About Mark

I wear a yellow hat.

The Pearls of Medusa

http://www.props.eric-hart.com/how-to/medusa-head/

Credit: Eric Hart

[TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual assault]

1. You are wrong, I promise you, when you think of Medusa. She had snakes for hair, we are taught; the hideous sight of her turned men into stone. Perseus was a hero, we are told, because he slew her and escaped her monstrous sisters, the Gorgons. Her head was a trophy, proof on the shield of Athena of the death of an evil monstrosity, we are taught. Yes. We are wrong.

Medusa’s gaze turned people into stone, we are told. Her sisters, horrid and immortal, flew into a murderous rage at her death. Yes, yes. But why were they there? Why did the Gorgons exist? I will tell you: to suffer.

In the temple of Athena was a priestess, beautiful and beloved. As Ovid says, “Words would fail to tell the glory of her hair.” She lived here, like her goddess, Athena, chaste and loyal. She had family, the priestess did. Her older sisters, Sthenno and Euryale, loved her, watched for her, cared for her.

And then Poseidon, god of the sea, came to her in the temple. He came to the temple and he raped her. He attacked the priestess, Medusa, on the holy ground of Athena.

It was a crime, a sacrilege, a monstrosity. Athena howled in rage, in anger, and she took her revenge. Athena would have her revenge, oh yes.

She took her revenge on Medusa, the priestess. That is who was punished. Not Poseidon, no, it was Medusa. Athena punished her priestess, turning her hair into snakes and cursing her with the gaze of stone, so she could never fully live in the world. Medusa was victimized for a second time. Her sisters, Sthenno and Euryale, for the crime of loving and defending their sister, Athena cursed them as well.

The sisters were immortal, they could not die, so in their exile into a remote island, they protected Medusa, as best they could, since they could not be hurt like their sister. There on that island they lived, in a cave that held less horror than the temple of Athena. The frozen statues of those who came to kill Medusa grew in number, but Medusa lived. That, at least, Sthenno and Euryale could do.

And then Perseus, founder of Mycenae, crept in and took her head. He never looked directly at her, never confronted what Poseidon had done, what Athena had done. Perseus killed her and ran, and her sisters screamed and wept, and we are asked to call Perseus a hero. We are asked to call Perseus a hero for escaping the Gorgons, who attacked the stranger who crept in and murdered their little sister.

***

2. It is just a story, you know, a myth. The story has changed, like all stories. Sometime the Gorgons have names, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes Medusa is hideous, sometimes she is beautiful.

But in all the stories, a few things are always told the same way. Perseus is a hero. Yes. And Athena is wise. Yes. And Medusa is dead, and she cannot suffer anymore.

And Sthenno and Euryale, the Gorgons, are immortal, and their little sister is dead. They will never see her again. They lost their sister many times: When Poseidon came, when Perseus came, and again when their story is told.

***

3. “NASHVILLE – In 2004, Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison because she killed a man who bought her. 13 years later, she is still in prison…

When she was just 16, Cyntoia Brown was being sex-trafficked by a pimp named “Kutthroat.” She was verbally, physically, and sexually abused then sold to a 43-year-old Nashville realtor, named Johnny Allen, who used her for sex.

According to Newsweek, Cyntoia eventually shot and killed Allen after being taken to his home.” (Source: WGNTV.com, 2017-11-23)

***

4. “She left me, you know that? My wife abandoned me, walked out of me, was fucking who knows who. And now SHE wants something?” he told us. “She got a restraining order on me, saying I choked her? Does she know how fucking embarrassing that is? I’m not giving her anything.”

“This isn’t about assigning blame, sir,” my boss said. “We are asking for possession of the home. She takes care of the children, she should get to stay the home.”

“No,” the man’s attorney said. “Unfortunately, my client’s hours at work were drastically cut a few months before we filed for divorce and he has almost no income. Since your client is not working, and they can’t afford the underwater mortgage, we’re going to have to have a short sale. My client has family in the area with a large house, so we think its best for the kids to live with him, since your client has no one.”

***

5. “Former kicker Katie Hnida, 22, said this week she was raped by a teammate in 2000 after her final season at Colorado. Hnida, one of the first women to ever play college football and now a student at the University of New Mexico, said she does not plan to file charges… [Colorado Coach Gary] Barnett told reporters Tuesday that Hnida never told him about a sexual assault and he knew of no evidence to back up her claim.

He said the football program tried to make Hnida comfortable and had provided extra precautions when she told him about a stalker.

