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The Book Has Arrived! #SubtleDance #Fiction

The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light, my short story collection, has been published by Ink Brush Press. You can buy it from Amazon here:

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A Garden Where the Sun Always Shines: Regarding Shauna

In his obtuse, frustrating, beautiful poem “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot writes, “Life is very long.” That idea goes against what most of us have heard—that life is short, that we must make the most of every day, that every passing second leads us that much closer to dying. I’ve always wondered which is true. Does life stretch out and out and out, or does it flash by like a film montage where pages fly from a calendar, floating off-screen and disappearing forever, moving us toward the action that matters, the conflict that advances the story?

 In my forty-second year, I have decided that the answer is both.

Some days, even weeks, of my life creep by on their bellies like snakes that have lain too long in the sun. Time seems interminable—the in-class activity that shuffles along until it ends in a whimper, the grading session that drags on and on and on, the dinner where the waiter pops by every twenty minutes to make sure we haven’t died of thirst while he took his smoke break.

But other times are different. They don’t creep or shuffle or drag. They zip past you like the purse snatcher that steals your valuables without ever breaking stride, so that you don’t even realize what is missing until the thief has turned the corner and disappeared forever.

These moments fly.

The hell of it is that these latter times aren’t bad, at least not all of them, maybe not even most of them. Often, the moments we would love to cherish are the very ones that we cannot hold onto. They disappear in the space of a breath, leaving us gasping in their wake.

I’ve been thinking about all this lately, not because I’m forty-two, which isn’t that old. No, I’ve been pondering the passage of time because my children are growing up. One, in fact, is no longer a child in any sense of the word, and another stands on the cusp of adulthood. My youngest is thirteen. And as they grow up and perhaps have children of their own, I have been thinking, even more than usual, about what kind of father I’ve been. What kind of man I am. What kind of people they’ll be, and how much I influenced their evolution, for better or worse.

Anyone who knows me well would tell you that I have never been good at sharing my feelings. The only-sparsely-revised, not-all-that-carefully-edited nonfiction on this blog represents more confession than I’ve ever made to most of the people I’ve met in my entire life. I am trying to be honest here, because if you are going to write any kind of non-fiction, you have to be honest to the point of brutality, of rawness. The audience will recognize your bullshit. They will crucify you for it. So you try to be true, even when it hurts, even when it angers those closest to you, and you pray that the art (if there is art) in what you say will eventually salve those wounds.

So I come here again, as I usually do, to open up a part of myself that I have never been able to express, except, perhaps, in some oblique fashion through my fiction. I come to speak from the heart, directly and honestly. I come to speak about my kids.

More specifically, I want to talk about my oldest daughter, Shauna. I want to say things about all my kids, of course, but I cannot say everything, even if I wrote nothing else for the rest of my life. And I cannot speak about all of them at once, because the very facts of their being overwhelm me. Thinking about them is like standing on a ship’s deck in the middle of the ocean, nothing but expanse and majesty all the way to the horizon. I have to take them one at a time, one piece at a time, and if I do this occasionally throughout the course of my life, perhaps they will know me better than they would have otherwise. Perhaps they will not be sorry that it was their fate to spring from me and the better parts of myself.

So. One at a time, whenever I can muster the courage and, hopefully, the words. Starting here, with the first about Shauna, others to come in the future, given world enough and time.

But really, what can I say about her that would be sufficient? Saying something in an honest, hopefully new way is part and parcel of the writer’s job, but sometimes language seems insufficient in and of itself; to truly know the thing about which one writes (or reads), one must experience.

We named her Shauna, but we might have named her other things. My first reason for living. My North Star that guided me through the darkest part of my life. My friend. My daughter. String bean, lovely woman.

I would like to start here by telling you that the person she is, the woman she’s grown to be, staggers me. At twenty-four, she is a better person than I have ever been. She has always been better, right from the start. And in being nothing more than herself, she has made me better.

She is a child of divorce—of two parents who became parents too young, who got married too quickly, who bulled their way into adulthood as if some Matador were waving a red flag that attracted them when it should have signaled a warning. I lived with her for the first several years of her life, before her mother and I finally did what we should have done in the first place and got away from each other. After that, every parting was a little tragedy marked by tears and sighs and regrets. Because of the divorce’s timing, I never got to take her to school or pick her up. I seldom got to help her with her homework. I never hosted a sleepover or helped her build a school project. I did not teach her to drive. I did not get to embarrass her in front of her boyfriends. Now that she is grown, with a life and job of her own, I get to see her roughly once a year. In so many ways, our story is about pain and missed opportunities, about how the little aggravations that typical fathers and daughters experience were lost to us. When I think of all that we missed and are still missing, I can barely lift my head.

And yet. And yet . . .

For many years, until she matured enough within herself and in her social relationships to let go of her father’s hand and fly on her own, we maintained a ritual on the night before I had to take her home. As that last day progressed, she would grow quieter and quieter, and nothing I could do or say would draw her out of that silence. Eventually we would go to bed, and I would lie there, dreading morning’s arrival, until I would hear it coming from her room—tiny little sniffles, choked-back sobs, the sounds of someone in pain, of someone who wants to keep that pain to herself. Of someone who did not want to bother anybody.

I would always get up and go to her room, and there, for minutes or hours, we would talk—about why she had to live so far away, about why I couldn’t just get a job where she lived, about why she couldn’t come see me more often, about how she didn’t want to go home. Not, I always hoped, because she did not want to see her mother, but because she knew we would miss each other.

During these conversations, I would never allow myself to weep. It was her time to hurt and my job to salve it in whatever way I could. It was not about me, would never be about me. I had no right to share my tears with her because, knowing her as I did, I knew that she would push aside her own pain and try to stop mine. To weep would have been selfish and egotistical and wrong. Our children should not have to bear our burdens. They should not have to fix us.

One day, though, in the middle of our end-of-visit ritual, I said to Shauna, “I’m really, really sorry you’re so upset.”

She looked at me for a long time, her eyes filled with tears, before she said anything. Then, finally, she asked, “Do you ever get upset?”

This question poleaxed me. I had never considered that my calm-on-the-surface demeanor might have been suggesting that I was perfectly okay with her leaving. That I would go back to bed and fall right to sleep as soon as she let me off the hook for the night. That she might not realize that I lived every single day of my life in fear that I was failing her in ways both fleeting and fundamental. That she might one day wake up to the fact that, in spite of all his efforts, her father was not a good man and might never be one, and that for evidence she need look no further than how I had failed to remain an everyday presence in her life.

Of course, I could no more tell her all that than I could burst into tears and ask her to comfort me. All I could do, all I had the right to do, was pull her close and hug her as hard as I could without cracking her ribs. All I could do was kiss the top of her head and say, “Of course I get upset, every time. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is you.”

I suppose that if I could say only one thing to her that would sum up her place in my life, it would be the same thing I would also say to my wife and my other two children, and yet it would be just as true for each of them. “All that matters is you.”

I don’t mean that nothing else matters, of course. I cherish my art and glow with pride every time something is published, every time someone tells me something touched them or made them laugh or think or curse my name. I want my work as a writer, a teacher, and a human being to survive me and matter to the world. I want to make the world a better place, not a worse one. I want to give my family the best life I can possibly give them, and if I can’t give them what I want, then I want to be able to say, honestly, that I tried hard to do it. These things matter more than I can say.

But these things are tied inextricably to my love for and duty toward my family. It is a Gordian knot that I have no interest in untying. In this case, being bound is the greatest kind of freedom. And before I knew Kalene, before Brendan and Maya existed, Shauna taught me that. She was my first graduate program in being a better man.

I cannot possibly tell you about everything we did and what it all meant and what it all taught me. But I can tell you some things.

 * * *

 I remember when her mother announced to me that we were likely going to be parents. It was the summer before our senior year in high school. We had broken up, as we often did, and this time, I was determined to make it stick. Even then, the relationship was turning me into someone I didn’t recognize and didn’t like, and I had finally had enough. I was out, and I was determined to stay out. I had taken back my class ring, that great high school symbol of commitment, and wore it myself for the first time since buying it. I had even gone out on a date with an ex-girlfriend with whom I still had a connection, and I felt pretty sure we were going to get back together and live a long, happy life together.

Then Shauna’s mother-to-be showed up at my house and knocked on the door to my room. I opened it, saw her standing there, scowled. I had nothing to say to her and felt no interest in hearing what she had to say.

“I’m late,” she said.

“Here,” I said, giving her my class ring back.

We were married a few weeks later, and we spent every day together until the moment when I left, heartsick and wrecked and wondering if I were doing the right thing.

I don’t regret marrying her. We were miserable and at each other’s throats day and night and poor and stupid, but at times, we were also happy and in love and rich in ways that most of our classmates would take years to discover. Mainly, I don’t regret it because it gave me years with Shauna that I would not have had otherwise—feeding her, changing her diapers, watching the same videos a million times until the VHS tapes broke. It was all as glorious as a sunrise over the sea.

 * * *

I remember the trip home from a high school football game—Malvern? Pine Bluff?—where we had gone to watch my former teammates play. I had loved the games and hated the practices, so it was no great loss for me or the team when I had to go to work and miss playing in my senior year. Still, whenever we were both off on Friday, Christie and I would go to the games, where I would cheer on my friends and part of me would wonder what might have been.

I was driving through the dark, the road unspooling in front of me, Christie in the passenger seat and asleep for all I knew. I was thinking about what I might have done on that long pass that just missed the receiver’s outstretched hands; in my head, I would have caught it, though in my heart, I knew I probably would not have been fast enough either. I was watching the road and daydreaming and listening to some hard-rock song on our car stereo when Christie reached over, turned down the volume, and said, “I just felt the baby kick.”

Something turned over in the deep pit of me. Some creature that had been sleeping in the darkness and dreaming in its own primordial way. It woke up and whimpered and crawled away from the crack of light that had suddenly appeared.

Never taking my eyes from the road, I reached my right hand over and Christie took it, placed it low on her stomach, pressed it harder than I would have advised. The car had grown silent; it seemed that even the regular thrum of the tires, the whistle of the wind as it blew past us, faded, until all that I could hear was my own heartbeat.

Then I felt it—a tiny, almost imperceptible tap against my palm. Like placing your hand on a taut tent wall and feeling someone brush against the other side. Just a millisecond, just once, but undeniable, and very, very real.

And light flooded my eyes. It wasn’t until that creature in the deep pit of me screamed and vanished that I realized it was my own ignorance, my own sense that, even though we had gotten married and had begun compiling cribs and plastic bottles and onesies, we could not possibly be parents. I had known Shauna was real, but I had not believed it on some vital level until I felt that tap, the touch of a person who was not yet a person but who one day might be anybody.

Five miles or so down the road, I felt my face hurt and realized that I had been smiling for a long time. And for perhaps the first time in my young life, I was truly happy. Terrified and incompetent and ignorant, yes, but happy.

 * * *

I remember her birth, the moment she was pushed out into the world, screaming and purple and covered in goo.

“Why is she purple?” I asked, alarmed.

 “She’s cold,” said the doctor. “Where she’s been, it’s nearly 99 degrees.”

“Want to see me weigh her?” asked a nurse. I walked over to the scale with her. She eased Shauna onto it and waited for the readout. The numbers appeared; the nurse looked at me. “Nine pounds, thirteen ounces? Is that right?”

