Friday, September 30, 2016

The Myth of Democratic Content

Like figure skating, writing fiction seems effortless at first glance. I, too, once believed in this optical illusion. Since then, I've come to realize why it appears that way. Practice. Constant practice. But like good athletes or musicians, some God-given skills and talents arrive fully formed and could never be taught. In ten years, I've become a very competent short essayist and op/ed writer, but despite constant revision, self-scrutiny, and a very necessary hint of OCD, my short stories need additional seasoning. 

I've had to accept that I need to continue to hone my craft. I know I can't make any further progress by myself. If that were the case, twenty revisions would have been quite enough. This is not an uncommon problem. Once upon a time, writers consulted editors to make substantial changes in a written draft. Now these professionals are called "writing consultants", a catch-all, but mostly meaningless term that makes me laugh. Everyone's a consultant for something these days, and the term is meant to emphasize the importance of the specialized labor performed. 

As I said, there is no shame in consulting a writing specialist. Some writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald being the first that comes to mind, required constant guidance from an editor. The Great Gatsby would have been a much lesser work without it, and would likely not be taught extensively in high school English classes as a result. Think what you will about Fitzgerald and his inherent abilities with the written word. If a raging alcoholic with a high-maintenance and self-destructive wife can make his way into the Great American Bookcase, many more can. 

I'll reveal another optical illusion, another romantic fantasy. Very few writers can emerge from obscurity to produce a note perfect work of singular symmetry and beauty. This is why screenwriters have utilized this premise very successfully over the years. It is a rare creature who can write acceptable and even superlative work on lunch hours or stolen moments on weekends. Publishing even a short story, as I have learned, requires money up front to win an audience. 

Let's use an example. I produce a short story draft that has promise, but needs lots of work. I pay a writing consultant to examine it, and he or she takes three hours to provide an detailed critique. At $85 an hour, that ain’t cheap. 

Let's say I work on the same story for six months. After sending it around to seven separate publications, a literary journal agrees to publish it. However, like most literary journals, it provides no monetary compensation whatsoever. They retain publication rights. I have the right to add this effort to my writing CV, but now it is time to think up a new work. Now the process resets and begins again.

Writing contests do exist, but they, like most contests, are immensely competitive and highly subjective. Some offer prizes of $500 to $5000 to winning entries, but a $500 prize only recoups the money already put into it. As you can see, writing is not an egalitarian exercise. It is, in fact, a very elite and exclusive one. It requires the capital to fit the parameters that publications desire. And those desires are often vastly different from each other, or they are nit-picking to an annoying degree. In addition, few people have the time to devote to writing full-time, which further complicates the situation and often eliminates writers without financial means.
If one wishes, one can hire other consultants to show how to utilize social media and the Internet to publicize a person's work. Over time, as the technology has developed, I've become fairly competent at this aspect. Many people reading these words now have at least an understanding of the multiple platforms for self-promotion. Those will no doubt change considerably over the years and have already changed in the last five to ten years.

We live in a time caught between epochs. We span the gap between an electronic publication world and an old-style print medium. Writers in these days have to tip their hat to both of them, and find some way to grab attention amidst the other distractions. Writers need hands-on advocates more than writing workshops and meet-and-greets. And they also need money up front, much like putting an investment forward in order to reap the benefits to follow later. Few of us have that luxury, and unless changes are made, publication will be predominantly white, middle-class, and well-educated. 

That's fine for some, but alienating for others. If we are looking for a reason why the voices and written words of minorities are not appreciated more frequently, here is one of them. Though I am white and middle-class, I was raised in Alabama, not Boston or Philadelphia or Los Angeles. As a bookish child, I found similar themes and motifs repeated over and over again. Most novels and stories I read were not set in the American South of my upbringing. Many had their onus in New York City, the Northeast corridor, or California.

True Southern literature was birthed as a reaction to dismissive attitudes from elsewhere, alongside charges of banality and sub-standard quality. The books of my native region often focused on small town attitudes, an attitude of defiance. The world they described was almost fully fifty years out of date, if it had ever existed that way in the first place.  

Writing is a nice dream to entertain, but success in the medium goes beyond the Protestant work ethic, far beyond the American Dream. Toil and sweat and talent are simply not enough. I know that it may be a while longer before I win any sort of greater recognition. Until then, I have a few honorary mentions to my name, some magazine articles that bear my byline, and the attention of those who follow my online writings.

Contrary to how it might seem, there is not yet any such thing as the Democratization of Content. And there may never be. Anyone can scribble banalities on a website or a Twitter feed, but real success comes with assistance and relative wealth.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

News in Brief

Hello Readers,

My attention is split this week. I will try my best to get something posted this week. I've started a third short story and am spending most of my time putting together a good first draft. It took six months to complete the last one, and that's far too long. Coming up with a unique angle and perspective is crucial to write compelling essays and op/eds. Everyone's attention this week is focused on the Presidential race and the endless media dissection of the first debate.

