Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Best Questions From A Week Of Banned Books Week Presentations

Q.  If you know your books are going to get banned, why do you write them?

A.  Because I know they’re going to get banned.  Only kidding.  I never write a       book with the idea of getting it banned, but I also never write a book with the idea of not getting it banned.  I tell the story the best way I can and let the chips fall.

Q.  What do you say to people who want your books banned?

A.  “Shut up.”  (That’s my attempt at banning the banners.)  When that doesn’t work, I tell them I was told from early childhood on that America is a free country.  I was told that by my conservative father who had just come back from a war against this German dude who thought mind control was the best way to deal with the teeming masses.

Q.  What are the biggest reasons people want your books banned?

A.  1) Use of “bad language.”  2) Inclusion of a LGBT character portrayed in a positive light.  (it’s okay to include such a character if she or he is a freeway sniper or a serial killer…or maybe a cannibal.)  3) Sexual content of any type (because we know teenagers never think about, or engage in, sex.)  4) Characters who challenge authority (because we all know those in authority always know best).  5) Content that undermines “Christian Values” or pokes fun at Christian doctrine (because everyone knows Jesus couldn’t take a joke).  6) Content that focuses on racism and our society’s general acceptance of it, as long as it’s not called that.  On rare occasions the politically correct left weighs in, demanding the removal of language that is racially sensitive (represented by those who think the so-called “N” word should be removed from Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  In my books, racists use racist language). 
I’m sure I’ve heard other rationale for book banning but what I’ve given you covers about 98 percent of it.

Q.  You’ve been speaking out against censorship for a long time and you seem pretty practiced at it.  Have there been times when you walked away thinking you changed the minds of your opposition?

A.  No.  Most often if they come to hear me, they come with a philosophy and a purpose.  They can’t afford to break their solidarity.    I’m as locked into my view as they are to theirs, so the “discussion” is pretty much wasted time, though it can get pretty hot pretty fast, so I guess it’s better than bad TV.  Actually, minds get changed when kids speak up.  Because so often adolescents and adults don’t communicate on more than an “as needed” basis, adults often forget the reasoning power and the passion of those kids.  The rational brain of the adolescent isn’t fully developed, to be sure, but it isn’t fully undeveloped either.  A number of years ago I happened to be within short driving distance of a school district in which my book Whale Talk and Walter Dean Myers’ fabulous Fallen Angels were being challenged.  Fallen Angels is about a Harlem teenager gone to war in Vietnam in the late sixties, told in the realistic language you might expect.  After a particularly long and fruitless discussion among combative adults during which NO minds were changed, a high school senior stepped to the microphone.  He informed the board that he was a 3.8 student who had never received a grade lower than an A in his English classes.  He had been offered both academic and athletic scholarships to several well-known universities, but intended to join the armed forces.  “This time next year,” he said, “I won’t be at one of those universities.  I’ll be in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Are you telling me that if I go there to fight for my country, then come home to write about it – in a true way, like Mr. Myers did – you’re going to ban me right here in my own school?”  The members of the board sat way back in their chairs.  Had that young man been allowed to speak first, we’d have all been home watching Monday Night Football by then.  The most powerful voices trumpeting the First Amendment come from those from whom the material is meant to be kept.

Q.  Are there any books you think should be banned?

A.  No.

Q.  So you believe all books are “worthy”?

A.  Kurt Vonnegut once said something close to, “The problem with standing up against censorship is some of the shit you have to stand up FOR.”  Believing in freedom of expression does not mean you believe all expression has the same value.  Here’s all you need to know.  If one book gets in the crosshairs (to use a Sarah Palin metaphor) all books are in the crosshairs.  This isn’t about evaluating books.  It’s about freedom to choose, plain and simple.

Q.  What about child pornography?

A.  Child pornography is illegal.

Q.  Where do you get your ideas?
A.  Pocatello, Idaho.

Q.  You said you are sixty-eight years old.  You don’t look a day over forty.  In your travels around the country, how do you go about fending off the romantic advances of your most ardent fans?

