12.17.2014

T is for Tidings

Not all news is good news. Good news is a real and valid entity, but there also exists bad news. Some of it will sour your taste and weaken your emotional fortitude. Some of it is simply nothing more than ugly – disheartening at best. And sometimes, news can mean different things to different people.

For example:

Christmas Eve is a week away.

For some people, this is fantastic news. These are the people who got all of their gift shopping done in August. Who started listening to Christmas music in October. Who find it easy to get into the holiday spirit. Who revel in ugly sweaters that they only wear this time of year. Who fill their homes with decorations, laughter, cheer, guests from out of town, and the delectable scents of baked goodies.

For others, this is urgent news. These are the people that have procrastinated pulling the decorations out of the garage. Who have forgotten to schedule their year-end PTO. Who haven’t yet purchased a single present. It’s time to check those wish lists that are sitting unread in their inbox or wadded up on a sheet of wide ruled notebook paper stuffed in their back pockets.

There is also a segment of our population that views this as bad news. A first holiday season without a loved one. Traditions that trigger hurtful memories of a troubled childhood. Anniversaries of a tragic event. Estranged family members. Broken relationships. Financial stresses. Seasonal depression.

We hear the carols and the familiar lyrics “tidings of comfort and joy.” These words resonate with a great many people. Others hear those words at a time of discomfort and lament.


To be honest, this Christmas will probably be the most difficult one I have ever experienced. Even with the holiday playlist on my iPod on constant rotation at home and at work and in my car, I’m still having a difficult time being merry. Not to say I’m the Grinch with a heart that is two sizes too small. It just means that the smile on my face takes more effort than usual. That my murmurs of “happy holidays” are born out of sincerity instead of an oblivious platitude. That every laugh, every prayer, every best wish, every hug is deliberate.

It means I am living in this grey area between heartbreak and abundant bliss, between relief and remorse, between hope and sorrow. I have never more fully understood the lines from that Counting Crows song “walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land, just like walking on a wire in the circus.”

It also means I’m wrestling with the understanding of the difference between happiness and joy.

So Christmas Eve is a week away. What kind of tidings does that bring? Is it good news or bad news? Well, in my world, it’s a little bit of both. Like I’m walking on a wire.

12.11.2014

S is for Stories and Superheroes

I love a good story. Actually, I crave them. A well told story is a narcotic; it makes me feel powerful and vital – like I could conquer the world. But deeper than that, I believe that humanity’s existence is dependent on our ability to tell our stories and pass on the stories of those who came before us.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a quote on the Kennedy Center website that has stuck with me. It delighted me so much that I have it posted on the wall of my office: “Telling stories is an essential part of being human. People everywhere, throughout history, have told and still tell stories. Whether it's to remember history, to communicate feelings, or honor an individual, telling stories helps us understand the world in which we live.

Boom.

Drops mic. Walks away.

In those three sentences is a truth that you will find repeated in resources for teaching literacy to young learners and encouraging youth to appreciate literature. You will see it in academic papers and writers' workshops. Over and over again – storytelling is an essential part of being human. In our modern era, we have a multitude of mediums available to seek out the stories of others and to tell our own. We have oral traditions and books like past generations, but we also have newer outlets like television, movies, comic books, video games, blogs, podcasts, and social media.

Stories are everywhere in our world. The challenge is finding a good one.

Confession time:

Lately, I've been binging on superhero stories. In the past couple of months, I've caught up on all of the super powered movies that I've missed over the past couple of years: Captain America Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man (and its sequel), X-Men Days of Future Past, and Wolverine; sometime this weekend I will be watching Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m working through the second season of Arrow on Netflix instant. I've kept up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, and Constantine. My oldest and I finished watching the last few episodes of Avengers Assemble. I've read a Guardians of the Galaxy graphic novel and am midway through an Avengers graphic novel.

For most of my life (not to mention the first few decades of their existence before I entered planet earth) comic books were seen as a subculture reserved for nerds and social misfits. There was an idea that reading comic books made you some sort of miscreant. The crossover appeal to wider markets were either complete failures (Howard the Duck) or contrived as campy comedies (60s era Batman TV show). It hasn't been until recent years that major studios began to take comic books seriously and recognized their mainstream appeal. Better scripts, bigger budgets, more recognizable names cast as lead actors.

Suddenly, it's cool to be a geek.

My kids are lucky. They can talk about superheroes at school without all of the other kids labeling them as dorks. They have nearly 80 years worth of comics available to read. Their favorite characters are being portrayed as worthy role models. The actors that play these characters are being recognized for their charitable work, their kindness, and their generosity. Books featuring comic heroes are printed at every reading level from pre-k through high school. Comic books are more accessible and acceptable now than ever before.

More so, comic books are beginning to be viewed as more than entertainment. Educators are seeing value in them as powerful methods to help kids become better students. Studies are finding that kids who read comic books tend to be more creative and have better vocabularies than kids that don't read comic books. These stories are tools for academic achievement and weapons to fight against illiteracy – nonprofit foundations are finding success in helping low-income and developmentally disabled kids learn to read by using comics. One study even suggested that the vocabulary in comic books is written at a higher grade level than newspapers due to having less space to convey big ideas; this makes comics more complex yet laid out in a visual format that makes sense to kids – even if they don't understand a word, those visual cues help them understand the context and meaning far more than in picture free texts. Despite the differences between comic book stories and traditional literature, comic books are equally valid. They follow the same literary devices as other forms of fiction: character development, plot arcs of conflict to climax and resolution, setting and world building, themes and symbolism.

With that in mind, last weekend provided a moment of pride when I caught my daughter reading her older brother's Guardians of the Galaxy comic book. She identifies with Gamora (the dangerous girl), Rocket (the sarcastic raccoon) and Groot (the friendly yet fiercely protective sentient tree). It was not an easy read for her. She struggled pronouncing some words and frequently asked me to help her sound out a word or tell her the definition of other words. But she made the effort and smiled the whole time.

I am happy to see my kids reading and enjoying comic books. Not just for the reasons I listed above. Yes, it sparks their creativity, expands their vocabulary, and encourages them to enjoy reading. But comic books are still more than that. Comic books carry on the tradition of storytelling that is essential to human existence. This year is Batman’s 75th anniversary, but superheroes are much older. If you take a serious look at human history, you will find that superheroes have been a central aspect of the stories we've told since our ancestors began telling stories.

