I’m guest-blogging for Wil Wheaton this week. If you’d like to check in on what I wrote, you can find the stories here:
I grew up on the west side of Springfield, Missouri. If you look on the left part of Springfield’s gridded streets you will find the map of my childhood. It’s where I rode my bike, learned to drive, and fell in love.
It’s the place where on Tuesday, according to police, a man named Craig Wood—a public school employee—kidnapped Hailey Owens. Witnesses say Wood yanked her off a neighborhood street, drove her to his house, and shot her in the base of the skull.
Hailey Owens was ten years old and she lived less than ten minutes away from my childhood home.
The crime and its impact are the kind of things we, as a society, call “unimaginable.” For parents like me, a random kidnapping and murder of a child is the one thing we cannot bare to consider. My hometown—though large and spread out across a big county—is suffering a kind of collective grief I’ve never seen. The crime has left an entire community mourning and helpless to do anything about it.
That twisted place in everyone’s stomach is the physical manifestation of the question, “What can I do?”
My late father had an answer that I learned just in time. I don’t know how he came about it, but I feel like it’s because he had seen some of the worst of the world. I don’t know, nor do I really want to.
For the past 48 hours, I’ve been thinking about my dad’s advice. I’ve been thinking about the west side of Springfield, that sweet little girl, and what happened to her.
We call it unimaginable, but that’s not quite right. People my age have been imagining it as long as we can remember.
In the summer of 1981, I was seven years old. Everybody I didn’t know was a monster who crept out of Hollywood, Florida and spread out like a virus of fear across the country. Every man with a “different” face was the creature that took six-year-old Adam Walsh and left him in a way a boy shouldn’t be left. Back then, one only needed to say the name “Adam” to make any parent’s heart stop for half a second.
That monster went everywhere. He made sure kids’ faces ended up on the sides of milk cartons. There was no forgetting he existed. What we called unimaginable was actually a part of our collective imaginations every time we rode our bike a little too far from the house. When a van parked at the end of our neighborhood road and the man inside called for my friend to come closer, the fear could’ve lit the whole neighborhood.
Everybody was supposed to be afraid when I was a kid. It was part of the culture. The President told us the Russians wanted to kill us. The First Lady told us drugs wanted to kill us. Our milk told us somebody was killing us.
And yet, we played, we ran, we stayed out until dusk, and we defied the monsters in the only way we knew how. We ran sweat lines through the dirt on our faces, and we pretended our mothers weren’t scared. Our parents pretended they weren’t afraid, and somehow we all survived. Apparently, there weren’t enough monsters to get us all.
Living through it without losing any friends to the monster was a blessing, but it also numbed the part of my brain that kept watch. Surviving the years of fear was enough for a man of my generation to forget that the monsters were still out there.
I couldn’t figure out why Janice was crying.
I barely knew her. I’d worked at the TV station for just eight days. She was one of my new bosses. Now, on a beautiful 80-degree day in April of 1999, Janice was in tears at her desk.
For the better part of the next few weeks, the story of the Columbine High School massacre would dominate our news. It would affect me as it would affect anybody, but in those days, Janice’s tears made no real sense.
Columbine was halfway across the country. It was an admittedly terrible story, but Janice was a professional who had seen and heard enough death that more tragedy shouldn’t mean breaking down in the middle of the newsroom. I would learn that it was not Janice’s failing, but her humanity, one that I lacked. I was 25 years old and unmarried. My then-fiancée and I had a couple responsibilities: the rent money and the care of a 13-pound mutt. We didn’t cry. It simply didn’t touch us.
Two years later, I stood outside on a March morning. It was 30 degrees and dark, and I shivered as I looked at a nice little suburban house where a man named Michael Hiderbrand had killed his wife and two children. It was among the worst cases I ever covered. Two people I cared for deeply were within a stiff breeze of getting blown up by Hilderbrand’s improvised building-sized bomb in downtown Greer, SC. As sad as I was during the entire story, it never occurred to me to feel anything other than base-level disgust and professional responsibility. Nothing more. No matter how much hell I saw, I felt untouchable.
As odd as it seems today, I still remember looking into Hilderbrand’s backyard and thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen to those dogs.”
So, imagine me in a diner. A clean one in a safe part of town where the pancakes are pretty much the best you’ll ever eat and the waitresses are the kind who consider it a profession.
My son is not yet in grade school, but he knows he is among men and wants to prove it. I’m with my good friend and his son, a world-wise fourth-grader. Both of the kids need to go to the bathroom. My son wants to go with his friend, and they don’t need any help from their dads.
It’s no big deal for the big kid to cross the 100 or so feet to the other side of the place. He’s done it by himself many times before. It’s no big deal. He’ll keep an eye on my boy.
But as I watch my son weave through the brunch crowd, my chest tightens up and my mouth gets dry. I lose all track of what my friend is saying, and I feel sick. My eyes are on the other side of the room. I’m not hungry anymore. It’s a foreign feeling, like becoming a father has somehow triggered some hormone that makes fear real again.
Too much time passes. I’m on my feet and making for the bathroom like it’s a house on fire. I know for a fact something is wrong. It’s a dad’s intuition.
And of course…everything is fine.
In retrospect, I probably gave my kid just enough time to find his zipper before bolting after him. It’s funny now, but funny in a way that still makes me sick to my stomach, because it was a reminder of the monster I hadn’t thought about since I was a kid. It was a monster that had been hibernating until I was old enough to understand what real fear really felt like.
DAD’S ADVICE, HAILEY’S LEGACY
This week, if police are correct, that monster took the form of Craig Wood, a mandolin player in a little bluegrass band, and the type of guy no one expected to be the kind of creature he apparently turned out to be. He’s in jail now, and there is little chance he’ll see a child again. There is precious little comfort in that.
When something terrible happens to a child, there is the gut reaction to fight. We look for someone bigger to blame, someone we can hurt worse than we can hurt the man we’ll lock in a cage. Sometimes the fight can take on real meaning, but in a case like this, we’re left only with a mugshot and the unsettling understanding that he is only today’s face of a fear we can’t control.