A.  George Clooney and I have talked a lot about this.  Neither of us has come up with a satisfactory strategy.

Q.  Are any of these questions made-up?
A.  All questions are made up.

Q.  Okay, I get that, but are any of these questions made up by you.

A.  Well, maybe one…

Monday, September 15, 2014

More on Adrian


I feel compelled to add to what I posted yesterday about Adrian Peterson’s “discipline” techniques.  Somewhere in that post – and it should be just below – I said I thought there was some chance that Peterson was one of those people who might do better, once they knew better.  At the time I hadn’t seen the pictures or heard the accounts of the damage inflicted, or heard his son’s utterances about having leaves stuffed in his mouth and about being afraid to tell what happened for fear of it happening again.  I had also not heard Adrian Peterson say “I am not a child abuser.  I feel bad.”

First off, Adrian, lots of child abusers feel bad.  Child abuse isn’t about how you felt.  It’s about what you did.  What you might have said was, “I am a child abuser.  I feel bad and I will do whatever I have to do to become NOT a child abuser, including making a promise to the God I point to before every game that I will never lay a hand, or a weapon, on a child again.  Ever.” 

Again, I don’t care what the National Football League or the Minnesota Vikings do with Adrian Peterson.  I’m sure that down the line they have enough money to pay enough P.R. people to make this look very different than it was.  For my money, I’ll never take Adrian on my fantasy football team and I’ll never watch another Minnesota Viking game in which he participates.  Believe me, that means dick to the Vikings or to Adrian Peterson but as Gandhi said, “There is so very little we can do and it is so important that we do it.”

Adrian Peterson didn’t “discipline” his child.  Adrian Peterson tortured his child, and ESPN and the rest of the mainstream media need to call it by its name.  If these exact measures were taken on a kidnapped American or an American prisoner of war, it would be decried as torture.  If our government were to take same measures against an “enemy combatant,” they’d go off-shore to do it. 

The dictionary definition of “spank” is “to slap or smack with the open hand, especially on the buttocks.”  You don’t spank a person with a stick.

Charles Barkley said on a pre-game show yesterday, that’s how black folks in the south “discipline” and by these standards every black parent in the south would be in prison.  I’m a big fan of Barkley and I’ll defer to him any time on the actions of black folks, even though I know southern black people who are absolutely appalled at Adrian Peterson’s behavior.  Best I let THEM take Charles on.  But this isn’t a racial thing.  Barkley needs to defer to me on the actions of white folks.  I grew up in rural, lily-white Idaho and this shit was all over the place.  I ran child abuse and anger management groups for twenty years in Eastern Washington and those groups were ninety five percent white and we had waiting lists.  Adrian Peterson may have learned his techniques from a mean black dad, but I can match mean white dads, dad for dad, with anyone who wants to take the challenge.

In his first public statement, Peterson said, among other things, “I’m not a perfect parent.”  Who in the WORLD thinks we’re talking about perfection here?  How about we take that word out of the conversation.

Adrian Peterson says he’s a Christian.  I wonder, if in his WILDEST imagination he can picture Jesus bruising an cutting a four year old child with a stick. 

In case Adrian might consider advice from another black football player who came up hard – a Hall-of-Famer – I give him Cris Carter.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Whacking On Your Children

Whacking On Your Children
Man, the National Football League can’t catch a break.  First Ray Rice punches out his fiancé, followed by two more players with domestic violence cases pending and another benched until his case is adjudicated.   And now Adrian Peterson, an even bigger stud running back than Rice, gets hauled in on child abuse charges for “spanking” his kid with a switch. Geez, you’d think these guys run around getting hit in the head all day.

Running our debate about violence toward other human beings through the National Football League is a little like commissioning Fox So-Called News to lead a national debate on fact-finding, and anyway, it’s a mistake to enact laws or base our judgments on high profile cases.  Keeping Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice et al off the football field will do little to stem the problem of family violence in this culture.  In fact, other than the matter of public visibility, it’s no different than demanding an Idaho lumberjack not go back into the woods or a West Virginia coal minor not go back underground if they’re involved in a domestic violence situation.