The ancient Jews had Moses and Abraham, figures that play predominant roles in three different religions. The New Testament book of Hebrews listed the heroes of the faith – people who “conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” The Egyptians had Isis, Osiris, and Ra. The Greeks had their gods and demigods. The far east had stories of Genghis Khan, Emperor Qin, the samurai, the shoguns, and ronins. The middle ages produced exaggerated stories of the Templars and Europe gave us tales of fairy godmothers, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. Even America’s Wild West had their tall tales of Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and Pecos Bill. All superheroes in one form or another.

Throughout time, people from different cultures all over the world have used these stories to remember their histories. They expressed their emotions through these stories. They told and retold these stories to honor individuals. These stories helped them to understand their world.

More than any others, these stories of superheroes communicate what it means to be human – even when the characters featured are more than human. We can't be superhuman ourselves, but we see in them qualities that we desire. Honor. Courage. Strength. Passion. Loyalty. Self sacrifice. Dedication. The ability to fly. Whether it is Jason and the Argonauts quest for the golden fleece or Peter Parker's struggles balancing power and responsibility, superheroes reveal our humanity. They inspire us to be better people. Telling these stories is an essential part of being human.

My older son, inspired by his favorite superhero, Captain America.

12.04.2014

Dear white people

First of all, allow me to apologize for the awkward title. As a person lacking melanin, this post might as well be headlined "Dear me." My grasp on the hurt and anger in black communities across our nation is feeble at best. I was raised in the suburbs - and one that was closer to rural pastures than the inner city (my high school was nicknamed Cow Pie High for a reason). The struggle of growing up in the American ghetto is as foreign to me as the Tibetan alphabet.

Ever since #Ferguson first became a trending topic, I have watched live streams of the riots and protests. I have read countless articles from people both directly and indirectly involved in the controversies. I listen to of hip-hop. I follow Shaun King on twitter. All of what I've learned over the past few months confirms one thing: I will never truly understand what it is like to be a young black male in America. For me to presume that I know what's best for them, or to instruct them on how they should act and respond to crisis, or to claim any superiority over them is summed up in one simple word: arrogance.

While watching news reports, reading editorials, and surfing through my facebook and twitter feeds, I see more arrogance than anything else. More arrogance than compassion. More arrogance than understanding. More arrogance than problem solving. More arrogance than introspection.

As a white person, my perspective is and always will be skewed. We are all a sum total of our life experiences. Mine are that of a kid that came of age during the grunge explosion in a conservative Christian home somewhere north of Seattle, and now lives in an area that is 93% white. My history belongs to a theater nerd, a movie and music junkie, and a religious student. In my experiences with police, I have generally been given the benefit of doubt. I have rarely (if ever) been viewed as a threat.

However, as a Christian, I am compelled to say something. The level of arrogance I see is appealing. I believe in a God who hates it and promises to put an end to the arrogant. I believe that my God does not show any preference or favor based on skin tone. I believe that, as an adopted child of God, a black Christian is as much my brother or sister as is a white Christian; that in Christ we are all equal. And finally, if we are all family - regardless of race, then I believe that when one member of that family suffers, we all share that suffering and we should all care for each other.

My faith creates a paradox. From the perspective of my race alone, I lack understanding. But my faith requires that I see past my own skin. It demands that I sacrifice my self for the sake of others. I am compelled to provide comfort to those who are hurting. And - as I mentioned in my previous post - I believe that we are called to mourn with those who mourn.

With that perspective, I will climb onto my soapbox for a moment and as lovingly as possible share a message for all who share my paler pigmentation: Shut up. You're not helping.


Now, I must clarify a few things. I am not asking you to apologize for being white. I am not asking you to feel ashamed of your heritage. That is a unique part of the way God made you and should be celebrated as an aspect of the diversity in our world.

In respect to recent tragedies crossing news desks this summer, I have no desire to pick a side. I do not want this to be an "us vs them" debate. Individual events that happened in the microcosm of those communities only reflect (and possibly magnify) greater issues present in our culture.

I am not trying to make anyone a saint or a hero, nor am I willing to vilify anyone. I recognize that Michael Brown was a flawed individual just as much as Darren Wilson is a flawed individual. As with the majority of officer involved deaths, I believe that mistakes were made on both sides of the badge. I do not want to make any declaration of guilt or innocence for either the victims or the police officers. To judge any of them is far above my pay grade.

What I do know is that the African American community is grieving. I don't have to understand how or why they are hurting to realize that they are. It is my duty to stand with them and say "your pain is my pain." In this way, I follow the example of Jesus who wept for the loss of life. I honor my God who longs to heal the brokenhearted, who keeps track of our sorrows, and paid the price for our wrongs.

My admonition is not to provoke or anger anyone. It is a sincere request to think before you speak. Words have power and the words you contribute can either heal or harm. And if you choose the latter, please shut up.

"But they're more likely to be killed due to black on black violence. Why don't you talk about that?" True. But white people are more likely to be killed by another white person. So shut up, you're not helping.

"Yeah well, here's a news story of a white kid that was shot and killed by a white suspect. Where's the riots and protests for him?" Was the black suspect a police officer? No. Shut up, you're not helping.

"Police kill more white people than black people." And white people are still 62% of the US population. But comparing white deaths to white population and black deaths to black population shows you don't understand how ratios work. Shut up, you're not helping.

"The police are human too." So are the people they killed. Shut up, you're not helping.

"They're thugs, they deserved to die." Are you saying that stealing a pack of cigars is worth a death sentence? Does illegally selling a tax free cigarette deserve being choked and suffocated as a penalty? Should kids be shot for holding an airsoft gun? Shut up, you're not helping.

"This is just victim mentality. They need to stop playing the victim card." Statements like this enforce the feeling of being victimized. Shut up, you're not helping.

Any time you toss out comments like those in quotation marks above, you're telling an entire group of people that their feelings are invalid. You're saying that they're not allowed to experience their grief and sorrow. You're denying their right to be outraged. Now imagine how you would react if someone treated you that way. What if you were mad or sad and your emotions were completely rejected as irrational? That is called empathy.

