Grandpa’s First Day

Lawrence stopped in front of the Pearly Gates. There they were, big as can be and shining like new dimes. As he reached to push them open, they changed into a weathered door, and he stood on a familiar cement square, with a rail on one side and a homemade boot scraper on the other. Out of habit, he checked his shoes, but they were Sunday-clean. A large, golden lump of a dog lay next to the house and raised his head to growl something that almost sounded like “hello” before going back to sleep.

Lawrence pulled open the screen door and stepped onto the porch. He shrugged off his jacket and hung it from a nail over the wide wooden steps. As his hand grabbed the handle next to the door to pull himself up, he felt the years fall away, as if he could jump those stair if he wanted to. He stepped into the kitchen and saw a plate of dried beef sitting between the burners of the stove. A few thin slices lay next to the main chunk, and he crammed one into his mouth: perfect!

Just to check, he opened the brown refrigerator; two full cases of beer. He hadn’t wanted a beer in a good long time, but right then a can sounded pretty damn good.

“Hey, Dad. Grab me one of those, too.”

A voice he hadn’t heard in a good long time came from the dining room. Without wondering about it, Lawrence grabbed a second can and came in. The old table had a bright shine and the lamp had all its crystals. The chairs matched, and none were missing the slats from the back. A group of people sat around the table, drinks in front of most of them. He handed the beer to the bearded giant sitting next to the open head spot.

“Thanks. We were just waiting for you.”

“Jim?”

“Yup. How’s it going? How’s my family doing?”

“Oh, they’re doing alright. Got a bunch of kids running around.”

“Well, that’s just fine.”

“Becky’s oldest is just like her.”

Jim started to laugh so hard he had to leave the room until he could breath again. Another voice brought Lawrence’s head around.

“Ve thought you might like to play a game.”

“Father Smutny?”

“I vas just visiting and they said you vas coming home today.”

The two men shook hands, as if just a week had gone by. Jim came back into the room and sat down, the plate of beef in his hand.

“This is really good, Mom.”

“Tell your father; it’s his recipe.”

Lawrence turned to the voice. He knew that voice. The woman was young and bright, tall and sturdy. He fell back into his chair.

“Hello, dear. How are you?”

“H-Helen?”

“Of course. Now, I don’t mind, since I wasn’t there, but I hope you’re going to knock off flirting with all the ladies now.”

He grabbed her up and hugged her.

“We’ll talk later. Right now, we have guests.”

Lawrence sat back down and drank the rest of his beer. When he finished, a bottle sat at his elbow, full of a dark, red liquid. Jim poured some in a glass and handed it over.

“You wouldn’t believe how thick the chokecherries grow around here!”

“They wouldn’t grow so thick if you’d trim them back once in awhile!” This came from a tall young man with a very serious face. He sat next to a short woman who was busily shuffling two decks of cards together. Lawrence greeted his older brother and sister-in-law.

“Where are the rest of our family?”

“They’ll be along shortly. We’ll set up some card tables for everyone.”

The last guest at the table had been quiet the whole time. Lawrence looked at him but could not place him at all. He leaned over to Jim.

“Who’s that?”

Jim looked down the table and nodded to the man.

“Well, that’s God. He came to tell us you were coming.”

“Does he do that for everyone?”

“Not always, but he thought you might be interested in a game of pinochle.”

“Well, sure, but…”

The man at the other end of the table spoke, his voice like fire and wind, mountains crumbling and seas boiling.

“Are we here to talk or are we here to play cards?”

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“I was wrong.” The inability of error

When I first started teaching, I asked my dad, a 30 year veteran of the high-school trenches, for some advice. He told me “If you don’t know the answer, say so.”

Simple advice, yes? But it kept me going for the next 11 years. When I see the news lately, I think a few more people could benefit from some similar, simple advise: If you’re wrong, admit it.

I don’t know why this is such a difficult idea. Oh, sure, we can’t seem to go a week without some politician or celebrity “apologizing” to the cameras, but the sincerity of those apologies is never in question; in fact, it doesn’t exist. The apology is never about the action, but over the fact that they got caught.

What is wrong with admitting an error? Does saying “I was wrong” make you look weak? Of course not! Quite the opposite. But we have reached the level where a person is not even allowed to consider changing their mind!

I wonder if this has anything to do with the (mind-blowing in its continuation) argument over evolution. With a huge percentage of people convinced that change due to situation is impossible at the genetic level, is it any wonder that they also believe ideas cannot be changed?