But the Peterson situation has ignited an old debate about whether or not it’s okay to hit small children, and by small children, I mean anyone smaller than the person doing the hitting.  Texas, where Peterson is from, and many other states have laws that draw a very thin line between physical punishment and abuse; so thin that for some it’s invisible.  BUT IT’S CRAZY THAT WE’RE EVEN HAVING THIS DEBATE.  Discipline and hitting are not the same thing.  Peterson’s childhood coach said Peterson has told him stories of his father being a “firm disciplinarian.”  His lawyer says he was parenting the way he was parented.  One great failing of this culture is how cavalier we are about misnaming things.  What his coach should have said is that Peterson’s dad hit him. 

Discipline is not hitting, and fear is not respect and until we understand that as a culture, we’re not going to get it about disciplining our children.  We hit them not for their own good, but because we’re mad and frustrated and don’t know what to do, so we revert to what is familiar.  What we DON’T seem to know at that juncture, is anything about child development.  You can be a firm disciplinarian without laying a hand on a kid, and in so-doing give yourself a better chance of an open relationship with them as they grow, one where you can have actual meaningful conversations, during which they learn through interaction with you why you want them to behave as you do.  There are things you can take away and let them earn back; toys, privileges; later on, drivers’ licenses.  They learn empowerment.  I can fix what I broke.  If they act the way you want them to act they can regain what they lost behaving as they did in the first place.  It lets you be proud of them, and them to feel that pride.  It establishes the value of your approval. 

And it lets them learn in a safe environment.

When you hit a small child you’re telling that child that the person who is supposed to protect them from harm, will, in fact, inflict that harm.  Because that is not your intention, does not stop it from being so, IN THE EYES OF THE CHILD. 

In my experience the Adrian Peterson’s of the world have a  much better chance of making changes.  As flimsy as his attorney’s declarations sound, it appears he really MAY BE a product of his environment and there are a significant number of people who, when they know better, do better. 

There are many credible studies showing that punishment, particularly physical punishment, has the least efficacy as a parenting tool.  It stops the behavior quickly but has almost no lasting power and a lot of downside in terms of relationship.  There are no studies, unless done by belt companies or the makers of wooden spoons, that depict physical punishment in a more positive light than the use of strong boundaries through relationship.  The statement, “My old man beat MY ass and I guess I turned out okay,” is the one I’ve heard uttered most often in anger management and child abuse groups.  Go figure.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Piling On

Piling On

Why should I be the only guy in the country without an opinion on Ray Rice KO-ing his fiancé in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino?  I shouldn’t.

I’m happy to see the outrage at Ray’s treatment of his wife-to-be but it’s a little like a whole bunch of people waking up and saying, “Did you hear we have a problem in this country with cancer? Really pisses me off.”

Look, I don’t care if Ray Rice ever plays another down of football - he killed me last year in my Fantasy Football league anyway.  And I’m okay with his becoming the latest iconic representation for entitled bad guys hurting weaker folk; anytime an epidemic that has existed under our noses for hundreds of years is exposed, I’m for it.  But how Ray Rice is punished means dick, if you’ll excuse the expression.  It means dick if you won’t excuse the expression.  In fact, focusing on it may hurt more than it helps.

Serious righteousness abounds right now.  Sports pundits and athletes alike are decrying Rice’s actions from the hill tops.  Keith Olbermann called for the resignation or ouster of everyone from the Commissioner of the National Football League down to the guy who washes towels for the Baltimore Ravens – turn them all into Joe Paterno.  Keith and I are on the same page ninety-nine percent of the time, and his point is solid – a whole bunch of people knew more than they admitted, earlier than they admitted, so there is plenty of accountability to go around.

But maybe some of that accountability lands on US.  Citizens.  Voters.  See, we get loud and righteous and now we’ve made our stand and we can sit back and wait for the next big thing.  And women and children keep getting hurt or killed and a whole bunch of abusers are glad they weren’t the ones to get caught, and most of them tell themselves they aren’t going to act that way any more. They say what Ray Rice said: That’s not who I am as a man. 

