Saturday, January 26, 2013

Breaking Through The Haze

      Jesus lived in a country which was occupied by a foreign power – a brutal foreign power. If you want to know what a stern, cruel, authoritative government looks like, check out the Roman Empire. Sure, the Romans advanced civilization in a myriad of ways, but; by and large, they weren't very nice.
      It seems strange then that Jesus, who was in a sense the ultimate revolutionary, never spoke out against the Roman occupation of Israel. Stranger still that Jesus never spoke out against slavery or the prejudice that was prevalent in Israel at the time.
      It isn't until we look at Jesus' message that we understand why so many wrongs went unmentioned. Jesus, in the end, focused on two basic things: loving God and loving one's neighbor as oneself. Once we understand that Jesus saw everyone as everyone else's neighbor, it becomes clear that all else was periphery.
      Today, the Roman Empire is remembered in the worlds of history, entertainment, tourism...and little else. Jesus, however, is prevalent everywhere – even in our own very secular culture. Just a cursory glance at some of the people we most admire today can give us some indication.
      Martin Luther King, for instance, was not only influenced by Jesus' teachings, he was a Christian cleric. Mother Teresa, hero of the poor and suffering, gave up a life of ease because she believed Jesus wanted her to serve others. Need more proof that Jesus is still relevant? Just imagine the US economy without the yearly Christmas rush
      Still, it's safe to say that Christianity is on the wane in Western Society. The power and popularity of Christianity has ebbed and flowed throughout the ages, of course, but this most recent state of affairs is worth noting. Simply put, people are now putting their faith in other things besides Jesus. An obvious question is, why?
      I would argue that we live in a culture which is completely consumed by current events. We may not be all that into the news, or even the world around us, but we are all painfully beholden to hot topics. And Jesus simply isn't a hot topic deity.
      If we study Jesus' teachings, we realize the focus is on the individual, not the culture of that individual. His teachings didn't address military occupation or slavery two thousand years ago. And they certainly don't speak to things like budget cuts and health insurance today. To me, this is all for the better, for the only way to improve the world is to do it one person at a time, not through sweeping legislation or a summer long concert series.
      Unfortunately, people are letting hot topics keep them away from a positive thing. The Catholic Church is against gay marriage, so the Church in its entirety is ignored. Evangelical ministers are charged with lewd behavior so the entire Evangelical movement is pushed by the wayside. Sometimes we need to ask if we ourselves are guilty of over-reacting.
      In truth, many, many crimes have been perpetrated by Christians. History is loaded with examples. Yet, as anyone who has studied the life of Stalin can attest, atheists, non-believers and those of other faiths have been, and continue to be, just as brutal.
      In the end, each of us is human, no matter what our individual belief system is. We're capable of good as well as evil. I myself like to think I at least try to be one of the good guys. And I think Jesus can help me be one.
      You think that's crazy? Fair enough, but it's what I believe. When things like church scandals and current events cloud my thoughts, I find that the heart of Jesus' teachings have a way of breaking though the haze.
      I'm not writing any of this down to beat my readers to a pulp with my beliefs, however. I simply feel the need to explain those beliefs in a world where cynicism and confusion seem to rule supreme. The nice thing about having your own blog is it offers you such opportunities.       

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Story Behind the Story

Writing stories can take a whole lot out of a guy.

So, my pals over at Linguistic Erosion published my short story, Dry Harvest today. This is quite a thrill for me, even though the story is only five paragraphs long. See, although it's brief, Dry Harvest took me over a full year to write. Why? Because it wasn't coming the way I wanted it to.

Many writing instructors tell you to plow through your uncertainty. If you find yourself stuck on a particular piece of creative writing, just get the damn thing done! Although I'm not here to refute such an assertion, I'm here to say I'm glad I waited until the time was right to be finished with this particular piece.

My writing process, after all, has a lot to do with letting the story tell itself. Sure, we all have ideas of how we like our work to be, but sometimes those ideas are all wrong. Dry Harvest came from my fascination with ambition. We're all ambitious to some extent and, by a certain age, we begin to question whether or not our individual ambitions have been satisfied. We may even begin to wonder if those ambitions can be satisfied anymore.

This theme of ambition was the foundation from which I attempted to build my story. By placing the tale in a unique venue, that of the cranberry harvest, I felt I could make it somewhat fascinating to the curious reader. Now, all I had to do was come up with a narrative. Problem was, nothing seemed to work.

