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Why are so many middle aged people dropping dead?

First thing this morning, I saw the headlines that wrestling star Chyna had died. She was 45 years old.

(Update: About an hour after I posted this, a friend sent me a text telling me Prince also died today).

I don’t care about her death any more than I care about anyone else’s. I’ve always hated that celebrities’ deaths are elevated, while “ordinary” people die everyday and we hardly notice – even though they were likely the center of someone else’s world, did amazing things or were genuinely good people.

I do care, however, that so many people in this demographic are dying. Maybe that’s because I’m part of that demographic now. But I don’t think that’s the only reason. If you haven’t seen this report about how one segment of the American population is seeing an increase in its mortality rate, you should read it. But if you don’t want to read the whole thing, read this:

The report, by David Squires and David Blumenthal, notes that between 1999 and 2014, mortality rates in the U.S. rose for white Americans aged 22 and 56. Before that, death rates had been falling by nearly 2 percent each year since 1968. Squires and Blumenthal call the difference between the those two mortality trend lines—the expected, declining one and the actual, rising one—the “mortality gap.”
In 2014, they write, the mortality gap was so big that it accounted for an extra 100 dead, middle-aged white people for every 100,000.

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Basically, the article and report tell us that before 1999, the death rates for white Americans between 22 and 56 had been falling – likely thanks to better living conditions and medical advances. Since 1999, however, the death rate in that group has been on the rise, despite drops in other demographics. The mortality gap, as it’s called, really widens somewhere around the age of 40. And the cause of death is inordinately suicide or drug and alcohol abuse, though there’s also a concerning fact about people this age succumbing to illnesses from which they generally recover.

Okay. Here goes: To me, it sounds like the cause of death is hopelessness.

There’s a line from the movie “Fight Club” that might be one of my favorite bits of dialogue.
Brad Pitt, playing the character Tyler Durden, is standing in the middle of a group of Fight Club members, explaining why this group of men get such a thrill from beating the hell out of each other.

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

It used to be that a person could graduate from high school and land a decent paying job at the local factory. From there, he or she would raise a family, buy a house, join a local organization, do some community work, make friends and live a reasonably complete and meaningful life.
My generation watched our parents’ jobs get taken out from under them. As we entered the workforce, it was made clear that our jobs might be lost if the company needed to “right-size” or if investors weren’t getting the profits they had come to expect.

According to the Labor Department, “the average person born in the later years of the baby boom held 10.5 jobs from age 18 to 40.” In 2006, the most recent year for which there are statistics, 54 million Americans, or 40 percent of the work force, left their jobs.

But it’s more than work. Fraternal organizations – the Elks, Moose, Eagles lodges, the VFW and American Legion – are struggling to replace older members who are dying. In our communities, we aren’t caring for each other quite well enough. We are busy, so we keep our heads down, do what we must, tend to ourselves and do less of the things that make us feel rooted, and connected, in the place that we live. And that makes it hard to call it home.

We’ve been given the message that this is a dog-eat-dog world. I’ll do for me, and you do for you. Business is business, and money/power/fame are the only things that matter. This book does a good job of talking about that in a very entertaining way.

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Then there’s our culture that has created an artificial idea of success and promoted it as the only truth for us to follow. Most of that is built around getting you to buy stuff. We know that, right? You aren’t good enough if you don’t have a fat stack of cash. You aren’t a whole person if everyone doesn’t love and want to be around you. The best life you could live is one where you have a big screen television in every room of your sprawling house, with microfiber furniture, fast cars in the garage, women hanging on your arm and parties every single night. We have our “reality” television shows, where we deliberately create dramatic situations and then edit them down to the best bits. And because it’s manufactured reality, we believe that our lives should look that way, too, and if our life doesn’t look like that, there MUST be something wrong with us.

And the whole time, our souls are starving.

So we reach middle age, when the shit really hits the fan. When, if we don’t have the life we’ve been told we should have, we start to feel really bad about the way things turned out. Or when we come to accept that we’ve been fed a lie about how anyone can be rich or famous or whatever they dream. So long as what you dream isn’t something that falls outside the norm. So long as you purchase and consume and maintain an insatiable appetite for things outside of yourself in an attempt to fill that emptiness inside you’ve tried so hard to ignore.

It seems to me we used to fill it that with meaningful work, effort, family, friends, hobbies, interests, our abilities, faith, or connection to the world around us. Dinner parties, dancing, concerts, community get-togethers, things of the sort. I don’t know what we fill it with now, but it seems like it’s an awful amount of stuff, and a feeling that if you aren’t in a certain place by a certain time in life you have failed. That if you don’t have enough followers on social media, you’re just another face in the crowd. A meaningless, pointless face whose life will pass without hardly a notice or care. If you’re not somebody “important”, you’re nobody at all.

It’s not as if I’m not part of this thinking, too. I find myself comparing my life to others. Looking at the ways I’ve mismanaged it, or stumbled, and the ensuing repercussions. I look at my house and think it should be bigger. I look at what’s in it, and think there should be more. I look at an evening spent alone, and the reheated leftovers I’ll eat for dinner, and think that’s no life at all.

But if I can pull back just a bit, I’ll remember.

I watched the sunrise today.
I heard birds call to me.
I talked to a friend.
I saw a child laugh with pure joy.
I heard music.
I read something that stirred my soul.
I moved with my own energy.
I saw a flower in full bloom.
I felt an embrace.
I smelled the rich spring air.
I heard thunder roll across the sky.
I tasted chocolate.
I have felt love.
I have felt pain.
I have lived.

Lilagoose

Trying to finish what I’ve started

It’s been an odd couple weeks, but tonight I feel like writing. I came here and realized I have two half-finished blog posts, neither of which I liked very much. I’m going to pick up the parts I liked, drop them in here and see if I can blend them in with some other things I want to write about: Conversations

Moments in time

Tonight, I went out for a decent ride. I’ve been cooped up all winter, thanks to surgery for a torn rotator cuff, two actually, that I’ve apparently been nursing my entire adult life. That meant no biking and no doing much of anything for the better part of four months. I started running again in February to get ready for the Brew-to-Brew run from Kansas City to Lawrence (that was a load of fun!), but biking didn’t start again until the middle of March. Even then, it’s been a slow reintroduction.

