Bring on the New Year

Swing
There can be no doubt that 2014 was a challenging year for me, but rather than dwell on the setbacks, I want to close out the year by thanking the people who went out of their way to make sure I had food, shelter, warmth, and support. My deepest heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you:

David and Martha Adams; Tracy Kinsler; Marsha Adams; Dagan and Sarah Smith; Dave Mattingly; Todd Wright; Nick Skelton; Lucas Munasque; Carla Williams; Karen Graves; Sandra Wicker; David Ramey; Heath Tatum; John Backer; Kristopher Sparks; Jessica Lay; Terry Rawlinson; Preston Smith; Jim Harrison; Ashley Franks; Melissa Pascua; Brittany Davis; Amy V.; Alicia Gardner; Mr. Spider Man; Nikki Cushman; Robin Blankenship; Peter Welmerink; Christopher Koeppel; Joshua Cantrell; Taylor Childress; Ellie Raine; Sky Woodard; Debbie and Shane Sheridan; Sean Taylor; Michelle Bivens; Aimee Kiefer; Tony Davidson; Reanna Berry; Eric Jude; Theresa Zimmer; Natalia Sayapina; Andi Judy; Matt Plunkett; Carolyn Petty; Aaron Wilmon; Frank Fradella; Georgia Jones; Marian Allen; Joy Ward; Tony Acree; Steven and Janet West; all the people who left anonymous donations to the fundraiser; Hilarie Smith; Jason Fishel; Floyd Brigdon; Dino Hicks; Nick Papworth; Jim Gillentine; Elizabeth Donald; Shon Medley; Susan Roddy; Selah Janel;  John F. Allen; RJ Sullivan; Chris Garrison; Steven Shrewsbury; Brady Allen; Philip Hopkins; and Stephen Zimmer (If I overlooked someone, please forgive me).

I don’t know where I would be right now without all of you, and I am truly blessed more than one man deserves. Here’s to a wonderful 2015.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

A Disneyland Dad’s Retort

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The other day, I read an article on The Huffington Post that condemned divorced dads for becoming the “fun” parent. According to the author, an “Uncle Dad” or “Disneyland Dad” is a father who 1) is preoccupied with his own needs over those of his children, 2) does not adhere to the “rules” of the mother’s house, 3) focuses on fun over discipline, and 4) in general does not take parenting seriously. Now, before I get into my rebuttal, I would like to make a couple of points clear. I have tremendous respect for single moms who have to shoulder the entire burden alone. My sister spent many years as one of them, and as an educator, I saw hundreds of examples of these women. Their dedication to their children is dazzling. This post is in no way directed towards them. Also, in every conceivable way, I am for equal rights and stand with women on issues of equality. No one should confuse this post with those issues because my umbrage is directed at the condemnation that article leveled at fathers like myself.

For my purposes here, I’m going to focus on a generic custody scenario in which the mother has primary custody and the father has every other weekend and one weekday evening on alternating weeks. Also, for the purposes of this post, let’s completely set aside which parent first wanted the divorce because I only want to focus on the father’s perspective as it relates to being the non-custodial parent. Also for the purposes of this post, I am focusing only on fathers who do regularly have their children during the court approved time. We all know that there are plenty of men who are fathers only in biological terms, and those men do not deserve consideration here.

For starters, the author of that article condemns fathers who are late to pick up their children. She does acknowledge that one of the excuses is being “tied up at work” but goes on dismiss this reason as a form of self absorption. Typically, the non-custodial parent pays child support to the custodial parent, and I will be glad to tell you from firsthand, intimate experience how financially crippling child support can be. Fathers who are current on their obligation do so to their own detriment, and that burden can be quite taxing. It’s not that we don’t want to provide for our children, but rather the simple arithmetic that after child support, health insurance, and taxes, we are often left with roughly half of our gross income. Therefore, we gladly jump at any opportunity for overtime or bonus pay, not because we are “self-absorbed” but because we need the money. So yeah, maybe we do run a little late from time to time because we are finishing up an important project on Friday afternoon.  And maybe also because we don’t want to drag work home on our weekends with the kids.