That’s really the point of it. Random kidnappings are exceptionally infrequent. They are lightning strikes without a god to blame for them. They are preciously-rare reminders that we have reason to be afraid.
That’s really the worst thing: despite all statistics to the contrary, we have reason to be afraid, and there is nothing we can do to change that. No amount of legislation, no focus on mental health, no Neighborhood Watch is going to change the fact that we will always have to be afraid.
And so, helpless, we ask, “What can I do?”
I look at my children—the sole reason I can live as I do—and I want to see them run. I want to see them smile because they are independent and can do things on their own. I leave them at schools. I let them run at the pool. I try to let them build their lives without building walls around them. I sit in muted terror and hope there aren’t enough monsters to get us all.
What can I do? I can heed my dad’s advice:
Make sure your children know you love them every day.
It sounds like simple advice, but in a world where we live in constant fear of what might happen, there is peace in knowing your child knows he is loved right now.
Today, I’m still thinking about Hailey and what her death will mean for her family. There is very little comfort in it, but there is this:
Thousands of children are hearing their parents say I love you a little louder and a little more often, and that’s because of a little girl named Hailey from my hometown.
There is a shiny headstone on the outskirts of Springfield, Missouri, and it’s where people who love my dad go when they want to be alone with him. I live 13 hours away. Over the river and through the woods. That’s how my old man would’ve said it. He and I had different ideas about what to do with someone after they die, and I figure that’s why he keeps showing up when I sleep.
In my dreams, Dad stands with relaxed shoulders, his spine loose and his head cocked just a few degrees to the right. His eyes watch purple charcoal clouds swirl over flat land, dangerous, angry, and anonymous. They form an unsettling wall and crawl toward us, a gray-black combine in a straw-house cornfield. Dad seems at peace. In fact, he looks almost happy at the coming chaos. Where he should be terrified—where I should be terrified—I feel as close to him as I ever have. Together we watch as the funnel drops down from the horizon line.
I try not to tell many stories about the three Ds (diets, dogs, and dreams) because they fall into the same categorical hole of interests that are only interesting to the storyteller. But this moment is not a nightmare, and it’s not even really a dream so much as it is a memory.
The soundtrack of my southwest Missouri childhood is the jangled harmony of the tornado sirens and KTTS radio’s weather warning. They are both terrible and sharp sounds, the kind of rusty metal screams that turn a hot day into cold sweats. I grew up in shadow of the Cold War’s mushroom cloud, but there was nothing scarier than the possibility of an Oklahoma storm blowing in a tornado that would kill us all. We ducked and covered for Russian nukes, but even as third-graders we knew we were more likely to die at the hands of the God we prayed to.
To watch him, Dad wasn’t afraid. He’d stand in the limestone gravel of our driveway—and then years later on the black asphalt that replaced the rocks—and watch the western sky turn orange, purple, gray, and black. He was a man who could track—with literally killer accuracy—a single niggling mole under his green lawn. He did the same with the clouds. It was a silent, patient meditation on movements beyond his control.
This is how I remember my father, a man who could sit for an hour and watch something none of us could see. It didn’t matter how much the radio screamed. Dad would stand with his head on an axis offset from our own gravity and decide whether we were in danger. Then and only then would we run for shelter. Sometimes it was to our house. Sometimes it was to a hospital parking garage. Every time, it was exhilarating and wrapped with the kind of complete trust only a child can have in a father. Several tornados hit that town in the 18 years I lived there, but I never saw one hit the ground.
It was probably no great coincidence that everyone I knew turned to my dad when the chaos became overwhelming. Even when a June thunderstorm wasn’t coming up from Miami, OK, Dad watched the world tumble and shake, and he made sure everyone was safe. Whether we stood over caskets or the wreckage of our own bad decisions, Dad found a way to put chaos in a box. I saw him cry only twice in my life, and both times it was because of things he didn’t see coming.
I think of all this now because the dreams are happening more frequently than they did right after his death. Sometimes Dad is a younger man still sweating from a game of basketball in our driveway. Sometimes he’s the white-haired grandpa he was when he died. He’s always watching the sky, sussing out the meaning behind the smallest black swirls in the clouds.
I would relegate it all—the recurring dreams, the ozone-aired memories, the slow-motion movements of my dad’s head as he watched—to no more than a byproduct of ongoing grief. That’s probably the most rational explanation. But before I can think too long on what it means for me, I think of my kids.
Someday—sooner or later—I’m going to be gone. Maybe my boys will dream as I do, and if so, I wonder what that dream will look like.
Will I be sitting on the bathroom counter playing my guitar while they take a bath? Will I be standing over a pot of gumbo on the stove? How will they see me after I’m gone? I don’t know if there is any way to predict it or plan for it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified every day that I’m messing up the dreams they’ll have when they’re 40 years old. The weight of it is sometimes so much that I’m afraid to do anything at all.
But then I think of my dad again.
A couple of summers before he died, Dad stood with me on Grayton Beach and watched this storm creep across the sky. There was wonder and joy absent of fear in his eyes. He was a man at peace in himself as the world looked like it was at its end. This wasn’t a dream, and I’m glad for that, because it’s real, and it’s not even old enough to be a memory yet.
I had the dream again last week. Dad was older this time. We were both adults watching the sky together. If I have that dream for the rest of my life, I won’t be disappointed.
When I wake up, there is always a gauzy half-second where I have to remember Dad is gone, and there is always a slow-slip into reality that makes me unbearably sad.
But even that sadness doesn’t last long, because every dream feels so real, it’s almost as if Dad is still alive. What’s left of him is what makes me dream. Of all the things he gave me, of all the things he taught me, of all the things he wanted for me, the greatest was the ability to detach myself from the daily reality and chaos. It’s during that untethered and floating time that I can be with my dad and he can continue teaching me how to stand fearless in the chaos.