But he also bluntly criticized Hnida’s ability.

“It was obvious Katie was not very good. She was awful,” he said. “Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible. OK? There’s no other way to say it.

…At the heart of the scandal are federal lawsuits filed by three women who say they were raped by football athletes at or after a December 2001 off-campus recruiting party. Boulder County prosecutor Mary Keenan decided against assault charges in the case, saying the heavy drinking involved would make it too difficult to prove in court.”” (Source: Associated Press, 2004-02-19)

***

6. It was just a myth. There was no Poseidon, no Athena, no Medusa. It was just a story, after all. In the story, is Perseus the hero? Is Athena? Maybe there are no heros in the story, not really. Maybe there is just Sthenno and Euryale, and what is left of Medusa.

A note from the modern Ellis Island

It is nice to know how many folks wish me and my family never came to this country.

“But Mark,” they say, “Trump wasn’t talking about Filipinos!”

I have no desire to take comfort in that. All of us lucky enough to make it to these shores have more in common with each other than we do with the folks who don’t like us because we come from places of low GDP, or from authoritarian regimes, or mostly brown folks, or high infant mortality.

I am incredibly fortunate to be here in America, like many other immigrants from the developing world. We owe it to this country to give our fellow citizens our gratitude, our tax dollars, and our military and civic service. I also will state without hesitation that the nation is stronger, smarter, and healthier with us here.

I’m happy you’re here, Ghana, Nigeria, El Salvador, Laos, Assyria, Budapest. My life is better that you’re with us, Beirut, Oslo, Sao Paolo, Catbalogan.

Some of you may not be happy we’re here, some of you may wish there were just less of us. That’s your right as an American to think that. I will defend your right to be wrong, because I believe that minority views should be protected.

Make no mistake: the xenophobes are a minority. The majority of us in the USA welcome all those who come here to build a new, productive life, no matter their nation of origin, their native tongue, or how and if they worship God. The reason I know that fact is that the majority of Americans welcomed an immigrant family from a third world dictatorship back in 1980, and have been wonderful to me and us my whole life. I am honored and happy to join the vast majority of us that will be doing the welcoming in the years to come.

Dreamers


Dreamers, the children brought here who are covered under DACA (for only 6 more months) are just like me. They’re just like many of us who were brought here by our parents in search of a better life.

One of those Dreamers lost his life saving other Americans in the floods in Houston.

The was a time when a boat load of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy would be met by members of the American Nativist Party, who wanted to keep them out.

When we debate this issue with others and in own hearts, please close your eyes and imagine that scene from 1880s New York or Boston. Now ask:

“Did I imagine myself as a person on the shore, or a person on a boat?”

I suspect that our answers to that question will predict how we feel about Dreamers. For me, I know what I see when I close my eyes.

*** If you choose to comment, please be civil and be kind. Any comments that are neither may be deleted without notice. ***

Guy Fawkes and a Concert in Manchester

Guy Fawkes in an illustration by Cruikshank (Wikipedia)

In 1605, a man named Guy Fawkes planted an enormous cache of gunpowder in a plot to blow up the English Parliament. In response, Russia banned all Protestants from entering Russia because of fears of importing English style bombing violence.

“Wait,” you may say, “that makes no sense. Guy Fawkes was a radical Catholic, and it was the entirely-Protestant English Parliament that was the target of his plan. It makes no sense to blame Protestants for that.”

You would be correct, and Russia did no such thing. To many in the Western or Western-influenced world, we are able to make that distinction because we readily can tell the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant. Why is that? Familiarity. We in the US all know several Catholics, Baptists, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians. We don’t lump them all together (at least, unless we are talking about ecumenical issues). For many in the US, we don’t know many Muslims or many Middle Easterners, and tend to lump them all together and fail to readily distinguish between Sunni and Shia Muslims, or between Christian people from the Middle East and Muslims (and Yazidis and Mandeans and Jews).

In the USA, most of us KNOW more people who call themselves Methodists than who call themselves Muslim. We KNOW more people who are Dutch Reformed, who are Unitarians. We don’t lump them together. I argue that we shouldn’t lump the violent and genocidal brand of Islam that ISIS and Al Queda represent with the Islamic traditions of Sufi Mystics, with the Ismaili followers of the Aga Khan, or with Ahmed who lives down the street.