Empathy is a funny thing. You don't have to agree with someone, or even like someone to demonstrate it. Empathy opens doors to civil and productive discourse. Empathy erases mistrust and discord. Empathy heals emotional wounds. Our nation needs more empathy.

Please consider the weight of your words. This is a time to build bridges, not throw Molotov cocktails. This is a time to ask "What could we do differently?" Not, "What should you have done differently?" The goal should be preventing more shootings like Mike Brown's, not blaming Mike Brown. We need reason, not rhetoric.

11.26.2014

Happy? Thanksgiving

This might come as a surprise to many Americans - especially the patriotic, beer guzzling, Murica shouting, football watching variety. Not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving.

Shocker. Right?

On the surface, Thanksgiving is the kind of holiday that everyone can get behind - both the religious and nonreligious. After all, science supports the positive affects that gratitude has on our emotional and physical health, it makes sense to have a day set aside to celebrate that concept. You don't need to be religious to accept the need to be thankful for what you have. So there is clearly a secular aspect to Thanksgiving that can be revered by people with no religious leanings.

In the Christian world, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that we should honor. Time after time, the Bible highlights a spirit of thankfulness and commands us to be grateful. Give thanks to the Lord because he is good. Give thanks in all circumstances. This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Let us show gratitude.

Yet Judeo-Christian traditions don't have a monopoly on religious conscription to be thankful. The Qur'an instructs Muslims to have gracious attitudes. They believe that Allah instructs, "If you are grateful, I will surely increase you in favor, but if you deny, indeed, my punishment is severe." Islam also ties being grateful to finding favor from God. Buddhism teaches that "A person of no integrity is ungrateful and unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. ... A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people." Hinduism teaches adherents to be grateful for everything and to give without expectation of gratitude from others.

So much evidence in favor of thanksgiving as an action regardless of world view, and yet Thanksgiving as a holiday is not universally celebrated. Why is that? A complete answer to that question could be as complicated as trying to explain string theory to a kindergarten class that skipped recess and snack time.

There are simplistic and obvious reasons. Because some people are just ungrateful jerks. Because their retail employer insists that Black Friday actually starts on Thursday. Because they come from another country where the history of this American holiday is confusing or foreign. Because it is absurd to set aside one specific day to be thankful when we should be thankful all year round.


Or because the meaning of the holiday is a sore subject. This is something I never realized until I started studying my kids' heritage. Many Native American tribes view Thanksgiving as a day of mourning instead of the celebratory feast modeled after the first Thanksgiving (the one we were all taught was held by the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe). Modern American education tends to romanticize that first festival so it might be helpful to review the fate of the Wampanoag people.

Prior to the founding of the Massachusetts Colony, the Wampanoag's population was several thousand. Their numbers thinned as soon as they began to have contact with white explorers. Several were captured by Captain Thomas Hunt, then sold into Spanish slavery. More fell to illnesses brought over from Europe. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they survived their first rough years in the new land thanks to the generosity of the Wampanoags and lessons in fishing and farming that the natives provided.

In the decades that followed, the Wampanoag population continued to shrink due to diseases that they caught from their new neighbors. As the population of white settlers grew, the Wampanoags faced a new challenge: assimilation. The Puritan settlers engaged the natives with religious conversion and forced relocation. The tension finally reached a breaking point with King Philip's War. For three years, the English colonists clashed with the Native Americans during which the Wampanoag tribe lost 40% of their people in battle. By the end of the 1700s, the Wampanoags where nearly decimated from sickness, war, slavery, and evictions from their traditional lands.

Understanding this history places a clear perspective of why some Native Americans do not view Thanksgiving in the same positive light as is done by white America.

If I'm honest, which I generally try to be honest, I like the idea developed by the United American Indians of New England in 1970. The National Day of Mourning. We should be thankful all year, but it could be incredibly healthy for us to recognize that life isn't always sunshine and roses. Perhaps, it could be beneficial to the American psyche if we observed a day to lament.

Which reminds me of something else I learned from reading my Bible. That there is a time for everything. "A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance." Also, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn."


The church needs to foster an understanding and empathy for those that are hurting through the holiday season. We need to accept that this is not an easy time of year for many people. In that spirit, I will embrace a day of mourning.

Yes, I have much that I am thankful for: my kids, my job, reliable transportation, my faith community, living in a scenic corner of the USA, and Netflix. Yes, I am grateful. But my heart also breaks for there is much to mourn.

It was just over a year ago that Grandma Budd, my mom's mom passed away. Four years ago this past Friday, Grandpa Casey, my dad's dad lost his fight with cancer. Today, I mourn with my parents, my aunts and uncles, my brother, my cousins, and all who still grieve their losses.

I mourn personals setbacks that I've experienced over the past couple years.

I mourn the deaths of new and old friends I will never see again. David. Jeff. Sam. Travis. Patrick.

I mourn the tragedies from my hometown and the lives that were forever altered in the MPHS shooting a month ago.

I mourn a deeply divided nation that can't manage to agree on much of anything.

I mourn the headlines we've seen this week: riots, looting, and arson. I mourn with the business owners who lost their livelihood and watched their business burn to the ground. But I also mourn with protesters who feel like they have lost so much that they feel destroying something is the only way their voices will be heard. And I mourn with a family who is experiencing their first Thanksgiving without their son, knowing that the man who killed their son will never face criminal charges.

Our world is filled with so much pain, anger, brokenness, and loss. This year, I will observe this National Day of Mourning. However, I do so with knowledge that grief and sadness will not last. There is a time to mourn. But there is also a time for praise and jubilation. There is a time to party, to laugh, to dance, and to sing.

I propose we honor a day of mourning so that we can better appreciate those days when it is time to celebrate.

11.21.2014

R is for Replay

In video game reviews, the critic looks at many different elements: story line, graphics and design, background music and sound effects, ease of controls, balance of cut-scenes versus game-play. The myriad of factors used to determine a favorable or unfavorable review is far greater and more subjective to those used in critiquing movies or music albums. There is one word that you will find in video game reviews that is rarely used anywhere else.

Replayability.