“How the hell should I know? It’s your scale.”

By this time, the doctor was pulling out the afterbirth while Christie grimaced and grunted. When he got it out, it looked like something you might see on the side of the road in the deep South, a creature that dozens of tires had squished beyond all recognition. I mentioned that I had once seen something like it on Nightmare on Elm Street. Nobody laughed.

A few minutes later, still clad in the disposable gown they had pinned on me, I walked into the waiting room and presented Shauna to her grandparents. She was wrapped in a blanket and looking about curiously, acclimating herself to her new world. Everyone ooohed and aaaaahed and grinned and slapped me on the back and passed her around like they were playing Hot Potato.

Later that night, as Christie slept in her hospital bed and Shauna dozed in her bassinet beside me, I took in the silence, the sheer peacefulness of that room compared to the chaos of the birth, and wondered, not for the first time, if I were remotely qualified to be in charge of this little person who would look to me for everything.

 * * *

I remember one night, a few months later when I had been at home alone with Shauna. It was time to pick up Christie from work, so I loaded Shauna into the carrier-thing that also doubled as a car seat. I strapped it down and got in the car and backed out of the driveway. About halfway to Andy’s Restaurant, where Christie was working at the time, I held the steering wheel with my left hand and stretched my right hand into the back seat. I touched Shauna’s tiny little bird hand and she jerked it away.

“Huh,” I said. Against all reason, it hurt my feelings. I wondered if it meant something, knowing in my head that it was probably a reflex or evidence that she had not yet learned to control her body, any of which would have been perfectly natural. But in my heart, a voice whispered, She knows about you. She knows you are not a good person. She wants nothing to do with you, which just proves how smart she is.

All of this happened in perhaps two seconds. And then, before I could pull my hand back and grasp the steering wheel and start feeling really sorry for myself, that tiny bird hand settled on mine and wrapped itself around my index finger. And in that moment, like the Grinch’s, my heart grew two sizes.

I drove all the way to Andy’s like that, my right arm cranked painfully backward and twisted and stretched. I smiled through the pain and the numbness and kept on driving, and Shauna did not let go.

 * * *

I remember watching the same videos hundreds of times, everything from Disney classics to Scruffy to stop-motion California Raisin shows. I had them all memorized. So did Shauna. She never just sat in front of the television for hours at a time, and we never used the television as a de facto babysitter. But when she wanted to watch, she would sit there attentively while those same dogs did and said the same things they had always done and said. It never seemed to get old.

I can no longer quote those movies and shows verbatim. I don’t even really remember the plot. But just hearing the word “scruffy” sends my mind down those same roads, and I wind up back in that mobile home, sitting on that couch and watching Shauna watch TV. In times like those, that trailer was a sanctuary, a garden where the sun always shined and things grew in rich black soil.

 * * *

But like most places, there was nothing intrinsically good or bad about our first home. Its nature depended on the people in it and what they did for, or to, each other. I also remember the fights, the screaming matches that often devolved into physical confrontations.

Just as when Christie and I were dating, our marriage was a study in extremes. We were giddy and joyous and thrilled at life’s possibilities. We were hateful and violent and heartsick. I loved her desperately and wanted her to love me back, but she never did, at least not like I loved her. At times, she seemed to value me; at times, she would speak and act with nothing but contempt, as if I were a bug that she wouldn’t bother scraping off her shoe. I never knew which Christie I was going to get, and I didn’t understand the one that seemed to hate me, and so, once I learned to lash out, I let that part of me take over when I felt hurt or threatened or useless or stupid, which was most of the time.

When our arguments became physical, they threatened to rip that trailer in half. We were like a storm that blew in out of a cloudless sky, tearing sturdy buildings off their foundations and scattering trash for miles around.

Every time this happened with Shauna in the house, she would do something unexpected while we were raging about her. She might fold the basket full of clean laundry that we hadn’t gotten around to yet. She might pick up the clutter in her room. She might grab a rag and dust. Whenever I would see her trying to impose order on the chaos surrounding her, my heart would break, and I would try to stop the argument, shut down the swirling negative emotions filling the house like acrid smoke. Sometimes it even worked. But it never fixed the underlying problems.

One day, in the middle of a huge fight in our kitchen/dining area, I happened to look down. Shauna was hiding under the table, knees drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs. She was crying and rocking back and forth. And in that moment, something broke inside me. What spilled from that break were pain and guilt and the sudden, dawning realization that my marriage would never last. I knew that Christie and I were too different, in our goals and our worldviews and our values. I knew that as long as we lived together, the fights would never stop, and that every single day would bring about the possibility that Shauna would wind up under that table, sobbing and wishing that her Mom and Dad would just love each other.

I stayed a couple more months and tried to fix things, but eventually, I did what I had always known I would have to do. I packed my things and moved out. I initiated divorce proceedings that would drag on for several months as we all wept and wailed and fought and tried to patch it all back together and eventually moved on.

It was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done, leaving that trailer and the woman I still loved and the daughter I adored. I was afraid and depressed and so very, very angry, none of which would change over the next two years of my life. I was entering the darkest period I have ever been through, but I had to do it. I could no longer abide the sight of that sweet girl hiding under a table, the knowledge that I bore half the responsibility for putting her there. I was changing things in the only way left to me. But every night, for months and months and months, my heart would break all over again, and I hated the world for letting things come to this. I hated it, but even more, I hated myself.

What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?

 * * *

I remember when Christie’s mother informed me that Christie was getting remarried and moving to Pine Bluff. Until that time, I had seen Shauna whenever I wanted, which meant any time that I was not in class or at work or trying desperately to get some sleep. Now, the original custody agreement would be enforced—visitation every other weekend and alternate holidays.

The prospect of not seeing my daughter daily finished shattering what was left of my heart. In fact, it nearly killed me.

I got this news with only a couple days’ notice. I was supposed to work that night. I had an American Novel test the next day. I knew that I would not keep either commitment. Not when my world had just been turned upside down again.

I picked up Shauna and brought her to my parents’ house. I found her something to do. Then I went back to my parents’ room, closed the door, and grabbed their phone. I called my workplace and got an assistant manager.

“This is Brett. I’m supposed to work tonight, but I….I…” And then I burst into tears.

I couldn’t stop. The pain and confusion poured out of me in deep, throaty sobs. The manager listened quietly, and when I finally calmed down a bit, he said, “What is it?”

“It’s my daughter,” I whimpered. “She’s moving away, and I…”

“Don’t worry about coming in,” he said. “Take care of yourself. Take care of her. Let us know when you can come back.”

This small act of generosity—of taking me at my word, of putting my obvious breakdown ahead of whatever inconvenience the store might feel at my absence—nearly sent me into hysterics again. But I managed to swallow it. I thanked him and hung up.

Now for the test. I tried to look up my professor’s phone number, but it wasn’t listed. So I checked the number of another professor, one I had taken classes with several times. She was friends with the American Novel professor. I was in good standing with both of them; I was honored to know that they considered me one of their best students. I was hoping that Professor #2 would give me Professor #1’s number.

I dialed Professor #2 and waited as it rang. I took deep, slow breaths, determined to calm myself this time, to handle things better. I didn’t want to look like a fool, and I wanted to make the best case possible for myself.

“Hello?” said Professor #2.

“Hi,” I said. “It’s Brett Riley. I’m sorry to bother you at home, but I….”

That was as far as I made it before it all ripped out of me again. I burst into sobs that were just as deep, just as uncontrollable, just as wrenching as those that came before. It took me at least a couple of minutes to calm down.

“What’s wrong?” said Professor #2, and I was grateful for the concern that I could hear in her voice.

“It’s my daughter,” I said. “My ex-wife is moving away, and I’ve only got two days, but see, I’ve got this test in Professor #1’s class….”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Professor #2. “I’ll talk to Professor #1. She’ll let you make up the test.”

I thanked her about a hundred times and hung up, feeling a bit better because at least I could spend those two days with Shauna without worrying about all the other things in my life. Not until I became a teacher myself did I really understand what Professor #s 1 and 2 did for me. It wasn’t just being generous enough to give a make-up exam to a student with a real-life problem. It was how they worked together. Professor #2 had made a promise about how Professor #1 would handle a situation in class. Professor #1 lived up to that promise, even though she hadn’t made it herself and would have had every right to be angry with me and Professor #2. I have worked with several professors—little martinets who run their fiefdoms with iron fists, regardless of circumstance—who would not have been so generous. Who might have failed me for seeking aid from a colleague. Who would have resented the colleague for speaking out of turn. But somehow, Professor #2 had conveyed the depth and sincerity of my sorrow. Professor #1 honored both me and her friend. To both of them, I have ever been grateful.

When I came out of that bedroom, I had dried my eyes and blown my nose. I would not cry in front of Shauna until she was in her 20s. But when she asked me if I ever got upset when she had to leave, I thought back to those first departings, the ones that knocked my world off its axis and left me a blubbering mess in front of my co-workers and my teachers, and I think, “Yes. From the very beginning of all this. But that was not your cross to bear. It was always mine, and mine alone.”

 * * *

I remember leaving work once a week and driving an hour and a half to Pine Bluff. I would pick Shauna up from her new apartment and take her somewhere—a restaurant, a movie, a mall, some combination—just to get some extra time. I would have to drive back home, crash for a few hours, and get up early the next day for work or school.

One mid-week visit found us at the mall’s arcade, playing all those carnival games that spit out tickets based on your score. We managed to cobble together enough tickets to purchase the kinds of crummy prizes those places stock, garbled and hastily-constructed bits of plastic and rubber that would either survive a tactical nuclear strike or break within two days.

After she picked out the prizes she wanted, we had a few tickets left over, just enough to get a plastic Sheriff’s badge, gold-ish and hard as a rock, a clip-on job. You could barely read the writing on the front. It was the very definition of a throwaway toy. It was not, strictly speaking, a toy at all. It was tacky decoration, the kind of thing only a little kid would be drawn to.

I remember wondering why Shauna wanted it, what appeal it possibly could have held. She took it and clipped it to her shirt, where it hung like a dead man from a tree, weighty and shifting with every movement, threatening to drag the neck of her shirt halfway down her torso.

Nothing about her outfit or bearing connoted “Sheriff.” She was not dressed in western garb. She was obviously not wearing a county sheriff’s uniform. She might as well have been wearing a football helmet or a pair of boxing gloves.

There was something about the incongruity of the badge—her wanting it, her wearing it unselfconsciously—that struck me as such a little kid thing to do that I found myself misty-eyed, a lump in my throat. It was the sweetest thing I had seen in months.

I still think about that day, that badge, her wearing it while holding the rest of the loot we had won. It still chokes me up. Meaningless to anyone else, probably forgotten by her. Yet it has stayed with me in ways that other, seemingly more memorable events have not.

From little moments like this, we piece together our lives. 

I remember how once, when I was taking her home from a weekend visit, Shauna asked me to stay the night. “You can stay at our house,” she said. “I bet Mom won’t mind.”

“Yes, she would,” I said. “She would definitely mind.”

I left that night after another bout of tears. Our visits during those years were always punctuated by Shauna’s tears and my sleeplessness, my nightmares. I don’t care what Shakespeare said. When it comes to your kids, there’s nothing sweet about the sorrow of parting. Nothing sweet at all.

