5 Truth Bombs

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This past weekend, Barb’s sister Amy came up from Mobile, AL. Her home was destroyed in the hurricane and she is going to be living with us for a while as she figures out what’s next. We are happy to have her.

Hurricanes are a fact of life where she lives. They are a fact of life here in North Carolina. And climate change is making them worse. Now Amy (Barb’s sister) has to do the very challenging work of dealing with insurance, sorting out FEMA support, and finding storage for the stuff that wasn’t damaged. And these are just first steps.

Natural disasters are like truth bombs. They have a way of cutting through the bullshit and showing you what is really happening. It’s hard to be a climate change denier when you are standing in the middle of a flood. I mean, you can. And people do. But the mental gymnastics required are much more challenging.

This week, I will be sharing 5 truth bombs. 5 things that my experiences have taught me to be true about the world. These are truths that can be disruptive. We don’t always like to hear the truth. Sometimes the truth sucks. And. We need to hear it. It helps us better see our reality and live accordingly. 

Truth Bomb #1

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

By now, I think everyone knows that Trump got the Covid. One of the videos that made the rounds last weekend was footage from the introduction of Amy Comey Barrett as nominee for the Supreme Court. There were Donald, and Chris Christie, and Sens. Johnson and Tillis, and all these other people who would test positive later in the week. All hugging. All laughing. Not a mask in sight.

I thought about my own experiences at basic training, and something my drill sergeant used to say all the time. It was one of his “go to” phrases, ranking right up there with calling me the “dumbest smart kid” he ever met. He would break out this phrase whenever our platoon did something dumb, or individuals within the platoon did something dumb. And, since I was the platoon guide (student leader), no matter who screwed up, it was always my fault.

“Play stupid games,” he would say, “and you win stupid prizes.”

Someone show up to formation with their boots not shined? Someone run up to formation late? Was someone wearing white socks with their camo uniform? Did someone forget their dog tags? All of these (and a 1,000 more) were evidence that we must want to play stupid games. Waste time. Make mistakes. Do something dumb. And play stupid games...

The next thing you know we were doing pushups, or low crawling through the sand pit, or running suicide sprints around the building. My favorite stupid prize (and by favorite I mean the worst ever) is when he would tell me to go hug a tree while he thought about something. I would walk to the closest tree and wrap my arms and legs around the tree, holding myself there for an extended period of time. If I fell off, I had to climb back up. We would do this for what felt like forever. Stupid prizes.

I truly empathize with what Matthew is going through right now. Basic training is hard, no matter what branch, no matter when you go or who you go with. It is the process of learning that you are no longer in charge of even the most basic aspects of your life. The military is. And it is natural to fight against that. And. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

We all do dumb stuff. We all make mistakes. We all stick our foot in our mouth, say the wrong thing at the wrong time, or fail to do something basic that we know we should have done. Even on our best days, we are human, and fallible. 

We all play stupid games. Sometimes it’s inadvertent. Sometimes, like the SCOTUS super spreader event, it is because we are convinced that normal rules don’t apply to us. They do. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. Deny science, fail to wear a mask, wash hands, and practice social distancing and you will get coronavirus. That is your prize. 

How we choose to behave has consequences. One of the things that we have taught all our children is that you get to choose your action. You do not get to choose your consequences. As an adult you are free to choose your action. You don’t get to choose what happens. That is something none of us controls. You can choose to try to do the right thing, take care of people, be a good person. And sometimes you will get to call home anyway. Sometimes you might get to hug a tree. You should still try to do the right thing.

The one thing that is certain, that is true, is that if you are reckless, if you make choices based on ignorance or fear or close-minded obedience to your ideas of how things should be, then you will feel the consequences of those choices. They’re yours to make.

Just remember. Play stupid games, and you win stupid prizes.

Truth Bomb #2

There are no adults.

When I was a kid, I assumed that all the adults around me knew what they were doing. They all seemed so.... old. Surely with all that experience came competence and surety. Surely they knew what was what and how things worked. After all, they were the ones in charge of everything.

When I was in college, I assumed that my professors were *actually* as smart as they seemed. I assumed that they understood things about the world that I did not. They all seemed so very serious, and even when they weren’t serious, they seemed to do “fun” so poorly that I was left to assume that they simply did not know what fun really was. Because they were so serious.

