When Tragedy Strikes

It’s been all over the news: a gunman affiliated with a radical Islamic coalition gunned down 50 people with no provocation aside from his belief that they needed to die. The outcry came immediately: “Ban assault rifles” from the left; “Ban Islam” from the right.

They’re both fraught with hypocrisy, and they’re both wrong. And I’ll explain why.

Most people you speak to will tell you that the First Amendment to the Constitution is pretty straightforward. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. People have the freedoms of speech, religion, press, and congregation, and they should be able to exercise those rights without the government stepping in and preventing it. So, this madman who ran into a nightclub and gunned down fellow human beings has to right to practice his religion of choice, in this case, a radical branch of Islam. An Imam espouses his religious belief that killing homosexuals is “compassionate,” and he is protected under the First Amendment, both because it is part of his religion, and because of the governments inability to restrict his speech. I make these examples because they specifically apply to the situation that occurred this last weekend. I don’t support these ideas, nor do I think they are representative of modern Islamic practices.

The Second Amendment is, for reasons that never made sense to me, a source of contention. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. Those who wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights can be quoted over and over as saying that this right is intended to allow citizens to have a means of protections against the government, in the case of tyranny, fellow citizens, in case violence is brought against their person, family, or property, or foreign invaders. It seems simple to me that this right is extended to the people to ensure sovereignty and just rule. In order to safeguard this idea, the right to own and use firearms “shall not be infringed.” To me, being raised as a “do it yourself” person in basically every aspect of life, there’s no question in my mind that the Second Amendment is there to allow me to ensure the safety of myself and my family in case we are confronted by a person with intentions to harm us. That “well regulated Militia,” piece gets tossed around a bunch, but it doesn’t bother me, because in the eyes of those that wrote it, the Militia means the citizenry. The populace. Every citizen, when war comes knocking, becomes either soldier or prisoner. That’s how war works. It’s brutal, and unforgiving, and it’s all the worst that humans are capable of.

Now, on to the real point. For some reason, one group of people (the “left” to use popular characterization) think that someone’s First Amendment rights are sacrosanct; someone can believe whatever they want, say whatever they want, print whatever they way etc. and it’s okay. With the next breath, however, they will demonize gun owners, ranting at how peoples’ guns should be taken away and bans should be implemented, seemingly blind to the idea that the very same document that gives them them right to their free speech and religion, also guarantees the gun owners’ rights to his firearms.

And the flip side of the argument is, to me at least, equally silly. These people (the “right” to use popular characterization) will talk about how terrible Islam is, and how the entire religion needs to be wiped from the planet, and with the next breath (as above) will espouse the Bill of Rights to protect their ability to keep and bear arms. Again, they are seemingly ignorant to the fact that their right to protect themselves is housed in the same text that prevents them from stripping this man of his religion.

What’s the point of this post? I’m not totally sure. I suppose part of it is reaction to hate I’ve been getting on social media as a result of trying to defend the Bill of Rights in the face of outcry against rights and protections from both sides. I just want to try and throw some perspective into the chaos of public reaction.

At this point, I think the only acceptable reaction is sympathy and regret. At least fifty people are dead as a result of this man’s actions. Fifty lifetimes’ worth of experience, love, and joy will never be lived, because of this man’s hate.

We, as a country, need to practice less hate.

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Writing Fears

My biggest fear as a writer, and the reason I sometimes avoid my keyboard, is that I won’t be enough. Enough for the story. Enough for the world. Enough for the people I’ve created in the reality of my imagination.

I worry that the characters and their stories deserve better than the meager voice I can give them. I worry that I don’t use flowing prose to proper effect, or that my descriptions are too straightforward and lack a depth of metaphor. I worry that the lives I create on the page ring hollow, like they have no insides.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that some days I let that fear get the better of me, and I don’t bother to write. I prejudge myself as lacking, as so, I don’t even bother. Other days, I sit down and hammer away at the keys believing that whatever I write is better than whatever I don’t, and that by the simple act of hitting the keys, I’m improving.

Yet other days, I sit down at the computer and things flow out of me. I feel really great about the things I get on the page, and I end the session with a sense of accomplishment. Those days I really think I can do this whole writing thing. “Man, I’m pretty good at this!”

Usually, when I sit down and do a second or third or fourth draft, I can’t tell the difference between good days and bad ones. Sometimes I go back and re-read what I wrote the day before, on one of those awesome days, and think “This is terrible, real horseshit.” Most of the time, that can be fixed with ten minutes’ work and fifteen of the exact right words.