Anyway, back to the idea of admitting errors. When I was teaching, I could tell which students could handle being told they were wrong and which ones could not. It was difficult, sometimes, to tell a student “No, that isn’t even close.” I was part of the problem. If I couldn’t tell someone that “No, Hills like White Elephants is not about taking a train trip.” how could I expect them to tell themselves? And if they could not tell themselves they might be wrong, how could I expect them to look at anything from a different point of view?

Therein lies the strength of admitting to error. When I say “I was wrong,” I am also saying “there is another side, and I can learn from it.” There are always more sides, more points of view, more ways of looking at the world. But we are so bound up in thinking “I, and only I, can possibly be right, so anyone who doesn’t agree with me must be an idiot!” that we cannot move anything. We’re becoming a nation of mental constipates!

We are wrong. On an average day, each and every one of us is wrong most of the time. I was wrong at least three times before I stepped out of my front door this morning…for the first time (stupid bus schedule!!). And, I learned from my errors. I learned that I need to get my butt to the bus stop by 9 if I don’t want to wait an extra hour to get going.

Maybe we’re afraid someone is going to gloat over our errors. But, really, what does that say about our own mentality if we are motivated by the perception/actions of others? Should I really care if someone thinks I’m an idiot because I did something wrong? I know, if I do something wrong the first time, I won’t do it that way again. I’ll learn, I’ll adapt, and I’ll move on.

Just think how much freer our political process would be if politicians were allowed to say “I was wrong.” or even “that old idea was wrong.” But they cannot, for whatever reason.

 

Or, just maybe, the talking heads on TV and radio will do us all a favor and shut the hell up.

 

But I could be wrong.

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Hate-Radio strikes again

I spent a few moments this morning listening to the local talk-radio station. You probably know, if not this exact station, the sort of station I am talking about: little Limbaugh wannabes filling in time until the slug lurches his way to his microphone. But this isn’t about Limbaugh; he and his listeners are beyond hope.

No, this is about what has become of the “news” in the last decade or two. I cannot be the only one to remember when the news consisted of 1-2 hours in the morning (after most people went to work), a 1/2 hour at noon for local news, a 1/2 hour of national news in the evening, a 1/2 hour of local news, and a redo of the local news at bedtime. If someone wanted more, there were daily newspapers and a variety of magazines best kept next to the toilet for emergencies.

Then, someone got the idea “there is always something happening; lets create a 24 hour news cycle, and report on everything!” and cable news was born. Journalism students jumped with glee, as this greatly expanded the job market, since no one can be expected to work more than an hour in front of a camera. Eyebrows were plucked and grim tones were practiced all over the nation.

But lo, the truth did descend upon the brows of the masses: There isn’t 24 hours worth of news. Yes, things are happening all the time, but it takes much less time to report what has happened. The first solution was to put everything on endless repeat. The problem was, nobody could stand to watch the same thing over and over. Hours needed to be filled between the repeats. And thus was born the pundit show.*

*Disclaimer: this timeline is not intended to be an accurate representation of how things actually happened.

Ahh, the political pundit. They’re not a new creature. Most started in the printed world, sending in articles to the various newspapers and magazines. Some started in little radio stations. Some sprang from dank swamps, bloated with bluster and hypocrisy.  All came with the idea that they, and only they, held the absolute truth about…something.

These people get paid big money to blow smoke up the collective American butt. They don’t work weekends, aren’t called to natural and human-made disasters, have a staff to help them with personal side-projects, are called on to write books, and get to act important during election years. Election night is a party for most of them, and they tend to get the next day off to recover.

Sweet deal, right? Hell, I’d take that job. Pick a side, wait for the other to stick their foot in their mouth, then gloat. It’s a simple formula. But now, every little putz radio fear-monger is doing what they can to get on the “Rush is on Vacation” list, so they can get their piece of the pie. And their method of doing this is to “report” more and more outrageous items.

All this is a lead-in to what happened this morning. As I said, I was listening to the local hate-station and they came up with the following:

Fear Monger 1: We received an email from a listener, asking about how Sharia law is creeping into the United States.

Fear Monger 2: Do tell?

FM1: Yes. The emailer states that Dearborn, MI is 70% Muslim and the judges and police there are all Muslim and they’re using Sharia law in all cases.

FM2: Well, IF that is the case, that would be pretty bad. Some Muslims are pretty scary.