Yes, there is a place on the edge of Springfield, Missouri where the people who love my dad can lay flowers on his grave and think about his legacy. Though I rarely see that place, I’m at peace knowing that if I want to visit my dad, all I have to do is go to sleep.
Jason Shelton, an American soldier, was on my plane to Greenville last night.
I hadn’t slept in two days. I’d left my hotel 22 hours before. My back and neck were knotted up. I needed a hot shower. I needed to sneak into my boys’ rooms and give them a hug. I’d been gone a week. I missed my family.
We don’t think about how long it takes America’s military personnel to fly home from the warzones in the Middle East or, in Shelton’s case, Germany where he was training. We don’t consider how uncomfortable they are during deployments that can last longer than their kids’ childhoods. I remember a decade ago when seeing our troops in the airports felt new and scary and patriotic. Now it happens so often, it’s weird not to see one of the brave souls in camouflage getting a Starbucks between flights.
The flight home from Atlanta lasts barely more than 30 minutes. I’d carried on both bags so I could make a quick escape for home once we taxied to the gate. I was on the aisle, Bose headphones on, “Astral Weeks” cutting off the sound of the engines. The landing was a little harder than normal, the kind that makes my eyes open a bit faster and my heart skip a half a beat.
We don’t think much about what the soldiers have to endure when they get back home. Their kids have gotten older. Their spouses have sometimes hardened or drifted. The things that make their eyes open and hearts skip are things we can’t see or hear.
When the seat belt bell dinged, I started to stand and grab for the overhead bin when I saw the honor guard outside the window. There were seven of them, all in dress uniforms and white gloves. Their salute wasn’t a snap to their foreheads. It was a slow, melted wax, almost robotic trip from their waist to their brow. One of them held an American flag folded into a triangle. The next thing I saw was the hearse.
The window seat in front of me emptied, and I sat down in it. Over my shoulder, I heard a man a little older than me whisper, “Kind of puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it?”
In a matter of less than a minute, the people who were going to leave the plane did. The rest of us sat in silence and watched Jason Shelton’s casket come out of the cargo hold. The man behind me had his hand over his heart. I put my forehead against the window and stared at the casket. It was silver and gray, attached to a wooden pallet with black fabric loops on the side. Someone had draped a flag over it from end to end.
In the background was a banner supplied by Delta that read “All gave some. Some gave all.” I felt something like anger tighten in my chest—not that the banner was there or that Delta had chosen that way to honor Shelton, but that this wartime has lasted so long that banners like this are part of a normal corporate operation.
I didn’t know who was in the casket at the time. Until I read the news this morning, I didn’t know Shelton was inside. As I sat there with my head against the cold window, I pictured him having a mother, or a wife, or kids, and I couldn’t stop the tears. I stayed until Shelton was in the hearse. When I stood, I saw the plane was still mostly full. There were eyes full of tears from the front to the back. I’ve been on hundreds of planes, and I’ve never heard one so quiet, reverent, or sad.
Jason Shelton had a wife. Her name is Heather. He’s from Madison County, North Carolina. At 22 years old, he died in a training exercise. Veterans on flag-flying motorcycles met the hearse in the cold air outside the airport and escorted the soldier the rest of the way home. I sat in my car and watched them pass.
It’s hard not to remember the time when the government didn’t allow pictures of dead American soldiers’ caskets as they came back from war. From 1991 to 2009, there was a ban on those photos. Some people said it was to protect the soldier’s family’s privacy. Other people said it was an attempt to hide the reality of wartime’s true hell. There have been thousands of those caskets since we went back to war in 2003. I’d say we should all have to see them on the national news every night. The sad reality is, dead soldiers aren’t news anymore.
When I got on the flight last night, I was tired, sore, and thinking about only myself and what I had to do the rest of the week. This morning, my kids jumped in my bed and kissed me. They told me they missed me and thanked me for their souvenirs. I may have to leave sometimes, but it’s almost always guaranteed I’m coming home. That’s not the case for the people we task with fighting the battles we choose.
It’s a good thing we can now see the pictures of our fallen soldiers coming back to America. If we stop bearing witness to their deaths, then we forget the meaning of what they do and the reason they are there. Today I wonder, though, if looking at those pictures is enough. Today my heart is hurting for a man I never knew and the family left behind. That’s because I shared Jason Shelton’s last flight to the Carolinas.
I wonder how we all might look at things—our country, our government, our soldiers, and our lives—if we all could be touched in the same way. I wonder how our leaders might think about the choices they make and the people they choose to carry out those decisions if they, too, had to share those flights, see the honor guard, and watch the casket slip into the back of the hearse.
We should do more than mark Veterans Day. We should do more than lay flowers on a grave on Memorial Day. We should do more than wave a flag on Independence Day. We should witness. We should simply do more, feel more, and honor more than we do. Put another way, we should all have to carry them home.
I’ll be honest. I’m about to go on a big trip, and I’m–for the first time in a very long time–a little nervous about it. It’s the good kind of nervous, but the anxiety is real and it’s manifesting itself as a niggling marmot of distraction. My focus on the big Ps (printing, packing, prepping) is shaky, which is how I ended up going to the comforts of Scalzi’s blog to see his Ten Additional Things I Have Done That You (Probably) Haven’t. At the end, he invited his readers to create their own list, and because my head-noodle is doing everything it can to avoid everything I need to do in the next 24 hours, here’s my list.
Ten things I have done that you (probably) haven’t
1. Talked with Willie Nelson on his bus after one of his shows
2. Fractured my sternum on a lectern
3. Stood in the middle of an interstate highway looking into a body bag half full with charred remains
4. Been the first to hear a murderer’s confession
5. Fired a fully automatic weapon
6. Had an intimate dinner with Norm Macdonald
7. Caught $10,000 in cash thrown from across the room
8. Had a bank robber use a “your mom” joke on me
9. Watched a pile of marijuana as big as a truck burn
10. Been (wrongly) accused of and interrogated for the hit-and-run of a bike-riding child
So, that passed ten minutes. Only 27 hours more to procrastinate before I board! Have your ten things you’ve done that I (probably) haven’t? Leave them in the comments.
