftily re-scripts our pasts. What we actually 'choose' to remember, and in what form, warps and changes in ways that suit the heroic story it wants to tell."

When I read that, I think of all the ways that I might reinvent or revise my exploits or interactions with others to make myself the hero in my own story. I also think about the ways that I might revise the truth or history of people or characters that I admire, heroes that I identify with, because, perhaps, to accept their flaws and failures would somehow reflect on me for admiring them.

I'm seeing this dynamic more and more in our culture these days, the tendency to revise history and tell ourselves lies about our heroes and ourselves so that we don't have to admit that they, and by extension we, are not as good as we think, or as moral as we aspire to be. 

For instance, the debate over the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy has resurged lately, in every channel from mainstream media all the way to social media. Especially since the removal of Robert E. Lee's statue from Richmond, Virginia, I've seen debate online and no end of posts and memes on FaceBook and other social media sites extolling his virtue. This trend seems to have ramped up ever since Trump weighed in on the issue by saying that if Lee had been in charge of the war in Afghanistan, it would have been a "complete and total victory." I've seen posts that quote him as saying that slavery was a "moral & political evil," that he was a kind slaveholder (as if such a thing could exist), and that he actually freed his slaves.

Even Americans who have never read a biography of Lee or studied the history of the era very closely would probably know two basic facts about him: that he led the military effort of a war to protect and expand the enslavement of African-Americans and that he lost that war, handily. Neither of those facts bolster the idea of Lee as a moral man or a military genius. But a closer look shows even more of those flaws that people who worship him as a hero are willing to overlook or rationalize.

For instance, while Lee did say in a letter that he believed slavery to be a "moral & political evil," he also said in that same letter that it was more of an evil to white people than to Black, that Black folks needed the "discipline" of slavery, and that only God Himself should end their enslavement.

Furthermore, despite what the neo-Confederate meme-lords would have us think, Lee was horribly abusive to the people he enslaved, by all historical accounts. Of course, I suppose that if we only consulted the Lee family and his supporters, they might paint a different picture, but I propose that their hero-making brains are emitting seductive lies. If we consult the reports of the people Lee enslaved, they tell stories of vicious beatings and floggings, followed by torture with brine and other methods, as well as brutal working conditions. The truth is that while Lee eventually released some of the nearly two hundred people he enslaved, he only did so because the legal terms under which he inherited these slaves stipulated that they must be released within five years. Note that the terms were specifically "within five years," meaning no longer than five years, but obviously at any time before that term. If Lee were really the Confederate anti-slavery anomaly that some would have us believe, he could have released these enslaved people immediately after the reading of the will that gave him legal control over them. Instead, not only did Lee never intend to free them, only doing so after a vigorous battle with the courts to keep them enslaved, but he also worked them so hard in that five-year span that he provoked a legendary slave revolt on his property. His intention, apparently, was to wring every drop of life and labor from these people before the courts demanded he set them free.

On a side note, can we just agree that enslaving people is bad? That ordering the release of enslaved people in one's will is no different from saying to them, "You'll get your freedom over my dead body"? I just can't understand why this subject is once again up for debate.

For the record, I don't think that most people who propagate these myths about Lee are bad people; I just think that their seductive brains are lying to them, desperately trying to protect the image of a hero whom they have been educated to identify with. In many ways, that's what the sudden and vehement opposition to CRT is about - the protection and preservation of hero myths. But it has to stop, not just because it is spreading lies, which is bad enough, but also because it harms people of color who already have reason to think that America does not value them, their lives, or their contributions.

Imagine the hurt it would cause to Jews in America, or anywhere else, to hear people praise Himmler as a great military leader, or Mengele as a scientific genius. These would not only be lies, but the kinds of lies that put people in psychic and even physical danger. This has to be what it's like to be African-American and react to these revisionist lies about some of the worst perpetrators of racist violence. Propaganda, a prominent rapper and Christian speaker wrote, "There's a high school in Alabama named after Robert E. Lee / And it's eighty-nine percent black, you don't see the irony? / What it do to a psyche, it's simple, you don't like me /What I'm 'posed to do now?" These memes, debates, and lies are simply ways to boost the psyche of some white folks at the expense of continuing damage to Black folks.

But the good news is that we are not our heroes. We don't have to defend every person we were taught to idolize in our youth, or, for that matter, every person on our side of American politics. We can reconcile our minds with the fact that some of the people integral to American history and politics are flawed and should be critiqued, and that some others are just outright vile, and should be condemned. And that doesn't change who we are, because our goodness or badness isn't connected to those people, but generated by our own thoughts, words and actions.

Friday, September 10, 2021

If I'm a Writer, Then How Come I'm Not Writing?

 This past summer, I was more disciplined that I've ever been as a writer. I created a schedule to complete all of my home responsibilities and exercise, and was still not only cranking out an average of 1500 words a day, but also reading more than I had in months.

Then school started.

For whatever reason - new classes, changes at home, just plain laziness - I've gotten so off my game that I haven't written more than 500 words in the last six weeks. I have a project that I'm really excited about and think of throughout the day, but there seem to be so many demands on my time that I just can't carve out the minutes in the day to make words happen on the screen. Even this blog post is the first time in a month that I've been able to get around to it, and I don't even want to say what I'm supposed to be doing while I'm typing this. There are at least three circles in my streaks app that are pushing sad notifications my way on a regular basis.

For a writer, a real aspiring writer, this is a problem that can't be overstated. I'm sure it's the same for any other artist or entrepreneur with a day job that pays the bills, but it's very like an existential crisis. Am I a writer who also teaches? Or am I a teacher who dabbles in writing sometimes? 

Is this writing thing a hobby, a vocation, or a calling?

Balancing different desires in life is so difficult, and it's hard not to feel the "should" hiding in every moment. When I'm writing, I often feel like I should be spending quality time with the family. When I'm engaged with the family, I should be grading papers or catching up on communications from work. When I'm catching up on work, I should be writing. And somehow in the midst of all those shoulds, there's supposed to be time for relaxation, meditation and prayer, and exercise. Oh, and reading. And marketing myself on social media.

Every book or article I read on the subject says that if you love a thing, you'll make time for it, but there's two things wrong with that thinking. First, I love a lot of things, starting with my wife and kids, and it's not so much about desire as it is about the demands of life. Second, I can't make more time, as much as I would like to. I only get but so much of it, and a lot of it, like a lot of my money, already has someone else's name on it before I even get to see it.

