Category Archives: Social Rules

Nothing Is The Same

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My 4-lb. book arrived today: “The Stand,” by Stephen King, the uncut edition. I’ve read it before, although the last time was many years ago. Given the backdrop of the lunacy of the superflu in the book, this book seems both macabre and appropriate.

It’s fitting on several levels. Most importantly, there’s a minor character in the book who shares my birth name. The Walking Dude kills him. After 53 years and 5 days, my footprint on this world isn’t much more lasting. My greatest achievement has been to avoid the certain path that my upbringing imprinted on me.

When I opened the packaging imprisoning the book, I handed it to my wife, saying, “It might be the last book I ever read.”

“Don’t say that!” she chided, even as the weight of it surprised her.

Like everyone else, we both knew that it could indeed be the last book I buy. I said it in humor, an absent-minded quip, motivated mostly by its length.

We may have all passed innumerable and unseen last experiences.

It’s always been this way.

The difference today is that few of us can keep the curtain closed  – or our furrowed brow of concern camouflaged behind busy lives. It’s the pace of our previous lives that kept us from sitting in silent concern.

For many, the whirlwind is subsiding, leaving the evidence of unexamined lives and unappreciated pleasures.

The Stand ended with victory for the world,  as it continued on.

Nothing was the same.

And so it will be for us, if we are lucky.

 

W E

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On Saturday, Dawn and I watched 1995’s “Outbreak,” followed by 2011’s “Contagion.” Whether it sounds ridiculous or not, watching the movies made everything better in a way that probably sounds ludicrous to a normal-minded person.

Even the opening graphic for “Outbreak” seemed fitting: “The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus.” (Joshua Lederberg, Nobel laureate.) For a movie made 25 years ago, it still has much to say.

I’m amazed by how quickly the dynamic of the entire world has changed. Each of us is attempting to find a stable landing place, one from which we can find a sliver of tranquility. I know many people who are barely cobbling together the ability to move one foot in front of the other. I know many who are guilty of conspiracy theories, hoarding drugs and essentials that take it from the hands and veins of those who actually need it. I see it every day.

For my part, I’m forced to go out in the word daily because of my job. I’ve never feared exposure. Everyone around me has heard me say that I assume I’m exposed every single day I walk around. I don’t wish to needlessly expose others to the virus. But I have to say, my personal efforts are dwarfed by the decisions of large agencies and businesses around me, ones who’ve made questionable choices. I’m at the mercy of every person I intersect with. It’s always been that way. The only thing that’s changed is that the reality of it is now one that can’t be ignored.

We are all our weakest link.

Dawn and I didn’t hoard anything from day one. Looking toward the horizon, it’s pointless. We are not islands. If you hoard, you are hurting the people that don’t have what you have amassed, whether it is a can of tuna or a vial of Hydroxychloroquine. If our situation deteriorates, only those who embrace a total dedication to taking only what they need will survive. If the situation morphs into a worst-case scenario, no one will be able to thwart the madness that will take what you have.

If you are looking for a silver lining, I can only hope that this results in all of us appreciating science and education more, as this is a warning shot that shouldn’t be ignored. To embrace the idea that we are dependent on one another, a dependence that surpasses our local hospital, state line, or national border. To understand that the person cleaning the floor is as integral to our survival as the three piece suit who seldom gets his hands dirty but makes triage decisions about our supply systems during emergencies.

There may be no silver lining to this. It might just be a harsh lesson. We already had the tools needed to lessen this crisis. We took too much time and effort fighting for our fiefdoms instead of looking toward the world map and seeing ‘W E’ spread across all of it.

Of all the hopes, I hope it leads us to stop bickering over oil, sand, and land, or that we find ourselves able to willingly give everyone health care without regard to payment. If we forego war and aggression, we can pay for it. Our economy will not look the same once this fades. Everything we’ve learned will be meaningless. Hard hearts must soften.

I’m already looking beyond the peak of this emergency.

It’ll be us, still. I hope it is a different us. I think most people were dissatisfied with what we were, for wildly and contradicting reasons. Some of the facade of our differences has vanished. Each of us looks toward the microscopic threat of a virus and wonders what will become of us.

Whatever ‘that’ is, it is our choice.

It’s always been our choice.
Love, X

Accused By Legacy

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Legal Disclaimer: The case I’m referring to could be anywhere, involving a variety of professions, geography, and people. I don’t want to be accused of libel, even though the truth is the only defense one needs against the claim of libel. I could be talking about one hundred different places and one thousand different faces.

This is another story I’ve archived many times. At its heart, it is an accusation against most smaller towns and many people with doubts about victims who come forward against their own best interest.

I’m amazed at how uncritical people are about allegations of wrongdoing, especially if the person in question has a smiling face or resources. Predators most often hide in plain sight and are adept at concealment. Rarely does one see an obvious smoking gun. No one enjoys being unfairly accused. No one enjoys being doubted when telling the truth, either, especially when the deck is stacked against the accuser – which it invariably is.

Someone I know was once reluctantly enlisted to be a litigant in a case involving a person in ______, who was accused of touching females inappropriately. While researching the archives about the accusations, I encountered several quotes such as, “At least he wasn’t raping them.” Some of those quotes were from women in the community. When people doubt accusers like this, it is likely that women around them are grimacing in recognition that their own family members and friends are mocking them. My acquaintance moved on from the case without scars. She knows she was lucky.

This same attitude was on display here in Northwest Arkansas after a local priest admitted to abusing boys and then killed himself. Even then, after being exposed as a predator, many people couldn’t bring themselves to call him what he was. He lived a secret life; publicly devout and privately monstrous to those he victimized. There are others out there. Saying it doesn’t do anyone good to talk about it is a sure sign that the discomfort strikes a bell of truth for those saying it. I get angry when I see people being guilty of the backlash against discussion. It’s a sign of malignancy. That malignancy and secrecy is a big part of the problem.

