Monthly Archives: May 2011

Things My Childhood Taught Me #nonfiction #rants

Things My Childhood Taught Me

            DISCLAIMER: This essay probably doesn’t have the kind of purposeful ambiguity that makes for good creative nonfiction writing. It is, in other words, probably a bit too straightforward and preachy. But I feel the need to say it anyway, given recent events. I therefore call it a rant—the first in a series, probably. Thanks for understanding. 

            DISCLAIMER #2: In this writing, I talk about unnamed family members, friends, and acquaintances. The experiences I discuss below are not necessarily indicative of what these people are like in most respects, nor do I claim that they constantly evince the attitudes attributed to them below. I am merely demonstrating how I learned what I learned.

            Recently on Facebook, I found myself in the middle of an argument about abortion. I don’t know how I get into these things. I had linked to a recent article detailing the new Texas law requiring abortion-seeking women to get a sonogram and have a doctor explain its meaning before undergoing any procedure. I see this law, and others like it, as part of the right-wing war on women, the same war that has resulted in other unconscionable laws being proposed and, in some cases, passed. I’m sure there’s another essay or six to be mined from proposals that want to redefine rape for the benefit of men or that, in one case, distinguishes between rape and “forcible rape,” as if any other kind exists. Much of what I’ve seen on this subject seems flat-out insane; even more seems dangerous and regressive.

            The odd part about my posting the article on the Texas law? I did not say one word to defend abortion. I simply asked why, if such a law is going to exist, it doesn’t make a similar requirement of men.  “It takes a man, or at least a man’s sperm, to get pregnant,” I reasoned. Men enjoy the privilege of walking away from a pregnancy if they wish, and their choices to do so—as well as other factors like the mother’s education, her employment situation, the parents’ families’ willingness to help out, and the existence (or lack thereof) of aid programs—affect a woman’s decision to abort or not just as much as her own self-interest or morals. Are there callous women who use abortion over and over as a means of retroactive birth control? Probably, and I admitted as much. But I believe that the majority of women who seek abortions do so for a plethora of reasons, not simply for convenience, and I know for a fact that these women suffer all kinds of consequences for their decisions—emotional, mental, financial, religious, physical, social. My wife Kalene recently read an article in which a doctor stated that 40% of American women have had abortions. I have no idea how accurate that statement is, but in any case, it is dangerous to characterize abortion as an uncommon act perpetrated by a few immoral women who simply don’t want to bother with a baby. Such an attitude encourages us to ignore the very real trauma that leads up to and follows an abortion.  

            The Texas law, and others like it, oversimplifies a complex situation by dumping all responsibility on the woman instead of sharing her burden (or blessing, or responsibility, or whatever you want to call it) with the man, the potential grandparents, or the state. That was my point—not to praise abortion per se, but to support women. Still, the discussion thread that followed sidetracked us all into a discussion of abortion itself—whether it should be legal and why, whether it can ever be considered a moral decision, whether we can understand why some women choose it, who should get to make that choice, and, finally, whether the Bible has anything to say about the situation.

            Should anyone like to know my actual views on abortion and why I am a staunchly pro-choice Christian, I’ll be glad to write a column about that in the future. But today I am interested in discussing how the abortion debate led me to consider my formative years and what I learned then.

            During the Facebook conversation, my own mother chose to articulate her own view on abortion. From her fundamentalist point of view, abortion is always wrong, no matter the circumstances; the Bible, she says, remains clear on this matter. As proof, she offered multiple scriptures that, in her view, baldly stated how life begins at conception and that abortion therefore constitutes baby-killing. When I read the scriptures, I found that none of them seemed to address the genesis of the soul, or the point at which life begins, or God’s stance on abortion. At best, they were ambiguous; at worst, they seemed completely off-topic and/or out of context. Thus, while I admired her conviction and her courage in standing up for her beliefs, I doubted that her evidence would convince anyone not already on her side. What really troubled me, though, was a statement that she later made: “We were not by any means perfect parents. We made many, many mistakes, but we did our best to instill Christian morals and beliefs in [Brett] as a child. We no longer have any say in what he does or what he believes, but I know he’s a good man, and I stand on the promise that God will bring him back to his Christian teachings.”

            Upon reading this, I felt simultaneously proud of her assessing me a good man and angry about the rest. Here’s how I responded to that particular comment: “I take offense at the idea that I’ve got to come ‘back to my Christian teachings.’ I’ve never left them. I have a strong relationship with my God and, for the first time in my life, spiritual peace. I have achieved that peace by rejecting much of what I learned when I was a kid–not necessarily from my parents or family, but from society at large. But the teachings that I base my life on–faith, and love, and charity, and helping one’s neighbor, and so forth–stem directly from what I believe God wants me to do and what my own conscience tells me is right. I don’t hold all the political beliefs that my parents do–perhaps not any–but I reject the notion that I’m somehow spiritually bankrupt because I believe in a woman’s right to choose what happens with her own body.”

            Though I’ve taken a rather circumlocutious route to get here, these ideas, readers, represent the crux of what I’m after today. I am forty years old as of this writing—older than I can sometimes believe, especially given that I’m just now able to concentrate on my writing as a career, but still young, hopefully not even middle-aged. I am who I am today because of what I learned in the past—the past as recent as yesterday and the past as far back as the beginnings of my memory. Much of what I learned seems positive to me. Other lessons were negative, and many of these were taught me in the context of “good Christian morals” or “political ethics.” Allow me to illustrate, with a series of anecdotes, why I believe that rejecting much of what I learned as a child has molded me into the man I am today, for better or worse.

            I come from an immediate and an extended family that is deeply steeped in Christian tradition. My mother’s family members mostly go to the same Assembly of God church in Crossett, a small town in southeast Arkansas. My paternal grandfather was a Baptist deacon; my father has served in the same capacity. Some of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents on my mother’s side used to tour the area in a gospel band, singing in all kinds of churches. They did so after and beyond their work hours and their family responsibilities. If someone needs a meal, or prayer, or clothes, you won’t find anybody acting as fast or with as much conviction as my family. These are good people in most ways.