But I do love writing, and I know that I've been more focused and productive at other times in my life, and I can at least be that way again. My schedule was a little easier last year, and I was generally able to dedicate at least thirty minutes each workday to writing, while sill getting everything else done as well. Maybe I need to find those minutes in the day, even if it's not every day, to be productive.

Also, there was a time before we had the baby when I had made a habit of getting out every Saturday morning for a couple of hours to sit in a Starbucks or McDonalds, order a light breakfast to justify taking up space and bandwidth, and knock out anywhere from 1500 to 3000 words before I came home. Best of all, my wife supported this habit as long as I came home with her favorite coffee and a treat. Now that the baby is becoming more independent, maybe I can start that tradition again.

However it turns out, I'm going to get it back on track. There has to be enough time to achieve these goals, to tell the stories about the people who live in my head so that everyone else can get to know them too. If one successful habit got broken, then another one can be created in its place. And after all, one of the great things about my job is that even if I struggle to produce during the school year, I can still plot and plan, still write down my thoughts and update my notes, and then be ready to shift back into my highest gear when summer comes again.

Because I love it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Writer's Toolbox - Novelpad

 My mom still has some of my old stories and poems from elementary school, embarrassing lines with huge cursive loops scrawled on that sideways lined paper. I remember scratching on those sheets with the extra fat pencil with the triangular rubber sleeve that was supposed to make me hold it correctly, then entering my work into little literary contests and writing competitions between schools. She might even have some of the ribbons of varying levels from those days. 

Once I graduated from those sheets and pads, I had an old electric typewriter in the house to work on. It was one of those heavy machines that could close up in a hard suitcase, and it made a lot of noise that I think is the reason why I still can't work in absolute silence today. I never did get good at proper typing technique, even more shocking since my mom taught typing, back when that was a thing, but I did get pretty fast with my own index method. At the time, I thought that was great, seeing sheet after sheet of my writing coming out of the roller with real-looking text flowing across the lines.

By the time I was finishing high school and beginning college, we had Microsoft Word, at least the primitive version of it from the early nineties. That blue screen with magic white text appearing and disappearing on it made me think I had reached writer's paradise. No more correction fluid, multiple saved versions, and handy plastic disk organizers to manage all of my work across different classes or projects. You could actually have a different disk for each class to keep your work organized. For those of you too young to remember, disks were portable digital storage devices that look like the save button, but larger. Kind of like a flash drive, but they could only hold less than two megabytes of information. If you don't know what flash drives or megabytes are, just Google it.

The newest trend I've seen in writing programs are either the stripped-down, minimalist ones that advertise themselves as "distraction free" or the feature-rich, super-technological apps that come with lots of helpful elements that either track progress or facilitate organization and planning. I've never understood the appeal of the "distraction-free" apps that are basically a blank screen with no formatting, no features at all, where the only thing you can do is type. It's paper. You've invented digital paper. As a writer, I need to have a thesaurus, dictionary, baby name book, encyclopedia, medical textbook, and legal counsel nearby at all times. In addition, I'm a planner, not a pantser, so I need some way of saving my thinking for each part of the plot - including character details, symbols, and even phrases I want to use. 

To find the right tool for me, I looked at some free options online, and even tried Scrivener for a while. The problem with all of them was usually that they are either too complicated or just not intuitive enough. There were times when I felt as if going back to index cards taped to the wall would be easier.

Then I tried Novelpad.

It's a web-based novel writer and editor that includes a bunch of features to help writers complete projects. I used it all summer long on a new project, and it really increased my productivity. I'm still learning how to use it, and there are features that I haven't even tried yet, but I'd like to share my favorites so far.

1) The Editor

The writing space is pretty minimalist, for those who are into that sort of thing. It's mostly clean space, divided into sections determined by your scene planning, which is another feature. However, it also has a feature that highlights grammatical errors and misspellings, and even suggests changes when you hover over the word or phrase. It even makes stylistic suggestions, picking up on wordiness or cliches and offering advice for improvement. 


2) The Chapter Planner

This is one of my favorite aspects of the program. Think about the index card method of plotting scenes, or the apps that imitate it, and then give it a brain. Not only does it allow you to plot out your novel scene by scene, change the order of those scenes, and attach notes or color codes to them, but it also tracks your writing stats and applies them to the scene "cards" as you go. For instance, not only does the row show you how many words are in the chapter, but each scene card shows how many words are in that scene. This is extremely helpful for pacing. Just being able to see that one scene is longer or shorter than another, or setting a word goal for a scene compared to the ones near it, improve my sense of how each scene flows into the next. You can jump to any scene in the manuscript from the card itself, and even start a revision of the scene that will still keep the old version, like tracking a markdown.



3) The Character Cards

If you ever used the physical index card or sticky note system, you probably also made character cards with information about each character and how they relate to each other. This page does all of that, again with color codes and lots of other ways to save your thoughts, but adds a really special statistic. While the system tracks the words in each scene and reports that data in the scene card, it also tracks the scenes that each character is in, and reports a word count that approximates the "face time" that each character is getting in the manuscript. By adding the character name and any alternate names to the character card, it keeps tabs on how much that character appears. Ever have a minor character that just disappears from the planet after a crucial scene? This way you can catch that and decide how to bring them back to earth before your beta reader or editor can say, "Whatever happened to Chuck?"


4) The Data OMG the Data

I have to admit, I'm very goal-driven and highly motivated by numbers and records, whether it's writing, teaching, exercise, or basically any other endeavor. There's something about the data that makes my efforts and accomplishments very tangible to me, and it's probably the major appeal of this program. Novelpad tracks your daily progress on the manuscript, delivering accurate reports on your daily word count, tracked either by overall words or daily increments, as well as minutes spent writing. For someone like me, setting a word goal in my head and flipping to the analytics tab to see how close I am to reaching it is inspiring. There were some days this summer when I got so lost in the writing that I doubled my projected word count without even realizing it, but there were others when I struggled to get to that magic number where I could let myself quit, checking the numbers every ten minutes like that annoying kid in the back seat on a road trip. Either way, being able to get all these numbers instantly - on scenes, characters, overall progress - has really ramped up my writing routine and made me more productive and efficient than ever.


In addition to tracking the data, Novelpad also lets you set specific goals for yourself and monitor your progress towards them. On the goals tab, you can input your goal in terms of words or minutes, on a daily, weekly, monthly, or overall rate. Then the app spits out a calendar that tells you how much you have to write each day to reach that goal. You can even tell it which days of the week you write, and designate some days as higher productivity than others. I set it for max effort on weekdays, half on Saturdays, and no writing on Sundays, and it calculated how much I would have to write each day to reach my word count goal for the summer. Also, if you set it to adapt the schedule to progress, it will recalculate every day, based on the previous day's work. So, if you write more than the goal one day, the rest of the days on the calendar show fewer words required.



