Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I had another topic in mind for this week's post but some big shit happened in the wider world last night.  Ferguson, MO.  I would imagine everyone who's anyone (ha ha) is familiar with the situation so I won't waste time restating the obvious.  I abstained from jumping into the Facebook cesspool of vitriol and uninformed opinion and have opted to come here to share my vitriol and uninformed opinion.

This is a tough one for me. I think both sides are right.  I am sympathetic to both of the opposing views and I don't see a clear course of action on how to proceed from here.

First and most important, yes.  There is an epidemic of police violence towards young black males. There is a four hundred year legacy of institutional racism and oppression in this country, and no matter how hard we may want to wish it away or pretend like it does not still color much of modern American life, the fact is that it does.  White privilege.  Guess what?  A very real thing.  I can vouch for it.  I'm a white male.  I've felt it and witnessed it and I can list specific examples of it; some of them so blatant that it would sound like I either made it up or like I was a child of pre-civil rights era America.

What's not surprising is that there are so many of us white males who are oblivious to the existence of white privilege.  Try telling a struggling father working three jobs and still coming up short on the bills that he is "privileged".  You're liable to get punched square in the nose.  I understand that.

I could explain the reality of white privilege but that's not what this is about.  The point I want to make with it is that it is very easy for people in my demographic (white male) to be oblivious to our special position in society. It is VERY easy for us to sit back and ask smug questions like:  Why are they so mad?  What do they think they will accomplish by lighting cars on fire and throwing rocks at police?  Why can't they see that justice was served and this cop was just doing his job?

You know what?  If I limit my perspective to just my immediate experience, I could ask those same questions.  But one thing I've learned as I've gotten older is that using my own personal experience as a guage for the state of society at large is a mistake.

That being said, I will now venture into murkier waters and explain why I think it's possible both sides are right here.   Let's deal with the pro Darren Wilson side first.  From what I've seen of the evidence released by the grand jury - and it must be stated that grand juries are not required to release any evidence and they usually don't - this police officer was defending himself and his actions were legitimate.  I can just hear all of the boos and hisses but the evidence shows that this was a man being attacked by a much larger, more powerful individual, and cops carry guns for a reason.  Namely, to keep themselves alive in these exact scenarios.

He (the cop) acted legally and rationally.  Is it a devastating and heartbreaking tragedy that an unarmed teenager lost his life?  Hell yeah it is.  Nothing I say here is meant to detract from that.  Have there been many cases, probably hundreds, of white police officers using excessive force and often killing unarmed black teens? Again, hell yeah.  It is not even in dispute if you are willing to accept hard, empirical statistics that are publicly available.  However, each case has to be looked at individually and decided based on the facts specific to that case.

You cannot simply convict one white cop who kills an unarmed black teen on the basis that there have been other white cops who have unjustifiably killed unarmed black teens.  You can't do it even if you know by NOT doing it there will be riots and violence and old, deep wounds will be re-opened.  It's too bad that this tragedy has to be judged through the lens of race, but that is America.  That is our history.  There's no escaping it, and the process of overcoming it has been and will continue to be incredibly difficult.  And I think it will take at least another couple of generations to truly work itself out, assuming it's even possible to completely work out.  The fact is, it's a scar that may never go away.  Some don't.

Now for the other half of my argument.  There is rioting and sadness and anger erupting as I type this.  At least from what I've seen, if you are a black American,  you are outraged and feel that a grievous injustice has been committed here.  And I think you are wrong.  In this one specific case, unless the three forensic pathologists reports are all inaccurate, and the eye witness testimony completely fabricated, I cannot see how this police officer could have been convicted for murdering Michael Brown.

But hear me out before you discount me as another privileged, out of touch white guy.

Just because I don't think this one specific incident was a miscarriage of justice, please understand that I will admit without hesitation that there have been thousands of miscarriages of justice.  Thousands of cases of racially motivated police brutality and murder that went completely unpunished, unnoticed, not even considered noteworthy because hey, it's so normal it's not even news.  That is where this country has been.  It's still happening now.

 It appears that our status quo is that it's open season on young black males if you are a white police officer and maybe even just a white guy in general.  Black mothers and fathers have every reason to be terrified for the safety of their children.  It is perhaps fair to say that the biggest physical threat they face - and in many neighborhoods they face many - comes from the very people who are supposed to be protecting them.  What do you do if you are the parent of a black teenager?  What do you tell them?  I have no answers for that.  Not even from my privileged perspective here outside of the perimeter of the dangerous zone that is ordinary life for millions of my fellow Americans.

I cannot pretend to relate to the frustrations and legitimate grievances held by the black community in the wake of yet another young black kid killed by the police.  And forgive me if this is presumptuous to say, but I understand why you are feeling rage and probably even hopelessness at this time.  Your reaction is justified and based on a reality that so many of your fellow Americans don't see or just flat out pretend doesn't exist.  Your struggle is real.  Know that some of 'us' know that.