Speaking of self-absorption, that’s another condemnation the author makes, fathers who are preoccupied with their own needs. My ex-wife has accused me of this crap, most recently when I expressed resentment over not being able to afford desperately needed dental work. How dare I put my own needs ahead of my children’s? Never mind that work thing and how important a decent smile is for public image. I was the bad guy for thinking only of my own needs (I still haven’t been able to afford the dental work by the way). Never mind the thousands of little niceties I do without to keep that child support current. Never mind the oil changes I delay to pay for the tire patch, or the worn out shoes I keep wearing so I’m not late on the electric bill. No, I’m preoccupied with my own needs if I do anything good for myself or answer an important email while the kids are with me or text with my girlfriend during that time in an effort to keep that relationship nourished. There is an impossible standard set for the non-custodial parent, one that supposes our lives should exist in an extended limbo where we are available at all times for the whims of the custodial parent and our children. I’m sorry, but in the process of rebuilding our own lives, we have to carve out our own existence in those long periods of separation from our children. We are not on hold.

The author goes on to blame the non-custodial father if grades are not maintained because homework is not completed. Typically, during those alternating weekday evenings, the father gets two to three hours of actual time with the child. Is that when the child should be completing homework? Doesn’t that idea contradict the condemnation of the father for being “tied up at work”? If one is going to criticize fathers for not focusing solely on the children during every moment of their time together, doesn’t that same standard apply to the child paying attention to the father? As far as weekends go, do most children spend their Friday and Saturday nights at the mothers’ residences riveted on their studies? I worked in education for 16 years. I know firsthand that the vast majority of students, regardless of home life, will wait until the last possible minute to begin their homework. To shift this blame onto fathers for their 6-7 days of the month with the children is ludicrous.

Along those same lines, the author blames fathers for self-esteem issues the children develop. First and foremost, correlation does not equal causation. Just because the father might appear to be the “fun” parent (more on that in a moment) that does not mean that he is to blame for his children’s issues with self-image. The current paradigm of most school systems to create a false sense of confidence in children by lavishing them with positive reinforcement and avoiding negative at each step deserves as much blame for self-esteem issues as anything, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. Fathers get 6-7 days a month with their children. That means the mother has 22-24 days, depending on the month. In this time it’s not possible that mothers could be to blame for their children’s issues? Only the “Uncle Dad” is to blame? Seriously? That just seems like an easy pass for the parent who does spend more actual time influencing the children’s environment.

But you know what? That’s pretty much par for course with that article as it places zero blame on the mother for anything. Maybe the mother is “exhausted and worried” because she’s an overzealous control freak who wants to micromanage every second of her children’s lives. Maybe dad missed that parent teacher conference because mom never told him which night. Maybe the teenage children are disappointed with their father because the mother has spent ten years painting a picture of him as a worthless bum, and the teen hasn’t experienced enough of the real world yet to understand the sacrifices the father has had to make just to keep a roof over his head and gas in his car to get to work. Nope, according to this article, only the dad is to blame.

The last point I want to address is the notion of “Disneyland Dads” having no rules. I take quite a bit of personal offense to this one. For starters, no one has a right to tell me what rules I can or cannot set within my home. My rights as a father are that in my home, bed time is when I say, not when my ex-wife says. That’s part of being an ex. You lose the right to dictate what goes on in my house. I’ll use my discretion as what games or movies my children watch under my supervision. Mom doesn’t like it? Sorry. I don’t like having limited time with my kids, but that’s my reality. You don’t like the kids playing outdoors in the dirt? Tough. My kids will get to enjoy and experience nature. They are my children too, and in my home, on my time, we have two rules: 1) Be safe and 2) Be happy. When in doubt, consult rule #1. Mom doesn’t like that the kids have to readjust to her rules when they return to her home? Oh well. I don’t like missing birthdays and holidays and having things scheduled when I can’t be involved and missing out on countless firsts and onlys. Just because my rules don’t look like your rules that doesn’t mean I don’t love my children more than anything or don’t worry for their safety every moment they aren’t with me or am emotionally damaging them. It just means that I have my own way of handling things, and maybe mom can be a little more considerate of me if she wants me to be a little more considerate of her because, unlike the narrative that author tries to push, life is about give and take.