            But they have their blind spots. Once, I sat with an aunt at a family gathering. She was praising a local sports team’s accomplishments—games won, tournaments conquered, teamwork represented. Then she said, triumphantly, “And they did it all without any blacks!” She did not explain why that might be considered an extraordinary accomplishment, as if her conclusion was self-evident.

            Another time, at a Christmas gathering and right after a heartfelt prayer for blessing, one of my cousins and I were talking college football. I was extolling the virtues of LSU, my alma mater, and he was arguing in favor of the Arkansas Razorbacks. He has no connection to the Razorbacks that I know of, other than that they play in the state he lives in. He said, “You know, LSU should change their team colors from purple and gold to green and pink.”

            “What are you talking about?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

            “You know, watermelon?” he said. I still looked puzzled, so he sighed and said, “Niggers! That team is full of niggers!”

            A college football team with African-American players? Perish the thought! I had no idea how to respond to his statement, because I felt so taken aback at the very thought of disliking a team for its racial components. I thought we were living in the 21st century, not the early 19th. I also never learned why he thought Arkansas’s black players were somehow exempt from his attitude. Ah, the “logic” of racism…

            Another time, again not long after a family prayer thanking God for His blessings, an elderly family member opined that her neighborhood was falling into disrepair and squalor. For her evidence, she mentioned the recent increase in noise, attributable to “the blacks who have been moving in.” Personally, I didn’t know that African-Americans brought with them ambient noise.

            These are three of the milder examples I experienced. Countless times when I was growing up, I heard some of these good Christian people use the term “nigger” uncritically, spitting it out of their mouths like rotten meat. Show them an individual black person in need, and they are as quick as anyone to help in any way they can. They are empathetic and compassionate. But remove the individual from the situation and the faceless mass of “niggers” becomes an object of dread, spite, even hatred. I have remained unable to locate the disconnect between this racism and the rest of their values, but it exists.

            I saw more evidence of such a disconnect in school, where student groupings often broke down on racial lines.  Oh, we all played on the same sports teams and went to the same classes; during those times, you might have been fooled into thinking that racism had gone extinct in the south. But after school, or even during lunch, racial groups went their separate ways. I can’t speak to what happened in other groups, but amidst my group of white friends—again, good people in most ways—the term “nigger” was used freely and uncritically. So were terms like “faggot.” I would see these same people in church, praising God and discussing the values of love and charity and human connection. And it bothered me from an early age. I wasn’t always thoughtful or courageous enough to act on my feelings, but I knew in my heart that what I saw and heard often wasn’t right.

            At the church my parents made me go to during my teen years—a place that I hated, a place that made me feel farther from God than I ever have—I once heard a prominent member say that if any niggers ever walked in the church doors, they would walk right back out again, or he would.

            And so, as I grew up, I learned that it’s okay to be Christian and still hate people who looked different than me, especially if they were black. I learned it at school, in church, and at family gatherings. I even learned it when I drove through town, knowing that most black people lived in the section between the western city limits and the highway known as the “truck route.” Racist white people often referred to this section as “nigger town,” as if it were a separate place altogether. I’ve searched the scriptures and my own conscience over the years, and I have never found one single shred of evidence that Christ justifies such hatred and exclusion. Not one. Yet so many Christians obviously harbor hatred in their hearts.

            I mentioned above that many of my professing Christian friends used the word “faggot.” They also used “queer,” “fag,” “chocolate-churner,” “ass-bandit,” and just about every other pejorative name you can think of. These terms served to ostracize people who already did not fit in, regardless of what their actual sexualities might have been—the comic book readers with thick glasses and bad skin, the poor kids who could not afford good clothes and whose parents did not seem to own a washing machine, the gentle boys who were not interested in sports and the thickly-built girls who were. Back then at least, the children of that town seemed hyper-aware of sexuality and perfectly willing to verbally abuse, shun, and even beat up those who exhibited even one highly-stereotypical characteristic that supposedly connoted “gay.” I watched some good kids go through high school miserably, having been saddled with a label that they did not understand. Others who were gay, but closeted mostly out of self-preservation, stayed constantly on guard against themselves, lest they betray a sign of who they really were. They could not seek love, or physical contact, or acceptance because they would have been mercilessly mocked or worse, and by the people you saw in church every Sunday. This happened in late 20th-century America, in a town with more churches than you could count.

            I do not claim to be a Biblical scholar, but I do not remember a single scripture in which Christ speaks out against homosexuality. There are some Biblical passages that seem to, but most of these are taken wildly out of context or refer to historical circumstances that no longer apply. I have read the works of Biblical scholars who feel the same way. In no case do I find that the Bible supports hatred of gay people or violence against them, or anyone else for that matter. Yet those who enact the worst violence against alleged gay people—and others assumed to be gay who are in fact not—often do so in God’s name. I wonder what He thinks of that.

            Once, during my first divorce, I moved in with a friend and his father, who happened to be bisexual. I needed a place to go while I sorted things out, and they took me in without question. Later, when talking with a close family member who was extraordinarily active in his church, he said, “I hope you’re having a good time living with that queer,” pronouncing the word as he might “demon” or “Nazi.”

              And so I learned—in school, with my family, and in and around church—that you can be Christian and hate gay people.

            Familial relations appear to be a problematic area, too. Once, while I was attending my first wife’s church, one of her brothers had been scheduled to sing during service; I’m sure anyone who has gone to church is familiar with the “solo.” This church was fairly large, so it had a good sound system that piped the music and vocals from the pulpit to speakers at the back of the hall, into the vestibule, even into the nursery. Someone controlled the sound from a mixing board located in back of the church; on the day of my ex-brother-in-law’s solo, his own uncle was running the board. But as the song commenced, the sound faded in and out, usually during the most emotive portions. I looked back at the uncle, and he did not seem alarmed or even aware that anything was wrong.

