Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Problem with Living Forever

The conversation started one late night (or very early morning) in the summer of 1994. I was unemployed, between my freshmen and sophomore year at Kansas State, stuck between art and English education. My best friend and I spent those long summer nights driving aimlessly through our small, sleepy hometown. We played amatuer philosopher during those drives, questioning God, the universe, everything.

"I don't want to live forever," I said.

"Neither do I. Not on Earth, anyway."

"No," I said, "I don't want to go to heaven either. I mean, that's just nuts. Forever is a long time."

My friend laughed. "It's not like heaven's just clouds and harps and shit. I don't think you understand what it would be like."

No, it's not like that at all. I've seen death in my life--death and a lot of change. I remember every one of my grandparents' funerals, my father's, my first wife's. I remember standing in the basement of the Warren-McElwain mortuary in Lawrence, KS deciding on a casket for my wife at age 37.

The funeral director, a relatively young woman herself, stopped in mid sales pitch/product description, and said, "You're too young for this."

Yes, and no. And maybe. 

Death is a part of life. Our mortality is what binds us together, and to rob anyone of death is to steal the very essence of what it means to be human. Death is not the worst thing to come for us. Death is our oldest friend. Death reminds us to live, to enjoy, to laugh and have fun, and to love well. Death taught me well from a young age. This is what is the end to which we all must go. This is what gives value and rarity to your life.

I've carried those lessons with me. I have no desire to live forever--and I fear immortality in world not built for it much more than my own death. Maybe heaven isn't harps and clouds and "shit." Maybe I can't comphrended immortality. I do know this: on Earth, I'm happy my time is limited.

It's much more valuable this way.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Hello?

Time to clear some cobwebs and dust off this blog.

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?)