This question, as all good questions do, begins with a cast iron skillet.
My wife is—and this is putting it in a way only a loving and understanding husband can—security conscious. When I buried house keys in our back yard, she dug them up to make sure no rapey yard guy found them by accident and broke in. Or she dug them up to make sure when she got locked out twice while I was on the road that she would have no recourse but to wait until a neighbor came home so she could get back in the house. It doesn’t matter, because love means knowing when to let your wife dig up the back-up keys and hide them where no one will ever find them.
This story is about love. This story is about Valentines. This story is about a cast iron skillet and me searing meat for a Valentine’s dinner and ignoring the smoke billowing up around my face. Because, in case you haven’t experienced it, love means getting smoke in your face. And love sometimes means getting to know your public servants.
We’d been in the new house for less than a year, and my wife insisted (see above) on the Hollywood-style security in our suburban home. I—a frequent traveler of questionable repute —relented. We got the works. If a North Korean dictator woke up with a scorching case of scabies, our security system gave us a heads up.
I was cooking. It was February, a time of Hallmark love and dinners prepared with the kind of affection only societal obligation requires. I was searing meat in a house I’d known for less than a year. And, if you have ever cooked with a cast iron skillet you know what that can mean.
When the alarm sounded, I stumbled for the keypad to punch in the same number I did every time I came in at 3am. Nothing happened. The alarm kept making the kind of noise that brings the neighbors. It also brought a lot of sirens and a fairly muscular firefighter who came into my kitchen to make sure none of my property was at risk. I assured him that everything was fine and offered him Valentine’s dinner. He declined.
I also offered—if he wanted to drop by again—to donate to the next firehouse fundraising drive. Why? Because the poor and perfectly-muscled dude wasn’t making any extra money by getting up and coming to my house. In fact, he probably missed out on some pretty good firehouse chili. I felt sort of bad.
In the end—yes, after the second time it happened—it cost me exactly nothing. The only reason the fire department came to my house both times was because of the contract I had with the private security company. The firefighters got paid by the taxpayers to respond when I—a semi-privileged and cast-iron-skilleted suburban warrior—got jiggy with the chicken on a Valentine’s night when my home alarm was feeling a little needy. The public servants would have made the exact same salary regardless of whether they were fighting my seared chicken breast or a five-alarm fire.
And now that has me wondering why we bother.
Why do we pay taxes for firefighting? Honestly, is fire such a rampant problem in our society that we need to pay annual taxes to fund fire protection? I mean, we all know that firefighters spend most of their time sitting around frying turkeys and directing traffic after fender-benders that keep us from getting to Old Navy clearance sales. When it comes down to it, people who work hard enough can afford sprinkler systems that could do the same job as a bunch of guys who wash their trucks for half of their working day.
In fact, why do we bother paying for police officers when we could hire private security companies to make sure our property and persons were adequately protected?
Or why do we bother to pay taxes to fund people to teach our children?
Why do pay taxes to pay people to build our roads?
Or monitor disease outbreaks?
People who work hard enough can afford other people to protect them from those dangers, right? Why do we get government involved at all?
I guess it’s because we have decided that these all are important, nay, essential parts of maintaining a safe and orderly society. We want to make sure our houses don’t burn down. We want to make sure people don’t rob us. We want to make sure our children are educated. We consider all of those things an integral part of living and moving forward as a people.
And you know what? They are. I was joking before. Firefighters, police officers, and educators are among the bravest and most important people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. They deserve a portion of the money I make because they provide services I can’t always provide for myself. What’s more, they make sure other people in my community have the same protection, and that means my neighbors keep their houses, don’t become victims of crime, and have children who have a chance at education that turns them into productive members of society.
Why don’t we don’t actively fight against these taxes?
Why are we not arguing that we shouldn’t give firefighting and police protection handouts to people who haven’t worked to earn them?
We all don’t use those services equally. We may never use the services at all, but we don’t question their absolute necessity. Why is that?
I know there is a reason, because otherwise America wouldn’t be in the massive debate we are today. I know there is a reason, because I pay for fire insurance and fire security, but I also pay taxes for firefighters, the people I’m actually trusting to physically save me. It’s unquestionably the most important part of the process, and that’s the one we control via government rather than private industry. Why is that?
The only answer I’ve come up with is this: there has to be a line between what we pay a government to do and what we pay private industry to do, because we count on the free market to determine what’s good and bad, what’s really necessary and what’s unnecessary. Otherwise, capitalism is dead. Worse, I’m told it would make us commies. And as a guy who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I know that being a commie is gray and sucky.
So, if I’m to accept that because I really don’t want Obama making my lunch sandwiches or spraying for palmetto bugs in my house, where exactly am I to draw the line?
Should we stop funding public firefighters?
Should we stop paying for public education?
And if not, I ask why those services are more important than the doctor who has to operate on somebody in my family next month.
Oh, yeah, there’s that. Much like a stupid cooking mishap or my car getting burgled, we have a little family medical thing we have to take care of. It’s nothing too serious, but it came out of nowhere, and it is going to be the kind of expensive that would hurt the pocketbooks of people who don’t have decent insurance, the kind of people who don’t qualify for government assistance but also don’t have a guaranteed 100% payment and could end up spending a long time paying for the emergency care.
It’s made me think back to that cast iron skillet and wonder what would have happened if I had really started a grease fire and there weren’t such a thing as government-funded firefighters. How long would I be paying for that out-of-nowhere emergency? How would losing that money affect my ability to be a productive member of society?
I know there are people on both sides of the privatization debate. I have friends who would be much happier if we privatized everything from the Centers For Disease Control to the ATF. I have friends who would be happy if we had Karl Marx over for a beer and wings. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. The question is, how do we as a society decide where to draw that line?
I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I think the question is instructive in itself, and it might help us have a better discussion about how we think about what is essential for everyone.
