Why I Am Still Thankful To Be An American

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Dear Readers,

When I was eight years old, I was a very different person than I am now.  I had faith and patriotism in droves, and a comparatively small amount of body hair.  Those situations have reversed for me now, and I find that I am most often ambivalent to my nation and its government (and skeptical in the extreme on the existence of anything “divine”), and I spend at least two hours a week scraping unwanted hair off of various unmentionable parts of my anatomy.

But when I was eight, I starred in a children’s play at my church (Lake Pointe Baptist Church, then in Rowlett, Texas).  The title of that play was “Thankful To Be An American”.  It was terrible.  The very worst in Evangelical appropriation of nationalism towards the furtherance of its narrow and bigoted ideological agenda, wrapped in innocent sounding songs sung by fresh faced children who didn’t know any better.

Stay with me, this isn’t an anti-Christian rant, I promise!

I recently found some home movies of that performance, and my own solo, the title song, “I am Thankful to be an American”.  It made me remember the way I felt then, at that age.  And this Fourth of July, I am thinking where that all went.  Am I still thankful to be an American?

I had a lot of difficulty answering that question.  Afterall, I had the SCOTUS on my mind, and their abusive furtherance of the “Corporations are Persons” agenda with the recent Hobby Lobby debacle.  And just this year I was let go from the rural Texas school district I substitute taught for because they found a dating site ad I had put up in which my same-sex orientation was apparent. Plus, I recently friended my teenage niece on Instagram, which is enough to make me feel quite strongly that maybe the founding fathers weren’t so wise with that whole “freedom of speech” thing (I kid).

My point is, there are a lot of things I don’t like that America does nowadays.  And I think there are some major challenges we face, in terms of being on the “right side of history”.  I think we are coming very close to becoming out and out villains on the world stage, and I think we have an over-bloated sense of entitlement and divine favor that is neither deserved nor earned.

So on this morning, on the annual remembrance of our nation’s birth, I still face the question, am I thankful to be an American?

I started off trying to think of good things about America.  I’m definitely a fan of a lot we do.  I think we have worked hard to provide a good standard of living, such that even the catastrophically poor are better off here than almost anywhere else in the world.  I think we are making great strides in the realm of social justice, the recent victories for LGBT rights being of personal impact to me particularly.  And I think, though it may come too late anyway, we’re at least now beginning to turn the tide on issues like climate change and sustainability.

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I’ll save you, from here, the large pros and cons list I made, and skip ahead to the part where I figured it out.  To do that, I need to post a video.  It is a video (I hope!) all of you have seen before.  It is the performance of Whitney Houston at the 1991 Superbowl in Florida.  Go on, give it a watch.

This performance makes me cry every time I watch it.  It makes me feel happy, and proud, and fierce all at the same time.  And it wasn’t till I watched it today that I understood why I am proud to be an American.

I am proud to be an American because we have created a country in which the very best of Whitney Houston was not diminished or silenced by any other objection to who she was.  Here was a woman of non-dominate ethnic descent, who came from poverty, who became a drug addict, and in no way conformed to the prevailing moral standards of her time, but whose voice we celebrated, whose talents we gave the stage they deserved.

It’s a funny thing, thinking that my reason to be proud is actually the source of much of my own frustration.  It is, in fact, the source of frustration for opponents on both sides of the aisle, and of almost every rant on every 24-hour news network in the country.  The frustrating question is why doesn’t who someone is impact the way we relate to the things they do?

Shouldn’t it matter that Steve Jobs developed the iPhone on LSD?

Shouldn’t it matter that RuPaul uses transphobic language?

Shouldn’t it matter that Donald Trump is a Birther with a bad toupee?

Shouldn’t it matter that Orson Scott Card has said homosexual children should be put in concentration camps?

And I think the answer is: maybe.  But the wonderful thing about America, the infuriating, complicated, marvelous thing that came into being when those oft-misquoted founding fathers sat down and signed this grand experiment into being some 238 years ago today, was the possibility that the good things you did were not canceled out by the bad, or by the perceived content of your character, or by how far away from the prevailing notion of normal you might be, whether by gender, or race, or religious creed.

In America, we can do great things.  And more than that, as a nation, we want those around us to surprise us, to subvert our expectations or blow us away.  Just watch American Idol, or America’s Got Talent.  You see it there.  Those shows are shameless emotional manipulation, true.  But what they are drawing on is our collective and fervent hope that the greatness inside each of us will be recognized, through the perilous fight against the complications that surround us, over the ramparts of prejudices held against us, and that the rockets of our troubled circumstances will only reveal in their red glow what we are most proud of in our hearts.