When I first joined the military I assumed that the people above me had some plan. Granted, sometimes that plan seemed beyond me, and it sure seemed like the things we were doing were dumb as hell and had no purpose at all, but that must’ve just been my perception. These were generals after all. The adults in the room where it happened. 

Eventually I made my way into that room. Quite literally. One of my jobs in Iraq was to conduct the “VIP” briefings for high ranking visitors. The Marine general I worked for loved the fact that I was an enlisted guy with a college degree, and that I knew how to be funny and make the briefings entertaining without making them completely silly. I think he also liked that I was an Army guy briefing mostly Navy and Marine commanders. I was exotic. 

The VIP briefings happened in the SCIF (secure compartmentalized information facility), a special room that was completely secure. When it came time for the brief, everyone except the 2 or 3 briefers, senior commanders, and the VIPs were asked to leave. Aides, drivers, the guys who carried the bags. They all had to wait outside. It was just the senior guys. Those of us tasked to do the briefing were expected to remain silent until it was our turn to talk. It was all very serious. Very adult. 

The first time I was asked to give one of these briefings I was nervous. I mean here I am. An Army dude attached to a Marine unit, briefing senior Marine commanders. The guys responsible for all of western Iraq, the center point of the war during its most violent and serious year. I am sitting there, trying not to be nervous. I am talking to myself, trying to not let the negative self talk get out of hand, going over in my head what I was gonna say. 

The door to the SCIF closed and it got quiet. The Marine colonel who was leading the VIPs that day looked around the room. 

“Gentlemen,” he said as the door closed. “This is your sensitive information brief. Much of what you are about to hear is close hold, and we appreciate you understanding its sensitive nature. Before I turn things over to the briefing team, there is one thing that I need you to hear.”

I waited quietly. This must be important. The colonel slowly lifted his right leg. Then ripped one of the longest, loudest farts I have ever heard.

Immediately he broke into fits of laughter. The VIPs all started laughing and punching each other playfully. “Goddamn, dude,” said one. “Oh and he waited until the fucking door was closed too,” said another, “the whole briefing is gonna smell like ass.” “Maybe the next one too,” said another VIP, to howls of laughter.

I looked around the room. These are the men (and I do mean men, there were no women in the briefing that day) tasked with winning a war. There were decades of military experience in the room. High honors. More medals and commendations than I could count. These were guys who had been there, done that, in places around the globe. All laughing at a fart joke. It was like being in a high school locker room all over again.

Then it hit me. There are no adults.

I mean, we get jobs, we pay bills, we have responsibilities. We get elected to office and we head non-profits and we sit on boards. We argue cases and we help patients and we teach students. We do all these things and we hopefully make the world a little better than we found it. But do you ever feel really comfortable doing any of that? Do you ever wake up and think “yep. I am an adult. And I am fucking **NAILING** it”? And I don’t mean for a moment. We all have good moments. But every day?

I think most of us feel imposter syndrome about something most of the time. We feel like there is some part of our personal or professional life where we are just kind of making things up as we go along. And where we hope people really won’t pay too much attention.

For me, it’s giving advice to my kids as they get older. You want me to tell you what you should do? I am an almost 50 year old former mental patient with a criminal record and a brain injury. How the hell do I know?

The truth is that we are all just kind of making this up as we go along. And we are one fart joke away from laughing like we were 12, or one online comment away from saying something stupid, or one red light away from road rage. 

Because we are human beings. And human beings are messy and we are imperfect. And there are no adults. And most of the time there don’t have to be because we have something much more powerful. Each other.

We pick each other up, and we support others where and when they are weak and we take care of one another. And its okay to not be perfect. And it is okay to not know every answer because all of us are smarter than one of us.

And it’s even okay to laugh at fart jokes. Because we all have to laugh. 

There are no adults. And there are a lot of us who are just doing our best every day to be kind, and to care. 

And that’s enough. 

Truth Bomb #3

Being an asshole doesn’t make you cool. It makes you an asshole.

I love movies. I love them. They have kept me sane, kept me grounded. Been a distraction at times and in places where I wanted to be anywhere else. Sometimes that has been wonderful. And I know my life is better for it. I know that I am better for it. I believe in the power of movies because I have experienced how incredible they can be. 