My acquaintance wanted nothing other than an admission of wrongdoing from the person who had been fondling women. She didn’t enter the list of witnesses or litigants easily. Despite wanting nothing from the case, she had to endure listening to people who were initially unaware of her involvement in the case, as they openly mocked and questioned the motives of the female accusers. Cases of abuse invariably peel back the mask of misogyny that runs permanently beneath the surface.

To be clear, the accused man was alleged to have inappropriately touched several women. It was a pattern of behavior and concealment. His excuse to explain away many of the allegations was ridiculous.

I default toward credibility on the part of the accusers. It’s easier to dismiss or doubt singular cases. My life as a child proved that barbarians could victimize openly in society and survive, often even when their brutality left consequences in plain sight. Several of the people I went to school with have individually come forward with their own stories of abuse; some at the hands of family, other at the hands of coaches, teachers, and clergy. Note: those abusers lived and worked around us all. Many victims carry their stories close to their hearts, working each day to avoid painting the entire world with an accusatory brush. The prevalence of stories substantiates that abuse was, in fact, common here, poisoning people in secret. Almost none of the abusers were held accountable, even when those abused attempted to come forward. Most people prefer that scandals remain secret, a tendency still flourishing today in society.

One day, assuming I outlive some of them, I’ll name a couple. It is my burden to outlive them. I think the proper word for it will be a ‘reckoning.’

Years later, because the case of the fondler fascinated me, I investigated it as thoroughly as I dared. The accused was never forced to account for his actions. He remained in his position. The message to everyone was simple and effective: come forward at your own peril. The accused had resources to ensure that those on the periphery of the case would be silent, cooperative, or punished. Many of the female litigants felt punished for their testimony and victimized to varying degrees by the system. Their trust in the legal system diminished. I’m confident that all of them infrequently think back and hope that the accused stopped abusing other women. That’s all they could do, though. Hope. I know that some of them took their fear from being treated badly by the justice system and passed it along to their daughters, nieces, and friends – and rightly so. It is their right to teach their family that women can be abused with impunity. This distrust has to have eroded their confidence in the legal system that failed them. The effects of their failed attempt for justice must still bear consequences today. I don’t see how it’s not the case.

The case is fascinating in several regards. Going back through the specifics is a template for how to retaliate if you’re guilty of the accusation but wish to flail and obfuscate to avoid accountability. Knowing that this individual twisted the system to avoid punishment underscored the fact that the public institutions which could have also demanded accountability also failed. The fondler had access to the best lawyers, researchers, and his tendrils reached into some surprising places where power precludes disclosure.

Because I’m very familiar with the allegations against the fondler, I can’t escape the fact that everyone else tasked with ensuring public safety sidestepped at least a portion of their responsibilities, too. Some of those people are still in their positions. The legal system is a useful tool to silence those with legitimate claims. The legal system so seldom provides closure and justice to victims; there are times I’m surprised anyone comes forward. In their defense, it is often an impossible job with no reward waiting for them.

In the case in question, a civil case was undertaken. There are a number of details of this case which lead anyone to place credence in the accusation(s) of impropriety.

I never fail to imagine the duplicity of this man who ruined a part of several women’s lives. He’s rich and has all the amenities such richness brings. He will never have to hang his head in shame or to feel powerless. The contempt I feel for him is measurable.

He walked away because many in the community where my acquaintance lives thought, “That can’t happen here,” as if geography somehow conferred a magical blanket of protection. Many of the jurors said the same thing. It’s troubling that they weren’t told many of the simple facts which would have immediately changed their verdict into a shout of “Guilty.” Many trials are that way. Good lawyers can easily control what the jury sees and hears, or color it with so much doubt that jurors forget their own names. In this case, there were several surprises which the jurors didn’t get to hear. Hearing some of them so many years later, I couldn’t help but feel shock at how badly the pursuit of truth could be perverted solely because of the overwhelming power of money. When I was almost a juror for an accused murdered a few years ago, I witnessed this firsthand.

At my age, knowing how many people were abused, it’s hard for me to reconcile the fact that people are so stupid – or so cloistered from monsters that they can’t imagine others are powerless to stop them when they abuse.

The women involved dispersed back into their own lives, each of them no doubt contaminating countless other women with the conviction that coming forward is a fool’s errand.

All these years later, it’s still a shame. It’s shame that can be distributed to many in the community. “That doesn’t happen here.” Even as it does, every day – and with most victims staying silent.

For years, I’ve waited, hoping that someone with resources would come forward and paint the man in question to be what his victims know him to be. It hasn’t happened yet. If it does, though, I’ll be at the doorstep of the lawyers, friends, and jurors of those who denied justice to a group of women.

The case would make a great book.

I reached out to the attorney(s) involved and none wanted to discuss it, given the repercussions from the initial trial. Everyone who helped the women in question paid more than their fair share in pain. Revisiting it is a wound for everyone involved.

Silence from all quarters, except in the minds of the women who know.

It’s a small town legacy that many recognize and few acknowledge.

I’m going to discard my notes and the archive of the case and release it back into history, where it will fester. Rinse and repeat.

 

 

 

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You’re Not Going To Enjoy This Story

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I have some stories, many of which I won’t tell until some of those involved die. It’s not out of respect, though. I know I don’t get all the details right. Stories are certainly more complicated than I make them as I reduce and distill whatever swirls in my head when I share pieces of my life. Others attack the details and forget to defend the essential truth behind the story. I have dozens of anecdotes and stories I’ve written. Most of them are too raw or lacking a central focus. With many of them, I just concluded, “It’s time” and throw them out here as if they need to breathe. With some of my stories, it would be folly for the people involved to identify themselves. Their denials won’t age well. If you think I’m writing about you or someone you know, don’t ‘out’ yourself.

I wrote the initial version of this sometime in 2001. In reality, this encompasses several conflicting stories.