This is to be expected. I can't compete with the major media voices, pundits, and columnists. Their voices Trump mine. (Did you get the pun?) Those of us in the minor leagues are fighting for oxygen. For the next six weeks, I know that anything I write will fall on deaf ears, mostly unread. Once that used to frustrate me, now I have accepted it.

Please be patient with me. Backing up a bit, I am going to start taking some creative writing workshops in the next few weeks. I am told they are enormously instructive, but also enormously expensive. Creative writing is the new challenge. I've become a strong columnist and blogger, which satisfies and sustains me, but I want to push myself further.

Best to all of you.    

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Quote of the Week

“Every time you mention some guy that's strictly a bastard— very mean, or very conceited and all— and when you mention it to the girl, she'll tell you he has an inferiority complex. Maybe he has, but that still doesn't keep him from being a bastard, in my opinion.”-Holden Caufield, from The Catcher in the Rye.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Saturday Video

Roxanne, you don't have to put on the red light
Those days are over
you don't have to sell your body to the night

Roxanne, you don't have to wear that dress tonight
Walk the streets for money
you don't care if it's wrong or if it's right

Roxanne You don't have to put on the red light
Roxanne You don't have to put on the red light

Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light) Oh

I loved you since I knew ya
I wouldn't talk down to ya
I have to tell you just how I feel
I won't share you with another boy

I know my mind is made up
so put away your make-up
I told you once
I won't tell you again
it's a bad way

Roxanne you don't have to put on the red light
Roxanne you don't have to put on the red light
Roxanne (you don't have to put on the red light)

Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)
Roxanne (put on the red light)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

In Real Life: Internet Relationships Then and Now

Today we have broadband internet, lightning fast connection speeds, and smart phones. The pace of technological innovation seems to have no limit. But let's not forget our recent past, the historical record that connects each of us today as surely as it once did then. To wit, in the mid-Nineties, my parents invested in a particularly profitable new company known as America Online, or AOL as most of us call it today. For a nominal monthly rate, we were given the ability to tie up phone lines, annoying family and friends for hours, for the privilege to use the World Wide Web. The technology was Byzantine compared to today's standards, but in those days, it was cutting edge and very much in stride with the times.

Twenty years ago, some called this new technology the information superhighway or cyberspace. The preferred nomenclature for it now is the Internet, and that appears to be sufficient for the duration. In my childhood of the Eighties, samples of Tide laundry detergent arrived in the mail several times a year. In the Nineties, AOL CD-ROMs arrived in suburban mailboxes with the same kind of frequency, but with the persistence of biting insects. I remember making a collage out of AOL discs for fun, as there was never any shortage of them. The decision to flood individual consumers with countless offers to sign up and see what the Internet was for themselves was too good a pitch for many Americans to pass up.

My father thought of the fuss as a frivolous time-waster at first. He had a businessman's sense and logic, and he couldn't immediately smell money in it. Give it time, I said. Now even he has to admit that he might well have been wrong. It is now difficult trying to remember a time before the Internet even existed. I imagine workers on movie sets have to be very careful to preserve continuity, should the film on which they are working be set even twenty or twenty-five years ago. Erasing memory of the future to suspend the audience's disbelief of the past is a chore.  

AOL arrived at the perfect time for me, being that I was a withdrawn, anxious, melancholic adolescent. This kind of extreme awkwardness is typical for the age, but I wasn't the run of the mill lonely teenage broncin' buck. Bipolar disorder first cropped up as depression only, as I didn't experience true mania until I was in my early twenties. If I had been able to keep my emotional problems in check, my high school experience could have been fantastic.

I see now that many classmates tried to interact and engage with me, but turned away eventually, assuming I had my reasons for keeping my distance. Romances could have fallen into my lap, friendships by the score could have been mine, an adolescent world could have been my oyster, but I was too inhibited and ill to take the initiative.

Everything changed when I came home from school and logged in to the computer. AOL was a haven for kids like me. We were a confused and conflicted lot, seeking the companionship we couldn't find elsewhere. Confronting a sympathetic computer screen alone, rather than a hundred judgmental eyes, my reserve and fear melted away. All I needed to do now was be myself, on my own terms.

I met people my own age in chat rooms, those of both sexes, but I had a particular desire to pursue girls. Many were flirtatious, looking for the opposite sex as surely as I was searching for them. Without having to worry about social propriety, the multitude of ways that our society shames and guilts and browbeats women of every age, they approached me with immediate romantic interest. If only it could be this easy in person, I thought to myself.

My first experiences with sexuality started online. I'd always known that I was a sexual being, ever since puberty, but I didn't recognize how common my thoughts and desires really were until I went online. My own private investigations showed me the clinical side of things, but not the warm-blooded, passionate aspect. That takes the presence of another person, even if they are only keystrokes on a computer monitor. That takes feedback and an exchange of ideas.

Not only did I start to understand how men and women pursued each other, it was in this forum that I first expressed the bisexuality that I have somewhat uneasily embraced in my adult life. I appreciated that I wasn't judged by my online peers, and that I was frequently validated for being who I was. I can say with great relief that I only can recall one major incident where I received homophobic slurs. Every generation has its problems, but my own is remarkably proficient at being almost uniformly accepting of those who identify as LGBT.