            After the service, I asked my ex about it. She said, “Yeah, he was mad that his son hadn’t gotten to sing, so he was messing up the sound on purpose.”

            And so I learned that it’s okay to be Christian and to screw over your own family because of petty jealousy and spite.

            In this same town lives a man who drives an old lawnmower everywhere he goes. Something is wrong with his head, and I don’t mean that metaphorically; his skull is actually crooked, tilting far out of true. This man is poor; he doesn’t drive a lawnmower because of the gas mileage. He is dirty; I have never seen him wear anything but the same pair of grimy, grease-and-dirt-stained overalls. He usually goes barefoot. He works, if I am not mistaken, odd jobs. He is, in other words, a good example of the financially downtrodden, the physically afflicted, the outcast. He is the kind of man that I believe Christ would be drawn to.

            But in that town, people make fun of him because his head is crooked, or because he drives that mower down the shoulder of our roads, or because he isn’t clean. I have heard such comments made in a church parking lot as the man puttered by on his mower. And so I learned that you can be Christian and reject those in need, that you can be pious and make fun of others’ misfortune.

            Did I learn anything positive while I was growing up? Of course I did. I learned positive lessons from my parents, my schools, my friends. But many of the lessons I learned were also negative; in other words, I learned what kind of man I did not want to be through the examples I saw around me. I did not do so immediately; I don’t claim to be better than any of the people I’ve discussed. When I was much younger, I too used words like “nigger” and “faggot.” I too made fun of the poor and negatively judged women who found themselves in adverse circumstances. I too shunned people who weren’t like me; I even participated in some of those verbal and physical rejections of difference that I discussed above.

            But I did so, I can now honestly say, to my everlasting shame. Even back then, when I heard such words and saw or even participated in such actions, a voice deep inside me cried out, “This isn’t right! You’re a liar and a hypocrite! You don’t really feel this way!” And as I grew up, I discovered that the voice was right. I was professing to be a good person, a good Christian, while my actual life exemplified beliefs that contradicted progressive politics, Christian teaching, and my own conscience. If I do any time in hell, I believe it will be because of what I did and failed to do in those early days, not because I believe in a woman’s right to choose or because I can understand why some women feel abortion to be their only choice.

            What I have done differently from so many of my peers and relatives—and I only say “differently” because you have to judge for yourself whether my beliefs are any better or worse than theirs—is that I have tried to reject those negative lessons. Rather than refusing to think about the contradictions in my stated values and my actual life, I have tried to bring the two into a kind of harmony. Rather than dismissing my own early complicity in hatred, I have tried to own it and make up for it. I don’t do so out of guilt alone; I don’t believe in civil rights for everyone, for instance, only because I feel bad that I once ignored any societal problems that didn’t directly affect me. I do so because I truly believe that it’s right—that it is what my own conscience, and my God, would have me do. I have tried to make myself a better person so that I can make the world better, and I have tried to pass those values onto my children as a counterbalance to the negative lessons that I know they, too, are learning deep in the American south.

            Does this make me (or people who think like I do) some kind of role model or paragon of virtue? No. But for the first time in my life, it does allow me to look at myself in the mirror and like what I see, to sleep at night knowing that if I didn’t contribute anything especially transcendent to the world today, then at least I didn’t make things worse. I have tried to take the positive lessons of my youth and apply them. And I have tried to take the negative lessons and build something positive from them. I try to serve as an ally for those in need, those I might have once mindlessly rejected. I don’t try to speak for them, because they can speak for themselves, but I try to do my part, and I am honored when they allow me to be a part of their missions. I strive to live by the principles of love, faith, hope, charity, and acceptance, and on those occasions when I still fail, I wake up the next day, ready to try again. I am at peace with myself and with God.

            And in this imperfect world, perhaps that has to be enough.

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January 6th, 2004 #flashfiction #writing

January 6th, 2004

            You stopped walking long enough to tie your shoe and in that moment everything changed. The cessation of your quick and determined pace allowed your pulse to slow down, almost imperceptibly. Because of the fatigue poisons coursing through your body, you took longer than you normally would to make a knot. As you hunched over, the other pedestrians swerved around you, some almost unconsciously, none giving you more than the most cursory of glances. They had other places to be and only so much time to get there, after all. You did not look at them; you were staring at your shoe, thinking of nothing in particular. The stream of slacks and blue jeans and skirts pocketed you against the wall. And so when the first shot rang out and the first person fell, their brains and their blood marking the wall in abstract patterns of finality, you were hidden, safe, saved not by the jogging you had done every daybut by an untied shoelace that might have remained fast on any other morning.

Whose Language Is It, Anyway? #nonfiction

Whose Language Is It, Anyway? Musings on Words Fair and Foul

     Several years ago, I found myself in an annoying online conversation with one of my oldest daughter’s friends. It started out civilly enough, but eventually, due to the sensitive nature of the subject, I had to let him know that what we were discussing was really none of his business. At that point, like many keyboard warriors of the Information Age, he got awfully brave, knowing that he lived what he considered to be a safe distance away from me. His messages began to border on the disrespectful, at which point I advised him to stop talking. His reply should be familiar to anyone who has tried to tell a teenager that he or she should watch his or her mouth: “I have free speech, so I can say what I want to.”
“Son,” I replied, “just because the government won’t come and arrest you for saying something doesn’t mean I won’t show up at your door and kick your ass.”