 * * *

I remember moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to begin my doctoral program. I had to do it. I am a writer, but I am also an educator, and you cannot work in the college/university system without a terminal degree, not if you value decent pay and the possibility of job security and benefits. I had to go, for myself and for my family. And so the every-other-weekend-and-alternate-holiday visits became six-weeks-in-the-summer-and-alternate-holidays-and-sometimes-spring-break visits. Even less time than before.

Thus, the end-of-visit anguish intensified, for both of us. We had great times during the visit. It always seemed like we had never been apart. We still knew each other as well as ever; we still loved each other just as fiercely.

But the time. Always the time, and never enough of it.

The night before her leaving was always like a little funeral, not for us or our relationship but for every missed day, missed conversation, missed opportunity to share our lives.

We have survived so many little deaths.

 * * *

I remember living in Baton Rouge and hearing her ask tearfully if we could at least arrange it so that we could see each other more.

“Six weeks just isn’t very long,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “As soon as I can save up the money for the court costs and get things settled enough to impress a judge. We can absolutely do that.”

“Okay,” she said.

It never happened. By the time I saved that money and settled my life, everything had changed. Now she had friends, boys, a social life, activities—the things that every healthy, well-adjusted kid has, the things that no decent person can begrudge them.

“Six weeks is an awfully long time,” she said when she told me that she wanted to cut those six weeks down to two. The two would eventually become none, and then she was grown, and working, and dating seriously.

Time flies, and all your good intentions fly with it. When it all goes, you are left with empty rooms, the silence that always descends in the wake of loss. People call it Empty Nest Syndrome, and it is no less painful when that nest has only been occupied part-time. It is natural and good; it is progression, evolution, maturation. It is the very essence of the word “bittersweet.”

What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?

 * * *

I remember Shauna’s high-school graduation. I watched her walk across that stage and take her diploma, and I felt as proud as any parent ever does. I felt relief, because she had not only survived all the mines that her mother and I had dug for her; she had thrived. She was moving on to an adult life full of possibility. She could be or do anything. And whatever she might do, I no longer had a say in it. More bitterness, more sweetness—that moment when your child moves past you into a world truly their own. Visitation dependent not only on desire and convenience but also work schedules and vacations.

Graduation is beautiful and agonizing and scary and part of the natural order. It is like the moment when the baby birds finally jump out of the nest, exhilarated and flapping their wings as hard as they can, hoping to catch the right updraft before they splatter on the ground. Meanwhile, the older birds sit in that nest, suddenly alone, time stretching before them all the way to the horizon. They want to scoop up those children and usher them safely back to the fold, knowing all the time that they cannot, must not. That they would not be allowed.

 * * *

I remember Shauna’s surprise visit on my birthday. I had not seen her in a year. I walked into Kalene’s office one Friday afternoon, tired and grumpy and ready to go home. Shauna was sitting in a chair, smiling.

I was thunderstruck. I said the only thing I could think of: “Holy shit!”

It was one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten. I remember once, when she was a little girl, she drew a picture for me and presented it to me on my birthday. I can’t even remember what it was. All I know is that it was hand-drawn and colored and said, “To Daddy.”

“It’s all I have to give,” she said.

“It’s all I want,” I replied, hugging her. “I can’t imagine getting anything better.”

What do you do for someone who has so often given you all she has to give? When you have so often failed to give her what she asked for, what she needed? How do you sleep at night? What do you dream about? What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?

I suppose that the only answer is that you try again. That, even when you can barely stand to look at your own reflection, you stand up and walk. You write her on Facebook. You text her. You invite her to your new home and let her know that she always has a place there, that she never has to ask. You remind her that if she needs something and it is within your power to give it, you will, for this is your duty and your privilege.

And when you screw it all up, you pray that she has one more ounce of forgiveness in her heart.

Do I ever get upset? Oh, yes. God, yes.

But I don’t dwell on those things. I dwell on the blessings I’ve been given—to know her, to be whatever kind of father I’ve been, to spend time with her, to influence her in ways that are, hopefully, more positive than negative. I look at the woman she’s become and hope that her goodness is partially because of me, not just in spite of me. I thank God for her presence in my life—a presence that saved me in very tangible ways.

And then I move onto the next task that will take me through the next minute, and the next hour, and the next day, until she gets off the plane and everything is like it should be again, for just a little while.

 Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

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Puppy Love #creativenonfiction

Puppy Love

            Recently on Facebook and Twitter, I stated that those who say they wouldn’t change a thing about their pasts are either lying or overly stubborn. I caught some flack for that claim. One of my friends misunderstood; he argued that he wouldn’t change a thing along the way because he’s happy with the destination. Another said that, because she constantly critiques herself, she wouldn’t change much. As for the latter, I can only envy my friend’s comfort with most of her decisions and actions. I constantly self-critique, too, but in retrospect, I still find that I’ve erred much of the time. In terms of the former, my statement wasn’t about changing who I am today. It’s about wishing that my present self could go back and say to the younger me, “Even though you think you know what you’re doing, you are about to make a mistake. Don’t be dumb/selfish/mean/insensitive.”

            Many of those past actions involve wronging others. And while I could—and, eventually, will—write about my struggles with relationships and family, today I am thinking of my failures to take care of an old friend. His name was Tank. He was a dog. He loved me, as dogs love people, unconditionally and with his whole being. And, as is often the case with people and their “love” for animals, I cared about him when it was convenient and ignored him when it wasn’t. Now, when I try to sleep at night, I often see his face—dark fur with brown patches, a white chest as if he were wearing a cummerbund, eyes so radiant they could melt a glacier. He always looked so happy, until the day he got sick and I abandoned him.

            I still remember the day I brought him home. It was during my first marriage, when things were always volatile. I was nineteen years old, with a wife and daughter. I was a student at Louisiana Tech University and was majoring in engineering, which I hated. But I had come out of high school with dollar signs in my eyes, and since I had taken all the college-prep math and science classes my high school offered, I felt well-prepared. I didn’t particularly enjoy the work in those courses, but I believed that I could work a job I didn’t like if it meant that I could make enough money to do whatever I wanted otherwise. And since even in 1989-90 we could tell that computers would soon rule the world, I declared a computer engineering major.

            I hated my classes. Hated them. My favorite things to do were reading and writing, and there I was, taking Calculus II and Chemistry and Introduction to Computer Programming. As I sat there taking notes on arcane formulas and weights of gases and ways to make a “DO WHILE” loop or whatever it was called, I saw my future stretching out before me, endless days of sitting in front of a screen and writing code so that other people could use computers to do the kinds of things that I really wanted to do. But I have never been a quitter, and my parents were proud of me and my scholarships, and my wife and her family constantly expressed money concerns in ways that told me changing my major to, say, English would lead to full-scale civil war. And so I trudged on, miserable and bitter, angry at myself for declaring a major that I didn’t want and at them for pressuring me to stick with it.

            My strategy—if you can call unconscious decisions a strategy—was to self-sabotage. I stopped going to classes I didn’t like and never got around to dropping them. I skipped tests to go home for a weekend. I went to see Aerosmith and Joan Jett the night before a Trigonometry final, which I showed up to twenty minutes late and left before anyone else. When the university put me on a one-semester academic suspension, I packed up my family and moved back to southeast Arkansas, where I enrolled in the University of Arkansas at Monticello without declaring a major. After drifting for a semester or two, I finally pulled the trigger and declared. I was an English major. I have never looked back.

            But in between realizing that I hated engineering and finally making the right decision, I went through several varieties of hell. And since my family life caused a lot of the tension, I wanted something else to love, something that, like my beautiful daughter, would not judge me or pressure me to live a life I didn’t want. I thought a pet might strengthen the already-firm bonds between me and my daughter. So I decided to get a dog.

            A lady I knew from work was giving some away. They weren’t any special breed, but I knew when I got mine that he would be fairly big—not Great Dane or Saint Bernard big, but not poodle or Pomeranian territory, either. I chose him because he was gorgeous and gregarious, and because he had a great name already—Tank. It conjured images of unstoppable canine energy, powerful runs through tall grass. I brought him home in the back seat of my car. He was good.

            Of course, Tank would later royally piss off my wife, who wanted no dogs bigger than her mother’s Boston Terriers. As he grew, he barked gruffly at inopportune moments and refused to be housetrained even to the extent of scratching on the door. Thus we would awake to find the newspapers we had left out still as spotless and crisp as the day they were printed, while a steaming pile of poop sat on the floor right next to them. He pissed on the tile floor of our mobile home’s kitchen and soaked the carpet more than once. I was constantly cleaning up after him, and none of the old tricks I had learned worked at all. And so I became hyper-aware of any noise in the night—light scratching, the staccato clicks of toenails on tile, whining. And I would rise up out of my deep sleep, already shouting, “Tank, NO!” as I bolted down the short hallway.

            More often than not, I was too late or found it was all a false alarm. Tank kept me on my toes that way.

            I couldn’t leave him outside; we lived in a trailer park that did not allow loose pets, and we had no money or permission to build a fence. I had no desire to chain him to a tree or a doghouse just for my own convenience; I was at least that selfless. And so I would sleep a few hours at a time, these restful periods broken up by anxiety and stress and nasty work that I had little patience for.

            Oh, I still loved the dog. During the day, we’d go outside and I would let him run around in the thirty yards or so between our trailer and the next one. He would chase insects and frolic and play fetch with whatever ball I could find. I’d run with him, trying not to trip over him or step into a hole. I’d tackle him and ruffle his fur and scratch his belly, and he would chase me and rear up on his hind legs, his forepaws on my stomach. Sometimes I’d take those paws and walk with him, fashioning an awkward dance.

            Yes, our life together waxed and waned between frustration and boy-and-his-dog joy. Until, that is, we moved back to Arkansas.

            Our new life brought all kinds of changes. We lived next to my in-laws, who had multiple dogs and two or three cats. Our trailer sat at an intersection between a road leading to a highway and a gravel road that wound through the more rural portions of town—the dangers of traffic and big trucks in one direction, the song of small patches of woods in the other.

            I now had to commute around an hour and a half every day. I was taking a full undergraduate load and working a part-time job that actually drifted toward full-time hours, though the pay was rotten in those days of three-dollar-and-thirty-five-cent-an-hour minimum wage. I had homework and old friends to see and relatives to visit, as well as a wife and daughter that needed and deserved my time and love. And as all this coalesced, my nineteen-to-twenty-year-old self made some good decisions and some bad ones.

            Good: I took care of my school, work, and family responsibilities. I made time to hang with my friends, to throw parties, to read for pleasure and play video games every chance I could.

            Bad: I had less and less time for Tank. And because I was so busy, I was able to rationalize it. “He’s got a lot of other animals to play with,” I said, letting him out more often and hoping that he would not find his way to the highway, where he would almost certainly be flattened. “It’s not like I’m being lazy,” I said, and that much was true. “It’s not like I don’t care about him anymore. There’s just so much to do.”

            Easy words. In many cases, justified. But empty and hollow and insufficient nonetheless.