When I was in junior high, I had a few experiences which jarred me. A couple of them are closely guarded secrets. Because I could recognize violence in places most people saw few signs of such, there were a few times in which I was rendered floorless in recognition of how bottomless some people were. I now know that there are abusive people from all walks of life. Worse still, some are adept at recognizing children who are already at risk and then do further damage to them. Oddly, it took me years to realize that I also had a congruent weakness: I often failed to see the danger behind a smiling face. Many of the biggest monsters hide in plain sight, behind an easy laugh. Youngsters who are mistreated tend to be distrustful of everything, of course – but they also tend to contradict their instincts by responding with too much trust toward a smiling face or friendly demeanor.

Make no mistake, I encountered some incredible adults and teachers when I was young. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I don’t recognize the debt I owe them. Talking about the lesser people doesn’t denigrate the better people in my life. All are stories. Likewise, you must accept the reality that some of the worst human beings I’ve known were teachers, coaches, and other professionals. The positive examples outnumber the negative by a staggering margin. Not talking about the negative examples doesn’t help anyone, though. Regardless, I get amused when people call into question my motives for sharing. As Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

I was beyond the normal scope of ignorant when I was younger. My family life didn’t foster a broad worldview and often no expectation that I would live to adulthood. Each weekend brought dread, even as I found youthful distractions. Much of my life was wasted trying to bridge the gap between my home life and the one outside its reach. I loved school in so many ways; the greatest and most singular was simply that it was not home. I often say anywhere was safer than home, generally speaking.

At school, I had befriended someone who seemed like she might have a glimpse of my life, an overview I didn’t have to explain. I’ll call her Tammy. It’s important to note that this wasn’t a romantic relationship. After a while, I noted that she didn’t want me to notice her mood swings. After I met her parents, I made the mistake of asking if her dad liked to drink, followed by me seeing that her mother seemed to behave like my mom. I thought I was sharing a secret, one Tammy might reciprocate. I could not have been more mistaken. In the short term, I just avoided her as she became belligerent and angry after I told her about my family life. I don’t know why I thought my honesty would let her be able to confess her own dark secrets. I tried to explain it to her. It only made her angrier. She couldn’t get past the idea that I “knew” what happened at her house when no one was looking.

She told me that her dad was going to find me and give me a dose of what I deserved. She threatened me if I shared my ideas about her home life with anyone. When she said it, I knew that her dad had probably actually said the words, in part because of the details she provided. Her eyes lit up with crazy glee each time she’d mention that her dad was going to beat me. It sounds like an exaggeration, but she probably said that her dad was going to beat me at least twenty times. She seemed a little too focused on ensuring that I was at least scared. Though I don’t remember any of the details, it was evident that her dad had probably hurt a few people in his lifetime. Years later, it occurred to me that Tammy might have earned a temporary reprieve from her dad’s beatings by offering me as a sacrifice. Children living with violence learn techniques to avoid scrutiny and to give the abuser another target. It’s part of the reason they lose their confidence and ability to make rational choices in later life.

One day, after a school function at another school, I was walking out of the building to make my long walk home. In those days, I was accustomed to walking miles from events. My parents had decided they didn’t want kids after they had us. I saw Tammy getting into her dad’s ugly little car, and I made a full swing around the edge of the lot to avoid them near the exits. To my surprise, a few moments later, her dad pulled his car alongside me and stopped. The driver’s side tire missed me by an inch.

He glowered at me. He was a huge, overweight man. “Boy, do I have to get out of this car and kick your ass?” Keep in mind that I was in junior high, and he was a middle-aged adult, one with a good job. He went on, shouting as the volume of his voice rose and fell. I don’t remember the words, just the expectation that he was, in fact, going to exit the vehicle and hit me until whatever plagued him faded.

Some people were lucky and never learned the truth that adults could hit a child in those days and face no consequences. Not only did I experience it personally many times, but I also witnessed it too. I’m not sure which was worse.

(I erased seven specific anecdotes at this point, ones dealing with job title and/or names. Whether it’s cowardice, self-protection or a soft heart, I’m not sure. They are not positive or life-affirming examples, though. A couple of the stories tell an entirely different story about some of the adults we shared growing up in the same community.)

Tammy’s dad said some angry things. Tammy was in the back seat, her face full of satisfaction. I’ll never forget that ugliness and glee. Her mom cowered in the front passenger seat, her head recoiling a little each time her husband shouted. Because of my dad, I knew that there was no right answer for the anger, just as there hadn’t really been a cause. Abusers don’t seek justification for their anger or violence – just an outlet. Justifications only come in the rare event that they are held accountable for their behavior. I stood there, silent and stupid, until Tammy’s dad was done screaming and threatening me.

Much later, Tammy continued her effort to retaliate against me for knowing her family’s secret. She enlisted another student to threaten me. I’ll call him Eric. Tammy had told him all manner of lies to get him really angry at me. I tried to be friendly and to avoid a fight, which only seemed to stoke his anger. I was a master of evasion due to my dad’s years of training.

Because I realized that Tammy was crazy, probably through no fault of her own, I found her and politely told her to please leave me alone. A couple of classes later, Eric approached and said something like, “I told you to leave Tammy alone, you sick f%%k. Next time I see you,” he said as he put a gun finger to his temple. I didn’t answer him as he continued to throw insults. People generally are going to do whatever it is they’re going to do. I had no doubt that Eric would beat me to a pulp. What Eric didn’t know, though, is that I would likely remove a part of his body against his will during the process. Some people fight to win because they are able; people like me fought when they had to, with the goal of making the assailant not do it twice.