     The problem with this kid’s thinking was that he believed “free speech” means that anyone can say anything at any time. But “free speech” does not mean “speech without consequence.” Whenever you say something to anyone, in public or interpersonally, you have to gauge the possible consequences of your language. Otherwise, you might find yourself in jail (if, say, you yell “fire” in a crowded theater when no fire exists) or expelled (if, say, you use hate speech in a university classroom) or beaten to within an inch of your life. Other possible consequences include losing friends, being socially censured, and having to defend your ideas and diction.

     As a writer and an academic, I am hyper-sensitive to language, its uses, the forums in which it is used, and its consequences. I firmly believe in a free press, in free speech, in freedom of expression. I hate censorship in any form. But I am also aware of the difference between censorship and disagreement, between free speech and rudeness or hatefulness. I don’t believe that I can control others’ language or that I should try, though I do often call attention to how that language might be perceived and whether or not it should have been used. In the example above, I wanted to stop the discussion about private family matters because they were private, and I wanted him to reconsider his tone not only for my sake but for his; after all, if I didn’t bother to kick his ass, someone else likely would in the future if he kept trying to hide his rudeness behind an imagined shield of unimpeachable “free” speech. I’m still waiting for him to thank me for the lesson.

     Another example—my students are, by and large, decent and smart enough not to use words like “nigger” or “faggot” in class, knowing that such words constitute hate speech and that such language would create an uncomfortable learning environment for everyone else. I want to believe that they don’t use such words because they know that doing so would be morally and ethically wrong, but even if they avoid those words out of their own sense of self-preservation, at least that’s something.

     They often don’t consider the implications of more innocuous hate language, though. I still hear them say “that’s so gay” when describing something that they consider stupid or ridiculous. Somehow they don’t make the connection that using “gay,” a state of being, as a synonym for “stupid” or “silly” is just as offensive as calling someone a “faggot.” I have a friend who asks her students, “Would you be comfortable talking about the same thing and saying ‘that’s so black!’?” Most of them have never really thought about it like that before, and some of them reconsider their use of the phrase in private or in other social situations, having learned that the ability to say something legally does not always mean you should do so ethically or morally. If they still choose to use such language in their homes, at their parties, and the like, I have two choices: 1) keep trying to educate them and hope they eventually see the light, and, failing that, 2) avoid them. I can’t force them to be good people at heart; I can only make a good case and hope.

     If they do use language that is universally considered hate speech (except, of course, among bigots, who often firmly believe that they aren’t bigots, evidence and common sense be damned), they are rightly subject to discipline. If you call someone a “faggot” in class, for example, I will ask you to leave (and call security if you refuse) and report you to the administration. The university will determine your punishment. We, the faculty and administration, are not forcing you to like and accept gay people; we are not prohibiting you from using such language on your own time or in other forums. We are simply saying that hate speech is unacceptable in our forum, not because you don’t share our values (though if what you value is hate, you don’t speak my language anyway) but because you make LGBTQ peoples and their allies feel afraid or uncomfortable in an environment where everyone should feel safe and cared for and nurtured.

     Similarly, take a major publication like The New York Times or Rolling Stone magazine. They are not guilty of censorship if they refuse to provide column space for, say, a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard or a neo-Nazi leader or a Republican like Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and so forth. They are not obligated to give everyone a forum, just as the New Republic is not required to provide space for Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow. They are not guilty of censorship if they run columns and articles against those with whom they ideologically disagree. They are not guilty of censorship if they refute alternative ideas and suggest that other people shouldn’t support such concepts.

     They are only guilty of censorship if they try to quash—not question, but actually stop— the opposition’s ability to produce their own forums, to disseminate their own ideas in their own spaces, and to make their own lingual and ideological choices in private.

      For an example of how to cross this line, take the Parents’ Television Council—please. This conservative, allegedly Christian watchdog group scrutinizes television shows and reports on any “objectionable” content. Objectionable according to whom, you ask? Why, according to the Parents’ Television Council, who seem to believe that they speak for the rest of us. Now when they watch those TV shows with their own agenda in mind, that is not censorship. That is their right. When they publish their findings on their own website and their own newsletters, that is not censorship. That is their right. When they tell us that we shouldn’t watch these shows because the programs don’t evince the right values, that is not censorship. That is their right. They are expressing an opinion and allowing people to consider their point of view.

     However, the PTC often does not stop there. They often try to organize boycotts of the shows’ sponsors and write to the networks, demanding that the shows be removed from our TV screens. At this point, they cross the line into attempted censorship. They don’t want to provide an alternative viewpoint; they want theirs to be the only viewpoint. They don’t want to influence my choice; they want to take it away. This is wrong. It’s unethical and un-American.

     Much of the debate over what we should or should not be allowed to think comes down to the language we use. A lot of those “objectionable” shows use so-called adult language—though, having once been a kid, I can personally testify that adults aren’t the only ones who use such words. And no, I didn’t learn the words from popular culture or art; I learned it from adults.

     Someone recently raised the question of what is or is not acceptable language on Facebook. One of my friends, a 63-year-old Christian politician who often disseminates progressive ideas on his personal page, used the phrase “Life’s a bitch” in a status update. The consequent debate over the word “bitch” should fascinate any linguist; were that my area, I’d probably write and publish a paper on it.

     Many of his conservative Christian friends attacked him—not questioned or debated him, but attacked him—for his use of the word, even going so far as to question his own religious beliefs. I personally don’t remember the Biblical passage that says “bitch” is an affront to God, so I didn’t really see their point. I’ve been lectured to more than once about using so-called “foul” language on Facebook; my usual response is that you’re questioning my use of the word on ethical or moral grounds, and I don’t agree with your ethical or moral definitions, so your argument doesn’t convince me. In fact, I think that “foul” language represents some of the most versatile words in English. Let’s look at a few of them.