The weather was nearly perfect. A slight wind from the northwest, a shining sun with storm clouds in the distance. I love the chaos in the Kansas sky. I love that it can be calm above you, yet you can see the trouble on the horizon. And I love that you have the feeling that you’ll be OK with either. The fields and pastures are green, there was water in the ditches, and the earth smelled rich on this side of winter.

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Rides like this I wish I could freeze forever. I can take pictures, and I do, but it won’t have the wind blowing against your arms, fill your nostrils with fresh air, or produce the clarity that comes from moving under your own power.

Let’s talk about Lila

This could also go under moments, but it’s Lila. That means she gets her own section.

A friend of mine told me that it occurred to her that my blog had become sort of a scrapbook, or baby book, for Lila. I’m OK with that. It seems like a good way to record the things we do. Maybe years later, on some day when I don’t feel so great, I’ll go back and read some of these things and pep up a bit.

Tuesdays have become the day Lila and get together. And because I’ve learned that the more she does the less likely she is to remember that her mom isn’t around, I keep her busy. This week we went to feed the geese – Lila calls them ducks – at Carey Park. When it started raining, we moved to the library. If you haven’t taken your toddler to the library, you should. There’s a ton of stuff for them to do. And it’s fun.

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I’m always fascinated by the things Lila does, the things she learns. But I’m also fascinated by the way she engages the world, people and animals. At this age, she just reacts to something. There’s not much she’s been taught at this point to fear or dislike. That means if there’s a duck, or a goose, and she wants to feed it, it’s going to get fed. Or at least she’ll try. And it’s seldom a problem – these quasi-domesticated animals have no problem with people. But when the geese had their fill, Lila was quite frustrated that they wouldn’t keep eating. So she chased them around, crackers in hand, trying to compel them.

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I love these times with Lila. I loved them with my kids. It always makes me think of this song by Rush.

Also, here’s a hilarious video of Lila feeding a goose. That, ladies and gentlemen, is complete, unadulterated joy. No reservation about what someone might think or what the proper reaction should be. Because it is exactly the right reaction.

Dreams and omens

When my son was little, he’d run downstairs every morning to tell all about his dreams. They often included a lot of monsters and battles, and use by him of a shield and sword. I’ll admit that I wish I had paid more attention to them. I wish I had saved them somehow – recorded him talking about them, or written them down. There were some great stories in there, I’ll tell you.

One of the things that sucks about being an adult, I think, is that we stop seeing our dreams as an extension of life. We apply logic and knowledge and we see dreams as just something that happens. But kids, to kids those dreams are as real as life. Until they’re not. Same thing with some forms of intuition, and with our interaction with nature. I have always thought that any problem has its solution in nature. I suspect ancient man learned to build houses, hunt, and find edible plants by watching his environment. There’s a lot to be learned there, but I don’t think we pay much attention to it. And, like so much, we just walk past some of these miraculous things in the world as if they don’t exist, as if they have no meaning.

I have this story about a hawk that only a handful of people know. But it’s in that vein. My hawk story is very meaningful to me. And I wouldn’t have it if I hadn’t paid attention. It’s also why I bought this painting.

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But I need to dream more, or remember them. I’ve not had many memorable dreams lately, and that makes me a little sad.

There’s more to be said, more to be written. But it’s not going to happen today. This is enough. The rest, I think, needs a little sorting out before it gets words.

Lila and her new friends. Javen, Logan and Seldon, and the yet unnamed teddy bear.

Lunch with Lila, and the teddy bear that is everything good in the world

It’s not often that I won’t clear my schedule for a chance to spend time with my granddaughter Lila.

Mostly, that’s because I love her more than anything else in the world. She’s like a juicy steak, mashed potatoes, a hot fudge sundae and my favorite beer all rolled up into a pint size package of joy. But it’s also because every moment I spend with her is a moment I get to learn something about the world; a moment when I get to see what life was like before it gets all jaded, confusing, disingenuous and, sometimes, painful. I wrote about this a few months ago, and it’s still valid today.

Today was another chance for that – but also more. A very special sort of more. Because not only did Lila and I have fun, I once again got to see the world through her eyes. And, as a bonus, I got to experience the pure goodness that someone like Lila can pull from the world.

A little background: I’m not what you’d call a rocking chair grandfather. I’m not old enough for that. I started a family very young, and so did my daughter. That means I’m a grandfather in a reasonably healthy middle aged body. I’m more of a “let’s do a bunch of stuff” grandfather. I make it my mission to keep Lila busy and engaged. If I’ve done it right, she generally is ready to fall asleep by the time I take her back to her parents. I’m pretty good at wearing her out.

So today, I thought a stroll around downtown would do the trick. We walked up and down the sidewalks, stopping into different stores for a few minutes before heading on down Main Street. But in this, I’m always watching Lila to see how she interacts with her environment. One of the first things I noticed was how fascinated she is with just about everything. The stone patterns in the sidewalks; the textures in the brick facades. She’d stand and point at the dressed up mannequins in the storefronts, and stare at the merchandise lined up in the windows. Sometimes we’d walk north, then just as quickly turn around and walk south, depending on what caught Lila’s interest. And there’s very little that escapes her. She takes the time to explore the landscaping, or the small tiles along a structure. She sees what others have dropped on the ground, the cobwebs beside an entryway. She sees it all, and it is all interesting to her. I see this all the time from her, and it is always amazing to me.

It makes me realize how much in life we take for granted, how much we walk past with indifference, as if it didn’t matter. Things that are beautiful, or out of place, or a unique creation, or something that feels soft, rough, uneven. We just carry on. Why? Because we have somewhere to be and something to do, right? Who has time to notice life when there’s so much not living to be done?

Lila finds a secret passage.

Lila finds a secret passage.

Lila is fascinated with the inlaid tiles on this thingy.

