People are often prone to be “thankful” on Thanksgiving for the tangible and intangible things in their lives. Oddly, it seems materialistic to be thankful for the tangibles, yet admirable to be thankful for the intangibles. But what most people fail to acknowledge is the simple thing that brings all things together; the simple thing for which we all fail to be thankful: Time. Read more
I love movies. And I’m a sap. I admit it. I do cry at movies. Yes, I really do. I love film, literature, art – I’m a sentimental fool and I often relate films and books to the events of my own life. And all-too-often, those memories and recollections bring tears. I’m an emotional guy. That’s just who I am, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I cry. Read more
I’m 37-years-old and I’m still learning lessons about life. And yet, as I enter the autumn of my life, I can’t help but value each new lesson as a sprouting opportunity for growth and maturity, even if these are attributes I should have grasped and absorbed decades ago. I suppose the age-old adage, “You’re never too old to learn something new” is indeed an accurate cliche when living a life riddled with errors, imperfections, and remorse. Thus, my most recent life lesson is actually quite a simple one: Let go, and move on.
Here’s a small cacophony of cliches and ironies (wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, etc.) about my time in prison: I watched The Shawshank Redemption at least twenty times. And I wish this number was an exaggeration, but it’s probably an underestimation; but I was a guy in prison watching a movie about guys in prison. Granted, if I really wanted to embody the full ironic cliche of being me in prison, I’d have watched The Jericho Mile, but that film didn’t exactly screen regularly on AMC – The Shawshank Redemption, on the other hand, was seemingly aired with near-weekly regularity.
There’s one reoccurring theme in the film which often dominates the dialogue in numerous incarnations: “Hope.” The two main characters, Red and Andy, spend the film going back-and-forth about whether or not hope is positive or negative, especially in prison. Near the beginning of the film, Red believes, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” But at the end of the film, Andy writes in a letter to Red, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing – maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”
But just like most of the feel-good lessons from the world of cinema, this is a great concept to contemplate, yet a difficult (or sometimes impossible) concept to implement. And all-too-often, holding out hope for too long – especially for something which will never materialize or come to fruition – can certainly pave the winding roads to unhappiness, discontent, and even insanity. So sometimes, we must let go and simply move on.
And in no other situation is this more difficult than when it comes to people. I’m the first to admit (and have done so many times), that I am a sentimental and reminiscent fool. When it comes to things like honoring traditions, preserving memories, “thinking about old times,” I am as guilty as anyone of wrapping myself in the fond memories of my youth. And much of that catalog of reminiscent longing is populated by people as well as events. However, as a result of my own terrible life choices, many cast members from the grainy films of my memories have exited that particular silver screen, never to return again. And I have spent too many years longing for their return – hoping for their return – all for naught.
So it’s time to let go – it’s time to move on. As recently as a few weeks ago, I wrote about how I missed some of these departed acquaintances. Yet as I take an objective step back and evaluate the situational chaos which prompted their departures, I realize now that this “hope” is nothing more than my own wasted longing for a past which will never be emulated or reassembled into anything resembling normality. So I’m letting go – I’m moving on.
The great thing is, once I made this conscious decision to to step out of this faulty sense of “hope,” a new hope formed within me – a hope for the future. The past felt like a rope tied around my waist, holding me back from pressing forward into the void of the future. But after letting go of the past, it felt like this rope was cut, and I was no longer dragging the weight behind me as I’ve been trudging forward into the unknown. Now, having cut these ties to my past, my forward progress isn’t trudging anymore – it’s bounding!
There is a new feeling of hope within me now: Hope for the future. And all I needed to do was stop wishing the bygone past would revisit me. Now I understand Red’s new-found hope at the end of The Shawshank Redemption as he rode that bus toward Mexico and his bright (yet unknown) future. Because his true friend, Andy, awaited his arrival, just as I still have true friends who remain in my life. That, in my broken existence, is hope.
So ask yourself, “What is the hope in my life?” Because sometimes – many times – hope for the future means moving on from the past. Free yourself from the chains of your past – wrap yourself in the hope of your future.
Moments in life that seem like the end of everything are often the most powerful beginnings we will ever know.
There are certain dates that will forever be stuck in our minds, like tattoos on our memories. Some of those dates are all-inclusive to nearly everyone, depending on their age – December 7, 1941; November 22, 1963; September 11, 2001; etc. – and today is one of mine. Today is November 2nd. Four years ago today, I left freedom. Four years ago today, I had to look into the eyes of my wife as I was escorted from my life.
And I wouldn’t trade any of it, for anything.
Perhaps I harp on this point a bit too much, but I really do feel like it’s a point worth reiteration. Through all the irreparable pain my actions caused others, my family and friends have grown stronger through it all. I will never get the opportunity to rectify the wrongs I’ve done to those I’ve hurt most severely, so all I can do is seek the best for the loved ones who remain in my life. These experiences from these passed four years have built my character, given me strength, taught me how to live as I should, how to love who I should, and most important of all, given me perspective.
The end of one thing is often the beginning of another.
I used to wish I could speak again with the people from my past who have elected to distance themselves from me. I suppose I just wanted them to see how different I am, how much more I understand life, and how I am not the man I used to be. But now, I find that it matters less and less. Sure, I miss some of my friends – Iain, Paul, Darham, and even Joe (sometimes) – but I suppose the overall fact remains that these people have made the conscious choice to excommunicate me from their lives based on their assumption that I am still the atrocious person I was when my life was at its lowest. And in contrast, I have multiple friends and family who have taken the time to really get to know me – again, for the first time – and those are the ones with whom I now have great relationships. So instead of lamenting the loss of friends who are gone, I rejoice in the love of the friends who remain.
There is a lesson to be learned here. On November 2, 2012, I walked out of court and into prison, thinking my whole life was over. But the reality is, my life was just beginning. When it seems like everything has fallen apart and your life feels like it is shattered and scattered in pieces at your feet, being haphazardly trampled by passers-by, it does not mean life is over, it means life is changing. And here’s something cool I learned: You do not have to put those pieces of life back together in order to become a better human being; the act itself of kneeling down and reassembling life, piece by piece – that’s what makes you a better human being.
Look back on your life. You learned the most when you failed at something, not when you succeeded. You don’t learn how to build a car by buying one from the dealership.
Life is earned.
So the next time you fail, ask yourself why. That is how you become a stronger, smarter, and better human being. The scars we carry from a life lived and struggles overcome can tell the world more about us than an impressive resume, a wall of degrees, or a case full of trophies.
A scar is not a symbol of pain; a scar is a symbol of healing.
“The most beautiful things in the world are the things that are shattered, broken, and then mended back together.”
It is a melancholy truth that even great men have poor relations.”
As seasons change with the frequency of nature’s clock, we (as sentimental humans) are forced to (voluntarily or involuntarily) take a certain measure of who and what we are in the eyes of the world staring back at us from the convoluted mirror of self-perception. It is a novel (and somewhat naive) notion to assume our self-image is anything similar to the perception others hold of us; and we cannot even begin to believe our perceptions of others are anywhere remotely close to the self-perceptions held by even our closest loved-ones, friends, and acquaintances. Put simply, we all see ourselves as one person, and we assume others see us in this light as well – but they don’t; they never do.
I struggle with this – as many people do – because I know more about me than anyone (just as you know more about you than anyone). But I carry the disadvantage of having been publicly shamed for the choices I’ve made. And therefore, the perception held by others is often based solely on the image perpetuated by the residual assumptions of who I am based on who I was and what I did numerous years ago – not who I am now.
There’s a little bit of faux-irony in this: I am a more moral and faithful person today (with my ruined reputation) than I was six or seven years ago (when I had a stellar reputation). When I was perceived as a good husband and a successful educator, I was actually a cheating and philandering narcissistic sex addict. Now, barely a hint of that person remains and I am living the most moral and faithful life I ever have – and yet, the perception is just the opposite.
And it goes both ways as well. I have a tendency to walk through the foggy gray haze of everyday life with the assumption that anyone I may encounter from my past will automatically hate me and be repulsed by the sight of me. My immediate reaction to seeing someone in public with whom I’ve had a previous acquaintanceship is to pretend I didn’t see them, act as though I don’t remember them, or attempt to duck out-of-sight completely. At first, I thought this reaction was mere cowardice. But now I realize the truth: I simply don’t want to put anyone else in the position of being forced to talk to me. There seems to be a social obligation to carry-on the superficial “how-have-you-been” discussion, simply for the sake of fulfilling the social contract, so I don’t want to put someone through that if they are thinking to themselves, “I really hate this guy.”
I had this friend in high school, and then in adulthood. We ran track and cross country together, were both team captains, graduated together, even stood next to each other in our track and cross country team pictures. He has become a very successful orthodontist here in Wichita and even did braces for me before I went to prison. And in the several years leading up to my departure from society, he and I were also occasional running partners, bonding over the sweat and soreness of a four or five or six mile run.
After being arrested, I was immediately charged with “rape.” Well, obviously that was an over-charge (because it was soon dropped) but for the few weeks that it lingered in the media, it really bothered me that people thought I was actually capable of doing something like that. One day, I was driving by a hardware store and saw my friend’s wife, with whom my wife and I had become friends as well. So when I saw her, I stopped and simply said, “Please tell him that it’s not true.” She replied with an uncomfortable “Okay” and quickly got in her car and drove away. I knew I wasn’t completely innocent of any crime, but I certainly knew I wasn’t some sort of sick barbaric rapist. And I wanted my friend to know that as well. I valued him as a life-long friend and his opinion mattered to me. Yet, I haven’t spoken to him since.
A few weeks ago I ran the Wichita Prairie Fire Marathon. About three miles into the race, I happened to glance around at my fellow competitors and there he was, running nearly next to me. It threw me off a little because I’d seen him at numerous races before, but never actually crossed his path. And there he was, essentially running right next to me. But I said nothing. A quick glance at his race number indicated he was running the half-marathon, so I knew he wouldn’t be there for the entire race (because after about seven miles, the half-marathon and full-marathon courses split from one another).
But still, it bothered me. It bothered me that I had this friend – this great friend – who now wants nothing more to do with me because of the choices I’d made. And he wasn’t the first – (another being my former best friend, best man, and now Archenemy) – and seeing him running next to me, knowing I could not feasibly say anything to him, was just a little upsetting. I was three miles into a marathon and I needed to keep my mind as straight and focused as possible; yet I was unable to combat the sudden feeling of life’s remorse – and to add insult to injury, that part of the race course just happened to be running on the street in front of Wichita East High School, the place where my immoral choices were made, my crime was committed, and things changed forever.
Sometimes in life, timing is everything.
I did my best to stay in front of him until the race courses diverged, and after the split, the entire remainder of my race was a struggle. I “hit the wall” earlier in that race than I ever had and it simply became a struggle to reach the finish line. And I did, but in a very unimpressive time. Of course, I don’t blame him – it isn’t his fault that I can’t seem to conquer the guilt of my own life choices.
And sure, there are others friends I’ve lost. I had a very good friend with whom I taught – we both started teaching the same year and were both alums, both coaches at one point, and it was well-known around the school that we were buddies. He and his wife were friends with my wife and me and we did couples things together; he and I played golf together a lot – but he too is gone from my life, refusing to acknowledge I exist. And yet, I don’t fault him either. His reaction to my choices cannot be construed as a fault of his; only a fault of mine for doing what I did. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
I guess the cliche is true: “You sleep in the bed you make.” But the problem is, they don’t know me anymore. The tragic irony of this situation is that I’m actually a better and more moral person now than I was when I was actually friends with them. But I guess that’s just the way things work out sometimes. I guess that’s another price I must pay.
I guess the thing is, I just miss my friends.
In my own personal context, I have been to Hell, and survived. And you can too.
Here, let me explain.
We all read Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy in high school, or at least the first part, Inferno. If you’re not familiar with Inferno, it is the first of three epic poems written about the afterlife – Inferno is the first; Inferno is about a journey through Hell. As Dante wrote, Hell is not so much one place as it is many places – nine levels (or circles) descending to the icy cold depths of Hell where Satan resides. But contrary to popular conceptions (and Biblical implications), the depths of Hell are not consumed by fire and brimstone, but rather is ac cold and frozen desolate entombed wasteland – a cave where Satan is frozen for eternity. Satan has three faces, and in the mouth of each face, he chews for eternity on three people: Brutus and Cassius (who betrayed and killed Caesar) and Judas Iscariot (who betrayed Jesus Christ).
Apparently betrayal is the worst of the sins, from Dante’s perspective.
As Satan eternally chews on the suffering souls of these three traitors, he also continues to flap his demonic membranous wings, trying to escape his frozen encasement, but the wind from his wings only serves to freeze his entrapment even more. Dante created a “Catch-22” for Satan; if Satan stops flapping his wings, perhaps the ice entrapping him would melt, but to escape, he must fly out of it, but the wind would re-freeze the ice.
But like I said, I honestly believe I have experienced my own contextual Hell. I’ve written about this experience in great detail in “The Abyss.” If you have not read this, please do.
Inferno is not only an epic piece of classic Italian poetry; it is also a semi-recent novel by Dan Brown, carrying-on the adventures of Robert Langdon. And next week, Tom Hanks will once again cross the silver screen as Robert Langdon (just as he did with The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons) in the film version of Inferno. Tom Hanks is my favorite actor (well, he’s tied with John Cusack, but still), so I’m quite excited to see this movie.
But here’s the thing: I read Inferno when it was first released – when I was in prison. I saw an advertisement for it in USA Today and asked my wife to have it sent to me in prison, which she of course did, and when I received it, I absolutely could not put it down. I loved it. And now, after prison, I will get to see the film version. Thus, I read the book as an inmate, I will see the film as a free man. And this notion has given me the perfect understanding as to why Dante decided to make Inferno the first part of The Divine Comedy rather than the finale.
My memory of reading the book is encased in the context of prison. But that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Rather, it gives me such a genuine appreciation for where I am (and who I am) now. I have escaped the Hell of my past and can now look back and appreciate and cherish where I am. If Dante’s tour of Hell had come after his tour of Heaven (Paradiso), he would have found himself longing for the paradise he could no longer experience. But instead, Dante’s journey began with Hell, then ascended through Purgatory (Purgatorio) and finished his journey in Heaven where he could look back at the difficulties he’d overcome, finding a deep appreciation for Paradise.
