Thursday, January 1, 2015

On Bullying

I know I've written about bullying before, but recent events have hurt someone dear to me. Please forgive. I'm starting this at 4-something in the morning because I'm mad. In my neck of the woods, we sometimes say "pissed" when one is this mad. Not "pissed" drunk like our friends across the pond, but "pissed off."

I am.

I'm tired of bullies. I'm tired of them at my job as a middle school/high school guidance counselor and I'm tired of the unfortunate reality that bullies exist as adults, too. Once upon a time, I believed in some fairy tale version of adulthood in which all the bullies matured and shed their evil skin. Like all fairy tales, this one is fiction.

Bullies are everywhere and every age, and if they've shed any skin, it's only to grown a more insidious one in its place. 

The bullies at school are sneaky. A teacher turns away and one boy punches another. They wait until I pass during lunch duty, and call their target names. In many ways, the girls are worst. I could relate scores of personal examples from my job, and it wouldn't take much to do a simple Google search and find stacks of digital articles on the subject.

Females--girls and grown women--like to do their bullying in different ways than boys. They often ostracize and exclude. They post hideous untruths online and laugh when their target's life falls apart. They've found ways to belittle via social media I shudder to recall. The motives are varied, but one constant keeps surfacing: if one is the bully, it steers attention to someone else. In the bully's mind, as long as someone else is the target, it's not her.

It hurts me to watch the cruelty at my job and hurts me in my neighborhood. Yes, my neighborhood lives in the shadow of a bully and I'm tired of it. Just like the girls at school, adult bullies ostracize and exclude. They manipulate and maneuver to make sure the target is not them. Sometimes the cruelty wears the most subtle cloak--for example, repeatedly leaving someone's name off a mailing list about neighborhood activities.

I was the target of bullying in middle school. The ride from my school to the high school for band class in 7th grade was especially agonizing. We would load the unsupervised bus--because let's be honest about the driver's ability to both drive and make sure passengers weren't being douche bags--and take a five minute jaunt from one school to the other. I heard "fag" and "gay" more times than I could count during those five minutes. A group of boys a year or two older than me would hound me after school during an arduous walk home. The walk was only four blocks, but it felt like four hundred.

Sometimes I feel so powerless when confronted with bullying at my job. It's especially difficult as an adult in my own neighborhood. No one--not one living creature--has the right to make anyone else feel like those ass hats made me feel in middle school. It turns my stomach that so many continue their cruelty long after the bus engine has gone cold.

So what do we do? Talk about it... write about it. Stand up and be counted among those who will not tolerate such behavior. There are more victims than bullies, and like most forms of darkness, this one cannot stand the light.

Monday, September 15, 2014

For My Future Granddaughter

I bought one of these on eBay a few weeks ago:



LEGO 21110 Research Institute

I paid a premium, quite a bit higher than retail. The set, rather small and originally retailing for just $19.95, has made quite a few Lego resellers fat stacks of profit as they scooped them by the cart load and flipped on eBay, Amazon, and other you-sell-it sites. I'll admit I do a little Lego "investing," too, but not on the scale as major resellers. I've held onto a few Star Wars sets and made a few bucks. Kim can tell you about the Monster Fighters Haunted House on a shelf out in the garage. (Or maybe she can't... it's packed neatly in an inconspicuous brown box.)

One of the big rules of Lego investing is one should enter at a low price. It's frighteningly like the stock market, at at web sites like Brickpicker.com, it's treated as such. Buy low and sell high. Hold for the long term or occasionally find one of those glorious penny stocks which appreciates rapidly and can be sold short term for huge profits. The cheapest Research Institute available on eBay US as of this writing will cost you $70.04 including shipping. Yes, more than triple the MSRP.

So why break such a cardinal rule to get my hands on this set? Do I see the price rising even higher?

Sure, maybe. But this one isn't for sale. I wanted to grab a RI for my granddaughter. (This is where the audience gasps, thinking something like, "Isn't your oldest kid like a freshmen in high school?")

Look, this isn't a family blog, per se, but no one here is pregnant.

I'm looking down the road here. Waaaaay down the road.  Lego's Research Institute made a huge splash largely because... look closely at the box... it features three female scientists. It garnered a lot of media attention last month, including this article from the New York Times, this op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, and an online petition to resurrect the set after its too-short life.

So I mentioned I'm looking down the road. Waaaaay down the road, but the RI isn't about "investing" in the traditional sense. I want to gift this to my future granddaughter because her world (hopefully) will be different than the one in which we live. I want to give it to her and let her know how happy I am she is able to do whatever she wants. I want her to know how happy I am she lives in a world in which a toy set featuring female scientists is no longer a big deal because everyone knows women can kick ass at anything they do.

That's the best investment I can imagine and a world in which I want everyone to live.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Being from Kansas

Here come the Wizard of Oz jokes...