Are there crappy fathers out there? Of course. But there are also plenty of crappy mothers. To attempt to shift the blame completely onto one side is not only irresponsible, it also creates a divisive wedge that engenders resentment. By this author’s definition, I am a “Disneyland Dad” but I know too well that I have suffered and struggled and fought to remain a vibrant part of my sons’ lives. I’ve endured more hardships for the sake of my children than I would wish on anyone, and I would endure it all again as long as they are safe and happy. I will not allow anyone, regardless of their intentions, to disparage my role as a father just because it doesn’t coincide with their vision of what a dad should be. My rights as a person and as a parent are just as valid as anyone else’s, and if my children end up resenting me because I fell short of their needs, then I’ll live with those consequences. But I’ll be willing to bet that if you look a little farther out beyond just the teen years, you’ll find some adults who come to realize that the sorry old dads did a little more than they were ever credited with by resentful moms and family lawyers.

 

Why I Struggle With The Holidays

At Park
For the last six years, Christmas has been a looming black fog, an ominous two month event I must endure. From the moment Halloween decorations are replaced with Christmas ones, it begins as a sinking feeling in my gut. All the symbols that once meant so much and brought me so much joy, now serve as an extended reminder of everything my ex-wife stole from me seven years ago when she chose December 25 as the day to tell me she wanted a divorce. She and I both knew our marriage was over well before then, but the way she went about it, that level of a betrayal, left a deep scar that I get to relive every year.

The betrayal on that magnitude is what gets to me. While I may not have been the perfect husband, I never did anything to warrant such viciousness. I didn’t cheat, wasn’t abusive, didn’t spend all my free time with my friends, and didn’t drink or use drugs. I always held a job, usually two, provided to the best of my ability, spent quality time with my children, and sacrificed more than I can ever express to live up to my responsibilities. I had stood by her through years of fertility treatments and gave as much as I had to give to the marriage up until the last year or so. I freely admit that during the last year, I gave up and stopped trying to please her because I had grown to accept that nothing I could do would ever be enough.

I was in the floor with my sons, playing with their Christmas toys when she came out of the bedroom and told me that we needed to talk. It took her an hour of beating around the bush to get to the point; for a solid hour she hemmed and hawed and worked up the courage to tell me that she wanted to move to Florida to be with a man she had been friends with for years. I later learned that she had lied to me about the nature of their “friendship” for virtually our entire relationship. In the bedroom closet, I found countless cards and love letters and notes that he had sent her over the years. I also found countless places where she had sat and written his name over and over and over in notepads. However, even those added layers of betrayal pale beside the choice of Christmas as the day.

I’ll write another night about the kids and why I allowed her to take them to Florida. For this entry, I just want to write about the holidays and how I’m trying desperately to reclaim them as something new. But it’s so hard. Christmas had always been a big deal for the two of us. We had so many traditions that meant so much to me on a deeply personal level. Every year, I read aloud How the Grinch Stole Christmas and sang Christmas songs. Only in the last year or so have I been able to sing Rudolph to my kids again. Every year, we watched It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, neither of which I’ve seen since. Now, all of those things and trees and lights and ornaments and all of it seem like gilded lies.

That suckerpunch on Christmas morning was a harsh blow, and today, she likes to act like I should just forget and forgive because she has said she’s sorry a couple of times. No apologies will ever give me back the holiday spirit that was snuffed out that day. No apologies will ever give me back the years of being Santa for my sons. No apologies will ever give me back all the time with them I’ve lost and all the firsts that I missed. Only fathers who have experienced it firsthand can understand just how deep and painful those wounds are, and only parents who have lost Christmases with their young children can relate to those wounds.