            Because eventually, Tank got sick. One day I came home and he did not greet me with bounds of joy. He looked my way and dragged himself over to the car as I got out, his head hanging as if he were ashamed of his poor efforts. He moved like a dog four times his age. It struck me as odd. I asked everyone about him, but no one had paid him much attention. So I sat with him awhile, scratching behind his ears and telling him what a good boy he was. I talked with him as if he could understand (which, for all I know, he could) and might reply at any time. I told him about my day. But as evening descended and the temperature dropped, I patted him on the head and said, “See you later, buddy.”

            By this time, Tank was a full-time outdoors dog. His refusal to take to house training, along with my in-laws’ always-open and comparatively warm laundry room, led my wife to insist on it. I was too tired and distracted to fight about it, and besides, in southeast Arkansas dogs with worse places to sleep led full and happy lives.

            Around this time, my school workload increased, and my employer wanted me on duty more often than not, as the cold months had descended, bringing with them the approaching holidays. And so for several days in a row I came home at odd hours—3 pm or six or eleven—exhausted and hungry and ready to fall into bed.

            I didn’t see Tank. And, to my everlasting shame, I didn’t even think about him.

            Finally one day my wife was waiting for me. She looked both upset and angry. “Tank’s sick,” she said. “He’s in the laundry room.”

            “Shit,” I said, more annoyed than concerned. The weight of the day settled on me; I felt it in my lower back, my shoulders, my aching head. I dropped my things on the living room floor and crossed over to my in-laws’. I pushed open the door of the laundry room.

            Tank lay there on his side, breathing shallowly. When he craned his neck to look at me, his movements were stiff and labored, as if the very motion pained him. It probably did. His eyes were dull and weeping; his fur looked matted. And yet, as I came in the room, his tail beat a weak tattoo on the concrete floor. I thought I heard him make a low sound in his throat. It might have been an abortive bark, or a whine, or nothing at all.

            I sat down with him and took his head in my lap. I stroked his fur and spoke softly to him and promised him that he was still my dog, even though I had failed him lately. I told him that he would be all right, that whatever had taken hold of him would let go. That he would stand up again, and frolic and leap and bark and wake the neighbors and dig in the hard fall dirt. I apologized for being gone so much, for not realizing how he felt.

            And yet I couldn’t think of what I could do for him. I was an undergraduate, meaning I had no income at the college. We had already spent the overage from my financial aid that semester. I doubted that any of my relatives would have lent me money to take Tank to the vet, and all of my friends were either off at college somewhere or broker than I was. And I could not stay out there with him much longer. I was starving and tired, and I had to go do it all again the next day.

            So after a while, I lowered his head back down to the concrete and promised him that I would be back as soon as I could.

            I never saw him again.

            The next few days were even busier than before. When I came home, I was in no mood to take care of anybody besides my daughter. I would do what she required, and then I would sit on the couch and vegetate or go to bed or slog through some homework. I thought about Tank, and I asked about him; apparently his condition had not changed one way or the other. I took this as a positive sign—no news is good news, right?—and went on with my day.

            Then one day I came home and was told that Tank was gone.

            “What do you mean, gone?” I asked. “Did he die? I thought he was stable.”

            At this point, my wife revealed that her brother had gotten tired of watching Tank suffer on the laundry room floor. He had loaded Tank into a truck and carried him out into the woods, where he laid him down on the ground and shot him. It was a mercy killing; my brother-in-law had no malice toward Tank. He was doing the only thing he knew to do, which was put Tank out of his misery, because I, Tank’s owner and friend, had done nothing.

            When I heard this news, I felt as if someone had stabbed me with a coring knife and hollowed me out. Into that emptiness spilled conflicting feelings that threatened to crack the foundation of my self-image. I was furious with my brother-in-law for killing my dog. I was grateful to him for doing something to help Tank. I was sad that Tank was gone; I was happy that he wasn’t in pain anymore; I was relieved, damn me, that I would not have to take the time to go into that room and comfort him. Yes, I actually felt relief for myself.

            What kind of person was I?

            Tank had done what very few people have ever done for me. He accepted me and loved me and gave me his loyalty without question or condition. He loved me when I played with him, and he loved me when I ignored him. He greeted me every day as if he hadn’t seen me in years, during a time when my own wife seemed to wish I would disappear forever. He lay on that cold concrete and fought against whatever was ripping him apart and looked at me. He tried to wag his tail.

            And what had I done? Had I gone to every friend and relative I had until I had found enough money to take him to the veterinarian? Had I begged a vet to work out a payment plan with me so that my friend, for whom I was responsible, could live a longer and happier life? Had I sold something precious of mine to finance his treatment? God help me, did I take him out and shoot him myself if I could not be bothered to do anything else?

            No. I let him lie there in his sickness and rot from the inside. Because I was busy. Because I wanted some time for myself. In truth, because I was lazy and selfish.

            As I have gotten older, I have come to believe that how a person treats animals says a lot about how much they value life itself—the Earth, the people in their lives, people in general. If Kalene’s diet allowed it, I really think I would try to become a vegetarian because I simply cannot abide how animals are treated in the food industry, how each animal’s life must be as important to it as mine is to me. I believe that animals have souls, emotions, desires, maybe even dreams and goals. And I want to do as little as possible to hurt them, my meals notwithstanding.

            But in those days, no matter my intentions, I was not a good person. I mistreated that dog, even if I did so for what seemed like good reasons and mostly by omission, rather than commission. I was responsible for his life, his health, his happiness. I failed him in every way possible, even in my own heart.

            But I didn’t emerge unscathed. I have never stopped thinking about Tank, or the other pets I had before him. And every single thing I’ve done for my pets since then has been influenced by his presence in my life. It’s why I gladly put off getting things I want or going on trips when my cat needs medical attention. It’s why I advocate for animal rights, why I speak out against things like puppy farms and kill shelters. It’s why, even when I take a bite of steak, I remember that it was once a part of a living, breathing creature that did not want to die and that had done nothing to me.

            Tank taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, one I’ve tried to pass onto my children. Animals aren’t interchangeable tokens we move around at our leisure. They are important, soulful beings with whom we share this planet, this life. If I ever see him again—and I believe that I will—then I plan to tell him that. And I will run with him, talk with him, pet him, and throw that ball to him for as long as he wants.

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Returning with …

Returning with Some Random Thoughts

So I guess I should start out with an apology for not updating this blog over the last three or four months. Last semester got really crazy and pretty much stayed that way, and then the Christmas holiday travel and gift-shopping schedule took over, and then I had to prepare for this semester. In short, I’ve been swamped. I got very little done on my ongoing projects, including this blog. But I’m trying to start off this semester on a better note. I’ve been working on my young adult novel and have finished first drafts of two other projects. I continue to submit finished works to various places. And I’ve got a comic-book project percolating at the moment. As for this blog, I will do my best to update regularly, though when the grading crunch arrives, I’ll probably have to take some time off. Sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day.

As a way of reconnecting to all my faithful readers (all three of you), I thought I’d return to this blog with some random thoughts on things that have happened since the last update.

The Political Circus

In no particular order:

1)      I support the Occupy movement. It’s good to see Americans returning to their roots as protestors, dissenters, and activists. Naturally, the mainstream media’s dismissal of the now-worldwide movement was both expected and disheartening, but it’s done very little to stem the tide of the movement. Keep on occupying, folks. When they try to dismiss you as if you don’t matter, you know you’ve at least gotten their attention.

 2)      I have stated before that many Republicans seem to have gone functionally insane in the post-9/11 world, but this latest round of–*ahem*–“candidates” should make any thinking Republican shudder with fear and contempt. As they all scramble to take ever more reactionary positions in order to appease the fringe nutjobs, they get more and more laughable yet dangerous. Is the moderate Republican (and no, I don’t count Romney in that bunch after some of the things he’s said) really extinct? I hope not.

 3)      Barack Obama should have this election sewn up since the right can’t find anybody even remotely appealing to run against him. I’ve got mixed feelings. As an Independent, I have no particular loyalties to the Democrats, though the ever-more-radically-conservative Republicans present no candidates I could stomach voting for. That pretty much leaves the Democrats, since this country has no viable party beyond those two. It’s a damn shame, because we should be able to choose the best candidate, not the less-crappy one. As for Obama himself, I like a lot of what he’s done—ending the Iraq war and DADT, passing some semblance of health care reform, and so forth. But I’m troubled by other things he’s done or failed to do. He hasn’t addressed true financial reform; you can’t do that and still leave the same guys that got us into this mess in charge. I didn’t like the compromises in the health care bill, especially the lack of a public option. Some sources claim we’re the only first-world country without universal health care. If that’s even remotely possible, we’re not whom we claim to be as a people. And we still need to address LGBT and women’s rights, especially given how they’ve come under fire from the Republican candidates. Those are just a few of the actions and positions that please or disturb me, but I hope they demonstrate my concerns with the country’s directions. We’re much more on track now than we were under that jackass Bush, but we’ve still got a long way to go, and too many people still want to live in 1830, not 2012. I hope the President and his party gets off the fence and start addressing more of those issues.

Mixed Martial Arts

1)      I truly think that Shogun Rua vs. Dan Henderson was the best fight I’ve ever seen, but the end result was wrong. The fight should have been scored a draw, and I can’t believe that not even one judge saw it that way. Under the current scoring system, the winner of a round gets ten points, the loser nine or less. Judges are supposed to score rounds 10-8 or below only when one fighter truly dominates the round. Under that system, I would have given the first three rounds to Dan Henderson, all of them 10-9. Henderson’s camp has argued that you could have scored the round a 10-8 because Henderson dominated Shogun and almost finished him, but that only occurred over approximately one minute of a five-minute round. Later in the round, Shogun came back to stagger Henderson with several hard punches. That’s hardly a dominant round; it’s a dominant minute. But, demonstrating the kind of heart that both fighters have and that made the fight so special, Shogun came back and completely dominated Henderson throughout the fifth round. He stayed on top, much of the time in full mount, and bashed Henderson throughout the round. Henderson did nothing offensive and very little that could be called defense, other than rolling from side to side and covering up. If that wasn’t a 10-8 round at least, I don’t know what is. Thus, since the bout went to a decision, the final score should have been 47-47. This is especially true because, earlier in the night, these same judges gave Stephan Bonnar a couple of 10-8 rounds, even though he maintained less dominant positions (fighting in half-guard, for instance) for lesser periods of time. Inconsistent judging caused Shogun to take a loss, when both guys deserved equal status.

 2)      I’m glad Brock Lesnar is healthy again, but I’m not shedding any tears if he’s really retiring. I’ve never cared for the guy on a personal level, and it isn’t as if he needs the money. Go have a great life, Brock, and let the martial artists get that money now.

 3)      Jon Jones is hard to figure out, and I don’t mean his fighting style. One minute he seems like the most humble, respectful guy you’ll ever meet. The next, he has to be told to check on a downed opponent after a win. Weird.

 4)      So both Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida have knocked people out using what is essentially a Karate Kid-style crane kick, and now Edson Barboza has knocked out Terry Etim using a spinning-heel kick. I can’t believe either move worked in real life, but I watched it happen. What’s next? Shooting-star presses? Asai moonsaults? Crazy stuff, man.

The BCS Championship Game

The LSU Tigers had what may well be the greatest regular season ever. You’ve all heard the numbers—wins over eight ranked teams, a division title, a conference title, wins over two or three top-three teams, wins over two BCS-bowl-bound AQ conference champions. Certainly no team has accomplished so much in my lifetime, and only that one Notre Dame team from seventy or eighty years ago has come close. I’d say it’s much harder to accomplish today, too, given the methods of preparation and the state of today’s athletes.