Later, my dad had punched me squarely in the jaw when I wasn’t expecting it, precisely with the stated goal of teaching me to be mean. When I got up too quickly, he hit me again to demonstrate his superiority. His excuse? I was running too much. He also enjoyed giving me impromptu lessons on manhood. I had started running in March of 9th grade and lost a lot of weight. After a particularly bad day of home and school, I just decided I was going to start running. I had dizzy spells for a while after the outburst leading to being punched twice in the face by my dad. Because of the second punch, I had fallen backward and hit my head against the native stone fireplace at the end of our trailer. I lived in Piazza Road in Tontitown at the time, just past where the pavement ended. That was one of the times I told my mom that something was seriously wrong. I was covered by phenomenal insurance through her work. Mom refused to take me to the doctor, even after I made the mistake of saying I wouldn’t mention what brought on the pain and dizziness. She made a point to tell my dad that I had wanted to go to the doctor. She made sure that Dad understood that I implied I had something I could say to the doctor if he asked. It sounds like lunacy now. Mom at times exceeded the symptoms of being a victim and joined in the sadism. When Mom told Dad that I needed to go to the doctor, he waited until I let my guard down a bit and grabbed me and swung me around and into the cheap wood panel wall leading to the bedrooms at the end. I felt the wall crack as I collided with it and fell backward onto the linoleum. I’m convinced I did at least fifteen cents worth of damage to the cheap panel wall that ran throughout the trailer. Dad was shouting drunkenly at me that I should keep my mouth shut about the dizziness.

The worst part was the look of crazy smugness on my mom’s face as she watched Dad be brutal to me. I jumped up, ran into the bedroom, and immediately climbed out the ground-level window of my bedroom. I don’t know how long I stayed outside in the dark. I do know that the next afternoon when I arrived home from school that I took one of Dad’s pistols from the closet in his bedroom and walked down the dead-end part of Piazza Road. Several hundred yards down, there was a small valley and a stand of trees. I threw the pistol as far as I could, over the barbed wire fence and into the brush and rocks there. Dad had a massive collection of guns; he’d eventually notice the pistol was missing. His drunkenness would prevent him from tying me to its loss. It was a stupid thing for me to do. It did, however, make me feel immensely better. Apart from the fact that I could have shot him, he’s lucky I didn’t toss ten of his precious guns into the valley by 4K farms. I did take several hundred dollars worth of specialty ammunition from dad’s stash and leave it next to the fence along the road, though. Dad was a convicted felon in more than one state; he wasn’t supposed to have firearms. Despite this, the police who infrequently visited never took any of his guns, even when people had been shot or shot at. Mom and Dad smoked a lot of marijuana when we lived on Piazza Road, too. I threw out a large clear bag of it after another beating. I was in the lower little shed under the back porch of the trailer practicing my French Horn. Dad grabbed my French Horn and hit me with it. The bells struck me in the nose. Surprisingly, it didn’t break. It did spew an amazing amount of blood for ten or fifteen minutes. I went upstairs and went into my parent’s room to get a bowl of marijuana they kept inside aluminum foil in mom’s dresser. Instead, I found a large bag of marijuana.

While I didn’t feel particularly angry, it must have been lurking inside of me. As dumb as it might sound, I was furious that I had trouble reading due to the dizziness. The libraries were my sanctuaries. Reading was my outlet into the world without needing people to explain it to me. It was also the only way I could remotely mimic the people around me. The librarians at the high school knew me well. One afternoon, I had darted over to the library to put a book in the drop slot and walked back across the narrow street to campus. Missing the bus was a real problem for me, and as a result, I generally wasted no time getting back to the bus pickup area.

Eric was parked along the road by Murphy Park and the Springdale library. He was leaning against his car and chatting inattentively with a girl. I walked up and put my books on the ground. Eric turned to me to mouth off. I said, “No.” As Eric began to speak, I hit him left-handed the way my dad had involuntarily trained me to hit. Eric didn’t even have time to get his hands up. Although I’m not proud of it now, I hit him as hard as I could. One of his teeth punctured my middle finger above the middle knuckle. Eric’s head snapped backward. I didn’t even wait for him to retaliate. Had I caved in his face, I don’t think I would have stopped punching him. Something about the unholy trinity of him, my father, and Tammy’s dad broke a circuit in my brain. When he tried to fall, I dragged him by the hair as he screamed. He had the classic feathered hair that so many people preoccupied with their looks used to have in the early 80s. I threw him in the grass on the practice field (where the track now resides) across from the public library. I then crouched down and put my knee across the back of his head. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know I was going to hit him until I did it.

A car with seniors inside pulled up and the girl Eric had been talking to told them an underclassman was kicking the crap out of Eric. They all piled out of the car and came around. Just as one of them started to grab my arm and pull me off, I jumped up and away, not saying a word. “You’re Mike’s brother!” said one of them. Another one of them said, “I don’t care who he is, I’m going to kill him.” Because I didn’t want to be literally killed, I said something smart such as, “I’d like to see you try, coc%@#$%^&!” and took off running. Did I mention I ran several miles a day back then? It paid off. They gave up trying to catch up with me in less than a minute, even though two of them ran all the way past the old tennis court area in a failed attempt to corner me. I gave them the high-bird salute with both hands, laughing. One of the people involved later tried to kick my French Horn as he walked by. My French Horn was not only a school-owned instrument, but it was sacred to me. A few days later, I poured a can of coke onto the front seat and dash of his beloved car. It was hot, so I imagine the cleaning process was delightful. It wasn’t a habit of mine to vandalize things. Once the idea was in my head, though, it was insurmountable. I felt terrible about the coke. I also kept reminding myself that the senior in question had hurt several people I knew, all weaker and smaller than him. He loved torturing other kids. I recognized the look in his eye and on his face when he was violating someone.

Eric? He made an effort to avoid me and to ensure that people were around him. Whatever else I had accomplished, I put the idea into his head that I could spontaneously dance on his head again.

I waited a while and went back for my books, which were surprisingly still in the grass. I don’t remember how I got home that day, as my family lived over by 4K farms in Tontitown. It’s hard to believe that it was over 7 miles from the high school to our trailer on Piazza Road. It seemed like 50 back then. My finger bled for quite a while, especially when I played my French Horn.