[Conversation spent expanding the rumor, with not a single critical thought. Fear-mongering at its best]

Here is where I enter. I wrote on their facebook wall about how their story was full of shit. And their reply?

 

“We don’t have time to check things out, and, besides, it was the emailer who said it, not us. We said “if” so we’re excused from all responsibility.”

 

Excuse me? You just spent 5 minutes of airtime (a lifetime in radio) talking about, and expanding with “I heard” statements, an unsubstantiated rumor. There clearly was time for looking up further information, but they simply dismissed anything that didn’t pander to their audience.

Whatever happened to simply reporting the news? “This happened here today. This politician said this (play the clip). This happened over here, and that happened over there. Goodnight and good luck.”

What happened to the news? I’m not naive enough to pretend the old style was perfect. Far from it. But it was brief, it was to the point, and it was mostly fact-based. Now, when facts don’t line up to a particular political pundit’s POV, they are said to be “slanted” facts. Facts don’t slant, people.

 

Now I’ve got a headache.

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Exploring, thinking, finding

I decided in the last few months, as people may have heard, to leave my University job and give myself a year to concentrate on nothing but writing. Part of this includes trying to find a new place to be, to live, where I can thrive. Kearney, NE is not the most supportive place for creative types.

So, I went to Portland. Only for a week, but this was the first big vacation I’ve ever taken on my own. Sure, there have been a few weekends here and there, but this felt pretty major for me. And it wasn’t just a vacation; it was location scouting. Lucky for me, I have a few friends in Portland who showed me around and took me on adventures. C, and her hubby S, and A all took me by the hand and led this hick through the big city.

I saw many things, and went to many different places around the city. Portland is a fascinating place, and I really enjoyed my time there. And Powell’s books is now on my list of favorite places in the world. I managed to spend an entire week, drinking coffee daily, without once buying Starbucks. And, to everyone’s amusement, I inadvertently chose the busiest weekend of the year to visit, with a combination of the Rose Festival and Fleet Week. I’ll know better for next time.

As for moving there, I don’t know. Cities are such busy places, and I felt guilty anytime I tried to sit down in a coffee shop or my hotel room. I seemed to need to be out “doing” something, even if it was just wandering around the neighborhood. I know, that feeling would fade. But it just seemed there was too much to do. I know I didn’t see 1/100th of what there is to do.

I am a very quiet person. I like being around people, but I also like being able to get away from people.

I do need to say, the people I met are some of the most open people I’ve ever met. Concepts that are such a part of daily life here (Nebraska), like prudery and “proper” behavior are foreign there, but without any pressure on me to change. Everyone seemed very relaxed, at least among the people I spent time with.

There were other people, though, who seemed incapable of relaxation. They were so intent on being noticed, on being “different” or “strange” or trying to buck trends with other trends. I made the joke that I needed to buy a silly hat in order to fit in with the other people on my street. My hair is short, my beard is trimmed, my tattoos are few and hidden. I wear colors other than black, and I rarely feel the need to raise my voice. My pants are designed for comfort, not to engage in gender stereotype conflicts. I don’t make myself uncomfortable for the purpose of making other people uncomfortable. I don’t need the attention.

I saw so many people who were trying to hard for…something. I have no idea what. That much time and effort must have a purpose.

I think my next novel might be about hipsters.

 

As for finding…I’m finding more about myself than anything else. I know I’ve been wearing many masks for many years, mostly in an effort to protect myself from dangers that disappeared many years ago. I started breaking some of those masks on my recent trip to Las Vegas, and more in Portland. I haven’t broken them all yet, but I’m seeing a version of myself that disappeared a long time ago.

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The Unabashed Arrogance of Religion

The Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, released this statement via Facebook:

“Marriage is a basic human and social institution. Though it is regulated by civil laws and church laws, it did not originate from either the church or state, but from God. Therefore, neither church nor state can alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage. Marriage, whose nature and purposes are established by God, can only be the union of a man and a woman and must remain such in law. In amanner unlike any other relationship, marriage makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the common good of society, especially through the procreation and education of children. The union of husband and wife becomes, over a lifetime, a great good for themselves, their family, communities, and society. Marriage is a gift to be cherished and protected.”

And I have a very simple reply: How dare you? How dare you try to impose your internal beliefs and rules on the rest of us. You have no rights to me, or to anyone else who does not voluntarily choose to follow your teachings.