     The word “fuck” is often unpleasant for people to hear, but it has become almost ubiquitous due to its adaptability. Taken on its own, it is a verb, one that means “to have sex,” though people often contrast it to “making love,” which has a tenderer connotation. Put a “you” after it, though, and it becomes a combination insult/aggressive response. Follow it with an “off” and you have an imperative sentence that, at the very least, seems unfriendly. If you preface it with a “to” or add an “-ing” suffix, the results are verbals that can act as nouns, meaning that they can function as sentences’ subjects, direct or indirect objects, and so forth. Pair the “-ing” form with a helping verb and you get a different verb tense than if you simply add “-ed.” Take the word by itself and put an exclamation point after it and you get a popular interjection. The “-ing” form can also function as an adjective, as in “holy fucking shit,” a phrase you often hear in the movies. Yet that form can also be an adverb, as in “fucking gross.”

     Are these expressions crude and, in certain situations, impolite? Sure. But sinful? That’s debatable. Unless “Thou shalt not say ‘fuck’” is the lost eleventh commandment, it seems that the only way to call this word “sinful” is if you stretch the definition; one might argue that since the word as a noun refers to a sexual act, and not necessarily one that takes place inside a monogamous marriage recognized by a church, then using it might—might—be sinful. But still, it seems to me that using the word itself is no more sinful than using the word “lying” or “stealing.” We might consider its use uncouth because talking about sex in public settings goes against certain social conventions, but that does not necessarily indicate sin.

     The same is true of words like “shit” and “piss.” They refer to bodily excretions, or to things that we compare to bodily excretions, and they are blunter and cruder (to some listeners, anyway) than more euphemistic words or scientific-sounding terms like “defecation” or “urination” or “excrement.” Perhaps they aren’t pleasant for some people to hear or contemplate, but that hardly makes them sinful. “Crucifixion” is unpleasant to contemplate, but we don’t censor people for using that word in public. Again, it seems to me that we’ve conflated sin with something else, whether we want to call it impoliteness or crudity or bluntness—or simply the use of colorful language.

     “Bitch” and “bastard” are considered acceptable if used in certain contexts—i.e., to mean “female dog” and “illegitimate child,” respectively. But if we talk about someone’s bitching about something, or mention that bastard at work who keeps stealing our stapler, or say that “life’s a bitch,” then the words become, to some people, unacceptable. But it’s still tough for me to understand how they can be considered sinful.

     The term “god damn” or “goddam,” as some writers (like me) spell it, could be considered sinful from a Christian perspective, given the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain. So I suppose I could understand if self-appointed lingual guardians took issue with it. When I use it in my fiction, though, it’s for purposes of realism or emphasis, not because I or my character is asking God to damn something or someone. Is that still sin? This word seems to exist in a moral gray area. Of course, for non-Christians, using the term is likely a non-issue.

     My point here is that the complainers on my friend’s Facebook page seem to be arguing for a version of Christianity that might not exist and is certainly not universally agreed upon. This makes their implications that my friend is somehow less Christian than they seem especially offensive. You might find his word choice blunt or crude or impolite, if you are of certain mindsets, but that’s as far as I’d take it. To the best of my knowledge, no one tried to have my friend exiled from Facebook, so no one is guilty of censorship; but I would suggest that there are better, more conciliatory ways of making your point about his language than deriding his faith. To judge him as less of a Christian based on his use of one word in one context seems too judgmental and unlikely to make your point; it would probably only anger him and lead to his de-friending you.

     In fact, the nature of Facebook as a social networking site implies that you are there voluntarily. No one’s holding a gun to your head and forcing you to be friends with anyone. It’s not a shared, paid-for, goal-oriented community like a college classroom. Thus, if someone’s language offends you, you should feel free to take issue with it as long as you do so in a way that makes your point, that encourages discussion and debate rather than destroying the possibility for them. And if you can’t convince them with your logic and evidence and reasonable arguments, if they still want to use language that bothers or offends you, you can always hide their posts or de-friend them. If the consequence of their language is that you will no longer be their Facebook friend, and they are willing to accept that consequence, then you have little recourse.

     What you shouldn’t do is try to censor them; it’s their page, and you don’t have to read it. You shouldn’t insult them; to do so is to react to a possibly controversial word or idea in a definitely unacceptable way. You shouldn’t assume that you know what God (or, for that matter, Mark Zuckerberg) wants and thinks better than they do just because their ideas are different. And you shouldn’t expect everyone to share your definitions of what is moral, ethical, or sinful. It simply won’t happen.

     We should not use language that devalues someone based on their states of being—language that is homophobic, racist, sexist, classist, and/or xenophobic, for instance. Everyone has a right to be who they are without someone’s using language, laws, and/or violence to oppress them. If you disagree, I won’t try to censor you from spouting your views, no matter how dangerous and sickening I find them. But I will choose to debate you civilly or ignore you. That is my choice, my freedom. Likewise, if I say “bitch” and it offends you, feel free to tell me why, as long as you’ve actually got an argument, not a knee-jerk emotional judgment. In that way, perhaps we can learn something from each other. If not, there’s always the “de-friend” button.

     Hateful and bile-ridden responses, though, teach us nothing. They leave us all in the dark, grasping for illumination. To echo Full Metal Jacket, they leave us in a “world of shit,” an ugly metaphor for an ugly situation.

     See? Sometimes the “bad” word seems like the right word, even if it makes you cringe.

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January 15th, 2004–flash fiction

I don’t think I’ve posted this one before. Sorry if I have. Coming soon–a nonfiction meditation on foul language.

January 15th, 2004

     Another new phone book arrived on the stoop today. That makes three this year. I can’t see much difference in them. One seems to be the usual directory that we’ve been getting every year of my life; the other two seem like commercials. They’ve got corporate logos on the covers, like something handed to you on a tour, along with your key chain and your letterhead notepad.