And that's the first thing you need to know about being a Kansan. You and your home state are often the butt of jokes--stale, tired jokes which are told with impunity.

"Where's Toto?"

"Where's Auntie Em?"

"Where's [insert any Oz character name here]?

When I worked at a grocery store in high school, one "import" family would shop wearing matching "We're not in Kansas anymore" t-shirts. True story. They'd come in on a weeknight around 9 PM, an hour before close, and wander the aisles in those shirts.

(sic 'em, Toto)

It goes beyond Oz. I've known folks from more populous states/the coasts who really, truly seem to believe we still use Conestoga wagons for transport. Ha ha. Our state is flat as a pancake... a few years ago, one mathematician "proved" Kansas, relatively, was flatter than a pancake. And it's not as if our state government helps us much. We've suffered embarrassing State Board of Education fights over evolution and passed legislation requiring voter ID, because, as you know, massive amounts of illegal immigrants flock to Kansas so they can vote illegally. I hear they're bused in, in fact. "It's all those damn Democrats' doin'!" wails the old man with belly-length beard next to the spittoon.

I say "we," but I never voted for such a thing. Maybe our collective unconscious remembers a time when "illegal" voters did arrive in our fair state (before it was a state). But that, dear friends, was before the American Civil War... back when Kansas meant something progressive and on the edge. Bleeding Kansas. In the years leading to the most deadly conflict in United States history, the first shots were fired here. Legendary terrorists like John Brown murdered in the name of abolition and William Quantrill burned my adopted city, Lawrence, to the ground.

(A Painting Depicting Quantrill's raid from the LJ World)

Our state motto, Ad Astra Per Aspera, reflects on the struggle to join the Union.

To the Stars Through Difficulty.

That's good stuff. That's why I'm proud to be a Kansan despite the jokes and hayseed assumptions. I'm proud to be a Kansan despite our own failings and weaknesses. This is a place where people understand suffering and sacrifice. This is a place of good, hearty people who tell the truth. Honesty is valued here and hard work, too.

Maybe it's because of our position as butt of so many national jokes that Kansans have become so patient. There's intolerance here--unfortunately more than I want to believe at times--but when you meet a Kansan one-on-one, the facades of bigotry often melt away. Not always, but often enough to know something good lies within. We know we have warts. We know we have scars. But, from my experience, we own them. Maybe not every individual... but a collective "we." One cannot have suffered repeated offenses without developing a degree of humility.

A Kansan knows it isn't very humble to speak of one's humility.  We know we are broken as much as anyone else, but we are also aware of our humanity. We want good, honest stories more than we need grand lectures from any pulpit--even a secular one.

I work as a guidance counselor in a small, Northeast Kansas high school. Every year, we receive at least one new student from some other portion of the country--California, Florida, Michigan in the last few years--and are charged with the care of this adolescent. We joke that we're supposed to "save" them because we are used to being the brunt of jokes."Send the boy to Kansas. They'll learn him right. And if not... there's nothing to do out there, anyway."

We take this "orphan" in an make him our own. We care for her and teach her how to be good to other people and that she matters. We build relationships. We listen. We try again when we fail because we know--thanks to lessons from our rough climate won by generations of farmers and ranchers--failure is coming.

But so is triumph, little victories of the most mundane, everyday variety.

Go on. Make fun of us. Ask about Toto (the dog not the band). Try and win us with golden tongues and well-formed words. Just be honest. Genuine. Flawed and human. If you are, you just might belong here:

The Flint Hills of Kansas seen from the air (Jim Richardson, National Geographic)
 (Flat as a what?)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why Readers, Scientifically, are People, Too

A few weeks ago my dear sister shared an article titled "Why Readers, Scientifically, Are The Best People To Fall In Love With." Improper title capitalization rules and superfluous prepositions aside, I take issue with the article. What would one expect, coming from Elite Daily, a site, I must admit, I hadn't stumbled across before but calls itself "the voice of Generation Y." Isn't that a perfect title for a Gen Y site? Elite. Yes, yes you are. Maybe that's my problem. As a Gen Xer, I'm an old fart, skeptical of everything.

Even myself. And I'm also not all that special. I'm just a person with an opinion and about three pounds of neurons in my skull, but I do like to think.

I learned the habit of asking questions of EVERYTHING in undergrad at Kansas State University, probably even before that. Richard Fogg, if you're out there, your lab section of Psych 350: Experimental Methods in Psychology way back in the fall of 1995 was brilliant. Thanks for teaching me true inquiry, critical thinking, and objectivity--and the cool lesson about what happens to a person when they come to the emergency room on a heroin overdose from your days in LA. That was awesome.

But I digress. A little.

