Category Archives: Leoti

The Myth of Bootstraps

There have been several podcasts in my feed over the last year dissecting and observing the subject of poverty. This is probably because of the over-hyped evidence that the majority of Trump (OHM) supporters were poor, rural whites. The podcasters in their turn feel they need to address the issues raised by these people. The issues that made these poor, rural whites feel so desperate that they would hazard the welfare of us all on a known liar and con artist.

I say over-hyped with no intention of belittling the plight of the poor, or the fact that poverty runs rampant in the modern United States. Poverty is more widespread and more painfully felt now than it has been at any point since the end of World War Two. The disparity between rich and poor today is comparative to 1929, in the time leading up to the crash and the Great Depression. People are poorer now and paid worse than at any point in modern American history.

But it isn’t trade deals that are causing this problem. It isn’t illegal aliens in the US taking our jobs. It isn’t any of the things the OHM says is causing poverty; and his solutions to fix poverty are solutions that not only have been tried before but failed to work previously. So why do them again?

No, I say over-hyped because the rural poor more than likely voted for Trump because the rural poor have been the largest viewing block for reality TV. The rural poor have little other entertainment they can access aside from television. The Apprentice was popular with the same people who voted for Trump. Why is it so hard to admit that these people thought that the character on that show was the guy they voted for in the election? That the lack of broadband access in the rural areas of the US have lead to an information gap that resulted in the election of a con artist to the presidency? That poverty is merely a factor in the larger problem of inequality in America?

All of these podcasts have struck a chord with me. I have blogged both directly and tangentially about this subject in the past. It is not a subject I like writing about. The nerves are raw and the wounds are kept fresh in my current situation of disability and poverty. The series from On the Media, Busted: America’s Poverty Myths brought me to tears. I recognized so many tropes from my own childhood. Things family members and friends both have uttered in my hearing. Things that I have been guilty of believing in the past. In this article I will take a more purposeful walk down that  memory lane, painful as it is. I want to do this in the light of these discussions by scholars, writers and journalists.

…and I will start this journey of introspection with the writer/journalist Stephen Dubner and his podcast Freakonomics,

James Truslow Adams, born in 1878 to a wealthy New York family, became a financier and, later, an author. He won a Pulitzer Prize for a history of New England; and later he wrote a book called The Epic of America. Even though it was written during the Great Depression, Adams took a fundamentally bullish view of the United States. 

His book was hugely popular, and as best as we can tell, it introduced the phrase “The American Dream.” Adams defined this as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”  The phrase caught on, and not just a little bit. Especially among our presidents…

…The Stanford economist Raj Chetty has been working with large data sets to try to understand why so many Americans are no longer living the American Dream. When it comes to economic opportunity, Chetty and his colleagues found huge regional and even local differences throughout the U.S.

As he told us, kids growing up in San Francisco have about twice the chance of living the American Dream as kids from just across the bridge, in Oakland. Why? One easy explanation would be that the people in those different areas are just different – they have different abilities, different cultures, different job opportunities. And that certainly has some explanatory power. But Chetty and his colleagues found the story isn’t that simple… 

…This is hardly a new idea – that growing up in a poor neighborhood isn’t the best launching ground for economic success. This idea, in fact, led the Clinton Administration to experiment in the mid-1990s with a program called Moving to Opportunity. 

Okay, so young kids who move out of a high-poverty neighborhood do much better later on. What, exactly, does this signify? What’s going on in the poor neighborhoods to depress income mobility and what’s going on in the better neighborhoods to increase it? Answering those questions has become a big part of Raj Chetty’s work. 

The above hits the high points without getting into the meat of the episode, which is excellent. The scholar Raj Chetty‘s five factors address my personal experiences of poverty directly. It was because of this episode that I felt the need to write more on this subject, but the title of the post comes from a segment of another podcast, which was introduced to me through this episode of Radiolab,

In a 5-part series called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” On the Media picked apart numerous oft-repeated narratives about what it’s like to be poor in America. From Ben Franklin to a brutal eviction, Brooke gives us just a little taste of what she learned and shares a couple stories of the struggle to get ahead, or even just get by.

This episode features an excellent overview of the 5-part series; enough for the casually interested, but not enough for someone who remembers the shock of sudden poverty as a child. A now old man who lives in poverty due to illness, disability, a truly lackluster US economy, sexism/ageism in the workplace directed at the Wife, etc. But I don’t want to get ahead of the narrative, and discussing the particulars of my experience in poverty even in the general sense gets ahead of the introduction provided in the full five part series from On the Media.

“You had a population that wanted to cling to those things because it justified them not sharing.” – Jack Frech Athens County welfare director

As the Freakonomics episode mentioned, It is actually twice as easy to move up the income ladder in Canada as it is in the US. This is a travesty, an ongoing insult to America, this delusion we live under. What delusion is that? The delusion that the US is the best country in the world to live in, that we provide more access to social mobility than anyplace else in the world. It simply isn’t true. Hasn’t been true for a good, long time.

The first episode of the On the Media series is an introduction to the reality of poverty in America. It is the boxing glove on the fist of the next three episodes that drive home the fact that we Americans really don’t have a clue what it is to be desperately poor in the US. Even I only vaguely recognize the lives that the truly poverty stricken must live. The reason for this is; I profited from the status of my parents. My parents, in their turn, benefited from the status of their parents; white, working class, upwardly mobile christians with land. My paternal grandparents had enough property that they farmed at first, and then sold land to the city and to new families moving into the bustling township that Leoti, Kansas was after the dust bowl. They sold and profited as the town grew around them, just like the dreams of all Americans play out.

“Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.” – Thomas Paine Agrarian Justice The Writings of Thomas Paine pg 331

The possession of land leads to wealth, if one is lucky enough to own the right piece of land at the right time. The Steele family in Wichita county, Kansas were those people. The fact of their ownership of land made them powerful within the township. The location near a then-growing town gave them a chance to sell off some of their property for cash, something that there is never enough of in any small town. People have to eat, after all. They have to have somewhere safe to sleep. All of this costs money in the modern economy, and the only way to get money is to work or be born into it. So I wasn’t born into poverty, at least.

I was born overseas to a father who was stationed there in the military, a mother who enjoyed being overseas for the first time but really didn’t enjoy the constraints of a military wife in the 60’s. She returned to the states not too long after my birth, and my father left the military as soon as his mandatory term of service was up. They returned to my father’s home on the high plains of Kansas as I mentioned. My father grew up in a little town named Leoti that would be so small you would miss it if you blinked, if only the main roads went anywhere near the place. My father’s family had settled there a few decades previously and Grampa had several thriving businesses in the town. One of those businesses was sold/given to my father when he left the military, and he settled down with my mother for the happily ever after that all young people believe in.

Did I say “happily ever after?” Yeah, that never showed up. Dad took to drinking a fifth of bourbon every single day as he struggled to deal with bringing in enough cash to support his growing family. Mother was unhappy because the family kept growing and her husband didn’t seem to be around much to help. The fighting got worse until it damaged the furnishings and frightened the children, and the divorce wasn’t long after that. Coming out of the 40’s and 50’s and the attitudes about women and families, the ridiculous notions of money and politics, wealth and poverty and the meaning of all these things all wrapped up together, the surprising part of this story is that some women put up with the way life was for them. They put up with it instead of leaving. Maybe they had better husbands?

The story of my pre-teen life was pretty common for the time. By the mid-70’s when the divorce happened fully half of all marriages went that way. Prior to World War Two women were expected to stay home, raise children and provide for the running of the household which encompassed pretty much everything you can imagine. Everything you can imagine, if you imagined a self-sufficient household operation that was a day’s horseback ride from the next nearest town, a train ride away from the nearest city with running retail businesses in it. A household without running water or electricity. That is what frontier life was like just two generations into the past for me, four generations now. My grandparents remembered towns without electricity, the introduction of indoor plumbing and the automobile.

Automobiles made the difference. This fact is spelled out in the heaps of rusted metal you can find dotting most older farmsteads. When the old car dies you leave it where it sits and buy another one, just as you did the tractor and the harvester. On the Wife’s family farm you can still see her dad’s first tractor, parked on the edge of the field where it died, rusting into nothing as the decades fly by. It still sits there even though the farm itself has changed hands twice since her mom sold it. Sold it because there just wasn’t any reason to keep it any longer.

We weren’t farmers. We were never going to sign up for that life. The automobile made city life bearable because you could live in the outskirts of the city and commute downtown for work. In the city you don’t need to make your own clothes, you can go to the store and buy them. You can go to the store and buy them, that is, if you have the money. Money has been the limiting factor imposed on the poor for longer than any of  the now living can remember. Longer than those who came before us can remember. Further back than even our great-grandparents and their parents time.

Brooke meets Carla Scott, a young woman in Cleveland forced to sell her plasma for bus fare after a series of events derailed her life, as well as Carla’s nonagenarian grandmother, Grace, a hard-line believer in “personal responsibility.” 