Only it is.

And because they’re not famous and because CNN doesn’t care if they get caught on camera in an elevator, and because they have become experts at finding women who, like Ray Rice’s new wife, will keep coming back, and because this Ray Rice thing has a shelf life of about ten days, in the long run nothing changes.

But we all feel better because Ray Rice won’t get to play football anymore.  We like punishment.

Domestic violence isn’t bad only because women and children are its targets.  It’s bad because of the insidious way it keeps itself alive, by showing large numbers in each new generation that physical might trumps all, that a woman is defined largely by her relationship to her man, that love and intensity are the same thing (love hurts), that what goes on inside a relationship is nobody’s business until it’s so ugly the rest of us can’t turn away, which I guess means it gets caught on camera.

On a scale of one-to-ten Ray’s knock-out punch wasn’t a ten.  It was a good shot, probably at least a seven, but in my twenty-plus years working with abuse families, I’ve seen worse.  We don’t need to pay attention to the sensational incident.  We need to pay attention to the epidemic.

And make no mistake, this domestic violence thing is a dance - and don’t get cranked up to accuse me of blaming the victim.  If you’re a woman and you get hit by the man you think you love – or any man for that matter - you’re a victim and it’s his fault.  It’s the fault of the person leading the assault, and in treatment I NEVER let a man pull the She-Knows-What-Pisses-Me-Off card; but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “He wouldn’t get that mad if he didn’t love me.”  So what you do NEXT, my dear victim, is 100 percent up to you.  I know a whole bunch of smart, powerful, self-possessed women who are disgusted beyond repair by Ray Rice’s wife.  She wasn’t his wife, he knocked her out and now she is his wife. 

There may be extenuating circumstances; there usually are.  I don’t know what will happen with the Rices and I don’t care.  What I do know is that most of the people locked in that dance will dance until they get too old to keep up that kind of intensity, or until somebody gets seriously injured or killed.  Some, after an average of seven returns, will break up.  What else I know is that children brought up in the fog of violence learn from what they see, and behave in accordance with what they learn, and that’s why this epidemic seems genetic. 

So your righteousness is lost on me if it’s focused on Ray Rice.  Be righteous with the no-new-taxes crowd who think it isn’t the business of our local, state and federal governments to fund intensive programs that offer real help to families and couples in trouble.  Your righteousness means dick if it doesn’t spill over into public policy.

Monday, September 8, 2014

                                                             I HAVE A DREAM...

Or at least I had a dream. In that dream, each person's afterlife reflects what the deceased believed when he or she was alive. For a certain kind of Christian, that means peace, kindness, streets paved with gold, eternal salvation and St. Peter at the gate, calling thumbs up or thumbs down. Now we all know St. Pete wasn’t the brightest bulb in the 12-pac, but he was loyal and decent and certainly a true believer; which made him a good pick to stand at the gate.

In my dream, Peter stands next to a long golden lever, which, when pulled, opens a trap door leading straight to Hell. Those wishing to pass through the Gates to Heaven, must stand on that trap door while they make their case. Should the good saint pull that lever there is a loud KER-CHUCK! followed by the sudden disappearance of said heavenly applicant.

This is where the dream gets good.

Peter: You look forlorn.
Applicant: My daughter… has such a hard life…
Peter: (places a hand on applicant’s shoulder) Tell me.
Applicant: (Deep breath) When she was nine, I took her to a shooting range…
Peter: (Gripping the lever) Yes…
Applicant: …to learn to shoot an Uzi…

2nd Applicant: I ran a shooting range.
Peter: (Moving hand toward the golden lever) Uh-huh…
2nd Applicant: During our 2 for 1 children’s special…

3rd Applicant: Good morning St. Peter, my name is Ted Nugent…

4th Applicant: Good morning St. Peter. My name is Joe. I was a plumber, only not really…