It would have been easy for me to use that suckerpunch as an excuse to give up trying. Few would have blamed me. But that’s not my nature. Even now, with this neurological disease crippling my body, I refuse to quit. My whole life has been dedicated to the ideas that dreams are worth pursuing and that persistence is the key to success. If I ever give up on those notions, my life will have been in vain, so no matter how much physical and emotional pain I have to endure, I will forge ahead because my sons deserve that example to follow. This year, I will grit my teeth and get through these holidays and get through not having time with my boys because of this illness. It will hurt, and I will probably shed more than a few tears over it, but I will get up again. I will press on. And maybe next year, the holidays won’t sting as bad.

Chin Up, I Tell Myself

park 2013
I’m trying hard not to feel sorry for myself because I know things could be much worse. There are people tonight who don’t have the warmth of a wood stove or the safety of a roof over their heads. There are people with fatal neurological diseases who have no hope of recovery. There are those who don’t have an incredible support network of friends and loved ones. I am blessed to have a plethora of people who care about me enough to go out of their way to make sure I have food, shelter, and warmth. The sincere have proven to me what wonderful and giving people they are, and I am grateful for and appreciate those who have helped me in my time of need. While my circumstances are not ideal, all in all, my life could be in much worse shape than it is right now. Remembering that and thinking about that help me stave off the creeping bitterness that wants to take hold.

Hopefully, I will have an answer from disability by the end of January. Until then, I wait and count my blessings.

Yet Another Injustice

I’ve started a couple of research-based, logical, sensible posts to demonstrate why racism and all the divisiveness it creates are keeping us from ever progressing into a better society, but I know in my heart it won’t do any good. The people who agree with me will read it and tell me how grateful they are that I wrote it, and the people who disagree will attack my character and call me crazy or stupid. All the while, in a few days, we’ll get yet another story of an unarmed American citizen being murdered by the police. The powers that be will lie, falsify evidence, discredit the victim, and tell us to go fuck ourselves for questioning their authority. The sad fact is that we now live in a quasi-police state owned and operated by corporate America, and I have zero faith that the various levels of our government represent my best interests at all.

For decades now, this country has been moving towards criminalizing poverty, and today, we’ve reached the point where just being poor is illegal. Between nitpicking traffic stops for a taillight out (which is really just an excuse to look for bigger and more expensive infractions) to arrests of people for feeding the homeless to choking a man to death for selling cigarettes, this country simultaneously seeks to punish poverty and stifle economic mobility. In my grandparent’s generation, one income from 40 hours a week was more than enough for a home, three cars, regular vacations, and retirement savings. For my parents, it took at least two incomes for the home, a couple of cars, and irregular vacations. For my generation, most of us require two incomes just to survive. For most of us, retirement means work until you drop dead. I can’t even fathom how hard it will be for those younger than I am.

I say this not as someone who shirked the system and tried to skim by but as someone who went to graduate school for an advanced degree and has worked since I was ten, sometimes at two, three, and once even four jobs to make ends meet. I say this as someone who wrote multiple books and maintains over a four star customer review rating on Amazon. I say this as someone who tried with every ounce of energy, spirit, and fight in my body to be successful but ultimately only found dead-ends and blind alleys. I don’t begrudge those who have found economic success in this country, but I do begrudge those who have purposefully shifted the average American’s wages to poverty standards while simultaneously slashing safety net programs. And I know I’m not alone in my anger at that group of people.

As I write this, my body is now a broken shell, probably from so many years of 60-70 hour work weeks with no real vacations. I’m physically not able to protest in the streets for equality and justice and improved wages. My heart is broken at how far this country has regressed in my lifetime (and I still stand by my statement that we are heading for a New Dark Ages ruled by fear and superstition). I like to think that if my body were able, I would step forward front and center and lead the charge, but right now, I’m just sad for this country. Sad at seeing the time and energy and resources wasted on mindless entertainment. Sad at seeing greed and vanity rewarded while virtue and decency are ground to dust. Sad at watching countless injustices unfold while the vast majority pour their righteousness into frivolities like getting college football coaches fired or criticizing others’ clothing choices.

