Thursday, November 10, 2016

Fly-Over Country

Several years ago, I wrote a story titled "The Way of Things in Fly-Over Country." It was a zombie story without being about zombies... and zombie stories are very hard to sell.

I eventually did sell the story to an anthology, and I'm sure a few people may have read it. It even matriculated to James Roy Daley's Best New Zombie Tales volume 3 despite not really being about zombies. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, one in which teenage boys sneak out of an fortified encampment to challenge their manhood on the "outside." No spoilers here, but if you ask, I'll send you a PDF copy (just drop a message to aaron.polson(at)gmail.com).

I've spent my whole life in fly-over country--Kansas--and I've voted in six presidential elections here since my first in 1996. (I was a senior in high school when Bill Clinton was elected, but couldn't vote in the '92 election as I was seventeen at the time... a world away). The state in which I was born, the state I love despite her faults, always goes red. Kansas and her six electoral votes always go to the Republican candidate, regardless of the fact that I have never voted Republican. Does my vote count?

It doesn't always feel like it, just as I'm sure a Republican voting for president in California may feel the same. Just over 400,000 voters or 36% of votes cast in Kansas went to Hilary Clinton. When I look at the electoral map of the United States, the largest swaths are red in every election, despite any percentage won by the other side.

Fly over country. There aren't enough of us here to matter. The electoral system makes us a lock for a Republican candidate even if he has never seen the Republican River.  (Which, by the way, ran just south of my hometown of Clay Center.  I've written stories about that river.) I'm not sure even one Republican--or Democrat, for that matter--nominee in my lifetime could find the Republican River on a map.

I love my state. I love the sound of a field of wheat in a spring wind. I can still hear the sound of grain elevators running all night during harvest season. I love the dust-tinted sunsets in orange and pink. I cherish the quiet afternoons I spent with fishing rod at that river or some farmer's pond. My formative years unfolded on dirt roads and with shotguns and too many fireworks. We used to shoot cheap shaving cream cans just to watch the spray and white foaming explosion. I am Kansas through and through, regardless of my vote.

I live in fly-over country. You look at an electoral map and hear newscasters say words like "uneducated." I see people I worked with at the grocery store in high school. I see my uncles farming in Nemaha County. I see the faces of the students who I help enroll in technical college to learn a trade and find a good job. I see my co-workers and the parents of those students. I see humans, my brothers and sisters.

I may not agree with their politics, but I stand with them as a Kansan. I stand with all of us in fly-over country. National politics have disaffected so many of these Kansans. The politics of our state have hurt many of them. They are ordinary people. They love their children. They work hard. They care deeply. And, right or wrong, they believe.

Our country is littered with hate right now. I don't feel comfortable with the president-elect, but that is the subject for another day. My feelings will not change those of his supporters, either. Here in fly-over country, we have opinions, too. All of us. And we don't always agree.

Even so, our strength is together, not apart. Our division is killing us. Failing to see each and every human in this great nation as just that--a fellow human--is killing us.

I'm done blaming. It's time for work. I want to use my voice in this red wilderness, a barbaric howl from fly-over country, until we can look each other in the eye and realize we are, all of us, family.







Monday, October 17, 2016

The Demon Speaks!

I'm the villain some are talking about. I'm a white man in his early 40s, heterosexual, and I go to church most Sundays. Hell, I'm even from a small town in Kansas and I'm angry (because of this damned election). You might see where this is going. Those are words and labels, but here are some details:

My mother's family goes back... way back. Not Native peoples back, but back like Mayflower back. Like my great-grand-something fell off the Mayflower. He was an indentured servant to one of the families on the boat. I heard this called a "debt bondage" on NPR the other day, and most indentured servants never survived the repayment of their debt. It was slavery with a sunset, and even forced slaves were "indentured" at first. (I feel another post coming, one about the history of race in America and the current state of affairs in this country citing nefarious laws around the time of Bacon's Rebellion, but that's for another day.)

But I'm white. Euro-American. Swedish/French/English-American. And a man. Words, words, words.

So yeah, I'm the villain. The devil. Fear me. The white, hetero, Christian guy who you may assume would vote for "he-who-must-not-be-named" but shares a first name with a certain cartoon duck. Maybe that's why certain people put "the" in front of it. The Donald is not as easily confused with Donald Duck. 

You see where these words could take us, right? 

You see where any of these easy stereotypes take us, right?

Words have power, and the words we're choosing at this point in history worry me.