I guess the last one in the last is the big one, huh? I HAVE a guy who lives down the street named Ahmed. He’s a good neighbor. His kids need to pick the toys off the sidewalk more often, but they’re a great family to have on the block. I can’t lump all Muslims with the murderous bastard who bombed the concert in Manchester, because the majority of interactions with Muslim men and women in my life have been positive. One of my kid’s teachers is a Muslim lady. The guy in my old fantasy football league who won every other year is a Muslim. They shouldn’t have to bear the moral weight of a guy killing children in England. Not all Muslims are good neighbors, of course; Ibrahim from high school was a prick back then and he was a prick at our reunion, and Miriam from college always wanted to borrow other people’s notes and never gave you any of hers. My friend Samuel is from an Assyrian Christian family in Northern Iraq, and the Muslim neighbors he knew his whole life laughed and taunted his family when ISIS came to town and they all had to flee to the US and Canada. Muslims are good people, kindly people, and they are assholes and collaborators with evil, just like every. one. else. on. earth.

I can’t say “Islam is the cause of all this extremism” because I know too many Muslim people, barbers and cardiologists and cab drivers and stay at home moms and school teachers and liars and angels. Is Extremism an evil that the Muslim community has to contend with? Yes. And we all who oppose extremism, violence, and misogyny need to stand with members of the Muslim community who also oppose those things. For example, there are Muslim men and women in Pakistan who are fighting against persecution of non-Muslim minorities and apostates out of Islam, and we need to support them in their fight against increasing theocracy. Malala Yousafzai is a Muslim, and our familiarity with her story prevents us from lumping her in with the Taliban bastards who shot her. It should be the same for all people, Muslim or not, who are fighting their oppressors. It will take familiarity with Islamic philosophy, history, and with Muslim individuals for us to see the same differences within that community that we see between the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Franklin Graham, and David Koresh.

Don’t forget: it would be unjust for the English crown to blame all Catholics for Fawkes’ gunpowder plot. Punish the murderers and their accomplices; don’t punish people who are not the murderers. The enemies we must fight are murderers, are fascists, are those who dehumanize others to justify their own violence and tyranny. A peaceful Christian has more common interest with a peaceful Muslim, a peaceful atheist, and a peaceful Jew than any of them have with a murderer. The later must be opposed without demonizing any of the former.

 

*Ahmed is not the real name of my neighbor, and I’ve anonymized all the other names of people I personally know.

Fastball Hymnal

“Ok Mark, I believe in you. We need this run, but don’t worry about the two outs, don’t worry about the loaded bases, just focus on the next pitch, got it?”

I nodded. The batting helmet, two sizes too small for my head, fell off. Again. The only helmet that fit my head was the one we inherited from the junior high kids, and David Rezick always used it because he knew that if he got a hit I’d have no helmets that could stay on my head. Rezick was standing at second base.

Coach R picked the helmet up out of the dirt and brushed it off. “You can do this. If you can just get one run in, we tie the game, ok? I put you in the number two spot in this lineup for a reason, you know that? You deserve it. You’ll deserve it no matter what happens in this at bat. Just play your heart out, you’ve got a big one.”

I rubbed my nose. “I’m pretty sure a big heart is a health problem, coach.”

“Shut up, Mark. Just get on the Goddamn base, ok, big guy? Get on base.” He trotted back to the dugout, spitting in the ground as he got there. Five or six of the 10-year-olds sitting the dug out spit in response, a Greek chorus chomping on Big League Chew. I stepped up to the plate.

The umpire looked me in the eye. His eyes narrowed to slits, remembering me from the last two at-bats. Randy Stein’s older brother Adam was a sophomore and had classes with the ump, and Randy said he was a jag-off, so we took it as gospel that he was obviously, then, a jag-off. Jag-off, as in, “this jag-off better call the game fairly.”

“PLAY BALL” the jag-off yelled, pulling his facemark on.

I stepped up to the plate, right to the very edge of the batter’s box. I saw my father standing up, shielding his eyes with his right hand. My mother was sitting on a lawn chair next to him, my little bother was in his baseball uniform sitting on the grass. The t-ball league ended earlier in the day, so he was eating whatever snacks my folks had packed and picking at dandelions. Or maybe he was picking at the snacks and eating the dandelions, I don’t know. What am I, a high elf ranger? My eyes are terrible, I can’t see that far.

I can make out the sound of my family cheering for me, but the helmet is pinching my ears.

