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Friday, November 1, 2013

NaNOWriMo 1/30

Jessica Allen combs her long blond hair, careful to not draw too many of the brown highlights together as to create a patch of mismatched color. The antique mirror that sits upon her make-up bureau has begun to chip and fade in the corners, revealing the tan cork behind the glass and metal finish. It had been her great-grandmothers, bought through the Sears catalogue after years of saving vegetable profits from their tiny homestead.
The mirror was nothing special when it as new, just another mass-produced ware created just as the factories were becoming more common. Still technically ‘hand-made’, it was only through the care taken by her great-grandmother Patience and subsequent generations to follow that it was in as good as shape as it is now.
It is all she has by way of an heirloom. At least as far as she is aware.
She puts the brush away and gently drapes the blue velvet cover back over her reflection. She has done this every morning since she was thirteen, as her mother and grandmother had done before her. Jessica is tired, and her loose hanging hair face shows it. For a brief moment, as she turns away, the image on the mirror does not reflect the sad grimace on her face, but a smile and a tight braid. It is the kind of braid that serves well for heavy work on a farm.
                She steps back for a moment and considers the blue velvet centerpiece to her life. Everything else she has ever owned has come and gone, to be replaced by newer, fancier, or more expensive things. She is a long way from the struggling farm girl, working to scrape together pennies to buy an item from a book of goods. Taken objectively, her life is pretty easy.
                She has a good job, working as an advertising executive for a large marketing firm. She had a partner for many years, and the separation was amicable. She doesn’t turn down dates; so much as she is too busy to arrange them herself and blind dates aren’t exactly her thing. Being set up with a complete stranger by well-meaning friends or an impersonal dating service just seems desperate and weak to her. Intellectually she recognizes that it is a catch-22, she doesn’t look for people to date and won’t use the services to date so not having someone to date is a foregone conclusion and therefore using any other means to resolve it will, by default, seem desperate. Besides, she knows that the changes to her lifestyle dating would bring are probably not worth it.
                Jessica puts on her pants suit and grabs her briefcase on the way out of the door. She refuses to carry a purse, too feminine, too expected, and most of all, too easy to lose track of. It isn’t like a briefcase and a purse can hold only certain objects, and one works as well as the other for what she needs.
                She pauses at the door and taps the security code into in the keypad. Her neighborhood isn’t particularly dangerous, but it is a ritual she uses to remind herself that she has secured her home. Back in the old days, when they had keys for everything, she was always plagued by a nagging impression that she had forgotten to lock things up when she left. In truly neurotic fashion, this resulted in her leaving work, or a party, or a movie early just so she could get home quickly to check. She never once found it unlocked, but that didn’t seem to impact the next time it occurred.
                So now she uses electronics for everything. She can check from her phone if she worries, which is usually enough that she doesn’t feel the need to. Strange how the mind works, she often thinks to herself.
                In the driveway she considers taking her 2003 Lincoln Town Car to work, but decides to walk down to the subway station instead. Driving in the city was a knack she had picked up years ago, but it usually wasn’t worth it. Parking, gas, and dealing with traffic were rarely compensation for sense of freedom she felt with her own way to escape work. The subway was not a pleasant experience, but it was consistent, and it meant that she could read on the way in, only at the small cost of being on the lookout from gropers and the occasional drunk.
                Emerging from the subway station downtown always felt a little like waking from a deep sleep. The sunlight bounced from the glass walls of the buildings and was eaten by the dreary colored crowds shuffling through the streets below. Grey skies, even in at the height of summer, formed layers of dreariness and blinding light and she finds herself blinking every time the escalator takes her past the threshold of the underground labyrinth.
                Two blocks to her office building, another skyscraper carefully designed to look unique, just like every other structure in the downtown area. Every morning she nods to the security guard, a nice guy named Ralph who she seems to remember something about him being a former NFL player, but each morning it isn’t quite important enough for her to actually ask. He smiles, a big toothy grin, and then goes back to his magazine.
                Jessica makes a concerted effort to follow the etiquette of elevator usage, and exits at the twentieth floor, careful not to make eye contact with anyone as she leaves. She has learned, through the years that nothing good can come from early morning acknowledgement. Most people, especially her age, are not morning people. They don’t want interaction and they resent being called upon to do so. Of the morning people, more than half were men, and men had an annoying habit of assuming anything more than passive aloofness was an invitation for romance. Of the women, many of them were threatened by her, trying to avoid her for some work reason, had heard some sort of rumor about her that they were sure is true, or had learned the same lessons Jessica had over the years. It boils down to a general policy of not saying anything to anyone in the morning, waiting instead to deal with things through the safety of e-mail and the conference phone in her office.