Personal responsibility or paying for every mistake you’ve made for your entire life. That would be costly, and hasn’t been my experience. This is the privilege of white skin in the United States. It certainly hasn’t been luck that has seen me through to now. I’ve told myself all my life I make my own luck. I make my own luck because 50/50 chances almost never fall my way.  Even so, there are many behaviors that I have engaged in that would have resulted in imprisonment and probably death, had I been caught doing them while black.

While I was near homeless for a few years living in friend’s spare rooms and sleeping on enclosed porches, I never had to sell plasma. I didn’t have children of my own to tend to before I was ready largely because I knew what a pain children could be. That was one of the many lessons I learned being raised by a single mom.

The benefit of city living masques the machinery of poverty creation. Having everything you want or need available at a store for purchase makes the delusion of self-sufficiency seem quite real. Self sufficient, if you have the money to buy these things. Self sufficient, if you have work that pays money. I have always had work because I would do just about any job offered to me. White, young, male, with no tattoos and no piercings. This was important above all things; maintain the illusion of a fine, upstanding middle class status. That illusion kept me working.

Poverty waits for those who fail to maintain the illusion. Jobs that go to others. Careless sex that leads to children. Drug addiction. Tattoos and piercings that announce your rejection of white bread America. That inner-city poverty of slums and ghettos? The tattooed and the peirced? The drug addicted and the ne’er-do-well? That poverty that has moved out into the country from the cities. The rebellion that motivated the election of the Orange Hate-Monkey (OHM) was generated in rural America, in the persons of the last victims of a grinding poverty that has plagued the poorer neighborhoods of cities since their creation. I noted the rural American bellyaching rang hollow to me in the essay I named after him,

Listening to the people who attempt to defend their affinity for the Orange Hate-Monkey in the podcast isn’t helping. Oh poor, misunderstood me whining by rural whites strikes me as just this side of pathetic. As if urban blacks don’t have problems, haven’t had worse problems for the better part of two hundred years. The fact that the researchers on this podcast are so divorced from the truth of the matter, that the reality-disconnected people they have been interviewing actually turned out to be the ones who had the last laugh, that they got their American Psycho candidate on a collision course with the White House, in the face of the researcher’s own blithe belief that Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in for the presidency, isn’t helping with the surreality of this moment in time.

I know what grinding poverty looks like even though my experience with it was mercifully brief. That time was right after my parent’s divorce. For a time my mom made the best of life in rural Kansas. We got to keep the house. Dad moved into a trailer parked behind his service station. He managed to wrangle down his child support to $300 which wasn’t enough to cover the cost of keeping a roof over our heads, even though that roof had been home for as long as we could remember. Mom took her first job outside the house since going to college, a job teaching Head Start to Leoti preschoolers, a job that was taken from her because she didn’t have a teaching certificate. She left college to get married and had no saleable skills aside from homemaking, a job she couldn’t do anymore without a husband.

So mom remarried. He was a nice enough guy when we met in Leoti. As soon as we left Kansas and moved to Texas, the trouble started. The poverty got worse. Dad stopped paying the child support and only restarted it after mom sued him to get it. The stepdad started drinking heavily, and he was a mean drunk. There were a number of times where my mouth got me in trouble and I ended up on the floor. The last time I saw him was the day he brought another woman to the house. After watching him abuse my mother wordlessly for months, after being the victim of his abuse during that time, having him show up and flaunt his girlfriend in my mother’s face was too much. When mom sent us into the house and told us to hide, I waited behind a door I knew he would come through if he did come in for his stuff. I waited with a high vantage point and a heavy blunt object. I wanted to make sure that if the opportunity presented itself, there would be a near guarantee of killing him. I hated him that much.

Luckily for both of us, the opportunity never occurred. He left without his stuff. I was on a plane to stay with my father in Kansas within the week. Psychotherapy was part of that process. I was the lucky one. The luckiest of the four children who endured the stepfather. I had a room of my own in my father’s house. I had running hot water at the tap. I had a mother and father who were concerned for me. I never appreciated this fact, this blessing, until visiting my mother in Texas and seeing what hitching her cart to the stepfather’s wagon had wrought in the end.

The unlucky ones? They had one bed for the four of them to share. Mom went through another divorce, which means those three siblings went through it with her. The garage apartment they found in the tiny town they had ended up in didn’t have a reliable roof or much in the way of indoor plumbing. They had to heat water on the stove to fill the bathtub so that they all could bath each night. My mother had taken the next of dozens of jobs she would eventually hold, working the night shift running that blight of the American landscape, a convenience store. Virtually the only profitable business in yet another small town whose only claim to fame was being on the road to somewhere else.

When I saw how bad their living conditions were, I cried. We siblings then made the first of several pacts that followed over the years. After a few weeks of mutual badgering, our parents in their separate hostile camps were convinced to let the rest of the kids move back up with dad and his new wife. I didn’t appreciate having to share a bed with my brother again, but at least they had hot water to shower with. Television to watch. Decent schools to attend, back in the good old days, when Kansas still believed in investing in young people.

For the first time in my mother’s short life, she was free. No children to supervise. No husband to cook for or tend to. Free to try and advance her skills by returning to school. So she did that. She moved to a larger town in the area, a town called Sweetwater. It was a town with a school, a town big enough for a trade school, but not so big that it became expensive to live in. She took business classes and worked odd jobs. She was probably about as happy as she had ever been.

This happiness was short-lived. This is a section of the story that I wrote about at length here,

Dad had remarried, but found the chore of raising 5 unruly children too much to deal with so he sent us back to our mother in Texas to live. The 5 of us crammed ourselves into whatever housing she could afford on the wages for whatever jobs she could get.

…She just went back to working at fast food joints, bars and restaurants, the odd convenience store job as the demands for housing, clothes and food for her growing children required.

It was a point of pride to my mom that she never took food stamps. That she never had to go on welfare. Her memory is a bit more selective than mine. We may never have needed food stamps, but we certainly ate a lot of government bread and cheese. Drank a lot of government milk. I got a job as soon as I could after moving back in with mom. I knew even before she explained it to me, there was no way we’d survive if I wasn’t working. So I started sacking groceries and cleaning up at night at one of the two grocery stores in that mid-sized Texas town. I took a lot of food that the store was going to throw away home with me instead, one of the benefits of being the flunky who throws out the trash. We never went hungry, but that is just barely the truth.

I spent my senior year in high school as a stranger in a school I didn’t really want to attend. I preferred the Kansas schools of the time. Kansas’ investment in higher education (now abandoned) Kansas’ belief in better times ahead (ditto) Texas was meaner. Texas was harsher both in climate and attitude. That mythical Southern hospitality is the velvet glove over the iron fist of crony capitalism and repressive social structures designed to keep the poor in their place.

I attended the same trade school my mom had moved to Sweetwater to attend and I made the best of the illusions I had been fed as a child. That I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I had no limitations. That all I had to do was work hard and I would make the grade. That I could live happily ever after, too.

It’s not about IQ… it’s the context you inhabit

In the third installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we take on one of our country’s most fundamental notions: that America is a land of equal opportunity and upward mobility for all. And we ask why, in spite of a wealth of evidence to the contrary, does this idea persist?

With the help of historian Jill Lepore, Brooke traces the history of the “rags to riches” narrative, beginning with Benjamin Franklin, whose 18th century paper manufacturing business literally turned rags into riches. We hear from Natasha Boyer, a young Ohio woman who was saved from eviction by a generous surprise from strangers… only for the miracle to prove fleeting. And we consider the efficacy of “random acts of kindness” and the fateful role of luck — where you’re born, and to whom — in determining success.

Much like Benjamin Franklin in reality, as detailed in this segment of the story, I moved away from the family that was a drag on my ability to succeed on my own. Their poverty making my poverty that much harder to ignore, that much harder to escape. After a brief, heartbreaking few months trying to establish myself in Kansas back living with my father, trying to make good on promises made to a girlfriend I had left in Kansas and failing at that rather spectacularly, I returned to Texas and moved up the road from Sweetwater to Abilene for a brief time, living on my own. Like everyone who transitions to life on their own, that was quite a shock. I think it was the month driving on a leaky tire because I couldn’t afford a new one that brought home just how hard it was going to be to make the grade. Just how remote the possibility that happily ever after might ever occur.

“It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Martin Luther King Jr.

It was while living in Abilene that I noticed that I effectively had no boots and thusly no bootstraps to draw myself up by. I had limited education, most of which I provided for myself through voracious reading. I clearly had a problem producing work in my chosen profession, a barrier that I had never realized was mine alone until that time. There was no one with money in my immediate family. I knew no one in Abilene aside from co-workers at jobs I no longer had, and I wore out their welcomes in pretty short order. I even had to borrow mom’s pride and joy, the first new car she had ever bought for herself, just to get myself out of the rut I’d made in Abilene and move myself to a new, hopefully more promising locale, San Angelo.