Lila is fascinated with the inlaid tiles on this thingy.

We settled on Brewed Awakenings in the Fraese Drug Store for lunch. We ordered the special – chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes, a roll and broccoli. Do you remember how much fun it is to slurp a noodle into your mouth? If not, do it. It’s awesome. It makes this really cool sound, and before you know it the whole thing is in your mouth. And Lila really liked the broccoli – which is really a very good thing. Every bite brought a big smile to her face, maybe because it tasted good and had a nice squishy feeling.

Lunch was delicious!

Lunch was delicious!

Mmmm! Broccoli!

Mmmm! Broccoli!

Milk!

Milk!

When we first sat down, there was a man and three children a few tables away. The youngest child had an orange teddy bear, and Lila kept reaching out for it, until our food arrived. She really liked that bear, but I wouldn’t let her roam around for fear that she’d go snatch it away. She eventually got over not having a bear in her hands. We finished our lunch, and went outside. But again, the children and the bear caught Lila’s attention. She stood at the glass storefront, looking and pointing at the family. We walked down the sidewalk a bit, and the father and his children ended up walking alongside us. We chatted for a bit, and talked about how that teddy bear had caught Lila’s interest.

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It was pleasant, then they continued on, and Lila and I headed over to Avenue A park. This alone would have been magical, because Lila and I looked at Cow Creek, the art in the park, the plants, did a little yoga, laid on the ground – and I have no idea why we did that, but it was fun and maybe that’s reason enough. But here’s where a great day gets better in the most simple, yet amazing way.

This is what Lila does when she loves something. She loved this rock.

This is what Lila does when she loves something. She loved this rock.

Lila decided she needed to be in this planter box in front of First National Bank. I decided that was a good idea, too.

Lila decided she needed to be in this planter box in front of First National Bank. I decided that was a good idea, too.

While Lila and I were playing around, the father and his three sons from the restaurant came back out way. The youngest of the children’s face told me he was both excited and happy. His pace was brisk, and he was gaining distance from the rest of his family. He carried a rainbow colored teddy bear in his hand, and he wanted to catch Lila’s attention. This is the story: They had walked back down to the store where the orange bear had been purchased – the one that captured Lila’s eye – and bought another bear. On the way back, they spotted us playing in the park, and the father asked his kids if they’d like to give the bear to that little girl, the one in the restaurant who had been so captivated by the orange bear. They didn’t hesitate, they walked straight to us eager to give something away to someone else. We thanked the family for their gift and chatted for a few more minutes. Their names were James, Javen, Logan an Seldon. If anyone knows them, see that they find their way to this. I want them to know how much their gesture meant to us.

Lila and her new friends. Javen, Logan and Seldon, and the yet unnamed teddy bear.

Lila and her new friends. Javen, Logan and Seldon, and the yet unnamed teddy bear.

Lila and I played in the park for another half hour or so, this time with a new companion that wouldn’t have been, save the kindness of people who had no reason or motive to be kind. And this new friend was treated well. There were hugs and kisses, talks on the bench, and a firm grasp by the small but able hands of a toddler.

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Yes. We're doing Yoga. In public. Because that's how we roll.

Yes. We’re doing Yoga. In public. Because that’s how we roll.

And lying on the ground. Don't knock it until you've tried it.

And lying on the ground. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

This. Is. It. I mean it. There is really little else to life. A bear, a girl, and an opportunity taken to be kind. It really can be that simple. It doesn’t have to be so hard.

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Adagio for Strings – the saddest beautiful music ever written?

I’ve always enjoyed music, and I’m not beholden to a particular brand. Sometimes, I like to the feel the aggression of metal, other times I relate to geeks like Weezer. I’ll go on a kick of listening to the Strokes for hours on end, or the White Stripes, or Rush, and at different times in my life – or different things in my head – those artists all speak to me in some way or another. The only genre I don’t listen to much is country, and even in that there are some songs that touch me, or that I find fun.

I’ll often turn on a Pandora station when I go to bed – something relaxing, like medication or classical music – and listen until I fall asleep. This week I was awakened by a song that stirred my soul. I woke up and said to myself “This is the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.” Then I went back to sleep, too tired to grab my phone and learn the song’s name. Later this week, the song popped up again, during daylight hours, so I was able to see the name and artist of the song.

It was Adagio for Strings, by Samuel Barber. This is the song I heard in the middle of the night. Before I start to venture into the uncomfortable, take a listen. It’s long by today’s standards – more than 8 minutes – but it’s well worth it. And if you really want to listen to it, shut out the rest of the world, close your eyes, and absorb this music.

I don’t know if you heard what I heard, because I suspect that music speaks differently to us at different times – depending largely on where we are mentally, emotionally, maybe even spiritually. But let me tell you what I hear in this music: Life. And not necessarily an all pleasant one, either, but not an altogether bad one. Nearly every time I listen to this song, I feel emotion well up in me. I feel my face grow flush, and I feel my eyes moisten. I don’t know what it is, exactly, and I lack the music education to fully understand, perhaps. And maybe having that knowledge would take something away from the experience of just listening to it – instead of trying to analyze it. And I know I’ve heard this before. It apparently was part of the soundtrack for the movie Platoon, and a little research showed me that it was played over the radio for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral, and on the TV announcement of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is a short instrumental piece for orchestra. The work is a slow, minor-key lament, which evokes a deep sadness in those who hear it… The Adagio has captured the emotions of millions of listeners since Barber first wrote it as the middle movement of a string quartet in September 1936.
—Thomas Larson, on Adagio for Strings.