Please understand I'm a lover of words and my First Amendment rights. Years ago, in college, I had this great Rock the Vote T-shirt which proclaimed "Censorship is Un-American." You might remember the one:



Yeah, well, I've not said a word about this God-forsaken election cycle because I've been cautioned. I'm a public servant, see, and shouldn't go too political. That's the professional thing to do. It's also the Un-American thing to do. 

We know all about Un-American things, right? Like threatening to jail one's political opponents. That's just not something we do. Like turning our back on our values and convictions because we've been made to fear. "I know what he says about (and maybe does to) women, but I'm afraid." This fear raises its head in polls all the time. It wears the mask of security and protecting our borders. It hides the shameful villainy of misogyny and bigotry.

I'm done. I don't like living in fear and I certainly don't like what fear has done to this country. I also feel like it's pretty damn Un-American to equate our country with a post-apocalyptic hell for political gain. The rhetoric of this election has taken us to the linguistic breach. The words our political parties have chosen--and no one is completely innocent here--have seeped into our collective dialogue. Our words become our thoughts and shape our reality. Reality has become a little bleak.

When our words are reduced to hate and fear, we all lose. I am no demon. I am a human, just a human. I go to church--a pretty liberal, open and affirming UCC church in a college town--almost every week because I need to be part of something bigger than me. I care about my wife and my kids and their gay uncles. I can't change my whiteness, my maleness, or my hetero-ness, but I can chose the words I use and which words I choose to follow. I would never vote for anyone who makes me feel fear because fear is the real enemy.

I worry for this country. I worry for my children and my grandchildren, but I will not prostrate myself to fear. My great-grand-something served his years of indentured servitude nearly four hundred years ago, and we are--all of us--still crawling toward freedom.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

When You Attack My Family


Tears came as I drove my four-year-old son home from preschool yesterday. I had been doing a good deal of processing since the heinous attack on an Orlando nightclub early Sunday morning. Many voices have risen, and mine is perhaps the least important among the crowd. After hearing commentary from the Justin Torres of the Washington Post yesterday on All Things Considered as we drove home, the dam broke.

Mr. Torres uses the word "sacredness" to describe the club in his Post essay (In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club). On NPR he says "people talk about the gay bar like it is church."

Look, I'm a white, middle-aged straight man from Kansas. On the surface, I'm as far from Latin Night at Pulse as anyone in this country. But I've been there--different city, different club--and I've seen that sacredness first-hand on the face of some of my closest friends.

No, not friends. Family.

When you realize this attack was on us, our family, it changes everything. Those weren't "just" gays, or Latinos, or whatever-box-you-might-try-to-put-them-in-to-make-you-feel-safe. They were us. Our brothers and sisters and family.

My heart breaks when I hear of this tragic event bastardized into Islamophobia or a rallying cry for the gun-crazed Right and their "out of my cold, dead hands" mentality. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are family, too, and they've suffered at the hands of men who look a lot like me. I grew up in a small town in which everyone owned guns, hunting was a way of life, and shooting cans of Barbasol to watch them explode in a cloud of foam was just "something to do" on lazy Saturday afternoons. The sacredness of church, mosque, synagogue, or gay club does not stop at the second amendment.

I shed tears on the drive home yesterday for all of us--gay, straight, Muslim, Christian, Latino, black, white, whatever-you-are. I shed tears for the sanctity of life and how awfully easy it is to have that life stolen. I shed tears for all of us, our American family, and how God-awfully dysfunctional we can be.

I'll pick up my son again this afternoon. There will be more NPR coverage of Orlando. He will one day grow old enough to talk about such tragedies. I hope and pray I can help him understand what the word sacred means in exactly the context Mr. Torres used it. I hope and pray he will know the meaning of family, too.

***

Listen to "'These Are My People': Writer Reflects on Orlando Attack in 'Washington Post'"

Read "In Praise of Latin Night at the Queer Club

Sunday, May 15, 2016

My Soccer Riot

I'm going to own something publicly of which I am not proud.

Yesterday, my oldest son's soccer team played for their end of the year championship, something the local league calls the "classic cup." I love my son. I love watching him play. I work hard to be positive, cheer for the team, encourage them, and leave my passion on display.

There are certain lines I will not cross--and yesterday was no different. I will not yell at or berate the children on the field. I will not shout profanities. But my passion is on display. It always has been, and yesterday was no different.

The local league reminds us each year of general rules for parents. I've supported this league with thousands of dollars over the years so my children can play and learn the value of teamwork, hard work, and losing. The value of winning comes easily; it's losing which requires character. I am proud of my son and the character he displays regardless of any game's outcome.