Of course, I'd be lying if I said that we were all virginal and chaste with each other. Parents might have been upset if they recognized how frequently we engaged in cybersex, which didn't need very much suggestion or prompting. The pattern went a little like this: if one of us really connected with someone else, phone numbers were exchanged. Predictably, this led to phone sex, always conducted under strictest secrecy, often late at night when Mom and Dad were presumably asleep. Remember, this was before the age of cell phones, when land lines had to suffice, a time before we knew at least fifty percent of the time the identity of the person calling us before we even said hello.

If two people were half in love with each other, drunk on infatuation, plans might even be drawn up to visit each other in person. Sometimes meeting face to face happened, often it did not. In the best of circumstances, hands-on parents supervised these visits, which could be very underwhelming. Distance challenges every relationship, and many of my generation learned that lesson very early on.

If we got too overwhelmed, we could always comfort ourselves that what we were experiencing wasn't happening in real life. It was real when we said it was real, and unreal when we said it was unreal. This belief system was supreme deception, self-denial, and longing, wrapped into one. Still, we found ourselves returning to the well when we craved company and companionship. We might swear off of the practice, but we always came back. When the real world disappointed, we found others who could fill the great void.

When parents were not kept in the loop, we sometimes took off on great adventures of our own. Today, I consider it a minor miracle that I somehow made it back from one such event in one piece. On two separate occasions, I made reckless multi-hour trip by car to meet up with internet relationship partners. In those days, I was headstrong, convinced that if I couldn't make connections in my hometown, that surely I was going to take what I could get elsewhere. I knew what my soul longed for, and I did anything I could to not have to be alone in my own thoughts, my own alienation. I cast off for salvation, and sometimes found it, at least for a little while.

A high school friend of mine and I took a one-day trip up to Illinois to meet with a girl to whom I'd been speaking routinely over several months. We were even allowed to go with her to class, one memorable day during her junior year in high school. My friend and I were on a Spring Break a week earlier than her own, which is why we were able to make the journey. A former boyfriend showed that he was very jealous of me, almost immediately upon my arrival, but did not confront me directly. Unfortunately, the friendship ended when an alibi crumbled. Her parents recognized with time that we hadn't actually met in person first, as they had been led to believe for a long time.

About this same time, I flew out to northern California to meet a woman my age I met online, only to find her utterly terrified upon my arrival. We spent five uneasy days together, parting ways at the airport with a great sense of relief. Dreams and reality can be two very different things.

Nevertheless, I formed a variety of friendships online. Next month I will turn thirty-six, and I'm pleased to say that ten or so people from those days have kept up with me over the years. They made special effort to add me to their Facebook accounts and they, like past lovers who have now become warm friends, genuinely want to know that I'm doing well. When someone makes special effort to keep you in his or her orbit, it's plain to see how much you still mean to them. I'm very lucky to have made these friendships, even if the romance of an earlier day has faded away to a gentle fondness.

Those dial-up modem times are gone, likely forever. I don't know what teenagers do these days, how they meet each other and keep away the ennui of their years. The situation I've described didn't last very long, no more than five years. But those of us who are, like me, on the cusp of Generation X and Millennial likely know what I mean. Was it real? Did it really happen? The world may never know.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Student Debt, the New and Shameful Rite of Passage

American rites of passage have been consistent over the last two or three generations. The signs of fully blossomed and confirmed adulthood rest on the achievement of several successive steps. These cultural landmarks include lots of firsts: purchase of a first car, first marriage, first child, and first mortgage. But now, a new, unnecessary, very dangerous mountain to scale is in place. It is the most recent rite of passage and many are stuck in quicksand. Due to the calamity that may soon blow up in our face, it is an issue that must be addressed immediately. Its name is student loans, a perilously irresponsible system that gives thousands of dollars in borrowed money to finance soaring tuition and related expenses.

Last week I received grateful confirmation through the mail that my student debt requirements had been fully met. Though it was welcome news, I felt as though a great crushing weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was a feeling both weary and grateful, but surely nothing worth celebrating. I suppose one could call it a joy of a sort, but it was mainly a relief, the way you feel when a crushing headache finally fades away. No longer were these financial requirements hanging over my head. I should be happier, but I am not.

I was reminded of the Morrisey song, “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get”.

When you sleep/I will creep into your thoughts/like a bad debt/ that you can’t pay.

It took me approximately twelve years of consistent monthly payments to rid myself of $18,000 in debt. $9,000, half of the original loan, was not interest-bearing. No harm there. But it was the second half of the loan that was the real killer. By the time I’d caught up to the principle, interest had added another $4,000. In totality, I owed $22,000, and I was saddled with a ton of outstanding debt before I ever entered the work force, before I even graduated or interviewed for my first job out of school.

My story is nowhere near the worst example of this kind of predatory practice. I live in Washington, DC, a city full of elite private schools. Georgetown, George Washington, and American University charge yearly tuition at rates three and four times higher than my public college university education. Students without scholarships or benevolent parents have no choice but to borrow money in excess. In addition to being a bad idea just on principle, eighteen or nineteen-year old young adults barely out of high school should never be given extravagant loans in the first place. I don’t mean to sound ageist or condescending, but in my defense, I am not very far removed from those times myself.