The one caveat I have about the program in with that one feature. When it works correctly, it's incredibly motivating, but there were a few days where the algorithm failed and its calculations were off. Specifically, I would come to the work session to find that the app thought I had no words, even thought the word count on the analytics tab was correct and the manuscript itself was still completely protected in the writer. In other words, the manuscript was fine and the overall word count was correct, but the goals page would say that I was thousands of words behind, and the calendar was way off. It would always correct itself by the next day, but for someone who is highly motivated by the data, it was annoying. Still, the Novelpad team was easy to get in tough with via their Facebook page, and talked me through a workaround I could use until they fix it in the next update.

Overall, I'm really pleased with the program, so much so that I'm reviewing it just for the satisfaction of hyping it up. It's got a lot more features that I'm still learning, and it gets tweaked a little with each update, so these are just highlights, but every time I learn something new about it, I fall in love with it a little more. Also, it's safe, backing up hourly to the cloud and allowing you to save or export to Word, Markup, or Epub files. A one year subscription costs only $60 after a two week trial, so it's really inexpensive, compared to similar apps that I've tried. If you are serious about writing, definitely check it out at their website, and comment here if you like the app.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

"Falling In"

 “Falling In”

It’s so dark in the bedroom that he can’t tell blanket from baby, but he peers into the crib until his eyes adjust. Moment by moment, the slatted lines of moonlight across the bed provide just enough light to see six pounds of baby girl lying half under the cover. Her face turns up to his, but her eyes are closed, her short, dark hair slicked against her pinkish, moonlit skin.

He leans against the edge of the crib, careful not to hit the latch of the drop-down, and stares at that face that doesn’t stare back at him. Her lips work an invisible nipple, and her chest moves up and down so slowly that it takes all of his concentration to see it. 

Then it stops.

He leans over the rail of the crib and looks closer, willing his pupils to open wider, praying the clouds move away from the moon enough to brighten the slatted lines of light so he can see her better.

She’s fine. Must be. Seconds go by and no movement, no twitch of the hand or foot, no wrinkle in the brow or pursing of the mouth, no chest moving up and down. 

She’s fine. Go back to bed. Even his thoughts feel loud in that quietest of rooms. He focuses his ears on her nose, listening for the slightest sound of breath escaping, focuses his gaze on a single strip of light crossing her chest to see if there’s any movement. 

His own breath holds, his heart stops, his muscles freeze, and every cell fixates on that strip of light, that unmoving chest. He leans closer, looks closer.

It’s as if he is completely still, and at the same time, falling very slowly into that crib, into those blankets, into that serene face and little chest that just won’t move enough for him to be sure, for him to be sure enough to go back to bed. And he doesn’t want to go back to bed. He wants to fall into that crib, into that serenity. 

With such subtle movement, his hand lowers towards that unmoving chest. It comes to rest so softly on her that he isn’t sure he is actually touching her until she flinches, her eyelids wrinkled into a scowl like the blinds on the window with the slits of moonlight shining through. 

She cries with her mouth open wide and her eyes still shut. Her arms flail as he slides his hand around her midsection, slips his other hand under her head, and pulls her into his arms. Eyes still focused on her face and her chest, he steps back and slowly lowers into the chair by the crib. He pulls her to his chest and the lines of moonlight stripe both of their faces. She falls into him and he falls into her and the room is silent again.


Monday, June 21, 2021

Things I Learned in School This Year

 As a teacher, I am always so glad for the summer break to finally arrive, but not necessarily for all the reasons that people outside the profession might think. There's still work to do, just of a very different nature. It's a time to redirect energies into honing my skills and working on more personal projects. The summer break makes me a better teacher because I have time to improve my performance in the classroom without the pressure of students, lessons, and grades, and also to improve my attitude by devoting time to other passions, which reignites my passion for teaching and gives a more weighty purpose to my work.

When it comes to my summer plans as a teacher, specifically, I like to divide the break into two major themes, reflection and retooling. I generally spend all of June reflecting on the year - its successes and failures. I look back at the new methods that I tried and how well they worked, and tweak them for the future, or drop them altogether. Then in July, I use those reflections to study and focus on those skills and methods that June said were deficient and shore up those gaps for the coming year. It's a constant process of self-criticism and refinement that, hopefully, results in my constant growth in the profession.

This past year was a tough one, and my reflections in July have been different from every year. In some sense, I learned some things about myself and about my students that I already knew, but had to confront in a much more direct way. On the other hand, COVID and distance or hybrid learning threw us all some curveballs that forced us to simultaneously sacrifice some best practices in the name of safety and also learn some ne skills and habits that might carry forward and become new best practices in the next year. Here's three of my top reflections on teaching English over the past year.

1) My students are going through it. I always knew this, and I've tried to be sensitive to the fact that students leave my classroom to go to a life that may not be ideal, and in some cases, is quite difficult and obstructs their learning process. It's a realization that has caused me to have more grace in giving deadlines, to ask more questions without stepping over the lines of propriety, and to try to make my classroom equally rigorous and safe, as much as possible. This year, the veil was ripped away in a lot of cases, and I realized that my students are having it rough, and often asking how valuable my lessons are, compared to their current needs. In the past school year, I had students who lost their parents, to COVID and other circumstances. I had students living by themselves, at home, and sick, because both parents were in the hospital fighting the virus. They weren't allowed to be on campus as long as they were positive, and often timid about sharing the facts of their situation. I had students who had to get full time work to help pay tuition and household bills because one of their parents lost a job. Faced with problems like those, getting an essay in on time, one which I probably won't be able to read for another week anyway, doesn't seem like such a crucial matter anymore.

Unfortunately, I often had my own problems. I caught the virus myself and was down for a while, although thankfully not hospitalized and able to make a full and quick recovery. There were family issues going on in my home as well. While this helped me to relate to my students who were struggling and open about their setbacks, there were other students whose grades dropped, whose attitudes changed, and whose eyes, when I could see them, had an entirely different spirit behind them, and, outside of a couple of emails, I could have done a better job of following through to find ways to help. I'm fortunate to have a strong and passionate guidance and counseling team on campus, whom I'm going to be leaning on in the next school year to team up with and reach out to these families.