There is one downside to this love of movies. Given the ... ummm ... unique nature of my upbringing, I didn’t have a lot of role models growing up. There were very few adults in my life I could look to for guidance on how to behave and react in certain situations. Instead of looking at my parents for an example of how to behave in certain situations, I looked at movies. And if there was one thing I knew for sure based on the movies I watched, it was that it was VERY lovable and VERY charming to be a smartass, to be a cynic, and to be a jerk. 

I thought that being an asshole made you cool. 

One of my favorite scenes in any movie was in the 1984 movie Bachelor Party starring Tom Hanks. The movie itself is notable because it was one of two modest box office hits Hanks had in 1984. The other was the movie Splash. These two movies launched Hanks’ movie career. Where he became... Tom Hanks. Movie star and nice guy icon. 

The thing is, in this movie Tom Hanks isn’t really a nice guy. In fact, he is kind of a jackass. His character - Rick - has a good heart, and a strong moral center. But Rick is an underachieving smart ass who makes his living as a school bus driver. Rick’s future father in law is an even bigger jerk, and the movie revolves around his efforts to break up Rick and his daughter. The action is centered around Rick’s bachelor party. 

My favorite scene in this movie comes when Rick is invited to his future in-laws mansion to play tennis and have lunch. 

Rick’s future father in law goes on to give Rick his true opinion.

Now let’s be clear. Rick’s father in law is hugely problematic. Mainly because he is one of the film’s antagonists and he is written that way. He is far from being a sympathetic character. And. He is dead on in his assessment of Rick’s character. As my grandmother would say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

When I was 13 and saw this movie for the first time, I didn’t see any of that. I simply saw Rick being awesome and cool and refusing to play by the rules. A few years later I saw Fletch and between the two movies, I had a template for my personality. I was going to be a wise ass who never took things seriously, purposely blew off responsibility, and would be a general jackass most of the time.

Anyone who met me in my late teens and early 20s would tell you that I succeeded spectacularly. 

I really committed to this idea of who I should be. I never took anything seriously. I skipped class, I refused to do the assigned reading, and my papers were always late. I would quit jobs without notice, blow off meetings, and ignore due dates. I was always ready with a comeback, a wiseass comment, or a disrespectful gesture.

At some point though, I lost the plot. I went from being snarky to being mean. What had initially been an effort to poke fun at people in authority and question them became instead a blunt instrument I used to belittle and talk down to people. I was a bully. It wasn’t cute. It wasn’t charming. It was mean.

We live in a time and in a culture that celebrates meanness. Just a couple of days ago the president returned to the White House from the hospital after being diagnosed and treated for a disease that has killed a million people and defiantly tore his mask off and said Covid was no big deal. He has put countless people at risk. Not just through his leadership, but through *his actual physical presence.* Trump has turned being mean into public policy.

Our larger culture celebrates vanity and fleeting celebrity. We can’t seem to take anything seriously and it is literally killing us. Our country feels like it has descended into a reality TV show, with an orange carnival barker hosting via Twitter.

Here’s the truth bomb. Being an asshole doesn’t make you cool. It doesn’t make you charming. It doesn’t make you strong, or tough, or “uncompromising.” 

It just makes you an asshole.

I spent all my time wanting to be Rick and smash tennis balls over the fence. I wanted to be Fletch and stick the Underhills with the bill. I wanted to be Lloyd Dobler and not buy anything sold or processed. And it just made me smaller. It made me awful to be around. It made me an asshole.

Instead, I should have looked at Fred Rogers. I should have worn sweaters and learned that real strength is strength of character. That being compassionate and caring was way more important than being cool. I should have been Bob Ross and painted happy little trees.

In the end, what is really important is not how cool you are. It is how kind you are. 

I no longer want to be the funniest guy in the room. I don’t want people to pay attention to me because I say outrageous things or do outrageous things. I am perfectly okay with people just saying I am a nice guy. I am perfectly okay with being a gentleman. In the truest sense. A gentle man. More than okay. I am good with it.

I still love movies. I just don’t base my life on them anymore.  

Truth Bomb #4

You might *actually* put your eye out.

When I was 7, my mom met and married a very very talented sculptor. He was only marginally successful. She set to work building his brand and selling his art. Pretty soon his sales matched his talent, and he became one of the best known and best selling artists in the Southwest US. My brother and I went from being on government assistance (we got free lunch and shipments of government peanut butter) to having more than we even dreamed was possible. I was driven to my first day of school in 7th grade in a limo. No shit. An actual stretch limo with a driver took me to school.