Figuratively speaking, a person cannot truly appreciate Heaven until they have a Hell to which it can be compared. Happiness cannot be appreciated without first knowing sadness. In order for good to be good, there must be bad. Make sense? The problem is, people all-too-often take the “good” or the “happiness” or the “Heaven” for granted, and only begin to appreciate them when the “bad,” the “sad,” or the “Hell” happen to come along.
When times are good, stop for a moment and appreciate your happiness. Compare the good to the bad and be thankful you’ve persevered. Be appreciative of the now rather than longing for the then. You’ve overcome some major obstacles in your life to reach this point. Be proud of yourself. Know that you’re stronger today than you were yesterday, and tomorrow, you’ll be even stronger than you are right now.
And when times are bad, stop for a moment and learn something. Understand why the days are difficult and push forward. There is a life lesson to be learned in every single step we take. If we ignore those lessons, we will struggle with the same problems day-after-day. But with every lesson learned – every experience gained – we only grow stronger. Take comfort in knowing the valleys of life do not last forever, and no matter what, You’ll Be Okay.
The Inferno will pass.
“When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you. This misinformation will feel unfair, but stay above it, trusting that the other people will eventually see the truth, just like you did.”
Eliminate the toxic people from your life. They do nothing but spread negativity, strife, and discontent throughout the lives of those around them, all spawning from their own insecurities, self-doubt, and low self-esteem.
There is a reasonably simple way to identify a toxic person. Scroll through their Twitter or Facebook pages. Look at their Tweets. Do they spend an inordinate amount of time posting negative contents? Do they seem to enjoy the unhappiness of others? Are their posts and Tweets riddled with insults, complaining, or veiled attempts at heightening themselves above others?
This is what toxic people do, and admittedly, attempting to fight this battle is completely and utterly useless. We all know that one person (or more, perhaps) who only seems to be speaking negatively about someone, critiquing someone else, or comparing themselves to others with insults and put-downs.
I encounter these people often, and in my context, they are quite easy to spot. With regards to how I am treated, a toxic person cannot get beyond the person I used to be; a genuine person appreciates (or at least understands) the person I am now.
I have eliminated the toxic people from my life, and I am so much happier as a result. Toxic people pollute their environment with bitterness, discontent, and negativity. A toxic person is a person who takes pleasure in the misfortunes of those they see as beneath them. And now that I no longer deal with these people, I feel as though I live in a much more positive context, and I am a happier person as a result.
Toxic people are the way they are because they writhe in their own buried worlds of discontent. Their lives are unfulfilling, leading them to chip away at the lives of those around them in a superficial attempt to level the playing field. Unfortunately, most toxic people are the way they are because they’ve been hurt somewhere along the road of life, and now they see no other remedy than to lash-out. And until they seek help for their wounds, nothing will change; they will consistently and continually reject others’ offers of assistance in their lives, and will sometimes perceive offers of help and generosity as insults or accusations of weakness.
There is one thing which absolutely angers toxic people: Grace. I may not be a hands-to-the-sky Christian, but I willfully subscribe to Christian theology. And Grace is one of those things which makes Christianity unique. Unconditional forgiveness is available to anyone who has done anything – including me. And yet, I have asserted this fact on several occasions, only to be promptly mocked and ridiculed by those who seek to only quantify me by my past transgressions, not my current state of faith, life, or well-being. Apparently it is easier and much more dramatically satisfying to cast insults than to understand, forgive, or accept; those are three things a toxic person cannot (or will not) do.
In the 1983 classic film WarGames, a super computer attempts to teach itself strategy, first by playing Tic-Tac-Toe, then by playing Global Thermonuclear War.
In both instances of the computer playing against itself, trying to find a strategy for victory, it finds – every time – there is no winner. Every game of Tic-Tac-Toe ends in a stalemate; every game of Global Thermonuclear War ends in world-wide destruction. And when the computer (which the programmer has named “Joshua”) comes to the realization that the games cannot be won, it says, “Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”
This concept, in its essence, is exactly what it’s like to deal with toxic people. To them, it is a war, and there can be no winner. Never explain to a toxic person their misconceptions or errant assumptions; they except no reasoning and will only create a backlash. They love to gossip, they love to ridicule, they love to be the center of attention by tearing others down. Saying anything to a toxic person about his/her behavior will only make you a target. It is better to simply eliminate these people from your life. Because what toxic people do not realize is that genuine people can see what they are doing, and avoid them; the only people drawn to toxic people are other toxic people. These individuals have a tenancy toward turbulent relationships, rocky friendships, and difficult work environments.
And nothing is ever their fault. A toxic person will rarely (or never) stand up and say “I was wrong” or “It was my fault.” Any unsatisfactory outcome or result is typically the responsibility of someone else, and a toxic person is usually the first to lay the blame. And trying to reason with a toxic person on this issue (or any issue, for that matter) is another exercise in futility which will only lead to retribution.
It is best to just walk away from these toxic people (both figuratively and literally). A disagreement with a toxic person will only make you the target of their next vocal or online gossip diatribe. Be a genuine person. Be a positive person of integrity, responsibility, and encouragement. Genuine people are the people who make the lives of those around them better.
Someone once told me that my wife has a “very positive online presence” after seeing her Facebook page. Makes perfect sense. What would someone say about you, based on what is posted on your social media pages? Do you post positive content, or do you spend time online tearing others down? Because while you may not notice, I guarantee that others have. And if you know someone who is a toxic person, do yourself a favor and walk away. It’s not worth the headaches, the arguments, or the frustration. A toxic person rejects reasoning for the sake of conjecture, so don’t even bother trying.
“The only winning move is not to play.”
I was sitting in a restaurant once, on a date with my wife, enjoying the ambiance of the nice restaurant where we were dining, mesmerized by the cacophony of sounds filling the air – inanimate chatter, the clinking of silverware on porcelain plates, the tap of wine glasses being softly sat on the table after a gratuitous sip – as my mind began to wander to whatever predominant notion was on my mind at the time. My wife had excused herself to the ladies’ room and I sat at the table alone, essentially daydreaming. And as I stared-off into nothingness, contemplating this or that, essentially zoning-out my surroundings, I was snapped back into full consciousness by the sound of a plate breaking in the kitchen; and at that moment, I found myself in an awkward position. As I was staring into nothingness, marinating in deep contemplation, I had apparently been inadvertently staring at a gentleman across the restaurant, square in the eye. And when I realized this, I also realized his look of major confusion and mild discomfort as to why someone was staring at him. I was so deep in thought, I didn’t even notice that I was staring right at him. Of course, I immediately looked away and made a feeble and transparent attempt at playing-it-off, but that did not remedy my embarrassment.
Sometimes, we don’t see the details of everything right in front of us, simply because of everything right in front of us.
I once had an interesting conversation with a former student. I’d been out of prison several years and she was a senior in college at the time. And as we had occasion to catch-up, enjoying the banalities of a typical shallow conversation, she said something that prompted a deeper line of thought. As a twenty-two-year-old college student, she said, “There were high school kids on campus the other day, and they looked so small!” I, of course, laughed and agreed, but then she said, “I don’t remember being that small when I was in high school.” And that led to a more interesting dialogue.
“Well,” I said, “that was your context at the time. That was your setting.” I paused, but received no retort. “Right now, you’re surrounded by college students. That’s your context – your setting – now. So of course the high schoolers look small. Yeah, you’ve ‘grown,’ but not all that much. You’re seeing them in the context of being high school students and your own mental predisposition to yourself being ‘older’ makes you view them in a context of smaller.” (Yes, I actually use words like this in casual conversation.)
“Huh,” she said in a syllable of contemplation.
“High school students didn’t seem small in high school because that was your peer group,” I continued. “They were neither big nor small nor old nor young – they just were.” I paused. “Context is everything,” I said in an (admittedly) overly-declarative tone.
It occurred to me during this conversation (and even more-so afterwards) that this perhaps was a significant element of my own cognitive distortions as a teacher. To the average person, high school students look like high school students – annoying obnoxious smart-asses who think they know everything while fully grasping nothing. But as a high school teacher, these annoyances were my context – my setting, my canvas, my work product – and it was the nexus of my professional existence. And my biggest mistake was my casual willingness to view them as social equals in my feeble and errant attempts at being the “cool” or “popular” teacher. Once I began to view high school students as social equals and attempted to insert myself as a variable of their warped socials hierarchy, I was already on my way to blurring the lines of propriety.
Simply-put, I began to rate my status as a teacher by my popularity with the students, not my ability to effectively convey the content. (In my opinion, this is the #1 problem with high school teachers today.)
If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately hop out. However, if you drop a frog into a pot of lukewarm water and slowly but gradually turn the heat all the way up, the frog will boil to death.
I used this analogy in class all the time; the irony was, as I said it – over and over again, to class after class, year after year – I was the frog, swiftly coming to a boil.
And I didn’t even see it coming.
This, obviously, was never what “made me do it.” (I must continually reiterate this point: Nothing “made me do it;” but the message keeps getting construed that way. There is an inherent need by the populous to assign blame to a person while ignoring all underlying variables; ignoring the variables upon which a situation is predicated is the most effective way to not solve a problem.) People who see this issue from such a black-and-white perspective either aren’t intelligent enough to understand or simply refuse to understand that these situations aren’t merely shades of gray, but a full pallet of colors. This isn’t something I “blame” for my behavior. However, this is a mindset of which teachers must be fully-cognizant because it is much more common than one might think. Television shows and movies glorify the “popular teacher” while only sparingly making him/her also the academically strong teacher. So many teachers strive to be John Keating from Dead Poets Society, but instead end up becoming Harry Senate from Boston Public. There is an inordinate amount of teachers currently in the profession who desperately seek popularity over educational effectiveness.
One conversation I had as a teacher – one I will never forget – was with a guidance counselor. He asked me during my second year how everything was going, and I think I made a half-comical statement about striving to be John Keating. And his subsequent reply has never left my consciousness; “Well, just be careful,” he said, “because people seem to forget that John Keating was fired at the end of that movie.” I’ve never forgotten that conversation, and yet, I would give anything to have fully-grasped it at the moment those words entered my psyche. Because he was absolutely right.
Being a teacher through the wrong lens is dangerous. Granted, it doesn’t always end the same way my tale did, but it certainly happens all-too-often.
Context is everything.
And until we admit and acknowledge this one simple concept, many of these cognitive distortions will continue to ring true in the lives of teachers and bring strife to the lives of students.
Context is everything.
And until all teachers are willing to prioritize their educational effectiveness over their status of popularity with the students, the quality of education given by teachers and received by students will continue to be lackluster and unproductive.
Context is everything.
And until educators cease being narcissists and start being pragmatists, teachers will continue to function in the mistaken context that teaching is about the teacher – it’s not. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I want to be a great teacher.” But perhaps the point-of-view should instead be, “I want to teach great.” That was where I – and many – went wrong. Being a teacher was all about me. I relished in the praise I received on evaluations and from peers about how good I was at teaching. But instead of prioritizing how well I conveyed information to students to maximize student achievement, I instead prioritized image, ego, and arrogance. And, from my vantage point, I was nowhere close to being the only teacher teaching in this context.
Allowing oneself to become enveloped in a flawed context is dangerous because an altered context means altered norms. Norms exist for a reason – both customary and regulatory – so when those norms are ignored for the sake of an errant context, student achievement suffers, student safety is jeopardized, and tragic choices are made.
Never underestimate the power of context.
Context is everything.
I fully support mandatory life sentences for repeat sex offenders. Any sex offender who completes his (or her) sentence and completes sex offender treatment, then commits another sex crime should receive a mandatory life sentence. Period.
According to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, sexually-motivated crimes have the lowest rate of recidivism of any crime other than murder (simply because many murderers are never freed to kill again). Despite the hype, less than 5% of all sex offenders ever commit another sex crime; that’s compared to between 30% and 70% for drug, property, and violent crimes. This is a statistical fact.
That being said, sex crimes are highly publicized and have very lasting impacts on victims. I was a victim nearly 20 years ago – I’m still not over it. And because of this, those who commit these crimes should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. And yet, they should also be allowed the opportunity – one opportunity – to live as a solid and productive member of society.
However, when a sex offender is convicted of a second sex crime, there should be no mercy – None.
A guy I went to high school with just went to prison. Back in 2010, he was convicted of possessing child pornography and trying to engage in sex with a minor. He was given probation. Yesterday, he was in court and was sentenced to 254 months in prison for another sex crime: possessing child pornography. 254 month is more than 21 years.
21 years in prison. That’s a long time. I’ve been to prison, and I still can’t wrap my mind around a 21+ year sentence. And yet, as a repeat sex offender, 21 years is not enough time; he should never be let out of prison – ever.
If a person commits a sex offense, there is something seriously wrong with them – there was something seriously wrong with me. But again, the hype is wrong: Sex offender treatment does work. This petulant assumption that it’s “incurable” is ignorant at-best. It has a 95% success rate. But for the mere 5% who commit sex crimes after being treated, there should be three zeros: zero tolerance, zero leniency, and zero freedom.
Perhaps it seems odd that I have this opinion, considering my own conviction, but here’s the thing: yes, I may be an offender myself, but I’m also a husband and a father. And wife and daughter are more important than anything.
Anyone can make a terrible choice, but when it comes to sexually motivated crimes, there can be no third chances.
I love the sound of the wind as it blows through the leaves of a tree, sounding like a tired yet invigorated sigh at the end of a long but hopeful day. I love watching the branches and limbs as they sway back-and-forth, to-and-fro, moving so gracefully and elegantly, yet always returning to their original place when the breeze calms. The sight and sound of a tree in the wind is so chaotically peaceful, controlled turbulence, not knowing where or how it will be pushed or blown, but knowing that when the wind calms, no matter what, everything will be okay.
I used to wonder if the human mind genuinely possessed the capacity for unconditional love. It is something often learned from church sermons or family values, but whether or not it genuinely existed was a question I often contemplated. For love to be unconditional, there is one vital ingredient which must be plentifully stirred-in: Forgiveness. Unconditional love, by definition, is love without conditions – without “ifs.” Thus, the only way to genuinely test “unconditional love” is to thrust the most difficult of challenges upon it, testing it to see if it can stand under the weight of the worst of conditions: unfaithfulness – betrayal.
In 2006, I was a high school English teacher, married to a beautiful woman who blessed me with a beautiful daughter, and who loved me regardless of the fact that she was entirely too beautiful to be married to an average guy like me. I was the most popular teacher at the largest high school in Kansas, respected socially and professionally by my colleagues and students alike. On the outside, I had a nearly perfect life. But beneath the surface, behind closed doors and around dark corners, I lived an entirely different life – the life of a sex addict.