Is this a game that has reply value? Is this the kind of game that gamers will play over and over again? Game developers understand this concept. They know that most people will only play through a game once and and if there is a repeat play-through, it is done at a greater difficulty. For years they have experimented in hopes to release that fan favorite that people are still playing years after the game is initially released.

Thirty years ago, the NES launched. Two games that were released at the same time as the console were so ubiquitous that odds favored them being a part of the game collection of anyone who owned an NES: Super Mario Bros and Excitebike. While my family could never afford a gaming console, I still played and enjoyed these games vicariously through friends and neighbors. However, if I was given the option, I favored Excitebike for one big reason.

Replayability.

In Excitebike, you could customize your own track. Every time you played it, it was a different game. You were in control of how much you enjoyed the game.

Alternately, Mario was the same game every time (excluding the glitch where one player could pause the game while the other player was playing and cause that other player to fall into a pit). Super Mario Bros followed a pattern - one that is predictable to the point of rote memorization. There are people that are able to play the entire game blindfolded; they do so successfully because there's no chance that the game will do something different than every other time it is played.

I find that level of predictability boring. Does anyone ever find repetitive activity - doing the same task the same way over and over again to be fun? According to the oft heard adage, that is the definition of insanity. Repeating the same action with the same method and expecting different results. That isn't fun. It borders on dysfunction.

When Christian was younger, he had a habit of frequently repeating jokes he found funny. These ranged from the typical kindergarten level knock-knock jokes, to hiding around a corner and shouting "boo" when someone walked near him. Then he would cackle like a master villain whose plan to take over the world was succeeding. The redundant prevalence of his routine (joke, maniacal laugh, repeat) quickly lost it's appeal.

Neurotypical kids will learn through trial and error that this kind of behavior is socially unacceptable. For Christian, having Aspergers complicated this learning process; he could not figure it out like most other kids his age. To help him, we developed a verbal queue to help him understand this social rule. After several iterations of the same joke, we would tell him, "First time, it's funny. Second time, not so funny. Third time, it's annoying." It took a long time to catch but he did learn the lesson. Jokes have a replay value. Repeat them and they cease to be funny.

But people delude themselves. They convince themselves in the existence of pleasure in insane reiterations. Sometimes, when repeating destructive or disruptive behaviors, people will use the excuse "I'm just having fun."

I don't buy it. I can't. Because I understand the concept of replayability from a consumer's point of view. In economics, it is called the law of diminishing marginal utility. It is the concept that the most utility or the most satisfaction of a product or a service happens with the first use. You might have a favorite wine, but if you drank the same variety from the same winery every single day it losses it's appeal. After a week, a month, a year, a glass of your favorite wine won't taste as good as the first glass you ever drank. The same concept applies with anything we consume. The first time you watch a movie. The first time you mix cake batter in a new KitchenAid. The first time you wear a brand new pair of shoes. The first time you drive a car. There's an allure to the first time that cannot be easily recreated.

Imagine if every football game you watched had the same result regardless of the teams playing. If, at every level from little leagues through the NFL, every game followed the same turn of events. The home team always score first but the visiting team immediately answers with points of their own and ties the game. At the end of the first quarter, the visiting team kicks a field goal to gain a three point lead. Through the second and third quarter, neither team scores. Even through most of the fourth quarter, the away team maintains their three point lead. Then in the final play of the game, the home team runs in a touchdown and wins the game. And the next game you watch transpires with the same series of plays and ends with the same score. Same thing with the next game you watch. And the game after that. And the game after that. How long would it take before you would stop watching football games?

Variety adds value. Unpredictability grants excitement. Differing experiences lead to greater satisfaction.

That is replayability.

Video game developers know this and they have come up with creative ways to exploit this over the years. They have created an array of multiplayer opportunities, both cooperative and competitive; the addition of another human changes what happens in the game and adds replayability. They have improved artificial intelligence in non-playable characters - randomizing it so that the game is never the same no matter how many times you play it. Some games have multiple endings depending on choices you make while playing. There is downloadable content that expands the gaming experience. There are trophies, achievements, and hidden collectibles scattered through out many games, some of which are not available the first time you play through it (the Lego series are notorious for this feature). The people who earn their living creating video games are finding new ways to capture and maintain the interest of gamers beyond the first play-through.


But what about life? Does your life have any replay value? What can you do differently tomorrow and the next day to create more excitement? How can you make your life more enjoyable? How can you avoid the law of diminishing marginal utility in your daily existence?

Disclaimer: my job is filled with repetitive tasks. I have deliverable reports that must be done the same way on a daily and weekly basis. If I tried to shake things up to create some measure of greater enjoyment, it would not end well. In fact, it would turn out drastically and horribly wrong.

However, I know that your life is more than your job. You are more than a title. If you are in a position where your employer appreciates creative spontaneity, then enjoy it. If not, please realize that life still happens before you walk through the office doors and it continues after you leave. It is during the hours where you are not earning a paycheck that you have the greatest opportunity to give your life replayability.

Do it. It is worth the effort.

11.10.2014

Q is for Quirky

Think back to when your younger years. Do you remember that quirky kid from school?

You know the one I'm talking about. This individual was socially awkward; they tried hard but the complexities of unspoken social rules were far too confusing for them to understand. They were smart with above average to remarkably high IQs but their intelligence was not always reflected in their report cards. Your parents probably liked them more than you liked them. They fidgeted during quiet times, exhibited wild if not odd imaginations, laughed when inappropriate, or displayed obsessions with particular subjects or activities. They demonstrated either an extreme attraction or aversion to auditory, visual, olfactic, tactile, or gustatory stimuli. Bossy. Creative. Disorganized. Absent-minded. If conditions were right, one person could have possessed each of these traits. There was no better way to describe them than with the word quirky.

You can probably recall a former classmate that fits that profile. Perhaps even more than one. I remember a kid like that. I was that kid.

Back then, psychiatrists tried to explain it by saying I had ADD. I am not confident I would receive the same prognosis today. The more accurate diagnosis would be Asperger Syndrome. If doctors and psychologists knew back then what they know today, my story would have taken a much different plot line.

Now, I've grown from a quirky kid into a quirky parent of a quirky kid. This paradox is a mixed bag of blessing and stress.