Anyway, some days I think I’m garbage. Other days I think I’m awesome. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Right there in the “You’ve spent time honing your craft, but you aren’t quite good enough to show the world yet.”

And I guess that’s okay. Still, it would be nice to be able to look inward and ask these people if they’re happy with their author. Did I paint them well enough? Can they see themselves reflected in the strokes of my pen? Have I left some piece of them empty, or are they whole, complete, and unabridged?

My deepest fear when writing is that they would say no, and that somehow I would have let them down.

Write Your Story

Nike said it. A lot. Then Shia Labeouf yelled it in front of a green screen. Now I’m writing it in the vain hopes that I’ll possibly help someone improve their life.

Do it.

A few years ago I had a random thought. It went something like “I’m going to die one day.” That thought, and what it truly meant, summoned a storm of images, but one imagined snippet of my possible life really stuck with me. I was older, not old, but older. Perhaps fifty. I was dying. Lying there, in my bed , I was on the edge of death, and I was sad. Not because I was leaving this world, but because I was leaving this world without having done all the things I wanted to do. I hadn’t written my stories (literally and metaphorically).

That single thought changed my life. From that moment, I told myself that I would look at every decision and consider the consequences, and whether I would look back on it from the future and wish I had taken the chance. Or, if I was willing to let that one slide in favor of a better road for me, a better story.

I dedicated myself to my writing, because being published is a dream that I’m not willing to let go without a fight. That isn’t to say that I love writing, because writing sucks. It’s painful and filled with anxiety and self doubt and fear of rejection. But, when I finish something and I give it to someone to read and they connect with any part of it… that feeling is nearly incomparable. It’s on a level with having children, and seeing them grow and flourish. They’re both things you’ve had a hand in creating, and you’re sending them out into the world to fend for themselves.

I quit my job. That’s a little dramatic. I changed careers. At 32, I moved from a field I was competent in, one where people came to me for answers, to become the new guy in a subject that I found fascinating. Now, I’m working in that field, and making reasonably good money, and loving it. If I had stayed, I wouldn’t be miserable, but I’d always have been wondering what if.

Now I don’t have to.

So, my advice, wholly unsolicited, is to just go for it. Sure, weigh the consequences, but realize that long-term regret is perhaps the biggest consequence you will face in this life. Write your story the way you want to. It won’t be easy, in fact the harder it is, the better it will be, but it will be your story. Your life. Nobody else’s.

Birthday

Happy birthday, Tom.

Today my father-in-law would have been 64. He died from a tumor in his brain. Specifically from gliobastoma multiforme.

Glioblastoma multiforme is an extremely aggressive and hard-to-kill type of tumor that kills more often than not. It took my wife’s father from her over the course of just a few months.

For more information, please visit the following:

American Brain Tumor Association

If you would like to make a donation to help find a more effective treatment for glioblastoma and other forms of brain tumor, please consider:

ABTA Donations

St. Jude’s is always good

 

On “Wasting” My Life

I just read a post on a certain website that I frequent that asked users if they thought they had wasted their life by raising a family. The poster said they loved their family and would do anything for them, but couldn’t help but think of all the things they could be doing besides worrying about these other people in their life. They bemoaned being as good-looking, physically fit, emotionally and fiscally stable as they would ever be in their life, and it “going to waste” on their family.

As Arsenio Hall used to say, “Things that make you say ‘Hmmmmm’.”

I had to respond, and I did, but I didn’t really say all the things I wanted to say. I mean, how do you properly convey to someone just how badly they missed the point? And not just the point of some conversation, or a college English essay question, but the point of having a family. Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend to have all the answers and all the reasons that someone might want offspring, or not want them. I will stand proudly on a soap box and tell you all the reasons why I did, and expect you to swallow them with appropriate amounts of salt (you may even choose whether it’s Kosher or Sea or Iodized or fine or coarse or Pink Himalayan).

I understand that when you say something like “You’ve completely missed the point,” when the topic is something like “Why bother being alive,” people are going to come in with all kinds of opinions. And that’s okay. Everyone can and should pursue the things in life that make them happy and leave them feeling fulfilled. However, for me, and I believe for the majority of people out there raising families, the point of it all is to carve a place out where you can be surrounded by those you love and make you feel whole.

That’s what a family can do.

Everyone spends their whole life tilling soil, planting seeds, and watching their garden grow. What they choose to plant, and how well they maintain their crop will determine what sort of harvest they receive.