2) My students learn better when they have the most structure. In the before days, when I could count on every student being in the room with me, I had years of training and experience in keeping them engaged and learning. When I had to do distance or online learning, I was able to come up with protocols and best practices that made the experience both rigorous and, hopefully, enjoyable. In fact, there are things I can do much more easily with an online class than I can with a large group of students in the same room. I can break them into groups and let some leave the meeting to work on an assignment while I have more focused time with others. I can discipline a student in a separate meeting without the other students listening in, and possibly affecting that student's dignity. I can give students more options, and even do some real enrichment, letting some soar without disturbing the ones who need more focused help. At one point, I was teaching at home with a ten-month-old baby who constantly wanted to see who I was talking to, and a male student whose mother was interviewing for jobs was taking turns watching his own one-year-old sister during class. It turned into an online baby party or play date several times, but we were able to make it work, because we knew what was coming.

But that hybrid. 

Having to find methods that work both for students in person and online is nearly impossible, and the learning suffers. The classroom students, or roomies, as they came to be called, complained that the online students, or homies, were cheating, or at least had all the advantages of time, tech, and comfort. The homies complained that they weren't getting the full experience. They couldn't hear, couldn't follow, couldn't effectively join the discussion, and often just gave up trying. I can't tell you how many times the chat would ring and I would see the words "You're not presenting" flash across my screen. 

The best aspects of this season of craziness are going in my toolbox. recording lessons, posting more information and documents online, as well as more precise and verbose instructions, are all going to be mainstays, but I'm definitely looking forward to the days when I can count on having all students in front of me, getting the same experience.

3) Diversity in the English curriculum is important. I introduced a couple of texts this year, one that I had taught before to much success, and one that I had never taught. Both were by African-American authors and had the potential to cause controversy, especially in an already heated season of political and racial upheaval and partisan animosity. It took some grace and prayer to navigate those units, but in the end, I'm glad I did it. There were a couple of tense moments that turned into interesting discussions, but not the kind of problems I was bracing for. Overall, I saw students of color engaging in ways that they hadn't before, and I have to think that it was because they were seeing themselves in the curriculum in ways they hadn't before. Some students who had shown nothing but disinterest before started not only participating in discussion, but taking it over and leading it. Even the tense moments became teachable ones, because the students who took issue with the text or some of the themes were forced to articulate their objections to their peers. Part of the problem with tribalism is that the tribes almost always go to war, never to diplomacy. We don't often listen to each other, and tend to hold tight to the stereotypes and propaganda that our tribe holds dear. These texts opened up a dialogue in which these ideas had to be tested, not only against the curriculum, but against the lived experience of their fellow students.

In one unit involving the novel Passing by Nella Larsen, we got into serious discussions about how miscommunication affects relationships, especially marriages, about friendships that have outlived their value, and about sticking up for oneself. These were things that every student in the class could relate to, sometimes unfortunately, and vocalized their thoughts about. On the other hand, the novel also deals a lot with racism, colorism, and racial "passing," a subject which was foreign to most of the class. Still, one day a female student, African-American, one who had never once spoken in class before without being practically forced, volunteered not only her thoughts on the subject, but pictures of her family, including baby pictures of herself that reminded her of characters in the novel. She got something out of that lesson that might stick with her, and might even see reading and literature as a form of self-reflection and expression that isn't just about people like Hester Prynne or Jay Gatsby. It's difficult to deal with the tense moments, but those kinds of breakthroughs are worth the risk, to draw in students who regularly feel as if they're on the margins of their academic experience, always learning about other people, and never themselves.

All in all, this past school year was a rough one, but if rigor and facing challenges is important for my students, then it must be equally important for me as well. If my summer break is supposed to be about reflecting on the past, what worked and what didn't, then the year of Rona and rebellion has certainly given me a lot to reflect on, as well as a lot more tools in my toolbox. Still, I'm praying that next year is just a little less interesting and challenging.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Empathy and Lamentation

In March of 1955, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin made her protest on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, by refusing to give up her seat to a white woman. She was arrested and joined the legal fight for desegregation in the South. Young, pretty, smart, and engaging, she was the perfect person to represent the movement at the time. But a year later, in the midst of a Supreme Court battle, the civil rights movement leaders dropped her case, and she fell into near obscurity, with Rosa Parks now the face of the struggle in Montgomery. Despite all her talents and charm, she had committed the worst possible sin when appealing to America for civil rights.

She failed to be perfect.

When it was discovered that she was pregnant out of wedlock at the age of sixteen, she ceased to be a viable conduit for empathy from America. Even Rosa Parks said about her that, "If the white press had gotten ahold of that information, they would have a field day. They'd call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn't have a chance." In other words, her talents, her cause, her legal standing, her humanity and the very stamp of God's image on her would have meant nothing, because she had given America a sliver of an excuse to dismiss her from their empathy.

When I hear about Colvin, I think about Ma'Khia Bryant. I've been thinking about her for some time, and wanting to write about her, but sitting with my emotions about her until I felt I could say it right. And in that time, it seems as if the rest of the world has moved on. I don't see her name or her smile or her joyful TikTok videos on my Twitter feed anymore. I don't see the memorials or the angry screeds on my Instagram now like in the days after she was killed.

More than that, when I think about Colvin and Ma'Khia, I think about my own daughter. Like them, she's pretty, smart, ambitious, passionate, even impulsive, about the things she wants. Also, like them, she's had it rough. Claudette Colvin suffered the breakdown of her family, just like Ma'Khia, just like my daughter, and that's no small thing for a developing young woman. I did the best I could as a single father, just as I'm sure Claudette's mother did for her, and Ma'Khia's mother did for her. But if I'm being honest, there were times when my intentions and my love exceeded my wisdom and abilities. Like Claudette, my daughter got pregnant before she was even a senior in high school, and sent us scrambling to care for her in the right way, and her daughter as well. Like Ma'Khia, my daughter had anger in her and a fiery sense of self-defense that was the result of being hurt by the ones she loved and trusted.

My daughter's road is not my road, and I can guide her and provide her with a team to navigate it, but I don't know what it's like to feel my feet cut on those rocks and gravel, to long for the grass under my toes again. But I can empathize with her. I've watched her struggle, succeed, fail, and fight back to success over and over, and I can imagine what she must feel, in the wins as well as the losses. Through her, and through my own experiences of loss and failure and guilt, I can imagine what Claudette must have felt, going from being the righteous defender of justice to the shameful byword of the movement, what Ma'Khia must have felt, calling the police for help in a moment of intense danger, and then realizing that she would have to be her own protector and warrior.

It bothers me that every time one of us is the victim of injustice, before we allow ourselves to empathize, before we lament their loss and the desecration of another bearer of the image of God, we feel the need to comb through every nuance of the situation to make sure the person did everything right, and the government did everything wrong. It bothers me that we feel compelled to scour the history of the victim of injustice to find any sin that would make them unworthy of our empathy and passionate advocacy.