                She always closes the door to her office for the first hour she is in the office. Every morning, someone is waiting for her to come in so they can ask a question about a project, present some issue, or generally get whatever they need done.  By closing the door, people know that her ‘open-door’ policy is not available, which gives her time to check e-mail, eat a protein bar, and sip at a bottle of water with flared diet lemonade powder put in for taste. By the time she does open her door, there is always someone anxious to get her attention, and so her true work day begins.
                In the evening it is the same process in reverse. About an hour before she goes home she closes her door to send out any last minute emails. She has learned over the years that any conversations that happen I the last hour of work are prone to being forgotten, misremembered, and often just upset people. So anything she needs to communicate, she does so through e-mail. It also means that no one comes up to her at the Nth hour expecting her to resolve a list of things before she leaves. The system works. Every once in a while she will have someone from above or below her who tries to fight it, but her response is always passive, patient, and aloof. Eventually they figure it out.
                The elevator, the subway, the keypad, all the same, but from the different angle. She usually cooks her own dinner, from a recipe she researched the week before so she could find materials. She fancies herself a bit of an amateur chef, and if she had someone to check her work, they might agree. Each meal is a masterpiece in efficiency and flavors, and she does nothing else while she eats, savoring every bite.
                By the end of dinner and dishes, it is time for bed. She puts on her pajamas, white silk, and sits down in front of the mirror. Gently she removes the blue velvet cover and folds it into a perfect 8 inch square. She brushes her hair; careful to separate the larger patches of brown from the more common blond hairs, and when she is done she replaces the velvet cover looking at it for a few minutes from across the room as she fades off to sleep.
                Every once in a while, she has a particular dream that stands out from the normal ebb and flow of sleep. In it, she has more control over her own actions. She can feel wind on her skin and smell wildflowers blossoming on fields of growing grain. The golden sun tingles on her skin, providing heat but not burning her delicate freckles. She can feel a loose sun dress billow around her, touching her at intervals times to the flow of wheat stalks that stretch as far as she can see. Sometimes she turns around, and sees a hand-built house in the distance, surrounded by gardens of flowers and vegetables. A tall oak tree provides some shade for the house, and she can see a man working on the side, hammering a window pane or cutting firewood. She cannot quite make out any features other than dark hair and the build of a lumberjack.
                Other times she turns west to see a roiling thundercloud off in the distance, slowly building and coming towards the farm. Lightning crackles inside the tempest and the clouds flash with anger as a sheet of water slowly consumes the far plains. When she sees this, she turns to run back to the house. She needs to warn the man there, but she always wakes up before she reaches the oak.
                She doesn’t remember the dream when she opens her eyes. Even the fading memory of most dreams doesn’t happen, preventing her from preserving what she saw. It wasn’t a nightmare, nor was it the normally disjointed time and symbolism of other dreams. It doesn’t come often, but when it does she wakes feeling more rested and filled with a sense of inexplicable calm. The dream always ends a few minutes from her alarm, and she assumes that those rare days where she wakes up without the screeching shock of the accursed thing is why she feels so calm.
                But that isn’t really why, and somewhere deep inside, she knows it.
                Jessica takes the extra few minutes to brush her hair a few more strokes, careful not to break or split the ends, meticulous in the arrangement of the colors. As she gets older, she notices that some of the browns have turned paler, some of the blondes almost platinum, and even a few greys have appeared. It doesn’t bother her; she just arranges them with all the others and keeps them from bunching up.
                She puts on a fresh pants suit and checks her briefcase, careful to put the suit from yesterday into the bag for the dry cleaners. Stepping outside, she pauses at the keypad and again in the moment of decision to drive or take the subway.
                Life is predictable, safe, and relatively painless. She likes it this way, and only smiles softly at people who may question such a guarded existence. They could do whatever they want, she would think, and she could too.
                Jessica Allen doesn’t smile. She doesn’t frown either. She just is. A single leaf on a quiet pond, she is unchanged by the occasional ripple of wind or drop of rain that might otherwise capsize a less stable person. That is exactly how she likes it.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What if? Gun Control