The teachers at the school where I taught loved two things: sex and booze. So being the metaphorical displaced frat boy I was, I seemed to slither perfectly into the in-the-shadows lifestyle of “working late” with my fellow teachers. Booze-fueled teacher parties led to seemingly guilt-free sex with women who taught at my school, and several who taught elsewhere; and this seamlessly transitioned into sex during the school day with teachers during our planning hours; mid-day rendezvous in locked classrooms. And for several years, this was my life. During the day, I would be a respected teacher in the light and a philandering man-whore in the shadows; at the end of the day (whenever I deemed that to be), I simply turned off the philanderer button, turned on the husband/father button, walking in my front door and hugging my wife and child like Ward Cleaver. They had no idea.
In 2010, after several years of living the life of an out-of-control sex addict, I crossed the worst possible line; I kissed a 15-year-old former student. It was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life, and it broke me. I had reached a level of addictive depravity that even I couldn’t believe. And after it happened, I did the only thing I could possibly fathom – I decided to go home and tell my wife everything.
When I got home that night and saw my wife for the first time that day, she was so incredibly gorgeous. It felt as though I was seeing the most beautiful, familiar, and comforting sight I’d ever seen, but, for the first time. We’d been a bit distant from one another during that time, and whenever I walked in the door and we actually interacted, she always had this subtle glow of hope in her eyes, as if to say, Is this the day that everything is going to be okay? But I was so wrapped up in myself and my addiction and my conquests that I didn’t even realize that my marriage was going badly. Until that day, I was only concerned with myself and my own drive to chase the dragon.
After our daughter was asleep, we sat down together in my home-office and I began the painful task of telling my wife that I had betrayed her.
“First, I want you to know that I love you, I’m in love with you, and you are the best thing that has ever happened to me,” I said, never breaking eye contact, clutching both of her hands as we sat knee-to-knee.
“I know, and I love you too. Nothing you could say would ever change that,” she replied. I wasn’t sure if she would be able to hold to that after I told her what I had to say.
“Remember my former student, Taissa?
“Well,” I went on, “Taissa has been coming to see me in my classroom quite a bit; almost every day.”
I paused, trying to read her body language and facial expression, but she just kept looking at me; no looks of disappointment or anger, even though I was sure that she knew what I was going to say next.
“Since I’ve been seeing Taissa,” I took a deep breath, “things have happened.”
She nodded again, not as if to say, How could you do this to me? but rather, it was as though she was saying, Are you okay?
I expected her to say, “Things?” or “Like what?” But she remained silent.
I continued. “I didn’t sleep with her, okay? We did not have sex. I promise.” And with that, she lightly exhibited her first sign of emotion: Relief.
“It’s over though, and I can’t go any further without confessing to you what I’ve done, and ask your forgiveness. You’re my wife, and I betrayed your love and your trust.” I paused, hoping for an answer.
The silence lasted a lifetime.
Finally, she spoke.
“You’re my husband, and I love you – for better or for worse,” she said. “We will get through this.” The word “we” in her voice carried the weight of a battleship. And then she said something I will never forget. “I didn’t marry you to divorce you.” She said it with subtle authority – confidence.
At that moment – that minute, that second – my entire life changed, forever. I knew she loved me, but as she looked into my eyes, I genuinely knew how and how much. Before that conversation, I was ready to do whatever I needed to do to comfort her once I’d confessed my endless betrayals; but instead, she wanted to comfort me. She saw the pain I was in, and wanted to make me feel better.
I could see the love of God in my wife that night – in how she handled the news, and how she was immediately willing to forgive me. I just hoped her forgiveness would continue.
“There’s more,” I said, my voice stammering and quivering.
So when I was done talking about Taissa, I told her about the History teacher, and then the Psychology teacher, and then the English teacher, and then the Elementary School teacher, and on and on and on, remembering back as far (and as many) as I could, finishing with the very first time I cheated, four months after we got married, with a woman from a bar, while my wife was at home asleep, pregnant with our daughter.
I’d never felt so low in my entire life.
She cried a little. I cried a lot. We cried together. And when I was finally done, I asked her, very delicately, for her thoughts.
“I need to know what you’re thinking,” I said. “If you want me out of here tonight, I’ll go stay with one of my buddies.”
“Well,” she said, drying her eyes, “no, you’re staying here tonight.” She looked up and made eye contact with me in a way that she never had before, and in a way that I will never – ever – forget. “I didn’t marry you to divorce you,” she said again in a stern voice. “For better or for worse.”
As a result of this long and emotional talk, we made several resolutions and dedications to one another. One of them was to reignite our faith and begin attending church faithfully – not simply “regularly,” but faithfully. This was something I’d tried on my own following every philandering encounter, but it never did stick, so I’d more-or-less given up on faith as a way to change or improve my life.
Another stipulation she requested was that we move out of town, an option I was quite willing to consider. And in addition to this, I was only two semesters from finishing Graduate School and as soon as I had my Master’s Degree completed, we would be gone. So, a few months before I graduated, I began to apply for jobs outside of Wichita. We were ready to move out and move on. We were ready to start over again, and that’s exactly what happened. I got a new teaching job in a small town far away from the life I wished to leave behind.
But it didn’t stay there.
Two years later, in March of 2012, my former student pressed charges and I was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for a little more than two years – 763 days, to be exact. And my wife faithfully remained my wife for every single one of those days. Her enduring love – her unconditional love – not only survived a cheating husband, but a husband whose mugshot was on the Internet, whose court proceedings were in the newspaper, and whose sentencing hearing was on the evening news. She sat in the courtroom and watched as I was handcuffed and led from freedom.
Today, she is still my wife – proof that the human mind is capable of unconditional love. She is my proof that God exists.
Our breeze has calmed and our branches sway just a little less now, but the soothing sound of our unconditional marriage never changes. We have seen marriages around us fail under the pressures of much less than what we have endured together.
For better or for worse, no matter how hard the wind blows, her love – our love – is unconditional.
Show me no mercy. I neither deserve it nor want it.
A random former student of mine Tweeted recently that the Halloween Article I wrote nearly a year ago, published by a national website, was somehow a lamentation of epic proportions.
Perhaps I need to write more clearly, because if that’s the message she took from the article, then she: a) didn’t grasp the actual point of the article, which is my fault as the writer; or b) her own preconceived negative bias diluted and skewed her perception of the article. But regardless, she Tweeted: “Kurt Brundage wrote a blog about how people should feel bad for him and he calls himself a ‘sex offender’ with the quotes. Like he isn’t one.”
So to paraphrase Richard Nixon, “let me make this perfectly clear: Do not feel sorry for me.” Never. Ever. Don’t. I neither want nor need the sympathy of anyone regarding the crimes I committed. I broke the law and I paid the price. And perhaps I should re-read my article to see if that particular impression is floating around in the subtext, but the intention of the article was to point out that the Halloween “hype” and “fear” regarding sex offenders isn’t supported by statistical facts. That was it. It was an academic piece, containing numbers, figures, and research.
Honestly, the Halloween “hype” has absolutely no impact on me, personally. The article itself was spawned by my own sense of logic and how it seemed odd to me that public perception so vastly departed from statistical reality. That’s what prompted the article; I saw the paranoia on the news and thought to myself, “That’s not realistically logical.” That’s all. I never wanted sympathy from anyone, because, frankly, I’ve eliminated the toxic people from my life who would give me any of that face-to-face animosity – on Halloween or any other day of the year.
But that’s not the message this former student took from my article, so perhaps the point should have been stated a little more clearly – or even flat-out. Because I remember having this student in my class, and she was quite intelligent, and we had a very positive (and appropriate) rapport. So either my crime completely changed her perception of me (which is highly likely) or I did not adequately convey the point of my article (which, admittedly, is also likely). But regardless, I’ve been asked by a different website to update the article and submit it for publication in October, so the actual point will certainly be clarified when the redux version is published. My former student also Tweeted that I wrote (at some point; not in the article) that the student with whom I had the relationship “came onto me.” I have searched everything I’ve written for that, and haven’t found anything even remotely similar. So perhaps this again was a misconception spawned from a negative preconception.
So I suppose, in the interest of accuracy and truth, I should say this: The student with whom I had the relationship never “came onto me” or anything of the sort. I manipulated her just like I manipulated the adult teachers with whom I had serial affairs – just an addict after another fix, chasing the dragon. I was the one in the wrong, not her. She never “came onto me” just like I wasn’t attracted to her “because of her age.” It simply happened because, with all the affairs I’d had for so many years – especially with other teachers – I stopped caring who my meaningless “hook-ups” were. And after I cycled through so many of the women of the East High faculty, it’s no surprise that my downward spiral took me beyond the lines of propriety or legality.
I will always hate myself for living like that. It’s not something to brag about; it’s a lifestyle for which I am deeply ashamed. Often, the weight of guilt and shame I carry from that life is nearly unbearable. And I fear that the pain I feel is nothing compared to the pain I’ve caused.
However, whose fault is that? Mine. All mine. 100% mine.
But this negativity is actually appreciated. Allow me to explain why…
This website – this journal (or blog) – has gotten a significant amount of traffic recently, and I don’t pretend to think everyone who reads it will come away with a positive impression. All I ask is that readers come away with accurate information. But when they provide negative feedback (which, admittedly, is typically about me personally, not my writing), I read it with the same diligence as I read the positive feedback (such as the positive messages left on the SOSEN article). And I actually read the negative feedback more, because I specifically need to soak it in; my ultimate goal is to deaden my sense of pride and become desensitized to the hateful negativity in order to prevent it from bringing me down and inhibiting my ability write efficiently, artfully, and effectively. In fact, when people do say things similar to what my former student Tweeted, it motivates me even more to go out and prove the world wrong. And interestingly, the negativity is typically based on a criticism of who I was, not who I am, so I actually agree with most of it.
When someone says something like “Kurt Brundage is a sick manipulative piece of shit,” I can definitely tell that they are referencing a person who does not exist anymore. So it doesn’t offend me – I very much agree. I would, instead, invite those people to have a brief conversation with me and judge for themselves. Because I can honestly say that everyone I’ve met from my past has commented on how much I’ve changed. So the negativity from people who think I’m evil or sick or manipulative is based on a judgment of the past, not the present.
But regardless, I embrace the negativity – I thrive on the negativity – because it desensitizes me to it, and as a result, the negativity does not discourage me; in fact, it encourages me to try harder, change further, live better, and write more.
So don’t feel sorry for me – don’t pity me – nothing.
I want no sympathy.
I want no pity.
I want no mercy.
I live on movie quotes. Essentially, I can look back on nearly any event of my life and aptly apply a quote from a film or television show; when I write my memoirs, there will be movie quotes aplenty. My dad and I even have an on-going gimmick where we’ll just out-of-the-blue say, “What movie?” It is then incumbent upon the other to guess the film from which the subsequent quote was taken. For example, I’ll say, “Hey Dad, what movie: ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat,'” and he will reply, “Jaws.” It’s as though I have a nearly-encyclopedic memory of random movie quotes. I suppose it’s just one of my quirks.
But movie quotes from great movies are – to me – very meaningful. And there’s one film in particular that is unexpectedly very quotable: The Dark Knight.
I’ve gotten quite a few questions recently about why I’ve decided to take my life in the direction I’m taking it, and there is no better way for me to answer those questions than with movie quotes – in this case, The Dark Knight.
So here are the Top Ten Dark Knight Quotes – the quotes that help me best describe why I’ve decided to write a book, become a voice, and and essentially become a target for ridicule. These ten quotes help convey the reason why I have decided to take a public stand against the untreated epidemic of inappropriate teacher-student relationships.
“It’s not about money; it’s about sending a message.”
In the past, I have been accused of trying to make money off of my crime. And as certain as the day is long, I will be accused of this in the future. I addressed this issue in “Fueled by Hate,” but I feel this point is worth reiterating: I don’t care about money. My personal financial situation is very secure and I have no need to exploit my past to “turn a profit.” Those who think I am seeking monetary benefit from anything I do in this realm would be sorely mistaken. Yes, this will benefit me, but that benefit has nothing to do with money. The benefit I seek is this: I need to find it within myself to go into the realm in which I committed so much wrong, and do my best to do as much right as I can. I understand how much I hurt the people around me, but I also understand how much damage I’ve done to the education profession as well. And while I seek daily to make amends with those individuals I hurt, I also want the opportunity to balance the damage I’ve done to the teaching profession by pushing solutions to a problem. Money doesn’t matter to me. If my book is published, it won’t make money – an author’s first book, as a general rule, never makes any money. And I want to speak, publicly, to teachers and administrators; I want to stand in front of them and give them the reality – and I do not want to be paid for this. This isn’t me trying to make money; this is me trying to make a difference.
“Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more.”
The truth of the situation is this: It should be common sense and common practice for teachers to not have inappropriate relationships with their students. Yet, this simply is not the case; the simple truth is not good enough – the educational community deserves more. They deserve an example: an example of what a ruined career – a ruined life – looks like. Of course, I can speak endlessly about how the student with whom the teacher has a relationship will be forever harmed as well – struggling with personal relationships or intimacy or trust – but there comes a point when the strongest emphasis that can be made must be made on a personal level. “Look at me,” I’ll say. “I didn’t fade into obscurity after my face disappeared from the news stories. I had to pick up the pieces and try to live the rest of my life.” Sometimes, a deeper truth is needed; sometimes, a real example is needed. I can be that example.
“It’s a funny world we live in.”
Indeed it is, and let me explain why. I will write and speak some very important, very valid, and very accurate points. But there will be people who will dismiss anything I say, not because of what I’m saying, but because of who I am. For reasons beyond reason, it won’t matter how much truth I speak because shallow-minded individuals won’t be able to get beyond the fact that it’s me speaking, unable to hear the message over the static from their own personal judgement of the messenger. This makes no logical sense. It would stand to reason that I would know more than nearly anyone about the causes and results of inappropriate teacher-student relationships, but because I am who I am, many will simply dismiss anything I say, staring down their noses and refusing to listen, because I’m not the pristine human they think they are – funny, but not comical. However, people of true intellect will grasp the message, regardless of the messenger, and those are the people to whom I speak.
“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.”