I'm a first hand witness to his wonderful creations; from one-man plays to Minecraft mansions. I am first in line to hear his philosophical musings and to be stumped by his thought provoking questions. He and I geek out over shared interests: comic books, Doctor Who, architecture, and fantasy liturature. As he's aged, I've held my breath as I watched him develop his own version of autonomy. Despite the successes, heartbreak exists. For my son, being quirky also includes navigating the treacherous paths of schoolyard bullies, loneliness, and social stigma.

I've been there. I know how he feels. It is not easy to convey the lessons I learned. But there is progress. And I have hope.

Why hope? Because I believe that the future ahead of my son is brighter than anything that lies behind us. A future where he plans on becoming a billionaire inventor. A future where he is able to build deep and lasting friendships. A future where more people understand and accept those who are quirky.

11.04.2014

You get what you vote for

Today is Election Day and I hope you went out and voted. I did. Yes, I know I live in Idaho where I know my vote is practically useless as the winners are inevitable in most races.


In Idaho, the predictability of election results provides a long string of discouraging results that really makes me question the sanity of the typical voter who keeps on voting for the same people but expect different results.

Take for example the candidates for Superintendent of Public Instruction: Dr. Jana Jones and Sherri Ybarra. On the surface, both women appear to be similar. Both of them have built careers in education. Sherri beginning as an elementary teacher in Mountain Home and Jana founding a day school that provided early education to kids in Idaho Falls. Both have and impressive list of degrees. Jana has a bachelor’s and a master's degree in special education, and she's earned a doctorate degree in educational leadership; Sherri has a bachelor’s in elementary education, a master's in educational leadership, and an education specialist degree. Both have influential titles: one is a curriculum director for a school district and the other is the vice president of a K-12 educational consulting firm working with many school districts. Both support Common Core. Both support charter schools. Both support recommendations from Gov Otter's Task Force for Improving Education, including restoring funding that has been cut since 2009. Both want to encourage increased use of technology in the classrooms.

But under the surface, things look a little shaky. Since both candidates were so similar on the issues, something interesting happened. At the beginning of the campaign, Ybarra plagiarized large swaths of verbiage from Jones' website. She admitted the similarities - and by similarities I mean nearly identical wording and sentence structure, but she blamed her web manager and the busyness of being an educator working every day. All could be forgiven if that was her only error. Unfortunately, it went down hill from there.

Her excuse that she's an educator working every day would make sense as she promised to continue working throughout the campaign. That was what she said after winning the primary in May. However, that's not the case and she's been on leave from the Mountain Home School District; she will not specify how long she's been on leave.

Ybarra barely won that primary election. She raised the least amount of money, made no effort to campaign, and did not have the support of the big names in her party. After winning, the minimal effort continued and Ybarra was a no show at a few important events including an invite from the Idaho Association of School Administrators to speak at their Summer Leadership Conference. She claimed one of her foes from the primary as a member of her campaign committee, a position he didn't want and didn't ask for. He had to clarify that he did not endorse either candidate and would support whichever one wins the election.

Her former opponent isn't the only person she incorrectly listed as a supporter. She also made the claim that the majority of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee supported her. When challenged on that claim, she defended herself by saying they're listed on her website. However, only two members of the twenty person committee are listed on her website. She also claimed to have the support of the majority of state lawmakers, yet her website only lists a quarter of them as actual supporters.

Then facts about her history surfaced. Turns out, she hasn't voted in a single election since moving to Idaho in 1996. She claims her candidacy is repayment for not participating in her civic duties. Going into her reasons for moving to Idaho, she was deceptive and misrepresented her marital history alluding she moved to Idaho with her husband ... she just didn't specify which husband. And she lied about her education, first stating that she would receive her doctorate from the University of Idaho in August. When August came, no doctorate. She got the education specialist degree instead.

Sherri Ybarra dismisses the controversies of her pratfall prone campaign as nothing but rhetoric. Meanwhile, her opponent has been busy running a positive campaign. These issues of dishonesty, plagiarism, family history, lack of a voting record ... these missteps were not pointed out by the Jones camp. These have largely been uncovered and reported by news organizations.

This mangled campaign is not just a collection minor errors of a political newbie running for office for the first time in their life, this is something all together different and mystifying. It has the horror of a train-wreck that has caught media attention, not just in Idaho but nationally.

Here's the sad part of the story. I'm sure Sherri is a talented and competent educator. But she will make a horrible civil servant. There is no logical reason Sherri Ybarra should hold an elected position with this much power or responsibility. Yet, she will probably win. Most polls show her with a minimum of one point advantage over Dr Jana Jones.

Why?

Because this episode of Sesame Street is brought to you by the letter R.

This is Idaho, one of the most conservative states in the union. A state where the majority of voters vote for a straight Republican ticket. A state where a timber thief and a tax cheat couldn't win an election as a Constitutionalist so he changed parties and won four consecutive terms as a Republican. A state where Satan could win an election as long as there was the letter R listed next to his name on the ballot. Because in Idaho, political party is often worth more than the actual issues or the candidates qualifications.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope for one night, the voters of Idaho prove my assumptions to be incorrect. I hope that lifelong Republicans decide they're not going to accept a weak candidate and vote against their party - even if Jones is the only Democrat they elect on their ballot.

But if I'm right? Congratulations Idaho, you get what you vote for.

10.29.2014

P is for Power pt 2: The Power of Positivity

Melancholy is such a great word. When Smashing Pumpkins released their double LP Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, it quickly became one of my favorite albums. To this day, every time I listen to it I'm inspired to write.

I remember sitting in my American Literature class with their songs stuck in my head. I was supposed to be reading The Scarlet Letter, but I all could think were the words "Tell me I'm the chosen one, Jesus was an only son for you." Nearly 20 years later, that album still remains one of my all time favorites.

But that younger version of me, the high school junior distracted by music, didn't fully understand the meaning of melancholy. I thought of it as something bittersweet. Only a hint of sadness. At that time, I didn't even realize that I had a melancholic disposition.

As years have passed, I have come to better understand the meaning of the word. Gloomy. Somber. Pensive. Lost in thought.

I don't see melancholy as a bad thing. Even though it makes certain tendencies a little more viable - depression, despair, pessimism. It has it's trade offs. It's given me compassion and empathy for those that are hurting - the outcasts, the misfits. It's forced me to be a little more deliberate than most. And I'm learning to be happy in times of mourning and infinite sadness.