Beelzebub: Welcome gentlemen. (Unrolls a fiery scroll) I see you’re all scheduled for eternity in the Wayne LaPierre Suites. (Smiles) Only a certain unique kind of human has an entire section of Hell named for them. At any rate, we’ve packed you each a lunch in your own special Charleton Heston asbestos lunch bucket…you have a long trip…it’s MUCH further down. Hurry now, or you’ll miss the first of the infinite screenings of “The Dark Knight Rises.” (Smiles, raises his eyebrows) Spoiler alert: you never see the final credits.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

You Go, Robin Williams

In light of Robin Williams’ heartbreaking early exit, I’ve been asked to repost a blog I wrote just after Christmas of last year when author Ned Vizzini (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) ended what promised to be a spectacular career with that irreversible decision that leaves the rest of us asking questions we end up answering ourselves.  It’s posted below.

Most of the responses I read to Robin Williams’ death were simply of sorrow, of missing and remembering.  A colossal talent was there, then gone.  Millions of us who never knew him took it personally, I think, because of the zany intimacy of his gift.  The guy could say ANYTHING.  And we’d let him say anything because the genius of his comedy was to show us the edges, and our laughter was of astonished recognition.  We appreciate voices of intimate genius because they help define us.  Now he’s gone and we just miss him.

But then the Todd Bridges begin to show themselves, just as they did after Ned Vizzini’s death.  Suicide is selfish.  It’s the coward’s way out, the EASY way.  Life is tough, suck it up.  Life is sacred.  Turn to God.  Well sorry, Todd, but that’s the EASY answer.  The lazy one.  The one that turns a complex situation simple so we don’t have to think about it any more.

If selfish were all bad, I guess we’d all be bad.  No one but Robin knew the cost of elevating us the way he did, or of elevating himself with our responses; all while trying to manage the roller coaster ride of that enormous talent.  Like all of us, only he knew how deep; only he knew how dark.  The nature of depression is that we can’t see out of it.  Medication helps some.  Anger helps some.  Connection helps some. 

Some finally say, enough.

I don’t know what happens next.  Maybe it’s worms and maybe it’s consciousness moving at the speed of imagination, unencumbered by its former container. 

In MY imagination I see Robin out there smiling, throwing an arm over Ned Vizzini’s shoulder: “So these two nuns decide to off themselves…”

Godspeed Ned Vizzini
(New Years – 2014)
Coming into the new year it’s hard not to think of the recent suicide of the talented and tortured YA author, Ned Vizzini, and the emptiness his loved ones must feel.  Little has been left unsaid by my (and his) gracious and articulate colleagues and I am tempted to bow my head and wish his soul a silent Godspeed as it rockets into the universe.  But some of the public responses to his death compel me to add some thoughts.

The folks who suffer the same crushing depression from which Ned must have suffered, understand, and their responses seem the most eye-opening and revealing.  The responses that bother me are those calling him selfish for leaving a young wife and son without a husband and father, or for committing the act from the roof of his parents’ house or simply for committing the sin of taking an early exit.

My years as a therapist working with abuse and neglect families taught me at least one important lesson for my own life.  Never judge until you can see through the eyes of that person you are judging, and then…never judge.  There but for the grace of chance go any of us.  When I was able to help clients who were experiencing what Ned probably experienced – and there were many times I could not – I could only tether myself to all in my life that was good and leap into the abyss with them– provide a witness – secure in the belief that, whether or not we could find a way to their light, my tether would hold.  It always did.

I was lucky.

There are those who believe life is sacred, that suicide is a sin.  There are those who call it a selfish act that doesn’t take into account the pain of those left behind.

But those responses say far more about the responders than they say about Ned Vizzini.  As much as we’d like to think life is sacred, there’s not a lot of evidence for that.  The universe is maddeningly casual giving and taking it.  Nothing about life is sacred until we make it so.  Each of us.  Our own individual lives.  And sometimes from inside that awful blackness it simply isn’t possible.