Perhaps a little chaos – a little against-the-grain thinking – is what we need in order to address a problem that no one wants to talk about. I understand how uncomfortable of a topic this is, but at what point did we decide to prioritize comfort over efficacy? There comes a point when a problem becomes so wide-spread that it becomes imperative upon those with a voice to speak-up to do exactly that. The “established order” doesn’t want to talk about this issue because it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable. Teachers don’t want to be told something that is obvious. But perhaps teachers need to be told what is obvious. I’m not trying to insult anyone’s intelligence, that’s why I’m bringing a new and unique perspective to the issue. My aim is not to simply tell teachers not to hook-up with their students; my goal is also to enlighten teachers on how to see these behavior patterns in their colleagues – how to spot the teachers who are crossing those boundaries. But first, the educational community must be willing to consider a new kind of approach to this issue, because clearly their current approach is not working.
“I’m sorry to let you down. If you lose your faith in me, please keep your faith in people.”
The guilt I carry for violating my profession will never lighten, and I’m fine with that. I deserve to carry this guilt. I let down my colleagues, my students, my students’ parents – everyone. So one message I hope to convey is that I know – for a fact – that not all teachers are “bad apples” like I was, so the goal of my endeavors is to not simply stop teachers from crossing the lines of propriety with their students, but to make other teachers – the good teachers – aware of the issue in much greater detail, equipping them with the tools of awareness when (not if) the situation arises in their school. I owe it to the teachers who are genuinely good teachers to give back to the profession by giving them one more arrow in their quiver to protect their students.
“Things were always going to get worse before they got better.”
It is truly tragic that the situation of inappropriate teacher-student relationships has deteriorated as far as it has, and I know I am irrefutably guilty for contributing to the wide-spread problem against which I now speak-out. But the fact is, as long as school districts continued to ignore and cover-up this problem, the worse and worse it was going to become. As it became known among teachers that more and more of them were getting away with having these relationships, the attitude about it became more and more permissive. I should know – I remember my own thought process. One of the women I taught with (and was sleeping with) had, in the past, had sex with one of her male students. And she got a way with it – completely. And I remember thinking, in the moments leading up to my first inappropriate encounter with my former student, “Well, [NAME OMITTED] got away with it, so I probably will too.” Of course, I do not blame her for my actions – my choices were my choices – but there was an established culture there which continues to perpetuate itself. And if that culture continues, these relationships won’t stop.
“The night is darkest just before the dawn.”
Something can be done to stop this cycle – there is hope. Right now, this problem is as bad as it has ever been. Texas recently set a record for teachers prosecuted for inappropriate relationships with students – nearly 900 cases in just five years! That is staggering! And yet, it is even more proof that more must be done to address this issue. So as bad as things have become, the point is now clear that further steps must be taken to curb this epidemic. The current efforts are not enough. More must be done.
“But I know the truth: there’s no going back. You’ve changed things – forever.”
I know I’ll never be a positive person in the eyes of the educational community again. And frankly, I don’t deserve to be. Anything I’m doing now is not an effort to regain any “good graces” with the profession. I’m not trying to be seen as a “good guy” or anything of the sort. I am simply trying to do the right thing – to go above and beyond what is expected – for the greater good. I’ll never be seen as the “good guy,” and I’m okay with that. How I’m “seen” means far less to me than the impact I want to have on teachers and administrators. I want to open their eyes to the issue – I couldn’t care less about their opinions of me as a person. There is a much bigger issue here than simply me. I am not the focal point. The issue is the focal point. I am only bringing a unique perspective. It’s not about me; it’s about them.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”
-Harvey Dent & Batman
Sometimes I grow tired of being the villain, but I understand why it is the role I must fill. I understand that people need villains in the world to which they may compare themselves and say, “At least that’s not me.” So if that is my label – if that is my purpose – then fine. But my hope is simple: Do not let my past actions take away from my current message, because essentially, my past actions make my current message even more relevant. In a way, I’m like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character at the end of Catch Me If You Can; I’m here to help the good guys catch the bad guys – the bad guys like I used to be. This is my role now, and it’s a role I will embrace and pursue to the best of my abilities.
“Why so serious?”
Why so serious? Because no one else is – no one in the educational community seems to be contributing any serious effort toward even addressing the issue of inappropriate teacher-student relationships, let alone solving the problem. And since it is a problem to which I contributed, then I feel compelled to be part of the solution. That’s why I’m serious about it, and I will continue to be serious about it – even when the skeptics call me a hypocrite and tell me to shut up. And since no one in the educational community wants to take the issue seriously, then someone outside of the educational community needs to step-up, step-in, and speak-out.
Do you hate me?
Wait, that’s a stupid question. Of course you hate me. That’s a given. And frankly, it’s understandable. I mean, let’s be honest, even I hate me most of the time. After all the things I’ve done, how could you not hate me? And since you don’t know me personally, you really have no way of knowing how much I’ve changed and grown, how different I am – how I’m not even a shadow of the piece of trash human I was in 2010 or 2012; so for now, let’s just assume you hate me. Which is fine.
No hard feelings.
But what if I told you, “You shouldn’t.” Crazy, right?
I know; at first you think to yourself, “Yeah, I probably should. Why shouldn’t I hate you?” And that, I might add, is a very valid question. It is also a question I wouldn’t mind asking a woman named Debbie, who writes (or at least used to write) a blog called “Confessions of a Mediocre Mormon Mom.”
The blog is mostly a harmless and mundane stay-at-home-mom blog, populated with recipes, or uplifting inspirational this-and-that, or a light commentary on some timely-relevant event, or whatever recent Mormon mediocre intricacy fits her writing fancy. Honestly, it’s really not that interesting.
But then, there’s her blog about me.
She wrote it during the summer between my March 2012 arrest and my November 2012 sentencing. Evidently her daughter was one of my students at some point – no clue who her daughter was; don’t care – and since she had that “connection” to me, she decided to pitch-in her own two-cents about me. She repeated most of the same blathering that every other internet keyboard expert had to say, and most of that didn’t matter to me. I mean, her writing didn’t exactly hold high amounts of credibility with sentences that included statements like “…my daughter says the rumors at the school confirm…” I mean, really? Rumors confirm? She even attempts to state a rumor as fact, saying I “wasn’t allowed to have female proctors” for my classroom. Again, not true. I had proctors of both genders every year I taught. So yeah, that’s when she effectively stepped off of the credibility train.
But then, soon after I was sentenced to prison, she actually updated it. At my sentencing hearing, my initiative to be a voice against teacher-student relationships was mentioned extensively in court (and was broadcast on television); which apparently infuriated this Mediocre Mom. She comically theorized that I was somehow trying to “turn a profit” from my experience. And then she went on to accuse me of “blaming” my former student for our relationship, based on nothing but her own supposition and the “rumors” told to her by her high school daughter. I could only shake my head. This had well-surpassed ridiculousness. When true altruism is misconstrued as greed, the person harboring the perception is the person with the issue.
I recently asked a few close friends, “Is it inappropriate for me, being who I am, to be the one willing to speak-out about teacher-student relationships?” And my favorite answer was, “You, being who you are, makes it exactly appropriate that you be the one.” And if you knew this person, you’d know she wasn’t just being falsely supportive. So that was encouraging.
I’m still a little perplexed about Mediocre Debbie’s supposition that I was in it to “turn a profit.” No writer makes money off his first book, and I’d already said multiple times on my original website that I would refuse any attempt to pay me for speaking – a stipulation I maintain, by the way. And she also thought I was “blaming” my former student because I talked about how teachers should maintain boundaries between themselves and students (which somehow translated to her thinking I wanted to guard teachers from all these sexually-advancing teenagers, banging on classroom doors with bags full of condoms and heads full of ideas. Okay, that was hyperbole, but you get the point. Her errant assumptions became inflated into such an inconceivable scenario of what-ifs, which would be comical if it wasn’t such a serious issue.
But again, none of this bothered me. None of her ramblings gave me any cause for unease or irritation. I’d read all of this when I returned home from prison, and I was as just numb to as I was when I’d read this sort of uninformed commentary on the news websites two years earlier, before prison. And reading it again, it still didn’t upset me.
But it does puzzle me in one way: This woman interjects her religion into the title of her Blog; she has another blog comparing her religion to Christianity; but when it comes to evaluating someone who was in the midst repentance, seeking forgiveness and redemption, all of a sudden, I’m not worthy, I’m dishonest, and I’m a liar? I mean, I don’t read the Book of Mormon, but I do know that Mormons still read the Bible. And if she thinks my heart is so black and evil, and I am so dishonest, and I have no room for ever repenting and being a good person, then I would advise her to rip out the pages of her Bible about Saul, a multiple-murderer, who eventually became Paul and wrote a significant amount of the New Testament; and also rip out the pages about David, who was an adulterer and a murderer, but was also referred to by God Himself as “A man after my own heart” after his heart-felt repentance. So why am I not allowed to follow the examples in the Bible after I sin? Why am I not allowed to repent? Why am I not allowed to do everything in my power to right the wrongs I’ve committed? Why?
She closes her blog about me with this thought:
“Maybe I am wrong and am being an overprotective mother. Maybe he has truly been changed and is doing this website, book and publicity for the good of humanity. Personally though, I don’t think so.”
Let me break that one down…
- “Maybe I am wrong” — Yes, you are.
- “…and am being an overprotective mother.” — No, you’re not, and I understand.
- “Maybe he has truly been changed” — Yes, and I would invite you to have a conversation with me, not that you ever will.
- “…and is doing this website, book and publicity for the good of humanity.” — Not only that, but it’s actually costing me money to do all of this, I am turning no kind of profit, whatsoever. None.
- “Personally though, I don’t think so.” — If that’s the case, I’m sorry you hold that grudge. However, my current actions and endeavors are fueled by the hatred of me from those who honestly don’t think I’ve changed – the hatred of those “Christians” who believe in things like forgiveness and repentance, but only for themselves, leaving the sins of others to be worn as Scarlet Letters.
But hey you, Stranger. Look around. Another teacher was just arrested for having a relationship with a student. Yep. Another one. And guess what’s being done: Nothing. Sure, the teacher will be sent to jail in shame and released into anonymity and shame, never to be heard from again, and the teachers still teaching, having serial relationships with students and not getting caught, will continue to think they’re invincible. Because no one actually stands in front of them, in the flesh, and says, “Look at me. This is what a ruined life looks like.”
Don’t you think I’m the person to carry that message? Mediocre Debbie doesn’t think so.
But ask yourself, even though you may hate me – and that’s fine – why am I not the perfect person to write about and speak about teacher-student relationships? Why am I not the perfect person to show teachers what to look for in their colleagues who may be having an inappropriate relationship with a student? Why am I not the perfect person to expose the current educational culture that covers-up the allegations when the’re not brought to the attention of Law Enforcement?
If you can think of someone better, please, let me know.
Otherwise, keep with the hate. I’m fine with that. Because the hate of my enemies fuels me to strive for a better good. I have repented. I have been forgiven.
Now it is time to seek redemption. And the only way I know to do that is to be the loudest possible voice against the very sin for which I am best — and worst — known.
The educational community is light-years away from actually solving the problem of teacher-student relationships. After everything that has happened, the correct and appropriate people are still not asking the correct and appropriate questions. It is easier to hastily and hatefully point fingers at teachers who cross those fateful and tragic lines, but when it comes to preventative measures, there is simply nothing being done, even by those who are responsible for protecting the well-being of students.
“Just be careful…”
Here is a perfect example of how school districts are not attempting to prevent this problem: My wife is a teacher and during her first year of teaching, all new teachers spent an extra week before other teachers were required to report, going to in-services and trainings for New Teacher Orientation. And, being conscious of the issue herself (after all, she’s my wife), she kept waiting and waiting for something to be said about the issue of teachers and students becoming “too close” or having inappropriate relationships. Days and days of trainings and meetings and in-services passed, and nothing was said.
Finally, someone in a meeting managed to circle around to the issue. The speaker, nearing the end of his presentation said, “And you high school teachers, you’re not that far apart from the students in age, so, you know, just be careful.”
That was it.
That was the only thing she, as a new teacher, heard from anyone — at all — during her orientation. And here’s the kicker: It wasn’t even a school district employee who said that; it was a guy from the Teacher’s Union. He did not make this statement as a representative of the school district; he said it during his pitch to get new teachers to join the Teacher’s Union. So, essentially, the school district itself — the largest school district in the state, the same school district where I taught when I committed my crime — had nothing to say to new teachers about teacher-student relationships.
The one remark I hear the most regarding this issue is, “Well, it should be common sense for teachers not to have relationships with students.” I agree; I completely agree; I couldn’t agree more! But clearly it’s not, because it’s still happening — all the time. So if the mere assumption that it “should be common sense” is the extent of school districts’ attempts at preventing this from happening, then they are, by default and neglect, putting students at risk.
The First Question
But what can be done? How does a school district prevent teachers from pursuing inappropriate relationships with students? That’s the million-dollar question, but it’s not the first question that should be asked, and that’s the problem. School districts, principals, and even other teachers are seeing a problem and are asking how to solve it. But that cannot be the first question.
The first question must be: Why is this happening?
The problem is not that teachers are having relationships with students — that is the result. The actual problem is much more in-depth, much more complicated, and much more uncomfortable than that. Teachers and school administrators can no longer afford to assume that this is an insulated or isolated issue, specific to only the weird, sick, bizarre, mentally-ill teachers who happen to become mistakenly employed.
It is easier and more comfortable to cast horrific labels on horrific acts and only assume it is because horrific people are making horrific choices, plain-and-simple. Countering upon the possibility that good people can make bad choices makes many people uneasy, uncomfortable, and unusually anxious. After all, if good people are capable of evil, then anyone — any “normal” person — is capable of evil; this is not a comfortable notion to consider. So the human comfort zone includes the instinctive reaction to casting horrific labels on horrific choices.
But why? Why would casting these horrific labels on horrific acts actually be “more comfortable” for a person who perceives themselves as “normal?” The answer to that is simple, and it’s an answer I learned in prison.