I don't believe, and never will, that reading makes a person more empathic. That would be a causal relationship, one the author of the article implies with lines like "readers are proven to be nicer and smarter than the average human, and maybe the only people worth falling in love with on this shallow hell on earth." Wow.

While readers may be smarter and nicer than the average human (14 + years in education make me question both of those claims), I do not believe for an instant, not one millisecond, reading makes a person smarter or, and here's the most important disbelief, nicer than anyone else. There's simply a correlation between reading and empathy, reading and intelligence, reading and "theory of mind"  (the ability to hold opinions, beliefs and interests apart from one's own). I've known plenty of kids who could strip a 1968 Chevy Camaro and rebuild it who couldn't read all that well. How, exactly, are we defining intelligence?

Perhaps empathic, intelligent, and "mindful" people simply are drawn to reading. Perhaps.

But there's more. The author of "Why Readers...," Lauren Martin, cites another study which suggests kids who have more stories read to them have better theories of mind. I have no doubt--but using the word "prove" as in "results that prove the more stories children have read to them, the keener their [mindfulness]" really trips my critical analysis trigger. Maybe the interaction with people is the key, the common factors--good, healthy relationships with caregivers or other adults doing the reading--is the real seed of mindfulness and empathy. Show me a study suggesting a robot can read books to kids and those kids are more mindful than anyone else... well, I guess we're doing a whole lot of supposing without real results and a whole slew of ethical concerns. I haven't read the original studies, but these seem more correlative (collecting data and finding relationships) than causal (actual, controlled studies).

Are readers "the best people to fall in love with"? I don't know. But empathic people are nice. Mindful people are very nice. I'm in love with a woman who is empathic, mindful, and intelligent. She's nice. And while she reads ALL THE TIME I don't know that either of us have finished more than a book or two in the time we've known each other.

I believe reading is very important--Martin cites several other studies "proving" readers are the only worthwhile people on the planet--but it is not the only thing which creates a human. Reading is not the only factor which contributes to intelligence, empathy, and mindfulness.

And yes... this is coming from a guy who writes. And writers need readers. Did I just alienate all of you?

(crickets)


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I Planned to Discuss Perserverance, but I Gave Up

My kids give up too easily. I'm not sure if it's their generation's epidemic or anything, but I notice it with some of the kids at school, too. The district where I work even had a school improvement plan a year or so ago focused on trying to build perseverance in our students.

We gave up. I wonder what that says...

Seriously, though, kids raised on the world at the click of a mouse quit easily. For example (I'm always armed with them): my ten-year-old and video games. I can imagine the groans. "Video games? Really? I came here for a reasonable discussion about an important topic." Work with me. Video games have been a significant part of our modern tapestry, and love them or leave them, they aren't going anywhere. Owen loves to play games. He spends a quite possibly unreasonable amount of time in front of his computer, a television, or his 3DS. Yes, he plays plenty of games. Most modern games have built in learning curves to keep kids playing at a relatively simply level until they're really good. It's one of the major advances behind the scenes--face it, graphics and sound take all the glory, but a game's artificial intelligence has taken big strides.

Where Owen stumbles, however, is when he attempts anything with a lengthy quest or story or--Zeus forbid--a retro game. He wants to love The Legend of Zelda, but it's hard. He's started several games and given in when the going is tough from "start."

Okay, I'm being a bit harsh. I remember the hours Owen spent trying to conquer various shortcuts on Mario Kart Wii... the kid will stick with something, sometimes. But you go back a little further, Zelda, Mega Man, even Earthworm Jim or Ghouls and Ghosts for Sega Genesis, and he's done. And it isn't just Owen. I do see it at school, as both a teacher and a counselor. Kids give up when any task is too hard. Instead of trying again. And again. And again.

Maybe our tools, like the AI on those new video games, are just too powerful. Why work hard when a machine will do the heavy lifting? Why think and muddle through a problem when Google can probably cough up 10,000 solutions within a fraction of a second?

What I want here is good, old-fashioned stubbornness. I crave the kind of tenacity which kept me and my buddies up all night, stumbling through Hyrule's dark dungeons without the benefit of dozens of online walk-throughs and wikis. Anyone of my generation who played the original Metal Gear on NES will remember how damn hard it was just to get Snake to the first building without dying.

As a writer, perseverance has been my greatest ally. I set out to qualify for active status in the Horror Writers Association about seven years ago. It took a few years to sell my first professional rate piece, and this summer, I've been able to finally make that third qualifying sale. Seven years. Technology has made "success" as a writer far to easy to achieve. Someone turns down your story? Simply self-publish through the miracle of ebooks or the InterwebTM. But none of these quick fixes will ever help a writer hone his or her craft. Perseverance is priceless.

I want my kids to stick with difficult tasks. I want them to ask tough questions and solve challenging problems. I want them to never, ever quit. And I'll work all the rest of my days to make sure they know the value of perseverance.