It was in San Angelo that I met the Wife, working at one of the many odd jobs that came my way. It was there that I dragged the rest of my Texas family, after I finally found a job that paid money and had rented a house that would fit all of them. It was there that all of them eventually went to college. It was a long, hard struggle even getting to that level, the level where I felt I could attempt to repay a debt to my mother that I knew I still owed. But I was still poor, just not as poor as I had been. In order to not be poor I knew I was going to have to find a bigger city. Bigger cities require more architecture, more planning, more design, and I knew that was a demand that I could help satisfy if I could just get there.

In the fourth installment of our series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we examine the strengths and shortcomings of our nation’s safety net. Government assistance does help lift millions out of poverty each year — indeed, without it, poverty would be twice as high — but those in the most dire circumstances often slip through the cracks.

With the help of Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, and Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, we consider how anti-poverty programs can actually keep people poor and offer little hope for a way out.

Also, Brooke meets Margaret Smith, a Columbus woman made homeless after a violent crime derailed the life she’d carefully built with her six children. And we visit an Athens County food pantry that provides not just meals to the community, but also school supplies, clothing, furniture, job training, home repairs, disaster relief…even burial plots.

In the city there is no illusion about the temporariness of prosperity, of hearth and home. If there is any real difference between city life and country life, it is the illusion of permanence that country life affords. In the city you pay by the month for everything including hearth and home. You never stop paying for anything, ever. New cars, bigger houses, longer commutes, more roads, taller buildings, denser usage. The city is a meatgrinder, and the meat it grinds is human. Best not to watch it happen if you have a weak stomach.

It’s true, there are more opportunities in the city if you can afford to go there and look for them. I took that leap almost thirty years ago now. Left what I see now as a quiet little town of a hundred thousand people; ten times the size, and more, of my hometown of Leoti at its peak. Austin boasts more than a million citizens now. if you incorporate its far-flung suburbs, there is something closer to two million people who work and live here because of Austin being here and pretty much for no other reason. It certainly isn’t for the weather, which is Texas hot nine months out of the year.

There is a little joke in Austin that if you move here and don’t have allergies, wait five years. You’ll have them, just wait. I had allergies before moving here and I never intended to stay here. Fate has kept me here, year after year in spite of my intentions to leave as soon as I was assured of an ability to provide for my family. I was ill before I got to Austin, and my illness has gotten worse every year I’ve been here. The symptoms which had no name eventually got so bad that I found a name for them, Meniere’s. Finding that my symptoms had a name is the only reason I’m alive to write this uplifting little post today. Having a name for what keeps me from working is what gets me disability payments that kept my now-grown children fed while they were still growing. The disability made me worth more alive than dead; so I’ve kept living, to the consternation of many.

Disability isn’t a carefree life of freedom and bliss. Ill health is generally hard to endure even without the grinding poverty that accompanies it in most cases. The poverty is inflicted on those of ill-health by the system itself, not as a function of their relative worth. The cost of treating illness is itself a function of building the wealth of countless millions of healthcare professionals, people who would be as poor as I am without people like me coming to them for treatment. Without Social Security and Medicare paying my bills, I’d have taken my own life years ago. All those thousands spent to educate my children, house, clothe and feed them, would never have existed. Their promising careers, the careers of my Texas family who went to college because I brought them somewhere that had a college, all of the people who benefitted in some way from the work that I’ve done if not by the simple existence of my health issues, none of them would be where they are now had I simply not existed. Had I been cast aside like the poster-waving homeless visible on every city street corner in the US.

Nothing hits so hard for me as being in my car pulling up to an intersection, and having someone come to me with their hand out. I can’t look because I know that if I give in to my desire to help everyone around me, I will soon be the one standing on the street corner holding a sign. See to your own needs first, as any properly trained triage attendant knows. You can’t help others if you end up needing help yourself. I have clung to the top edge of a vertical drop into non-existence for more than a decade now. Every single cent of every dollar spent in the last ten years having to be justified in some way. Kicking myself for ever frivolously spending anything in the years that I had money, not realizing that those years would be the briefest of all.

When reporting on poverty, the media fall into familiar traps and pundits make prescriptions that disregard the facts. So, in the fifth and final installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we present a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty in America Edition. It’ll equip you with the tools to spot shoddy reporting and the knowledge to identify coverage with insight.

With help from Jack Frech, former Athens County welfare director; Kathryn Edin, co-author of $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America; Greg Kaufmann, editor of TalkPoverty.org; Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City; and Linda Tirado, author of Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.

This brings me full circle. From bootstraps to bootstraps. How can you lift yourself with your own bootstraps when you have no boots? Casey Gerald asks that very question in a TED talk that I favorited over a year ago. I love this talk. It makes me cry and laugh and cry.

“The gospel of doubt does not ask that you stop believing, it asks that you believe a new thing: that it is possible not to believe.”Casey Gerald

Like him I really don’t have any answers aside from the plain observation that what we have attempted so far in the realm of aid to the poor has failed, utterly.  We must begin again if we ever hope to improve the human condition. The only sane way is to approach the problem with the knowledge that we don’t know what will work before we try it. So it will profit all of us to make sure that what we are attempting can be tested for effectiveness before we embrace it as true and real. 

Coping With Dysgraphia

For Gregory

When I was a senior in high school I had a friend who would borrow one of the novels I carried everywhere with me and casually doodle the most amazing cartoons on the flyleaf. His cartoons were better than the things published in MAD or Cracked. My memory of that time may be a bit hazy now, but they were better to me then. Funnier. I marveled at the effortless way the pictures just came out of his hands, at his ability to draw, to write. It struck me as such a wonderful gift, to be able to take a pen and have it just make the lines you wanted to make and to make only those lines in the ways you saw them in your head.  Freehand artwork, freehand writing, is almost magic in my eyes.

They didn’t have a word for my disability when I was in school. I was never quite like the other children. Teased frequently, I hid in books and stared at my desk, afraid of catching anyone’s eye lest I be subjected to more derision. I didn’t know what made me different, but I knew that I was different all the same. The teasing I was subjected to originated with my second grade teacher who thought it would be a good idea to have the other kids torment me to make me write faster.

In my mind the first and second years of elementary school seem to blur together. It’s hard to separate one form of abuse from another. One of my teachers thought that teasing me was the ticket to getting me to perform. The other one thought that daily corporal punishment was it. Both were dissuaded from their delusions by my parents. The corporal punishment stopped, but the teasing continued until I moved away from that town. I wasn’t to be free of the hangups that this teacher’s cruel methods of instruction inflicted on me until well into adulthood. To this day I remain a public school skeptic largely because of my experiences in school at the hands of the children and this particular teacher, evidence of just how much damage one wrong idea can inflict.

My problems in school were bad enough that the school insisted my parents take me to see a specialist. We went to see the same diagnosticians in Denver two times; once in second grade and again in 5th grade. The school insisted that there was something wrong with me; it wasn’t the teacher, it wasn’t the other children. There was something wrong with me. So my parents paid for the doctors and paid for the travel, and off we went on what was a grand adventure from the perspective of my seven year old self.

I remember the experience because it was such a rare occurrence to be in another place. The Rocky Mountains around Denver were about as different from the grassy plains of Kansas as you can get. It was the first airplane flight I could remember, and it made me love flying. I have a great love of Colorado largely because of the experiences I went through in Denver on those two visits.

The doctors were nice. They gave me various tests. Handwriting tests, drawing tests. Clearly they were looking at motor control in the manner after the time (late 60’s early 70’s) trying to figure out why I couldn’t write well. Writing really hurt. It still hurts. The stupid pencils never went where I wanted them to go. Lines were never straight. Letters were never legible. Cursive? Cursive was a practice in slow torture. Every assignment in school made me suffer in silence; unable to write and yet required to write. Homework went undone. Not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I literally would grow tired from the constant pain of writing and simply pass out on my homework.

My mother doesn’t remember the word dysgraphia being used at the time, but what I was suffering through was distinctly dysgraphic in nature.

I loved to read. Reading and writing are two completely different exercises in the mind. The words would sometimes get tangled up in my head, but the places I could go while reading were so much better than the reality I was facing that I just soldiered on through the occasional confusion. But writing? I flunked a semester of english my sophomore year in high school because half of my grade would be based on a term paper I would be required to write long-hand. The subject of the paper that was selected for me was of no interest to me. I asked the instructor for a different subject more than once, only to be told I would write the paper and to stop arguing about it. In one of my first acts of rebellion I flunked the class rather than spend a week or more in agony only to have the paper rejected because it couldn’t be read.