I look up at the pitchers mound. The pitcher is tall, the tallest 6th grader in the league. His fastball is so strong that it was whispered that he once broke a catcher’s hand, like Dwight Gooden. It was so fast that, to hit it, you had to start swinging before you even stepped up to the plate. When we heard which team were facing for this game, we knew exactly who would be pitching: John Moon. John Moon, the biggest arm in Morton Grove Little League, the terror of Mansfield Park.

I wiped my brow, caking my hand in dirt and sweat and gatorade. I was nervous, a kind of nervousness that only baseball players feel, the nerves that come from being alone against the storm. There are reasons why poems are written about being at-bat; its a microcosm of life, you know? I had to have absolute concentration if I wanted to have any shot at all of

“STRIKE ONE!”

What the heck oh crap, geez, really? C’mon Mark, pay attention, I thought, punching myself in the hip.

“HEY MARK PAY ATTENTION WILL YA?” Coach R yelled from the third base dugout, adjusting his cap. I had played for him for three straight years, and about once a year he would show up to practice without his ball cap and we would all be surprised that he was bald, all over again, every year.

Alright, I can do this. I can do this. I turned to face John Moon, the Howitzer of the North Shore, gripping the bat tight as I steeled my nerves. I’m gonna be a hero, like Frodo or Peter Parker or Willis Drummond, and I just had to focus on the moment and not think about how itchy this jock strap is and

“STRIKE TWO!”

A collective groan came up from the Greek chorus. Coach R folded his arms and spit again. A voice cried out “That was three feet out of the strike zone, jag-off!”

The ump whipped off his facemark and wheeled around to face the spectators. “I will kick you out of here if if you use that language again, do you hear me?” the ump yelled, pointing his finger at the stands on the first base line, “and I mean it, ma’am.”

“MOM SIT DOWN,” Rezick screamed from second base.

I squared my stance, spitting into my hands. The spit helps to remove dirt that can decrease your grip, so the bat is easier to control. Aluminum bats can be really painful if you connect on a good swing, which makes it weird that little leagues tend to use them. I guess its because of their durability? Or the lower expense? Maybe there is, like, an aluminum conspiracy or

“PAY ATTENTION THIS TIME, BUDDY, YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO.” Coach R called, soft chirps of agreement coming from the dugout.

John Moon looked at the signal from his catcher. We all used signals, even though no one was allowed to throw anything but a fastball. Curveballs can hurt your arm development, so the league outlawed them. He stood up, exhaled loudly, then started his wind up.

I tightened my grip on the bat, inhaled as hard as I could and did what I had done many, many times before, what I did better than anyone else in the league, maybe in the whole Chicagoland area: I crowded the damn plate.

A wet smack, louder than you’d expect, and my hip felt like it was on fire. My helmet fell off and I dropped my bat.

“TAKE YOUR BASE” yelled the jag-off, “…AGAIN.” The crowd roared, or as much as about a dozen people can roar.

The ball had struck me on the thigh, on the meaty part, and I left out a manly yell. Or, in my head I Let out a manly yell. I was told later that I screamed like a little girl, but that’s ok. I knew my job, and I did it.

“YEAH! YEAH! Way to go, Mark!” Coach R was jumping up and down. The dugout was a mass of jumping, cheering, and sunflower seeds.

“Way to go, Ma-Mark! Way to go!” my father yelled, clapping his hands and high fiving my brother. “Tie game!”

My mother was clapping, smiling, and shaking her head. “Why does he never get out of the way? Why is this always happening to him? No one else gets hit like this.”

I picked myself out of the dirt (when did I fall?) The third base runner came jogging into home plate, fist pumping. We high fived, and he said “Great job, Mark, I knew you’d get hit.” I smiled and whimpered a “damn right.”

I limped to first base, holding my helmet in my hand. I gave a thumbs up to Rezick at third.

John Moon’s first baseman looked at me, his grimace softening into a smile. “Nice job. You’re crying less than you did the last time.”

“Thanks, man,” I replied, “That’s what I said to your mom last night.”