The other day at work, I slipped outside and listened to this piece. The sun was shining, and it was warmer than it should be this time of year. The wind wasn’t blowing, but it occasionally moved and touched my face, softly yet enough to make its presence felt. I could, in a sense, see and feel parts of my life in this song. I could feel the hopefulness and promise, and the beauty growing as the music progressed. Then, I felt that sense of foreboding, that all that good couldn’t last. I think I heard lost innocence as well, or at least some recognition that song can’t end the way it began. But again, it struck me with hope and excitement, but this time it was blended with pain and memory of the past. So while it was still hopeful, maybe not as much in the earlier measures. It was melancholy, past pain, effort and hope all at once. Then a pause. A rest. A moment of submission, maybe, or just a moment of feeling so very tired everything needed to stop, just for a little while. The music begins again, slower, simpler, with less aim for the future. And then, somewhere between the four and five minute mark, there is an impassioned fight. It feels to me like the desperate sound of trying, here near the end, to make all those hopes and dreams a reality. The volume increase, the pace quickens, and it seems for a while there is belief, however desperate, that it won’t end the same as before – that this time the music will break through. There seems to be just one more plateau to climb, and the horizon will open and give all that it holds. That the minor chords will give way to the pleasantness of the majors, that the melodies will come together and find their resolution they’ve been seeking.

And then the high notes hold, long and painful in the ears. Followed by a brief silence. And a return to the somber sound of what could’ve been. Of all those minutes of hope and passion and repeated attempts to break through, laced with sad acceptance that the song is near its end.

That’s what I hear, anyway.

If you feel like it, tell me what you think in the comments. Also, I’m kind of exploring this classical music bit for a while, so shoot me any recommendations.

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Lesson plan part 2, 3 and 4

A month ago or so, I wrote this post about how terrified I was to teach a creative writing class at the library for middle and high school students. Last night, I finished the session with the fourth and final class. We had some snacks – and I learned that Cheezits and M&Ms together makes a surprisingly tasty dish. We ditched the tables and chairs and sat on the oval kids carpet that’s normally used for 3-year-old kids during library story time. We all thought was pretty funny.

I had a plan going in to this. Well, sort of. My primary plan was to not suck. I wanted this class to be fun and useful. I didn’t know who I’d have in class. I didn’t know what their interests might be, and I didn’t have any idea if I’d the class would be filled with the bubbly-talking-all-the-time teenager or the brooding-every-adult-is-worthless teenager, or some combination I hadn’t encountered before.

My plan went something like this:

Week 1: Narrowing their point of view and thinking beyond the surface. I told them an odd story about a pencil and asked them consider the stories that were contained in everything that touched their lives – that a pencil could be more than a pencil; it could be the story of things that have been written or drawn with it, or the people who did the writing and drawing. I gave them a “1-inch window” based on Anne Lamott’s teachings. I talked to them about the importance of narrowing their view and their subject in order to produce clearer ideas and better writing. I left feeling better than I had when I started.

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Week 2: Point of view. I brought a bunch of random things – a rubber ducky, an Altoids can, an apple, a stone gargoyle, and asked them to write from the point-of-view of one of these items. I was surprised with what they came up with. They really displayed some creativity.

Week 3: Using the senses. I encouraged them to use all their senses in their writing, and to focus on a sense aside from sight, which I think we tend to rely on predominately in writing. We left our activity room and wandered around the library. I think we were all a little surprised by what we heard and smelled. In particularly, almost all of the students comments on the scent of “oldness” that came from the books. They said they could smell the books, and I could too. It was a fascinating exercise that I felt had gone off very well.

Week 4: This was where I planned to spend more time talking to them about experiences and emotions, and how these – good and bad – can all be cataloged and used to write stories down the road in their writing. We talked about what writing meant to us, and how it is this great way to get thoughts and ideas out of your head and into a meaningful form. We talked about how it can help us process the things we feel and make sense of them. We also talked about not limiting our thoughts, about how we really can think any number of things and those can become stories.

Then we did an exercise that produced a hilariously crazy story. I started with one sentence, then moved around the room with each student adding a line to move the story forward. They could basically take the story anywhere they wanted to go. I’ve summarized it below (because we did this verbally and I couldn’t keep notes fast enough):

I looked through a hole in the wall. It looked like a gunshot. Looking through it, I saw that it led to a dark room covered in tiles etched with ancient writing. Across that room, I could see a where the bullet had lodged in the opposite wall. As I looked across the room, an eye appeared in front of me and someone was staring back at me through the hole in the wall. I could smell his breath; it settled in my nostrils, burning with the scent of fire and death.
I turned around and realized the room I was in had been a bank, and it was filled with people dressed in black. There had been a bank robbery, and a shooting, which had created this hole in the wall. I looked back through the hole, and saw that the eye staring back at me was actually Steve Miller and his band, and they were playing “Take the Money and Run.” Suddenly, cracks began to form around the hole and the wall began to crumble away. This hole became a portal through which I could see every event of my life pass before my eyes. I could see every second – from birth to now – all at once. I stepped into the next room, where my memories passed by and realized there were doors to each different memory. I considered which door to open, not knowing what lay on the other side. But I had to choose because the portal behind my was closing forever. I opened a door and it took me back to when I was 7. But as soon as I walked through the door, I saw that it wasn’t really me at 7, it was 1967 and I was in the recording studio with the Beetles, who were producing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I decided to sing along, but I messed up and sang out of tune. Then I saw the thing that had messed me up – it was a magical unicorn that had jumped on me. Only I didn’t realize it was a magical unicorn at first. I thought it was a demon, so I grabbed Ringo Star’s drum stick and poked it in the eye. But it turned out it really was a magical unicorn; I was just imagining the demon. The unicorn wailed out in pain; a wounded unicorn cry sounds like Miley Cirus singing “Wrecking Ball.”
As blood flowed from the unicorn (there was discussion here about whether unicorns bleed glitter, rainbows, or candidates for U.S. President) it turned into an orange dragon who began arguing with me about U.S. economic policy.
Then the entire scene changed before my eyes. The dragon remained, however, and he told me that in the year 2016 Bernie Sanders would become president, beating Donald Trump by a mere 2 percent of the vote. Two weeks after his inauguration, however, Sanders would befall a terrible tragedy. As I looked more closely at the dragon, I realized he wasn’t a dragon at all – but a pattern of spilled Cheezits that landed in the shape of a dragon. I had only thought he was a dragon because during my writing class at the library, I had eaten too many cookies and M&Ms and Cheezits and my brain was fried from all the sugar.