I had no clue whatsoever about what it was like to save for a rainy day. In those days, I lived an unstructured existence, swimming with the currents, living for the minute, and expanding my social life. Such is its very nature for many white, middle class kids like me. This is how we have defined what we collectively call “college”.

But nowhere in that narrative is an emphasis on money management. I myself was too enthralled with life on my own out of high school and away from my parents to think about socking money away or being generally parsimonious. If I had it to go over again, I wouldn’t make the same mistakes. But then again, if I could redo college entirely, the first thing I’d do is focus more on academics, and turn a few lazy B’s into A’s.

I was young and made mistakes. Having said that, let’s collectively make a change for the better. Colleges, universities, junior colleges, and community colleges offer advisers to help students figure out how to schedule classes and to intercede when they don’t make the grade. Why can’t the same be done with managing student finances, especially when they take the form of such huge, sprawling loans? Or, to go one better, why don’t high school seniors take preparatory classwork to show them how to manage their money before they even set a single foot on campus?

How did I waste money, you may ask? Lots of ways. Instead of demanding my way and insisting on complete independence, I could have saved money by living in a dorm. Instead I moved in alone to an off-campus apartment where the rent and utilities were twice as much. I partied hard on weekends, spending money on little things that add up, like brunch and restaurant meals, plus more than a few alcoholic beverages that I probably shouldn’t have consumed in rapid succession to each other.

I drove everywhere I went. Along the way, I had a couple fender benders and speeding tickets. Even more expense. This caused my car insurance rates to go through the roof. One auto insurance company even canceled me altogether, forcing me to buy insurance with a second company who charged a much higher rate. These are mistakes of youth, inexperience, and immaturity. My most inexcusable expense was the purchase of an pricey guitar on layaway, an impulse buy that I couldn’t really afford, even on the installment plan. I spent money like water, not understanding the very concept of debt to follow, and was generous to a fault with everyone.

The system of four-year colleges and universities must be radically restructured. Middle management and administration has grown like a cancerous tumor inside higher education. At the same time, they’ve gamed the system in their favor. Colleges and universities are aware that students cannot default on the loans they casually disperse and, as a result, they are unafraid of the consequences or any outside retribution. Even if students who have taken out loans declare bankruptcy, no student’s debts will ever be wiped clean. If they find themselves federally disabled, their loans will be garnished from whatever minuscule monthly payments the government provides.

The only way a person can be entirely rid of student debt for once and forever, aside from paying off all financial obligations, is not publicized much. Too much money is involved to spread the news around freely. This option requires a genuine physical or mental disability, a severe limitation few would wish upon themselves. In that circumstance, a doctor must fill out an applicable form for a patient, stating the nature of total and permanent disability.

If approved, the patient must live at no more than twice the poverty line for three years consecutively. Then and only then will financial obligations be no longer applicable, the loans fully discharged. But who would want to live a pauper’s existence in order to be debt-free? Should a person want to return to school and take on more debt, the fine print states clearly that a full discharge of debt will be a one-time-only affair. For the moment, these qualifications and parameters are the only way to escape the bad choices and unfortunate instances of our past. Who among us would like to hit the restart button on a portion of their life?

This example and others illustrated here demonstrate how much student loans and university systems are out of control. If significant changes are not made and not made quickly, higher ed will effectively kill the goose that laid the golden eggs. Universities and college will have to prune down substantial dead-weight, redundant bureaus, needless departments, and nonsensical complications. But really, we shouldn’t be callous and heartless. Our energies shouldn’t exclusively center on a busted system and the bottom line only. We are preparing our country and the world for future leadership, and if our young adults don’t thrive, we’re the ones who ought to bear the blame.

Quote of the Week

Eat your breakfast, share your lunch with a friend and give your dinner to your enemy.- Russian Proverb


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Saturday Videos

Hey, fellas, have you heard the news?
Yeah, the women in this town have been misused,
Yeah, I seen it all in my dreams last night,
Girls leaving this town 'cause you don't treat 'em right.

Oh, take a train (take a train), fly by plane (fly by plane),
Yeah, gettin' tired (gettin' tired), sick and tired (sick and tired).

All you fellas better change your ways,
Yeah, leaving this town in a matter of days.
Girls are good, you better treat 'em true,
I seen fellas running around with someone new.

Gettin' tired (gettin' tired), sick and tired (sick and tired),
Yeah, leavin' here (leavin' here), leavin' here (leavin' here),
I said leavin' here, yeah yeah yeah, don't want to leave all here,
Be a while, oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah.

The love of a women is a wonderful thing (oh yeah),
Yeah, the way you treat 'em is a crying shame (oh yeah),
I tell you, fella, yeah, it won't be long (oh yeah),
Yeah, before these women they all have gone (oh yeah).