     I’m using the first two as doorstops. I needed a way to keep my bedroom door from closing at night, because it swings shut on its own, prohibiting the cat from reaching her litter box. I’ve got another one on the bathroom floor, because that door won’t stay open, either, and it gets too hot in there when I’m showering. Once I stepped out of the tub and saw that the cat had somehow gotten onto the counter. She was staring at the fogged-up mirror, as if looking for the image of herself that had always been there before. While I watched, she reached out and brushed the mirror with her paw, wiping away part of the steam. The clear spot looked like a comma without a sentence to punctuate.

     Sometimes she sits on the phone book in my bedroom. Her tail curls up around the edge. It’s as if she’s sheltering it from something, perhaps from disappearing into the mist like the cat in the mirror.

A Hole in the World: Life, Death, and What We Leave Behind #nonfiction

     My next nonfiction piece here was going to be about language fair and foul. That column is still coming, but I felt that this one was more pressing. Thanks for indulging me.

A Hole in the World: Life, Death, and What We Leave Behind

     Yesterday, Kalene walked into the room, her eyes filled with tears.

     “What’s wrong?” I asked.

     “Tom Pilkington died,” she said, her voice broken by deep sobs.

     I felt shocked like I suppose you always do when someone you know dies. I began calculating his age and knew that he was, by my standards, far too young; I think that with today’s medical technology, anybody’s too young to die unless they’re at least 85. Tom was much younger than that, and, I had assumed, healthy. But after her crying abated for a time, Kalene told me that he had in fact been severely diabetic, a condition that likely contributed to his death. It’s too soon for us to know all the details, but the very suddenness of his passing seems too tragic and frightening to ignore. I guess we’re all truly living on borrowed time. To echo Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, we’d all better get busy living, because we’re already busy dying.

     I suppose that’s morbid, but it’s also true. I think about what I’m doing with my life all the time—the work I’m doing, the effects I’m having or lack thereof, and so forth. We probably all do it, especially when someone we know dies.

     I didn’t know Tom Pilkington well. I met him once, ten years or so ago. He struck me as a fine man—kind, generous, intelligent. He was an academic who took his profession seriously, yet he did not strike me as the kind of man who only thought about overblown theoretical abstractions. More to the point, he served as Kalene’s professor, Master’s thesis director, mentor, and friend. She thought the world of him, and that’s good enough for me.

     Word of his passing spread quickly. Kalene found out from a friend’s Facebook post. She called her other friend and mentor, Dr. Mallory Young, and together they commiserated, sharing information and memories. I did not listen to their conversation, but knowing both of these wonderful people as I do, I know they were supportive of each other and devastated that such a good friend and colleague had passed on.

     Tom’s death has left a hole in the world. People like Kalene will miss him greatly for the rest of their lives. He made a positive impression on people. He leaves behind a body of academic and critical work that will keep his name and spirit alive. His death created ripples that touched everyone who knew him and set off a chain of Facebook posts, phone calls, and, undoubtedly, emails and face-to-face conversations in which the news spread quickly, running just ahead of the sadness and pain.

     By contrast, let us consider the case of Yvette Vickers, the 82-year-old former actress and pin-up queen. On April 27th, the same day that tornadoes ravaged Alabama, a desiccated, nearly mummified corpse was discovered in her home. According to Entertainment Weekly and other sources, the body is believed to be Vickers’, though its condition will slow identification. Authorities believe that Vickers, if the body is indeed hers, may have died nearly a year ago.

     At the end of the fall 2010 semester, I took a portable DVD player to school during finals week. I also packed a cheap collection of old horror films, just to pass the time as I waited for students to show up and turn in their final papers. I reached into this collection, which contained some true gems like Metropolis and Nosferatu but mostly covered B- and C-pictures, and randomly pulled out Attack of the Giant Leeches.

     This film just happened to star Yvette Vickers.

     She played Liz Walker, the hottie cheating wife of a local store owner. If you should ever have the misfortune to watch the film, you’ll probably find that Vickers’ portrayal of a backwoods cuckoldress is about the only memorable part. The acting is forgettable (including much of hers); the “monsters” look less like leeches and more like men dressed in poorly-painted garbage bags. At barely over an hour, the film’s running time doesn’t even qualify it as feature-length by today’s standards.

     But Vickers’ character is much more interesting than the rest—the annoying lover who glad-hands the cuckold husband until they get caught, at which point he happily throws his lover under the bus; the overweight husband who, the audience is encouraged to believe, should never have been with this woman in the first place for all kinds of reasons; the bland hero and heroine, who seem to have nothing better to do than paddle around a swamp all day. Vickers’ Liz Walker dismisses her husband as the hick buffoon that he is, her voice dripping with condescension. It’s a mostly one-note performance that calls for little else beyond a bit of screaming and lolling about in underwater caves, pretending to be exhausted from all the blood-letting. But she plays the one-note well enough to stand out in such a crummy film.

     Vickers starred in other cult films like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and even had a part in HUD. She was hardly Elizabeth Taylor or Meryl Streep, but she worked in film and TV for years. She was not homeless; in the news articles I’ve read, neighbors described her as a quiet person who kept to herself, who seemed to love her flowers and her privacy. She was not, unless I’m mistaken, a shut-in, given that people had seen her outside her home enough to recognize her.

     In the age of Facebook and Twitter, of cell phones and Skype, of iPads that can track your location and GPS systems available for cheap on the Internet, how does a person like Yvette Vickers disappear for nearly a year without anyone noticing?

     Though we should be disgusted and saddened at the fact, we would understand if she had been homeless or a completely isolated agoraphobe. Our society seems to view certain people as disposable; in fact, we seem to have implicitly agreed to a hierarchy of existence. Somehow, even though she was white and financially solvent enough to afford a house, Yvette Vickers fell through the cracks. She lived; she died; she shriveled up like a piece of jerky. And for almost a year, no one noticed.

     Even if the body in her house turns out not to be hers, she has still effectively disappeared; in fact, that would mean that two people have vanished as if they never existed—Vickers and whoever lay in her house for all those months.