However, that learning takes a considerable amount of effort. Knowing that my coping mechanisms are either mockery or grumbling, knowing that my default response to stress is to retreat, knowing that happiness is impossible by doing the things I've always done, I'm making conscious actions to change some habits.

To combat negativity in the workplace, I've put together a "Happy @ Work" playlist. It's on my iPod and I will turn it on in my office to help keep my mood positive. I'm surrounded by people who constantly whine and complain so my musical therapy is a pleasant counterbalance.

The quest for happiness is not solely internal; there is an external component. It's about the way I interact with others. It's the way I present myself in social media. It's about the topics I chose to write about and post to this blog.

Last spring, I mentioned that I'm not a natural encourager. To be honest (and those who know me can confirm) I tend to be more of a grouch. Like Oscar. One of my greatest fears is that I'll age into a grumpy old man, standing out on my porch shaking my fist at those darn kids and yelling at them to get off my lawn. In hopes to avoid that fate, I'm finding ways to compliment, motivate, and encourage those around me. I'm trying to envision the positive side where I would not normally see it.

For example, a few months ago I overheard a conversation between two ladies complaining about parking outdoors in North Idaho. One of them griped about the trees at her apartment complex shedding needles and how she's sick of sap dripping onto the hood of her car. The other said she hated pine trees.

Something seemed tweet worthy. My instincts wanted to make fun of them. Don't park next to trees, you wouldn't have that problem if you didn't park under a tree branch. Don't like evergreens? You're living in the wrong part of the country. Pine sap dripping on your car? At least it's not bird poop.

Halfway through composing that tweet, I stopped myself. 'Naw,' I thought. 'It's not worth it. I shouldn't be mean.' Instead, I tweeted the following: "I prefer pine trees to palm trees." The result to this more positively minded tweet garnered genuine responses that affirmed my opinion including a Texas friend reminiscing how much she missed living in the northwest.

Over the summer, I observed a peculiar neighbor while driving to church. He was dressed in tube socks and flip flops, shorts and an ill fitting t-shirt. He appeared to be at least my age, if not older. And he was spinning in circles at the end of his driveway with a Bubbles wand in his hand. Not a kid in sight, just him. When I got out of my car, I started typing a description of what he looked like and his choice in activity. It started with the intent to make a joke, but then I realized that he was enjoying himself - and probably more so than me. Instead of being cruel, I ended the post commenting that I bet he was having more fun than anyone who was reading my update. Once again, the response was positive. One even alleged that I was jealous of my neighbor - which was definitely a possibility.

Lesson learned. Intentional efforts to be positive are far more rewarding. But lets be real, I'm not perfect. It takes a lot of work, and I don't always get it right. Mockery is far easier. But there is a shift going on; I call that progress.

I am convinced our world would be a better place if more people made the effort to embrace the power of positivity.

10.24.2014

An open letter to the students of MPHS

Hello friends.

Is it OK if I call you friends? We don't know each other, but we share a common bond. I am an MP alumn. Class of '97.

It's been years since I stepped foot on campus. If I remember correctly it was to see a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the spring of '99. Later that year, I moved away and haven't returned. But I miss you. And no matter the distance or the number of years that separate us, I still consider you home. My school. My city.

The MPHS campus holds many memories for me. Some good, others not so good. However, even my worst high school memories pale in comparison to the grief you are all feeling today. For that reason, my heart is breaking for you. My body is 300 miles away, but my thoughts are in Marysville.

Today is hard. Tomorrow will be the same. In fact, the next time you enter a classroom, it will be difficult. But there are a few things that I know to be true that I hope will help you.

First, and most important: this is not the end. When tragedy strikes, it's easy to feel as if your world grinds to a stop. While there is a sense of finality that surrounds you, there is much more life ahead of you than anything that lies behind you. Today might have been the closing of one chapter, but tomorrow is a new page in your story - the beginning of the next chapter. You still have the power to achieve greatness. Despite the horrors of today, I believe that your futures hold many wonderful things.

You also need to know that where there is darkness, there is also light. Right now, you have a choice. You can either let the darkness of tragedy consume you. Or, you can choose to be a light in that darkness. Hug your friends. Remind your family how much you love them. Be a shoulder to cry on. Find healing in helping others heal. Find something to hope for and cling to it.

This next bit I know to be true but I can't really explain why. It is just something that I feel at the very root of everything that I am. This tragedy does not define you. You are bigger than this. You are stronger than this. And you are worth more than you will ever comprehend. Each and every one of you are here for a reason. Your family loves you. Your friends need you. And now, more than you may ever recognize, you school needs you. Even if you feel like an outcast or that you don't fit in, just know that there is someone out there who needs you to be here.

Finally, something I see in overwhelming evidence: you are not alone. I have been checking in with friends and former classmates and one theme stands: We support you. Your school is an irrevocable part of what makes us who we are today and that connects us to you. We are your biggest fans. All over, I'm seeing my peers change their profile picture to that of the MP logo and our Tomahawk. We are showing you how much this school means to us and how much we believe in you. The kids I graduated with, they've grown up to be actors, musicians, writers, teachers, preachers, lawyers. We all said the same thing. From members of your community to Cheyenne Wyoming to Dallas Texas; from SoCal to Salt Lake City to Indiana. The message remains the same. Our prayers are with you. Your pain is ours. We are grieving with you.

Sincerely and with much love.

your friend

10.18.2014

P is for Power pt 1: The Power of Pause

It was during an afternoon commute north on 95. Late afternoon. It's the only time of day when that stretch of Coeur d'Alene highway experiences a genuine rush hour. I switched from the slow lane into the fast lane to get around a logging truck and discovered a second logging truck a few car lengths ahead of me in this new lane of traffic. After those few cars all moved into the turn lane, I had nothing in front of me, except freshly cut timber.

Lights ahead turned red and we rolled to a stop. There, with one fully loaded logging truck ahead of me and another to my right, I had a revelation.

However, before I unpack this sudden brush with wood inspired wisdom, I need to talk about Trevor.

Who is Trevor?