There is so much talk about the attack on religion. Well, I think we need to talk about the attack from religion. Right now, as seen in the post from the Archdiocese, there is a national discussion on Gay Marriage. Yesterday, President Obama came out in favor of Gay Marriage (a.k.a. Marriage). This is not an indication of any sort of policy change, or a sign of laws. It was a statement of personal belief, which we can only hope will translate into policy. As with every argument, there is more than one side.

On the Pro-Gay Marriage side, the arguments are thus:

1. Marriage is a legal contract between two consenting, legal adults, which comes with certain legal benefits and responsibilities.

2. Marriage is a public celebration and recognition of a committed relationship.

The Anti-Gay Marriage arguments seem to be:

1. Gay Marriage will destroy Straight Marriage…somehow

2. Gay Marriage will lead to people marrying kids, dogs, horses, pies, trees, etc…somehow

3. Gays want to force churches to conduct gay marriages…somehow

4. Marriage is only for making babies

It is the “somehow”s that are confusing. Straight Marriage has done a pretty damn good job of destroying itself. Divorce rates are somewhere around 50% or higher. As for the marrying of kids, etc, none of those are consenting, legal adults. Kids, dogs, horses, pies, and trees are unable to enter into legal contracts. And, to the forcing of churches, they are protected under the 1st Amendment from having anything of the sort happen. Churches have always been able to deny marriage to whomever they wish…within their own communities. Which is how it should be; if a priest, pastor, minister, etc does not want to perform a wedding and sign the marriage license, they do not have to. But, they do not have the right to stop someone else from signing it.

And that, I believe, is the main reason behind the attack from Religion: the fact that their influence does not extend beyond the doors of their churches. They want to dictate to the rest of us how we’re supposed to live our lives. It angers them to no end that they are not allowed to convert “by the sword” like the good old days.

So, I say to all the religious people in America: remember, your rights to my actions stop where I say they do, not where you say.

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Morning Announcements

ding-dong-dung


Good morning, students. Before we get to today’s lunch menu, I have a few announcements. In compliance with the new “Religion in School” Supreme Court Ruling, the following schedule changes are now in effect:

*All Muslim students are excused from classes at noon and 2:30 for prayer. We have set aside a room in the east wing. Coach Randalf has volunteered to issue the adhan over the loudspeaker. He apologizes in advance for his southern accent.

*All Jewish students are excused from class at 1:30 for the Minchah prayers. Reform and Liberal students are excused from the excusal, unless it will break their grandmother’s heart.

*Hindu, Buddhist, Unitarian and Baha’i students are allowed to leave class at any time for meditation. Hindu students are also excused for yoga. Coach Randalf has recently returned from India, where he was trained in a 6-week ashram, so he will lead.

*Eastern Orthodox students are excused at 9, 12, and 3 for Third, Sixth, and Ninth hour prayer services with Father Randalfzywiki

*Catholic Students are excused until 9:30, so they may attend daily Mass, followed by coffee and rolls, in the Gym.

*Evangelical students are excused from 9:30-2:30 for daily services. Snakes will be provided with a parental waiver.

*Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist students are allowed to quietly gather after school. Time was offered during the school day, but parents didn’t want to raise a ruckus.

*Atheist students are invited to Coach Randolf’s 9:45 discussion in the Nietzsche Memorial Library. Agnostics are invited, but are asked to keep their questions to the end.

Further changes:

All females, (Students, Teachers, and Staff) are required to move off-campus to the designated Shame Tent (on the far side of the football field) for the weeks before, during, and after menstruation. Please make sure to leave before practice begins, to avoid contaminating the players with your curse.

The Lunch Period will now start at 10:15 AM, to allow time for pre-meal prayers, which will be done on a rotating basis. In addition, students now have a choice in Kosher, Halal, Old Testament, Hindu, Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw, or Regular. Atheists and Agnostics are asked not to eat shellfish or bacon outside of the roped-off Bacon Corner.

In order to accommodate various complaints, all science classes now require a parental permission slip for enrollment. Those who do not turn in such a slip will take a series of Kansas approved classes on dinosaur husbandry, taught by Coach Randalf.

All other classes are cancelled.

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Final Thoughts on Teaching

The walls are bare, the books are boxed, the desk is empty, the grades are entered. It’s done. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life at this, and I have a few thoughts on what I will miss, and what I will not.

I will not miss…

…the grading. The hours upon hours, reading work that students left to the last minute, then threw on the page.

…the politics. Watching a department that is running at about half staff, trying to deal with an ever-increasing number of students, while fighting for every last scrap of funding is heartbreaking. With few exceptions, the department here puts students first and personal advancement second. That seems to be rare, and should be rewarded.