Maybe no one told you

Maybe no one told you, but you need to know: the American eagle is a phoenix.
It hurts to see our country turn away the poor, the sick, the abused; to close our door to victims of war.
It is painful to see the nation say to the world that only people of some religions deserve help, aid, and comfort.
It is terrifying to see people you love, you work with, and you share a bed with, cheer the hatred of other people because of their country of origin, their faith, or the papers they possess.
That’s ok. You are allowed to feel hurt, to feel pain, to feel the terror those poor people must feel. Maybe no one told you, but you need to know: the American eagle is a phoenix.
This is a dark time, because the US government is muzzling scientists.
This is a dark time, because the US government is declaring war on journalists.
This is a dark time, because the US government is taking a harder stand against Chicago and Philadelphia than against Moscow.
That’s ok. Its dark. It can be dark; it’s ok if you don’t see how we’re going to get out of this, if you don’t see any fire or candlelight out of this. Maybe no one told you, but you need to know: the American Eagle is a Phoenix.
There is a person in your town who is Muslim, or Middle Eastern, or African, and they need you to stand up for them against the thugs and bullies. They need you to stand up for them whether they are there or not. In your street, in your break room, in your church and synagogue and mosque and knitting circle and school parking lot, stand up for the people in front of you.
There is a person in your town who does not have papers, and she needs you to treat her like a human being. She needs you to be kind to her children, to pay her a living wage, to call the cops for her when she is too scared to involve the authorities because of her legal status.
There is a person who laughs at the plight of the refugee, who unwittingly quotes neo-nazis, who passes lies on like a collection plate. We need you to love truth and facts more than he hates them. We need you to support newspapers as much as he hates them. We need you to embrace kindness as much as he rejects it.
That’s ok if it’s difficult, you don’t have to do it all. You don’t have to carry the world on your shoulders, you have to care for yourself first. You will stand at the right time, you will march at exactly the right time, you will spread your wings at exactly the right time. Maybe no one told you, but you need to know: the American Eagle is a Phoenix.

Armistice Day

Soldiers in Flanders. Credit: History.co.uk

Soldiers in Flanders. Credit: History.co.uk

Nov. 11, 1918. At 11:11am, I will stand as a sign of respect for the men and women who lost their lives in World War One, when Europe tore itself to pieces and the old world died.

We get a lot of WW2 history in the US, and rightly so, given the long shadow it casts. It is important, though, that we devote just as much time to the study of the causes of the first Great War. It does not have an obvious bad guy, certainly not as obvious as its sequel, but that’s precisely why it should be examined in detail.

It was the story of the military juggernaut of Germany and the aging husks of the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary, versus the British seawall, the latest of a succession of French republics/kingdoms/republics, and the somehow still-medieval Empire of Russia.

It was the invasion of neutral Belgium, the rise of the demon of chemical warfare, and destruction of the social fabric of the West.

It was the seedbed of Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and America the Superpower.

If you can, I highly highly recommend you listen to Dan Carlin’s Blueprint for Armageddon series. It is one of the best and most accessibly series on WW1 around.

The war was supposed to be over within weeks; it took four years and 39 million casualties, military and civilian. It was supposed to be a fine and dandy display of national pride; it would became the morass of corpses, mud, and blood that inspired the land of Mordor to JRR Tolkein.

Nothing the generals, politicians, or businessmen promised before the war came true, for either side. Men with white gloves and cloth hats charged into machine guns on faulty orders, Empires that lasted for centuries fell apart like cigarette ash, and the modern world was born via untrained cesarean section.

The decisions made by the men and too-few-women prior to world war one were made for the most banal of motives: this hedgerow belongs France, this farmstead belongs to Germany.

The errors were made for the most personal of reasons: the madman who healed the Czar’s son convinced the Czar to go to the front, leaving behind petty nobles and the royal family to the tender mercies of Vladimir Lenin. The Kaiser was born with a deformity of his arm and demanded military credits and accomplishments to prove his manliness and worth after the death of his Grandmother, Queen Victoria.

The effects were even larger off the battlefield: A young veteran sees the vengeance taken by the allies on Germany and filters it through a warped and vile soul, eventually writing Mein Kampf. London Banks are unable to finance the long war so the Allied governments take out loan after loan from the only source of capital: New York, and the transfer of authority, prestige, and cash in the West was began.

A geologist and self-made millionaire who spoke Mandarin used his considerable fortune and organizing skill to provide food relief to abused and flooded Belgium, catching the attention of President Woodrow Wilson. That Herbert Hoover fellow, Wilson must have thought, he knows how to fix things.

Read about WW1. And if you are devastated or exulted by the election of an American president, that’s appropriate and rational, but remember that children fifty years on will live in a world built by the actions you take, or fail to take, now. Have humility in victory, and have courage in loss. The roads on which our grandchildren will walk will follow a path based on the walls and bridges we choose to make here, in this time. As in World War One and at all times, we stand on the fulcrum of history; we *must* push the lever, we have no choice except to decide the direction.