When my family moved into a new house during the summer before I entered the third grade, Trevor quickly became my best friend. There was one house in between his and mine, but the casa Casey was situated on a two acre corner lot. Due to the size of the property, our back yard almost connected with Trevor's back yard, so he was practically a neighbor. We were close enough that when dinner time approached, all my mom would have to do is stick her head out the back door and yell my name. I'd hear her and go running back home.

There are a few big reasons I enjoyed hanging out with Trevor. The first is that he owned a Nintendo - a luxury that my parents could never afford. I would also watch some shows at his place that my parents wouldn't allow, primarily Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The final reason I liked hanging out at Trevor's place became more apparent as we got older. His little sister was super cute and by the time we were in junior high, I had a massive crush on her.

What does getting stuck in traffic have to do with Trevor and my boyhood crush on his little sister?

Excellent question.

Trevor had great parents. They wouldn't let us spend all of our time indoors playing video games and watching TV. They frequently sent us outside, rain or shine.

There was an empty lot between our back yards. It was the battlefield where we played out our summertime squirt gun wars. It was the arena where I played tag with Trevor and his sister. It was the setting where I became infatuated with her jet black hair, tanned skin, and bashful laugh.

At the far end of that empty lot was a row of pine trees. Their lowest branches were close enough to the ground that it was easy to scramble up into the boughs and climb higher and higher until the branches were too thin to support our weight. We spent many afternoons clinging to bark high above the ground. More often than not, by the time I heard my mother yell, "NICHOLAS!!!" my hands were sticky with sap and I had pine needles tangled in my hair.

But now I'm stuck in traffic. This is North Idaho and what we call rush hour pales in comparison to the I-5 Boeing traffic that I grew up with in Seattle. But I am not a patient man. Slow drivers tend to annoy me. Semi trucks in the fast lane tend to bother me. Being stuck at a red light when I'm in a hurry to get to my destination tends to frustrate me.

(I never claimed to be perfect.)

But that afternoon, despite the annoyance of slow traffic and being stuck at a red light behind a semi in the fast lane, I had an out-of-character reaction. With both of my windows down, with former trees stacked up in front of and beside me, I took a deep breath. I fully inhaled the odors of recently cut pine. And I just enjoyed the moment for what it was.

My natural inclination would have been to grumble. Instead, I found a bit of happiness in that piney sappy scent wafting through my car. For just a moment I allowed my life to pause. Instead of dwelling on whatever problems existed in my life, I breathed in every ounce of calm and peace that floated by along with that smell of lumberjack's labor. In the time it took for the rotation of lights by Fred Meyer to cycle through and give me a green light, that refreshing aroma reminded me of Trevor. And his sister. It reminded me of better days, years of blissful innocence. It reminded me of those countless times I squirrelled my way into the tree tops and the evenings I ran home for dinner smelling like a forest. The revelation hit. I could chose to be frustrated or choose to accept my circumstance.

That minute of pause was a return to joy.

Every now and then, we need to push that pause button. Our lives are hectic and demanding. Stressors abound. Demands unrelenting. Left to our own devices, it's easy to let these outside influences steer the course of our day to day routine. We need that pause to give ourselves a refreshed perspective. To recharge our internal batteries. To experience a momentary reprieve from our burdens.

That's the power of pause. To rest.

And rest isn't easy. It takes practice. As the son of a workaholic (who exhibits some of those same tendencies), I don't truly know how to rest. Intellectually speaking, I know it's important. Selah. In actual practice, however, I have a hard time fully and tangibly resting. But this past summer I made considerable efforts to do just that.

I've largely been absent from the blogging world since May. My writing pace slowed to a noticeable trickle. It's hard to write from the heart when your heart is not in the right place. So I needed a break. I needed to push pause. I devoted as much time as I could to enjoying the summer with my kids. I took them hiking, something that I myself haven't done since I moved away from Seattle in '99. I started going to concerts again, local shows. That's an element that has been absent from my life since I lived in Boise. I rekindled the joys I once found in live music and dirt paths through the woods. I loved every minute and along the way I discovered a few things. I found that one of the most peaceful places on Friday mornings in Coeur d'Alene is sitting on the edge of the amphitheater stage at Riverstone Park, with my feet dangling in the water, watching the ducks swim by close enough that you could kick them. (note: I don't condone kicking ducks). I discovered the light of fireworks reflected in my children's eyes. I discovered energy that I didn't know I had while walking around the fair grounds with my three kids for seven hours. I learned that truth always wins.

One other thing I discovered, or rather rediscovered, is who I am. Why I write. The kind of person I want to be. Why I embrace geekery. And where this path is taking me. Thanks to the power of pause, I'm driven. I know why God stuck my love for pop culture and theology in a blender. Those synapses in my cranium are bursting. I'm ready to be me again.

All because I got stuck between logging trucks at a red light during an afternoon commute and it reminded me of a kid I once knew named Trevor. And his younger sister.

9.14.2014

Have You Seen Me Lately?

Zu has a head that instinctively understands music and a heart that is drawn to a catchy song. Melody and rhythm flow through her like a tranquil stream through alpine wilderness. She feels the emotion of a song in the deepest recesses of her being.

It's a gift.

And she sings. Oh how she sings. Her voice is lovely. And sweet like marshmallows. Some of my most cherished moments have been those seeing her lost in giddy bliss - belting out the chorus to an Owl City song. Or holding her in my arms while we sing Hey Jude together. Or when a special tune comes up on her MP3 player and she says, "This is my favorite song, how did you know?"

Someday, when she's older, she's going to be one of those girls with her own YouTube channel singing her own versions of popular songs.

I occasionally picture an older version of her with an acoustic guitar in her hand or sitting behind a keyboard, and I imagine her future voice replacing the vocals of whatever music I have playing. Most of the time, this imaginative jaunt into days yet to come makes me smile.

This is what I was doing the other day while listening to an old Counting Crows album. The song playing was one of my favorites - Have You Seen Me Lately? When the chorus started, I began to imagine Zu's voice replacing the one belonging to Adam Duritz. "I was out on the radio starting to change. Somewhere out in America, it's starting to rain."

That image of a teenaged version of my daughter rocking this song that the teenaged version of me used to listen to brought me joy. It's the same sense of hope and optimism I feel when I imagine the awesome things my boys JJ and Christian could accomplish in their lifetime.