As much as that lack of empathy gets to me, I'm glad that God doesn't treat us that way. Just look at Matthew 9:35. After dealing with people caught in the most repulsive sins and the ugliest diseases, the Scripture doesn't say, "When he saw the crowds, he was very careful to select those who were more or less blameless, or at least had only committed the kind of sins that the nation could relate to and therefore overlook." When Jesus looked at those crowds of sinners and sick people, "he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

Who was supposed to shepherd Ma'Khia? She was harassed and helpless, wasn't she? Removed from her family, stuck in a foster system that didn't serve her well, attacked and outnumbered in the place where she was supposed to call home, she called the shepherd, and he shot her to death. 

I wish she hadn't been holding that knife when the police arrived, but then I also wish she hadn't felt the need to defend her life at such a young age. 

I wish that she had never been in that foster home in the first place, that her family had the resources and the power to stay intact and be her foundation and root as well as her bulwark and defense.

I wish that her attackers had seen a young girl in need of love and guidance instead of an enemy.

I wish that the police had gotten there five minutes earlier, or had reached for the taser instead of the gun, or had otherwise been willing or able to defuse the situation without bloodshed.

I wish that we could lament the unjust death of Ma'Khia Bryant without adding the asterisk at the end of our mourning, or just moving on. 

I wish that we were better at empathy, that we were so passionate about lamenting injustice that we didn't look for every loophole to grant ourselves immunity from the Christlike love of the downtrodden and hurting.

I wish I could love like Christ loves me.

When it came to empathy, Jesus set the example for all of us. Recently, Kyle J. Howard pointed out the idea that Christ's empathy for us was demonstrated in the incarnation, that Jesus left his glory to live among us, as one of us, and experience every temptation we experience. Because of his example, and only because of his power within me, I can empathize with a fifteen-year-old girl like Claudette, dehumanized by an unjust system, despite some of her poor decisions. I can see her grief at losing one mother to poverty and another mother to polio before she was thirteen, and I can imagine the ways that trauma would affect the way I think about relationships, motherhood, and pregnancy. Because of Christ's empathy for me, I can empathize with a sixteen-year-old girl whom the system had failed so badly that she found herself standing outside of a foster home wielding a knife against two attackers, only to have the public servants she herself called come and shoot her on sight. And because of Christ's love and empathy for me, I can love and empathize with my daughter when she makes bad decisions that not only affect her own life, but our family's as well.

Because of Christ, I can even empathize with a grown man called on to make a very difficult decision with split-second timing and little information. I can acknowledge the difficulty of that moment and still ask whether it was justice, real justice. And if culpability is found, as it was in the Derek Chauvin case on the same day that Ma'Khia was killed, I should be able to demand accountability and reparations from the offender, and still love him as the prison doors close on him. I should be able to do all these things, but, Lord, it's hard sometimes.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

"Overcome"

This is a story I wrote some years ago, and it represents a style that I've moved on from since. I still like it, but I'm not submitting it any more, so it's perfect for the blog site. Hope you enjoy it. Feel free to leave comments, even criticisms.


“Overcome”

By Jeffray Harrison

Alex sat down in the marriage counselor’s office and immediately sank back into the huge sofa with the bundle of papers in his lap. The sofa was soft, with a light green fabric that felt smooth against his skin. It couldn’t have been more comfortable, and yet Alex felt as anxious as he had ever been in his life. He pulled himself out of the depth of the couch and perched himself on the edge instead, elbows on knees, hands clasped in front of his face, ready for whatever this man said that would help him to fix his marriage.

“Well, this is a peculiar situation,” Dr. Martin said, in the same Boston accent Alex had picked up on the phone, “Marriage counseling for one.” He smiled, “Don’t worry, you’re not the first.”

Alex grinned back, hoping he looked normal. “I’ve been asking her to start counseling for a couple of months, but she doesn’t think it’ll do any good.”

Dr. Martin sat back in his armchair, “Could be,” he said, screwing up his eyes and shifting his head to the side. “But it couldn’t hurt.”

Alex shrugged his shoulders and nodded.

Dr. Martin looked at Alex, right in the eyes, for what seemed like a long time, until Nathan felt almost compelled to say something. 

“I just want her to come back.”

“Let’s talk about that,” Dr. Martin said, clipping Alex last word. “Are you sure that’s what you really want?”

Alex was shocked. What the hell else would I be here for? he thought. “Yes, absolutely.”

“Really?”

Alex started to doubt whether this was the right thing, or more correctly, whether this was the right man. “Of course.”

“That’s what you want,” the counselor repeated, “So she comes back and you’re happy as a schoolboy in summer. That’s it?”

Alex tried to look convincing, tried to stand his ground, wondering if this was some kind of test of his resolve.

“Everything goes back to the way it was, say, six months ago, and you’d feel like you got your money’s worth?”

Alex nodded his head and swallowed hard, shoving down the tears he didn’t want to cry in front of this man. “Yes, with all my heart.”

“With all your heart, I get it.” Dr. Martin leaned in closer, putting his elbows on his knees just like Alex's were. “Let’s say it was within my power to make this happen, today,” he said, speaking softly and drawing Alex in, “where are you gonna be six months from now?”

Alex clutched the papers closer to him, the emails he had printed out, both the ones addressed to him and the ones addressed to her girlfriends, the ones he had hacked her account to get. Some of those emails, he knew, were over six months old.

“I don’t know.”

Dr. Martin settled back into his chair, nodding his head.

“So then I ask again,” Dr. Martin said, “What do you really want?”

Alex put the papers down on the sofa beside him. He read the first couple of lines of the topmost one, addressed to Charlotte’s cousin, and then turned the whole stack face-down.

“I want my wife to respect me.”

Dr. Martin cocked his head to one side, waiting.

“I want her to stop taking advantage of me.” Alex continued. “I want to stop worrying about where she is and who she’s with, and whether or not she’s okay. I want to be able to talk to her again, without feeling like I’m getting beat up with every conversation. I want to ask her how her day was, and for once not hear some miserable, petty story that shatters my mood. I want to stop avoiding her when she’s home and waiting up for her when she’s gone. I want to be in love with her again, and feel like she’s in love with me.”

Alex waited for a reply, but Dr. Martin only closed his eyes and nodded his head again. This didn’t bother Alex a bit, since his eyes were starting to feel hot. He rubbed them with the back of his hand and looked at through the window at the parking lot, where the only cars there were his and Dr. Martin’s.