On Living A Life Rich and Strange: Part 1, Introduction

On Living A Life Rich and Strange:
A open letter to my child from an unprepared parent

Part 1, Introduction

“God writes straight with crooked lines.” – Original author unknown

Little one, you can’t read yet. You can’t stand, you can’t feed yourself, you can’t identify sarcasm, you can’t crack a knowing smile, you can’t eat fries while driving, you can’t doubt your own worth. You will do all those things, someday, and that day will come far, far too soon for your poor father and mother.

We can’t shield you from the world, even though there is a scared, wet-eyed part of me that wants to.

I can’t do that, though, and your mother and I can only do one thing, and that is try and give you the tools we’ve managed to fashion for ourselves to deal with this great, terrible, wonderful and atrocious world we all find ourselves in. They’re the tools we used, and some of these tools are like Damascus steel: beautiful and strong. Others are like flint arrowheads: crude, homemade, and usable. Some of these tools were handed to us by your grandparents, some we stole from other people along the way. They’re what we’ve got to give you, and, when the sun sets on our own lives, maybe they’re the only things we ever give you. These tools, and our Love; that’s all of it, really.

I’m going to throw advice at you, advice you never asked for. Over the course of your life with us, we’re going to teach you skills that are vital (how to read graphs and charts with a critical eye) and skills of dubious worth (how to de-bone sardines). Some of it will be practical (how to get a front-wheel drive car out of the mud) and some will be social (how to look like you belong when you feel like you don’t belong at all).

As you read this, though, please never forget one thing: I will most definitely be wrong on some (most?) things, and in these cases you will need to fashion your own tools. I hope your mom and I give you enough in this life to help you to make your own tools strong and sharp, even when the time comes for you to ditch the tools we made and handed down. Don’t ever feel like you are letting us down if you have to turn your back on the Way We Do Things. We love you, no matter what. You cannot let us down. We may expect you to be better, kinder, braver, more curious in the future, but while we may sometimes be disappointed in your actions, you yourself will never be a disappointment. Stand and fight, we believe in you. Turn and run, we believe in you. Grow up and accept our principles and our history and our philosophy and our theology; we are proud to be your parents. Grow up and reject our ideas or all we ever taught you; we are proud to be your parents. Use our tools and then make your own; don’t be afraid.

One last thing, by way of introduction: please forgive me for making parts of this letter public. I am loud, I am obnoxious, I overshare, but those stem from one small fact about your father: I am scared. I am scared that all of this will go unsaid. I fear that if I don’t write this publicly, or at least part of it, I’ll forget to tell you all these things that I really hope to tell you. I’m worried that I’ll let the day to day concerns of life make me neglect this letter, that in the putting on of shoes, the paying of bills, the washing of dishes, the Please Just Get In the Car We’re Running Late, I’ll let the chance to tell you these things pass. Maybe the social accountability of writing these publicly will help remind me to tell you. Maybe, someday, the public nature of this letter will help remind me who I was when I wrote it, when fatherhood and motherhood and you, yourself, were new. Maybe the people who love your mother and me, the people who will also love you, maybe they will remind you of these things when we are not around.

No one thing any of us do or create defines us, not the worst thing we do and not the best thing we do. We are the sum and mean of all our actions and stillness. What I write here, what I teach you, is only part of my story; what I actually do is another. What your mother does in her role as Your Mother is only part of her story; her hopes and fears before you came along is another. Your story is being written every day, and I hope that what is written here will be a useful footnote in your life.

Next at bat: Part 2 of this letter, “How to know what you know.”

– MCN

 

Copyright © 2016 Mark Nabong

Tragedies and Statistics

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in "The Fisher King."

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in “The Fisher King.”

Robin Williams died yesterday, killed in what was reported as a suicide. My breath caught when I heard, but I made a small mental readjustment and thought, “Nah, it’ll be like all the other fake celebrity deaths; I’ll go on eating my burrito.”

When later the Responsible Media (TM) started reporting it, I deflated. I don’t think I was the only one to shrink a little; my social media was swamped with tributes, statements of sadness, and memories of Robin Williams and his work. It was filled with something else, too: a counter-reaction.

There was a collection of people who lamented that there was so much attention being paid to the suicide of one druggie comedian instead of some other major world event, like poverty, Gaza, ISIS, police brutality, etc. I actually think theirs is a reasonable reaction, as the loss of one man cannot be equivalent to the loss of scores of people, so let me explain why I think my sadness at William’s death is just as reasonable.