At first I wanted the nameless main character to bump into an old girlfriend and her husband at a yearly cranberry festival. Then I believe I had the poor guy on a date, trying to make himself seem as respectful as possible to the girl he wanted to impress. Neither of these ideas; nor any other idea, for that matter, seemed the least bit effective.

In the end, I simply put the story away and went about writing other material. Dry Harvest stayed in my mind, though. It haunted me. It remained a project that was dormant, but not dead, a nagging reminder of what creative failure looked and felt like.

Then, one day this past autumn, I picked it up again. I had some free time while I was substitute teaching for a music instructor (how I qualified for that position when I can barely whistle is beyond me) and I found myself working the narrative once more.

This time, though, I kept it simple. I stuck to the theme, the limited action, the setting and the interior workings of the character. After a painful, protracted period of getting the words just so (we writers really do torture ourselves over such matters), Dry Harvest was finally completed to my satisfaction.

And now it's published. My stories rarely have conventional happy endings - but sometimes the stories behind those stories somehow manage to.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Truth About Bullying

Ever been bullied? I have and it sucks. Back when I was young (funny how you never think you'll utter those words - when you're young) bullying was accepted. If a kid was tormented in school, the teachers and staff weren't apt to feel sympathy for the victim. And they sure as hell weren't going to do anything to help.

Now, though, things have changed. After incidents like Columbine, where those who were bullied decided to become far worse than the bullies themselves, the powers that be decided bullying had to be stopped. It's always struck me that this was done more for the sake of social order than out of a sense or right and wrong, but no matter.

Today, the subject of bullying is all over the place, both in the media and throughout the halls of power. Even celebrities are out there doing their part (and we all know how informed and sincere they are). Problem is, the fight against bullying has become trendy, and once something becomes trendy, it tends to become shallow.

So here's some facts:

There are two types of bullies in this world: what I call Nazi Bullies and the equally harmful Subtle Bullies. Nazi Bullies are easy to pick out. They're the ones who openly go after those they perceive as weak. If you look like an easy target, your average bully of the Nazi variety is going to come after you in a big, loud way. This sort of bully, however, is apt to go too far. Like a real Nazi, he or she is likely to zero in on someone who in this scenario is the equivalent of Russia or the United States. Needless to say, a serious, well deserved ass-whipping of biblical proportions may very well be in the forecast.

The sneakier Subtle Bully, on the other hand, is far more underhanded. Your Subtle Bully is the one who starts off seeming reasonable. He's the guy at work who nicely asks if you left your coffee mug on the break room table. She's the one at the neighborhood gathering who casually requests you be a dear and get her another drink from the kitchen - even though the party isn't being held at your house.

Beware of these assholes. They're coming after you and at the end of the day will be just as ruthless as the Nazi Bully from middle school ever was. You'll soon find their casual requests becoming more frequent. Then, once they feel they've made you their bitch, they won't be so nice with the requests. They'll humiliate you in public, openly say cruel things and generally abuse the hell out of you until you're either dead or somehow out of their lives entirely.

Oh, and they'll always make you feel like you're in the wrong, so that you won't stand up to them. If you do decide to finally stand your ground, though, watch for the expression that comes over the Subtle Bully's face. It's one you've never seen before and it's scary. The true evil will come out at that moment and you'll be greeted with a set of eyes you thought you'd only see in Charles Manson's mugshot.

Standing up to these people is brutal, but it can be done. Just expect a fight. A long, seemingly (and quite possibly) endless war of attrition. Remember, the Subtle Bully is the one who pretends you're in the wrong. Expect those around you to hear what a bastard you've become. How you're no longer taking responsibility for your own bad behavior.

My suggestion is you stand your ground regardless of the consequences. If there's a Subtle Bully in your life who happens to be your boss, get away. Yes,  I said it. Get the hell out of there. Try to transfer to another branch of the company. If that doesn't work, take legal action. If that doesn't work...quit. You have no choice. Better to be unemployed than abused. Abused people tend to become abusers themselves, after all. You owe it to your family and to yourself to do what must be done.

Just two more things:

One: If you wish to take action against a bully in the workplace, make sure you have documented incidents where your antagonist has gone too far (don't worry - all bullies go to far at some point. Sometimes you just have to think long and hard in order to discover when and how). It's the only leg you'll have to stand on.