     How is such a thing possible? How could we have let it happen? Are we so self-involved that we don’t even miss people when they’re gone unless someone calls us or leaves a message on our walls or waves a sign in front of our faces?

     Whenever we think about our deaths, it is, I would imagine, difficult for us to picture the world without us in it. After all, we’ve never known life to go on without ourselves. Sure, we know logically that the universe existed before us and will keep on going long after we’re gone. But it’s one thing to know logically and another to understand on a deep emotional level. When we die, we will leave people behind. Our houses and our cars will still stand where we left them, and someone will have to deal with them. But we all hope for more of a legacy than that.

     For some of us, our kids will be our legacy. For others, the work we do will resonate in the post-us world. I am lucky enough to have both three children who are all turning into good people and careers in teaching and writing. Though nothing is guaranteed, I’ve got a better shot than most people do, the kind of shot Tom Pilkington had.

     But it’s also similar to the kind Yvette Vickers had, and I believe that even the most jaded among us don’t want to end up like she did. We hope people will remember us fondly. We hope they will remember us, period.

     Vickers worked in the horror industry, so I think it’s fitting that I end this piece with a reference to the best horror-romance-comedy-adventure universe in the history of television—that of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a classic episode of the Buffy spin-off Angel, our main character and his frenemy Spike have ventured into a subterranean realm in an attempt to cure their friend Fred, who has fallen victim to the vengeful spirit of a demi-god. Afraid for Fred and saddened at their failure to find a cure, Angel and Spike find themselves looking down the throat of an enormous cavern that, allegedly, goes all the way through to the other side of the planet.

     Spike, his voice much more somber and restrained than usual, looks at Angel and says, “There’s a hole in the world. It seems like we ought to have known.”

     Tom Pilkington left a hole in the world, and everyone who knew him is standing beside that hole, wishing that he were here to fill it. Yvette Vickers left no such hole; her passing barely made a ripple.

     How will we end up? Who will notice when we’re gone?
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**UPDATE** This week’s Entertainment Weekly has a feature article on Vickers, in which they provide subsequent details. It seems that, suffering from dementia, Vickers did become a shut-in during the last months of her life; the woman who found her reports that she had barricaded herself inside the house. Still, I think the point holds; how could no one realize that she had been dead for so long?**

February 23rd, 2004 #flashfiction #writing #fiction

Sorry for the lack of updates over the last week. I’ve been finishing up the spring semester. Now I’ve got a lot of revising to do, so it may be another week or so before I can write a new column here. In the meantime, here’s another old flash piece I’ve got in my files. I’ll post something new ASAP–hopefully in a couple of days at most.

February 23rd, 2004

     The rapper was shouting something about bitches and bullets, but we couldn’t hear him. The bass was crushing us, driving us against the wall, like the heartbeat of some angry, insane god. Someone near us was pulling out a Gat, but none of us cared. We were all holding our ears, driving our palms into our temples. I felt that something inside me was tearing loose, was being driven out of its hole and into the dark of the club. I saw the flash of the muzzle, watched the gun jump in his hand, but I heard nothing but bass, the backbeat of someone’s death.

Another Storm of the Century #nonfiction

Another Storm of the Century: A Voice from Tuscaloosa

     Back in August of 2005, I sat in my second-floor Baton Rouge apartment and watched Hurricane Katrina swirling over the Gulf of Mexico. The monster storm angled ever closer to the Louisiana coastline, headed, it seemed, for New Orleans, my favorite city in the world. Like every other person who gave a damn, I could only watch in helpless horror as the coasts of not one but three states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—crumbled before Katrina’s fury. In my part of Baton Rouge, we lost power for thirteen hours or so. Some of our refrigerated foods spoiled. An hour away from New Orleans, I listened to the rifle cracks of trees splitting in half around our complex and could only imagine what it must be like at the sites of landfall. I ventured outside to check on my car, performing the mime “walking against the wind” routine, only with actual wind; I had to lean forward nearly forty-five degrees and plod along as if I were knee-deep in swamp mud. When I ascertained that my car had survived the floral carnage in evidence all around me, I turned back and found myself high-stepping along like a cartoon sprinter, the hurricane-force winds now at my back. For a moment, I felt as if I might lift off the ground and sail away.

    Later, when the levees broke and flooded the city, I screamed in frustration. As the remaining inhabitants of New Orleans stood on rooftops and small concrete islands just above the putrid waters, as those stuck at the Superdome and Convention Center stewed in their own filth and died while waiting on an absent government to help them, Kalene and I donated to shelters and prayed for the city. We waited fearfully for word from our friends who had been stuck in town or stayed out of a sense of duty. We watched the news religiously and saw Hollywood actors and pro athletes arrive to help, long before the President showed up. We heard tales of lower parish officials welcoming members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who somehow arrived before FEMA. A week after most people had finally gotten out of the city, we saw a good friend who had stayed behind at his university in order to help students with nowhere to go. He had easily lost thirty pounds and told tales of returning fire while unknown assailants shot at him.

     Six years later, New Orleans still needs help. And as I sit in Northport, just across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa proper where I work and spend half of my time, I have to wonder what the state of Alabama will look like in 2017.

     I’ve heard a lot of comparisons between the tornadoes that ripped apart the south last week and Hurricane Katrina. I suppose some of these comparisons are apt. Both storm systems devastated enormous areas of the south. Having lived through both, and having been lucky or blessed enough to experience only a near-miss each time, I would have to say, if you put a gun to my head and made me choose, that Katrina seemed worse to me; it crushed the coasts of three states, put an American metropolitan center under water, and destroyed millions of people’s faith in the American system itself. The death toll was higher; the victims waited much longer for aid.