Racism in prison is rampant, but oddly enough, it’s not about race — it’s about behavior. When I was in the county jail, spending several weeks waiting to be shipped off to prison, a guy in jail with me (who’d been to prison before) said, “If you’re not racist before prison, you will be after prison.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, seeing as how I grew up with black friends and didn’t have a racist bone in my body. But then again, he’d been to prison and I hadn’t so I just figured I’d wait and see. But when I got there, I noticed something: Whites hated blacks, but blacks didn’t necessarily hate whites. But after talking to some of these racist white guys in prison, they expressed that their hatred of black people was based on their behavior — things black guys did which these white guys found disagreeable. So one day, I flat-out said to one of these racist white guys, “You don’t hate those guys because they’re black, you hate them because you don’t like what they’re doing or how they’re acting; so what you’re doing is, you’re trying to find a way to conceptually separate and distance yourself from them so that you can take comfort in the fact that you’re as different from them as possible. And the easiest way to do that is to find the most obvious manner in which you differ from them, which is, in this case, the opposite color of your skin. Basically, you’re taking the main difference between the two of you — skin color — and making it the main reason why you dislike them.” He didn’t quite track this logic, and frankly, I wasn’t surprised. “You don’t like them,” I said, trying to simplify the issue, “so you’re taking the most obvious thing that separates you two and making it the reason you don’t like them.”
He still didn’t get it. Oh well. But my reasoning was sound, and it is the same logic behind the reasons people are comforted by shouting “pedophile” and “pervert” at teachers who have relationships with students. By seeing their actions as the biggest difference between them (rather than the underlying problems and issues), teachers and parents can put up a social and moral barrier between themselves and the offending teacher by using these terms of extremity. However, the truth is actually much more unnerving. And that’s where Cognitive Distortions come into play.
In the contemporary American workforce, workplace sexual affairs have almost become commonplace; I should know, I had numerous affairs with numerous other teachers when I was teaching and many of my peers were engaging in similar behavior. Teachers often become engrossed in their teacher social circle, blending their social lives with their professional lives by having drinks with co-workers after work or meeting up on weekends for social functions. And of course, there is nothing wrong with this behavior and it can be very beneficial to creating a comfortable and cohesive work environment.
However, there comes a point when the lines and perspectives begin to blur — and it all begins with social acceptance. Teachers, like most professionals, want to be respected and appreciated. However, teachers often seek respect from their students as well as their colleagues. There have been many studies which support the hypothesis that students learn better from teachers they like and respect, both as educators and as people. Fostering a positive personable image as a teacher (rather than merely being a rigid educator) can be a valuable teaching tool for teachers. But it is certainly a slippery slope. Gaining “likability” from students and connecting with them on a deeper level opens the door for non-curriculum conversations such as sports, music, movies, television, etc. All of this is innocent bonding; discussing things like pop culture with students can be beneficial and many studies would indicate that it is actually encouraged — students will often refuse to learn from a teacher who is perceived as “out-of-touch.”
When I taught, my students knew that I was an avid runner and a baseball fan, they knew what music I liked, what movies were my favorites, what books I read, etc. As an educator, it provided a personal depth beyond simply being a teacher, and students were responsive to the notion that they were learning from a “real person” and not just a robotic educational statue, programmed to recite facts about Shakespeare and grammar.
As far as teachers are concerned, students should be viewed as one thing — and one thing only: A product of their occupation — a work product. Student achievement and student success is Priority #1. “Getting to know” students is not a necessity beyond knowing what is needed to help them succeed in academia. Students are work products. Being viewed as a “regular person” should be used simply as an academic strategy, not a social status mark.
However, for some teachers, the script flips. As teachers seek to be viewed by students as “regular people,” those same teachers sometimes begin to view their students as “regular people” as well. The social discourse is a two-way conversation, so as students learn a teacher’s likes and dislikes, the students express their own, adding depth to themselves as well. And the slope grows more slippery by the second.
Peer to Peer
When students start seeing teachers as regular people, studies indicate they are more apt to learn from them. But when teachers start viewing students as regular people, history has shown they have a tendency to view them as peers rather than work products. The adult sees the teenager as an adult peer rather than a subordinate student. And this line is only further blurred by the multiple mediums of communication.
Teachers begin giving out their cell phone numbers and allowing students to text them; teachers begin “friending” students on Facebook and allowing students to “follow” them on Twitter; teachers begin allowing students to send them messages on Instagram or Snapchat or any number of social media outlets. At that point, the student has ceased to be a student and has become a peer. So why is it any surprise that so many teachers blur the line between teenage peer and adult peer, subsequently viewing these teenagers as adults? And when two peers, perceived as adults to one another, become attracted to each other, why is society shocked and surprised when that first kiss happens, a relationship ensues?
In the day and age when emails reach our phones just as quickly as text messages, there is really no feasible reason for a student to have a teacher’s personal cell phone number. The teacher may see it as only a means of communication with little-to-no differentiation between text messages or emails or Facebook messages, etc. However, the student does not see it that way. The student sees access to a personal cell phone number or a social media connection as a deep and personal view into the life of the teacher. They live in a time when social media is as personally intimate as a face-to-face conversation, whereas many adults view social media as a simple way to connect with people and post a few vacation photos.
Therefore, assuming the teenager can view these things through the same lens as an adult is to assume the teenagers are adults themselves — this is another tragic cognitive distortion. Perceiving teenagers as peers (or adults) through social or peer-like interactions only precipitates the possibility of inappropriate contact.
Another significant predicating factor which leads to the crossing of boundaries between teachers and students is the teacher’s insistence on being a part of the students’ social hierarchy. It is human nature (for the most part) to want to be liked, respected, even admired; however, many teachers take this concept beyond logic by wanting to be viewed as the “cool” teacher by the students in their classes (or even not in their classes), and this mindset is one of the first variables which begins to murky the waters of propriety.
In researching the many cases of unlawful teacher/student relationships, this was a recurring theme of many of the disgraced educators. They were well-liked, popular, and “cool” teachers; rarely was the disgraced teacher “odd” or “creepy” or “weird.” Far more often than not, it was a respected, well-known, attractive, young teacher who crossed the line of propriety with a student.
Essentially, this is the other end of the spectrum. Rather than the adult cognitively distorting the teenagers as fellow adults, they are distorting themselves as teenagers. For some teachers, it’s their chance to be popular in high school again, or for the first time. In this instance, the teacher isn’t attracted to the student because the student is a teenager, but rather the teacher is viewing him/herself as a teenager, part of the social hierarchy of the high school status quo. But again, the teacher is not attracted to the student because of age, but despite it.
When a teacher inserts him/herself into the students’ social hierarchy, the teacher crosses from professionalism into personalism, which is an area no teacher should be, with the exception of very few extenuating circumstances. However, understanding that there are no absolutes, it is safe to say that a high school teacher has no place in the friend zone of his/her students. And while it is fine (and even beneficial) for teachers to provide their students with a little more depth of personality, when a teacher begins to seek status with students, that is the beginning of the gray area.
The fact of the matter is this: Right now, for all of those “social” things, a vast majority of teachers, principals, school officials, and school districts turn a blind eye to social interactions; nothing is done, and no one seems to care — until that first kiss happens.
The unassuming fact school administrators need to realize is this: Anything beyond basic teacher-student social normality is off-limits. There is no viable reason for a student to send a teacher a text message. There are always other alternatives. And there is absolutely positively no reason for any student to have any social media interaction with any teacher at any time. If this is not the policy of a school and/or school district, then that school district is practicing gross negligence and should be liable for legal repercussions.
Admittedly, I was guilty of breaking all of these norms. That’s not to say this is why I did what I did — I made my own choices — but as far as perpetuating circumstances go, it was certainly on the list. But one important lesson can be drawn from this: This is a warning sign — an indicator — that a teacher is either having an inappropriate relationship with a student or is setting him/herself up for the possibility in the future, either perceptively, intentionally, or inadvertently. When teachers begin viewing students as peers rather than work products, the chances of an inappropriate relationship increase from improbable to possible.
 …other than the remarks directly ridiculing me for my own choices regarding this issue…
 Obviously, the quantity of these occurrences did not make them permissible.
 Male or female. It is important to note that the disparity of numbers between male teachers and female teachers who cross the lines of impropriety with students is not as wide of a gap as media coverage would imply.
 For instance, favorite sports teams, musical preference, marital status (if married), children, etc. These details add depth to a teacher, making him/her more relatable.
Inspire someone today.
The most important thing in your day today just might be the most importing thing in someone else’s life. People walk through their lives thinking their own existence is difficult enough – and perhaps it is – but what if we carried the perspective of knowing our existence could be the game-changer of someone else’s life?
Sure, people want to love and be loved, people want to be cared-for; people want to laugh until they cry and smile until their cheeks are tired. But deep-down, people want – people need – to be inspired.
The fact is, everyone is capable of doing something great – the reality is, very few will. And the difference-maker isn’t that people don’t want to do something great or don’t have time or don’t have the ability; people simply lack the springboard of being genuinely inspired. So it is imperative upon all of us – as people – to inspire one another.
Be a positive force in someone’s life. Do something unexpectedly kind. Pay an undeserved compliment. Be a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, a hand to hold. Because you’ll probably never know how your one simple gesture of kindness can lead to the inspiration of something great. Who’s to say that one simple act of kindness or support can’t prompt a snowball of inspiration that leads to the greatest achievement in another person’s life?
Sure, most of us got up today, showered, dressed, went to work; did the grind of life like we do every other day, just waiting for the end of the work day, then the end of the evening, then bed time; just so that we can get up the next day and do it all again, and again, and again. But in that seemingly-endless daily routine of mundane banalities, how many opportunities do we pass-up or miss when we could have been the difference in someone’s entire life?
We’re human. We know when other humans are struggling. We can tell when someone is clearly swimming against the current of life. And yet, we tend to keep our heads down, not wanting to interfere, not wanting to get involved; sometimes a struggling person’s silence is the biggest cry for help – and sometimes help can be in the simple form of walking up to someone, putting a caring hand on a trembling shoulder and saying, “You’ll be okay.”
Care for someone today.
Love someone today.
Encourage someone today.
I’m not a bad person – I’ve just done some really bad things.
I was reading an article the other day . . . about me. It’s rare that I find an article online about me anymore that I haven’t read, but I happened to stumble upon one from KCTV5 in Kansas City posted on March 13, 2012. It was written quite soon after my arrest because the article didn’t publish my name (which is probably why I’d never found it before). “Because the teacher has not been charge,” the article said, “KCTV5 is not publishing his name.” But essentially, the article said the same thing all the others did, with one very significant exception – mentioning something that even I didn’t know.
My story was featured in the Kansas City area news as well as the Wichita news because even though the crime occurred in Wichita while I was teaching at Wichita East High School, at the time of my arrest I was teaching at Eudora High School in Eudora, Kansas; a small town half-an-hour southwest of Kansas City. I liked Eudora. It was a quaint and friendly small town where everyone knew everyone, and seemingly liked everyone. It was only a few minutes outside of Lawrence, the town to which we’d moved after leaving Wichita.
Eudora had become my safe-haven; Eudora was my clean slate; Eudora was my chance to do things right. I’d ruined everything for myself in Wichita, so moving to Lawrence, Kansas and teaching in Eudora was my do-over. And in Eudora, I really was doing it right.
So in this KCTV5 article, the sibling of one of my students at Eudora High School was interviewed and said something that I didn’t know and hadn’t heard. When she was interviewed, she said “a group of students went to the principal on the teacher’s behalf hoping he wouldn’t lose his job over what they believed to be gossip and nothing more.” I was floored when I read this. “Told the principal nothing [was] wrong with him,” she told the reporter, “he was a good teacher and they were just rumors high schoolers started.”
I had no idea this occurred. A group of my students at Eudora High School actually went to the principal and stood-up for me. And for a solid moment after reading that, I felt really good. And then, for a subsequent solid moment, I felt really bad.
The good feeling was a great feeling. It felt amazing to know that I’d had such a positive impact on the lives of these students that they felt the need to step-up and defend me, knowing that I wasn’t the kind of person who could have possibly done the things of which I was accused. And in a way, they were right, sort of.
The bad feeling was a terrible feeling. It felt terrible to know that these students couldn’t possibly believe that I was guilty of doing something that I had most certainly done – so in a way, they were wrong, sort of.
I only remain in contact with one student from Eudora High School, one of my senior English students, a happy and spunky girl named Alisha. Alisha is now a successful young woman and mother, enjoying a successful career and a very happy relationship with an awesome guy, living together in Lawrence.
A little over a year after I came home from prison, Alisha got in touch with me. She told me she’d been trying to track me down for years and was afraid I’d fallen off the face of the planet. One of the first things she did was tell me how much of a positive impact I’d had on her life as a teacher. And one of the first thing I did was apologize to her, sincerely and profusely.
Here’s the thing: After my arrest, she spoke with a group of students and they all wrote me letters, hoping I was okay and letting me know they didn’t hate me, and mostly stating that they knew I couldn’t possibly be guilty. The letters were mailed to my house in Lawrence and I received them the day we returned to Lawrence from Wichita after my arrest, to move out.
Was I guilty? Well, yes and no.
Yes, I was guilty of having an inappropriate relationship with a student several years prior. But that’s not what the news said at the time. The news – especially in Kansas City (which is the closest metropolitan area to Eudora) – said in their headlines and stories that I was arrested for rape. Well, of course I never raped anyone. But the news networks didn’t care. “Rape” is a much stronger buzz-word than “inappropriate relationship” so that’s the word that got the flashy headline attention.
Anyone who knows me – at all – knows that I simply don’t have the capacity to physically and forcibly rape someone, especially after being a victim of rape myself. But regardless, that was the charge the sleazy Wichita detective slapped on his paperwork, so that’s the charge the media ran with, truth be damned.
During that conversation with Alisha after reestablishing contact, she accepted my apologies after I told her I’d essentially lied to her when we spoke after I received those letters. I told her I just wasn’t prepared to admit what I’d done and I lied to her, and I felt terrible for lying. But she said, “You didn’t lie.” I wasn’t sure what to think of this until she elaborated. “You were accused of rape, and I just knew there was no way you could have done that.” This made much more sense to me. “I know now that things happened, but I also know you would never rape anyone.” And she was right.
So the students in Eudora (for the most part) thought there was no way I was capable of doing such a thing. But then I wondered, What did the students at East think when I was arrested? So I contacted one of the few former students from East with whom I still speak, and sure enough, my suspicion was accurate: When I was arrested, the students at East High (for the most part) thought I was most definitely guilty.
This poses one significant question: Why the discrepancy?
As I’ve written in the past, I see a therapist regularly – an amazing and inspiring old guy with whom I connect very well; we have a great laid-back and brutally honest rapport – we’re like Matt Damon and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Today we were talking about how I enjoyed teaching in Eudora exponentially more than I enjoyed teaching at East because, for some reason, I felt like I was genuinely making a difference in the lives of students in Eudora; not so much at East.
