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National Have Some Compassion Day

I don’t know if that day exists or not, and if it does, it probably is not February 5. But for today, I want you to bear with me and assume that it is, because I want you to come with me on a quick journey. It won’t be long, and it won’t be painful.

I know I said (on my About page) I would never do political posts. This isn’t really a political post. In my mind it is a humanitarian post. But some may perceive it as a political post. If you, dear reader, are one of those people, and you know my politics and disagree with them, please don’t let that stop you from reading on. Because this really isn’t a political post, I promise.

I just woke up from a dream. I wouldn’t say this post sprung from my head fully-formed, but I will tell you that as soon as I woke up it started composing itself, and I knew I would never be able to go back to sleep until I got it down on virtual paper. Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about my dream. But the dream sets the stage.

In the dream, I had just coordinated the release of a prisoner (????). The handoff was to occur at a mall that I happened to be at (????) with my wife being the person to hand him off (????). She got him out of the car, motioned him my direction, then tossed me the keys for his handcuffs (????).

If you looked at this man, saw him in real life, “prisoner” is not the word your brain would have pulled from wherever it pulls such things to describe him. The word that would have appeared in your head would be “homeless.” He was in his sixties, long, dirty gray hair, red flannel shirt, dirty pants, beat up, worn shoes. He walked toward me in a manner I’ve heard described as the Thorazine Shuffle. (If you don’t know what I mean, Google Thorazine and apply critical thinking.) Most important was the look on his face. Sheer despondence. Utter hopelessness. This man had given up on life. Not in the way a hospice patient might. More in the way of someone who has had the very worst day of his life, only it was about the thousandth consecutive such day.

I asked him if he had a place to go. He nodded. I asked him if he had a way to get there. He shook his head. So I pointed to the mall’s Info Desk, which was right there and which also sold city bus tickets (of course it did, this was a dream after all). I overheard the lady at the desk as she rung up the cost of the ticket. It was over three hundred dollars.

I immediately reached for my wallet without thinking, then stopped myself. That is a lot of money, and while I could afford to part with it, I felt like I shouldn’t have to, and that it wasn’t my responsibility to do so. So I put my wallet up and started to walk away. Then I looked past the man to my wife, who mouthed to me, “Pay it forward. It’s only money.” Something, I’m proud to say, she would tell me in real life.

And then I woke up. There, dream over. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

This, of course, got me thinking about the homeless, not as a societal problem, but on the micro level. And here’s where I need a bit of audience participation. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read your answers out loud, and you don’t have to turn them in at the end of the period.

I’d put money on the fact that at least one person who reads this (assuming Facebook does its job and draws people here) will pass a homeless person today. Maybe it’s a regular, at that intersection every day. Maybe not. Maybe it’s in the city, maybe it’s in the suburbs. I guess it could even be out in the country. Those of you who won’t pass a homeless person today, well, you’ve seen them before. So you can picture them your head. I’d like for you to do so now.

Never mind why that person is there. Mental illness? Drug addiction? PTSD? Laziness? It doesn’t matter for our purposes. You can ascribe a motive if you really want to, but that’s not the point of this exercise and I don’t think it will factor in to what I’m asking of you.

Now, picture that person. Look at him (or her). And let me give you some background. (“Wait, you said ‘No motives’ and besides, this is my figment, not yours.” “Yeah? Well, the background I’m painting is universal.”) That person has a family. They may or may not love him; they may or may not know him. But somewhere, some time, a woman gave birth to that person. The next time you see an adorable little baby, your homeless person was once that baby.

Do you have children or are you around them? Do you remember what it was like to be a child? The boundless optimism? The innocence? Even a child with the worst upbringing is still a child, and still clings to the child-like hope that things will get better. Children dream. In their mind, they can be anything. Have you ever met a child who wanted to be a homeless beggar when he or she grew up? I didn’t think so.

Your homeless person might be a mother or a father, a sister or a brother. At one time, at least, they had friends, and I’m willing to bet that at some time in their life, they positively impacted another person, perhaps without even knowing it. We all do. Even the most damaged of us. Someone, at some time, loved them.