In a nutshell, Robin Williams was like a friend, who popped into and out of my life with each movie, routine, and painful story of drug use or loss that I saw or read about.  If I lost a loved one, a cousin, sibling, or parent, no one would question my right to grieve, because we know that I “know” them, they were in my life and I in theirs. The loss of Williams is obviously less, since he was a performer and I was a stranger to him, but like most of my favorite authors, musicians, and artists, he was no stranger to me.

Many of my friends in stand-up have been able to meet and get to know Robin Williams, something I’ll sadly not be able to do. Even without that secondary personal connection, though, his movies mirrored my emotional development. I was a kid when he made Aladdin, I was a student when he made Good Will Hunting, and I knew grief when he made The Fisher King. With his passing, I feel like I lost an reliable emotional touchstone, like an old restaurant in your hometown that has somehow stayed in business decades longer than it should have. Was he a friend of mine? No, he was not, but he was there when I made friends, and when I lost them.

With a celebrity like Williams dies, it is easy to dismiss the crass celebrity culture that exists in the US, which celebrates the trite, the superficial, and the pretty over the deep and meaningful. The news cycle should have more substance and less style, more analysis and less Hollywood gossip; this is a totally valid, and damning, critique on modern celebrity culture. In the case of Robin Williams, though, feeling less bad about his death does not mean we would feel more bad about the loss of civilians in a civil conflict; I’d argue that becoming more callous about the loss of anyone, even just some actor, just gives us a little more practice in the art of callousness.

If we intend to be more empathetic with strangers across the world and in our own hometowns, the solution is not to ridicule people who feel emotional about the loss of a famous celebrity; it is to give us more reason to feel the loss of the non-famous, the anonymous.

When Robin Williams died, we saw a person who made us laugh, an actor who could make us cry, and the face of a loneliness and depression that far, far too many of us confront in the dark, alone. We know that face, we see in our family, in our friends, and in our mirror.

If we want more of us to feel the loss of the family in Aleppo shelled by mortar fire, or the baby in the hospital in Gaza who died from a rocket attack, or the young man caught in a Molotov cocktail attack on his synagogue in Frankfurt, then we have to tell their stories, too. Don’t simply pass on a news report about a nameless, faceless refugee camp; find one of them and tell me her name, tell me his dreams. Tell me what they wanted out of life before the men with guns came, before their home became a war zone. Tell me how they lived before they died.

Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside a refugee camp near the Turkish-Syrian border. (Photo: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside a refugee camp near the Turkish-Syrian border. (Photo: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

“500 dead” is just a number, a collection of bodies. We are not just bodies, we are the souls and hopes and dreams that live in those bodies until the moment our hearts stop. We know what Robin Williams looked like when his heart was beating; we know how he smiled and we know how he spoke. Can we try to say the same for the Tsunami victim? For the flood victim?

Don’t get me wrong; we should care about the dozen that died from X, and the thousand that are fleeing for safety in Y, even if we don’t know their stories. But if we know their stories, then we are not just mourning a number, we are mourning a person, a person that could have been our friend, a person that could have been us.

People will shed their tears for strangers, but they will shed their blood for their friends. We should give the unnamed names, put faces on the faceless, because that is the only way we can start to see the friends we have, hidden in the numbers.


12 Aug 2014
by Mark Nabong

Reinvention and the Power of Community

Reinvention and the Power of Community
Five Lessons from Greendale’s Finest Students

Guest post by Kyle Schmitt

College is a time of personal growth and discovery, especially at Greendale Community College, where teenagers and seniors alike converge to seek education and learn who they really are. Greendale, the setting for the NBC sitcom Community, also serves as a haven for losers on their last chances. Called a “toilet” by its own students and promoted by the slogan, “You’re already accepted!”, the school provides a constant reminder of its denizens’ past failures and lack of opportunity for the future.

Greendale is a place, however, that allows for hard-won self-improvement. Some metamorphoses are just lateral movements – witness Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), who transforms from an incompetent Spanish professor to an incompetent math instructor. But the “Greendale Seven” study group members draw on themselves and their fellow students for courage and support in becoming the people they want to be.