I have never taken notes in class. When told to take notes I would write a few lines and stop (a trick I learned early. If the page is blank the teacher will notice and scold you) Notes were pointless. By the time I had written down the first sentence I’d have missed the next three sentences. What I learned to do was listen and absorb so that I could repeat what was said almost verbatim, at least briefly. Eventually I learned to synthesize the information internally and was able to rapidly apply it to new problems without ever having to write anything on paper.

I only recently learned that the ability to synthesize data internally is itself a special skill. Most people cannot remember things, cannot apply knowledge, without writing these things down.

Few of my teachers believed that I could do this, that I could absorb and apply knowledge without first committing it to paper. They especially didn’t believe it because I failed so frequently to do anything demonstrative in front of the class. I was afraid to write poorly and so would take far too long at the blackboard to be able to demonstrate anything to anybody.

Even though the specialists who tested me in fifth grade issued written instructions, specific to each teacher about the challenges I was facing learning in a classroom environment, the instructions were discarded as lending favoritism to a child that the school teachers and administration frankly thought was the problem in the first place. My mother was livid at the time and still gets angry talking about the subject. Did they know how much all of this testing cost? Paid for twice out of my parent’s own pockets? At the insistence of the school? Testing and findings to be discarded as too much trouble to institute, to much trouble to turn into a different teaching model?

What they did instead was slap a label on me. They called me slow.

I carried that label with me from second grade through seventh grade. The label and the torment only stopped at that point because I moved away from my hometown in Western Kansas for a few years; and when I came back to Kansas for my sophomore year of high school it was to a different town, Garden City, and to a different school. I never did spend any significant time in Leoti from that point forward. My nostalgia for the place I long considered home is leavened with ambivalence and rebellion. Rebellion against the label slow.

My sophomore and junior years of rebellion in Kansas and the custody of my father got me sent back to Texas and my mother. The all too familiar plight of children caught up in divorce. Shuttle diplomacy and holidays with the other parent. Custody battles and missed child support payments. From Leoti, Kansas and slow to Stinnett, Texas and rebellion. Garden City, Kansas and missed opportunities to Sweetwater, Texas and make the best of what you have left.

My senior year of high school in the late, hot Texas summer of 1980. My friend and his artwork were also transplants to the town and the school. Since we were both new, we decided to navigate the terrain together. Watch each other’s backs. The counselor lined out the required classes we would need to finish the year and graduate. He and I would be in organic chemistry together. A class we both found so boring that I would read and he would doodle on my books. We also had a few other classes together.

This is small town rural Texas, education isn’t something they spend a lot of money on. In the Kansas high school I had attended the previous year I had automotive mechanics and welding and a virtual smorgasbord of other classes I could have picked through if I had wanted to test my abilities in other areas. In small town Texas I essentially had two elective choices; metal shop and woodshop. Home economics would not be offered to boys. There was an FFA group, but animal husbandry was not my thing even if we had a farm to raise animals on (we didn’t) When we were unimpressed with the first two options, the counselor did admit that they also had a typing class and technical drafting. These were clearly choices she didn’t think anyone should be interested in. When we went around to talk to the various instructors to see what we might be interested in, I had an epiphany.

An epiphany in the example drawings from the drafting class. Drawings that illustrated how to build things. I had been a model builder for years by that point, but it had never occurred to me that someone had to draw those assembly instructions. It was the drafting equipment. The drafting machines, boards, lead holders, straight-edges and triangles. The realization dawned on me. I didn’t need fine motor control as long as I had an edge to guide the pencil. I could focus on pressure and distance and not worry about direction. Writing? Slow, painful, tedious work; but block lettering gave me the ability to finally be able to communicate what I wanted to say clearly. Leroy lettering guides kept the hands moving, forming the correct shapes.

My mother could not believe I wanted to draw when I came home from school that first day. After everything I had been through, the problems I had writing and communicating all my life. Writing, she told me, was something I always wanted to do. I wanted to tell stories. She would write things down that I asked her to, and then I would meticulously copy each character onto another page. But drawing? She couldn’t figure out what the attraction was. If that was what I wanted to do, she wouldn’t stop me from doing it.

An appreciation of Kenneth L. Zonge

It was another senior class that finally showed me how to write painlessly. Typing. I knew touch typing would be a useful skill because I had already seen my first computer keyboard.

My uncle, Kenneth Zonge, was a genius. No two ways about it, the guy is hands down the smartest man I’ve ever met by several orders of magnitude. Smarter than I am by about the same distance. He did early research into electronic mapping of rock strata, using computers to analyze the data and produce results that would tell miners where to dig for various minerals. His company Zonge Engineering and Research still does work in various fields in countries all over the globe. Back in the mid-seventies we went to visit him on a family trip, and he wanted to show off his portable computer.

Still looking for an image of
the “Red Baron”

The computer was built into a suburban; as in, it filled the entire inside of the vehicle aside from the driver and passenger seats. You had to open the side doors to get access to the input and output terminals, sitting outside the vehicle in the Arizona heat. As kids the science went right over our heads, but I do remember that he could type on a keyboard and the computer would print the clearest, most precise letters I had ever seen. It talked back to him. He played a text game for us and we were completely blown away by it.

Presented with the chance to learn how to touch-type as a senior, I took advantage of it. IBM Selectric III’s seem clunky and slow now, and error correction was a pain in the ass. But in the 80’s, for me, it was like being given access to electric light for the first time. I could type whatever I wanted on the keyboard and it would produce exactly what I wanted it to say almost as fast as I could think it. I had never had access to anything like it before. I asked to be able to do my homework in the typing lab, it was so much easier to just type it than it was to write it. I knew I’d never be able to afford a machine of my own, but if I could just be able to work in an office, there would be machines in the office I could use.

The pieces of my future were falling into place before me, whether I knew it or not. My intense interest in architecture could be accessed through drafting for architecture. My inability to write could be bypassed by access to a typewriter. After a year of drafting in high school, and a twelve month technical course at the local campus of TSTI, I took my label slow and my newfound tools and went out into the land of design and construction. Went out into the business world and was almost immediately flummoxed by the fact you have to sit still in an office. Sitting still drives me absolutely nuts. Give me some decent shoes and rugged clothes, and I’ll spend all day for weeks exploring every inch of ground around me for whatever can be found. I never really thought about it; but I imagine being cooped up inside revisited the torment of school, being asked to engage in rituals I found painful and to gauge facial expressions I found confusing at best, incomprehensible at worst.

Maybe I need the physical stimulation to make the mind work.

In any case, the first barrier to office work wasn’t actually the writing and drawing. No, the first barrier was getting over my own internal loathing of sitting still. That took years, longer than it took me to learn to type or to draw with precision. Eventually I learned to tap into what is commonly termed as flow now; and I could draw essentially effortlessly for hours at a time, longer and better than my peers. I had to be more dogged, more persistent. I had to be because I was slower than they were. That is an unpleasant, unavoidable fact.

My hand drawing production rate was much slower. However, because I had to take time to make sure the lines were exactly right, my drawings were also generally of better quality. This is not bragging, this is me relating the feedback that I got from dozens of years of work in the field. Yes, Anthony. Your drawings are beautiful. Can you turn them out faster? The same old label of slow coming back to haunt me.

“You are slow, Anthony.” Sounds like stupid in my ears, and it is meant to sound that way. Yes, I take longer to get there, but it will be worth the trip unlike some draftsmen I won’t mention. That is the line that ran in my head in response. I had to bite that retort back more times than I can count.

I learned to crib graphics as a method of timesaving. I would type or have someone else type notes and affix those transparencies to my drawings. I would draw details in such a way that I could duplicate them easily using a Xerox machine, or wholesale duplication of sheets of work. The whole industry of architecture was undergoing a change as I underwent these changes, but it was the echos  of “you’re slow, Anthony” in my own head that made it imperative that I cut every corner I could in order to turn drawings out as quickly as possible.

In the end, I did it.

Not because I got faster at hand drawing than anybody else. No, all of my peers can sketch rings around me. They always have been and probably always will be able to draw rings around me. The few times I’ve ever had to draw anything by hand in the field I was embarrassed to do so. My contractor friends, men who trusted my drawings implicitly, were always careful to assure me it would be fine; but I know just how childish my scribbles looked.

They were bad, and it was a barrier that kept me from advancing in the field of architecture. More than once I was offered promotion to supervisor or manager and I always balked at it. Why? Because supervisors and managers draw freehand right on the paper, and the draftsman just takes what they draw and cleans it up. I was really good at the clean up part of the process after years of practice. I was never going to be good at the freehand part. That was not something I would be able to do, and deep down in my heart I knew it was a barrier that I could not cross.

What changed things for me was the early exposure to computing at the shoulder of my beloved uncle. The exposure that made me understand the power of computers.

When you draw something in the computer, it can be duplicated endlessly without degrading the copy. The digital world allows you to be able to replicate whatever work you’d done previously by simply copying and pasting. Drawing guides are built in, so shaky handwork is irrelevant. The initial precision was the determining factor of replicability, and I had honed precision to a fine art already. It was just a matter of mastering the new tools.