Now, look at your homeless person again. Don’t think about why they are there. Think about this (and apologies to my wife because I am stealing this thought from her; consider this attribution): whatever their situation is, whatever their history, whatever their personal demons (or lack thereof), that person is at a point in their life where the best thing they think they can do, the best use of their time, is to go out on a street corner or in a subway station and beg for money. Their options may be self-imposed, or they may be because of circumstances beyond their control. But look at that person and think about the fact that this is the best they could come up with. And think about how degrading it must feel for them. How degrading it actually is.

There is a family out there who is wondering where that person is. There is a family out there that has given up on this person’s problems, is tired of trying to help, but still loves him and is still worried. That family could be your family. That person could be you.

Because that person is a person. A member of the human race, just like you and me. That person was someone’s child once. That person once had dreams. That person once would never have thought they’d end up where they are now. That person and you may be different in almost every way, but that person and you both have shared certain universal human experiences. Love. Friendship. Joy. Loss.

So next time when you see that person in real life, I would like for your mind to go back to this fictional homeless person. Think about everything I’ve described about the fictional homeless person applying to the real homeless person. Because it does.

You don’t have to roll down your window. You don’t have to give them money. You can ignore them. You can shake your head when they walk by. All of the above describe my behavior almost every time, so trust me, I am not preaching at you. I’m right there with you. But I promise you that I will think of my fictional homeless person, too. And even if I do nothing for them, I will have compassion for them. I will send them my love as one human being to another. I hope you will do the same.

It may not make a difference in their life. But it will make a difference in yours.

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They don’t teach you this crap in school

No pithy intro here. I’ll get right down to it.

Really, there’s a lot they don’t teach you in school. Personal finance, for one. My father – god rest his soul – was about as solid of a C- student as you could ask for. But his education soapbox was that no one is taught basic finance. You know, everything from the VERY basics of how to write a check (remember, this was the mid-90s when “that crook Clinton” – his words, not mine – was in the White House and the only place you could find online porn was in AOL chat rooms, or so my friends told me) to compound interest (which I did learn about in Algebra II, thank you Ms. Toland) to the present value of money. Valid point. I know Dave Ramsey would agree.

But where was I? Right, the things they don’t teach you. Mainly what I’m talking about is how to deal with being an adult.

Notice I didn’t say how to be an adult, though they sure as hell don’t teach you that either. We all muddle our way through that particular comedy of errors and most of us turn out ok.

But I want to know how to deal with being an adult. If I had to take a stab at what psychologists might call what I’m referring to, the term I’d use is emotional resiliency. 

For example, today we paid our property taxes a full two days early. I have a folder for 2012 tax information and I’m actually putting shit in there. The kids had simultaneous epic meltdowns this morning – before either of us had had our coffee, if you can believe that Shakespearean tragedy – but we kept our cool and diffused the situation, despite self-induced vomit on the kitchen floor (a kid’s, mind you). You see? We learn how to be adults.

But I have to say, I am so proud of myself for accomplishing these tasks. My car has a current inspection sticker AND a current registration sticker. Our car insurance renewed a few days ago and we both have our new insurance cards in the glove box. Ever since we refinanced our mortgage in October I haven’t been able to figure out how to put it on autodraft, yet I’ve made payments on time every. single. month. All of these accomplishments bring me the utmost pride in myself and my competency. There is nothing I can’t do as long as I don’t run out of stamps.

Is the bar that low, though? “Congratulations, kid, you haven’t been evicted. No tax liens on your house, slugger.”

Maybe it’s a generational thing. It always seemed like my parents had their shit together. No late bills. Credit card paid off in full every month. They even changed the oil when that little sticker told them to. But I feel like I negotiated the START II treaty when I manage to cancel HBO once our shows are over (you can’t do it online, you have to call, can you believe it?).

My struggle is how I deal with the fact that things that should be a routine part of living as an adult in an “advanced” society are in fact Sisyphean tasks. How do I come to terms with the guilt and shame and sense of pride and shame at that sense of pride that surround the accomplishment, or lack thereof, of the most basic tasks?

I praise my children when they remember to put on underwear for school. You’d think that would go without saying. I guess you could say the same about paying your water bill.

God save us all when my generation is put in charge of things.

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The Wheel Turns for the Final Time

Well, this is it. 13 minutes ago 51 minutes ago, A Memory of Light, the final (14th!!) installment of The Wheel of Time, was released on the East Coast. We’ll get it here in Texas in another 45 minutes ten minutes. I could go pick it up tomorrow (and as it happens I will, from The Twig at the Pearl Brewery).