What if we accepted that guns are ubiquitous in our culture, that the constitution and Supreme Court have both said owning guns is a right, and the arbitrary and subjective lines of “too much gun” is an irrelevant distinction for laws?

Currently we require cigarette companies to fund a certain amount of addiction treatment, public awareness campaigns and scientific studies on the effects of smoking. There is precedent for holding companies who sell in the U.S. responsible for mitigating negative effects of their products.

My idea: require gun safety, cleaning, repair and marksmanship classes in every high school. Instructors would be public union employees and the weapons and ammunition would be supplied by any weapon company that wished to sell or import into our country. These gun companies would also be responsible for funding security and control procedures for all stocks.

We would end up with a populace that is better prepared for a situation involving guns (the NRA should love this). We could have scenario training for advanced students that could lead to conceal carry permits. It would be funded by the people profiting from the industry, and would teach a healthy respect for firearms. For those who do not like the spread of guns in our culture, it would create a generation of kids who actually knew what holding one and firing would be like, and perhaps demonstrate to them that guns are real tools and not just things used in movies or by criminals and whack jobs with vigilante survivalist notions.

When the inevitable accidents, ‘shrinkage’ and misuse occur, we can use each as an example of the true impacts of gun culture and cease speculating about the effects of media, and have actual data. For an entire generation guns would be normal, boring, and a pain in the ass (care and feeding of a firearm is pretty tedious). As we know, anything associated with coursework is automatically offputing to most American students, using the same basic theory as childcare courses that require you to coddle a hyper-real infant poop device or learn how to drive a car for a year before they let you test your skills half-drunk from an underage party and trying to text your latest Instagrammed sepia-toned beer pong win to the people who couldn’t be there so they know you are cooler then they.

I believe the long term effects (as demonstrated by Switzerland for example) would be we would stop fetishizing guns, and the companies would be held responsible for the deleterious effects of their products.

There wouldn’t be more guns in the country, really. There would just be a greater spread, more education, and because a vast majority of fire arms would be limited function, low-calibre handguns (because schools would get the cheapest ones the profit-driven companies could get away with using) we may even drift away from GATs and Macs and Man-Barbie Accessory sets for your AR-15’s ‘furniture.’

Companies win because they get an early crack at a new gun toting generation (since criminals don’t buy their guns legally anyway and whack-jobs aren’t exactly the most wholesome spokesmen (looking at you, Ted Nugent).

Society wins because gun users are trained, self-aware, and less likely to be apathetic to the issue of violence. It also formalizes what up to now has been a vague American mythology about long hard objects that are clearly not a response to Puritan restraint.

The next generation wins because they will be able to defend themselves from the drug-addled criminals/government stooges who come bursting through their door leaving them no choice but to ‘water the Tree of Liberty’ if you catch my drift.

Our Government wins because it will be funded by the companies, so no new taxes, will create more teaching jobs, will increase funding to schools, and create a more informed public about a hot-button issue. It also protects our Constitution, which as we know is immutable and any revisiting of the basic principles is a slippery slope to Fascism/Socialism/Anarchy/Panda Apocalypse or whatever.

The only issue I haven’t quite worked out yet is about the massive numbers of suicides that would occur as teens gained more access to firearms. Not to get too Darwinist, but it’s a problem that might solve itself. We can always hope that if we make guns seem like homework, our hormone-juiced teens will be unwilling to spend precious time away from Twitter and Playstation just to do something that might be construed as ‘extra credit.’