Yeah, gettin' tired (gettin' tired), sick and tired (sick and tired),
Yeah, take a train (take a train), fly by plane (fly by plane),
Yeah, gonna leavin' here, yeah leavin' here,
Yeah, leavin' here, ya gonna leave all here now,
Baby baby baby, please don't leave here.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Fleeing the Cross

Then all his disciples deserted him and ran away.- Mark 14:50

Early Quakers, just as early Christians before them, paid dearly for their devotion to a cause. It would have been easy to assimilate and conform, to run to the right, to speak out of both sides of their collective mouth, to take a centrist stance. But they did not. In so doing, the Religious Society of the Friends of Truth, as they initially called themselves, adopted positions that stood contrary to the customs of the day. At best, the first Quakers were seen as eccentric in dress and in speech. Their egalitarian doctrine and reshuffling of the existing social order made many uncomfortable. Some of their detractors were in people in positions of authority. Friends knew that significant stints in jail were likely and pressed forward in spite of it.

By refusing to swear oaths to the Church of England or to join its ranks, Quakers locked themselves out of many vocations. Quakers were pushed into business because those occupations were the only avenues open for self-advancement. Gratefully, that world is not our own. Most religious people nowadays recognize that while they might prefer it otherwise, they are nevertheless living in a secular world that does not demand uniformity in thought and observance. How a co-worker or close associate prefers to worship or not to worship is not nearly as important as it once was.

People who identify as religious are aware of the temptation always present and the possibility of sinful conduct, but most have not taken strict steps to isolate themselves. Few groups have gone as far as the Amish, adopting a rigid separatist approach to guard against worldly corruption. Regardless of what some believe and advance as the truth, even fewer have sought to attack and destroy Western society, following some stated goal to win martyrdom in the service of a grand cause.

In matters of style, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, swim with the current. In matters of principle, he concluded, stand like a rock. The religious skeptic Jefferson was no zealot, but he fought for free expression of faith on behalf of groups like Friends, especially those faith groups that had been aggressively persecuted in earlier times. The nation/states at war in those days were often similarly fearful and suspicious of religious movements that sought to demand membership and discard contrary opinion. The Spanish Inquisition was still fresh in the mind of many Enlightenment thinkers. Shortly after its American counterpart, the French Revolution would toss out religion completely during its radical phase.

John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech about religion referenced Jefferson.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

I began this post with a tragic and well-known tale, a story of a charismatic religious leader and teacher abandoned by his closest associates. Jesus's death and crucifixion marked the beginning of the persecution of Christians, starting first with its central figure. This persecution continued for centuries afterwards. A new Jewish sect fought for survival, defined itself in different ways, established itself as the official church of the Roman Empire, divided itself between Catholic and Protestant, and continued to splinter from there. The factionalism has not yet stopped. A Quaker audience will no doubt see the humor in that statement, divided as it still remains between quibbling factions.

Fleeing the cross in this context means abandoning one's inward convictions for the sake of safety and personal survival. Prior to a public execution of a radical rabbi, Jesus' disciples and followers fled in terror from Golgotha Hill. For Quakers, fleeing the cross meant discarding the very essence of faith, belief, and practice for personal comfort and conflict. For a time, Quaker worship was against the law, and those who dared to hold secret, so-named conventicles risked fines and imprisonment. And yet, even with the consequences, they continued.

In our past history, where do we see examples of people choosing not to flee the cross? The obvious example occurred, on a large scale, during the Civil Rights Movement. Freedom riders, non-violent protesters, and courageous religious leaders are but three examples of the form this revolution took. They are evidence of the impact the movement made on everyone who lived in those times. The kind of extended commitment in evidence here is rare, but it is absolutely essential if we are to press forward for progress. Every generation seems to produce at least the possibility of one of these paradigm shifts.

Americans today can flee the cross when mean-spirited attacks on immigrants become convenient political fodder and soapbox sloganeering. Americans can refuse to flee the cross when they will not allow every Muslim to be lumped in with a few fanatical terrorists spreading a gospel of hate. American as a country can refuse to flee the cross when it simply will not be satisfied with the political status quo. America must refuse to cut off its nose to spite its face in electing a political neophyte whose shtick appeals to the worst parts of the human experience. But neither should it tacitly accept a career politician who, even among her own supporters, does not always radiate trust and transparency.

The revolutionary spirit that created this nation, sustained it over the centuries, and drove innovation forward has become transformed into a mushy, mealy imitation of its original distillation. Rather than harnessing the great potential and ingenuity of the American people, we have turned bitterness directly inward. What remains is the most cynical Presidential election cycle ever, which will soon conclude, sparing us from additional whiplash and psychological pain.

"To what can I compare the people of this generation?" Jesus asked. "What are they like?"
"They are like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends. 'We played wedding songs, and you didn't dance, so we played funeral songs, and you didn't weep.'"

Election years increasingly take on this character. Ours is merely the worst on record. As a result, we show ourselves to be mere babes doing our best imitation of adults, with every ounce of absurdity and absolutely none of that crucial element, introspection. It is not surprising that millions of Americans are willing to overlook a significant number of character flaws in a major party candidate, instead of drafting a more suitable replacement.