Two: If you wish to not be a victim in the first place, then don't be afraid to be an asshole. Tell the jerk in the office to report you if he thinks your coffee cup is a real problem on the break room table. He won't if he doesn't want to look like a total douche in front of his peers. As for the woman who nicely asked you to get her that drink? She can get it herself and she knows it. Don't be afraid to remind her of that fact - in public, if necessary.

A word of caution, though: make sure the person really is targeting you before you stand your ground. I usually wait until the individual in question makes a second, or even a third, move. When you find the same person making you uncomfortable for the third time with an awkward question or request, that person is probably a bully and you're probably his or her mark. Don't be afraid to look obnoxious. Better you come across as a slob who leaves his keys in someone else's personal space than to find you've become a victim.

Trust me on this.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mental Health

When I wrote about Joan of Arc I read three different translations of her trial transcripts in order to discern her actual voice. I also studied what kind of shoes people wore back then, how they planted flowers and what distinguished their homes from the houses of other eras.

When I wrote about the start of the American Revolution I studied the kinds of silverware people used in the colonies. I also studied how to load a musket, how to kill someone with a 18th century bayonet and how to make red bea balm taste like tea. 

When I wrote about the Battle of Hastings I studied how the Saxons said The Lord's Prayer, what sort of 
crops they grew, and how they buried their dead. I also studied what kind of haircuts Norman men generally had, as well as the importance of leading an army on horseback as opposed to on foot. 

Long story short: I like to do deep research when I'm working on a project. 

Thing is, though, I'm wondering lately if I'm going too far with my writing. Recently I've been studying a subject so obscure I've had to have the web pages I've been doing research from translated into English. What's more, I've been downloading things like the image of a hundred year old German postcard in order to get the proper perspective of the time and place I'm writing about. I want everything just right, after all.

Yet wanting everything just right, pushing yourself to the limit over and over again, isn't always good for you. It exhausts you, drains you and it takes away from other important aspects of life. God gives each of us unique abilities, but He also gives us the power to say enough is enough when necessary. 

In the end we creative types, if we have the least bit of passion, have to protect our mental health. Van Gogh cut off his ear. I like both my ears where they are. The whole tortured artist thing is glamorous until you're living it. Then it sucks. Besides, it ultimately takes away from time that could be spent in the act of creativity. 

Better to be productive, I say, than on a psychiatric couch.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Great Minds

The problem with being a know it all is, well, you think you know it all. For those of us who tend to find ourselves lacking in the "shut up and listen for once" department, however, there's good news - people are out there who can help set us straight. I'm not talking about those snarky cynics who point out our flaws in order to fulfill some sadistic craving, either. I'm talking about people with wisdom. Not intelligence. Wisdom.

I've had the pleasure to be around some extremely wise people lately. Some are exceptionally well educated and successful. Others, not so much. All of them, however, possess wisdom. One thing I've learned is that each became wise by acknowledging his or her own fallibility. By admitting they themselves were more or less clueless at the end of the day, they began growing as individuals.

In short: the wisest among us know they don't know much.

As someone who sometimes suffers from know it all syndrome I can't sing the praises of wise people enough. How can you pick out someone with wisdom? Look for humility. These people have screwed up in life as much as the rest of us (sometimes more so) and are willing to admit it. You'll realize right off the bat they don't think they're better than you.

They also like people. That can't be said for everyone walking the earth. Most of us only like some people, after all. Lastly, these individuals are always fighting their own flaws - and aren't afraid to admit it. The time they've spent on the battlefield of true self-improvement (as opposed to the shallow kind) has given them plenty of tricks of the trade - tricks they're willing to share with others.

It's good to search out people with these traits and to get to know them. They make good friends and are good teachers. In fact, they're better teachers than many of us who have spent a small fortune learning how to become certified educators. They also don't give out homework assignments.

That's always important.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On Tarantino And A Kennedy

Kind of a two-posts-in-one day, since I've got two things on my mind and, hey, I don't really have many rules to follow at a site called Sean's Blog. First off, I saw Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained last night. It's a hell of a flick, no matter which way you slice it. While there certainly is a lot of fake blood, as well as enough utterances of the n-word to combust the heads of the more politically correct among us, it's a movie worth a serious look.

Now, there's no doubt this film is violent. I mean  it's dripping in blood. It's fun, though. I wouldn't be honest if I wasn't forthright about it. Also worth mentioning is the fact that human depravity is shown in its proper light and never glorified, glossed over or made light of. As for all the racial slurs - the flick is about a black hero in the Antebellum South. What do you expect?