Since I couldn’t get my employers to see the vision of my uncle’s suburban filled with computer gear, I took it upon myself to enroll in courses at Austin Community College so that I could gain access to contemporary PC’s of the time (386‘s probably) while the motor control problem makes me a klutz with hardware, software is just a matter of understanding the logic of the system in a way that allows you to utilize shortcuts built into it. Classes in programming were more than I wanted to deal with at the time, and programming itself means little to me still, but breaking security barriers on the simple GUI’s the school used at the time was child’s play, and I spent a year learning how not to get caught doing things with the computer that weren’t allowed, while learning the reasonably simple (for an experienced draftsman like myself) drawing exercises that I had to produce in order to pass the class.

When the classes were done and I felt prepared for what I saw as the inevitable future, my employers threw me a curveball and bought into a CAD program other than the one I had trained for. While I had spent a year learning AutoCAD, other CAD programs had made inroads in the architecture field and my employers purchased a program called CADvance and hired an operator from outside the firm to run the system.

Hoval calculator and measuring stylus

Side note. It’s nice to know I was actually behind the times when I started my evangelizing for CAD and computers in the architecture sphere. I found this article over at Reanimation Library on Boyd Auger’s 1972 book, The Architect and the Computer quite interesting.  Quite interesting that in 1972 the trend towards digitization was this apparent to anyone, even if they were really only promoting the products they had created to digitize documents.  I really do hate to think that something that I thought was apparent was invisible to everyone else. Clearly, not everyone.

Undaunted, I simply learned the far more straightforward command parameters for CADvance. The process took all of three days and I was already (unbeknownst to me) as fast or faster than the outside help my employers had hired. I mastered his system and improved on it before realizing I wasn’t going to be going anywhere in that firm and made the move to another firm. A larger firm that used both systems I already knew.

It was about the time that my new employers adopted a third system Microstation and I mastered that program (with the help of the Wife’s student software discounts, her then ongoing pursuit of an MLIS and her still invaluable proofreading skills. Love you too, dear) and then started helping my co-workers become proficient with this new third system that I began to realize that I wasn’t the slowest person on the floor. In the middle of a monologue of self-criticism about streamlining some process or other, the co-worker I was talking to stopped me cold to inform me that “you know you are the fastest draftsman on the floor, right?” No, I hadn’t known it until he pointed it out.

Liberation from false constraints, from labels you never wanted, never accepted is a feeling that is hard to describe. Hard to fathom. I will be eternally grateful to my friend and coworker who pointed this fact out to me. It was years of additional work understanding just what it meant to not be seen as slow and stupid. To not have to push back against a negative view, a constraint you internalized and never let go of until long after everyone around you had stopped holding the view and instead were puzzled by what continues to drive you to be faster.

A recurring argument that I had with a few of my supervisors and fellow architects (back when I had a license, back when I was one of them) was the common belief that people aren’t in nature when they aren’t working on a 2D paper surface. The misguided notion that the synthesis of ideas requires a fixed medium (paper) and a writing implement (pencil) to engage the creative brain.

Future architects are explicitly told by some college professors that they “cannot design in a computer environment.” This false limitation being taught to so many students appals me to my core. It invalidates everything about me, my experiences, my pain and trials and eventual triumph. Is it a good thing that I never went to college to learn architecture? Had I followed the traditional route, embarked on a master’s degree in Architecture, I might have had this additional bad information to wrestle with and put behind me. Computer design is wholly artificial and so it can’t be a place to design in.

Hogwash. 

If I accepted this falsehood as truth I would never have embarked on my journey in the first place. I’d be just as disabled and just as hopeless, but with no belief that I could ever be more than that. Paper and pencil are natural to the people who find them natural. If the characters will not flow from you hands using them, find some other medium to express yourself in. All of them are natural. Do what you can do and never apologize for having to take a different road than everybody else. None of them know what experiences you have, what disabilities you will have to cope with. What gifts you might have hiding inside.

This is the end of the story of Coping With Dysgraphia. It only gets me to the middle of my architecture story, a story I still haven’t told fully; beginning, middle or end. That story will have to wait for another muse, another time. My parting thought on the subject of dysgraphia is, I wish I could remember what the subject of that term paper was that I refused to write way back when. When I was a sophomore in Garden City in 1978 flunking out of english class. I could write a whole book on the subject now with the tools we have today. I wonder what kind of story that would have been then if I could have simply been able to do what I do now?


Listening to The Hero’s Journey TED radio hour inspired me to put this story into words. Specifically it was the story of Ismael Nazario who was convicted of a crime and sent to Rikers as a teen. There but for grace go I. The difference that the color of your skin can make. 

The Reason for the Season, 2016

The solstice approaches.

I know this because my self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder is kicking in. I want to stay in bed all day. I can’t be bothered to go out to do routine shopping.

Well, the latter isn’t just the SAD.  No, that comes from my cumulative experience with this time of year, which is why a self-diagnosis for SAD may just be my hypochondria (also self-diagnosed. Well, self-diagnosed if the wife calling you a hypochondriac for 30 years constitutes self-diagnosis) kicking in, reinforcing my disgust with the crass commercialism which denotes this slowly expanding season.

There was a time in my youth when we waited until after Thanksgiving to start hyping all things Christmas. I remember going out in the yard after Thanksgiving to admire the life-size nativity scene that my grandfather always put up (complete with genuine hay bales borrowed from farming relatives) in the front yard across the street from the Methodist church in Leoti where he sang in the choir regularly. Setting up the tree and decorating it was generally a part of the Thanksgiving celebration.

These days if you are into labor-saving you put up “Halloween lights” which can be color-changed to “Christmas lights” or just put up the Christmas decorations early. In this household you will find Christmas decorations that stay up all year, the ultimate in labor-saving.

Holiday shopping madness hits just about the time that November rolls around; consequently I refuse to go out amidst the press of people who are willing to knife total strangers in order to get the last dublafluwhitchy that is the thing to have this year. I won’t go shopping between Thanksgiving and New Years unless I run completely out of an essential food item (eggs, oatmeal, tea) and even then I won’t go gladly. I won’t go gladly because I hate Christmas music and it is played non-stop in most retail businesses between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Basically I turn into the Grinch promptly following Halloween, and stay that way until Christmas Eve, when I put on my best face in order to not spoil the holiday for the family. Christmas and the solstice holiday it supplanted are celebrated when they are because of the effect that shortened days have on the human psyche; and it would be pointless to attend a celebration as the Grinch when it is thrown specifically to drive the Grinch away.

But the real reason I know the solstice is approaching is that even in my current boycott of the news cycle the War on Christmas, the incessant whining of the christian majority of the US that they are in fact an oppressed minority, has made its way into my information stream despite my best efforts.

The Winter solstice is a pagan holiday. This year it will occur on December 21st for the Northern hemisphere of planet Earth. The pagan holiday (which went by several names) spanned across the current date of Christmas, traditionally for about two weeks, until a few days after the current New Year’s day.

Retconning Christmas: David Kyle Johnson on the Real Reason for the Season

This task that I set myself periodically, this attempt to push back against the wilful ignorance of the average American, this attempt to enlighten the masses as to the true breadth and depth of the history that is expressed in the secular holiday we call Christmas seems hopeless. Even the simple idea that facts when presented without bias can change minds seems hopeless in light of current psychological studies into things like Motivated Numeracy or the Dunning-Kruger Effect especially when polls conducted by the Pew Research Center show,

…that most Americans believe that the biblical Christmas story reflects historical events that actually occurred. About three-quarters of Americans believe that Jesus Christ was born to a virgin, that an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, and that wise men, guided by a star, brought Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. And eight-in-ten U.S. adults believe the newborn baby Jesus was laid in a manger.

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened. Among U.S. Christians, fully eight-in-ten (81%) believe in all four elements of the Christmas story. Even among people who are not affiliated with any religion, 21% believe all these events took place, and 37% believe at least one (but not all) of them occurred.

But still I soldier on, year after year, attempting to point out the silliness that surrounds us.

The word christmas is a bastardization of Christ’s Mass, which is specifically a Catholic celebration. The Catholics, being the earliest example of admen on the planet, realized that they could more easily sell their religion if they simply adopted the holidays in the areas that they wished to convert. When they moved into Northern Europe, they took on the holiday known as Yule and incorporated it into their religion as the day of Christ’s birth (even though it’s considered most likely that the date would have been in spring) and it is even more likely that the celebrations of Saturnalia spread around the Roman Empire, influencing the the celebrations held informally long after Rome had ceased to be a power in the region. Whereby Roman celebrations influenced Yule which in turn influenced celebrations in the later christian eras.

Christ’s Mass (Mass being what a protestant refers to as a ‘sermon’) was thereby invented, placing a holiday that directly coincided with celebrations already being held on the shortest day of the year, accurate calculations of which could be made (and were and still are essential for agriculture) with the crude technologies of the time.