I’ve known that I would be sad when I finished this last volume, and read “The Scene” that Robert Jordan wrote decades ago, the final scene of the book, the one Brandon Sanderson (who took over the series after RJ died in 2007) got to read before anyone else and said of it, “As a Wheel of Time fan for nearly 20 years at that point, I found myself supremely satisfied. The ending is the right one. Somewhat unexpected, somewhat daring, but also very well done.”

I’ll tell you what I didn’t anticipate. I didn’t anticipate sitting here, before the book has come out, before I have laid my grubby hands on it, and being nervous about reading it. Every word I read will be one word closer to the last that will ever be written about The Wheel of Time world. RJ’s wife Harriet McDougal (also his editor) has confirmed there will be no “outrigger novels.”

I do and don’t want to read it (but of course I will, you know I will). I picked up The Eye of the World in the summer of 1997, fresh out of high school and looking for something to pass the time before I set off to college in NC. I still vividly remember standing in the Fantasy section of the Lovers Lane Bookstop in Dallas reading the prologue. I think I read several pages of Chapter 1, too, before being dragged to the front by my mother, where I purchased the first of what would be a life-changing series for me. Before I left in early August, I’d read the first 6 books, which by my rough mental math using the infallible Wikipedia works out to about 1,962,000 words (actually I just totaled it on a calculator and it comes out to 1,962,127… Impressive!).

Anyway, where was I going with this? Oh yes. The creed of the series, the opening paragraph of every book, says, “There are neither beginnings nor endings  to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.” Just so, while Book 14 may not be the ending to the Wheel of Time (there are theories that in the final confrontation the Wheel will be broken but I don’t buy it and it contradicts RJ’s own words), it will be an ending. An ending for all of us.

Bringing this back around to me (because with the writer, it’s always about them, isn’t it?), I could never imagine the tremendous virtual ink spilled over the series, over theories, predictions and what-have-you, happening to anything I ever wrote. I don’t think there’s ever been anything quite like it, and I wonder whether there ever will be again.

At the same time, I believe in that level of success for myself, because I have to believe. Optimism is the writer’s true religion. It is what drives us when all evidence might point to the contrary. Fifty-third rejection slip? Number 54 will be the jackpot. This manuscript is a dud? The next one will be the love child of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Faulkner and Twain (you are free to banish that mental image at any time).

The Third Age, an age in the past, an age yet to come, draws to an end.

My Age is just beginning. I hope yours is too.

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Put it out there

If you want to be good at something, you have to practice. Everyone knows that. You also have to not be afraid of going out there and falling flat on your face. You have to be willing to put it out there no matter the consequences. I’m not going to talk to you about practice. I’m going to talk about putting it out there.

Winner-180x180

I participated in (and won!) NaNoWriMo in November of 2012, and it taught me a lot about writing. Maybe the most important lesson I learned is that if you want to be a writer, you have to put it out there. Anyone who has played sports, done theater or otherwise performed in any fashion knows all about that feeling. I was in band in high school and college and had my share of solos (including solos on a football field in front of thousands of people) so I am familiar with the feeling. I don’t know why it never occurred to me (consciously) that getting over the same fear is essential if you want to be a writer.

I haven’t let anyone read my novel yet (not entirely true; my wife read a sample page) but even telling people you are writing a novel is a vulnerable thing to do. It is easy to imagine people dismissing your efforts as a flight of fancy. As someone (I can’t remember who) said to me, “anyone who is halfway intelligent and likes to read says to themselves at some point in their life, ‘I am going to write a novel.'” To the credit of all of my friends and family, everyone was and continues to be very supportive of me and this current project.

I think experiencing that vulnerability is a warm-up for when you actually have people read what you wrote. Several of my local fellow NaNo’ers published their works-in-progress online as they were writing. I thought that took tremendous courage and could never dream of letting anyone read my “raw material.”

That being said, I know that time will come for me with respect to this novel (and others in the future). This blog is my warm-up; after all, if I can’t share random thoughts and musings with the internet, I have no business calling myself a writer.

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December 28, 2012 · 7:23 AM