Why are some things so essential that we make sure we fund them with taxes without complaint, and why are other things too important to let government handle?
Put another way, why do we pay taxes in case I set my house on fire but not in case I set myself on fire?
I stood in my kitchen. I was tenderizing chicken. Beating the holy hell out of it. Destroying it, really. I turned to my wife who sat at the counter with her laptop. I yelled.
“Don’t you understand? We lose! It’s over! We lose!”
I beat the chicken some more. Killed it again, really.
My wife was sweating. She was back from a run, therapy from a bit of apoplexy brought on by the government shutdown and the rampant ridiculousness surrounding it. Somewhere along the way she flipped off a guy and broke her phone. In that order. I think.
“Just stop looking at the computer,” I screamed. The kids were napping. “We lose!”
The chicken didn’t look like chicken anymore.
Indeed, it’s over. We lost.
Oh, who? Not the Willis family specifically. We’re fine. I won at poker the other night. The kid won his last two baseball games. He turned on two pitches so hard last night, he made my chicken pounding look mediocre.
Who lost? America. All of it.
Who is to blame? America. All of it.
And, best I can tell, there is only one thing that can save us.
I stood in the pantry last night. I was ostensibly there for bread crumbs, but I found myself thinking about how everyone was screaming at each other, pointing fingers, and blaming the wrong people for the wrong things. Worse, no one—and I mean not a single person—was actually listening.
It’s Obama’s fault! It’s the GOP’s fault! I’m smarter than you, because I watched FOX today! I’m smarter than you because I watched Jon Stewart last night!
Nope. We’re all idiots, because we’re screwing up a perfectly good country because we don’t listen anymore, and we don’t expect our leaders to do so either.
Get this: one of my best friends and I are currently engaged in three very long-lasting arguments.
1) Whether George Thorogood or Steve Miller is worse
2) Whether a silverback gorilla or a grizzly bear would win a fight
3) Whether we would rather face off against a horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses
These debates have taken several hours out of several nights of my life over the past six months. Notable about them in this context: the amount of listening that took place. We and the people who engaged with us listened more than we talked. It was heated at times, but there was mutual respect and constructive dialog. (Most of the time. Bad to the Bone, my ass).
“We need real statesmen!” my wife screamed from her computer.
“There is no such thing anymore!” I yelled back.
I crushed a bag of goldfish crackers and breaded the chicken with it, because what’s the damned difference anymore?
It was actually an email discussion with my Thorogood-friendly friend that sent me into the pantry in the first place and had me asking, “Are we actually doomed? Is there anything that can happen than will make Americans start listening to each other?”
I couldn’t come up with one thing. Not a damned thing. Everything that occurred to me was either Idealist Fantasia or had already been proven fruitless.
I have lots of friends who are a lot smarter than me. So, I spent a few hours prodding them via social media outlets with this question:
Honest question: What, if anything, could happen that would bridge the American dialogue chasm? Looking for real tangible possibilities.
I’ve spent hours reading what people sent me, watching videos, and genuinely doing something I wish everyone could do: listening.
I’d like to share some of what I received, ending with what may be the only solution for a doomed America. (Note: I’m not attributing any of this for privacy reasons, but if the people quoted want credit, please take it in the comments. Also, I’ve edited quotes and cherry-picked from conversations for clarity purposes.)
One of the most popular answers to my question involved the one thing that has proven in the past, if ever so briefly, to bring America together: disaster.
One friend wrote, “A devastating national tragedy – and even then it would mostly be to placate the masses. System is broken. Divide is massive.”
I thought of the same thing, and then I thought of Hurricane Katrina, and how our focus became less on coming together and more blaming either the people of New Orleans or the failed federal response. The water hadn’t receded before we stopped listening and started fighting among ourselves.
Of course, Katrina only affected the Gulf Coast and there was a lot of blame to go around internally.
Someone else suggested a true financial disaster in which the American dollar collapsed. While that might work as a reset, it’s hard to imagine a place where the oligarchy doesn’t come out of that scenario still on top.
So, what would bring all of America together. Of course! Another massive terrorist attack! But wait…
“Instinctively thought a 9/11 type event,” wrote one man. “Then thought, that’s what started us on the road to where we are today.”
And that left us with the real problem.
Wrote one friend: “At this point it might only be a disaster that was against (the government) directly.”
And other: “Something absolutely catastrophic. Like 100 times worse than 9/11. How’s that for depressing?”
By far, the biggest response was the idealists and the people who can see all the problems, but aren’t sure where to start in actually doing something about it. I am the patron saint of the Cherry-Pickers.
Indeed, these are people who, like me, believe the problem is multi-faceted and needs not just one thing fixed but dozens of them at the same time. Each of the suggestions below is something with which I would agree. I would also agree that you won’t see any such thing happen in my lifetime, let alone all of them.
For starters, we have to fix a broken fourth estate.
Said an American who now lives overseas, “A responsible media would neutralise talking point bullshit. Would have to dismantle all echo chambers. I think people are able to shop for info that panders to their bias. The media market is glad to serve that bias up for profit, increasing balkanisation and tribal allegiance over fact. 30+ yrs ago America got its news at 6PM from three people in total. I’d like to think those three people (i.e., Cronkite) felt a special responsibility to inform with facts.”
That friend also admitted, “Never gonna happen.”
If we can’t fix the messed up media, maybe it’s about doing what my wife wants to do and seeking out real statesmen. “The American people needs to have worthwhile leadership come forth, and not who the Dems/GOP think we want,” said a commenter. The question is, how do we do that?
“Campaign finance reform?” asked one friend. “As it is now, we’ve got oligarch pols who are so rich they’re used to always getting their own way. I don’t see how you blow up CNN and FOX News. Gotta work around them.”
Other suggestions included:
These are wonderful suggestions, but I think even the people who suggest them would agree they are pie-in-the sky. They might event actually agree with a Canadian friend who suggested, “Most realistically possible answer? All the old guard dies and takes their outdated views with them.”