One of my few remaining rays of hope is that history tells us that this is a repeatable cycle. All civilizations go through episodes of greed and corruption that are followed by periods of chaos and then stretches of peace and prosperity. We happen to be in an obtuse period of greed, and hopefully enough people are waking up to this fact that it will change soon. Hopefully, enough people will begin to see that matters of race and gender equality are also matters of economic inequality, and that as long as the system purposefully denies full rights to any taxpaying citizen, no one is really free. Hopefully, the episode of chaos that follows won’t be too terrible for my children’s sake, and hopefully the next era of peace and prosperity will last for quite a while. Right now, however, I’m overwhelmed by all the hate and venom spewing from so many directions

The Conversations We Need to Have

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Open and honest discussions of racism and prejudice matter. The cold, harsh reality in America today is that racism is alive and well. My Facebook newsfeed over the last few months has proven that fact to me and opened my eyes. Not so long ago, when America elected its first African-American president, I believed that our culture had made tremendous progress in overcoming racial discrimination, and in some ways we have. In 2008, I believed racism had been pushed to the fringes, populated only by lunatics and the truly backwards. However, ever since the protests and rioting over Michael Brown’s murder made national news, my eyes have been open to the fact that many, many people still harbor horrific racist views about minorities.

I have long believed that race is merely a mirage. I believed this long before DNA proved it right, and my reasoning was based on observation and experience. I’ve had the good fortune to have lived a rather diverse life among a myriad of people, and what I have learned from my interactions with people of numerous nationalities and religious backgrounds and cultural identities is that people are people no matter where you go. Some would offer you their last bowl of soup if you needed it; others wouldn’t share if their pantry was overflowing and you were dying of starvation before their very eyes; and still others would steal a life-saving meal right out of your hands. And like most everything, there are countless shades in between. The simple reality is you cannot tell who truly falls into which category until you witness their behavior in your moments of weakness.

In college, I discovered the writings of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and immediately felt a kinship for these former slaves, not because of racial identity but because of the obstacles of poverty that they had overcome. As I studied their works, I began to see that race and bigotry are social constructs used to divide us so that we the populace never learn to cooperate as a unit. Skin color is such an easy divider, and it becomes so easy to say I knew “those people” would behave that way, no matter that you can easily find examples of other skin tones doing the exact same things and no matter what the examples might be. When people, human beings, get upset over circumstances out of their control, a certain element take it upon themselves to destroy other people’s property, usually stuff that belongs to some innocent bystander. Whenever social order breaks down, there will always be an element, irrespective of skin tone, who capitalize on the opportunity to steal material objects. That’s human nature, regardless of “race.”

I always knew that I wanted to write works that would attempt to break down racist thinking, and though I thought progress had been made, I also believed that there was still work to be done to rectify the centuries of slavery and now century and a half of social and economic discrimination. I also knew that as a white man from the hills of East Tennessee, I would have an uphill battle to write about race relations in America. To counter this stereotype (and yes, I live under the yolk of an oppressive stereotype about hillbillies, and no, I’m not making an attempt to draw a comparative analysis of being more or less oppressed than anyone else because that’s counter-productive), I chose to use Fantasy Action-Adventure as my medium for discussing race and discrimination.

The main character in my series is bi-racial and struggles to find his identity between two disparate cultures. Each race carries misconceptions and prejudices about the others, and from those mistaken ideas much of the tension grows. However, through the course of the series, the central characters learn to see each other as individuals, not as part of a “them,” and through this process they learn to work together to defeat their common enemies, those who seek to oppress. I’ve not discussed this facet of the series very often because I had always hoped my audience would find it for themselves. However, as we encounter this new era of racial tension, it is more imperative than ever that we as a society discuss these issues and listen to each other.

So now, I’m going to be something of a capitalist and ask you to buy the first book in my series and share it with the young adults in your life (Because it is fantasy and there is some bloodshed, I do not recommend the series to anyone under ten years old). I’m making this appeal for two reasons. First, we need to have these open and honest discussions about the racial problems that still exist in this country, and I’m a firm believer that fiction can be an excellent bridge to discuss difficult topics. My second reason is that I need to sell more books to be able to afford treatment for this neurological condition that is crippling my body. So if you would like a good work of fiction that examines the racial divide we are facing today and would like to help out a person in need, you can do both by checking out The Brotherhood of Dwarves. As always, thank you for your support.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0076OCAKG

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