Friday, July 26, 2013

Unsolicited Advice to Fellow Parents

Unsolicited Advice to Fellow Parents

As some of you know, I am a parent. My children are 3 years old and 6 months old, so I am just starting out. I do, however, have more than a decade of experience dealing with special needs kids, students, disabled adults, and management, so that helps round out my expertise and makes room from growth as my own kids move through life’s stages.
In short, I am not an expert.
That being said, a friend of mine recently initiated a conversation about his own life path and it seems he is on the way to fatherhood, once he finishes his stint overseas. I think that is awesome. I love being a Dad. Of course, once that came up I did what all parents do: offer unsolicited advice. In my defense, everyone does it because it is a way to share wisdom, reassure ourselves that we are doing things right, and compare notes with people who have differing opinions.
So the topic drifted to ‘things to know before you procreate’ and it got me thinking. I have made a lot of mistakes, I think it’s part of the process. Telling people to make sure they cover the little’s boy’s cannon when changing him is mostly just funny when people learn for the first time.  Mentioning that Mom will poop in the delivery room might be a good heads up, but really, if you fail, it happens and the moment will pass and everyone moves on.
What I think about are the things with long term effects. Things that impact my attitude positively and I see impact other negatively. Things about perspectives, interpretation, and reactions to the various situations kids bring. Some things, like the fact that you children WILL destroy something valuable to you at some point can be mitigated by not loving ‘stuff’ so much. Good luck with that, Consumer America. Other ‘truths’, like the fact that a daughter will always break your heart, aren’t really helpful and kind of put a damper on things if you dwell on it. I am not sure that’s what a new Dad needs to hear.
So it got me thinking: What does a new Dad ‘need’ to hear? What advice could I offer that helps in the long run, that keeps the weight of being a Dad from eating away at your patience and will to live? What do I think will help me five, ten, twenty, or twenty-five years from now when I am dealing with the progressively stupider problems kids bring? What virtues do I hope to maintain so I can pass them on and maybe my kids will emulate?
And that is really what it boils down to, for me. Virtues. So, in talking to my friend, it occurs to me that the three things parents always need but often let slip away are Patience, Humor, and Willpower. These are things I hope Eve and Van develop, and I know I lack them in many ways, so I have to consciously develop them alongside my children.
So the first piece of advice I gave my friend is that he and his wife should embrace gross before they have a kid. Kids are gross. And I don’t just mean the good chance they will have a Baby Vomit Volcano or find themselves talking about poop for at least a good hour each day, often to anyone who will listen I mean kids are gross quintessentially. They will lick the grime off of gymnastics mats to make cool handprints (Hi Emily!). They will hide frogs in their pockets and then forget when they sit down. They will get infected, sick, broken, and scarred. They will try to cook you breakfast and end up exploding eggs in the microwave and smearing bacon grease all over the kitchen, themselves, every door between the stove and your bedroom door, the sheets, and any pet unlucky enough to get too close (which they will - bacon is good).
So I suggested to him to get used to gross. If there is something that particularly pops their gag reflex, overexpose to it now. Explore gross. Play with tapioca without a bowl. Eat head cheese. Huff their gym bag. Clean a high school toilet. Whatever it takes. Someday they will be thankful when the doctor tells them to bring in a sample of their delightful child’s stool because they fear there may be a worm infection. Just saying.

That got me thinking about how kids think. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking kids are either entirely faultless because they are precious and cute and really just pets with opinions that will someday magically manifest only the good parts of their parents. Others make the exact opposite mistake. They see a tiny human and assume they are like any other adult. Breaking a camera makes them quintessentially stupid. Putting together a Lego set means they are smart. Most of all, they do things because, like adults, they think things through and should be responsible for their actions (I am still looking for an adult like this - let me know if you find one).
Children are neither.  
Imagine a scale, where at one end you have these faultless primates and the other you have The Good Son. Children absolutely start at the former end. They might get close to the latter end when they are forty, but I wouldn’t bet on it. As children grow, the amount of agency (ability to make decisions and act on them) increases slowly. Most children don’t think very far ahead. They want to eat all their Halloween candy now, and don’t even consider that they will be heaving jujubes in an hour or that doing so may create a permanent candy aversion that will ruin every Halloween forever. An adult who puts a grilled cheese sandwich into your Xbox is a jerk. There is a reasonable expectation that they knew the consequences, did so for social reasons, and probably could have figured out what would happen with actually going through with it. Your five year old, however, doesn’t have the experiences or mental acuity to work through all the complexities of what they are doing. They are, for all intents and purposes, about 10% agency and 90% impulse/curiosity/confusion at that point.
People run into the problem a lot with teenagers. At fifteen, a person should know a bit more about what they are doing and take some damn responsibility for themselves, right? Well, yes. Definitely push for that. But understand that to a child, each year is like a whole new life time. It is a major segment of their existence and they see things through new eyes, process things with a new brain, and move things with a new body that changes daily. Add on top of that hormones, newfound social pressures, and about six years of constantly being uncomfortable physically, and you tell me how well you can think straight.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about rolling over, or being a paragon of forgiveness, or not putting out structure, discipline, or consequences. You HAVE to do those things. I am talking about what is going inside your head as a parent. Cut the kids some slack, and when you have to get tough, remember that you were once there too. Provide boundaries, help them balance risk and reward, and be the bad guy a lot. But in your heart, where you store all of these emotions, remember to be compassionate to them and you. 
This brings us to the third piece of advice I gave (which by the way weren’t nearly this long winded). Have a sense of humor with your kids. I don’t mean make jokes, or play, or have fun. You should do those too. What I mean is that it helps to realize that parenthood is a game. We provide structure, discipline and guidance; our kids try to work around them. That’s their job. It isn’t about being in control, or being the most powerful one, or being obeyed. You look at it that way, and you will end up with kids who either integrate those values and become jerks as adults or they will succumb to your behavior and become obedient little drones (or somewhere on that scale).
A successful adult is compassionate, clever, flexible, and disciplined. They can solve problems, work around obstacles without hurting themselves or others. And guess what, you, the parent, are an obstacle. They can be respectful. That is important. But when you tell your kid that they can’t have candy before dinner so they wake up early and eat it all before breakfast, maybe you should have been a bit clearer with your instructions.
It’s a game. A game where you have more power, but using that power is dangerous. If you make it a power struggle, you will lose. They will grow up, they will take that frustration of being powerless out on someone else, and most of all they will not learn how to make the right choices until after they have screwed up tremendously.
So I recommended to my buddy to keep a sense of humor about it. When your kid outsmarts you, have there be consequences but in your heart remember that a smart kid who learned to respect their adversaries will go far. Be an adversary worth respecting (and not fearing).
We often feel like we have less power in our lives than we would like;don’t take that out on your kids, or they will feel exactly the same way. Over the course of the thirty years it takes a kid to be independent-ish (on average), you will play the “rules/weasel” game a lot. If you are a sore loser, you will have a long road ahead