But the team that played in the regular season was not the team that showed up in New Orleans. They looked flat, lifeless, uninterested—especially on offense. The regular season showed that they were the best team in the nation, but on that night, I’m not sure they would have beaten anybody. As an LSU graduate, I’m very proud of them for the year as a whole, though that final game leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In theirs too, I’m sure.

Most of LSU’s problems over the last four years can be traced back to two things—poor quarterback play, and Les Miles’ refusal to take Jordan Jefferson out of the game. I don’t like to pick on college players; they’re all very young. They are amateurs. They have their whole lives in front of them, and I don’t want to throw them under the bus. But four years of Jefferson’s lack of pocket presence, middling accuracy, and panic-mode bone-headed mistakes have tried my patience. I truly believe that LSU would have been near-unstoppable over the last four years if we had had a strong quarterback. What else have they lacked? The offensive line was porous for only one year. The running backs and receivers have all been awesome. The defense has been great. But at the most important position on the field, we’ve been lacking.

I don’t know what Jefferson has on Miles, but it must have been really damning. I can’t think of any other reason Miles would have stuck with Jefferson against all logic, common sense, and evidence. It took Jefferson’s arrest to get him out of the lineup, and even then, Miles seized on the first opportunity to yank Jarrett Lee out of the game—when he had two interceptions in a row against Alabama. Lee seldom saw the field after that, in spite of his excellent play in the first two-thirds of the season. And when did LSU’s offense start struggling? When did they suddenly find themselves trailing in games, needing the special teams to give them the spark they needed to come back? It all happened after Jefferson took over.

All of this was never more evident than in the title game. Jefferson was the only player on the field who looked terrified, overwhelmed not by Alabama (whom he has faced multiple times and beaten before) but by the stage he was playing on. He made bad decision after bad decision, looking completely lost. And yet Miles never pulled him. When asked why, Miles claimed that he thought about going with Lee, but that given the pass rush, he needed a quarterback that could run.

Yet Jefferson was not running effectively. More often than not, he folded like a cheap card table. At some point—trailing, in the last half of the last game, the national championship on the line, the crowd chanting for Lee—why not try something?

I still don’t get it. But at least now LSU goes into next season with new people at quarterback. We don’t know if they’ll be better yet, but we know they can’t be much worse. And on behalf of Tiger Nation, I’d like to wish Jarrett Lee a great life. You deserved better than you got.

Aftermath of the BCS Title Game

I’ve been really dismayed by the responses to the game I’ve seen, both from the national media and from people I know personally.

The AP ruined its credibility in my eyes when they failed to vote for a split championship. If ever a year screamed out for co-champions, this was it. Look, the Alabama Crimson Tide are my second-favorite college football team. I have worked at the University for six years. I don’t begrudge them their national title; they were certainly the better team on championship night.

But they weren’t the best team this season. Not even close. Like I said above, no one had a season like LSU’s—not this season, perhaps not ever. They won their division; Alabama didn’t. They, not Alabama, won the SEC. The Tide did not beat every SEC team they played, or Oregon, or West Virginia, and so forth. Going into the title game, everybody in the nation agreed that LSU should be there. The controversy revolved around Alabama, given that they didn’t win any championships to get there and lost to LSU during the regular season.

The voters have split the national championship several times before, for much worse reasons. LSU certainly did a hell of a lot more this year than USC did when they got to split the championship with LSU.

No, the refusal to split had nothing to do with credentials, or fairness, or a holistic view of the season. It was borne out of a backlash against the SEC.

In the wake of the all-SEC title game rematch, the BCS is considering changes to negate any such possibility in the future. Before the rematch was announced, fans and sportswriters from all over the country lamented the possibility and voiced their displeasure with the SEC’s dominance, as if the conference’s strength was somehow a bad thing for which it should apologize. Tons of people threatened to boycott the game, even though the only non-SEC team with any claim on the title game was Oklahoma State. I publicly claimed that Oklahoma State had an excellent argument for being in the title game; they had a better regular season than Alabama, even though I still felt that Alabama would beat them if they ever played. Eventually, Alabama got its rematch, leaving the rest of the country out of the sixth straight SEC national championship. And the whining, kvetching, and tantrums commenced.

None of that was LSU’s fault. It wasn’t Alabama’s fault. But LSU—the only team to truly dominate on a national scale—was the only team to pay the price. I truly believe that the AP was terrified of the backlash against their own writers and voting system if they let not one but TWO SEC teams take home a national title. So they acted like chickens and voted for the team that won, even though all logic, evidence, and precedent screamed for a split title. Shame on you, AP writers. As far as I’m concerned, you undermined your own integrity.

Some of my Alabama friends and acquaintances have also been a bit overenthusiastic about how things turned out, to say the least. When LSU beat Bama in the regular season, theoretically ending their national title hopes, I could have rubbed it in. I could have acted immaturely. But I knew that the game and the team were really important to my colleagues and students, so all I did was congratulate the Tide on a good game and a great season.

Unfortunately, in many cases, that courtesy was not returned. As soon as the game was over, I saw several Facebook posts whose contents might be summarized thusly: “Nan-neh nan-neh boo boo, my team won and your team sucks! Ha ha-ha-ha-ha!” The LSU jokes flew fast and furiously. In other words, even though many people knew that my team and that game were important to me, they did not congratulate my team on a great season. They took the opportunity to poop on something that I cared about. And these are highly-educated, really nice people that I like very much.

I even had one fifty-to-sixty-something acquaintance who got on Twitter and taunted Tyrann Mathieu. He’s like nineteen years old and can thus be excused for a certain amount of immaturity. I wonder what my acquaintance’s excuse was.

Then there’s the contradictions in attitudes that drive me crazy. Bring up the idea of a split title with some Alabama fans, and they’ll shake their heads firmly and say, “No way.” Uh-huh. Right. But I guarantee you that if the situations were reversed—if Bama had had the kind of season that LSU did, and beat LSU on Nov. 5th, and won the division and then the conference, but lost the title game—this entire state would be screaming bloody murder for a split title. (Well, probably not in Auburn, but you get my meaning.)

The advent of social media has taught me that there’s something about sports that make people act irrationally, even with mean spirits. You don’t have to like LSU’s football team to respect me and have some courtesy for my feelings. Why are your loyalty to your team and your investment in them more important or legitimate than mine?

I saw a lot of this earlier in the season from some of my Arkansas acquaintances. I grew up in Arkansas, so, according to some people, I’m legally and morally required to root for the Razorbacks. I reject that notion. I’ve got actual ties to LSU and Bama; I’m going to root for them over a team that happens to be located in a state I used to live in. But according to some folks, I’m not allowed to choose my own teams.

Moreover, there’s been a real double standard about who can say what. My Arkansas friends can apparently make all the LSU jokes they want, even when such “jokes” attack the character of the young men on the team or the intelligence of the schools’ personnel. I find nothing funny about those kinds of jokes. They’re just mean and have nothing to do with football. But these folks claim that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. If I say anything back, though, all bets are off. I made some football-related Arkansas jokes and got lambasted for being unfaithful to my home state (whatever that means) and for taking college football too seriously. I should also point out that when my team beat theirs, I didn’t rub it in. You can bet I wouldn’t have gotten the same consideration. I know, because I didn’t last year.

See how that works? When they do something, it’s fine, all in good fun, light-hearted. When I do the same thing, it’s overly sensitive, disloyal, grumpy. I didn’t think you could have it both ways.

Here’s grumpy: “Oooh, I see what you did there. I’m shocked the Nobel committee doesn’t know about you—your depth of thought, your awesome creativity, your sheer originality! You actually managed to rhyme the word ‘who’ with the letter ‘U!’ Wow! I bow to your awesome intellectual and comedic prowess!”

I didn’t say that. I have tried to be light-hearted and generous and kind in both victory and defeat. I’m not perfect, but I’ve sure tried. I wish everybody I knew would do the same.

Basically, social media is ruining sports for me, not because people root for different teams but because so many are hateful or hypocritical about it. We’re all mean and distant from each other for so many reasons already; do we really want to let sports divide us even further?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Kalene and I went to see it on our ten-year anniversary (yes, I know it’s hardly a romantic choice). We both liked it a little better than the original. Excellent film, but for God’s sake, don’t take the kids. Hoo boy.

More soon, I hope. And more focus next time.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

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An Update on the Lack of Updates #busy #seekingcomicartist

I know it’s been forever since I’ve posted on here; it’s been a crazy semester, and I’m behind on ALL my writing. I would like to say that I’m currently seeking an artist to work on spec on a comic book/graphic novel. Realistic style preferred. If you know anybody, hit me up.

New stuff will be coming once the grading crunch is over. Until then, thanks for your patience. Peace.

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Sample Pages from a Comic Script #seekingartist

PAGE ONE (6 panels)

 Panel 1. ANew Orleanscity street. Nighttime, rainy and overcast. In the intermittent glare of streetlights, we see the shadowed bulks of cars resting against the curb.


New Orleans, sometime afterward.

 Panel 2. Same view. Headlights now stab into the scene from left of panel.



 Panel 3. An extended-cab truck has shot in from left of panel, splashing water in all directions. In the mist behind it, we see a vaguely-defined humanoid figure, its arms outstretched toward the truck.



 Panel 4. Overhead angle on the truck as it skids around a corner, its back end crashing into a parked car.


“Ah, hell.”

 Panel 5. Medium shot through the rainswept windshield. The driver is male. He looks to be in his early forties and handsome.  His shirt is torn at the shoulder, his face dirty.  A deep scar runs from his forehead, over his left eye, and down his cheekbone, though the eye itself is intact.  He is THERON MCCOY.


You wanna get rough, huh?


All right, baby. I got somethin’ for ya.

 Panel 6. Close-up of his hands. In one, he holds a pipe bomb with a short fuse, a lit cigarette lighter in the other. We can see that he’s steering with one knee.

PAGE TWO (5 panels)

 Panel 1. Shot from the front of the truck, which is still throwing water off its tires; Theron is visible through the windshield. His left arm hangs out the window; the pipe bomb hangs in the air, arcing backward. We can see the vaguely-humanoid figure in the background.


Eat this.

 Panel 2. The street explodes.





 Panel 3: Extreme close-up of Theron’s rearview mirror. We can see his eye to left of panel. The bulk of the mirror shows the cloud from the explosion; the humanoid figure is running through it, seemingly unscathed, though we can really only see the silhouette. We can tell the figure is large.


Ah, shit.

 Panel 4: Overhead long shot showing the path of the truck flying across a six-lane intersection and onto a one-lane street. The figure still pursues, but it’s pretty far behind.

 Panel 5: The truck skids to a stop in front of a several-feet-high pile of twisted metal that used to be eight or ten cars. They’ve been smashed together as if in one violent wreck covering the one-lane street from sidewalk to sidewalk.

 PAGE 3 (5 panels)

 Panel 1. Interior shot of the truck. Theron is stuffing a flashlight into one of two black duffel bags. His head is craned around, looking back the way he came.


Almost there.

 Panel 2. Theron scrambles up the pile of metal, the two bags slung over his shoulders.



 THERON (whisper):

Shit, shit, shit.