“I’m gonna shoot straight with you, Alex,” Dr. Martin said, opening his eyes and leaning forward. “When we talked on the phone, you said she had already moved out. In cases like this, it’s very unlikely she’ll come back.”

His words hung in the air like the silence after the smack of a judge’s gavel. Alex understood the import of it, and whether he liked it or not, realized that he had known it when he walked into this office by himself. 

“Now, I can guide you in the best course of action available to you, the best way to repair this marriage that’s still healthy for you.” Dr. Martin leaned over far enough to place both his hands on the coffee table between them. “But I can’t guarantee she’ll come back.”

Alex felt a pressure in his chest. Leaning back into the sofa and looking up at the ceiling relieved it a bit, but still Alex could feel it tightening.

“But here’s the thing, Alex,” Dr. Martin paused. “Alex?”

Alex forced himself to look away from the ceiling and back at the counselor, his eyes now feeling like they did when he had a high fever, like they would burn up or burst out of their sockets, and yet he held back the tears. He looked into this man’s honest, compassionate stare.

“Do you realize that out of all of the things you said you want,” Dr. Martin held his gaze, his face completely relaxed and open, “only one of them requires you to still be married to her?”

Alex felt like he had been sparring at the gym, when some guy knocks you around for a while, puts you on your butt, and then reaches down to help you up, with a friendly smile on his face. 

“Okay,” he said, “So how do I start?”


Saturday, April 3, 2021

Foxes Guarding the Hen House

 Here's three things I learned about racism in March:

1) A lot of people who say they don't have a racist bone in their body should make an appointment to get their pancreas checked out.

2) People who get very triggered by phrases like "white supremacy" and "white privilege" are very comfortable saying phrases like "China virus" and "Wuhan flu."

3) We probably should not let racist people define racism for us, or decide what is racist and what isn't.

It may be that the trial of Derek Chauvin is bringing this out in me, with all of the details of the crime and the trial in the news, or the video being back in rotation. It just feels as if the very definition of racism is being redefined, or at least questioned. For many people watching the trial, it seems like a clear case of racism, from the callousness of Chauvin to the human life he was snuffing out to the neglect from others on the scene. But for others, it's not so clear. Those people say we can't know what was in Chauvin's heart, and after all one of the other officers was of color, and Chauvin had a Black friend once.

Something similar happened with an announcer at a state tournament basketball game between Norman High and Midwest City. In reaction to a peaceful protest during the national anthem, an announcer battered the crowd with F-bombs and racial slurs. Later, the man blamed his verbal attack on the teenage girls on his blood sugar spiking because of diabetes. Now, I'm not a doctor, so feel free to take my opinion on this for what it's worth, but I did do a cursory search on WebMD, and racism is not listed as one of the symptoms of type 1 diabetes. It's probably more truthful to say that his blood sugar levels are responsible for him saying out loud the things that he often thinks or for him being unable to contain the hatred that lurks in his heart. Either way, it seems like the kind of thing, shouting the N-word at students involved in peaceful protest, to be specific, is the type of thing that we used to all agree was pretty racist.

One of the sure-fire ways to stop accusations of racism cold is to point to one's friends or relatives of color as evidence of the impossibility of racism in one's heart. Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted tried that defense after he tweeted "So it appears it was the Wuhan Virus after all?" To some, this might be pretty innocuous, since the virus did originate in Wuhan, China. Many of his defenders, as well as defender of the former, twice-impeached president, have pointed this out, that it can't be wrong to simply state the origin of the virus. That's why it was called the Spanish Flu, right? Except it wasn't, and the Spanish Flu didn't start there. In addition, Asian-Americans have been warning us for the duration of the pandemic that these types of rhetoric are causing an increase in violence towards them, their families, and their businesses. To continue to fuel that violence seems to suggest racism, but then Husted insists that he has many Asian-American friends and neighbors, as do his children. He defended his comment by saying, "I was just pointing out that this is an international crisis, in my opinion, that the Chinese government is responsible for and I wanted an independent investigation." Once again, I did some research here, and my findings indicate that the latter statement would fit into a tweet just as easily as the former. It's true. Not only that, but the countless Asian-American friends and neighbors that Husted used as human shields against the bad press that his racist garnered wrote him a scathing letter about his words. In the letter, which he apparently still hasn't read, they very graciously educated him about the impact of his words on their families. 

This is a real issue for blended families. There is the idea that relationship with certain minorities comes with some kind of racism immunity or get-out-of-racism-free card. Being invited to the barbeque doesn't come with the freedom to get drunk and try to take over the grill. People get into relationships for a whole variety of reasons, and very often those reasons are self-serving. It's not ridiculous to imagine someone getting into a friendship or even more intimate relationship with a person of color just to create a smokescreen to blur their racist behavior. And this doesn't even have to be a conscious effort, either. It could be a totally subconscious part of the already internalized racism. We saw some of this dynamic in the fallout from the Harry and Meghan interview with Oprah, in which they exposed, in remarkable restrained terms, the racism that Meghan experienced while connected to the Royal Family. Many people have noted the problems with Harry saying that he was unaware of the problems Black folks face. For many, it seems like the kind of talk that should definitely come up while a mixed couple are courting each other, but I would give Harry the benefit of the doubt, if only because his actions have shown a desire to rise above his initial ignorance. On the other hand, many people have also criticized his brother's statement that the Royal Family is not racist, even while he aspires to an English throne adorned with African gold. 

It all depends on the definition of racism. If people decide for themselves if their words or actions are racist, they almost always reshape the definition in such a way that in includes everyone else and excludes themselves, regardless of the truth, like some gerrymandered district of racism. We need to listen to people who know about racism, either academically or experientially. The best chance for this to happen is in our churches, and yet too often we neglect to talk about race and racism there as well, or, worse, we make excuses for it in ways that we never would for any other sin. Because it is sin. Whether you want to call it partiality or oppression or injustice, racism is a dangerous sin that has the potential to infiltrate and destroy not only the heart but the church as well. Our definition has to include and emphasis that aspect of racism, so that we can stop blurring our vision and see clearly enough to call it out, in ourselves first and then in our communities.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

"Hole in the Ocean"

 Every once in a while, I want to post a story that I'm not sure will find a home anywhere else, for whatever reason. This is one that I wrote several years ago for a contest, and then reworked and revised several times since then. I hope you all enjoy it, and feel free to leave comments.