I really enjoyed this exercise. I got to see a little bit about their thinking and creativity. I also got to see them laugh and be a little open and free with each other. It really was a pretty incredible experience.

At the end of class, I thanked them for attending and asked them to give me some thoughts. They all indicated that they enjoyed it, and said it helped them consider more about how they think and write. I asked if they’d be interested in attending another class, maybe one that expanded on this one, or something during the summer that would keep them writing. They said they would, and that made me feel really good about the whole thing. They also said it would be useful to create a blog or Facebook page or something where the students could all bounce ideas off of each other, or share their writing or ideas.

There are things I think I could’ve done better – maybe more fun exercises and less of me talking. I’ve told people I should’ve called it a creative thinking class rather than creative writing, because that’s really what we focused on. But overall, I feel good about what we did with this class. I was happy for the chance to meet these kids and learn a little more about them. I’ll go back to what I said in the first post about this – teaching is a challenging thing. I only had a handful of “students” and each brought his or her own personality and ideas about how this class should go. Finding something that appeals to each of them is not an easy thing. Blending those different personalities into a group that works together productively is a challenge. So any teacher who has to do that with 30 students – and subjects that are much less entertaining and under the restrictions of expectations and standards – has my respect and admiration.

I hope these kids got as much from me as I did from them. It was really fun for me to talk to them about their thoughts and ideas, and learn more about their lives. I will carry this experience with me for a very long time. I hope they take some things with them as well. I hope they’ll journal. I hope they’ll feel free with their own thoughts. I hope they’ll see that writing is a good way to make sense of those thoughts, and the world. I hope they learned to step outside of themselves sometimes and consider a different perspective. I hope they’ll take time to fully absorb moments in their lives, with all their senses. I hope they’ll look at their lives as a beautiful story they are writing each and every day.

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Another mass shooting

I doubt I’ll make many friends or win any “atta’ boys” for this, but it’s what I’m thinking, so, as usual, I’ll write it out.

I’m thinking about this shooting in Hesston, that sleepy little Mennonite town in Harvey County. A man armed with an AK-47 and a .40 caliber handgun seemingly snapped after being served with a protection from abuse order. He shot 17 people, killing three and wounding 14. His name was Cedric Ford. We’re learning more about the victims, and the people who did incredible things to prevent additional injury and loss of life. We’ve covered it extensively at The Hutchinson News. There’s a story about the town rallying together in healing. There’s also a comprehensive story about the events of Feb. 25, when all this unfolded.

Our publisher wrote a powerful editorial about the shootings. And while I agree with much of what’s in this editorial, I still can’t help but feel that when things like this happen, we dance around the core issue.

To me, this is one instance in which politics ought to be set aside. This isn’t really about the debate over guns. It’s not about whether more guns on the streets makes us safer or in more danger. It’s not a political talking point, or it shouldn’t be. Because underneath all of that, there is a truth that every single one of us should be able to agree upon: We don’t want these to happen anymore, and we sure don’t want them to happen with the frequency with which they’ve been happening. So far this year, there have been 34 mass shootings in the U.S. Hesston was number 33; a day later there was another in Washington State.

If we can all agree that these shootings are tragic, that they leave families broken, and that we don’t want them anymore, then there ought to be a way to work toward something that looks like a solution. If not a solution, then at least something that looks like an effort toward a solution.

It seems too simple to say that it’s just a matter of guns, or the access to them. It’s also too simple to say that this was just a bad guy hell-bent on doing bad things. The fact that there are millions of guns in our midst that aren’t used in mass shootings confirms the former; the fact that not every bad guy shoots up his workplace or a shopping mall confirms the latter.

So let’s stop looking for the easy answer on this, and really do some examination to find out the underlying problem. Let’s figure out what is causing people, maybe bad people or maybe not bad people, to decide that their best option is to create pain and heartbreak for so many others.

I have a theory, but it’s just that. I don’t have the education or background to speak with much authority on the matter. But I know people, and I’ve seen enough pain and mental illness to craft a theory. And for the purposes of discussion and thought, I think it’s as worthwhile as any other.

I think there are a good number of people who feel absolutely, and painfully, alone in the world. And I think our culture – the way we live, work and entertain ourselves – promotes isolation and in many cases forces people to look at life with a sense of hopelessness. Generally speaking, it seems we lack empathy, and sometimes even sympathy, for those who could most use it. Our jobs tell us we’re only as good as our productivity, our social norms and our entertainment tell us we’re only as good as the things we own or our bank account. We are obsessed in this country with wealth and materialism. We actively promote the idea that if you don’t make (insert social/regionally median income here) you’re a failure at life.

What’s lacking is any focus on community, and the worth of the human spirit. That’s what church and religion are for, but I’ll be honest – that message of Christ’s love is not what I most often hear. No, what I hear is that we are all evil and will incur God’s wrath because of our sinful ways. Because we’ve accepted gay people or because we have legalized abortion. And if you don’t agree with that message, there’s little room in the church for you. I want to hear more about this loving and forgiving God, and less about this God who will only love this person I’m told he created if he meets all of his conditions.

That leaves people wandering around hopelessly. Their community tells them they don’t belong because they don’t have the right skills, education, income or possessions. Their faith tells them they don’t belong because they won’t follow the accepted teachings of the day. And everywhere they look, they can see people who are accepted, who are treated like they belong, who are loved and valued. But if they can’t see that in their world, I imagine it makes them feel all the worse.