But as the song continued to play, I was reminded of a truth about life that I know my kids will wrestle with sooner or later. In the song's bridge, Duritz sings, "Come on color me in. Give me your blue rain. Give me your black sky. Give me your green eyes. Come on give me your white skin." To let it sink in, he repeats that last line a couple of times.

Come on give me your white skin.
Come on give me your white skin.

Suddenly, the though of my sweet girl singing those words broke my heart. Because I know the day is coming where she will feel those words, even if she never speaks them.

For now, I shouldn't worry. My daughter is fiercely proud of her Native American heritage. If you call them Indians, she will correct you. And I'm thankful that her friends at church and school have accepted her for who she is. And I love her beautiful mocha colored skin, her piercing brown eyes, and her blend of raven and chocolate hair that shimmers in sunlight. I will always see her as a priceless gift, a treasure.

But lets be real. We live in North Idaho, an area with a notorious history with white supremacy. Even in more diverse areas of our nation, America still struggles with issues of race. Someday, my kids will enter that world beyond the shelter of my guidance. Because of that, I know that someone somewhere will treat Zu and her little brother with less dignity and respect than they deserve for no other reason than their ancestry. I know that in the ugliness of adolescent comparison, a classmate will deem Zu less beautiful because of the pigment of her skin. I know that no matter how hard I try to protect them from the evils of this world, someday my kids will feel hated, they will be discriminated against, they will experience racism.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope that attitudes change. I hope that every teacher, every peer, and every stranger my kids meet in the street see them for who they are. I hope that my kids grow up in a society where everyone is treated fairly. And I hope Zu and JJ never wish they had been born with white skin.

8.25.2014

My biggest critic

In the course of living and breathing, you will collect critics. It's a part of being human. Someone somewhere doesn't like you. Most of the time, it's not your fault. If you have a heartbeat, you will have people that are critical of you.

Critics. Everyone has them.

Some of mine are very vocal. Sometimes obnoxious. But at their worst, they are tame when compared to my biggest critic. Have you met him? I'm sure you might recognize him. He looks a lot like this.


Yeah, that's me.

There's nothing that any critic could tell me that I don't all ready know. Nothing that I haven't all ready told myself. In my most private moments, I'm the only one that utters those "What were you thinking?" comments. I can self-deprecate harsher words than the worst insult lobbied by any of my other critics.

And I have to live with him for the rest of my life. Sooner or later, I'm going to tell him to shut up.

Who is your biggest critic?

8.11.2014

Life Lessons Learned

Mork taught me that being weird can be a good thing. Nanu nanu.
Adrian Cronauer taught me to be irreverent and to use music as a coping mechanism.
John Keating taught me to stand up, seize the day, and make my life extraordinary.
Dr. Malcolm Sayer taught me to appreciate life.
Parry The Fisher King taught me that every man needs a quest.
Peter Banning taught me to believe in my inner child.
Batty Koda taught me that only fools are positive.
The Genie taught me the value of a well placed pop culture reference.
Daniel Hillard dressed up as Iphegenia Doubtfire and taught me that nothing is more important than time with my kids.
Alan Parrish taught me the joy of an adventure.
Sean Maguire taught me that it's not my fault.
Hunter 'Patch' Adams taught me about the healing power of laughter.
Rainbow Randolph taught me that friendship is better than rivalry.
Reverend Frank taught me that love should endure all hardships.

But those were just characters.

The man taught me that it's OK to be hirsute. He taught me to accept my flaws and to be honest about my failures. He taught me to smile when everything inside of me wanted to cry.

And today, there are two more lessons I wish to convey.

Depression is a liar.
Suicide sucks.


Please, if you need help, get it. If you need to talk, say something. You are not alone. Someone out there cares about you. Be weird. Appreciate life. And indulge in silly pop culture references.

I'll be here if you need me.

6.23.2014

O is for Offer

Let's be honest. There are things that you wish you could do but no matter how valiantly you try, you will never posses the skills to pull off such activities.

In such respects, I hold a very realistic outlook on my limitations. Perhaps a little too realistic as I have the tendency to talk myself out of realistic pursuits under the guise of impossibility. But I know who I am and to an extent, I know what I am capable of offering.

I have an artist's heart with only a meager amount of artistic talent. I may never create a timeless work of art - I can't offer that. But I love artists and I can offer them encouragement.
I may not be mechanically inclined but I am analytically gifted. I can comb through massive amounts of raw data and help someone make sense of it all.
The 'I can't do this but I can do that' list could go on for longer than would be tolerable in a blog post.

Now, let's be realistic. Most human friendships are (to some degree) selfish. Those relationships where you give and give and give and never get anything in return can be discouraging and emotionally draining. True, most people don't look at their friends and ask "what's in it for me?" But the thought is there.

I'm not a saint in this respect. I can be just as selfish as anyone. But I've made efforts to take a different approach. For those people in my life that I've accepted as good friends, I ask myself "What do I have to offer?"

Sometimes, that isn't much. I have some really talented friends whose light will forever outshine mine. Wise friends who have poured more into me than I can imagine ever being able to repay. And friends who seem so much my equal that anything I have to offer is gained back.

Jon is one of those guys that lands somewhere between my equal and that brighter light. We connected almost a year ago and in many ways he's like the brother that I never knew existed. We don't agree in everything, but religiously, politically, and socially speaking, we're more alike than not. While I grew up in Snohomish County and migrated east to North Idaho, he started his journey further east and has landed in Snohomish county. The first time he and I interacted, he said "I live where you grew up, and you live where I want to be."

But he is also freakishly talented. He's got a knack for video editing and has some big dreams to use that talent for something that could be simply amazing. When it comes to my question of what I can offer, I don't have much. But I am a thinker. Jon and I have had a few deep and fantastic conversations helping him brainstorm some ideas and chase after his dreams. And I can write. So, a couple of weeks ago, when Jon asked me to write a guest post for his blog, I said sure. That I can do. That is something that I can offer.

That post went live today. Please - hop over to Jon's blog and read what I've shared with him.

6.14.2014

Through my son's eyes: Car d'Lane

Christian approached Car d'Lane with his iPod in hand, snapping picture after picture of the cars lined up for the auction near Independence Point. These are the seven best from his little shoot.