During this time we split our time between two properties. One was our ranch, where our artist step dad was creating a custom built replica of an Old West town. His studio was in the hotel. There was a working saloon with a full bar. A replica of the OK Corral. And there were plans for a custom built 5,000 square foot ranch house. In the meantime, there was a double wide trailer where we could stay while everything was being built.

Most of the time, at least at first, we lived in our “in town” house, a sprawling home on a cul de sac peninsula that jutted out into a large lake. We lived between the two homes for a few years, but by the time I was 11 or so, we spent most of our time on the ranch. Within a couple more years, we were in the country full time.

I missed the lake house. For a whole lot of reasons. The isolation of our ranch made life challenging. My step-dad, while prodigiously talented, was an alcoholic and abusive. His abuse got worse the longer we stayed with him. My mom was almost never home. She was constantly on the road selling art, or... whatever she was doing. The lake house was better because there were always other kids around. It was a suburban neighborhood. On a lake. There was a large group of boys - 7 or 8 of us - all within a few years of each other.

It was the 80s. It was a different time to be a kid. There were large chunks of completely unsupervised time. There was no internet and only 3 channels. Our parents used to *literally* lock us out of the house. We were expected to make an appearance some time around dark. Sometimes even that level of supervision was missing.

Our group included our neighbors two houses over in the cul de sac, who also happened to be our cousins. Chris and Kevin. We called them our cousins, but we were more distant relations. They were like our second cousins, by marriage. Which was a distinction that meant nothing to my brother and I when we were kids. They were our cousins and our neighbors and we did stuff with them all the time.

One of the things that we loved to play was what we called “guns.” Guns was pretty simple. You got weapons. You divided into sides. And you pretended to go to war with one another. Sometimes there was a specific goal, like capture the enemy base. Sometimes it was about gaining some territory or objective. Most of the time it was just kind a free for all. And it always ended in the same way. Someone would “shoot” someone else, scream “I GOT YOU” as loud as they could, and demand that the “casualty” play dead. The person who was “shot” would immediately deny that they were hit, and continue playing. Words would be exchanged. It would escalate. People would take their toys and go home.

It was clear that there needed to be some way to know objectively who had been hit and who had not. Someone in the group had the brilliant idea to use BB guns. That way, the genius told the group, they would know instantly who was hit and who wasn’t. It was a sound and well reasoned idea. It was mine. I was the genius.

We all scrambled to find BB guns that would be acceptable. They had to be hand pumped BB guns. No canned air. And there were limits (always ignored) on how many times they could be pumped. My brother and I had been given Red Rider BB guns the Christmas before. The surprise popularity of A Christmas Story had made Daisy release a new version. We then went to Chris and Kevin’s house to help them find guns to use.

As we walked out with the arsenal we had amassed, our Aunt Anna stopped us. “Where y’all going with all the BB guns?” she asked. “Ummm. To shoot squirrels and stuff.” “Okay,” she said, “but be careful. You could shoot your eye out.”

We played war with BB guns. And for about a week it was amazing. There were no more arguments. We all knew exactly who had been shot. And by whom. We all had tiny welts all over our body. None of the parents said anything. I don’t think they even knew what was happening. 

One Saturday morning we were playing and Chris and I were on the same team. We had managed to sneak up behind two boys from the other team. We were hidden behind some trees. They never saw us coming. Chris slowly poked his head around the tree and took aim at one of the boys. He pulled the trigger and the BB bounced off a mesquite branch in front of him that he had failed to account for. The BB hit the hard mesquite and immediately flew back in the direction it came from. Right at Chris. Who had no time to react. 

The BB hit him directly in the left eye. 

We panicked, ran home, holding his hands all the way. My mom and Aunt Anna drove to the ER with Chris, who came home a few hours later with a huge white pirate bandage over his eye. He told us that the doctors didn’t know what would happen with his eye. All the BB guns in the neighborhood were confiscated and locked up.

Chris eventually lost enough sight in his left eye that he was legally blind in the eye. He wore glasses from that point on. I have no idea where he is or what he is doing now. I assume he still has the glasses. 

It turns out, you really can put your eye out.

Common sense is kind of boring. It’s a lot of stuff you have heard before. It’s not usually compelling. It’s just... common sense.