And on some levels, I think I kind of already knew this. For several years, I’ve essentially resented the way the students at East reacted to my arrest, while remaining humbly appreciative of how the students at Eudora reacted (which was, until recently, based solely on the letters Alisha and the other students sent me).
But then, my therapist asked me a question that made me pause and think.
“Do you think,” he said, “if you’d taught with the same passion at East that you taught with in Eudora, would you have made the same choices at East?”
“No,” I said after spending a moment in balanced contemplation. “Because when I was teaching at East, everything was about me.” He nodded as I continued. “I wanted to be the cool teacher, the popular teacher; it was all about my image and my ego.” Teaching at East – teaching at my own alma mater – was fueled by egocentric arrogance. The only reason I was so dynamic and flamboyant was to create the image of the cool and edgy teacher, not to be a genuinely effective educator. And that egocentric outlook was a direct contributing factor to my behavior, seeking out self-aggrandizing pleasures with women I taught with, and eventually, a student.
But when I crossed those tragic lines and had all those affairs, it brought me to a point in life when I knew I needed to change – change everything. So when my family moved to Lawrence and I began teaching in Eudora, I was the same guy, but I was driven by a different passion. Suddenly, I really did want to be a dynamic educator. Suddenly, I really did want to be a positive force in the lives of students – not for me, but for them. Suddenly, I wasn’t trying to hook up with the women I taught with. Suddenly, I wasn’t out partying every weekend.
Suddenly, I was a teacher.
And I think this was directly reflected in how my students and fellow teachers (and even my friends) viewed me. I was the same guy, but I was a completely different teacher. I was the same guy, but I was a completely different husband. I was the same guy, but I was a completely different person.
So it’s not that the East students were petulant brats who hated me without cause, they were merely judging me by the person they perceived me to be, based on who I was (as a person) when I taught there. Thus, the inverse was true at Eudora; they were judging me based on who they perceived me to be as well – the difference being, I was (as a whole) a better person when I taught at Eudora than I was when I taught at East, and that was directly reflected in my teaching, my personality, and my attitude.
It wasn’t the students‘ opinions that differed, it was me who differed – and this is the evidence I’ve always sought. This is my proof to me that I could change, I would change, and I did change.
I really had changed between leaving East and going to Eudora – I really had become a different and better person. Based on who the students at East (for the most part) thought I was, they had no problem believing that I was capable of committing those crimes; based on who the students at Eudora (for the most part) thought I was, they couldn’t possibly believe that I was capable of committing those crimes.
See? Two groups of people perceived me in opposite lights because of their perceptions of the type of person they believed me to be. The students at Wichita East High School thought I was a piece of shit – because frankly, at the time, I was; the students at Eudora High School thought I was a good and decent guy, and a passionate and caring educator – because frankly, at the time, I was.
I’d changed. I really had changed. And the change was on-going. I was slowly but surely becoming the kind of teacher, husband, father, and person I needed to be.
But that all came crashing down when I was arrested on March 9, 2012.
I committed a terrible crime and I needed to be punished. I understand that. And although I am the first to admit that prison changed me for the better, prison wasn’t the reason I changed. I changed because I knew I wanted to change – I knew I needed to change. I didn’t change my life because I “got caught.” The changes in my life began long before that. “Getting caught” didn’t make me want to be a better person – committing those sins in the first place made me want to change.
So I did.
And I still am.
And I will continue to change – to improve – until that cold lonely night when I breathe my last breath.
Page by page, line by line, you can rewrite your own reality. The words on the page are powerless without the passion that drives every letter of every syllable until the final punctuation is placed at the bottom of the final page; when the only thing left to say is, “The End.” But until that moment, you have the ability, the power, and the responsibility to rewrite your reality until you get it right. Even the worst villains can save the world. No one is simply stuck in their life – you are only stuck in your life because you believe that to be the truth.
“I’m stuck in a dead-end job,” you may say. Because you haven’t stepped out into the unknown to seek your passion, rather than simply working to pay the bills.
“I’m stuck in a loveless marriage,” you may say. Because you haven’t really sought to rekindle the fire of passion that brought you two together in the beginning.
“I’m stuck in…” you fill in the blank. And then ask yourself, how real is your excuse?
There was a time when I could legitimately and accurately say “I’m stuck in prison.” And I was – locked doors and all. And I had two choices: Watch the clock run-out, or make the clock run-out. So I made the clock run-out. Rather than lamenting my sentence away, whining about how much time I had left, I produced, I created, I imagined – I wrote, I ran, and I earned a degree in prison. And then, on December 5, 2014, I walked out of prison, a better person, not only glad to be out, but even more excited to be in. I was excited to be in a new life that seemed impossible. The air seemed to smell different that day; cleaner, clearer, sweeter; like an evening breeze on the beach, rushing off the cresting shore of the ocean waves.
I came home, got a job, and did my best to be Mr. Normal. I worked a regular job, lived a regular life, had regular responsibilities – I was done being a cheater, a liar, an addict; and to fill that void, I began to write again. And soon, writing is all I will do. Writing is the only thing at which I am truly great. When I sit down and paint the lyrical paintings on my plain white canvas, the art takes shape in my mind and is played-out onto paper like a symphony in a deep dark ringing hall. And when I’m on, I’m on. I will often get into “the zone” with writing, and write a thousand (or so) words, then stop, reread it, and think to myself, “Damn, I seriously just wrote that.”
I was reading an article in Writer’s Digest recently and it posed the question, “What motivates you to write?” But it wasn’t the type of question that ask what topic or what genre or what music motivates you, but rather, it was a big-picture question. What, in the broadest possible spectrum of your life, motivates you to write. And I was pleased to find that it did not take me long to sufficiently and honestly answer this question.
Anyone who has read any of my work on this Ongoing Commentary (or blog, if you will), would certainly notice that I write about my wife – a whole helluva bunch. But she is not what motivates me to write. She inspires me – oh does she ever inspire me, like a muse singing a beautiful song – but although much of what I write is to her or for her, she is not what motivates me to write.
My wife and I saw Suicide Squad last weekend. I must admit, I had low expectations for this film, and yet, I cannot recall an instance at a film when I was more pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie.
I particularly bonded with Will Smith’s character, Deadshot. He’s a super-villain assassin who is a crack-shot at anything he shoots – he never misses. But as a result of his villainous conquests, he was eventually caught and thrown in prison. In the film, he is essentially coerced by the government into being a good guy to fight a force of greater evil. And in the process of learning about Deadshot’s character in the film, we learn that he has a young daughter whom he loves deeply. Essentially, he is the tragic father figure whose actions have caused him to be taken away from her, leaving her wondering what ever happened to her daddy.
Needless to say, I could definitely relate.
So near the end of the film, Deadshot has the option of either finishing the mission against this greater evil, or escaping from the government’s custody and living as a fugitive. And while the other converted villains in the “Suicide Squad” are strongly considering escape, Deadshot decides he’s going to stay and fight. Deadshot decides, for once, he’s really going to be the good guy. And when he is asked why, he says with passion and conviction, “my daughter is gonna know that her daddy is not a piece of shit.”
When he said this – in the way he said it – it felt like my heart caved-in. And that’s when it occurred to me. This is what motivates me to write. When (not if) my book is published, it will carry a message that is deeply contrary to the errant life-standards by which I have lived for entirely too long. I’m going to put on paper, between two covers, that the way I lived was wrong, the way I am now is right, and I will shout from the rooftops if I must to keep people from making the same choices I did. Because on the news, almost daily, we see it again and again – another teacher, and another teacher, and another teacher…
There will come a time when my daughter will fully understand what I did. She’s ten now, so she doesn’t particularly care and she is simply glad I’m home. But in four or five or six years, she’ll know, she’ll comprehend, she’ll understand, and she’ll hate me for it. She’ll hate me for it because her friends will give her shit about it. She will hate me for it because she will be ostracized for having me as a father. And that absolutely breaks my heart.
If I don’t start now – and I mean right now – to turn those tides and stop being the villain, I could damage my daughter’s livelihood as she grows up, which will almost certainly damage our relationship as result. So I’m writing now. I’m working on a project so complex and difficult that it will soon require all of my time and attention. Because I owe it to all the people I hurt to come back and do something good. Because I owe it to all the people I’ve lied to, to write and publish something that is brutally true. Because I owe it to my daughter to show her that I’m not the monster that people will tell her I am.
“my daughter is gonna know that her daddy is not a piece of shit.”
This is why I write. And like the members of the Suicide Squad, I am prepared to fight.
Maybe I make it, maybe I don’t. But I will fight.
On some levels, the fight has already begun. A few people I respect have implied that I won’t make it; that I’m not good enough, and that I will fail.
I like that. My biggest motivators are the ones who tell me I can’t do something. So to them, I only have one thing to say: If you are only anticipating my failures, do not congratulate me on my successes. Having proven you wrong is congratulations enough. Because by then, I will have been able to take the moment I dream about and make it a reality: I will be able to show my daughter what I’ve done and say, “See, I did some bad things in the past, but I’m doing so much more good in the future.”
My daughter is amazing and I’m so very proud of her. And I really want her to be proud of me too, regardless of the past.
You can rewrite your own reality. Want proof? Watch me…
Another Kansas teacher has been fired for having an unlawful relationship with a student. And as a result, principals all across the state are doing what they’ve always done to prevent this from happening in the future: Absolutely nothing!
Are you fucking kidding me? This shit has been out of control for a while, and it simply makes absolutely no fucking sense! (Sorry for the strong language, but this is getting dangerous.)
Romeo’s “Why then…” soliloquy in Romeo & Juliet is meant to be confusing. None of those things makes sense. But in this speech, the confusion is intentional; it’s a list of metaphors which illustrate the emotional inconsistencies and confusion swirling in Romeo’s mind. This soliloquy is his attempt at getting a handle on his own thoughts, but without success; life is making no sense to him, and he can’t figure out what to do about it.
“Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!“
When I saw on the news that another teacher was arrested for hooking up with a student, I nearly lost my damn mind. I’m not sure why this particular time bothered me more, but it did. I wish I could talk to these teachers. I wish I could stand in front of them and show them what happens when they do this shit, before they make the same choices I did. I want to stand there and show them exactly what a ruined career and a ruined life looks like. I offered to do this before I went to prison in 2012, but the educational establishment essentially told me, “No, you’re not wanted!”
Why do they refuse to solve this problem, or even try? Why are schools doing absolutely nothing to address this issue? Clearly it should be common sense for teachers not to hook up with students, right? However, it isn’t exactly working out that way.
So by all means, school officials, keep your heads in the sand. Because for every teacher we see on the news, there are two or three teachers who have been dealt with “quietly” and dozens who have flat-out gotten away with it. This is a disease – an epidemic – that no one wants to deal with, and it is slowly taking its toll.
Don’t vow to protect the students while ignoring the very problem that puts them at risk. This “misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms” has created the illusion of safety, yet no one can see the fire because of all the smoke.
Just to be perfectly clear: I do not blame the administration for what I did, regardless of what the ignorant Internet comments want to claim. That’s just ridiculous. I didn’t make the choices I made because they didn’t tell me not to hook up with a student. However, the time has come to be proactive. The time has come for someone to step forward and state the obvious, because it certainly seems that it isn’t so obvious anymore.
The longer that schools ignore this issue, the more teachers we will see on the news with their most recent sex scandal.
Clearly, this is a problem. Yet no one seems to be doing anything to address it.
My choices were my fault and no one else’s. But if I had the chance to say something to someone that would change their perspective and prevent them from making the same choice I did, I would seize that opportunity in a heartbeat. I can’t change what I did, but maybe I can say something or write something that can prevent an instance of this in the future. And if just one teacher changes his/her perspective, it is all worth it.
But that’s not what schools want. School administrators think their school is under control. Principals think they’ve got it handled.
JUNIOR HIGH AND HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPALS: Do something to address this issue! This is happening in your school, right now, as I type this sentence. I knew about instances of teacher/student relationships long before I ever crossed that line myself. And I will forever regret not speaking up, because both teachers have gotten away with it and are still teaching. But the established culture among the faculty was clear: “I see nothing; I hear nothing; I know nothing.” And I certainly wasn’t the only teacher who knew.
That’s the key. The culture as-a-whole must be changed. And before that can happen, the issue must be pulled from the shadows and thrust to center stage. Make it an issue among the faculty. If it remains a hush-hush issue, then it will keep happening in hush-hush manners. But if it becomes a forward and public issue among all faculty, perhaps it will quash the inclinations of teachers who seem to think that a relationship with a student is somehow secretly permissible. Because judging by the number of teachers hitting the news lately, “secretly permissible” seems to be the general perspective, as long as no one gets caught.
It’s sad when someone like me must be the voice of reason.
Do something about this.
Have you ever seen pure evil? Have you ever seen something – or someone – and just known for a fact that you were seeing something utterly and horrifically evil?
But what does “evil” really mean? How do you know it when you see it? Or can you actually see it? Can evil actually be acknowledged? Yes. But the problem with people is that we simply aren’t looking for evil, so when it’s staring us in the face, we glaze over it and move on like a stranger in a crowded elevator.
And that is why my behavior went so casually-undetected for so many years, living the entirety of my marriage as a philandering womanizing evil piece of shit. But my secret was simple: I was charming – I was funny and personable and helpful and friendly – I was disarming, like an old friend you’ve never met before.
Sure, there were people who saw through my bullshit facade, but no one ever said anything – no one ever called me out, or at least not to my face. But honestly, I wish they would have. I cringe – I physically flinch – when I think about the kind of person I was. Often, I think about it and it sends me into a depression that takes hours to let-up. I think of who I was and it just doesn’t seem feasible that a single person could be as evil as I was, while painting an outer picture of someone so lovable and faithful and charming.
I hate myself for being able to manipulate people so well.
I don’t blame anyone for what I was. I don’t blame my parents, or my upbringing, or the son of a bitch who raped me when I was 18, or the booze-life of college, or … anything. I blame me. Just me. And honestly, perhaps I blame myself too much. But regardless, I blame me. Sometimes I just think to myself, “Damn, I hate me so much!“
Have you ever seen pure evil? Have you ever seen something – or someone – and just known for a fact that you were seeing something utterly and horrifically evil?
I have – in the mirror.