That star-spangled banner that is really the passion, and talent, and hope in our hearts, that we hail at the twilight, still stands when the dawn’s early light comes.  There is no darkness in her life so deep that Whitney Houston’s voice does not shine through it.  And that is America.  That is what we made.  We made a place where hope doesn’t die, where greatness can come from anyone, and where we search for those moments in our own lives and in the lives of those around us, and when we find them we defend them.

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I am proud to be an American.  Yep, it’s a mess.  And we don’t clean up our mess as fast as I want us to mostly.  And lots of times we make the wrong call, or we get caught up in our own system, or we let the really important things slip through the cracks.  But for all of that mess, it’s a mess made because we did the right thing 238 years ago today.  We chose hope, and we chose freedom, and we gave them a home in our hearts.  And those things are alive and working even now, urging us to continue to grow and change and fight and live.

As the woman belts, that star-spangled banner does still wave, over the land of the free and the home of the brave, and because it does, greatness and goodness live on, unvanquished by any other condition of life or birth.  So long as that is true, I echo my own words from more than twenty years in my past: I am thankful to be an American.

I’m also slightly aghast that I’m about to include video evidence of this performance on my public blog.

Ah well, allons y!

Time Enough To Be Fantastic: A Letter to 20 and 40 from 30

A brief note to readers:

This is my first post in some time.  It is a personal post, and I don’t expect many of you to finish it.  But it is my own choice.  My own decision of how to spend the last moments of my twenties, and the first of my thirties.  I post it here not so much for you, but for me.  Because for me, saying it out loud makes it so much more real.  Thank you for all your support.  But first!  Pics of my twenties for those of you who want something…visual.

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Dear Self,

I wanted to take this time for us, you and I.  There is just enough time, I think, for one more deed, one more musing, one final communication from our twenties.  This post is written in that last moment, the twilight between the decade that was and the decade that is dawning.  I chose to write it because I have been thinking recently, about us, the old me and the new me, and the me that is.  And I think it is quite natural, when all is said and done, to face the question of “What have I done with my time?” or “Has my life been worth something?”

That’s a complex question for us, I don’t have to tell you.  And I know that we’ve been caught up recently in what we like to say is “planning for the future”.  But of course, we both know what we’re really doing when we are “planning for the future”; we’re judging our past.  We’re looking to avoid repeating mistakes already made, or to improve on previous successes.  It isn’t even unreasonable to want to be better tomorrow than you were yesterday.  But there’s something nasty lurking underneath those plans isn’t there?

So, I’ve decided, me, that the very last act we take in our twenties, and the very first in our thirties will be one of love.  Love of self.  Because the truth is, we deserve to be loved.  And that is such an important change from where we were back at nineteen wasn’t it? Continue reading

Dirty Little [Writing] Secrets: Views and Reviews #1: Oz the Sort-of-Great and Very Impatient

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Dear Readers,

Last night I went to a midnight showing of Oz the Great and Powerful.  So, standard spoiler alert here.  I’ll be honest: going in I had little hope that the film would be stellar.  I wanted it to be!  On the surface it should be an anthem film for my life: it’s the story of a WIZARD in m’fing OZ, literally the gayest place in the multiverse.

However, while I fully expected it to be less than stellar, I didn’t expect it to be barely watchable.

And yet there I was, squirming awkwardly through every moment, almost unable to bear the shit-slog from title to end credits.

I couldn’t figure out what made it so shitty though, which is why I delayed this post for a few hours.  Because as a writer, it is as important to figure out why stories are shitty as it is to figure out why they are amazing.

Was it James Franco’s high school drama club rendition of Oscar Diggs(aka Oz), delivered as it was with all the emotional depth of dryer lint, and with a smug self-satisfaction that made you want to punch him in the balls every time he showed up on screen?

No, while Mr. Franco’s particular talents on the screen rank somewhere around watching milk curdle for me, there was something more….pervasive than the reek of his performance at work here.

Was it Mila Kunis’ slutty-not-sultry whirlwind turn as Meg Griffin the Wicked Bitch of the West, whose inability to overcome the weight of her own television persona leaves the entire film smacking of an extended Family Guy cutaway (with half the charm…I might add)?

No, though I certainly think they could have easily replaced Mila Kunis as the Witch, with Mila Kunis as Meg Griffin in Family Guy Season 3 Episode 1, “The Thin White Line”, in which she kidnaps and holds a man hostage out of jealousy, and had a much stronger performance.

Was it director Sam Raimi’s sophomoric and uninspired usage of bright colors, blooming flowers, and fluttering insect life to render a bizarrely vibrant yet utterly lifeless mock-up grade school homage to the wonderful world of Oz?