“Hole in the Ocean”

By Jeffray Harrison

        On the ocean, things can change in ways that could improve, ruin, or end your life in a moment. Captain James Cooke had made a mistake that morning, and the weather was against him. Like his namesake, he had always prided himself on being adventurous, but scientific, ambitious, but careful. But in this case, his decision was definitely not scientific, and adventurous only in the sense that he had never done it before, and for good reason. The original Captain Cooke had always held it the worst possible omen to bring a woman on board, but somehow James had gotten it into his head that he could make it work. The guys in his monthly fishing group heartily agreed with the original captain in this matter, and had told him so before the trip.

"I didn't think it would be this hot out here," Mrs. Holly Cooke said, cringing in the shade of the small doorway to the cabin. "On the beach, it's hot, of course, but the breeze always balances it out." She sipped a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade through a straw and readjusted her big floppy straw hat. 

All five of the guys swiveled in their seats, their fishing poles firmly placed in the holders at the aft of the thirty-two foot yacht, and James knew what each one of them were thinking. It had already been five hours and close to five hundred ridiculous questions or complaints, and James was running out of both patience and ideas on how to handle this.

  "You could always go back below and rest for a while, maybe read, get out of the sun," James said, twisting his face into a smile that he hoped hid all of his frustration and anger.

"Eh," Holly said, holding her half-empty bottle against her face, "I'd just get bored down there. I'd rather watch you guys." She sipped her drink again and shifted her weight on her feet, leaning against the other side of the doorway. "When does the exciting part come? Anybody get a bite yet?"

All four men, still staring James down, now shook their heads in open and unabashed disdain and turned back to the flat ocean. 

They were all Miami policemen, career cops in their forties who had come up through training together, worked the streets together, ridden together, made detective together, not to mention raising kids together and planning their retirements together. So naturally, part of that plan was to buy a boat together, a real yacht with a double outboard motor and enough bunks below for all of them if they wanted to stay on the water all weekend, and a saloon style kitchen and dining area as well. Out of the entire group, James was the only one who had made captain, and while they were all still as close as always, he had become aware in the last year or so how this development had made things awkward at times. Not as awkward as bringing his wife on a fishing trip, but still pretty awkward. 

        Normally on these fishing trips, James could close his eyes and become keenly aware of the movement of the ocean, the depth of it under his feet. Today, when he closed his eyes, he was aware of the waves of disappointment and pity emanating from his friends on one side, and the sulky stench of boredom and annoyance coming from his wife.

        "How far out are we?" she asked. James opened his eyes to find that Holly had left the shade and comfort of the doorway and was now standing directly behind Fred and Arthur, her hands resting lightly on their shoulders as they squirmed underneath. She stared out across the ocean with that same displeased look she wore when looking at a bag of garbage that was still blocking the front door where she had put it an hour ago. “It seems like we’re out far. Is that safe?”

        “It’s fine, Holly,” James said, “this is where the big fish are.”

        As soon as he said it, he was sorry, and the snicker from Carl on the other side of the yacht didn’t help either. Fortunately for James, before Holly had a chance to respond, Jack was shouting and leaning back in his seat, alternately pulling back on the rod and furiously winding in the line.

        “I got something!” Jack yelled, and James ran to the railing to see, along with the other three guys. It wasn’t really that often that they actually caught something, so any action was a cause for excitement, but from the way Jack was struggling with that line, it was clearly a huge catch.

        “Hold it, Jack,” Carl said, running to the cabin wall and grabbing one of the spears mounted there. Just then, the fish leaped out of the water and seemed to hang in the air, arching and posing before striking the water again, while all five men gawked at it. 

        It was a Blue Marlin, and it leaped again, this time completely leaving the water, trying to throw the hook. Later, the guys would argue about whether it was eleven or twelve feet long, but for now they just yelled at Jack to let out some line before it snapped. Even Holly, despite the sun and the violence, moved to the railing just behind the men, to get a better look at the magnificent beast.

        Carl stood ready with a spear on Jack’s right, and James grabbed another and ran to his left, stumbling along the way as the boat rocked against the waves from the crashing marlin. Every man stood by as Jack reeled in the line, little by little, exhausting the marlin and reducing its range of motion, trying to keep it near the surface. James had no idea how they would bring this monster in, but he was already framing the pictures in his mind of all of them standing next to the huge fish hanging from the dock.

        Suddenly, the marlin made a hard dash to port. Jack leaned against the rod in its holder so it wouldn’t jump out of his grasp and let the line out just enough to soften the force, but it still yanked the boat to the side. Carl staggered and dropped to one knee, holding the spear point over the side. James slammed his hip into the railing and his right foot came off the deck for a second before he was able to regain his balance. His spear slapped Fred in the back, the shaft clanging against the back of his head.

        “Well, get out of the way, Fred,” James barked, once he was securely on two feet again. As he said it, Holly backed up a step or two, and looked back at the cabin, a look of fear and indecision on her face. She still held the railing tightly in one white-knuckled hand, and her bottle in the other. 

        Arthur reached across Jack’s lap and fastened the restraint for him, and then strapped himself into the next one. Fred stepped back behind both of them and hunkered down, hugging Arthur’s chair as the yacht rocked in the opposite direction. 

        The marlin looked almost twice its size as it circled around under the clear bluish green water to port. Then it took off at top speed towards the other side, disappearing under the boat and emerging on the other side. About ten feet away from the boat, the line went taught, Jack leaned into the rod the other way, and the whole vessel jerked to stern as if it had been hit broadside by another boat. Fred fell onto his butt. James smashed the other side of his hip into the railing and winced as his flesh got ground in between his bone and the metal rail. 

        Carl went backwards into the railing hard, still clutching the spear, and both of his feet left the deck. He tottered on the rail for a split second before Arthur reached over from his secure chair and grabbed his thigh, forcing his foot back down onto solid wood. None of the men were speaking much, but the grateful look in Carl’s eye said enough.

        Once more, the marlin circled around under the water, and once more it dashed under the boat to the other side. This time, Jack tried to let out a little line, tried to gauge when the fish would catch the end so he could reduce the impact, but even so, the boat seemed to turn on its middle, just about a foot, but enough to send everyone reeling.

        There was a high-pitched scream and a huge splash from behind James, and when he turned around, Holly was gone.

        He ran to the railing nearest where she had been standing, looked over, and saw her in the water. Quickly glancing over his shoulder, he saw Jack take the line clippers out of the kit beside his chair and cut the line. James hurdled the railing and dropped into the water near Holly.

        She was treading water, but barely keeping her head up. The detective in James only took a second to see that she may have hit her head on the way down. He reached out to her, grabbing the back of her neck and pulling her towards him. Wrapping his arm around her neck and hoisting her onto his chest to keep her face away from the water, he swam sideways to the hull of the boat, where Carl was already dropping the ladder over the side. 