I want my harvest to be filled with the smiling faces of those I’ve spent my life with and who I’ve helped mold into happy, healthy, satisfied members of the human race. My children, their children, and maybe even those kids’ kids. Wouldn’t that be a trip?

So, is a family a waste? I feel like that’s like telling someone that their mortgage payment is a waste. You’re going to be spending the time anyway, you may as well put that time in a place that will pay dividends when you’re ready to cash out.

Ramblings on Living Life

I have this theory about life. It isn’t terribly original, nor is it groundbreaking or revolutionary. It is, however, something I think about whenever I’m worried or afraid to do something I think will benefit me.

The things you fear are probably the things you should be doing.

Now, this isn’t fear like “if I do that, I’m going to die.” Although, some of those fears should also be faced. No, this is the fear that comes from without. The fear that someone else will see you doing a thing and judge it a waste of time. The fear that someone will take in the product of what you have done and deem it somehow unworthy. The fear that you will look silly.

The fear that you will fail.

That last one– that’s the reason most people don’t do things. That’s the reason why dreams lay by the side of the road, rotting in the ditch, as people drive past in their fuel-efficient vehicles and act like they don’t see them. That’s why people die with regrets.

I don’t want that. I have no idea how long I’m going to be here. I can’t tell you whether I will die next week from some rare blood disease or hyper-aggressive cancer or stray bullet. I’m 31 years old and people younger than me die every single day. What makes me special enough to be exempt from that?

Nothing.

Not one single, minuscule, fucking thing.

So I decided, a few years back, that I wasn’t going to let any of that petty “what if” bullshit hold me back. I was going to do the things that made me happy, and made the people I care about happy. I decided I would keep working my normal job, because it pays the bills and doesn’t stress me out too much, but in my spare time, I was going to write a book, or two, or three.

In the process of all of this writing, I’ve discovered a lot about myself. For three years, I worked on writing this story. I wrote 300,000 words without a single thought to how good or bad it was. I just puked words out onto a page. It was glorious. Then I joined up with the community and started showing other writers my work.

Judgment came down from on high.

For the most part, people were positive, which was awesome. Some people were negative, which was less than awesome, but it helped to make the work better. Then this strange thing happened: I started having difficulty writing.

I would sit down at my keyboard and stare at it. My mind would go totally blank. I knew what I needed to write, but it wouldn’t come out. I would start typing, because that’s what you do when you get blocked, you just write. Write anything, it doesn’t matter. Just get the words flowing again.

Still, it was all crap. I would write and write and write and end up deleting it all the next day because it just sucked. Eventually, I would break through the barrier and something worth a damn would spew giddily from my story hole and my fingertips would hesitantly cram it onto a computer screen. Then a few weeks later, the cycle would repeat.

I noticed something after a while: Rarely did the block come on its own. There was something that incited it. Something that made my mind say “You’re not a writer today. Today you’re a failure.” And somewhere in the corner there was this weak little nerdy kid with his hair parted on the side wearing a bolo tie sitting at his desk who just couldn’t tell that voice he was wrong (I have a picture of me looking exactly like that from like 4th grade, by the way. If you don’t believe me, ask my mother, I’m sure she’d happily show it to you and gush about how adorable I was). That kid would just agree and curl up in a ball and decide it wasn’t worth the effort if he was just going to fail anyway.

Here’s my thoughts on the matter: the kid’s wrong. Even if the voice is totally right and I’m a complete failure and not one single person ever enjoys the words I write down, the kid is still wrong. The value and beauty in life is in the living.

The measure of how well you’ve lived your life is how satisfied you are with it.

I’ll end this whole little rant with an exercise I do from time to time. I do this to make sure I’m living this life the way I want to, not the way someone else thinks I should. I do it when I feel like I’ve lost perspective and I need to remember the shit that matters.

Okay, relax. Here it is:

Contemplate for a moment the idea that one day you will die. Don’t think of it as an abstract idea. Really consider what those last moments will be like. Maybe you will die in your sleep, after a long struggle with an illness. You’ll lie in bed and you chest will feel so heavy. Breathing is a chore and when you do manage a few gasping wheezes, they aren’t enough to satisfy your need for oxygen. You close your eyes, and listen as the world hurdles through space. You can feel that the end is near and your essence will return to be among the forces of the universe. What will you think in those last few breaths before you close your eyes and the darkness takes you? How satisfied will you be with the decisions you’ve made and the way you’ve spent the all-too-few and precious minutes you were given? Did you look at the things that were just too scary, the things that, while in the moment, seemed too big and daunting to reach for and turned away from them? Or did you, instead, listen to your heart– to your soul– and grab life by the balls and take the things you wanted as it screamed and fell to its knees begging for mercy? What things will you wish you had the chance to go back and do? What things will you regret as you lay there, contemplating the end?