No, I don’t think even the ceaseless reel of cheap 3D film tricks, with pop out monkey hands, and theme park inspired railroad rides through flora so vaginal it would make Georgia O’Keefe blush, was really enough to kill this film for me.

Hit the jump to find out what I really think the problem was.  (Or you know, just take the above criticisms as a concise recommendation on why the average film viewer should avoid this film)

Continue reading

Confessions of a Desperate Writer; Amazon and Integrity

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Dear Readers,

This week I have been very involved in work on my novel, so I haven’t been updating the blog much.  Even today, we’re taking a break from the DLWS curriculum to talk about something else that came up for me recently.

One of the reasons that I have been so focused on my novel, is because of a meeting I had recently with some folks called The Book Doctors.  I participated in Nanowrimo this year (National Write a Novel in a Month) and the folks at The Book Doctors offered a promotion, whereby if you purchased their book, The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published, they would include a free 20 minute consultation with one of the authors.  I jumped on board, and ended up getting a ton of encouragement from the person I spoke to.

After our meeting, I was sent a nice followup email, and I received a request to purchase and review the author’s personal work on Amazon.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to think.  Being a new author, unaccustomed to the wider world of serious publishing, I was suspicious, and a little worried.  My biggest fear was being made a fool of; to believe in my wide-eyed way that someone who know publishing thinks my work is worth reading, when in reality I’m just being sold a line.

However, I didn’t feel that I could turn down the request.  So I went and I purchased the author’s latest book.  And you know what?  I liked it.  I genuinely did.  I had great fun with its dark comedy, and I found that I looked forward to pooping because I got to read it more (yes, I do confine certain literary works to dominion of the porcelain palace).

But I also had some objections and concerns.  It was funny, but treated some serious issues in a way I found disrespectful, not to me, but to others I know how struggled with those issues.  It relied on stereotypes which aren’t accurate, and as a rhetorician, I know that these sort of crass representations reinforce those stereotypes in way that can be socially harmful.  Basically, there were good things and bad things about the novel.  And there were a few issues of craft which could have been improved upon.

When I finally finished the book, after a long night with bad fish left me stranded in the throne room longer than I anticipated, I went to write the review which the author had requested.

Immediate anxiety set in.  What sort of review should I write?  Had this been a “wink-wink nudge-nudge” exchange, wherein the author expected a glowing five star review?  If I gave my real opinions, would it hurt my big shot at getting published?  Was this even my big shot at getting published?

In that dark night, whether it was true or not, I gave in to my fears.  I, who publish writing lessons centered around the value of honest critique, fudged my own reviews.  Now, do I know if the author really wanted this?  No, and in fact, I doubt in the light of day that he did. I think he was genuinely interested in my opinion.

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But I was scared.  I think, more than anything, the specter of publication has proved to me how desperately deep my dreams of being a real author descend.  They exist deep in the very most fragile core of my being, and the fear of losing that shot was enough to convince me to do anything to keep the dream alive.

I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true, mind you.  The things I liked, I really did like.  I just didn’t raise any concerns.  I didn’t express my opinions fully.  And when I woke up the morning after, I felt dirty.

Of course, I discovered quite happily that Amazon allows editing of reviews, and so I did.  I included at least some of my concerns in my revision.  I felt better.

But I will never forget what I wrote that night.  Fixing it in the morning doesn’t change the fact that I submitted the first review which wasn’t completely honest.  I think sometimes, we as authors don’t like to share how vulnerable validation makes us feel.  We all know how to react to criticism.  We don’t take it personally, we move forward and fix what we can, and we let the haters fade into the background noise of life.

But validation?  Oh, that is infinitely more difficult to wrestle with.  It can paralyze you.  It can drive you crazy.  It can steal your integrity.

But I think talking about it helps.  So there is my confession.  For the fleeting possibility of introductions to a few agents, I twisted myself into a ridiculous psychological pretzel (when I probably wasn’t even expected to in the first place!) and convinced myself to sacrifice my integrity.

What are some of your confessions?  Have you ever struggled with the rush of validation?  Leave me your stories in the comments below!

PS:  If you are curious, the book I reviewed is Mort Morte by David Henry Sterry.  It is actually a really fun read, and despite my criticisms, I would recommend it highly as an excellent example of what happens when an author sits down and says to him/herself, “How much fun can I have on this page?”

PPS:  The book which Mr. Sterry co-authored, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published is ALSO an excellent read, and I have found myself going back to it time and again for little tidbits and encouragement.

An Open Letter to DC Comics RE: Superman and Orson Scott-Card.