Go back to a dark time in your life? A time when the world didn’t seem to offer much promise? A time when you felt unloved? A time when you felt ashamed of yourself, or when you felt that the entire world was judging you? If you can’t recall such a time, I’m very, very happy for you, and I mean that. I hope you never have to go through a period like that. It’s awful. And the feeling is almost impossible to explain to someone else. But I can tell you that there are few things worse in life than a feeling that there is no where for you to belong. It’s like being in a pit that the sunlight can’t reach, and clawing your way out seems like more than can be done. And the longer you’re in the pit, the more you forget that there’s a world outside of it. One with grass, and trees and water and sunlight. One where beautiful things happen everyday, where people laugh and hug and share moments. In that pit, there are no goals and there is no future beyond the cold, damp darkness of every single day. If, by chance, someone visits you in your pit of despair, it seems they’ve just come to show that you will never emerge. They remind you for a moment that there is another world out there, but also that it’s not for you. For a moment, perhaps, you remember that you weren’t always in this hole, that you did have goals and dreams and people who loved you. But you also remember just how much you’ve lost, how much deeper this pit has become since and how you’re so weak and compromised you’d never have the strength to build anything that might bring you to that other world.

I know. I’ve been in that pit before. I don’t ever want to go back. And I know what got me out of that pit: Love, compassion and understanding. I had just the right people in my life, people who didn’t give up on me. People who saw a reason to believe. People who checked on me, who coddled me for a time, who listened to me even though they had better things to do. People who gave me direction, or something else to focus on, even for a few weeks, so I could look at something besides the prison of my agony. People who showed me that they, too, had been in a pit like me and though it was hard, they found a way out. People who told me I was worth something to them.

I can’t imagine a life without those people, and their tenderness.

And that brings me back to the center of all this, the man who disrupted so many lives and caused so much pain. The man who killed three people and injured 14 others.

I don’t know if he was mentally ill, but it seems that he must have been. I don’t know if he was in pain, but it seems to me that someone determined to inflict so much pain on others must have endured incredible pain himself. I don’t know if he had people in his life who might have been able to help him, but it seems that he didn’t. I suspect he felt all alone. Killing another person is not a natural thing; for someone to do it is an indication that their mind or soul is broken in a very profound way. Some people turn that pain inward where it becomes depression, substance abuse or suicide. Others turn it outward, where it becomes abuse, tyranny or murder.

I’m not advocating for the man who ruined so many lives. What he did was terrible, and it has affected far too many people and will for far too long. I’m not ignoring the stories of strength and courage, like the Hesston Police Chief who charged into danger to protect other innocent lives. But I’d rather we didn’t have such frequent need for heroes.

I am advocating for broader discussion and thought about this issue, instead of the worn out guns/bad guy debate. That’s an overly simple explanation that isn’t really designed to find an answer – it’s designed to keep us comfortable.

I am advocating for wanting a future that doesn’t accept this as normal. A future where the term “active shooter” isn’t part of our everyday language, and where we’re not holding drills to teach 5-year-old kids how to hide under their desks when someone comes in to harm them. For however scary it might be deal with the aftermath of a mass shooting, nothing strikes more fear in me than raising a generation of children reared with fear at their core, who have been taught from an early age they are in constant danger.

I am advocating for an idea that being afraid of the world isn’t our only option, that maybe there is another world out there, away from our fear, that we can reach if the right people think it’s worth something to them and are willing to work for it.

Lesson plan

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Tonight I sat in a room full of middle and high school students, where I was tasked with teaching them about creative writing. I had an idea more than a month ago about how I might approach this. That turned into an outline, and the outline turned into typed and printed notes, which then turned into the thing I was holding on to while it felt like I was sinking.

Across this room were seven teenagers, all seemingly eyeing me with skepticism. They’re at the age where they’re starting to learn just how much they’ve been lied to about so much in life. They’re still hopeful, but they’ve seen enough to know that people don’t always shoot straight and that sometimes things aren’t as great as you might have hoped. And I caught the distinct impression that if this class felt at all like school, I’d find my pupils wandering around the library until their parents came to get them.

That didn’t happen, but I thought it would. For probably the first half hour I was a bundle of nerves. I was sweating. Sweating, with the scent of fear all over me! And while I was happy to see there was at least one adult who was interested in my creative writing class, I felt bad when I had to ask her to leave. I didn’t feel like it was fair to the kids in the class to share space with a grown-up student. Besides, I wasn’t really prepared to talk to adults about writing. I might not have been ready to talk to young adults, either, but at least I had tried to prepare for that. The woman understood and was exceptionally gracious. I hope I get to host an adult class some day, because I think it’s sorely needed and that a lot of people might enjoy it.

After a bit of rambling nonsense from me that occasionally used the words “writing” and “creativity” together, I fell into a groove that didn’t feel like I was drowning in my own pool of failure. We talked about writing, about how not many people write much and how even fewer seem to do it for themselves, not because they have to. We talked about the things we think about, and how to turn our thoughts into words, and how the best way to be a good writer is to be a good reader. And we talked about the tender heart of a writer – the one that doesn’t want to show anyone what you’ve written because it’s not quite perfect, or because we carry the heavy fear that if someone saw what goes on in our minds, no one could possibly like us. Anne Lamott talks about this in Bird by Bird. I think she calls them Gremlins. I can’t remember. So does Brene Brown, but not about writing, so much, but life in general. Whatever it is and whoever has written about it, I think people who have been chosen to write carry this insecurity with them always, no matter how much they write or how often they’ve been published. It’s not getting the feeling to go away that matters so much as accepting that the feeling is there, and telling it to shut up because you have work to do, and something to say.

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I had them do an exercise based on an idea I stole from Anne Lamott – the theory of the one-inch window. Basically it’s the idea of viewing the world through a small window to bring what you want to say to more manageable level. In this case, I gave them a tag with a small hole cut in it. First, I asked them to write a few lines about our classroom. I was surprised even then at some of the things they noticed, and the level of detail they pulled from this fairly bland room. Then I asked them to look through their one-inch window and write a few lines about what they saw. It was markedly different, and that was the idea. But I was really impressed with how creative they were, how they seemed to quickly understand my point about the small window and how they applied it to this room.

I left the class feeling, at best, fair to decent. I thought I pulled it together at the end after a rough start. I felt like we worked out our introductory awkwardness and managed to find some decent lessons in that 90 minutes. But I wasn’t sure. See paragraph four. About an hour later, though, I got a message from one of the students’ parents. She told me that her child really enjoyed the class, talked about it a lot and remarked on a few story ideas that came from the session. There was some writing that took place, right after class, she said with excitement. I nearly leaped out of my chair, I was so happy.