 Panel 3. He falls leaps to the ground on the other side of the metal pile.

 Panel 4. He lies flat on the ground, his hands over his head. Sounds emanate from the other side of the pile.







 Panel 5. Theron has shouldered the bags again. Now he’s slipping away from the pile, looking back at it over his shoulder.

 THERON (whisper):

So much for that truck.

 PAGE FOUR (5 panels)

 Panel 1. Carrying the bags, Theron slinks through a deserted street. We see empty cars parked along the curb. Lights are on in a couple of storefronts in the background. The rest have been smashed in. This is supposed to be the French Quarter, so if you need some images of the architecture, let me know.

 Panel 2. On another street, he picks his way around dead bodies lying on the sidewalk. We see more damage to the buildings.

 Panel 3. He slips into a darkened alley and is almost lost from view.

 Panel 4. In the alley, he has stopped beside a nondescript door.  He raps on it.


Knock Knock Knock

 LEO (O.P.):

That you?


Who else would it be?

 Panel 5. We’re inside the building. A fiftyish, heavyset African-American man has opened the door for Theron; one arm is still extended with his hand on the door, as if he’s pulling it shut. This is LEO PAUL. Theron has walked past him.


The Bartlett Hotel, the French Quarter


Did you run into any trouble?


Nothin’ we don’t see every day.

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NEVERMIND as Cultural Bomb

If You Ask Me

Nirvana’s Nevermind as Cultural Bomb

            I suppose every generation has at least one do-you-remember-where-you-were-when-it-happened event. Some are Earth-, or at least nation-, shattering: the storming of the Bastille, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the first shots over the walls of Fort Sumter, the Nazi invasion of Poland, Pearl Harbor, the launching of Sputnik, the moon landing, Watergate, the World Trade Center attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan.

            Some are moments when world leaders die unexpectedly, changing our lives in less cataclysmic but still important ways—Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Princess Diana.

            Still others mark a change or absence in the art and culture that we experience every day. Take the realm of music for an example and you could pick several names from the last forty years: Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Lennon, Presley, Wallace, Shakur, Jackson. And if you made such a list, you would be remiss if you failed to include Kurt Cobain.

            Other people have written about Cobain. I don’t suppose my story is much different than theirs.  It might go something like this.

            “And lo, the 1980s came to pass, and in this time the land lay enshrouded in the shadow of a dark and evil force, an entity that ensured the unequal distribution of power and wealth and a return to the personal politics of a bygone era, and that force was named Reaganomics.

            “And the popular music of this era would uncritically reflect the thirst for material goods and economic excess for its own sake. The artists of the day would often symbolize the conspicuous consumption that prevailed throughout the land. And in the fullness of time this music would be called Hair Metal.

            “And many Hair metal bands would garnish their stages with enormous set pieces, models, blow-up figures, and laser lights, and they would dress in tight leather and spandex and multiple bandanas and thick make-up and whole cases of hairspray, and in their lyrics they would register their desire for never-ending parties and limitless sex and the unfettered flow of drugs and alcohol.

            “When these bands first appeared, they heralded the expansion of music into new and interesting directions, and their charming fin-de-siecle attitudes super-charged the youth of the land. But as the wealthy hoarded more and more of the land’s resources and the poor became more desperate and those in the middle disappeared, the land’s taste for Hair Metal transmogrified into a yearning for something new—something angrier than New Wave and more accessible than Punk.

            “And in the latter part of the decade, those who yearned discovered bands such as the Melvins, and later, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Mother Love Bone, and Dinosaur Jr. And new bands formed under the influences of these forbears, and their names included Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. With regular rotation on MTV, these bands grew in popularity and mainstream acceptance. And perhaps their success is best epitomized in Nirvana’s second studio album, the 1991 release Nevermind.”

            I’ve got much love for 80s Hair Metal and the other bands mentioned above. But when Nirvana released Nevermind, few people were probably aware that the band had actually detonated a cultural bomb, one that would change the musical landscape and the youth of America. Nevermind is nothing short of a watershed moment in musical history, and now that we are twenty years past its release (!!!), I feel that I must consider it and its place in my life.

            Nirvana formed in 1987, and in 1989, when I graduated high school and saw the birth of my daughter Shauna, they released their first album Bleach on the famous grunge label Sub Pop.  I was aware of this album and liked it quite a lot. As many critics pointed out, Nirvana’s sound emulated the Pixies’ in many ways, especially the LOUD-quiet-LOUD structure of their songs. For influences, you could certainly do much worse, right? And I remember really liking songs like “About a Girl,” the simplified growl of “School” (“Wouldn’t you believe it? / Just my luck. / No recess!”), the metal-like anger of “Blew,” the speed-metal-ish “Negative Creep.”

            But with Nevermind, I went from being aware of Nirvana to being obsessed with them. The album sounded like a mélange of many things I’d heard before, but at the same time, it sounded completely new. It was angry in a way that you could only find in the punkiest punk or the speediest metal; it was sardonic; it was sincere and heart-wrenching; it was critical. I listened to each song and felt myself falling deeper and deeper in love with the album.

            “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song for which they are probably most famous, is the borderline-incoherent scream of a new generation. Songs like “In Bloom” and “Come as You Are” demonstrate Nirvana’s range—the one hard and heavy, the other like something The Police could have recorded. “Breed” could be a punk song. “Lithium” and “Drain You” rock like metal, though neither shares the typical subject matter of the most prominent hair bands. “Polly” is, quite frankly, one of the creepiest songs I’ve ever heard. And the dirge-like “Something in the Way” is simply, completely different than anything else on the album. The repeated lyrics are both haunting and mystifying: “Underneath the bridge / My tarp has sprung a leak / And the animals I’ve trapped / Have all become my pets / And I’m living off of grass / And the drippings from my ceiling / It’s okay to eat fish / ‘Cause they don’t have any feelings / Something in the way, mmm…”

            As a band, Nirvana also looked different. We had already moved from bands like the Beatles, who first came to us in button-down shirts and ties, to long-haired, leather-clad, hirsute rockers to the 80s-era spandex and make-up. Nirvana, by contrast, looked as if they had just fallen out of bed at a college dorm. They wore faded jeans and t-shirts and cardigan sweaters. On stage, they leaped around as if they had just come from the mosh pit themselves, or else they stood still; they had no elaborate set pieces or enormous scaffolding that spanned the arenas or massive fireworks displays. If they tended to destroy their instruments a la the Who and countless other bands before them, they could not always be counted on to do so safely or in a way that seemed practiced; witness bassist Krist Novoselic throwing his bass into the air, only to have it land on his own head.

            In their televised performances they seemed to exude a barely-controlled anger perhaps restrained only by a distaste for excess. They could rip your spine out with their crunching chords or soothe your aching eardrums with an almost-melodic detour into a song like “Something….” Their music seemed to have been made by people who knew what had happened to America in the 80s—the false siren call of “family values” that marginalized alternative family paradigms and modes of being; the “prosperity” that stopped at the very top and trickled down to the rest of us not at all, in spite of the political rhetoric at the time; the belief in American exceptionalism that still hamstrings us today. Nirvana’s music seemed to rise up from the middle-class-to-poor spirit that had been trampled on. Starting off as a marginal voice from a marginal movement, it took center stage with Nevermind and reminded us that music could be more than what it had become.

            I will always love my Hair Metal bands, both the fun ones like Poison (yep, I’m not ashamed of that) and the more serious ones like Dio. But I can honestly say that Nirvana reminded me of what rock music could be, beginning with Nevermind. Kurt Cobain’s death was every bit as important and traumatic to me as John Lennon’s. Cobain might not have reached Lennon’s level as a songwriter, but as a voice crying out in the wilderness of our lives, Cobain has no superior.

            In this, the twentieth year since that watershed moment, I salute Nevermind all over again, and its three creators, whose collaboration was, like Cobain himself, gone too soon.

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Bodily Changes and Other Minor Tragedies

Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?


Bodily Changes and Other Minor Tragedies

            If you’re a fan of pretty much any professional sport outside of golf or bowling, you’ve probably heard announcers lamenting the increasing age and declining skills of once-great athletes. Recently I read an article about a Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback, referred to in this instance as “the aging Terrance Newman.”  According to Newman’s Wikipedia entry, he was born on September 4th, 1978. That means that in roughly three weeks from the time of this writing, he will turn 33 years old.

            Randy Couture and Dan Henderson are considered exceptional specimens in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, not just because they have won multiple championships in multiple weight classes but also because they both competed at high levels into their 40s. Couture finally retired in 2011 after losing to former Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida via front kick to the face (think Daniel-san’s crane kick in the original Karate Kid, a move heretofore thought to be purely fictional). Couture is in his late 40s. Henderson, the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion who is likely headed back to the UFC, is around 41.

            Sticking with the MMA world, for a moment, we should consider the case of Rashad Evans. Until his recent TKO of Tito Ortiz, Evans had been out of action for 14 months. Most people thought he would struggle with so-called “ring rust,” the condition stemming from long layoffs. Train all you want, the philosophy goes, but if you aren’t actually competing, you don’t know how your body or your mind will respond in the heat of battle. Dana White, the bombastic UFC president, said of Evans, “He’s 31. He’s not 26.” You’d think that Evans had turned gray and wrinkly overnight, that he used a walker or a wheelchair, that he might knock over the glass containing his dentures on the way to his fifth bathroom trip of the night.

            The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that running backs decline sharply after their 30th birthdays. Gymnasts and swimmers enjoy an even shorter shelf life.

            All of this has always seemed patently ageist to me. But at the same time, it seems to be true. For every Randy Couture or Brett Favre, there are thousands of athletes who never play past their mid-30s, when their “advanced” age and allegedly declining skills make them unappealing at best, completely disposable at worst.

            Yet, for all of my grousing about the ageist trend in athletics, I also can’t exactly argue with its logic. I am currently 40 years old and no longer an athlete. And even I suffer from aches and pains that my 20-year-old self—hell, even the 35-year-old version of me—did not believe in and had never experienced.

            I often tell my students that I have the perfect evidence of life’s unfairness, and it is this: at 40 years old, I get both gray hairs and pimples.

            Oh, I’m no silver fox, at least not yet. But every day I find more gray hair—in my beard, at my temples, even on parts of my body that had always been covered with downy dark hair. Everything seems to be bleaching out, slowly but inexorably. Yet as I look at those stray gray hairs, I often find new zits in my hairline, on my head, even on my face, as if I were still a teenager readying for a date. It’s just not fair. If you have gray hair, you should be too old for pimples, and if you must regularly use Clearasil, you should be too young for gray hair.

            My goatee is probably the most startling evidence of my hair’s transformation from young person’s to that of someone who might reasonably expect a recruiting letter from the AARP. Once it reflected all the aspects of my heritage. Mostly the hairs were dark, almost black, though in some cases they looked blonde or red. My beard epitomized America: democratic, diverse. Walt Whitman would have been proud of it. Now, though, it consists mostly of two colors: dark brown and gray, with the gray quickly gaining prominence. If I still have it at 50, it will probably look like I just stepped out of an arctic blizzard.

            Athletes’ faces undergo similar transformations. It happened to Brett Favre. About the same time that gray began to appear on Favre’s hair and on his chin, his face got a little more wrinkled every year, and for every interception he threw, more and more people questioned how much longer he could compete. Never mind that he kept taking teams deep into the playoffs and breaking records; because he had passed some tipping-point age, he would forever after be suspect.