Rather than think Ned Vizzini stole from his wife, a husband or from his child, a father, I prefer to consider his bravery.  In the face of that dreadful darkness, he brought love to a woman and life to a child for as long as he could.  He wrote stories that allowed many who shared in that paralyzing experience to find connection, and so feel less alone; stories in which his characters found strength he ultimately could not find.

There are fates worse than death.

I didn’t know Ned.  I don’t know if he could have been saved.  I do feel cheated.  When I read It’s Kind of a Funny Story and when I saw the movie, I knew a powerful, embracing voice had emerged in our profession and I wanted more.

But he stayed as long as he could.

So Godspeed, Ned Vizzini.  Your life has been proven sacred by your works.  We know more now than we did before you put words to paper and some of us will use that knowledge to reach back to ease the pain of those who walk in your shoes.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Biopsy Biography II - The Results

The Results

First let me say, this turns out okay.

I shouldn’t have posted my biopsilogical odyssey before I posted a result.  It wasn’t my intention to leave people hanging, though you have to admit, a good suspense story…

When I called for the results – and I admit, I put it off – the office manager told me I needed to come in…they found “a little bit of cancer.” 

I’m the best guy I know to come onto a grisly auto accident or deal with a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence or have to put an animal down, because I have a delayed reaction to trauma.  I separate almost instantly so I can see what can be done, then fold later.  But I do fold.

There was about a twenty-four hour period between the time I got the information over the phone and the time I sat down with the doctor.  I had played around with the possibilities for almost a week following my biopsy, but for that last twenty four hours I had to sit with the WORD. 

I went to the pool and worked out, feeling maybe as strong as I had in a long time, but carrying the irony that this might be stronger than I would feel, like, ever again.  I did what we all do, I think: promised to use my time better, be more embracing of people who irritate me, remember we’re all in this together and slap the Christian Right harder for being so insensitive as to keep wounded kids from reading their truths in our works because they don’t like the word “fuck”, even though that’s not a biblically barred word.

My urologist, whom I earlier characterized unfairly in my quest for comedy (he didn’t REALLY say I wasn’t a Stotan; it was just too good a line to pass up) showed me two areas of my prostate that contained a small number of cells.  He affirmed some things of which I was already aware: that almost any man who lives long enough will encounter this situation, that about fifty percent need no treatment, and that we often over-treat it because of irrational fear of that WORD.  That said, I’m not off the hook.  I’ll be on an “active surveillance” program that gets me into the doc every three months for a blood draw, and will get me another biopsy within the next year to be sure we’ve got an eye on those malevolent little buggers, and can get a leg up on them should they try anything funny. 

Truth is, I’ve been giving people bad news long enough that I know how to take some, and because of my life as a close observer of human mal- and mis-treatment, feel incredibly fortunate not to have received more of that bad news than I administered.

Some good things - even more than a renewed appreciation of my existence - have come of this.  Your responses on Facebook have told me, 1) either the doc messed up with my anesthetics or my body is extraordinarily resistant to whatever they used, and when I sign up for that second biopsy I’ll make mention of that, and 2) I have a delightful connection with a vastly diverse collection of generous people.  For that I thank you.

In the name of full disclosure I need to say one more thing.  Though I appreciate the number of people praying for me because that is how you show your love and regard – and I DO appreciate it - I don’t receive those prayers because if I believed in, and loved, a God who would hear those prayers and save me, I’d have to hate a God who would turn his back on those who prayed for my sister, who died miserably nearly two years ago of pancreatic cancer, and for my old high school quarterback who died almost exactly a year later of the same.  I would argue that each was a far more graceful and deserving human than I.  Instead, I am enormously grateful to a universe that embraces us enough to let randomness rule.  It makes life exciting and terrifying and unpredictable, and sets a course on which each of us has influence over whether we soar or crash.  It is a universe that embraces the ghastly along with the glorious. 

Nothing exists without its opposite.

Again, I apologize for writing that original piece as a cliff-hanger.

Too late to make a long story short, but bottom line, there’s a pretty good chance that my prostate won’t leave me prostrate.