As I know I have said before, we play active roles in our own destruction. To what can I compare the people of this generation? They are group of weary cynics intent on fleeing the cross at the first sign of trouble. They emote no trust. They profess little to no faith in who they might receive as President and what he or she might do while in office.

We have before us few avenues to pursue, no crusades left to fight, no battles worth the effort, no recently cleared paths opening up. What would be the point of having convictions if we didn't intend to live them? Commitment to a cause is the best cure I have ever encountered. The best way to find yourself, as Gandhi put it, is to lose your self in the service of others. And maybe that's the best cross imaginable, the one we don't abandon.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Quote of the Week

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."-Issac Asimov

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Saturday Video

Hold on John,
John, hold on

It's gonna be alright
You're gonna win the fight

Hold on Yoko,
Yoko, hold on

It's gonna be alright
You're gonna make the flight

When you're by yourself
And there's no-one else

You just have yourself
And you tell yourself
To hold on

Hold on world,
world hold on

It's gonna be alright
You're gonna see the light

Oh, and when you're one
really one

Well, you get things done
like they've never been done
So hold on

Thursday, September 08, 2016

A Writer's Life

This is one of the more kindly, cordial rejection e-mails I have received. If only they could all be worded in similar fashion. I've removed the name of the publication and the editor who wrote it. But at least three or four other publications are also looking at it.

Dear Mr Camp,

Thank you for submitting.

This is an interesting essay, but it flits and skates over some salient points that I'd like to see explored some more.

Also, I'd like to see some deeper introspection in this piece--it's largely factual, which loans the work the prerequisite detachment, but it deserves some good old-fashioned navel-gazing, as well.

Finally, I'll say that, in a work like this, I believe the reader likes to go with the writer on a journey and arrive with the writer at a conclusion--this reads a lot like you're moving the reader towards a foregone conclusion, which risks alienating the reader at a time when you most want them on your side. And I'd re-think the title--you have important things to say, but the title says it before we even get a chance to go with you on the aforementioned journey.

But ours is a subjective industry, and what works for one editor may not work for another. I wish you all best with this piece. And thanks for supporting our work here.


Nonfiction Submission Editor

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Misunderstandings Only Make Matters Worse

We've made lots of progress as a people, but those of us with mental illness are still often feared or labeled as crazy. In the course of my life, I don't think I've asked too much of other people. Never wanting to be pitied or handled with kid gloves, I have asked one small concession of the world. I've wanted to be understood. If I can't be seen as a child of God, I'd rather be avoided rather than insulted or dismissed out of hand.

Understanding comes from compassion and empathy, which seem to be in short supply these days. Observe the comment section of any online discussion and one sees the worst, bitterest, most deliberately hurtful parts of humankind. We once believed that technological advances and innovations would advance the best in everyone, but the exact reverse is often the case. We can now communicate with each other in rapid time, have access to information and communication at a lightning-fast tempo, but it appears that, more often than not, we have remaining no real regard for others.  

A story from my own life: years ago, I saw the inequalities between the sexes and recognized the injustice present. I observed that men and women weren't yet equal and wanted to make changes. And believing that surely I could, provided enough training and elbow grease, might educate myself and spread the message, I began to read and then actively contribute my written words to the movement. In doing my research, I came across a young adult feminist website entitled Feministing. For the sake of greater personal growth, even though it was surely difficult from the very start, I put myself under the microscope immediately.

The pressure to be the best and most observant person I could be was frequently trying. Activist groups often fall into the trap of a Salvation by Works approach, valued as they sometimes are for methodical hoop-jumping and conformity. Taking the matter to heart and in the proper spirit is a challenge, which is why this frustrating paradox presents itself over and over again. It's easy to get hung up on rules and protocol.

A movement that is, at least on one level, careful not to box itself in by exacting orthodoxy or rules of conduct expected more of me than others. Even now, if I have ever wavered a millisecond from what passes hypocrisy, in some corners, I can be easily placed back in the stockades. But this is the risk I run, and I know it. I have worked hard, but I'm always fearful I will lose every ally and supporter I have won in a decade-long process of activism and self-discovery.

And this isn't just true within Feminism or any other organization and clustered movement of like-minded individuals. It is equally true for everyone who simultaneously takes on the identity and language of Christianity, especially in front of a liberal audience. Many of my readers can be generally skeptical of organized religion in any form, transforming me into the living incarnation of defense attorney, the ardent apologist for the cause. The labels we assign to ourselves aren't important to us, until, of course, they are.

In the course of this looking inward, I recognized with time why many women do not assign the label of feminist to themselves, and why even more men run away from the classification and button badge. I suppose the easiest path for me to follow would have been to back off, disavow myself from previous statements, and lessen the pressure to be perfect. I could have flip-flopped easily and choked the foul deed down. But I haven't done this and the bulls-eye on my back remains.

I'm committed to an ideal that would put women and men on equal standing with each other. Implicit in this understanding, however, is the knowledge is that every sentient being is imperfect and at times even hypocritical. Religion teaches us that we must forgive ourselves first. Only then can we begin to forgive others.