I tried to explain this to a friend today and what I said was imagine that someone has punched you in the face 100 times and you have just sat there and taken it. Then the 101th punch is just a fake but you strike back on that one. It almost doesn't even matter that the punch was just a fake.  You are bloodied and bruised and have been pushed to the limit of human tolerance and patience. At some point frustration and a basic survival instinct kick in.  That's what we have here.

When I see the smug, condescending, and insensitive reactions from many of my white Facebook friends, I get pretty pissed off.  It would be easy for me to just choose sides and say welcome to Amerikkka, and go on about how an injustice has taken place.  But I can't do that if I'm honest.  I can say injustice has been committed en masse, against blacks in America, by whites in America.  There are massive double standards about what constitutes acceptable behavior between white teenagers (just being typical rowdy youngsters) and black teenagers (dangerous thugs).  All of this shit is real.  But one injustice cannot make up for another.  Convicting a white cop just because it feels like that's what should have been done would not bring back Michael Brown and would not erase the disease of racism that's still flowing through the veins of America. It would just be another injustice.  

I feel anger and sadness like any sane person should.  To the white assholes on Facebook who are celebrating like it's a sport...congratulations on being insensitive assholes who fan the flames of racial resentment.  And from your privileged, sheltered little perch at that.  To the black people who had their minds made up about this case before they even bothered to see the evidence...well, I'm not sure exactly what to say to you. Who am I to say anything to you really?  Everything in your own experience and history gives you a million reasons to pre-judge this case.  Hell, you are prejudged every day, every where you go.  I'd like to say, please give the facts a chance here.  Please be reasonable and look at the evidence.  Don't project all of the true injustice that's been committed against you onto this particular incident.  I'd like to say that but damn I know that's asking a lot.  Would I be so noble if I were in your shoes?  I can't say.  What I can say is that I'm angry and heart broken too.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Something Novel

Could there be anything more ridiculous than writing an essay about writing a novel when you haven't even written a novel? Ponder.  And I shall do the same, sort of.

When I was a school boy there were multiple times when an elementary or middle school teacher would comment on my writing ability. It was good, they claimed.  That, however, doesn't mean a damn thing because that's what school teachers do: encourage and inspire confidence in their students, especially the ones that demonstrate any remote interest or competence in a given subject. And that's about what I had...some small scrap of competence for stringing words together coherently.  That probably stood out to the teachers because from what I observed at the time many of my peers were unable to grasp the basics of their native tongue. The bar was low.

Then came junior college English class, freshman year.  We had to like, write stuff.  I generally found it irritating but less irritating than some of my other classes.  One of our first assignments was a "how to" essay.  It could be about how to do anything.  I wrote an essay on how to cruise the strip for girls in the small east Texas town where I went to high school.  The teacher, bless her heart, really flipped for my essay.  She pulled me aside after class, asked if she could save it and use it as an example for her future classes, told me I was really talented, and insisted that I sign up for the basic creative writing class there at the college.  She was so emphatic about it that I agreed. It sounded like an easy credit.

The creative writing teacher was a more discerning and honest critic. She was, let's say, less than impressed with my verbal virtuosity.  I did okay in the class but she made it clear that I should probably not count on becoming the next great American author.  My feelings were not hurt because I didn't think of my self as a writer anyway.  There were some actual serious writers in the class. People who wrote for the love of writing.  People who were passionate about it and who had read great works of literature and actually knew what the hell they were doing.  I, on the other hand, could only remember reading Charlotte's Web and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe up to that point.  Maybe the Scarlet Letter too, which I detested.  And thinking about it I remember some Geoffrey Chaucer as well.   But I had read very little, had little to no understanding what made good writing or a good story, and my very presence in that class was probably an affront to the other students who actually were serious and gave a damn.  I was an immature, self-absorbed, very young man, going through the kinds of weird things 19 year old boys go through, and as far as school went I was just going through the motions.  Now if she would have told me I was not a good basketball player, my fragile self-esteem might have crumbled irreversibly; but writing?  Blah.

I say all of that to say this:  I am not a gifted writer.  Not then, not now.  Despite some kind words from some well-meaning people, I recognize that there are people out there with a natural talent with words and story-telling and that I am not one of them.


I'm an adult now.  Within the last decade I've discovered a love for reading that was not there when I was in school.  I've sought out good literature and devoured dozens (or more) of very fine novels. Now an avid reader does not a writer make.  I get this. To think so would be like saying all you have to do to become a great basketball player is have a deep admiration for Lebron James.   That's not at all how it works.  To be great or even good at something requires a combination of natural talent and very hard work.    

What piques my curiosity though is the possibility that if I do have some small level of competence with the written word, could that now combine with my more mature appreciation and understanding of good writing to form a potential that is worth exploring?  Most likely not. But it would just be exploring, after all.  Specifically, could I write a novel?