…the excuses. There is an old joke, that grandparents shouldn’t let their grandchildren go off to college, because such actions cause grandparents to drop like flies. I’ve heard any number of reasons why such-and-such paper, assignment, or meeting simply could not be completed. The number of excuses I accepted was few, but that didn’t stop students from, not only making them, but demanding their excuses be accepted. For any students reading this, I have some advice: no professor cares if your mom likes your essay.

…the lies. So many students have lied to my face, with really obvious whoppers. Maybe their parents have never doubted them; maybe their high school teachers couldn’t spare the time or resources to check up on them. I don’t know.

Things I Will Miss

…the people. The people in this department have been a large part of my life for many years, and I have grown quite close to them. They have given me strength on days when dealing with students has just been overwhelming. They have laughed with me at the genuine absurdities that come from students. Knowing that, when troubled, I could walk just a few places and find someone to commiserate with has been a great boon.

….the successes. It doesn’t seem to happen often, but there have been some students that have changed their life for the better because of something I’ve done. Sometimes it is just a change in how they view the world; sometimes, it is changing to a new major, or reinforcing the one they’ve chosen. Sometimes, it is just them asking my advice.

Overall, the good outweighs the bad.

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Cleaning out my office

Last fall, about halfway through the semester, I got my own office. As an adjunct, this is quite a novelty, as I have shared an office with up to 5 people before. But for the past 7 months or so, I’ve been on my own in here. When this happened, I knew this was a temporary thing, and that I would most likely have to share with someone before too long. This was before I decided it was time for me to leave.

I spent some time decorating the room. I’d had some ideas of setting up a little coffee area in one corner, and I brought in enough books to fill the large bookshelf that comes with the room. I hung up my BA, my MA, and my Jameson’s Irish Whiskey Taster certificate. A few posters, a few signs, and I created my own space. I came in here for hours at a time, writing and using the internet, and even meeting with students on occasion.

This office is how I started letting people know about my plans to leave. The Dept. Chair ran into me in the hallway and asked me about maybe moving to a different office, since we have some new, full-time people coming into the department. I said, “Well, I kinda need to talk to you about that,” and explained my plan, and how he didn’t need to worry about finding room for me.

NOw, I’m starting to dismantle my office. I’ve taken everything off the walls; I’m boxing up the books, and giving some away; my desk is empty of 11 years of paperwork, 99% of which went into the recycle bin. I’m deciding which things I’m going to throw away or leave for the next person. What do I do with the tiny, cheap, crappy lamps I spent nearly $8 on at K-mart (and never used because they were too weak for anything).

I like this office. This is where I wrote nearly every page of my MFA thesis (and the novel it has spawned). But I’m ready to move on from here. I feel like I’ve become too settled in here; I prefer to keep my office in mobile, bag-form. I can carry everything I need, and work wherever I am.

Yes, I’m one of those guys who sits in a coffee-shop and writes. Not because I want to be seen, but because I don’t like to pay for internet service. And I like coffee.

So, here I am. I need to put the books in the totes; I need to dismantle the coat tree and take down my writing hat. Hopefully, before the next person moves in, someone will spring for a fresh coat of paint.

 

Bye, office. I hope the next person appreciates you.

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Restart and scary, scary things

So…reality is coming.

After 11 years, and with a rather large knot in my stomach, I have decided to leave the glamourous life of an English Adjunct instructor and pick up the writing life. Teaching has been an interesting experience, but there are only so many times that I can review the MLA citation format and explain that, yes, you do need to include a thesis statement in every essay before I melt into a puddle of unused brains.

That isn’t the scary part. The scary part is that I’m going to leave everything I’m familiar with behind and try to create a new life. The last year has opened my eyes to the fact that I was stuck in a rut. I suspected it before, which is why I joined the MFA program, but I am positive of it now. I need to break out and find my life, instead of just sitting and twiddling my thumbs.

So, here’s the plan. I’m going to visit Portland, OR this summer. If I like it there, I will move there (or, at least, that general area) this August. If I don’t like it, I will check out a few other places. I’m going to finish my MFA this summer, which is both happy and sad, and will try to publish my thesis as a novel. I will look for whatever writing work I can find. Things will be tight, but they’ve been tighter for most of my adult life, so I’m not too worried about that.

I’m going to miss Nebraska. I’m going to miss UNK. But I am not an academic. It’s time I get my thumb off the pause button and press Play.

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