Here’s the thing though. Common sense doesn’t seem very common anymore. Treat others like you want to be treated. Be kind. Share. Simple things aren’t nearly so simple. 

We live in a country where leaders think the rules don’t apply to them. Common sense rules like cheaters never win. Or character matters. Even non-negotiable rules like wear a mask, wash your hands, and keep your distance or you will catch a virus. Up is down, down is up, and common sense feels outdated or even dumb. And it sure as hell doesn’t seem to apply to the things that are happening in 2020.

And. Some things are just true. And the truth is that even if it doesn’t seem possible, even if you think that there is no way it could possibly happen...

You can still put your eye out.

Truth Bomb #5

Everybody has got something. 

My time spent in the inpatient psychiatric clinic at the Durham VA - known among vets as the 9th floor because it was, well, on the 9th floor of the hospital - was memorable for a lot of reasons. I mean. It was a locked psychiatric facility. That’s kind of memorable. I got electroshock treatments. Also something that will stand out in your memory.

It was memorable for another reason too. I met Deon on the 9th floor.

Deon was an Air Force vet from Roxboro. Deon had grown up in Roxboro and in high school had starred on the basketball team. He went to junior college for a year to play ball, but told me he hated school and joined the Air Force. He spent 6 years on active duty. It was near the end of his time that he first began to realize that the things that had always made him a little quirky were starting to cause real disruptions in his life. 

After he left the Air Force, he bounced around a few odd jobs, but his behavior became increasingly erratic. When he started hearing the voice of his grandfather - who had died when he was 6 - he went to the VA. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia. 

Deon said that the VA gave him medication, and that it helped. He was able to be normal. Or, as he put it, he was “able to act like what the people around me think a normal person acts like.” Deon would stabilize on medication. Eventually though, he would stop taking the meds. When I asked him why he got quiet and looked at me. “On meds, I am not me. I am the meds. I am only me when I am me. When I am off the meds I finally feel at home with myself. Only me being me scares the fuck out of everyone around me.”

Deon settled into a routine. He would take his meds for a while. Sometimes he would even work doing handyman stuff around Roxboro. After a while though, he would stop taking his meds. And his behavior would become erratic. When it got bad enough, he told me, he drove down to Durham, checked into the 9th floor and would stay for a while. He would stay until his meds stabilized again. Sometimes he would stay for a couple weeks, sometimes a few months. Then he would get released, head back up to Roxboro and start the process all over again.

I told him that his life sounded a little scary to me. “Me too,” he said. He went on to point out that the reason he stayed in Roxboro is because most of the cops knew him. He had even gone to high school with a couple, who remembered him as the basketball star. He said that he knew he was taking a chance every time he went off meds. “I know I look crazy to them,” he said, “and I know a black man who looks crazy will get shot by someone. But, I have been lucky so far.” Deon put a lot of faith in luck.

I learned a lot from Deon. One of the most important things he taught me is that everyone is carrying something you don’t always see. Deon said that you could go into a public place - like a restaurant or church - and ask everyone to take their issues and struggles and stack them in a big pile in the front of the room. Once you had your stack, Deon explained, you could then tell everyone to go up to the stack of issues and pick one - any issue they wanted - from the stack. You watch 'em, Deon said. You know which one they're gonna pick up? Their own. We will always choose our issue, our challenge, our difficulty.

Because we all have something. We all have setbacks and frustrations and difficulties. We will choose our own, Deon said, because they are ours. We know them. We have walked with them, most times for years. Sometimes our whole life. Our struggles are heavier than some, lighter than others. But their ours. And everyone has one. Everyone.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote (while imprisoned by the Nazis for conspiring against Hitler) that “(w)e must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” We often focus on how people hurt us. We don’t spend enough time thinking about why. 

Empathy isn’t easy. It is unnatural. You have been at the center of every experience you have ever had. Even the things that you read or heard about, things that happened centuries ago to other people, is still filtered through YOUR experiences and YOUR perceptions. It is impossible for you not to consider your own thoughts, ideas and history when dealing with others. Empathy is the most difficult thing that we can do.

And.

It is the most critical. Especially now, when there is so much at stake. 

Everyone has something. Everyone. Be kind.

Just. Be kind. That’s all there is. That is our last great hope. To simply love our neighbors as ourselves. To treat others as we wish to be treated. 

Sounds simple. Now comes the hard part. Living into this truth.

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber. 

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.