Like all of Tarantino's flilms, there's a lot more to Django Unchained than meets the eye. Characters morph into something other than what they started off as. Basic morality is ignored, then sacrificed for. In the end, there's a reason Tarantino's called an artist. His movies travel to a lot more levels than many people think. If you can take the violence and language without enduring the kind of serious damage I believe some unfortunates can receive from certain movies, Tarantino's stuff is well worth checking out.  

And speaking of things well worth checking out...

Patrick Kennedy was on The O'Reilly Factor yesterday. Truth be told, I've never liked Mr. Kennedy because I've found him to be a spoiled, intoxicated poster child for bad behavior. 

Until Now.

Mr. Kennedy, who has a long and storied history of substance abuse, has engaged in a Twelve Step Program. And guess what? He's become a far more likable person. Sure, cynics may sneer, but the Patrick Kennedy I saw last night was humble, genuine and honest about his flaws. That's a far cry from the caricature I watched years ago on Hardball With Chris Matthews 

Of course, I could have been fooled, but I don't think so. This is a man - a Kennedy, no less - who has given up a political career to improve as a person. Again, cynics may sneer, and say Mr. Kennedy's life is all about politics. Perhaps that's true, but Mr. Kennedy certainly didn't seem to be running for office to me last night. Besides, I've never heard of a politician furthering his career by going on cable in order to discuss his personal flaws.

May God help him continue winning his fight.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Good News

Last year was tough. There's just no two ways about it. Could've been worse, sure, but man, it wasn't easy. I hope for this year to be better, but you never know. Still, I'm an optimist and shall remain one. I've got good reason to be optimistic right now, too. One of the top five management companies in Hollywood has asked to read my script, Hastings. It's big news.

None of this means I've hit the big time, however. They may think the script is garbage, after all. Worse yet, they may decide to never read my stuff again based on this single piece of writing. On the other hand they may love it. That won't guarantee a sale, but it will mean I'm that much closer. It will give my name some heat, as they say in the industry.

Either way, the news makes for a good day. Hearing from a top company tells you you're good enough to be in the game. That's important. It's all in God's Hands now, though. I'll just keep on writing.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A New Idea

If you're a writer, you know that getting a new idea is wonderful. You also know that getting a strong new idea is beyond wonderful. First off, it means you're going to be passionate, really passionate about the project. Passion leads to satisfaction. It can also lead to dollar signs if it becomes contagious on the page. 

Needless to say, I've got a strong new idea. The strongest in years. I can't wait to get to work. Even more telling, I can't wait to get this done and out there. Hemingway said it best when he pointed out that writers are always more passionate about the next thing they're going to write rather than what they're penning at the moment. 

Which is why it's important for writers to be productive, less they become wannabe writers. There's countless people out there who have great ideas they half-intend to someday put down on paper. Real writers write. Real writers finish what they start. They take a new idea and see it through until it's a finished product.
Therein lies the difference. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Here's a fact: shooting guns is fun. Just ask most of the celebrities who earnestly pled with Americans to push for gun control in a recently released video titled Demand A Plan To End Gun Violence. Truth is, the only time guns aren't fun is when they're being used to take lives. Unfortunately they've been used to take a lot of lives in this country lately. A lot of lives. This blog is not about the gun control argument, however. Nor is it about the horror that befell Newtown last month.

It's about appearances.

For another video has emerged, one titled Demand A Plan? Demand Celebrities Go F*ck Themselves. This particular piece is more or less the same as the original Demand video, except it adds clips of many of those same celebrities firing guns themselves in films and on television programs. It's a biting bit of work...and it makes the stars in question look stupid, disingenuous, or both. 

Although I appreciate the second video as a work of social commentary, I think most of the stars in the original video had sincere intentions. Thing is, these celebrities appeared to be prim and bloated with self importance. Perhaps if they had actually brought up  the fact that they employ guns in their own line of work, things would have come across differently. Unfortunately, they didn't. 

As it stands, the underlying message of Demand A Plan seems to be: we can use guns. You can't. We're celebrities. I doubt that was the desired effect for anyone involved.

The bottom line is we all have to be mindful of how we come across. Our intentions may be fantastic. Our ideas may be brilliant. But if we look bad while communicating those ideas, everything is for naught. In a sense, the celebrities in the Demand video are no different than we are. They sometimes act before they consider the consequences. Unlike those celebrities, though, most of us won't be mocked for our screw ups on YouTube. 

Who says big stars have it all?