The reason I wonder aloud here about this is because there is a pattern I have noticed in my life.  When something makes a big impression on me it's not enough for me to remain just an observer.  I have to try it.  That's why videos appear here from time to time with me trying to imitate a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo.  I am so taken by something I ask myself "how in the hell do they do that?".  And I have to find out for myself. I see the same thing beginning to happen with writing.  I experience the genius of David Mitchell or Tom Robbins or Charles Dickens and it leaves me with that same "How the hell do they do that?" feeling that eventually leads to me trying it myself.  It's wildly pretentious, laughably ambitious, and will probably amount to nothing more than a mountain of frustration.  I'm still intrigued by the possibilities and the challenge of it though.  There are worse things that I could waste my time on.

While I currently have zero plot ideas for a novel, I do think I have a good grasp of the elements that make a good novel.  Of course, some of that is objective and everyone has different tastes.  There are so many different genres and types of novels it would be hard to know where to start. I mentioned David Mitchell and Tom Robbins and what impresses me so much about them is that their work is really hard to put labels on.  Anything can happen and there are no rules.  For all I know that is probably the most difficult approach and one that only the most gifted can pull off, but it looks really fun.

Where will this lead?  Maybe not even beyond this blog post.  I honestly don't know.  Just thinking aloud as it were.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ben In Italy

I'm long overdue here, and I'm back.  Not because I have anything profound to share this evening, but to see if I still know how to work a keyboard for anything longer than a snarky Facebook post.  That is what my political and social commentary has devolved to. Never underestimate the fun that can be had alienating friends, ex-classmates, and co-workers with your outspoken political opinions. 

We recently fulfilled a dream that was in the making for the past decade or so.  We have long wanted to go to Italy but until the last few years my wife had issues that prevented her from travelling.  Finally, three or so weeks ago, we made our first journey across the Atlantic.  From Fort Worth, to Amsterdam, to Italy.  We spent about two weeks there, with the time almost equally split between Venice, Florence, and Rome. 

Some random thoughts and observations from our travels...

Firstly, Ben's body does not respond well to rapidly crossing multiple time zones in a short period of time.  Circadian rhythm disruption, also known as jet lag (but I hate that term), was a real bitch. It affects everyone differently, and apparently it affects me quite severely.  This makes sense because I had sleeping problems up until my mid twenties which I eventually resolved by keeping a pretty regimented go to bed and wake up schedule.  I learned some things to help next time though; primarily that melatonin is my friend in dark times. (See what I did there?)

Secondly, I tried to keep my expectations low for this long awaited adventure.  To be clear, I expected it to be great but had no specific expectations about how things would be.  My only preconceived notion was that I expected to like Venice the least.  What was I thinking?  Venice was my favorite. There is simply no other place like it in the world.  It's filled with tourists but there's a valid reason for that.  It's magical.  Saint Mark's basilica was a standout for me.  I'm not religious, I sure couldn't be classified as Christian, but I was filled with awe and my eyes filled with tears when I stepped through the doors there.  I can't explain it but that was a powerful place for me.  A dozen basilicas later I had sort of grown immune to their splendor, which is a shame.  But Saint Mark's was my first, and I'll never forget it.

Thirdly,  I expected people to speak more English there than they actually did.  Now how stereotypically ignorant American is that?  Guilty as charged. I just figured with millions of tourists flocking there, so many English speaking, that it would prevalent.  It was not.  We had many experiences dealing with people who do not speak our language, which can be both fun and frustrating.  I should have taken the time to learn some basic Italian phrases. 

Fourthly,  If you ever go to Florence, climb the stairs to the top of Giotto's bell tower at the Duomo.  The views of the city are breathtaking and the climb up will take your breath away also but no worries.  That was another highlight of the trip for me.

Fifthly,  To paraphrase both my wife and mom "boy, the Italians make us look like slobs".  Now I can't get into the pointy shoes and skinny jeans look but there is no denying that they take much more pride in their appearance in public than we do here in America.  What happened to people giving a shit?  I'd like to know.  People are dressed nice and you cannot find an overweight person.  How does that work in a land where everyone eats pasta, gelato, and wine all the time?  Another clue that the American food/health system is freaking scam.  I'd be embarrassed to walk into a Chili's or McDonald's with a person from Italy. Or a Wal Mart.  I'm just saying.

Well...I could certainly go on.  But that regimented bed time thing is kicking in and I will conclude by saying that I feel like a person changed for the better by having had this experience.  Sadly travel has become yet another status symbol in American culture and is possibly a little too hyped and glorified by people who feel the need to escape their normal life or just feel more special than people not fortunate enough to travel.  However, I think anyone who makes it a priority could do it.  And at the risk of adding to the cliché chorus, they should.  If they can.  It gives you a broader perspective and that's never a bad thing.  And I'll practice what I preach as I'm looking forward to making another journey across the pond in another year or two.