What I’m getting at is this; if you are calling the solstice holiday Christmas and you aren’t a Catholic, then you are referring to the secularized solstice holiday officially celebrated in the US, which doesn’t observe holidays for any recognized religion including christianity. There is no need to further secularize your solstice celebration by calling it a Holiday.

This sort of silliness knows no bounds. The Son attended a charter school that was hosted at a Catholic Church for a few years while he was in grade school and they used the phrase Holiday Party to describe their Christmas Party. If there is one group that should be using the word Christmas it’s the Catholics.  They certainly didn’t hesitate to tell him all about god in that school, which was the main reason his attendance there was brief. I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t just say Christmas.

Christmas being Yule modernized isn’t nearly the earth shattering revelation that FOX and their devotees might think.  A good number of the names for things that we use daily, even the names of the days themselves, are derived from Germanic/Northern European traditions, whose gods were not the gods the Romans worshipped (Remember to think of Odin on Wednesday next time it rolls around) nor the later god of the christians that Rome would officially adopt. Our traditions in the US are a literal smorgasbord of celebrations cobbled together from every major culture on the face of the planet.

If you hear me wish you a Merry Christmas, it is because May your feast of the Winter Solstice be Enjoyable is too cumbersome to say repeatedly. It certainly isn’t because I revere Jesus, or self-identify as a christian.

“Jesus is the reason for the season!”

Axis tilt (22.5 degrees) is the reason for the season. Lack of sunlight causing depression is the reason for the celebration. Christmas has as much to do with Odin as it does with Jesus, and has even more in common with Coca-Cola ads from the early 20th century than it does with any god; Coca-Cola having created the figure of Santa Claus that most of us recognize today.


(courtesy the Coca-Cola Company)

Jesus was not a capitalist. Jesus does not want you to buy gifts to give away on the winter solstice; not only because he wasn’t born then, but because you should give gifts every day of your life. If you really want to know WWJD? Then I’ll tell you, that is what Jesus would do as well as washing the feet of the poor and feeding hosts with loaves and fishes. Give gifts every day to the people around you who need them. Be thankful you have them near you every day that you can, because those days are finite like the number of days remaining in our lives.

If you remain unfazed by these facts; if you are still determined to insist that Christmas is a christian holiday, I’ll go a few steps further to illustrate my point. The Puritans that the average US citizen credits as founding the American colonies specifically targeted Christmas as being a pagan influence introduced by the Catholic church. They exorcised it’s celebration from their religious practices, even punishing celebrants caught loafing during the early years of the colony.

The US is not a christian nation. The authors of the Constitution had little evident love of religion. Having just escaped religious persecution in Britain and the rest of Europe, and being besieged by the mandatory religious practices written into several state charters, they consciously kept all mention of religion out of the document aside from the proscription against religious tests. If you go beyond their ranks you are faced with the fact that there were French colonies as well as Spanish colonies, and if you want a contrast with the straight-laced Puritans it’s hard to find one more glaring than the types of celebrations held in New Orleans down through the years.

The United States exists as a celebration of reason not religion. Reason is the basis for Humanism and the Enlightenment, this country’s real foundations.

I apologize for ruining Christmas for you, I’m sorry.

The world isn’t as simple as any of us want it to be, wish it would be. It won’t change just because you or I think it should; and like those toys you bought for the children, it won’t go back in the !@#$%^&*! box so you can return it. Next time buy the pre-assembled one that has all the pieces in the right place. The child will be happy for the gift anyway, they probably won’t notice the missing parts, and the world will continue to spin on its (tilted) axis whether we will it or not.

Just relax, sit back, and have some more eggnog (or whatever your beverage of choice is) it’s just a few more weeks and then we’ll have a whole new year of problems to deal with. Now isn’t that a refreshing outlook?

…Oh, and Merry Christmas!

(abridged and enhanced from this post)

September 11, not 9-11

This is adapted and expanded from previous articles.  I intend to keep updating and reposting a version of this article annually until the US collectively demonstrates learning something from history, or I pass from existence. Given prior evidence, I’m betting on the latter.


My dad was born on September 11, 1938.  On his sixty-third birthday terrorists destroyed two American icons and shattered forever the illusion that we were beyond the reach of the people intent on doing us harm. There are many lessons to be learned from gaining that insight, but it doesn’t appear that the US has learned anything in the intervening years.  We re-live the events of 9-11 over and over again on each anniversary; wallowing in our collective angst, while repeating the same mistakes that lead to that day, that sprung from that day.

Every year on this day we bathe in the blood of that day yet again. We watch the towers fall over and over. It’s been 15 goddamned years, but we just can’t get enough. We’ve just got to watch it again and again. -Jim Wright, Renegade 9-11

Every year.  Every goddamn year.

My father did his time in the military.  I was born overseas because of the Cold War, and my parents answering the call to serve.  Dad didn’t like military life very much, and left the service after 4 years to return home to Kansas and his family there.  As a teenager I foolishly contemplated joining the military myself, and mentioned it to him to see what he thought. “You like taking orders?” he said.  I didn’t, I replied. “Well, then you don’t want to join the military.” That was his thinking on the subject, in a nutshell. He never elaborated more, but that view has stuck with me ever since.

Every year after 2001, he complained that the terrorists had stolen his birthday.  Every year until he died, the day that he had looked forward to through childhood had become something terrifying and repugnant.  It annoyed him that his day had been the day they picked. I can understand that.  It is captured in this sentiment;

This new generation has lived under the shadow of those falling towers every single minute of every single day since the moment they were born. -Jim Wright, 9-11 Thirteen Years On

I’m reclaiming today and every September 11th after this one for my father.

Happy birthday dad, wherever you are.

I am reclaiming it for my father and for all the young Americans born since that day. People who deserve more than to be dragged into battles that have been going on since before they were born. I promise to spend more time thinking of him and of them than of the other events that make this day stand out for average Americans.  Because really, why remember if we aren’t going to learn anything from it?

September 11, not 9-11

This is adapted and expanded from a previous article.  I intend to keep updating and reposting a version of this article annually until the US collectively demonstrates learning something from history, or I pass from existence. Given prior evidence, I’m betting on the latter.


My dad was born on September 11, 1938.  On his sixty-third birthday terrorists destroyed two American icons and shattered forever the illusion that we were beyond the reach of the people intent on doing us harm. There are many lessons to be learned from gaining that insight, but it doesn’t appear that the US has learned anything in the intervening years.  We re-live the events of 9-11 over and over again on each anniversary; wallowing in our collective angst, while repeating the same mistakes that lead to that day, that sprung from that day.

Military adventurism continues almost unabated since that cautionary moment in our history. Undaunted by the mess that we created in Iraq, we are now doing our best to intervene in the area again.  Stationing troops in the form of advisors, lending military aid to the Iraqi government that has made it pretty clear they don’t want our help anymore.

The Republican candidates for President can’t promise they’ll declare war on enough countries fast enough to suit their Halliburton backers. At the very least a war with Iran will be in the promises that a Republican candidate for President will bring to the campaign trail, as if we haven’t had enough war for several lifetimes in the last two decades.

Americans remain convinced that everything that happens around the world is somehow linked to us, that we have to weigh in on events, or that somehow the events were caused by us, as if the world only exists because we send our military out there to make sure it does.

My father did his time in the military.  I was born overseas because of the Cold War, and my parents answering the call to serve.  Dad didn’t like military life very much, and left the service after 4 years to return home to Kansas and his family there.  As a teenager I foolishly contemplated joining the military myself, and mentioned it to him to see what he thought. “You like taking orders?” he said.  I didn’t, I replied. “Well, then you don’t want to join the military.” That was his thinking on the subject, in a nutshell. He never elaborated more on the subject, but that view has stuck with me ever since.

Every year after 2001, he complained that the terrorists had stolen his birthday.  Every year until he died, the day that he had looked forward to through childhood had become something terrifying and repugnant.  It annoyed him that his day had been the day they picked. I can understand that.  It is captured in the sentiment of Jim Wright’s piece on Stonekettle Station (a re-post) when Jim mentions the generation that has grown up since the towers fell, never knowing the America that we all remember.  They only know the America we created in our fear after 9-11;

This new generation has lived under the shadow of those falling towers every single minute of every single day since the moment they were born.

So in that sentiment I’d just like to reclaim today, and every September 11th after this one for my father.  Happy birthday dad, wherever you are.  I promise to spend more time thinking of you than of the other events that make this day stand out for average Americans.  Because really, why remember if we aren’t going to learn anything from it?

Independence Day

For the last few years my July 4th celebrations have been limited to watching my favorite holiday film and the wife‘s favorite holiday film; which are 1776 watched on the dusty old laserdisc player (the only complete version of the film in existence, although the blu-ray comes close to it) and ID4 which can be watched on any format as long as it includes surround sound.