My biggest struggle as of late has been to sever the final ties that bind my identity to the devil I was, and only cling to the man I am today. Honestly, I’m quite proud of who I am now. I really am. I’ve never been so faithful and loving to a woman as I am to my wife right now. So why can’t that be the identity that occupies my forethought? Why can’t I let go of the pain of what I was, when I clearly want nothing to do with that life?
I guess I just need to hear it more from the people around me – I need reassurance that they can tell I’ve changed. Do they even notice? Do they even care? Granted, most people are so wrapped-up in the intricacies of their own lives that they rarely bother to care about the lives of others – unless, of course, they are able to demean that person in order to lend themselves the moral high ground (which is what I got a lot of when I was originally arrested).
Do people really believe I’m the same person after prison as I was before? Do people really believe I’m okay with what I did? Do people really believe I would keep living the way I was living? Because if they honestly believe any of that, then what the hell was the point of prison?
I admit and acknowledge: I was an evil person, and it sickens me to recall the memories of my behaviors – illegal or immoral. I hate myself for being that evil subhuman parasite. I torture myself almost daily about it. Sometimes the weight is so heavy that I can barely stand under the pressure. But every day, I find a way to move forward – I move forward toward a life worth living and away from the life of evil behind me. My only option is to live a pure and moral life. I can only say “I’ve changed” so many times; words are only worth so much.
We are human, so we are simultaneous optimists and skeptics; we hope for good but expect bad; we believe what we are told and question everything we hear; we believe people can change, yet expect them to remain the same. We are all riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas. We are human.
Some people will never be convinced. To them, I will be evil – forever. And for many, that’s comforting to them.
People want evil. People need evil. People need evil in the world so that they have something to point a finger at and say, “See, he’s evil; he’s nothing like me!” There’s comfort in being able to draw a defined barrier between ourselves and the things we find morally reprehensible. There’s comfort in being able to put a face to moral inferiority. And to many people who knew me, I am that face, even though I carry no resemblance to the face they envision when they hear my name.
I challenge those people to talk to me, for a mere few minutes.
But few will, if any. I can live a pure and moral life, from this moment until I breathe my last breath; yet I will always be the face of evil in their eyes. Who I was matters more than who I am. However, people must acknowledge that it is entirely possible to be an horrible, evil person – and it is equally possible to turn from that life and become a good and moral human being. Saul did it. I’ve done it, and I am happy with the life of morality and purity toward which I strive daily. Am I a saint? Of course not – no one is. Am I a saint compared to who I was? Absolutely.
I am proud of who I am now. My wife, family, and close friends are very proud of who I am now. They care. And I have not yet met a single person from my past who has not noticed a significant difference in me. People do notice; people do realize that I’ve changed. The problem is, only a few will even give me the opportunity show it. Several people have sent messages through Facebook to my wife, asking her to pass along their phone number to me, and I’ve been deeply thankful for the opportunity to speak to some of these gracious people from my past. I have never had a negative experience with encountering people from my past, especially once they take a moment to simply witness the deep-seeded changes within me. And I am so thankful for those opportunities because they are very rare.
Honestly, most people would rather take comfort in their hate. And when hate is comforting, pure evil is just around the corner.
So seriously, if you’re reading this, and we haven’t spoken in several years, or even if we’ve never met…
Stop being a victim of the choices you’ve made.
My wife and I get out of bed at roughly the same time every morning. This is quite a new development. For nearly a year, she has been working at a preschool on the other side of town, opening the building at 6AM; she would wake up around 4:45AM. I, on the other hand, go into work at 8AM, so getting out of bed anytime before 7:00 was clearly out of the question. But now, that’s different. Now, she’s an elementary school teacher who goes to work around the same time I do, so we get to wake up together. But like I said, this is new.
This morning when her alarm went off (it woke me up as well), she reached over and either turned it off or set it to Snooze. As I curled under the covers with my back to her, the notion occurred to me that my alarm would soon be sounding as well. Regardless, when she muted her alarm and the air was again filled with the slow and comfortable silence of the early morning calm, she cuddled up behind me with a comfy groan and softly draped her arm over my chest. I could feel her breathing on the back of my neck, and I swear I could hear her slightly smiling.
And then, something odd happened. I was suddenly filled with a very deep and heavy sense of melancholy that I could not – at the time – understand or explain. It was as though I was saddened by the fact that she was cuddling with me, and I couldn’t understand why. And then, it occurred to me. It occurred to me that the reason she was laying in bed with me at that moment was because she wasn’t working her old job teaching preschool for a moderate hourly wage. She was now in a career – a respectable career, a salaried career, her professional goal – and that afforded her the opportunity to sleep a few more hours and earn a lot more money.
That’s when I came to a difficult realization: My wife has surpassed me in nearly every conceivable way. But I didn’t see this as an epiphany that I’d lost some sort of competition or anything of the sort. Rather, it really hit me – harder than it ever had in the past – that this woman is far too good for me and deserves so much better than me. That weight that I was feeling as she lightly breathed on the back of my neck was the feeling of me weighing her down, holding her back. I was suddenly filled with this paralyzing sense of dread, as though I would lose her at any moment as soon as she realized that I was just unnecessary baggage, preventing her from succeeding as a professional and as a person.
I have no idea how much validity there was (or is) in that notion, but nonetheless, it was there, and it was difficult to handle. I can’t help but see ever-so-clearly that her life is on a happy successful up-swing; my life is stuck in a muddy rut of my own self-imposed limitations; a byproduct of my own errant, destructive, and tragic choices.
In my opinion, I’ve only ever been a real “victim” once. And I feel like I’ve overcome that with as much strength and success as I could have hoped for, considering the circumstances. But the subsequent choices I’ve made in my life have caused significant repercussions.
But here’s my problem: I am allowing those choices to limit my potential. I am allowing myself to be a victim of the choices I’ve made. And I think we all have a tendency to do this. We all see certain situations in our lives as less-than-ideal because of things we’ve done or decisions we’ve made or paths we’ve taken; this is no way to live.
We must stop being the victims of our choices.
We must start being the benefactors of our actions.
I am beginning to see that I have so much more potential to be so much more than I am right now. I’ve spent nearly two years feeling “stuck” in the life I’ve created for myself because of the actions of my past. My wife is steadily achieving more and more professional success. And one of the biggest ways that I can honor her and show my gratitude to her for being (and remaining) my wife is to strive for as much success for myself as well. If I simply sit back and watch her succeed in her endeavors without striving for successes of my own, what kind of man does that make me? The answer: Not a man at all!
My mentality has been, “I guess I’ll make the best my mediocre reality.”
My mentality must be “I will create a better, happier, and more successful reality.”
I don’t have limitations – I have obstacles to overcome.
I don’t have possibilities – I have goals to achieve.
I don’t have enemies – I have critics to defy.
I am not the victim of my choices – I am the benefactor of my actions.
I am fueled by resistance. My biggest motivators are the people who tell me I cannot do something – that I am not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, not fast enough – those people only make me work harder, dig deeper, and set the bar higher than before. Because I don’t simply have goals, I have aspirations – realistic aspirations that are within my grasp. What I must do is push toward achievement. “Tomorrow” is a dangerous concept – success and achievement must start today.
A goal without a timeline is just a wish.
Never – ever – let your past determine your future.
I am so proud of my wife today. And perhaps part of that is why this is a bit of a difficult day for me.
I don’t really know how to feel right now. It’s a tough day, but a good day – the theme of the day is “inner conflict.” Within my own conscience right now, two emotions are battling for supremacy: Pride and Regret. But my pride isn’t the bad kind of pride – it’s a sweet flavor of pride. Because right now, I am exceedingly proud of my wife, who begins her new career today – ideally, the career she will have for the rest of her professional life. And it’s the same career I started on nearly this same day, ten years ago – the same career I ruined for myself. And that’s where the regret comes in. And yet, I understand that this is a change for her, and for me, so this change will soon become routine – become the norm – and this sense of regret will pass (I hope), and I will be happily left with my spousal-pride; because I really am proud of my wife for overcoming everything I’ve put her through. And here she stays, with me.
Even I am willing to admit that I’ve had a recent all-encompassing musical preference for the music of Guns N’ Roses, ever since my wife and I went to their Not In This Lifetime concert in Kansas City. So this morning, it was no surprise that their Greatest Hits CD was playing in my car on my way to work. But she was also on her way to work – to her new career. When she called me as we were both en route, my Bluetooth car stereo answered my phone and I talked to her as she drove to New Teacher Orientation. We had a nice talk, as we always do, and I did my best to bestow what logistical advice I could, being a former teacher talking to a new teacher. She seemed excited and nervous and anxious and happy, and I am happy for her. But most of all, I’m proud of her. And when our conversation ended, the music in my car resumed in time to hear the ending of my wife’s favorite Guns N’ Roses song, “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” (Funny story about this song: The iconic opening riff was actually Slash’s guitar warm-up riff that he used before recording sessions and shows, but when Axl heard it, he loved it and they wrote a song around it – something unexpected became something great.)
The next song that played was “Patience,” the acoustic ballad from their 1988 album “G N’ R Lies.” This song is about as un-Guns N’ Roses as it gets – a lamenting ballad about missing the one you love, but knowing love will persevere. “All we need is just a little patience,” the song sings with optimism. And this sentiment gave me comfort. My wife and I have overcome so much – most of which has been of my own doing – but I feel like we’ve finally made it. She’s finally reached the career she’s been seeking for a long time, and there is no one who is more deserving. She’s worked so hard, and she has finally been rewarded with a career she will love. But she didn’t merely need “just a little patience,” she need a lot of it. Actually, her natural sense of patience will be the asset that makes her successful – she is a Special Education teacher – and I know first-hand about her natural sense of patience. Her ability to be patient and tolerating is likely the precise reason why we are still married. So along with being an amazing wife, I have every confidence that she will also be an amazing teacher.
But that’s where my regret steps in. I’ve written in the past that I have no regrets, only remorse. But as I watch my wife embark on her new career, I may have been mistaken. The choices I’ve made have indeed led me through a difficult path toward becoming the best possible version of myself, but I suppose I regret the fact that I ruined my career as a teacher. Please understand that I do feel horrible and hold the utmost remorse for hurting the people I hurt – including the women with whom I had serial affairs as well as my former student, and of course, my wife – but this is different. And honestly, I don’t know how to feel. I mean, after getting a few years under my belt, I was a really good teacher. But for me, teaching wasn’t my passion or my life or anything like that; it was my job, and I enjoyed the financial and practical stability that came with having a salaried career. However, now I don’t have that. Now I have an hourly job. Granted, it’s cool to have a job in a law firm, with my own office and my own caseload, but it’s just not the same. I suppose part of me knew that I was making a noticeable altruistic difference in the lives of others. Now, I just write legal documents and research statutes.
I am eternally thankful for the numerous former students who have contacted me following my release to tell me, regardless of everything that has happened, I had a positive impact on their lives. Those letters and phone calls have meant more to me than I could ever describe with words, and I’m pretty damn good with words. But I guess my biggest regret is, because of my choices, I can no longer do that anymore.
Or can I? Certainly not as a teacher, but perhaps I can still be someone who makes the lives of others just a little better. I was a really good teacher, but I can’t do that anymore. And there’s only one other thing in this world that I’m really good at – writing.
My book is almost done. And I’ve been exploring publication options for a while, confiding in my friends and family, seeking their advice and opinions; soon, I will be ready to send my manuscript out into the world. But I can’t rush it. It must be finished, it must be thorough, it must be great. All I need is just a little patience. And support. But I already have the support. I have a wife who is behind me 100% in this endeavor, and who has already told me countless times that she’s willing to work a little harder in order to make this possible for me.
Never ever have I ever met a better human being than the woman I married.
This coming Saturday, August 13, will be 13 years that we’ve been together – not married, together. She became my girlfriend – “officially” – on August 13, 2003. We were married on January 7, 2005, and celebrating our wedding anniversary is our annual celebration of us. But every year on August 13th, we do not celebrate “us;” August 13th is my day, every year, to celebrate her. I am fully-aware that our marriage has survived because of her, not me. My choices could have destroyed our marriage, but her love, forgiveness, and patience provided the foundation that has allowed our marriage to persevere through the absolute worst of times, leading to today – the best of times. We’ve seen numerous friends (and former friends) of ours go through divorce after divorce, failing to survive problems that seem to be minuscule compared to what we’ve overcome, and I credit that all to my loving and forgiving wife..
Together, we have shown everyone around us that we belong . . . together.
Together, we have built a marriage that stands strong under the weight of every challenge that comes our way . . . together.
“You and I’ve got what it takes to make it…”
“You remind me of me when I was younger, depressed and sullen. Matter of fact, tried to kill myself, a couple of times. Never could get that shit right. Biology wasn’t my strong suit. I hated myself, man. Still do. Thought that shit was a weakness for a long time. Then I realized that shit was my power. People walk around, act like they know what hate means. Nah, no one does, until you hate yourself. I mean truly hate yourself. That’s power.”
When I saw this scene on the show I’ve recently been binge-watching, “Mr. Robot,” I was nearly frightened by how much I deeply and truly understood exactly what he said – especially the part about power. I suppose I never realized how much power I derived from my own sense of subconscious self-loathing. But the fact is this: It is entirely possible to hate yourself so much that you feel invincible, simply because you’ve stopped caring what happens to you. And I think it is this that led to my destructive choices. Though I was wrong to think it, I honestly thought that I had nothing to lose, because I hated myself to the extent of feeling like I had nothing worth having. Obviously this couldn’t be more wrong, considering I have such a loving and committed group of family and friends; but when I was caught up in my own bottomless sense of self-hate, I was willing to do anything or take any risk, simply because I hated myself that much.
But what the hell could make me hate me so much? What did I ever do to make me hate me? And when I say hate, I mean HATE. In retrospect, I absolutely despised the sight of myself and it was beyond anything I could control. Maybe my remorseful behaviors led to my self-loathing. Maybe my past tragedies led to my self-loathing. Maybe my seemingly-continuous discontent led to my self-loathing. Honestly, I don’t know. And at this point, maybe the details don’t matter. Fuck, I don’t know. Typically when I write – as I am right now, typing this very sentence – it’s because I’ve come to some well-thought and well-rationalized realization. But not this time. This time, as I write, I’m pretty sure I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. All I know is this: Yesterday, I was watching this TV show, and this scene came on, and this guy gave his monologue about hating himself, and I haven’t thought straight ever since. It bothers me that I related so closely to what he said – that I understood what he meant, perfectly. No healthy human being should be able to grasp that concept so clearly. I mean, shit, the guy making the speech was smoking meth as he spoke. Is that the depth at which I emotionally reside?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.