This is why teachers teach, I suspect. The knowledge that one young person felt inspired, moved or motivated by what I shared with him or her is an amazing feeling. I think the list of things better than that is pretty short. I’m not a teacher, though, so I won’t be back in class tomorrow – I have a week in between to do other things and spend some time thinking about what I could have done better. And because I’m not a teacher, all of my students are there of their own will, so I’m not even touching the tip of the challenges of teaching in school. I’m just a guy who wanted to do something useful at the library, and that gave me just a taste of teaching. Let me tell you, it’s intimidating and overwhelming in the best of conditions. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the worst. Also, I don’t have any rules to follow or guidelines to meet, and I don’t have people breathing down my neck telling me that every student has to excel in every class everyday, or else! Anyone who wants to stand on the sidelines and criticize the work teachers do, should first stand at the head of a classroom and see how they do.

I should probably take this moment to apologize to every teacher I’ve ever had. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Had I known, I might have been less …. difficult.

Next week’s lesson will be on using nature as a source of creativity and considering a different point of view. I’m really looking forward to this session. Hopefully, I have students who will return to give me another shot.

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A healthy breakfast

What I ate for breakfast wasn’t all that healthy – two eggs, over easy, hash browns, bacon and toast. But the words that filled the air over that breakfast might have been the healthiest I’ve had in years.

I met with a friend this morning, and I didn’t know what we’d talk about. I never do, but it’s always good, and it’s always interesting. And I always walk away feeling better than I felt walking in.

I’m not going to write about what we talked about because it’s deeply personal, and I don’t have permission to share its contents publicly. I’m not sure I would any way, because some things, I think, have to remain between the people who share them. But I will say that it was the sort of conversation that doesn’t happen very often. The sort of conversation that, without the other person even really knowing it, reaches its arms around your fallen-over soul, holds it for a couple moments, and sets it back up where it belongs.

It seems to me that so much of life is spent avoiding any talk about the darker parts of our lives. Yet that is really where we build true and honest connections with others, isn’t it? We spend so much time and energy avoiding any acknowledgement of those things. We don’t want others to see them. We don’t want to see them, think about them, wrestle with them, analyze them, or call them what they are. Instead, we ignore them and hide those things, and spend a great deal of time talking about anything else that will keep those parts of ourselves hidden away, in the hope that no one else will ever see them. Because that is normal. And God do we ever want to be normal, as it’s so neatly and clearly defined for us by everyone else in the world who is also trying so hard to be normal and not let you see any of their shit.

The eggs and bacon and hash browns were very good. I do love a good breakfast. But that conversation did more to fill me up and start my day on the right path than the food. And I suspect it will sustain me much longer.

I can’t thank my friend enough for his time and his words this morning. I think that’s mostly what I wanted to do here. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how much it meant to me that my friend was willing to share his story with me. By talking with me about even the ugly parts of his life, he made me feel like my ugly parts aren’t so hideous and that there’s hope I am, or can be, more than the parts of myself I fear the most.

There’s a lot of screwed up things in the world, and a lot of problems that we don’t know how to solve. I am on a drug task force that’s examining what can be done about Hutchinson’s serious and growing drug problem. Through the first several months, it seems like an impossibly big task, likely with no clear solution.

But there is a theme that I see, and it’s one I think can be addressed in a very small, but important way. It seems to me that at the core of drug addiction and substance abuse is the idea the addict holds that he or she isn’t loved, welcomed, understood, appreciated, or valued. They feel alone, and ostracized. They live with their guilt and shame, and they are acutely aware of how the rest of the world sees them, judges them, and casts them aside. And while that’s not universally the case, and it’s not likely the end-all solution to understanding all this, it seems that it plays a critical role in all of this. But maybe an honest conversation that says “hey, you’re really not all that different from me,” or “so you’ve sort of screwed up for a while, but you’re not so horrible that we can’t be friends,” or “You know what, I’ve done things I’m not proud of either” would do a little good.

I don’t like Kanye West – I think he’s a pompous, grandstanding ass. But I’ve always liked this song, every since another friend thought I should hear it.

 

 

 

An unplanned lunch

This has nothing to do with cycling, but this is where I’m going to start putting things like this that I want to write.

Around 10 this morning, a woman stopped by the front desk and said she wanted to talk to someone in the newsroom. That someone ended up being me.

Her name is Mildred, and she can’t hear or talk, so communication with her is limited to handwritten notes. She said she wanted someone to write a story for her, so I tried to figure out what that story might be. I don’t think I did a very good job of that, though.

Here’s our conversation from this morning. Read left to right, then down. Click on the image to enlarge.

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morning note 2

morning note 3

At noon, we met at China Star for lunch. I didn’t know what to expect, or what I hoped to learn from Mildred. I guess I was just in a frame of mind today that made it so I wanted to sit down with her and try to understand her.

Mildred 1 (2)

But I couldn’t. I don’t think it was a communication barrier, because the written word is where I do best. I understand it, generally even when it’s not clearly written. And despite whatever trouble I might have sharing my thoughts verbally or any other way, I’ve not ever had much trouble doing so in writing.

But this is what I think she told me: I get angry sometimes, and when I get angry people want me to be better, to not be angry. I want to tell my family and my friends and the people that I’ve hurt that I’m not angry any more. I’m on the right medication, and I’m going to therapy, and it is helping me. I love my brother and sister, my children and grandchildren, and I love the world. And I miss them, too.

There was this thing about a radio that I couldn’t get my mind around. She kept talking about hearing the radio, but I couldn’t understand what she was trying to tell me. I think there must have been a time recently when she thought she heard the radio, or people thought she could hear the radio or something. I don’t really know, and it bothers me that I couldn’t understand that, because she brought it up several times.

I learned that her name is Mildred Trass, formerly Mildred Miles. She is 46 and is originally from the Bronx, though I think she might have been born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She lost her hearing and speech at age 7, she said, because she got sick with a bad fever. Her mom died in 1993, and her dad died in 1980. She has two daughters, Evelyn and Felicia, and they have three boys between them. Maybe another daughter, and a son, Lee.