For me it’s hard to beat the patriotic zeal of John Adams and his co-conspirators plotting to remove the American colonies from under the heel of their English masters. A good portion of it set to music, and sung quite well by the original broadway cast, directed by the same director. I own and have watched the blu-ray version of this film.  It is quite good, but it is not the same film that was released on laserdisc; nor does it have the secondary audio track describing the painstaking effort spent on reassembling the film after it was cut by Jack Warner with a pair of scissors; this after it had been put to bed by the director and assumed finished.  The cutting included the removal of a pivotal song in the middle of the film Cool, Considerate Men at the request of President Nixon, personally.  The song portrays the views of conservatives of the time who did not want to risk their lives, wealth and property on the very slim chance that Washington would ever be victorious against the British army.

The pro-slavery song Molasses to Rum should be especially poignant this year, given the tragedy enacted in Charleston a few weeks ago.  History is a fine teacher, if you don’t deafen yourself to its advice.

On a lighter note, the wife loves ID4. When the pool was functional, she was frequently alone in the living room watching it while the rest of us retired to the pool. One year she begged a projector from friends and we watched it on the patio from the pool.  That was a good summer.  The best part of the film for me is the scene where Houston, having been destroyed by the aliens earlier in the film, is nuked in a defensive attempt to destroy the invading aliens.  Any film that destroys Houston twice is a watchable film in my book. Sorry Houston residents; the truth hurts, I know.

A sequel to ID4 is slated for release next Independence Day (2016) titled Independence Day Resurgence which they shorten to IDR. I Don’t Relate to that title very well.  Maybe the film will make up for it.

Robert Reich on Patriotism

The most common form of Independence Day celebration, fireworks, are only a memory for me. As a kid it was my favorite holiday because of the fireworks. We’d always have a decent personal show set up in the street in front of our house, or in our back yard. I constructed models just to blow them up with fireworks on the 4th of July. I remember fondly the first time Leoti paid for a firework display, laying in the middle of the football field watching the fireworks go off overhead.  I also remember many a summer where I temporarily deafened myself standing too close to explosives when they went off.

Another point of history that should be instructional.

As my disability has progressed, sensitivity to noise has increased. Any loud noise can set off vertigo quite easily. Flashes of light are painful, not enjoyable. Combustion fumes alone have been known to send me into a vertigo spell, so the great American pastime of trying to set the neighborhood on fire on Independence Day occurs without my active participation.

In Austin the city display is the only display allowed by law, a fact I find ironical as well as sensible.  There is always a neighbor who defies the ordinance and sets fireworks off anyway, usually several of them. The police and firemen are kept running all night long responding to calls.  At least the region is well watered this year. Won’t be any county-wide grass fires set off by fireworks this summer.

Oatmeal’s America Explained to Non-American’s on a Facebook friends wall inspired this introspection.  I can’t link the image, you’ll just have to go to his site and soak up the glory that is American Independance Day.  Looking back, as I’ve alluded to twice already, I wonder why the obvious desperation of July 4th celebrations isn’t apparent to more Americans. We so desperately want to demonstrate to the world how happy we are being free.  One would think that the joy of real freedom would be enough, if only we know what that elusive thing really is.

September 11, not 9-11

My dad was born on September 11, 1938.  On his sixty-third birthday terrorists destroyed two American icons and shattered forever the illusion that we were beyond the reach of the people intent on doing us harm. There are many lessons to be learned from gaining that insight, but it doesn’t appear that the US has learned anything in the intervening years.  We re-live the events of 9-11 over and over again on each anniversary; wallowing in our collective angst, while repeating the same mistakes that lead to that day, that sprung from that day.

Military adventurism continues almost unabated. Undaunted by the mess that we created in Iraq, we now propose to intervene in the area again.  We remain convinced that everything that happens around the world is somehow linked to us, that we have to weigh in on events, or that somehow the events were caused by us, as if the world only exists because we send our military out there to make sure it does.

My father did his time in the military.  I was born overseas because of the Cold War, and my parents answering the call to serve.  He didn’t like military life very much, and left the service after 4 years to return home to Kansas and his family there.  As a teenager I foolishly contemplated joining the military myself, and mentioned it to him to see what he thought. “You like taking orders?” he said.  I didn’t, I replied. “Well, then you don’t want to join the military.” That was his thinking on the subject, as he related it to me.

Every year after 2001, he complained that the terrorists had stolen his birthday.  Every year until he died, the day that he had looked forward to through childhood had become something terrifying and repugnant.  It annoyed him that his day had been the day they picked. I can understand that.  It is captured in the sentiment of Jim Wright’s piece on Stonekettle Station (a re-post) when Jim mentions the generation that has grown up since the towers fell, never knowing the America that we all remember.  They only know the America we created in our fear after 9-11;

This new generation has lived under the shadow of those falling towers every single minute of every single day since the moment they were born.

So in that sentiment I’d just like to reclaim today, and every September 11th after this one for my father.  Happy birthday dad, wherever you are.  I promise to spend more time thinking of you than of the other events that make this day stand out for average Americans.  Because really, why remember if we aren’t going to learn anything from it?

My Shambala

A friend of mine on Facebook posted a link to a version of Shambala a bit ago.  I can (and do) appreciate his posts, but for me there is only one version of Shambala.

I say sorry Jim, because Three Dog Night’s Shambala was part of an 8track of hits that they played at the Wichita County swimming pool (Leoti, KS) in 1976 (had to be 76. Summer of the bicentennial. Cross-country bicyclers hanging in the city park. Crazy year) and I had just learned to swim a few summers previously.  Swimming was my first love, and I say that as someone who just celebrated his 25th year of marriage, to someone I’m still deeply in love with; but even so, swimming remains my first love, a communion with nature itself for me.

Spending a carefree afternoon at the pool, eating icees and listening to music that wasn’t played anywhere else, as far as I could tell, was as close to pure joy that child me ever experienced. We waited for the pool to open, and for the weather to get warm enough that you didn’t freeze, and then every single day that I could get away, I’d ride my spyder down to the pool (got a ten speed later. Bicycling was my second love) and stay all day if I could get away with it.

In rural Kansas the only radio stations you could pick up reliably were country stations.  I can listen to just about any kind of music, so Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Merl Haggard and of course Johnny Cash (who was a ‘bad boy’ in my mother’s eyes if I remember correctly) figured highly in rotations for the stations that my parents tuned when I was a child, and I didn’t mind.

But the pool was supervised by high school students (with maybe a school coach checking in now and again) so the sound system they rigged up only played their music. The intro riff to Shambala plays, and I can smell the steam coming off the concrete decking, taste the ice cream, remember what it was like to be carefree.

It’s a weird coincidence that I remember the song at all.  The other song that I remember them playing I rediscovered long ago; it had a catchy refrain about a shaker of salt, and while I couldn’t ever figure out what he wanted salt for (I was pretty sure at the time I was hearing it wrong, water in the ears or something) I did eventually discover the song was Margaritaville, and I have been a parrothead ever since.

The weird coincidence? I was watching LOST with my wife. She had gotten me interested in the show, and it became a bit of a weekly ritual to catch each episode as it aired. It was a pretty good episode involving two of my favorite characters in the show, Charlie and Hurley.  Hurley was certain he was cursed, that the numbers he used to win the lottery, that were on the hatch, had been a curse.  This was the crucial scene of the episode;

The song comes up, and the memory hits me like a blow to the head.  THAT SONG! I remember that song! It was like a trip to the past, so powerful it brought tears to my eyes (it still can) mom and dad were still happy together, Gramma & Grampa still breathing and living just a few blocks away to save me if I needed saving. The world was bright and full of promise…

…That was my Shambala. That time when everything was perfect (even though it never could have been as perfect as you remember it) all of the people you knew caught like insects in amber and preserved to be revisited.

Except you really can’t go back there, because it never really existed in the first place. The rot was already present, present from even before I was born, just waiting to tear everything apart. Now that I’ve started losing my hearing, even the song itself is a memory that I replay.  I can’t really hear it like I did then, echoing off the hot concrete I would rest my head on to make my barely functioning sinuses open up and drain.

But the memory of the song is like a siren…

“Everyone is lucky, everyone is so kind, on the road to Shambala” 

Jack Steele

This is the text of the Obituary that ran in the local paper, both here in Canon City where he lived, and in Leoti where he spent a large portion of his life.

John Hyland ‘Jack’ Steele Jr. died peacefully in the presence of family at the St. Thomas More Hospital in Cañon City late Saturday, June 27, 2009.

He was born Sept. 11, 1938, in Witchita Falls, Texas, to John Hyland and Dorothy (Heim) Steele; they preceded him in death. He also was preceded in death by his son, Kelly Steele.

Jack served his country in he United States Air Force for six years and, for most of his life, received joy helping countless people have a good experience buying a car. He never met a stranger and was loved by all who met him.