Among some of who might read my words, I recognize that my life story and my beliefs can push the envelope. The God talk, biblical citations, and religious language I use may be off-putting or even alienating. I take a risk. I am cautious not to favor one side over another. Sometimes I see myself in the same light as Jimmy Carter, a man who wore his religious convictions on his sleeve, even though he was aware that such a public display made many people very uncomfortable.

I was judged from the outset and didn't start off well, I really wasn't able to get off on the proper footing. Timing was part of the problem. I found myself in the middle of very intensive trauma therapy (badly needed, but extremely emotionally wrenching), which left me raw and frayed. I began reaching out to people I didn't know very well, clamoring for help and assistance. Since then, I have blocked out much of those times, both deliberately and unconsciously. In a healthier state, I would have kept many things to myself and tried the patience and tolerance of others much less.

What I expected is not what I received. Instead, I was treated to a variety of different responses and reactions from other people. Many of these, in hindsight, were counter-productive to my journey. A few were sympathetic and understanding, which is the ideal response anyone can receive in circumstances like these. Unfortunately, some could only see my vulnerability and extreme honesty in unfavorable, jarring terms. Negative adjectives were often thrown about regarding my behavior, which was eccentric in the best of times.

Since then, I've tried my best not to label others with mental illness more severe than mine as weird, strange, or creepy. That's only fair. If I really want to live my Quaker faith, I will strive to see that of God in everyone. But even before I had made the conscious decision to re-embrace Christianity, I rarely felt any need to cut people down to size who were guilty only of being chronically ill. Those of my own generation are often more accepting and understanding of mental illness, and I'm thankful for that. I trust anyone who reads this will see things on those terms.
As for myself, I'm grateful for the people who knew I was unwell, didn't judge me harshly, and guided me to health. At times, I remind myself of the founder of my faith, George Fox, who also suffered with periodic bouts of depression. At times he shut himself up in his room, too mentally and physically exhausted to do much else. Other times he pursued a haphazard course, bouncing from person to person, seeking a lasting cure for his maladies.

I imagine that others must have treated him much as I was and have been in my own life. Some gave him treatments to try, steps to follow, procedures to consider, and general guidance. Fox tried each of them; none were successful or satisfactory. That is, until the voyage of final discovery that made him, as it is often quoted, leap for joy.

I still want to be seen as a good male ally, a feminist crusader for justice. Challenging myself to see the Divine in others requires my participation, too. But even with the best of intentions, I cannot undo the damage that certain people, especially men, have caused in some. I can be understanding and stand in solidarity, but the hard work that needs to be done cannot be undertaken wholly by me. I would not hoist that banner skyward if I could. That work is not entirely mine.

I could be callous and ungenerous very easily. I could push victims aside in similar ways, labeling their behavior out of bounds. I could wash my hands and ignore their stories. But I choose not to, just as much as I try to remain under the microscope. This is hard work. Everyone has trigger points, boundaries, and sensitive parts to them. From time to time we stumble upon them, then do all we can manage, which is to apologize and make note of it in our minds.

It is a great tragedy that victims of abuse with ample reasons not to trust others are left holding the bag at the end. I've had my own share. I hope God will put the proper words of comfort and understanding into my mouth. Everyone recognizes that in seeking to help through our words, we may unintentionally offend or insult others who are struggling with their own inward journey towards health. I pray that my own ignorance will not cause harm to others, even if my intentions are noble and well-meaning. Hatred and anger is easy. Taking the high road is not.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Quote of the Week

"There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."- Gerald Ford, 1976 Presidential Debate.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Saturday Video

Saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way

None of you stand so tall
Pink Moon gonna get ye all
And it's a pink moon

Yes, a pink moon
Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon
Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon

I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
None of you stand so tall

Pink moon gonna get ye all
And it's a pink moon

Yes, a pink moon

Friday, September 02, 2016

A Faith Group Adds Its Own Cracks to the Glass Ceiling

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.- Galatians 3:28

The Scriptural passage included above served, way back in the 17th Century, as justification for equality between the sexes. In the middle of civil war and a resulting power vacuum, a new faith emerged in England. Like so much with the massive text we call the Holy Bible, every faith selectively picks and chooses which verses and passages to emphasize when codifying its own theology and inner vocabulary. As many have noted before me, the text itself is broad enough that there is more than enough room for interpretation for a multitude of religious persuasions and personal persuasions. My own chose this particular verse to suit its own ends. It happens also to intersect neatly with my political and personal beliefs, which is a large reason I became a Quaker.

But I digress. If current trends hold, the United States of America will soon elect its first female president. In the midst of the insults and craziness of this nasty election year, there simply hasn’t been enough attention given to the significance of what may well result on Election Day. The achievement would be more notable in a predictable, routine election cycle, but this has not been the case. Electing and then re-electing the first black President followed immediately by placing the first woman President in the office of the Chief Executive would be very significant for many reasons. Some of them are merely symbolic, some are real and tactile.