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(**NOTE:  This letter is in address to DC Comics decision to hire Orson Scott Card to write the Superman comic series.  At the time of this publication, Mr. Card was an outspoken anti-gay activist, and the letter addresses this.  Also, as a point of ethics, when I wrote this I did not realize how small Mr. Card’s purported involvement with the Superman franchise was, and have since discovered he will only be a small guest author for a side series.  However, I stand by my statements still)

Dear DC Comics,

I’m writing to you to discuss your decision to hire Orson Scott Card as a writer in charge of some of your Superman titles.  I have to admit I am a little bit conflicted.  But before I talk about that, I want to be clear about what I intend this letter to do.  I don’t want this letter simply to be another protesting email you receive.  I want this letter to start a conversation, somewhere, within your organization.  I want my conflict to become your conflict, because I think we can fight together, not against one another.  But, in the end, that is up to you.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m gay.  More than that, I am a gay consumer of your media products.  When I was young, I’ll even confess that I often stole your products from Grocery Stores and Comic Stores and Garage Sales; that was because I grew up without a lot of extra money, raised by a single mom, in a pretty religious home.  But your comics were some of the only fantastical things I was permitted to own, and my mom never could keep track of how many I was supposed to have.  I also want you to know that I apologized to the star superhero of every comic I ever stole or read without buying as a child, because I knew they wouldn’t approve of my actions.

I’m telling you this because I want you to understand that I am not just some gay guy who is generically appalled, for political or moral reasons, that a major corporation would hire someone as openly anti-rights as Mr. Card is.  I want you to know that I am a gay man, who from the time I was very smallest, believed that super heroes really do matter.  I believe, like so many other children and adults do, that the make-believe worlds populated by grown men and women in silly outfits with outlandish powers, is actually a deeply important part of our cultural identity.  I believe what you do is important, is what I’m trying to say.

So, you hired Orson Scott Card; to write what is, ostensibly, your flagship character (although I can feel Batman fans bristling).  And of course, I have a reaction.  Orson Scott Card is notoriously anti-gay.  He once sat on the board of directors for NOM, the National Organization for Marriage, he penned this essay (which seems to be about courts taking away democratic process, but spends an awful lot of time after that “proving” why gay’s aren’t normal and why gay relationships don’t qualify as marriages).  In a response to criticisms of that essay, he has been quoted, regarding gays and the idea of their legal right to marry, as saying:

“Inclusion” is an empty word when used as a general virtue. Its value depends entirely on what is and is not included. Every inclusion of one group is an exclusion of another. I think even Mr. Herman would agree with me that there are certain groups that should be perpetually excluded from civilized society. Where we differ is only on our list of those groups, not on the principle.”

Of course, what he means in this statement is that, in his worldview, gays should be perpetually excluded from civilized society.

I want to be fair to Mr. Card here though.  I know that he personally does not “agree” with what I would define as my “humanity”, and that in his world view I am not deserving of the legitimate rights afforded people who contribute to meaningfully to society.  But his protestations to the legalization of gay marriage seem to stem more, in his reasoning, from the perspective that courts and single individuals should not mandate major changes to our American society, no matter how “good” those changes seem.  And further, that if gay marriage is to be included in our society it should find its way there through the legal action of Congress and voters.  As a result of that view, I can see why you might have chosen him to write Superman, who often has to deal with the ethical ramifications of individual liberty, democratic process, and the fair use of immense power.

Further, as a writer myself, I can even see how Mr. Card would be uniquely qualified to tell some really killer Superman stories.  He has the commercial success, and wealth of experience that might really reinvigorate the stories being told about one of the most iconic and beloved heroes of America and even the world. His own personal experiences and viewpoints would undoubtedly really inform and nuance his tales.  I think this is part of why you must have hired him, and why you have stood by your decision, carefully stating that the personal views of your employees are not the views of DC Comics.  I appreciate that statement.  I also appreciate the courage it has taken for you to include homosexual portrayals of your characters in your comics, which you have done to one degree or another since the late 1980s.

And as a writer, I can also reasonably look at the stories which are told about Superman, and I can see where Mr. Card’s viewpoints on homosexuality will probably never be something Superman is forced to face.  Believe it or not, even though my rights and my struggles are very important to me, and to those who care for me, I can see where they are not of overwhelming importance when faced with say, global poverty, or human trafficking  or North Korean nuclear armaments or, you know, super-villains   These are the sorts of challenges I expect Superman to face.  As a writer, I think having him become suddenly a champion for gay rights would feel contrived.  It could be done, if you wanted to.  I’d be thrilled if you did!  But I don’t think Superman’s story arc will necessarily put him on the path to the equal rights discussion.  So it stands to reason that Mr. Card’s views about people like me will likely never come out of Superman’s mouth.

Here is my conflict though. Continue reading