        “Can you climb up?” James asked, placing Holly’s hands on the bottom rung of the ladder. She nodded, but her eyes never met his, and her face was weary and contorted with pain. Holding on to the side of the ladder himself, James pushed her upwards as she climbed, until Carl could pull her up and over, onto the deck. 

        When James got his wet feet onto the deck, he was just in time to see Holly disappear into the cabin, and the guys standing against the aft railing, watching the marlin swim away, its blue fin barely piercing the surface now and then.

        Storming down into the cabin where the bunks were, James found Holly sitting on one of the beds, dripping wet, with a towel around her shoulders, holding a cold bottled water from the fridge pressed against the back of her head.

        “What the hell were you thinking?” he barked through clenched teeth. “Why were you even out on deck?” 

        “It was just a fish,” Holly said, sighing, “You guys will probably catch another one.”

        James stomped his foot in rage “No,” he shouted, “not like that one.” He crossed to the other side of the bunk, looked out the porthole at the water, now much calmer than just ten minutes ago. “Dammit,” he pounded his fist against the cabin wall, “do you realize that marlin could have paid off the rest of the loan on this boat? Free and clear?”

        Holly dropped the water bottle into her lap and began to cry, holding it in as best she could but still avoiding looking into James’s eyes. “I’m sorry.”

        “Why in the hell did I even let you come out here? I must have been out of my mind.” James shouted, standing over his wife and glaring down at the top of her head, where a patch of red flesh was staring to show through the black hair. 

        James heard the engines starting up, and then the boat shifted and the view from the porthole swung around. “See,” he said, looking back through the doorway up towards the deck, “They’re heading back in, because of you.”

        Holly said nothing, but cried quietly and put the bottle back against her head. James looked down at her once more with a sneer before shaking his head and climbing the couple of steps back out to the deck.

        Fred was steering the yacht at a moderate speed back towards Miami, while the other guys sat around on the deck with angry looks on their faces.

        “Guys,” James said, wiping some of the sea water out of his hair and off his face, “I’m really sorry about this. You were all right, I never should have brought her.”

        “What the hell is wrong with you, man?” Arthur said, while Carl and Jack shook their heads and looked out over the water, both sipping at bottles of Coors. 

        “I know, I know,” James said, holding his hands out in front of him, “She’s just been a real bitch lately, nagging me about …”

        “Hey, watch your mouth,” Carl said, turning around in his swivel chair with a stern look. “That’s your wife you’re talking about.” 

        “Well, …” James stuttered, “I’m just …”

        “You ask me,” Jack said calmly, “Ever since you made captain, you’ve been different. Not a lot different, but a little cockier, a little harsher.” He took a swig of beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You know we could hear everything you said down there, right?”

        James tried to replay the scene below deck, remember exactly what he had said, but suddenly it seemed like it was somebody else yelling at their hurt and scared wife, not him. He turned and looked down the steps at the empty doorway.

        “Okay, I shouldn’t have brought her.”

        “Damn right,” Arthur said, “but you did, and if you were just going to make her miserable, you should have left her at home. Hell, if you really wanted her to feel like crap, you could have stayed home with her.”

        “But she begged me to …”

        “Nobody wants to hear the excuses, brother,” Jack interrupted, “save your breath to go apologize to your wife.”

        For one long beat, all of the guys were glaring at James, and then all at the same time, they turned their backs to him and looked out over the ocean. James looked up at Fred behind the wheel of the boat, and while he didn’t look down at James, he was shaking his head with the same expression of disdain as the others. 

        Slowly, James went down into the cabin. Holly was still sitting in the same spot, but with her face buried in her hands, sobbing. The water bottle was on the floor next to her, gently rolling back and forth with the motion of the yacht.

        “Holly,” he started.

        “This damn boat,” she said through her fingers. “The kids are all gone, you’re always gone.” She dropped her hands to her lap and looked up at him, her eyes gone dark red with salt water and tears. “I just go to work and come home, and before long, I won’t even have work anymore. I live like a single woman.” She kicked away the bottle of water at her feet, sending it skittering over to him. “Or a widow.”

        James’s eyes burned, and his back suddenly hurt the way it always had whenever he had been in a fight, as if his body was tensing up to prepare for a punch.

        “Do you know how happy I was that you made captain? That you were behind a desk instead of in the streets? That I wouldn’t have to stay up late, expecting a call from your supervisor, saying you got shot, that I would have to spend the rest of my life alone and without you?” She buried the heels of her palms into her eye sockets and rubbed them. “And now that’s just what I’m doing, because of that damn job and this damn boat.” Her face dropped back into her hands and her back heaved again.

        James opened his mouth to say something, an apology, or maybe a comfort, but shame closed his mouth. He picked up the water bottled knocking against his feet and it felt almost warm. Tossing it on the bed, he stepped around divider to the kitchen and took another cold one from the back of the fridge. When he came back, Holly was still in the same state. He sat down beside her and felt the back of her head for the bump caused by her fall. After lightly pressing the cold bottle against it, he slid his other arm around her waist and pulled her towards him. She covering her face with her hands, she laid her head on her husband’s lap and allowed him to hold her. 

        It was a long trip back to shore, and they didn’t come up out of the cabin once.

        The next Saturday night found them at the docks again, this time with James leading a nervously blindfolded Holly. 

        “I can smell the water,” she said, “we better not be near that damn boat again.”

        Shrugging, James pulled the blindfold off her and smiled.

        “I knew it!” she screamed, “you will never get me out on that floating deathtrap again. I told you.”

        “Fine,” James said, “then we don’t have to take it out of dock if you don’t want to, but I want you to see some of that changes I’ve made.”

        Holly squinted at him and then looked at the gangplank moving slightly near her.

        “And we just get right back off and leave, without sailing anywhere, right?”

        “Absolutely,” James crossed his heart.

        Once he got her all the way up on deck, she could see the table he had set up there, with the white linen tablecloth, candlesticks, and roses in a green iridescent vase.

        She pursed her lips and shook her head, clearly fighting back a smile. “Okay, you got me. This is nice.”

        “Yeah, well, wait until you see what I did to the bunks down below.” James pulled her close and kissed her warmly.

        “You know what, sailor,” she said, finally letting her smile loose, “You might just get lucky tonight.”

        “So it’s not such a bad boat after all, right?” he said, moving in to kiss her again.

        “Then again,” she said, backing up and pushing his face away, “you might not.”