So, that was the thought process that came up during my conversation with my friend. I reiterate: I am no expert. I am wrong more than I am right, and I am not very good at practicing what I preach. These are ideals to be striven towards, not pass/fail absolutes. In case you were wondering, or having trouble following my meandering thought process, here is what I told him:

                Get used to gross. Fall in love with gross. Inure yourself to gross. Gross can be funny or it can be upsetting. You choose.
                Encourage responsibility but remember kids are not adults. They are not responsible for everything they do in the same way adults are. Give them boundaries and consequences, but in your mind remember that you were once there too.
                Structure and Power is a game between you and your child. Like above, provide discipline, but in the end you want a kid who can think around problems, and you, as a parent, are their first consistent problem.

                It all boils down to having a good attitude, letting go of the authority a little in your own mind, and remembering that kids will love you unless trained to do otherwise. It’s all about the long game, and how you process and store your experiences as a parent will count more than any individual problem. You may not ever explain how you feel to you children, but they will see how you react emotionally to the inevitable issues that will arise between them and you and will do the same when they grow up.
                There are a lot of virtues out there, but today I was thinking about Patience, Humor, and Willpower. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


So it struck me today: In a little more than a week I get to meet my son for the first time. When I left, way back in February, he was a paperweight that leaked. He was warm and soft, light and sweet. And for a baby his level of fuss was well-below what I deal with at work.
Now I get to meet the actual Donovan. I get to hold him, and watch him react. I get to see him play with things, try to crawl, and play with his sister. I get to watch him smile, and cry, and be grumpy and happy and sad.
                I am beside myself with excitement. Until that thought crossed my mind I was antsy to get home. To get back to my daughter and beautiful wife and house where I could walk around without pants and where I could buy a burger or a beer on a whim.
                Genevieve is the spark in my heart that carries me through the coldest, most annoying, and loneliest days I have while I am away. Her smiles, and pouts, and moments on Skype are the shadows of her that remind me of the two wonderful years we spent together. They are like grains of rice to a starving man and I will probably annoy her to no end when it comes time to hold her again.
                But Van. Smiley little, Baby Huey-looking, wobbly kneed boy who adores his sister and everyone can’t stop gushing about: I get to meet him for real. I get to hold him, annoy him, feed him and clean his poop. How awesome is that?
                Now every day moves a little slower for me. The lead-up to my leave is crushing me as I wait to hold them all in my arms. It was like my singular thought was a straw that broke this camel’s back. What’s the old joke? Time is relative, that’s why spending time with them seems to drag on forever? Well I am already spending time in my mind. I don’t know what to expect. I am about to go from “strange glowy box man” to “guy who is glomming on mommy and stealing precious sister-time from me.”
                Not to get all Freudian here, but there is another man in the family and I am about to turn his little apple-cart on its head (at least for a month). How awesome is that? I feel for the guy, really I do. So here I sit, thinking about him and Eve and Char constantly, and I can’t believe how long I have been away and how long I have to go before I see them. Eight days and Six months seem the same in my mind.
                It’s going to be great.