Years ago, I wrote a letter to both Eric and the girl he was talking to, to apologize. For the life of me, I can’t remember the girl’s name. Eric didn’t deserve to be punched so hard. On the other hand, he shouldn’t have persisted in terrifying someone he perceived as weaker. That’s a prescription for disaster. I do remember apologizing and also pointing out that the feathered kind of hair he used to maintain was basically begging for a beating, anyway. I was trying to be funny. I didn’t hear back from him. Wherever he is now, I assume he is nothing but a full head of luxurious feathered hair. In his version of the story, he probably thinks of himself as the protector. Even though I tried to explain to him that Tammy had lied to him, all he saw was a weaker victim in me.

Even though it doesn’t reflect well on me, I fear that if I could go back and retrace my steps, I would have been much less patient with bullies, regardless of whether they were my age or adults. Whenever I see a story about a victim responding with uncharacteristic violence, I always initially sympathize with the victim, no matter what he or she did to the person who had bullied them. Had my older brother not been around, it’s possible that the already common bullying would have been much worse. Even though I suffered through my dad’s abuse, I recognize that if the bullying had been worse in my earlier high school days, it is quite possible that someone would have been seriously hurt. That recognition is what sometimes lets me know that I was infected with the violence of my ancestors.

The next time I saw Tammy, I told her, “So much for my Eric problem. Seriously, leave me alone.” I showed her the deep cut on my left hand. It had finally dawned on me that whatever infected her dad had been passed down to her too and continuing to be nice was only going to add another year of hell to my biography. Her dad never materialized to administer his promised butt-kicking. From that point, I only had to contend with evil looks and whispered chatter. She made herself scarce for the rest of my high school tenure. She would be furious to hear me say that I felt terrible for her. I knew what she was experiencing at home. I suspect it might have been much, much worse than what I was going through. Tammy’s adulthood has been one marked by serious trauma. When social media started to gain ground, she reached out. It didn’t take me long to realize that she was truly crazy. Redemption was impossible. Her entire life was consumed by anger.

After high school, I finally managed to break free of much of the insanity of my youth. I changed my name. I wrote letters to several people, thanking them for being great people to me. I wrote a few to those who treated me otherwise. Some were anonymous. Some were not. With three or four individuals, I found them and told them directly that they had left a stain on me, much like the violence I grew up with. I was young, and stupidly thought I knew what I was doing. Again, things haven’t improved much regarding my ignorance, but I at least recognize my ongoing stupidity most of the time.

A couple of those I reached out to were teachers. I had some outstanding teachers. Like everyone else, I try to focus on their example instead of the malignancy of the bad ones. One of the people I confronted, an employee of the junior high I attended, screamed, “That never happened!” and ran away from me. We were in the Kmart parking lot. He bolted away from me. I waited 30 minutes for him to return. He didn’t. He was in great shape and could have easily thrown me ten feet in the air had he wished to do so. He ran, though, from the truth. He’ll get a chapter one of these days, especially if I outlive him. Whether anyone else believes it is their problem, not mine. He had no business being around children, of that I’m sure. I used to watch the news or search for a mention of him online; it seemed inevitable that he’d make an appearance in the Crime Beat section of the paper.

One of those people who I wanted to talk to face-to-face was Tammy’s dad. Her dad didn’t know it, but I had family and friends in common with him, mostly as a result of his job. Life has taught me that we all have a network of tendrils connecting us. What we do and say finds the most unlikely nests to rest in. Secrets are rarely kept, even as we fool ourselves into believing that they’re buried.

I asked around and discovered that the man’s past was more widely known than he thought. In those days, though, it was quite easy to conceal that sort of thing. A cousin of mine, then retired from public service in Springdale, had a lot to say about him. “Scoundrel” was his word for that sort of person. “He beats his wife,” my cousin confirmed. My cousin told me several stories of some of the horrific things Tammy’s dad had done, including ruining more than one person’s career. One of them included beating a neighbor’s kid for running through his yard. He wasn’t charged, of course. The kid in question suffered a broken arm trying to get away. There was never a record of it officially.

I waited for the scoundrel to come to meet me in front of his work. I had left a message at the desk to let him know someone was outside. There were other people around but I didn’t really concern myself with that. I’m paraphrasing what I said, and I’m the first to admit that many of the words didn’t ring out as confidently as I recount them. People are strange creatures; angry people are literally capable of murder in church without blinking.

When he came out, he lumbered and wheezed with the effort. “Do I know you?” he asked. “Yes, you do, sir.” Weirdly, I reached out my hand and shook his. His hands dropped to his side. “You threatened to whip my ass when I was very young. I was once a friend of your daughter. By the way, I know that you liked hitting your wife and kids. You’re an asshole. I’d like to give you the opportunity to fulfill your opportunity to whip my ass, right here and now.”  I took a step back and left my hands at my sides.

His eyes filled with literal tears, and he started breathing like he might not catch his breath. “I’m going to call the police. This is my place of work, and I’m not in the best shape to shut you up,” he said as he pointed his finger in my face. I stepped toward him, and he realized that I might actually strike him. “Do you want to call now or after I give you a dose of your own medicine? You’re not two feet taller than me now, are you?”

He shuffled back inside, looking behind several times until he was inside with the door closed.

Truth be told, I might have killed him had he tried to actually fight me. For some of those I confronted, I didn’t expect a visceral response. With Tammy’s dad, because I knew he was a violent abuser like my dad, I welcomed the chance to yank his shirt over his head and beat him like a third-rate hockey player.

I sat on the curb outside for ten minutes to give the police time to arrive. There was no doubt that what I had just said was a crime. No one came. No one ever came. Had the police come, I would have told them the truth, the one about a huge man who abused his family and tried to do the same with me when I was in junior high. It would have been an awkward police report and even stranger explanation in open court. His sort of person fears open exposure to what he’s done.