            Of course, part of the reasoning was that he felt the hits more than he used to, that it took him longer to recuperate. And again, here is where I cannot argue with the logic of the age factor.

            Before I reached my mid-30s, I had undergone surgery on a diseased appendix. I had had perhaps four cavities. I could engage in pretty much whatever physical activity I wanted and move reasonably well the next day. But around my 36th year, I suddenly started feeling pain in places where I didn’t know I had places.

            I had to have my wisdom teeth removed. Though they had come in years before, they had never really bothered me. Suddenly they made my jaws ache. I had two very minor procedures to remove a surface-level basal-cell carcinoma from my chest. I discovered that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, though not the highly embarrassing kind that plagued poor J.K. Simmons in The Ladykillers; it bothers me just enough to make travel uncomfortable. My ear, nose, and throat doctor discovered that I needed a septoplasty and a turbinate reduction. After that procedure, I could breathe normally for the first time in my life, which is when I began to snore. A trip to the neurologist and a couple of sleep studies revealed that I had mild-to-moderate sleep apnea.

            None of these conditions were serious or life-threatening. But they piled up in a relatively short time, and after a life of good health. They were particularly disturbing in light of my family medical history, which includes cancers of various kinds, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. One of these days I expect a Riley newborn to skip all the preliminaries and just spontaneously combust.

            I’ve taken precautions against these and pretty much every other major issue that my doctors and I can think of. But there’s only so much you can do to prevent health problems as you get older. It’s not really fair. Most of us go from never having to think about our health, or exercise, or what we eat and drink, to worrying about all of it all the time. It’s like being in a car that goes from zero to near-death in five years.

            Then there are the aches and pains that accompany getting older. Right now, my right shoulder inexplicably hurts at the joint, especially when I raise the arm above chest level, and most especially when I have to raise it and lift something, or even remove a tight pull-over shirt. I’m not sure if the problem lies in the bone or the muscles or the ligaments and tendons, but something’s wrong, and time—plus lots of exercise or the lack thereof—hasn’t helped. My neck is stiff most of the time and pops painfully when I turn it too far to the right. And now even my jaw hurts a little on one side. Where do these problems come from? What did I do to cause them, if anything? It’s all a mystery, and the only way to solve it is to go to the doctor yet again, to undergo even more tests, and/or to take even more medication.

            Speaking of which—I currently take a pill that lowers my cholesterol. I take another that helps my stomach and my poor sleep patterns. A third helps regulate my triglycerides. And I also take over-the-counter medication for joint pain. I fondly remember the days when all I needed was a Tylenol or a BC powder.

            When I look at how my body has changed regardless of circumstances, I believe that it’s a miracle that athletes last as long as they do. If I had to spend every day getting punched in the face or body-checked into the boards or feeling my ribs crunch under a linebacker’s shoulder pads, I’m not sure that I could get out of bed at all. And I’ve been pretty active most of my life.

            What must aging be like for those who were never in shape? Or those whose lifelong medical conditions have prohibited them from even trying to exercise? In this day of medical miracles, why can’t we all live long lives free of pain and discomfort and, yes, the gray hair-pimple combination?

            Still, I’ll take aging over the alternative every day. I’d rather be gray-haired and above-ground than a young-looking corpse.

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Catch-Up: Random Thoughts #nonfiction

Catch-Up: Random Thoughts about Events and People in the News

            So thanks to the end of the semester, I haven’t written anything here in nearly two weeks. In that time, lots of things have happened—some incredibly important, some less so. I cannot possibly comment on everything, so to get back into the swing of things, I decided to write about whatever struck my fancy at the moment. Here, for better or worse, are the results. Hopefully I’ll be back to more coherent and cohesive posts soon. I should also note that for the most part, I don’t spend a lot of my blog time on political commentary, but sometimes I feel the need. Feel free to skip over whatever section below doesn’t catch your fancy.

Amy Winehouse

            Much has been made of the dreaded “27 Club,” populated by such notables as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse joined that august group recently, not long after a terribly disjointed and ultimately abortive return to the stage in Europe. The tributes piled up immediately, as well they should; whenever anyone dies, he or she leaves a hole in the world, and when a talented artist leaves us, the hole is all the bigger for their having touched so many lives.

            I was never a huge Winehouse fan. Her look frightened me; her music was not the kind I tend to seek out. But having heard her tracks and seen some of her televised performances, I was well aware of her talent. The music she released demonstrated her songwriting ability, the bravery she drew upon in laying her life bare in lyrics, and the smoky voice that distinguished her from so many other pop starlets. One can only wonder what kind of art she might have produced in the future.

            Her death was hardly surprising, and yet I was stunned when I heard about it. I offer my heartfelt condolences to her family, her friends, and her fans. And I beg the young and the talented to stay out of that goddam club.

The National Football League Lockout

            Since my last post, the NFL lockout ended, with concessions given on both sides. If only our politicians could take note on how real compromise works, they might learn that neither side is ever likely to get everything they want. To achieve compromise, each side has to gain something, and each side has to give something up. While I have not studied the complexities of the new collective bargaining agreement, I have heard enough to know that some progress was made along these lines.

            Generally, in any strife between labor and management, I side with labor. History is crammed full of examples of corporate excesses enjoyed at the expense of workers; unions help avoid that and, by doing so, help stave off the kind of proletariat revolution that Marx predicted. You would think, then, that political conservatives and bourgeois managers would thank God for unions. But that doesn’t happen in America, at least not often.

            Sure, sometimes unions indulge in excesses of their own, and sometimes labor leaders seem more intent on keeping their constituents happy than in enacting lasting, positive change. The film Waiting for “Superman” details problems in teachers’ unions, for instance; watch that movie and you may find yourself ready to hire union-busting thugs to work over your local math instructor. But the film glosses over why those unions are needed in the first place, the unstable and inequitable and unfair and underpaid conditions under which people labor when management goes unchecked. It would be nice if we could do away with unions and government regulations, but until corporations and administrations act responsibly, putting people’s lives and happiness above their own greed, we simply cannot do without unions. Read your history, or listen to your common sense instead of your lobby-funded representative, and you’ll see that.

            When I heard that owners wanted a bigger slice of the revenue streams, more games in the season without any subsequent and equitable rise in health care and job security, and no new resources for retired, injured, and debilitated players, I sided with the players’ union, knowing as I did so that professional athletes tend to be spoiled, overprivileged, selfish prima donnas. Even when all of that is true about an individual player, you can’t paint everyone with the same brush, and you can’t abandon the broken players who gave their best years (and body parts) for you.

            So I hope that the players really got enough concessions from the lockout. I hope they (and their barely-able-to-walk forbears) can live with the new CBA. I hope that the practice squad player and the guys who sign for the league minimum can live happy, productive lives. And I hope that our nation’s leaders—especially you, Republicans—learn that none of us win when somebody refuses to engage in reasonable negotiation.

            Frankly, I don’t want to think about such weighty matters when somebody brings up football. I just want to see Peyton Manning throw a beautiful, crisp pass, or DeMarcus Ware pulverize a quarterback (preferably Michael Vick, Eli Manning, or whoever starts for the Redskins this year), or Andre Johnson pull down another touchdown pass that appeared just out of reach.

The Debt Ceiling Debate

            Sigh. Ever since September 11th, 2001—when so many people in our country seem to have dropped the very pretense of moderation from their political beliefs—I have found innumerable political events, figures, and concepts that have stomped all over my very last nerve. The latest seems to be the debt ceiling debate, a fake issue brought about and writ large by an increasingly radical, out of touch Republican Party.

            Time was that most Republicans seemed like basically good, reasonable people with whom I simply disagreed ideologically. Though I was, for instance, pro-choice and they were (and here’s a term I loathe, as if pro-choicers embrace death) pro-life, all but the most radical factions on both sides could discuss the issue with reason and respect. The same could be said of gun control, capital punishment, foreign policy, and just about anything else you could name. Sure, the right had its racist, xenophobic, homophobic, classist, religiously intolerant warhawks, and the left had its cuckoo birds who employed right-wing militia tactics in order to tout their allegedly left-wing ideologies. But most of us seemed to live somewhere between those extremes. Now, especially on the right, moderation seems to be as endangered as the animal species Republicans’ corporate masters seem intent on obliterating in the service of the great god Profit.

            You can’t just blame the so-called Tea Party, another term I hate because it co-opts historic American dissent in favor of those who would perpetuate a dangerous stratification along racial, sexual, class, and religious barriers. The Tea-Baggers (now there’s a term I love) mostly seem like a gaggle of loonies who live in their own world, a place I wouldn’t even like to visit, but you also have to fault mainstream Republicans for giving in to their insanity, as well as Democrats who won’t stand up to them for fear of offending a voter. This voter is likely imaginary anyway; anybody who would vote Democrat is highly unlikely to vote for the Tea-Baggers under any circumstances, and nobody in the Tea Party’s going to cast a vote for a Democrat no matter how milquetoast the candidate appears. Frankly, the two-party system is strangling this country, and until we throw them all out and move past the either-or dilemma we’ve gotten ourselves into, nothing is likely to change.

            What we need is a peaceful revolution in which we vote in people who are interested in service and in making this country better for every single person in it—white or black, rich or poor, legal or otherwise, gay or straight, Christian or otherwise.

            Why? Because our politics have degenerated into a schoolyard tussle between rival gangs of spoiled brats. As numerous columnists have pointed out, the debt ceiling “crisis” was manufactured by Republicans who want to look economically tough in the eyes of what they see as an increasingly radicalized base. They don’t tell you that George W. Bush (who I still have trouble labeling as a “President” of anything, much less the nation) raised the debt ceiling several times. They gloss over the fact that the conservative demi-god Reagan raised it something like 18 times over eight years. Republicans don’t have a problem raising the debt ceiling; they only have a problem doing it when it might make some Democrat look competent.

            They also blame Barack Obama and Democrats for the system that calls for raising the debt ceiling in order to pay for critical social and infrastructural programs, as if Obama invented that system. But the system has been in place for decades, and used by Republicans as much as Democrats, possibly more so. If you don’t like the system, then by all means, advocate for change, as long as you’ve got a solution in mind beyond eliminating all taxes, an unreasonable demand that ignores the facts of America’s economic structure. But don’t use the system when it benefits you and then hypocritically hold the country hostage so that you can metaphorically fellate a radical minority on your side of the aisle.

            The most blatantly hypocritical part of this debate is that Republican policies and administrations (including the trickle-down lovers in the Bush and Reagan years) caused the crisis more than anyone else. Then they refused to work with Obama and the Democrats to fix the economy—unless, of course, the Democrats agreed to bypass the very nature of democracy and give the right every single thing it wanted. Then they blamed Obama for the problems and the lack of a solution. I’d admire the sheer chutzpah of the right if they weren’t taking us all into such dangerous waters.

            We need the right to abandon its lunatic fringe and reach back across that aisle. In the absence of such a step, we need Democrats (notice I don’t call them “the left”) to find the guts to stand up for themselves and the rest of America, even if that means telling unpleasant truths about the opposition. We need the American people to stop taking what their politicians say at face value, to investigate things on their own using a variety of reputable and objective sources, to vote for everyone’s good instead of selfish reasons.