Someone else said, “Actually, what we need is a Gen X’er in charge who really hasn’t been in national politics too much , who doesn’t care about the the old way to do things, who doesn’t want to blame either side just wants to fix the mess and move on after 4 yrs.”
But to do all that, you need voters, and, yes, that’s a problem, because there are a lot of people who think that process is rigged, too.
“Gotta think it starts w/figuring how to ‘fix’ redistricting,” said one politically active friend. “Too many politicians in uncompetitive districts spells disaster. Ironic that in creating solid R & solid D districts, politicians have abandoned capitalism when it comes to House elections.”
And so, we’re left with me standing in the kitchen, screaming at my wife, and holding a meat tenderizer high above my head. It’s not pretty, because we’re all…
Many of my friends were just me standing there in the pantry wishing they could find the breadcrumbs. They didn’t have solutions. They only had the same lament as I. Here’s just a selection of quotes.
“Unfortunately, absolutely nothing. Real debate and discussion have been replaced with screaming the party line.”
“Everything I can think of has all sorts of moving parts and any one of them breaking could make the whole process fail.”
“Since ‘decaying infrastructure leads to horrifying bridge collapse’ didn’t move the needle, I’m stumped.”
“Politics has always been dirty and divisive, but in the past 10-20 years politicians have been treating it as a zero-sum game. It’s become more of a sport; victory can be measured by your own wins or your opponent’s losses. It has also become more of a spectator sport, with people choosing and rooting for sides instead of compromises or solutions. As for specific ideas on how to change that … I’ve pondered it for a long time, but I have nothing.”
“Leaders should be allowed to learn and have their positions evolve without being labeled as ‘flip-floppers.’ We as a citizenry should know when to demand decisiveness and when to demand thoughtful investigation. We should demand more than soundbites from our politicians, and hold each other as citizens accountable for being properly informed.”
“I have nothing. I want to say something regarding children, but I can’t think of anything.”
“All I know is the last president who genuinely brought Congress and the American people together was Richard Nixon.”
“Nothing. And that’s the most depressing word I’ve ever written.”
THE WAR-HAWK BAIT
Yes, we’re all depressed, because historically, disaster has held us together temporarily, select reforms have worked until puppet-masters found workarounds, and, in the end, we’re sitting here in a decades-long war with our civil liberties in shards while our government shuts down in a battle over our own citizens’ healthcare and how to pay for it.
That’s when we need a real enemy. That’s when we need an enemy who isn’t some dictator we’ve propped up over the years or sadistic genocidal monster we’ve ignored for longer. What would it take? A real threat to the world’s last superpower. Somebody tough enough to meet us on our own soil.
One friend said, “Sadly, it would probably take an invasion or some fundamental undermining of religion to reorient extremist positions.”
Said an American veteran: “Invasion from without by a force strong enough to be a credible threat to America and/or the world.”
It’s hard to argue with that, but it’s not clear whether that enemy exists, and it’s certainly not what we want. And if that enemy isn’t coming, it leaves us with the old Pogo trope: “”We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Indeed, if we’re not to come together, then it’s civil war.
“At this point, breaking up the U.S. into 4-5 countries isn’t the worst idea I’ve heard,” said a friend of mine.
She was echoed by another who said, “Sad to say but default response to biggest political divides in American history (one I don’t endorse) has been ‘kill the other.’”
But you know, I don’t want to kill you, and I hope you don’t want to kill me. I want both of us destroying that chicken together. Fortunately, there are a ton of people who share that view, and there’s not enough chicken.
This was the very first response I got on Facebook when I asked the question there, and it came from a friend with whom I don’t always agree politically, but have always shared a mutual respect:
“I’ve always said that we have to stop vilifying each others’ motivations. We can disagree on policy, but don’t assume the other person’s motivations aren’t as pure as your own.”
That was so succinct, it broke my heart. It’s the very basis for how we begin to listen to each other. Remarkably, many of the comments were sweet echoes to that.
A neighbor commented, “Time to think of others first. We have created a society wholly focused on getting ours first. The simple fact is the more you give- the more you get. Greed is not good in any form.”
If we can somehow move to doing that ourselves, it might be something we can convince our leaders to do. It hasn’t been that long since we had leaders who knew how to listen. Another friend of mine who is also a veteran referenced Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil: “They obviously didn’t agree on much, but going into critical meetings, they both started from a point of wanting to make the system work. That’s pretty profound.”
The problem is, as another friend of mine (an expert on human behavior), pointed out, self-delusion is all-too easy. “Take any issue, find believers on both sides,” he said. “Present all of the evidence for both positions. Result? Everyone comes away more firmly attached to their previous belief. They (we) select evidence to back our present belief and reject anything else.”
Human nature is a bitch, one compounded by our constant addiction to TV, internet, and social media.
“Folks making the decision to shut off the mindless TV spigot would help reduce echo,” said a reliably introspective friend. “Quieter minds might then realize on a larger more serious scale that all sides are equally being fucked on a continuous basis.”
That’s why one friend privately suggested a controversial means by which everyone could get on the same page: psychedelic drugs.
“They give modern humans a 4-5 hour window in which all that brainwashing is removed. Barriers and walls are knocked down.”
Has it come that far?
Don’t ask me. I beat the hell out of a chicken last night, and I still don’t feel better. Which brings me to the only thing that could possibly bring Americans together.
That’s right. I couldn’t count the number of people who looked to another galaxy as a way to fix what’s broken on this little slab of land between the Pacific and Atlantic.
The very first response from three very smart friends:
“Alien invasion. (Not joking. That’s all I’ve got.) “
“How about faked alien invasion? The Watchmen method.”
And that’s where we leave it. We leave it with a 1990s Hollywood film. We leave it with this:
The only way Americans can come together as one is to have a common enemy from another planet that wants to kill us.
And you know what? I don’t know that I disagree with that proposition.
Do you? Do you have great ideas? Let me hear them.