Community shows how we all possess the power for personal reinvention. Here are five lessons the study group teaches us about how to become more ideal versions of ourselves:

Set your goals and pursue them vigorously. Shirley Bennett (played by Yvette Nicole Brown) entered Greendale after a traumatic event in her personal life. When her husband leaves her and their two sons for a stripper, she decides to attend community college to gain independence and a life outside of being an unappreciated homemaker. Shirley gains experience in cooking and promoting her own products. Her efforts culminate in the opening of Shirley’s Sandwiches, a small business she starts on Greendale’s campus. While she eventually reconciles with her husband, Shirley achieves personal growth and finds her own happiness by taking chances and discovering new skills that empower her.

Don’t be afraid to change paths. Annie Edison (Alison Brie) is your typical high-achieving, straight-A student – minus the Adderall addiction that landed her at a bottom-tier community college. She takes academics seriously and keeps a laser focus on the lucrative hospital administration career waiting for her after Greendale. We see periodic signs, however, that Annie is second-guessing her plans for life. And when a class-project yam is destroyed, causing the study group to band together for a Law & Order-style criminal investigation, she realizes a new interest. After graduating and finding no fulfillment in her healthcare industry job, Annie re-enrolls in Greendale to pursue her passion for forensic science. She throws away the rulebook that has restricted her throughout life, and embarks on a new journey that excites and challenges her.

Keep your values along the way. A disgraced lawyer who lost his job for lying about his non-existent college degree, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) creates the study group merely to hook up with his first recruit, Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs). His egotistical attitude leads him to act aloof and aim sarcastic barbs at group members who look up to him as being cooler and better than they are. Even after growing close with the other students, Jeff often struggles to prioritize his friends over his own selfish desires. His better angels consistently win out, however, as Jeff routinely postpones whatever he’d rather be doing to serve as a father figure to a group desperate for his leadership. He makes time to support Annie’s creation of a Model U.N. group, provide Shirley with pro bono legal help, and throw fellow group member Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) a Pulp Fiction-themed birthday party. Even when he gets his life back on-track, Jeff maintains tight connections with the classmates he once treated with contempt. These outcasts become a surrogate family for a man who finally learned to prize friendship over wealth and professional achievement.

It’s never too late to become the person you want to be. Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) serves as a constant reminder to his younger cohorts of where poor decisions and failed relationships will eventually lead. He treats his fellow study group members with disrespect, then complains that the study group leaves him out of their outside activities. This vicious cycle leads him to act maliciously toward his friends, further driving a wedge between himself and those who should be closest to him. After his frustrations boil over into physical aggression between himself and Jeff, Pierce begins to let others into his heart. He sticks up for his fellow students when he believes they are being bullied, dials back the racist/sexist comments, and even saves Greendale from financial ruin by winning a campus-wide paintball competition, then giving the destroyed school his prize money. Pierce waits until after his own death, however, to openly share his feelings with his friends. In his written will, Pierce posthumously tells Shirley that he admired her business acumen and strength of character, and reveals that Britta’s passion for her various causes inspired him. He also provides a life-changing opportunity for Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), who realizes that Pierce saw something in him that he never saw for himself. Accepting the friends he once kept at arm’s length, Pierce makes continued progress (even into eternity) in becoming a more considerate and appreciative person to those who care about him.

Challenge yourself. The show’s biggest transformation is made by Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), an obtuse ex-jock whose stated ambition is to wait until his best friend Abed strikes it rich with a social media innovation, then sue for a cut of his fortune. While the other study group members mature, Troy remains content to watch unwatchable b-movies and co-host Troy & Abed in the Morning, an early morning television program that no one bothers to film. But his stagnancy is shattered when Pierce offers him $14 million in stock options if he successfully sails around the world. Pierce tells Troy that he sees in him the “heart of a hero”, and challenges him to become the man he knows he can be. Whether induced by the lure of money or the opportunity for personal growth, Troy accepts this offer and sets sail with co-voyager LeVar Burton (per another provision in Pierce’s will). True to form, Troy cannot say goodbye to Greendale without playing an increasingly ridiculous game of “The floor is lava” that symbolizes his rite of passage into manhood. But, eventually, he sheds his lethargic state of no expectations and evolves into an adventurous adult whose best years are just beginning.

Reinvention doesn’t require enrollment at a community college that prides itself on its “Straight A’s” (two of which are “Air Conditioning” and “A Lot of Classes”) or which offers “certificates of completion” due to being legally prevented from awarding diplomas. The Greendale study group members demonstrate that setting goals, keeping an open mind to new ideas and opportunities, and recognizing the worth of those around you can help you live the life you want.

 

The author can be reached at kyleschmitt81 (at) gmail dot com.