            If we don’t, then one of these days we really will see the fall of the American empire, and it won’t be Barack Obama’s fault, or John McCain’s (how radically right do you have to be when McCain is too liberal for you??), or even Osama bin Laden’s. We’ll each have to look in the mirror and blame the person we see there.

Captain America

            I saw the movie. It wasn’t the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but it was far from the worst, especially for a super-hero flick. I’d give it a solid B on the sliding summer blockbuster scale.

            In my summer II course, one of my students asked me what I thought about the film. I responded as I did above, while admitting that I haven’t read a comic since the mid-1990s, when the stories’ quality took a nosedive, and death became a cynical commercial vehicle, and no tale had stakes anymore because everybody came back from the dead. When the major companies copped out by replacing many of their heroes with new, poorer versions and little things like plot and characterization took a back seat to how cool the penciling looked.

            My student then said, “Well, it’s not like they based the story on what’s happened in the last fifteen years.”

            No, but in large part, they based it on the needs and desires of the last fifteen years’ audience. And I am not part of that audience. I don’t pretend to know the tone and flavor of today’s Captain America, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a film that catered to them and their sensibilities, not to mine.

            For me, Captain America was always something of a conundrum. You couldn’t find a squarer character; the guy made Superman look grim and edgy. Steve Rogers was sincere, patriotic, faithful, honorable, ethical—all the things you wish your politicians were. He never seemed to represent a particular political viewpoint (well, except in those execrable 50s “Captain America—Commie Smasher” comics, and we’ve long known that the guy in those comics wasn’t Steve Rogers). He never threw his weight behind any particular administration. Instead, he truly seemed to represent the America where most of us lived—sometimes a bit conservative, sometimes a bit liberal, but mostly just human. He encouraged dissent, yet he believed in institutions.

            I thought the film did a pretty good job of representing that Cap. As written in the film and played by Chris Evans, Steve Rogers is the guy who joins the army because it’s the right thing to do—because in those days, everyone believed that they knew who the enemy was and why we were fighting and what was at stake. We didn’t fight in the best possible ways; the poor were still overly represented, and women and non-whites weren’t treated well, but it was about as united as the nation has ever been, including, I think, during the Revolution. Rogers doesn’t go in as a mouthpiece for Roosevelt or the minority leader. He doesn’t champion a corporation or an ideology beyond a firm belief in America itself.

            Truly, if Captain America were real, I’d probably write him in on the Presidential ballot. I came away from the film feeling like I had seen at least a version of the guy I knew from the comics. Perhaps that’s about as much as we can ask of our film adaptations. I won’t advise you to run to your nearest theater and catch it if you haven’t already, but give it a shot on DVD at least. You may find yourself wishing that Cap could swoop in and save us from the machine we’ve built to govern our lives, the same one that seems to be chewing us all up in the gears.

Fedor Emelianenko, Dana White, Chael Sonnen, and Rashad Evans

            In the world of Mixed Martial Arts, everything seems to be in flux. Aging warhorses like Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Cro Cop, Matt Hughes, the Nogueira brothers, and Tito Ortiz, though only in their mid-30s, seem to be showing the effects of all their battles. Unable to take punches or dominate as they once did, they now face the roles of gate-keepers to the championships, rather than serious contenders. All these men are young enough to reach the top again, but like an NFL player of the same age, they can no longer be penciled in to dominate. It’s always a shame when age and the limitations of one’s body catch up with a great athlete, but it happens to everyone eventually. It happened suddenly to Chuck Liddell. It finally caught up to Randy Couture. Even the current exception to the rule, Dan Henderson, can’t go on forever.

            UFC president Dana White has stuck behind most of the men on that list. He dropped Ortiz from the roster once, but that was due more to their personal conflicts and Ortiz’s desire for more money than eroding skills. As every MMA fan knows, he was about to cut Ortiz before a recent out-of-nowhere submission victory over young gun Ryan Bader. At that point, you could hardly blame White; he had given Ortiz every chance, and while Ortiz had not been dominated since his last loss to Liddell years ago, he had not won a fight since 2006. The victory over Bader saved Ortiz’s job, and his stepping up to face 205-pound title contender Rashad Evans on short notice only endeared him to White. But since Tito lost that fight, one wonders how many more chances he’ll get.

            Matt Hughes has admitted that he only has so many fights left in him, but White keeps matching him with top competition. Cro Cop might not get another shot in the UFC if he loses his next fight, but he won’t be battling a no-name; he has to fight former IFL champ Roy Nelson, himself a veteran with a two-fight losing streak. White has stated his desire to “Liddell” Wanderlei Silva into retirement, referencing how White had to browbeat Liddell into stepping away from the sport for his own health’s sake; he has shown no desire to cut Silva or demote him to prelims. No one has stated that the Nogueiras’ jobs are in jeopardy—especially Big Nog, whose losses might have been attributable to the nagging injuries that have kept him out of action for over a year.

            The point here is that Dana White has, to the best of his ability, stood beside each of these men whenever they’ve lost and/or contemplated retirement and/or asked for more shots to get back on the winning track. Of course, they all fight in the UFC, meaning that White has a vested interest in their careers and a sense of loyalty to them. He doesn’t stick by them strictly because he’s such a nice guy.

            All of which brings me to the case of Fedor Emelianenko. Long considered the greatest heavyweight fighter ever to step into an MMA ring or cage, Fedor has struggled of late. He lost by submission to one of the world’s best jiu-jitsu artists, Fabricio Werdum. He lost by TKO (doctor’s stoppage) to a much larger opponent, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, when one of his eyes swelled shut between rounds. And then he lost by knockout to Henderson, one of the greatest fighters in history. No shame in any of those losses, but in the “what have you done for me lately?” world of MMA, three losses in a row bring out the haters. “Fedor should retire,” they said, even after his second loss. “He was never that good in the first place,” they said, ignoring how he went undefeated for ten years and won titles in several organizations, including PRIDE.

            No one has been more vocally critical of Fedor’s losses than White, who seems to take personal satisfaction in another human being’s misfortune. Oh, he makes sure to say that he doesn’t hate Fedor, but it’s hard not to read malice into White’s venomous tirades. In one internet video, White runs through a list of Fedor’s past opponents, trying to punch holes in the myth of the man’s greatness. And the opponents he names in that list are certainly unimpressive. But he leaves out a lot of names, too: Semmy Schilt, Heath Herring, Big Nog (three times), Mark Coleman (twice), Cro Cop, Kevin Randleman, and even less decorated but respected veterans like Gary Goodridge and Kazuyuki Fujita.

            You can’t say that Fedor fought only tomato cans when the list of people he beat includes three former UFC champions, one of the most feared strikers of all time, some strong wrestlers, and a bunch of plain old tough guys. And that’s ignoring his wins over both Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovsky, who have certainly fallen on hard times themselves but who are also former UFC champs.

            White’s vendetta against Fedor seems to stem from the latter’s refusal to sign with the UFC, to put more money in White’s bank accounts. White is correct in saying that the UFC is the only place where the best fighters always fight the best competition and that Fedor (or his management team) has tarnished his legacy by avoiding the UFC. But White is dead wrong and just plain vindictive to ignore Fedor’s accomplishments, especially since most of them happened in what was, at the time, the best heavyweight division on the planet.

            Whatever Fedor’s reasons for not signing with the UFC, the fact is that he didn’t. He seems at peace with himself and his career, even his recent setbacks. White should make peace with it too, because all his gloating only makes him seem like an ungracious bully.

            I don’t have much to say about Chael Sonnen, who seems unable to grasp the fact that Anderson Silva beat him. Certainly Sonnen dominated the fight for well over twenty minutes, but Silva caught him in a triangle choke, and he tapped out. I saw the fight. I saw him give up. He can call himself the uncrowned Middleweight champion all he wants, but no one in their right mind believes that. He fought a good fight, but he lost. End of story.

            Except that it’s not. Sonnen has always had such a big mouth that it’s impossible to take him seriously. You get the feeling that even he doesn’t believe most of what he says, but that doesn’t stop him from saying it. He blathers and brags, but he has yet to achieve the kinds of results that would to some extent justify his brashness. Where is Sonnen’s years-long win streak? Where is his UFC championship?

            Lots of fans try to excuse his poor sportsmanship and the sad example he sets of how to be a decent human being, but you can promote a fight without being a completely unlikable jerk. Since returning from suspension for performance-enhancing drugs (a suspension compounded by his role in money-laundering), he’s been more vocal than ever, but his hijinks seem even more desperate than usual. He’s now insulted the entire country of Brazil and just about every other fighter in the UFC. Nice guy.

            If you take him seriously, you’d have to point out that he’s never accomplished anything near what the objects of his bile have achieved. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has won championships in both PRIDE and the UFC, and is always a top contender. Wanderlei Silva destroyed all his competition for years and held the PRIDE middleweight title all that time. (And for all his talk about Wanderlei, one has to remember that Sonnen is talking from a distance. If you’re an MMA fan, you’ve probably seen the video of Wanderlei and Sonnen on a promotional trip together, sitting in the same vehicle as Wanderlei takes him to task for disrespecting the Nogueiras.   “When you show respect, you keep your teeth,” Silva says, and literally all Sonnen does is nod and say thank you. Yet when Silva is nowhere nearby, Sonnen becomes a tough guy?). Jose Aldo is a UFC champ. Anderson Silva is a UFC champ. Lyoto Machida is a former UFC champ. Even non-Brazilians have felt the sting of Sonnen’s sharp tongue, but Quinton Jackson is also a former UFC champ, and Jon Fitch is every bit as accomplished as Sonnen. Perhaps moreso, since his unsuccessful title shot did not end in his submission.

            But Sonnen keeps talking, even though his speeches are now largely considered a joke. Perhaps Brian Stann will knock some sense into him. If not, he’s probably going to meet Anderson Silva again, and then we’ll see if he can keep all his teeth. Perhaps Sonnen should join the WWE, where his utter lack of sportsmanship and decency would be welcome.

            As for Rashad Evans, he wonders why people keep booing him when he’s really a nice guy. Allow me to take a page out of Dana White’s recent interviews, in which I look into the camera and speak directly to Rashad, WWE-style.

            Rashad, I’ll tell you why people boo you. It’s not because some of your fights are dull. Most fighters have dull fights every now and then. It’s not because you brag on yourself. All fighters are confident. It’s because you showboat. You did it back on The Ultimate Fighter, and though your style has matured since then, your in-ring personality hasn’t. When Forrest Griffin was beating you for two and a half rounds, you weathered one flurry and then grabbed your cup and blew him a kiss. Really, Rashad? Are you that insecure? Are you that immature? You’re 31 years old now, man. Grow up.

            Once you get over yourself, perhaps more people will back you. Maybe then they’ll recognize you for the nice guy you really are. Until then, keep on expecting those boos.

QUICK UPDATE: Matt “the Hammer” Hamill has retired from MMA. The sport has just lost one of its finest ambassadors and best human beings. Hamill, for those who don’t know, is deaf. Yet he was a D-III national wrestling champion and went 9-4 in the UFC, including victories over Tito Ortiz and Mark Munoz. He also beat Michael Bisping in the eyes of everyone but the ringside judges. Always humble and sweet of disposition, a classy person and a tough fighter, Matt Hamill will be missed.

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