I’ll be in the kitchen.
And I’ll be listening.
A lot of friends shared a lot of things with me. I’ve gotten to some of them, but not all. Still, I wanted to leave them here for you to do with what you like.
The gunfire started about the time we reached Field 4. Rat-tat-tats, small arms, over and over again. We were there for baseball practice. A sunny day in September. Mid-70s, blue sky, light breeze, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition that sounded close enough to smell.
“It sounds like war,” my four-year-old said.
“What is it, Dad?” asked the big one. He’s nine. It was his practice. His first year of kid-pitch ball. He’s a southpaw.
“It has to be a firing range somewhere,” I said, “because you’d hear sirens by now if it wasn’t.” Still, no matter how much I Googled, I couldn’t find the firing range on a map. I never heard sirens, and I’m still sure it’s a range of some sort–public or private. It didn’t matter, because we never heard sirens, and my mind was somewhere else. My mind was on a kid whose name you’ve heard more times than you can count, but a kid you will probably never hear about again.
A note came home from school last week from my son’s third grade teacher. I wish it had read that he was talking too much or horsing around in the lunch line. Instead, it read as follows.
“I want to let you know that a student who attended [this school] a few years ago was killed last night. I found out the news today during school. I taught this child and he, as with all my students, has a very special place in my heart. This is a very difficult loss for me and I wanted you to know about it because the children saw me upset. I removed myself from the room and had someone watch the children while I collected myself. I did not tell the children why I was upset or why I needed to leave the room briefly.”
My son sat at the kitchen counter that night as my wife and I told him what happened. He literally shook like he was cold. He asked if this was why we wouldn’t let him walk home from school. We explained he was safe. We explained that we were there to protect him. We explained he didn’t have to be scared.
We tell our kids all kinds of things. We tell them about elves, and fairies, and devils, and boogeymen, and ghosts, and rabbits. We tell them lots of things we know they will eventually grow to understand were just illusions of childhood.
Like telling them they don’t have to be scared.
The young man who was killed was 15 years old. I use the passive voice there, because we have no idea who killed him. But we know this much: he once went to my son’s elementary school. He shared middle schools with two of my best friends’ kids. I don’t know if he was a good or a bad kid. I just know his funeral was today. I know he was shot once. I know that my son’s teacher–a young woman–broke down when she heard the news.
In an hour or so, I”m going to leave to take my son to his first game of the fall season. The sky is blue. It’s 80 degrees. He’s finished up his homework. He’s #8 this season.
On the way to the game, I’ll stop at a T-intersection. When I take a right, I’ll be less than a mile from home plate. If I took a left, I’d be less than a mile from the yard where that young man was shot last week.
Tonight, I’ll be hoping my kid gets a base hit while a family less than two miles away looks at an empty bedroom.
I’ve been working since 7am, and I’ve had the news on in the background all day. Thirteen dead at a military facility in our nation’s capital. A business owner shot dead in a robbery across the street from a place I used to eat Mexican food. Two shot in a home invasion. Shots fired after a high school football game. Police officer terminated after illegally firing into a building. Police officer charged after shooting unarmed man who needed help after a car accident. That was all in the news today. And then this:
In Pauline, SC today a church reported finding its building shot up. The sign outside the church this morning read, “16 BULLET HOLES IN OUR BUILDING – 3 BULLETS FOUND IN THE SANCTUARY – PLZ AIM IN THE OTHER DIRECTION.”
I am not anti-gun. I may come off that way sometimes, but I’m not. I’ve probably shot more types of guns than your average suburban dad. Pistols. Shotguns. Rifles. Semi-automatic. Automatic. All of them. And you know what? I enjoyed it. I won’t lie. It was fun. I’m not anti-gun. I’m anti-people-getting-shot. I’m anti telling my kid he doesn’t have to be scared. I’m anti a school of thought that puts everybody into one camp or another while kids are getting mowed down.
So, yes, I’ve spent the past three or four days thinking about this boy I never met. Thinking about how he went to the same elementary school as my son. Thinking about how he went to the same middle schools as my friends’ kids. Thinking about how the soundtrack to my son’s baseball season is small arms fire. Thinking about how that kid was shot dead. In broad daylight on a late summer afternoon less than two miles from where we practice pop flies.
Oh, you know what that kid’s name was? You know the name well. You know it for almost the same damned reason.
That’s kid’s name was Trayvon.
And you’ll probably never hear about him again.
My older son turned nine a few weeks ago, and I have no idea what my wife and I gave him as presents. There was a closetful of gifts. I know that much. And I think there was a pogo stick involved, but I only remember that because the kid hopped on it yesterday to impress the new neighbor girl. She’s rumored to be French.
But the point is, the gifts are a blur to me, and I suspect—though he will thoughtfully tell you appreciated them all—they are a blur to him, too. The whole birthday experience was giant blur of happiness. It’s what a parent does, I’m told.
I don’t know if it’s always been this way, but successful modern parenting seems to me something of a simple premise: our job is to make our kids happy. There will be some people—perhaps many—who disagree, but that’s all I really ask out of life. I want my kids to grow up knowing happiness.
And so, there are $80 trips to see Smurfs 2. There is a waffle cone full of Cotton Candy Explosion ice cream. There is a room full of toys on which you might find one or two of my kid’s fingerprints. It’s all in the race toward that goal of making my kid smile.
There is a great disconnect, however, when one thinks about what it takes to achieve that goal of a happy child, because not all happiness is equal. Many if not most moments of happiness happen in a blur, and for kids like mine, that blurry happiness often comes pretty easy. In our effort to make our children happy, we oftentimes simply hand them happiness—temporary, fleeting happiness.
Why? Because that other part of being a parent is the innate desire to protect our children from suffering, need, or want. It hurts us to see them unhappy or frustrated or scared, and so, as if by instinct, we rush them as fast toward happiness as we can. We cover up the temporary discomfort with all-too temporary comfort. Maybe we can’t be blamed, but then again, maybe we should.