He leaves behind the love of his life, Charlene “Charley” Steele and children: Ray Anthony Steele, Jonnette Ann Kraft, Dawn Marie Nickell, John Russell Steele, and Damion Lee Steele; his seven grandchildren and his sister, Jean Mohri.

Jack was a fighter and fought until the end.

At his request, there will be no services. In lieu of flowers, Jack would appreciate donations to Fremont County Orchard of Hope, 111 Orchard Ave., Cañon City, CO 81212.

Arrangements handled through Wilson Funeral Home.

I have never been embarrassed to say “my father is a car salesman”. Horse trading is a long and honored tradition, and my father just applied the same principles to cars that was once applied to horses. In more than 30 years of working the deal, I never met anyone who thought they hadn’t gotten a fair trade from him. Even after he was forced into retirement by his battle with cancer, he could still be found sizing up, buying and selling cars and trucks in his spare time.

A good portion of the population in Leoti probably remembers him as Hyland Steele’s only son, Jack who inherited the service station that Hyland built. A volunteer fireman and occasional fire chief, my father was active in that small community in ways that would put most activists to shame in this day and age.

John Hyland Steele, Jr. was born in Wichita Falls, Texas. My gramma (Dorothy. From Kansas) when talking about those times, remarked “if he’d have waited another hour, he’d have been born in Oklahoma.” that was the life of people who worked the oil fields in the 1930’s. It wasn’t long, though, before they settled in Leoti, and that small town remained home for three generations of Steeles.

I remember fondly, riding the tractor with my Uncles and my Grandfather, working the farms that belonged to friends and relatives. I earned my first wages working in the service station, and my second job was in the fields, clearing weeds from around crops too sensitive to be mechanically maintained.

What I will remember most about my father though, is his love of fishing and hunting. Long stretches of the summer season would be spent washing lures in Swanson Lake near Trenton, Nebraska. Winter weekends were to be spent in Twin Buttes, Colorado hunting Canada geese; or quail, pheasant, deer and elk when in season. Fishing, more than anything else, defined the good times that I remember from childhood.

His health in his later years was so poor that I can’t even begin to understand how he managed to drag himself through each day. But he did it for years. He fought his cancer tooth and nail till the end, and survived far longer with it and its after effects than any of the MD’s thought he could. He breathed his last with his youngest adoptive son (as I was also adopted) by his side.

We miss you already, dad.

Courtesy Cindy Crays

Join the world’s largest family tree

The obituary we paid for in the Canon City Daily Record never made it into any online databases because they didn’t have a partnership with an online database (neither did Leoti) in 2009. The current owners of the paper are not interested in making good on payments made to the prior owners, and are only interested in getting me to give them money to do the job I thought we already paid for. Consequently the only place I can currently (3/31/2018) find my father referenced is on this blog, and on Tributes.com which just happens to reference my blog as the source. I will update the broken link to the official obit if the physical papers in either Leoti or Canon City are ever scanned and uploaded to the internet. 

Seen a good film lately?

Well, I have. And I’ve been hanging out at Flixster rating those films. Now, the wife and I seem to be engaged in a ratings competition. She’ll eventually beat me because she has actually seen more films than I have. In the meantime, I have more free time than she has, so the total number of ratings seems to be going to me.

At just under 1300 films rated that I can reasonably state “I’ve seen that”, I can’t think of a single film that’s missing (and yet I just changed the number from 1100 to 1300. Two hundred films that I went, “Oh yeah, that one!” Either the senior moments are increasing, or the films just aren’t that memorable, I guess) On the other hand, She’s rated a few hundred films less than I have, has a list of films shes seen that tops out at over 1500, and is complaining that a large section of films that she remembers seeing aren’t listed on the site.

…and here I thought I’d spent way too much time in front of a movie screen, myself. My hats off to you babe.


When I first started building a list of films that I’d seen over at IMDB, one of my co-workers was incredulous that I could have wasted that much money on watching movies. At the time the list was around 600 films, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was composed of just those films I remembered seeing well enough that I went looking for them. It didn’t even begin to address the even larger number of films that I watched while half asleep in front of the boob tube at home; or had seen in a theater but didn’t remember because I was more interested in my date than the movie.

Part of the reason that the Wife has seen more films than I have can be credited to the fact that she had a movie theater in her hometown, while I had to travel at least a half hour to the next town in Kansas (that would have been the thriving metropolis of Tribune, Kansas; for any of you who care) in order to watch a film that wasn’t “edited for television” .

[Edited for Television. Even today those words are enough to make me turn the TV off and go find the real version of a film. I will never understand the need to take a film that really isn’t made for children, and then attempt to make it safe for children by removing all the sex, some of the violence (and most ludicrously) a specific set of “bad words” from a film.

George Carlin said it best, there aren’t any bad words; and the unintended consequences of removing the “objectionable material” from the film is generally to make the antagonist in the film appear less objectionable. The Terminator doesn’t empty entire clips into already dead bodies, or mow down entire bars full of people in order to take out his target, thereby making his ruthless pursuit of a specific goal, the death of Sarah Conner, almost acceptable, in the edited for TV version of the film. And 48 hours becomes a spoof of itself as the dialog becomes not just juvenile, but truly lame, and the violence in the film becomes totally inconsequential.

Why more directors don’t put their feet down and insist on not allowing chances to their product by middlemen is beyond me. I’m sure it’s a contractual thing, but I think I’d insist on modifying those contracts. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to see the modified versions of my films for the first time, and falsely believe that was the way I intended it to be seen.

Don’t even get me started on Pan and Scan versus Widescreen. Just don’t go there]
There were only two channels on the TV anyway, both fuzzy, and neither of them was PBS. What about cable, I here you say? Cable was unheard of until the year we moved away, and even then we couldn’t afford to pay for it. The cable guy would occasionally be invited over for dinner, and we would mysteriously have more channels to watch on the TV that night, but they would just as mysteriously be gone the next day.

There had been theaters in Leoti (my hometown till the age of 14) at some point in the past. My Grandfather, who had one of the longest running businesses in town, would point out the buildings that had been constructed as theaters originally, but had been converted to some other use after the newness of theater going wore off. One of them was a block away from my house, but it had been turned into an IGA grocery by the time I rolled around town on my bike (did my only bit of shoplifting, ever, there. Mom made me take the gum back and apologize) and it had burned down by the time I left there (one in a series of mysterious fires in businesses owned by the same businessman. He was cordially invited to leave town, if I remember correctly) It would have been cool to be able to walk down the street and see a movie. But it didn’t happen. Instead, it was 30 minutes to Tribune, or we could have driven to Garden City (an hour away) and watched a movie there. They even had a zoo. So film watching wasn’t something I got to do a lot of until we moved away from rural Kansas.

Because I saw so few films, most of them were memorable though. I couldn’t sit through the Poseidon Adventure the first time I saw it (I was 9) and spent a good portion of the film sitting out on the curb waiting for my older brother to come back out with his date and take us all back home (we ran out of gas that time, I think. I remember sitting in the back of the car waiting for them to get back with the gasoline) One of my most vivid memories. I missed the first Star Wars film, but watched the first Star Trek film, with a date (so much for trekkies being unable to get dates, by the way) in the same theater that I watched several films from my childhood, the State Theater in downtown Garden City. I managed to catch the first and Second Star Wars films (Empire Strikes Back remains my favorite to this day. I made the mistake of reading Lucas’ own novelization of the first Star Wars script. The movie was a bit of a let down after that) back to back at the brand new Twin Theater (two screens? who has heard of such a thing?) also in Garden.

[I wonder if the owners of such grand old movie houses as the State would have imagined that they would soon be put out of business by the smaller screen multiplexes that appeared over the next decade or so. The only theater listed for Garden City these days is a 9 screen multiplex on the outskirts of town.]

Drive-in theaters. There was one just down the street from our house in Garden City. I used to drive my dates there while I was in High School. I don’t recall a single film I saw there specifically, and don’t ask me why that was. I actually passed a drive-in a months back, while on a road trip from Oklahoma. I had thought them as dead as the downtown single screen movie houses. Or at least they were dead until Alamo Drafthouse came into existence.

I have saved most of the ticket stubs from the movies (and concerts) I’ve seen. I don’t even remember when or why I started doing it, but it has turned into a rather large collection of torn paper. The thing I like least about Alamo Drafthouse is their heat sensitive paper ticket stubs that fade inside of a week. Pointless to save any of those.

The point of this long and rambling post? I love movies, I guess. But it’s a bit more than that, too. I love going to the movies. Finding just the right seat. Getting the right supplements for the film (will I need alcohol, or not?) bringing the right group of people along to enjoy the film with me. When everything clicks, it’s just a joyful experience. Watching movies at home, even with pay-per-view and DVD movies, doesn’t even compare with the real movie house experience.