A friend once told me there are three teams on a field during any sporting event--and no one is rooting for the third. The officials have a hard job and often face abuse from angry fans. I am human and as such fundamentally flawed. I am not above my passion bubbling over when officiating begins to affect the outcome of a game even though I try, with all my being, to teach my son that officials, for better or worse, are part of playing.

Maybe it was the goal scored from an offside position when the linesman was out of position to call the play (I generally watch from our team's defensive sideline). Maybe it was the foul called against one my son's teammates as he was shoved to the ground (if you are confused, so was I). Maybe it was the fact the head referee taunted the aforementioned player with a red card after he questioned the call. Maybe it was the several shots taken at my son while he carried the ball or other continued violent play without recourse. Maybe it was a combination of these miscues which bubbled over as another one of our players was ejected with a red card and my passion spilled over.

Again, I did not swear or curse or target a kid from the other team. I simply said the officiating was "bush league" and "sorry boys, looks like you're playing against two teams today."

I'm not proud of these things. Maybe part of my brain knew I wouldn't be because I certainly did not shout them at the top of my lungs. Another parent fired a few remarks in my direction after my comments, the kindest of which was "calm down."

I've grown tired of the world in which I must counsel young people through the insults they heap upon each other from a position of anonymity. Social media and the privilege of distance has eroded human decency. Spend a New York minute reading comments on most popular YouTube videos and you have a quick and dirty lesson. And yes, I recognize I flung comments onto the field with relative anonymity, too. I am not proud or innocent.

I walked over to the man for a face to face and asked if he had anything he would like to say to me.  I was angry, seeing red, but by God, after forty-one years of life simply taking it, I was not going to take it any more. I am not proud--but a little conflicted because there reaches a point when we must own our actions.

I did not use profanity or insult any of the children. I simply wanted the opportunity to face someone who clearly had something he wanted to say about me if not to me. I am not proud it came to that opportunity. I am happy I walked away a moment later because anger rarely gives birth to anything positive.

My son's team lost the game 1-0. He is my role model for life, teaching me that winning and losing come in equal measure. I am proud of him and everything he has weathered in less than thirteen years on the planet. As I walked to the medal ceremony, a felt the sting of a few more comments aimed in my general direction. The moment of heat and passion gone, I continued walking. There will be more games and thankfully more opportunities for me to do it better.

We must do our best to recognize humanity in others. If we don't, no one will.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Living in Fear

My son, Max, turns ten at the end of the month. In December 2011, only about a week and a half after his youngest brother, Elliot, was born, we rushed Max to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri because of blood in his stool, a positive test for malicious bacteria, and some joint pain. Five days, several blood tests, a colonoscopy, and sundry medications later, Max was discharged with a diagnosis of Crohn's disease.

He's had struggles over the last four years, little Crohn's/Colitis related things that anyone familiar with this monster will know well. Things took a nose dive this past December, and between mid-December and the end of January, Max spent five weeks in the hospital. The doctors tried new meds and more meds, but in the end, my almost ten-year-old had his colon removed on January 20th. All of it.

I do not like to live in fear. Show me the monster, and I will meet it head-on. Now that Max has had a very necessary surgery, he's living with a "temporary" colostomy bag. Temporary in quotes? Yes. He's had one subsequent surgery to resection/restructure his small bowl, and we should have another to "reconnect" his "parts" down the road. Here's the fear and frustration part: his GI specialist and surgeon disagree as to the timing of this final surgery. The GI doctor is full of "what ifs" and "possible problems." Talking to him is a lesson in bodily horror, something with which I struggle, both as a writer and a human. Yes, there are possible problems if we reconnect. The surgeon is more optimistic. Neither agree--neither have even spoken to each other as of this writing--but we are faced with a decision: When to do the final surgery.

I do not like to live in fear.

I've learned all too well that life will bring tragedy regardless of what we do. I lost my father to brain cancer, my first wife to postpartum psychosis, and Max has this awful disease. None of them "asked" for it with dangerous living. This isn't another story of someone "getting what he deserves." I cannot and will not believe in a prosperity gospel when two good, caring adults and one innocent child face such monsters. Bad things happen to everyone, and we are defined by how we respond.

So what to do about Max? In two hours, I'll listen to his surgeon make a case for re-connection. Max has expressed his lack of love for the bag--something that if things do not go well after re-connection, he may have to live with, anyway. I've always been one to steer into the storm rather than trying to run. The storm is coming either way, and when we lie to ourselves about having control... well, that's a fast track to fear.

I will not live in fear.