Go do those fucking things.

Live your life as though you’re watching it from your deathbed. Because one day you will be.

In Memoriam

I’ve debated with myself for the last 12 hours about whether or not I should post anything about this. Part of me feels it isn’t my place. Part of me feels like I shouldn’t put it out to the world. Part of me feels like people don’t want to see it. But, if I gave much of a damn about what other people thought, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I’m gonna ramble some, I’m gonna be melodramatic, I’m gonna be hokey, I’m gonna say a bunch of shit that may or may not even be intelligible. So, here it goes.

As a writer, I always want to find the perfect words to convey something. After this last weekend, I’m at a complete loss. First came the loss of my high school theater director, whose impact in my life almost can’t be measured.

J. Gary Wyatt was a storm of a man, a force to be reckoned with, even if his hands shook and threatened to spill the Diet Coke he always carried. With memorable phrases like “Don’t let stupid out of the box!”, “Don’t expect it to work, inspect it, so you know it will work! Just because it worked yesterday does not mean it will work today.”, and “You are auditioning all the time!” he instilled a sense of self-sufficiency, responsibility, and self-worth into every one of his actors, techies, and crew. It didn’t take long to realize that J Gary yelled because he cared. If he was yelling at you, it meant you were worth him spending time to get you on the right track. If he wasn’t yelling, you weren’t one of his kids.

Every night before a show, we would all gather in a circle around the stage, behind the curtain and clasp hands. Mr. Wyatt would bow his head and give a little pep talk. It always ended the same way. “Your talents are a gift from God. What you do with those talents is, in turn, your gift to God. The power of the circle is the strongest power of all. You take strength from one another and give strength to each other. Take the power and pass it on.” Then he would squeeze the hand of the person to his right. The power would traverse the circle and end back at him.

“Whatever you do, wherever you do it, always do it with Class and Style.”

Then on Sunday, we learned of my father-in-law’s passing. Not everyone thinks of their in-laws as real family, heck, not everyone think of their in-laws as real people, but since the first time I met Tom and Sally, I’ve felt like I belonged among them. I have been so lucky to have a mother- and father-in-law that love and accept me in the way they have. It’s like getting an extra set of parents, even when the first set is pretty damn amazing.

I first met Tom one week after I met his daughter. He and Sally and Amanda and I sat in lawn chairs in the river, drank beers from a floating styrofoam cooler, and talked about all the things you’re not supposed to discuss with people you just met: religion, politics, sex, the meaning of life… oh yeah, and the fact that I was still married, working on getting a divorce, and fighting desperately for custody of my son. In honesty, it could have been pretty bad, but they were very accepting of me and I was grateful for that. Probably more than they will ever really understand.

Ever since that day in the Blanco river, for as long as I have known him, no matter what else he was doing, Tom always had extra hands for two things: a baby and a beer–often at the same time. I’ve never seen him happier than sitting on the porch with a baby on one arm and a beer in his other hand while watching the grandkids ride bikes and play in the yard. No matter what cancer did to him, what toll it took on his body, when my wife walked into his room with grandbabies, Tom would light up like everything in the world was right. And I like to think that, if even for a brief moment, my children helped him forget the pain and hardship of leaving this world. It makes me feel like I’ve helped pay him back a little.

When we would go visit them, right as we were leaving, Tom would stand up, shake my hand and say “Glad you got to see me,” and now, all I can think is “Me too, Tom. Glad I got to see you.” Glad I was lucky enough to get to know you.

People in your life are like stars. They send forth their light for all to see, even if some aren’t observant enough to look for it. Every once in a while there’s a star so intense, so undeniable, that all who see it are changed. Long after the star burns out, as all stars must eventually do, its light carries on, bounding endlessly through time and space, leaving everything it touches a little brighter than it was before. I have seen more such stars than any one person has the right to keep to himself. It is my duty to these people, these beautiful people whose very nature shaped me as a man, to carry on their legacies. I have been made brighter by their light, and I only hope that the meager glow I send forth is enough to make them proud.