I see so many people make the mistake of kicking people when they’re down. It is a universal truth that it is unwise to threaten someone who has nothing to lose. I like to think that Tammy’s dad thought about me a few times before his life ended. It’s only fair. I’m not proud of this – but I can’t deny feeling that way. I wanted him to know that I could call him to account for what he did if I chose to.

He died a few years later. I saw his obituary in the newspaper. The obituary used a picture of him from about the same time frame as when he was threatening me. I have that picture in a folder on my computer. I don’t know why I keep it. Whether it speaks ill of me or not, I found myself wondering whether his eulogies were glowing, or if anyone had the nerve and impoliteness to tell the truth: he was a violent and angry man for much of his life. His death did not come soon enough to avoid staining the life of his family. A lot of people know, though, despite the glossy sheen provided by an obituary. Unlike in my case, Tammy probably still staunchly denies any abuse that happened to her. I’ve heard through the grapevine that her life didn’t get any easier. She stayed stuck, stagnant, and angry.

I went to visit the grave of Tammy’s dad. As I stood there, I couldn’t help but think about the number of people who’ve lived with monsters like him and kept their secrets. I’ve argued with people before: if you punch your children or spouse, you’re a monster, even when the scales slide off and old age catches up to you. No one stood up at my dad’s funeral to shout the truth. He died a saint, despite the invisible blood soaked through his knuckles.

I saw Tammy’s mom from time to time at her job. Tammy doesn’t know it, but I talked to her mom a year after her dad died. I didn’t know how to ask her politely, so I simply asked, “Do you remember me?” She said that I looked familiar but that she couldn’t place me. I told her I knew her daughter when I was younger and in the briefest way possible, explained that my childhood was abusive, too, and that I was sorry that she had to live her life with someone who couldn’t control himself. I thought she might respond with anger, but she didn’t. Her face flushed red, and she resumed her job. “Take care,” she told me as I walked away. She was smiling at me when I left her.

I don’t know what the smile meant.

I only know what I like to think it meant.

And I sometimes rest, uneasy, hoping my mistakes weren’t sufficient to summon the smaller gods of justice to repay me.

I’m not proud of confronting Tammy’s dad all those years later. I’m glad, though. My sin of vengeance was certainly lesser than his of being the abuser, especially of children.

I distrust easy stories, happy endings, and simple answers. We’re all complicated and each of our demons swirls inside of us.

 

With Malice Toward Some

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As with my post that followed the Syrian dad teaching his daughter to laugh at bombs, this post follows an interaction I had with a writer who is largely unaware of her ability to write. I worked on this post and didn’t post it. It’s been sitting in my draft folder for a long time, like undiscovered poison. Later the other day, I discovered that the writer had visited my blog and read about my cousin who died of cancer. It was an odd coincidence, one which prompts me to share it now, long after I was inspired to write it.

A few years ago, my cousin was dying of cancer. He’d been in remission for a while but as often happens, the cancer returned, vengeful and malicious. There was more than sufficient time for everyone to see him during his first round and in the interim intermission. While he was still a little wild and still a fan of drinking, he’d transformed from the person he’d been five, ten, or fifteen years prior. My cousin realized that anyone who really wanted to see him had more than enough time during his life and during the last couple of years. All else was an excuse. He recognized that he had been guilty of the same dismissive immortality with some of his friends and family.

My cousin became withdrawn. Daily life was a struggle for him, and his moments became both agonizing and precious. He wanted to reduce the drag on his spirit from visitors and ghosts from his past, especially those who brought with them the accompanying demons wrestling inside them. I tried to inform people politely that he wanted peace, to not take offense to unreturned calls, declined visits, and to honor the requests some of us were passing along on my cousin’s behalf.

To preface, there were people who were gloriously helpful, compassionate, and of unimaginable help. We all know people like this. They embrace, reach out, sit by the bedside, scrub the floor, and know when to be quiet or smile. They light us up with joy. Those people were around, too.

All of us who’ve lost someone, though, have stories of despair that sometimes overtip the balance of good vs. dark.

I was ignorantly unprepared for the backlash of anger, resentment, and hostility from some of my cousin’s friends and acquaintances. I’ve written about this time before.

I almost had a nervous breakdown due to another family member. Unbelievable as it may sound, I also became convinced that the family member was going to kill me, someone trained and capable of doing so. Though I discarded most of this sort of hateful memory, I have a couple of voicemails from the guilty party, ones in which he laid out his plan to kill me, and kill anyone who dared interfere with what he wanted to do. He also made sure that I understood that his knowledge of the system would not only allow him easy access to others to help him exact his will but also to avoid being held accountable for it. I can’t listen to them without despairing for humanity. It’s some of the ugliest things I’ve ever heard in life. This episode ruptured my connection to the family member in a way I didn’t believe was possible. Addiction or not, it was profoundly evil. It didn’t help that the family member gaslighted me and everyone around him about it, either. I still struggle with the aftermath of the anger and hate that came from that period.

There were other people like him, but most were amateurs on the fringes. Through it all, I felt horribly sorry for both my cousin and his wife. The angels among us helped my cousin’s wife get through to the end.

Really, though, the last part prompted this post.

Someone else who knew my cousin well, someone I knew in passing due to overlapping schools and geography, told me I was the worst #$%^ing human being in history, was gay, probably half-black, and that he hoped that I died of the worst form of cancer imaginable. I’ll call him Fred. He said these things because I asked him to treat my cousin’s wife in the same way he wanted others to treat his own wife. My cousin loved the moments he’d shared with Fred, but couldn’t find the energy to wax nostalgic with someone who would only make him feel worse. Fred loved drinking and hitting people, male or female. He couldn’t imagine a world in which someone might not want his anger and alcoholism around someone trying to find a few days of peace in his dwindling life. He doubled down and called my cousin’s wife every name in the book. In the most sincere way I could muster, I told him that I hoped he’d find a way to get past the anger in his soul. That only made him angrier. Because he needed to hear it, I told him that it was my cousin’s wish to be buffered from people who weren’t in control of themselves. Fred kept screaming, “I hope you get cancer X, you and that b@#$% he’s with.” He was fixated on it. He finished off his tirade by saying that my cousin deserved the cancer.