She lives in an apartment with her boyfriend, whom she says is very good. I know, though, that both her and her boyfriend used to be homeless, because they would hang out in front of The News before the homeless shelter opened for the evening. I talked to them both briefly once before.

She said her children love her and they make her smile.

She last remembers the radio people, and she is forgiving them. She has made mistakes and she is sorry. She gets angry and stressed out toward people.

She was 23 years old when she first got really angry. Her ex-husband made her angry. Her aunt and uncle got angry seeing her so angry. She understands that she needs to change, to be “straight, nice, friendly.” She’s on the right medication now. Something for depression and something for her mood.

There was a falling out with her best friend, who is also deaf. Her friend wanted to see her change, but didn’t really explain it to her until she was angry. Counseling has helped.

After we finished eating, we each grabbed a fortune cookie. Her fortune said: “If the fates seem against you, they probably are.” Mine read: “In life and in dreams, nothing is impossible.”  We agreed that her fortune wasn’t very encouraging, so I gave her my fortune instead. She put it in her shirt pocket.

I asked, if I was to send a message to her family, what would it be? This was her answer.

“OK. Myself said contact family. OK. And no worry. Radio People can hear. I am deaf. OK. I no worry. OK

I asked about her kids, if there was anything she’d want me to say to them.

“OK. You try contact them. Myself send picture my family in P.R., Ark., Tenn., Florida. Finish. OK.”

She got emotional here, and began to cry. I asked a few more questions, but I knew our conversation was coming to a close. I told her that I didn’t know what to write, but that I’d try to write something.

“Myself positive. Thank You :)” she wrote. “Myself very upset. OK. I go to home. I love brother/sister. Hutchinson, KS. OK.”

I asked if she wanted to go home. “Myself walk quiet peace. OK,” she answered.

I told her I understood mistakes and hurt and anger.

“I leave. Thank you :) God Bless :) Hutchinson, KS. OK.”

I left this meeting more sad than I came to it. Like I said, I don’t know what I expected from it, or what I hoped to learn. But I know it’s a terrible thing to not be understood. To not be able to make people understand the thoughts in your mind.

I guess I’ll just go with the idea that she has been angry for much of her life, likely because she lost her hearing and speech at such a young age – and clearly affected every other facet of her life. She needs a job, but probably will have a hard time finding one. It’s probably affected her relationships, and it’s probably tainted her outlook on life. And that’s probably led to her being angry sometimes, and taking things out on people she loves. And now they’re mad at her. And she’s sorry, and she misses them.

And I should put this caveat on here: There’s no real way to know if Mildred is telling me the truth about anything. If there’s a mental illness, or long term homelessness and displacement, there’s a good chance that she’s created a number of different stories to protect herself. I’ve experienced this before. It doesn’t make them bad, or liars, or anything like that. It’s something people do when they have to navigate a world most of us couldn’t begin to imagine. But it doesn’t really matter to me if all the details of the story are true. Some are, even if others aren’t, and at the least that’s the story Mildred told me today. I regret that I couldn’t understand it better.

Here’s photos of our conversation.

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lunch note 2

lunch note 3

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lunch note 5

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lunch note 9

 

 

 

wheat

Harvested

On July 4, I rode to McPherson for the annual Smith Family Explodapalooza. I wanted to make a good ride of it, so I went through Hesston via Dutch Avenue, then up Old Highway 81 into McPherson.

On the way, I saw this field of wheat stubble, and I stopped. It wasn’t too long ago that I rode this same route, and the wheat was tall, but not yet mature. A while before that, it was a vibrant green and barely out of the ground. Before that, it was a field of dirt.

I don’t write poetry much because I don’t like it, and I don’t think I’m good at it, but this field made me want to write a poem. But I’m no good at poetry, so  I’ll just write this instead.

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I remember this field where today only waste remains. I’ve driven by it a number of times on my way to somewhere else.

Last fall it was brown and empty, but the earth covered the seeds of what would one day come.

In the spring, this wheat was young. It was green. And its future was undecided.

If it rained enough, if the sun shined just right, it would grow and mature and produce a head full of seed that could be harvested and made into something more than a plant in a field. Provided, of course, the violence of Kansas’ weather didn’t beat it down, bend it, break it or destroy it. 

In the early summer, this field of wheat stood tall, and it waved at me as I rode by. It was full. It was rich, and it wasn’t quite done.

Today, it has been shorn; its work taken elsewhere and used for another’s benefit. The dry golden stubble is all that’s left. It has lived its life, and became all it was ever meant to be.

But it is not over. I know what comes next: The plow.

It will drive its chisel into the soil, and it will cut and tear. The plow’s work will rearrange the soil, the break the old and make way for a new crop, and a new year. 

The soil will shred and open itself. The roots from the previous year will loosen their hold, give up their grip on last year’s growth, and become part of the earth.

And while the plow is violent and destructive, without it, this field goes fallow. The weeds and wild will consume it.

After the plow has done its work, this field I’ve ridden past so many times will once again be empty and brown, with new seeds beneath its surface.

And with rain and sunlight, they will grow, too.

So there’s that.

Saturday’s ride was really, really nice. I  had a fairly stiff crosswind for much of the ride, but once I got to Hesston and headed north, the wind was at my back. The route was 54 miles in all, and most of it was flat. I stopped in Hesston to eat a granola bar and take a break, then landed in McPherson about 1:15 p.m. The road was smooth, except for a couple of sketchy miles around Elyria.

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Erica, Jarrod and Lila came up to watch the show. Turns out even 8-month old Lila is a fan of fireworks. She comes by it pretty naturally, though. It was nice to see everyone there, eating and having fun. The kids really got into the fireworks this year, which is always great to see. I remember when Tim’s mom, Susan, held Owen in the garage as a baby. I remember when he climbed on my lap and hid from the explosions. Now, you’d never know that he wasn’t born with a firecracker in his hand.

Erica Lila family

Owen fireworks kids