Why? Because they can be happier.
I’ve known this for a while—maybe since my own childhood—but it’s only really clicked for me in recent months, and it really hit home today as I watched my son cross the finish line of his second youth triathlon.
The event is a 100m swim, 4-mile bike ride, and 1.3 mile run. For experienced athletic adults, it may not sound like much. That said, I know a great many adults who couldn’t do half of that without a break, and for a nine-year-old kid, it’s a pretty monumental half hour.
Last year after this same event, I—still swollen with pride at my son’s finish—asked this question:
I thought about it for most of the day, and as I go to bed tonight, I wonder what we might be able to learn from that moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a kid who likes to swim, bike, and run, or a kid who likes to build things, or a kid who draws cars. How many children might succeed if we just took a second to cheer them on?
And it’s been with that thought that I’ve spent the last year watching my older son’s accomplishments—a home run, a diving catch, a 5k run, straight As, etc—with a keener eye. He might not have done all of those things without some help from his parents, but he did them all on his own. What’s more, I guarantee you he will remember them longer than what we gave him for his ninth birthday.
To put a finer point on it, I have a very good friend who is a bit of a fitness expert. His son is entering the tough middle school years in which every physical flaw is amplified and confidence is hard to come by. A few months back, my buddy started taking his son to work out with him. Today, that young boy is out-doing his dad in some things and is as confident as I’ve ever seen him. Put another way, the kid is happier than I ever seen him.
None of this is to suggest that we shouldn’t do the things for our kids that make them smile for a minute. Also, this isn’t to suggest that we should force them into physical pursuits that don’t suit them.
But I wonder if maybe we could think more about the things we can do that will make them smile longer. I wonder what would happen if we let them struggle a little longer, feel the frustration of not being immediately satisfied, and figure out that life isn’t always comfortable.
That is, what is we tried to make ourselves comfortable with the idea that happiness and satisfaction are sometimes things that take work?
I wonder, because today, my kid worked for a kind of happiness I can’t buy at GameStop. He suffered. He sweated. He wanted to puke. He didn’t win, but he shaved time off of every leg of the race from last year, and he knows what he can do to improve. And in the end today, he turned up his head at the finish line and did this. I honestly can’t look at the picture without getting a lump in my throat.
No, I have almost no idea—save Le Pogo Stick—what we gave our kid for his birthday. And maybe that doesn’t matter too much. But today I saw the boy give himself the gift of accomplishment.
It is a reminder to me that for all the 3D movies, boxes of Legos, and ice cream cones in the world, the best gift I can give my kid is the chance for him to say, “Look what I just did.”
If you live in my area, John Harrison and Sugar Creek Fun Runs put this event together for charity and do an amazing job with every race they organize. If you don’t live near Upstate South Carolina, you can find similar races for kids with a simple Google search.
I wasn’t even leaving the house, and I was terrified.
The boy wore a “Phineas and Ferb” t-shirt, plaid shorts, and his new sneaks. He had a fresh haircut and a new backpack. A day earlier, he’d soaked in “Meet the Teacher” day like it was a rock concert. He’d declared, “I’m glad summer is over. I’m ready for tomorrow to be here.” I didn’t blame him. I mean, his teacher was attractive.
Now, at just after 7am, his stomach hurt.
“I’m a little nervous,” he said. “First day jitters.”
I tried to put myself back in third grade. I wanted to impart whatever wisdom I’d picked up during that time thirty years ago. Here’s what I remember:
It was the year I decided I wanted to be a writer.
I had Mrs. Parker as a teacher, and I’m petty sure she was tall with brown hair.
During an indoor recess, my friends and I were mimicking the “Frogger” video game, and I hit my hand so hard on a desk that my right-hand ring finger still pops to this day.
And that’s it.
Seriously, that’s the sum total of everything I can remember from my third grade experience. Sure, I’m certain I have other memories—good and bad–from that time, but I don’t associate any of them with being in third grade.
Still groggy this morning from a restless few hours of sleep, I was about to send my first son off to his first day in third grade.
And I had nothing.
No wisdom. No relatable experience. No memories of what it meant to be a third grader. It’s my job to have those things at the ready for just these moments, and I had zilch.
This is what gets me: in 30 years, my son will look back on this upcoming year of his life. He will ask himself, “What do I remember about third grade?”
There is an ever-shifting line we walk as parents, straddling the desire to make every memory a good one and the knowledge that it’s impossible to make that happen. No matter what we do, no matter how much fun we provide, no matter how many checks we write, no matter how strict or cool we are, no matter what…there is nothing we can do to determine what our kids hold on to. There is nothing we can do to lock up the right memories.
It’s a powerless feeling that makes some of us try to do too much. We try to protect them from the bad stuff. We try to re-invent or manufacture the good stuff. We coddle. We lecture. We put them in bubbles. We cast blame on others. We take blame on ourselves.
And in the end, what will they remember? It’s impossible to say.
I know this: when I think of my childhood, I think of being happy. Grade to grade, good things happened, bad things happened, good teachers made me better, bad teachers made me stronger, and every day I got to go home to two parents who loved me. Put another way, it didn’t really matter what grade I was in or what memories I had, because I just remember being happy. And a finger that was probably broken. But mostly being happy.
As parents, we inflate moments like today. It’s the first day of school, and in the moment, it means something to the kid, which—translated—means a lot more to us. Better put, it means everything to us. Thirty years from now, we’ll remember this day a lot better than our kids will.
That’s all for 30 years from now, though. This morning, my son’s stomach hurt. He literally sat on my knee and hugged me. I said all I knew to say:
“Listen more than you talk. Use the manners you already know. Have fun. Be awesome. Be you.”
It was all I knew to say, and fortunately, it was all I needed to say. He was gone to the carpool in 30 seconds, and I heard laughing on the way out the door. I suspect he is now sitting in that third grade classroom being awesome in a way he will struggle to remember 30 years from now.
And that’s cool. As long as he’s happy.