What may be confirmed the first week of November will satisfy my own thirst for equality in both a religious and a political sphere. More than a few members of the Religious Society of Friends, usually known as Quakers, will note three hundred and fifty years of steady progress finally fulfilled. Gender equality of any sort in 1640's England was a radical proposition, extreme enough to arouse great fear in government leaders and offensive enough to produce mocking insults from prominent commentators and essayists of the day. Some never took Friends seriously, others would sooner throw them in jail or even subject them to public execution. Only a half-mad group of religious zealots would dare propose such audacious ideas and have the crazed insistence to try to live by them.

Notable about the early Quakers was the amount of side by side work that men and women performed, in organizing and in preaching alike. As a matter of fact, without the assistance of a particularly influential woman as benefactor, the entire movement might never have gotten off the ground. Her deep pockets, inward convictions, and political clout made the movement much of what it was. I use this particular example as the benchmark of what I wish to see in my own life and in my own time. I have benefited from the progress made. I have had many fruitful collaborations with women co-workers and women who are of my same religious persuasion. I have appreciated their insight and skillful eye for the detail. They have been mentors as well, and I am grateful for their presence in my life.

Returning to the past, Margaret Fell, an early convert to the faith, was both wealthy and politically influential. Fell was also a member of the landed gentry, owning an estate named Swarthmoore Hall, which served as the hub of Quaker activity in the early days. In time, she would take George Fox, the founder of the faith, as her second husband. This union followed the death of her her first husband, who had been a barrister and member of Parliament. As a brief side-note, Swarthmore College, located in the state of Pennsylvania, is named after this estate. Swarthmore was once affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends, but now it is independent, though the college does retain some of its traditions.

Nothing in life is quite so simplistic, no cause purely fair or unfair. Even those committed to gender integration and egalitarian worship are not always the purest of believers. Friendly audiences will justly point out that business meetings at the outset were often segregated by gender. This was a decision not necessarily made to exclude. Many women felt as though they could speak more frankly and honestly if they weren’t surrounded by their husbands, brothers, and male relatives.

Idealism must sometimes be tempered with pragmatism. To this day, in the older Meetinghouses, one can often see the partitioned space that separated men from women. To show how far we’ve come, we have progressed enough as a society and a Religious Society that this real and visually prominent separation is no longer deemed necessary. Some would build partitions. Others would seek a day where we would question the wisdom of building walls of any shape or size or height. Robert Frost wrote that something there is that doesn't love a wall.

Speaking in broader terms, it may be instructive once more to take the long view. These are a few examples. In the beginning, the United States, by way of Thomas Jefferson, insisted that all men should be created equal, but it was implied that equality in this context meant only white men with some degree of social standing and wealth. After the Civil War, the victorious Union was divided amongst itself as to what suffrage really meant. Did this mean the extension of the vote to freedmen formerly in bondage? The country as a whole never managed to resolve an issue almost as contentious as the war that had immediately come before it, necessitating a second Reconstruction that we now collectively call The Civil Rights Movement.

Following the first Reconstruction, women demanded the right of suffrage, but were not granted the ability to cast a ballot until about a hundred years ago. To today’s audience, it seems incredible that women wouldn’t automatically have what we now consider the most basic right of citizenship. A hundred years ago is a blink of an eye in the vast expanse of time, but likely none of us currently living can remember an epoch where women weren't allowed to vote.

Not long ago, women were valued for their behind the scenes work, their domestic duties, while men were expected to be the public front of any marriage or relationship. Now, if Hillary Clinton is elected, I wonder if we are finally ready to cast aside old prejudices and embrace the future. I know that some people out there hold silent reservations, even today. I hear the same criticisms about women heads of state that are made about women police officers or women who hold occupations where the dual qualities of emotional strength and decisive decision-making are part of the job description. 

To even begin to answer that question, it is possible that we need to speak to the parts of us that we usually prefer to keep hidden. Some of us might think any female President lacks the toughness needed for, without hyperbole, the most stressful, most challenging, most intense job in the world. The great responsibilities required have utterly destroyed men, if we presume that men are somehow more innately geared for a task that Herculean, requiring the toughest hide imaginable. These are the assumptions that must be challenged, the subtle doubts many still entertain within themselves.

We would be debating issues like these if someone other than Donald Trump was running against Hillary Clinton. We would be circumspect and contemplative, not reactive and confused. Instead, the media has been chasing around the antics of a buffoon. We would be debating the evidence of the cracks in the glass ceiling, but instead we have been driven to distraction by a news media that can't resist obsessively documenting the behavior of a charlatan. Let’s not take the bait and instead try to make sense of where we are and where we want to be.

Quakers can view the likely election of Hillary Clinton as the culmination of its own hard work. As the Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement proclaimed, we’ve come a long way, baby. I am willing to celebrate, even if, like so many, if I am not enthralled the candidate. Friends can be justly proud of their accomplishments, assuming the election goes for Clinton, but I would caution against seeming too self-satisfied or smug. Men and women are not yet equal, in ways that go beyond rates of pay and long held fears. It would be best for us to discard the distractions of spectacle and courageously move forward to nobler pursuits.