I recently found out that Fred has cancer.

Pause…

I’m not sure how I feel. Fred continued to have anger and addiction issues in the years after my cousin’s death. I’ve heard stories. I’ve watched Fred use a combination of anger and bullying on other people. He’s deserved a multitude of plates of crow and humble pie. I infrequently drop in, so to speak, and look for indications that someone is calling him out for his misbehavior. Now that he has cancer, it is impossible for anyone to call him out for his previous hatefulness.

He’ll pass away, and the world will continue to spin. I’ll feel a little pang of relief to know he’s gone. It’s not nice for me to say it, even if I’ve admitting it while not callously naming names.

My conflicting feelings don’t paint me in a flattering light. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. Much of my aversion to Fred in all honesty stems in part from the poison of hate and addiction that my parents spewed into my life. My other family member, the one I was certain was going to kill me, mixes into the same karma that befell Fred. They are inseparable because they both contain equal parts of hate and addiction.

We all want justice and to see that “what goes around, comes around” has teeth. We don’t want the suffering, if we’re good people, but that sense of things being set right can’t be denied, not if we are honest with ourselves.

If Fred’s wife could feel even a tiny bit of the hurt that her husband inflicted on me a few years ago, she would collapse into a deep pit of anger and despair. Imagine if someone talked about her like her husband did about my cousin’s wife. I would hope that Fred himself would recognize how vicious and inhuman he was a few years when my cousin just wanted a peaceful death. He doesn’t though. His close family members are bigots and the opposite of what I consider to be good, compassionate human beings. They won’t see the irony of applauding this man’s life.

I sit with this little piece of recognition of myself. It poisons my life a little. But I protect it.

I’m not comfortable with myself. My threatening family member and Fred share the fact that they lived their lives roughshod over those they quarreled with; their anger was their first line of attack. They saw no need to withdraw from anger and even less a need to apologize or make amends.

Time cures them. But they’re quickly replaced with people who share their lack of humanity.

 

A Lesson I Revisited Today

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It’s strange the things you find out later in life. When we’re young, we don’t understand that our older family members are adults, working jobs with the same stresses we’ve grown accustomed to as adults. We see them as caring or not, attentive or distant. A precious family member of mine died what seems like forty years ago. It’s no cliché to say that she died too early; we all lost a bit of our luster when she passed.

I found out today that this beautiful human being suffered the presence of a horrid bully at work. It’s difficult for me to imagine her in such a scenario, despite the Pennington Realization affecting everyone. The bully drove her to curse, something she never did. You know you’ve achieved negative success when one of the nicest people in the world not only curses as a result of your presence in their life but that they recall your mean-spiritedness vividly until the day they leave the earth. Even her children remember the bullying and the fact this person waged a war of hatred on their mother. There was no ‘why.’ The bully simply needed an outlet on which to pour her wrath. We all know someone like her.

Her bully died this week. She died after slowly and methodically losing her mind.

I didn’t know the bully. Only her actions. Someone told me that she was monstrously mean to their loved one, someone I knew as a bright soul.

She lessened the world for a few people, my family member included.

I read her obituary again. My opinion doesn’t stain her legacy. Though it reflects poorly on me, I have no uplifting words to lessen her harm to her small world, no neat bow to tie up these words.

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P.S. The Pennington Realization is an older rule I created in recognition of observing another gentle soul being crushed under the weight of an unrelenting pathology.

An Echo of September

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In early September 2017, I had an issue with an angry driver as I walked along Friendship Road. I wrote about it back then. Luckily, nothing happened that couldn’t be taken back, mostly because I blew it off instead of escalating it. I had an escape route planned, one involving a precarious run through the brush.

The driver was in a distinctive red and white vehicle with antique plates. He thought I was Latino. My instincts told me he’d probably done some fairly aggressive or harmful things to others over the years. People like that tend to until they’re forced to stop.

The picture is of the beautiful curve in the road where I was accosted. Until this week, when I walked there, I wondered where the idiot was.

Over the years, I’ve kept my eye out for that racist lunatic. I’ve walked hundreds of miles without unluckily crossing paths with him again.

The timing was a bit coincidental for me this week as I recalled the incident.

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about another road rage incident a couple of weeks ago. It involved a distinctive vehicle with vanity plates that made it crazily easy to identify. I wrote that knowing I could find out who it was strangely comforting to me. I wouldn’t want to be the angry gentleman who hit the back of my car on purpose, knowing that my victim could find me in about thirty seconds.

My post earlier this week happened independently of my discovery of the other road-rager near my house. Eerily, the two drivers look amazingly similar.

As I drove home this week on a cold, rainy afternoon, I was listening to Trump on NPR, not paying close attention to anything specifically. I’ve driven the route a few hundred times in the last four years. I casually looked to the right and almost hit the brakes. I slowed to a crawl after checking for traffic behind me. The vehicle from 2017 was sitting in plain view off the main road. It’s a distinctive vehicle. There was no doubt it was the same one.

I wondered if the man who had assaulted me three years ago would be amused if I stopped and knocked on his door. He wouldn’t remember me. He’s undoubtedly victimized many people who’ve had the misfortune of crossing his path. Should I speak Spanish to him to trigger his racism? All that time ago, he seemed to hyper-focus on my perceived “Latino-ness.”

Instead, I drove by. I laughed. Perhaps a bit maniacally.

This morning, I looked up his address, his house, his name, his picture, his life, and his ancestors. He would be very uncomfortable to know that a random encounter and his racism from three years ago could have aligned with an entirely accidental recognition of his vehicle.