     But such comparisons are, I believe, ultimately pointless. The fact is that both storms unleashed almost unimaginable power. They both trashed homes and took lives indiscriminately. Argue that Katrina is worse until you’re blue in the face, but I defy you to do so in front of those who lost loved ones to the tornadoes. Tell that to those standing outside the giant piles of kindling that were, just a week ago, solid homes that people had spent lifetimes creating. Suffering is suffering; death is death.

     What I am more interested in talking about today are the lessons that Katrina taught us and how I’ve seen those lessons in action over the last several days.

     It all began so similarly. Again, I sat in my second-floor apartment, watching as an apocalyptic storm system bore down on my home region. With Kalene and our cat Cookie McSnowshoe already ensconced in the illusory safety of a bathtub, our electronics and important files piled around them, I watched the tornado sweep into Tuscaloosa. I was sitting in the center of my couch as the local news showed footage from their tower cam. They panned the camera until the tornado churned in the center of our television screen, the debris cloud clearly visible even in the distance. The wedge tornado split my screen so efficiently that, sitting before its bifurcated symmetry, I knew what an animal must feel like when the hunter looks through his or her scope and centers the target, crosshairs nestled just behind the forward shoulder. It seemed that the storm was coming straight for me.

     “Sweet Jesus,” I said to myself as rain drove against our balcony doors and forks of lightning split the sky outside. On screen, the city lay in the path of the tornado like a model Tokyo waiting for the man in the Godzilla suit to step on it.

     Soon enough our cable and internet failed. I joined Kalene in the bathroom and listened as my father, calling from a South Carolina hotel room on a business trip, narrated the tornado’s path. He stayed on the line, calling back whenever we lost the signal, until he heard that the storm had moved past Tuscaloosa and had headed on to Birmingham. At that point, Kalene and I emerged from the bathroom and into a different world.

     No, our apartment had not been damaged. We never even lost power. But as more and more reports came in about the devastation, we knew that things were different. We often think of our time in Louisiana as occurring in two periods—before Katrina and after. Now we would mark our lives in Alabama the same way. Our cable and internet came back on early Friday morning—probably the only good thing that Comcast has done for us in our five years here—and we saw the first images of what we had only heard about. Whole neighborhoods flattened. Businesses wiped away. A gutted Hobby Lobby stood beside a pile of rubble that had once been Big Lots. The Alberta neighborhood had been reduced to matchsticks. Forests of mighty trees had been crushed flat in odd patterns, like crop circles in corn.

     We would soon learn that some of our friends were homeless. Others learned that their lives had hung by the thinnest of threads. And some, like us, somehow escaped the carnage entirely. The tornado took a right turn and angled away from us. If it had kept on its course, it might have hit our apartment directly. And then they probably would have found me in Georgia, Kalene in Kentucky. We heard tales of young people dying—the three students who clung to each other in a bathtub until the storm was over, two of them surviving, the other found a quarter mile away. The four people who hunkered down in a closet until, the tornado having passed, one of them stood up and realized that he was the only one left, the others whisked away like so much straw in the breeze.

     Why were some killed and others spared? Why were some homes leveled and others not even touched?

     I don’t pretend to have those answers. What I do know is this: what I’ve seen so far inspires me.

     In the finale of Treme, season 1, Steve Earle sings, “This city won’t wash away. This city will never drown.” In spite of all the natural, political, economic, and sociological obstacles in their way, New Orleans and her people have endured. I am now seeing the same resolve all around me in Tuscaloosa.

     Trucks loaded down with bottled water, young workers and college students stacked in like cordwood as the vehicles roll into the teeth of the disaster. The sound of chainsaws and human voices singing their songs of labor as trees are removed from rooftops and living rooms. Low murmurs of comfort in contrapuntal relief with the wails for the dead. The hopeful calls of searchers as they dig through the heaps of refuse that were once houses, everyone hoping against hope to find more survivors. An outpouring of sympathy and money and labor and love.

     These are the best lessons from Katrina—that in this life, the only thing we can really count on is each other. Working together is always better than working alone. Pain shared is pain overcome. Helping one’s neighbors, and even one’s enemies, is the right thing to do, no matter the cost. I have seen a President appear two days after the storm, not a week, and rather than making a long speech in an empty square that he attempted to fill with false promises, he took action. I have seen federal monies allocated quickly. I have seen insurance companies acting responsibly—at least for now—rather than exploiting every possible loophole that might allow them to piss on the injured and the destitute. I have heard of FEMA sightings, which in Louisiana were as rare footprints of Bigfoot. I have seen a people rise from the debris to take the hands of other human beings who stepped outside their own spheres of plenty long enough to help.

     And so, thanks to the human spirit and their people’s own indomitable wills, I believe that my current home, like New Orleans (city of my heart), will endure. It may take time and effort and money, but it will happen. And I hope that in New Orleans and Tuscaloosa and numerous smaller towns ripped apart by wind and water—including Vilonia, Arkansas, where my two youngest children live—we will all continue to do our part. Let us take each other’s hands long after the television cameras are gone. Let us support each other even when there’s no profit in it. Let us look past our ideologies and into each other’s eyes. If we can hold each other’s gaze, we’re probably doing all right.

     To do so is not conservative or liberal, socialist or communist, democratic or republican. It’s the decent, human thing to do.

     And if we can do it in the aftermath of a storm, why can’t we do it when the skies are clear? Why can’t we apply these same principles and acts to the problems of disease, poverty, racism, homophobia, sexism, education, and homelessness? Why do we refuse to come together, to take care of each other, until nature tears us apart?

     Some would say that to do so would be to be un-American. If that’s true, we should be ashamed of ourselves. To me, the true American spirit can be witnessed in the former graduate student who’s coming back to Tuscaloosa on his own dime, bearing water and food and a chainsaw, because he cares. We can see it in the lives of those who take in the newly-homeless, who donate their time and money and the strengths of their backs to assure that this storm does not define Tuscaloosa’s history.

     We can see it in each other, if only we bother to look.

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