Don’t be alarmed that I took the time to find out who he was. It’s one of the few things I do alarmingly well. Luckily for the guilty, it is the mystery and curiosity that drives me, rather than a desire for justice or revenge. Unlike both those angry white men might do, especially if they could do so in secrecy, I wouldn’t inflict harm on them for their stupidity.

As I read about his ancestors, I wondered what is wrong for him. I wondered if anyone else in his family knows that he lets his prejudice run free as he drives around. His wife has a mutual friend with me on social media. It’s a small world.

His, a small mind.

The Rightness of Right

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In the early 1990s, I worked at a large poultry company. The company was large, not the poultry. Never mind, the poultry was large too. During an hour break, a discussion emerged about mandatory breaks at work. Someone said they’d prefer to only get thirty minutes. Another said, “They have to give us an hour. It’s the law.”

Previously, I had been caught up in a web or absolute corruption and stupidity at another employer. They did everything wrong. They learned the hard way. I learned it was never worth it to stick your neck out. I’ve forgotten the lesson a couple of times since then. The universe reminds me forcefully.

I said, “Look, it sounds wrong, but for the most part, employers don’t have to give us breaks at all, with a few strict exceptions.” Everyone howled in derision at me. After a few minutes, the second-in-command for the entire 1000+ facility said, “You’re wrong. We have to ____________.” (You can fill in the blank. It doesn’t matter what he said because he was wrong.) Again, this guy was second in charge of the entire facility and it was part of the largest private company in the world at the time. He was in the break room with a couple of line supervisors and heard the conversation become more heated.

His lack of information didn’t surprise me. It was common, and I’d had the conversation at least 100 times over the years. Whether it was the person cleaning the bathrooms or the CEO, I didn’t care.

“Boss, you’re wrong. You can write the State of Arkansas if you want, but I’ll bet you $100 to $1 you’re wrong.” He got a little angry. The break room was packed and several people heard me throw down the gauntlet. A few brave souls egged it on. I turned to everyone and said, “I’ll bet all of you $100-to-$1 you’re wrong, too.” To soften the issue, I said something like, “It’s easy to be wrong. A lot of people have simply been told the wrong thing so many times that it sounds true.”

That evening, I sat and wrote two letters and mailed them off. A few days later, the boss found me privately and said, “You were right! We’re not required to even give you guys 30 minutes break.” He explained that he had reached out to several people and had been shocked to find out I was right. He was peevish about the entire mess. “Can you imagine if I went out and told everyone we’re no longer giving ANY breaks?” He laughed.

I walked out of the office, laughing. I said nothing to my co-workers. About a week later, I received another letter from the State of Arkansas, explaining that “no,” employers didn’t have to provide breaks based on length of shift.

I took the letter in and during our hour lunch break; I showed the letter to the loudest group of people who had bet me. “No way!” and “You faked this letter!” were thrown at me. “I know for a fact that the Labor Board has laws,” and so forth were shouted. I just kept saying, “You are all wrong.”

Five minutes later, someone had found the boss who had contradicted me.

Everyone was shouting at me, waiting to see me eat crow.

“X is right. There is no law that requires us to give you a break at all, much less thirty minutes or an hour, not here in Arkansas.”

I’m pretty sure I heard 15 jaws hit the concrete floor. The break room was silent as everyone stared at the boss. He refused further comment and just walked away.

My boss was unhappy I brought the letter to work and not pleased that I made him eat a little crow. A bit of his chagrin was also because employers really didn’t appreciate workers knowing the rules.

Fast forward a few years. I was taking a great Human Resources class at NWACC, the community college. I had a presentation about my experience at my previous employers and the misunderstanding with the bosses. Several classmates critiqued me afterward and told me I was wrong. I repeated my assertion that they were wrong. Even the professor, who I adored, chimed in and said I was wrong. I remember stopping and saying, “Why in the world would I do a presentation with cited sources about something that is demonstrably not true?” I didn’t get an answer.

I still had letters in my filing cabinet at home to prove they were all wrong. Because I was trapped in class without proof – and being accosted by people who were pissed I insisted they were all wrong – I told them who to contact to find out that were all mistaken. I told them that I didn’t want an apology afterward but would instead like to be given the benefit of the doubt for all future issues wherein someone was being accused of being mistaken. They all agreed.

Next week, the professor opened the class by giving an apology. She had followed up with multiple sources. A couple of sources she contacted simply because she couldn’t believe she had been so breathtakingly wrong about the issue, for so many years. She told the class directly that my presentation was accurate. I had my letter in my folder since the previous week. I was going to do another presentation for extra-credit without giving away the subject had it not been brought up before I had the chance. I pulled out the letter. It was dated from my time at my last employer.

I used to keep it in the same file as the warning ticket I got from the Johnson Police for driving too fast. On a bicycle. That story is true, too.

Because of the revelation that everyone is often wrong, I did my next presentation on several other issues that people just always got wrong, no matter who often they were told otherwise. This time, no one doubted that I might be right. They still checked, in hopes of catching me in the wrong.

Even now, there will be people who’ve read this far who will have it in their heads that I’m wrong. And that amuses me.

Just as people think their employer can tell them they can’t discuss their wages, there are many people who have the erroneous idea that most employers have to give us breaks. (Using the traditional system – not access to bathrooms, medication, etc.)

I’m speaking generally here. Also, I’m not making the argument that employers can’t violate the spirit or letter of the laws regarding pay discussion – or any other law. That’s not the point. Someone always chimes in and makes it even when I point out that it isn’t the issue at question.

This post didn’t start with the goal of being about mandatory breaks. It’s about certainty and the pitfalls it presents.

We’re all guilty of it. This story presents me in a favorable light. I’ve written other stories that prove I can sometimes get both feet in my mouth simultaneously if motivated.