I guess I’m okay though. I mean, I don’t have the deep dark fleeting thoughts anymore. My actions don’t lead to self-loathing anymore. So I suppose, as I live and breathe the contemporary air, I don’t hate myself. But I hate who I was, and perhaps that’s where I’m struggling to make a solid disconnect. As much as I want to, I’m still struggling to distinguish between who I was and who I am, regarding the way I interact with other people – I still assume when people see me, they only see my crime – not an actual living breathing human being.
The banalities of life tend to present opportunities like this. I was recently grocery shopping with my wife at Target. I walked away from her and the cart to go buy a three-ring binder, and as I was making my way back to the produce section where I’d last seen her, I walked by a woman who stopped as I passed.
“Kurt?” she said. I froze.
See, here’s the thing, I’ve never had a negative interaction with anyone since being released from prison – ever. And in fact, every interaction I’ve have experienced has been exceedingly positive. No one has shouted at me or called me names or spit in my face or anything. Every single time someone has approached me, it has been positive. Every time. But for some reason, my instincts haven’t grasped this.
I must have looked completely lost, because she told me her name, and it rang a bell. “We taught together at East,” she said.
“Hi!” I said, trying to sound and appear – you know – normal. I’m pretty sure I failed. She asked me how I was doing and what I was up to now; I asked similar questions – it was all very innocuous and she never mentioned the small and slight detail of me being arrested and convicted of a crime and sent to prison in complete and utter disgrace. So my thought, momentarily, was that she didn’t know. But, I needed to know if she knew, for my own peace of mind. Because if I knew she knew, then I’d know what she knew instead of not knowing what she knew or did not know. You know?
“So do you know about my whole . . . situation?” I asked, trying to sound formally candid (if that’s even a thing).
“Yeah,” she said, shrugging like it was either: a) no big deal; b) an understandable fault; or c) ancient history. My inclination is that ‘c’ is the correct answer. And then she said something reassuring and comforting – friendly – and I cannot, for the life of me, remember what she said. My reaction to her subsequent statement was immediate relief, so my sensory recollection leads me to believe that she was being very friendly. We stood for at least ten minutes talking and I began to ramble. I don’t know if I was nervous or not; I don’t think I was, but regardless, I seemed to ramble. I felt like I was rambling. Sometimes I feel like, when I get those limited opportunities to talk to someone in that particular context, I have to do a complete and thorough job of making the case for me being a regular guy who made a bad choice rather than some suck fucking weirdo, and I only have a limited window of time to do that.
After we talked for a few minutes, she made the repeated observation that I “seem so different.” And she said it happily, which made me smile graciously, especially since, when she knew me, I was living an atrocious life as a lying-cheating-son-of-a-bitch. So “different,” at least in my perception, meant “better.” And I certainly hope she meant it that way.
At one point during the conversation, her cell phone rang. I felt like I was beginning to somewhat overstay my conversational welcome, so I made a casual comment that she could take her call and it was good to see her. But she refused. I wanted to give her that opportunity to end the conversation politely, maintaining the proprieties of social convention and taking her phone call.
“Hey,” she said, answering her phone, “I’ll call you right back.” And she said it with the slightest urgency, like she wanted to get back to our conversation. She actually wanted to talk to me – she was actually interested in what I had to say. I was a person to her, not a crime, not a mug shot, not a news article – a person.
As our conversation did eventually conclude, I gave her a small card that had my blog URL on it and told her she could read a little sometime if she wanted. She said she would and we bade one another a pleasant farewell.
As I walked the aisles with my wife after rejoining her near the canned goods, it occurred to me that perhaps the thing that was “different” was my general demeanor – my natural reaction to being approached was humility; when I was her colleague, my natural reaction would have been arrogance.
In retrospect, my arrogant behavior (which was quite apparent and obvious back then) was the biggest clue that I absolutely hated myself. It was, as I see it, a method of compensation; I hated myself so much that I had to project myself as better than everyone and everything in order to simply balance it all out.
So perhaps my instinctive humility was a sign that my self-loathing is decreasing. I doubt it will ever go away – I will forever hate myself for living the life I lived. But maybe this is a step in the right direction.
One question I was asked in Sex Addicts Anonymous, after completing my First Step, was “Have you forgiven yourself?” I think I said Yes, and maybe I meant it at that moment. But now, I’m not so sure. I’ve just simply hurt too many people. If I ever truly let go of what I did – if I ever forgive myself – I feel like that would be a sense of alleviation of the magnitude of my actions and choices. And I don’t want that.
I want to carry this weight for the rest of my life. I need to carry this weight. It’s like a scar that reminds me constantly of an injury I inflicted, not just on myself, but on other people as well. I’ve been told by countless people that it’s not healthy to continue to dwell on my past. And perhaps they’re right. But I’ll never forget an excerpt from The Life of Reason by George Santayana I once read:
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
noun – (1) a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work. (2) an event or action that leads to another event or situation.
How the hell does a man move forward in life when everything he does seems to be defined by everything he’s done?
William Shakespeare answered that question in The Tempest.
“What is past is prologue”
Antonio | Act 2, Scene 1.
Essentially, you may ask yourself, “What the hell does that even mean?”
So here’s the thing: I’m not a teacher anymore, but I’ve still got all of that seemingly-useless information about classic literature and literary analysis still rattling around my jumbled cabeza, and sometimes I can’t help but just use it.
Actually, it still serves me well as a writer. Because I’m actually doing it. I’m writing a book. Sounds cliche, but it’s true. And I don’t make that claim like someone who says “Oh yeah, I’m writing a book,” and it’s just something that sits and is never finished. Not me. As of this moment, my manuscript sits at 129,196 words (329 pages); which (admittedly) will likely be edited down. I’ve received interest from two publishers thus far, and upon completion and full-revision, I will aggressively pursue literary agents and publishers. My query letter is already written and is ready for submission; I have a list of potential agents to contact; I simply need to put the finishing touches on it and send it out into the world.
I don’t mean this to sound cocky or arrogant, but writing is what I do – it’s the only thing in this world at which I am truly great. Writing comes more naturally to me than breathing. Yesterday I wrote a fictional prologue to a piece I began a few weeks ago (a separate fiction manuscript), and when I finished it and re-read it, I thought to myself, “Damn, I seriously just wrote that.”
In prison, I hand-wrote a 300+ page fictional novel. Seriously. In the two years I was in prison, I wrote a book – handwritten on notebook paper. The first page was written at R.D.U. in El Dorado a few weeks after my sentencing; the last page was written in Winfield two years later, the night before I went home. Writing that book was my creative escape from the bitter surroundings of incarceration. But that particular book will have to wait.
One book I’ve written (and am currently finalizing) is non-fiction. It is tentatively titled: After 3PM: A Former Teacher’s Battle with Sex Addiction. It is not a book about my crime; it is a book about my recovery. It’s a three-part literary hybrid: memoir / exposé / self-help / novel. Part One is essentially the telling of my history, including my youth, college, young adulthood – all leading up to my crime, my arrest, and my sentencing. Part Two is about prison, sort of, and is told entirely by way of my letters home from prison to my wife, which not only describe what prison was like, but also gives a progressive accounting of how my perspectives, morals, and values changed over-time as a result of being in prison, my treatment in prison, and the self-reflection I was doing while incarcerated. Part Three is a fusion of Part One and Part Two, illustrating the lessons and realizations that have changed my life in the context of my past, my addiction, and my hope for the future.
“What is past is prologue.” After 3PM is the Prologue of my life. And right now, my life is writing Chapter One and Chapter Two and Chapter Three and so on…
When Shakespeare wrote that line, the idea he meant to convey is this: Everything we have done and endured in life is what led us to where we stand in life, here, right here, right now. The Prologue of my life, and your life, has already been written. But the next chapter? Well, that’s different. In the next chapter, anything is possible. What is written in the next chapter of your life is up to you. Because whether we like it or not, we are all writing our own life story – with every word we speak, with every action we take, with every friend we make, and with every heart we break. Your life story is your legacy. And if your Prologue – like mine – is regrettable, then it is entirely up to you to live a life that will write such great subsequent chapters that your Prologue of tragedy will become chapters of triumph.
One of the songs that got me through prison was “Carry On” by the band Fun. The chorus has one of the greatest lyrical refrains I’ve ever heard:
“May your past be the sound of your feet upon the ground.”
Exactly. Moving forward and creating a better tomorrow is the absolute best way to redeem a regrettable past. Do something great. Be someone great. And it doesn’t have to be something monumental or colossal. Scale is irrelevant. Because merely changing what you do doesn’t matter as much as changing who you are. When you do good in life, that’s admirable. But when you are good, then doing good comes naturally. See the difference?
So don’t be burdened by the past; it is merely the back-story of who you are now. Instead, use the past as a springboard to pass-on the life lessons you learned the hard way to someone else, so that they may benefit from what you have endured. Give others the wisdom of your life so that they may learn as you did, without the struggles you endured. You never know who will benefit from reading or seeing or hearing your life’s Prologue. That is exactly why I’ve written my book, After 3PM. My prayer is that someone, somewhere, sometime, will find it, read it, and perhaps learn a few things from me that he or she will not have to learn the hard way. The only way that I can attempt to resolve the past is to help create a better future.
One thing in life is certain: There are people around who have not yet endured what you have endured, but soon will. And perhaps they desperately need the lessons that you learned in the Prologue of your life. Therefore…
READER’S NOTE: This is not an actual letter, nor will they ever read it, so that is not the purpose of this piece; the structural concept is merely a literary device.
Dear Slash and Axl,
Between 1992 and 1995, I listened to Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 pretty regularly. The music of Guns N’ Roses was the first music with which I ever really “bonded,” prompted partly by my love for rock music and partly by the sentimental connection I’d made with the song “November Rain” in relation to the death of my Grandmother in November of 1994. So growing up, Guns N’ Roses was, essentially, my favorite band. Of course, I loved the Beatles (but who doesn’t?), and Vanilla Ice was my favorite rapper, but as far as contemporary bands go, Guns N’ Roses was my first “favorite band.”
I was so naive in my early teen years. Things like drugs and booze and sex didn’t really exist in my reality. Life was just a cacophony of rock & roll and being cool – or at least trying to be cool, in my own way.
I grew up playing the drums, so rock music was typically my preference. And playing the drums is certainly a full-body instrument, expending quite a bit of energy, combined with quite a bit of coordination and a whole lot of enthusiasm. I’m a proficient guitar player, and I can easily say – for me – playing the drums enables me to “feel the music” on a much fuller scale than playing the guitar (although, Slash, I’m sure you’d disagree – I’ve seen you play in-person and you would challenge me on that, both physically and conceptually). But as a young musician, I gained my appreciation for the music by being able to connect to it – both emotionally and physically – and I did that behind my drum set.
I have to admit, I didn’t notice when the band broke up. I really didn’t. My last static memory of Guns N’ Roses (in your original incarnation) was watching the MTV broadcast of The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for Aids Awareness. I watched because I’d always been a big Queen fan, and was excited to see bands like Def Leppard and Metallica play, but I really watched to see you guys, Guns N’ Roses. And the cool thing is, I only thought the bands themselves would be performing. As it turns out, that was just the first half. The second half, featuring the remaining members of Queen and other artists singing Freddie’s part, was even better!
Performing with Queen, in place of Freddie Mercury: James Hatfield (of Metallica) sang “Stone Cold Crazy” – Annie Lennox and David Bowie sang “Under Pressure” – You, Slash, and Joe Elliot (of Def Leppard) did “Tie Your Mother Down – You, Axle, did “We Will Rock You” – it was such an amazing surprise and I watched intently. But I had yet to hear my favorite Queen song, all night.
So when you, Axl, performed “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Queen and Elton John, I was beyond amazed! Damn, that was cool!
And then, Guns N’ Roses vanished.
Again, I hate to say it, but I essentially didn’t notice. My own life had entered such a wild ride of turmoil that I rarely noticed anything outside of the bullshit I had to deal with on a personal level. But eventually, I did notice. I noticed when I grasped back onto “November Rain” as I became more and more wrapped in personal difficulties and I needed a bit of melodic therapy. “November Rain,” “Don’t Cry,” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” provided that. So, in a way, thank you.
I happened to be watching the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002. And to close the show, Guns N’ Roses performed. It was kind of a “surprise performance” and when Jimmy Fallon introduced the band, I just about had a heart attack! I couldn’t believe it! But then, the curtain went up, and it was you, Axl, and a group of guys I’d never seen before. And I guess I kind of knew that would be the case. The rest of the original group had moved on; Slash, you most notably were rocking it out with Velvet Revolver (well-done, by the way) so the group that was playing the MTV Video Music Awards was essentially the Axl Rose solo project. And while it was cool to hear “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Paradise City,” as well as “Madagascar” from the upcoming album Chinese Democracy, I was just a little let-down.
I guess I didn’t really know the details of what really went on with the band until 2004 when I watched VH1’s Behind the Music. After that, I feel like I had a pretty solid grasp on how the band’s break-up happened and where the band was in its current incarnation. It was also nice to have a somewhat updated status of Chinese Democracy, which, at the time, still seemed like it would never be released. It’s “maybe, maybe not” release status was beginning to rival that of “Diablo 3.” But at that point, several demos from the album had been leaked on the Internet, and I had them all, and loved them! So I was excited for what would hopefully be on the album.
And then, on the fateful day of November 23, 2008, I drove to Best Buy and bought Chinese Democracy – the day of its official release. Best Buy was the only store selling it, and I was there to buy it on Day One.
My favorite writer, Chuck Klosterman, wrote a review of Chinese Democracy in which he called the album a “unicorn” because of its unique history, anticipation, and content. He pointed out that the cultural significance of the album transcended music, being “the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file.” Chuck is absolutely right. And I think, in a way, I felt that when I picked the cellophane-wrapped CD up from the rack, carried it to the cash register, and swiped my debit card to make the purchase. For me, going to the store and buying the physical manifestation of 15 years of waiting was every bit as important to me as my eventual enjoyment of the music itself.
I took the CD to my car, parked in the parking lot of the east-side Best Buy in Wichita, unwrapped it from its packaging, and opened the case. It even smelled like a new CD; it reminded me of the time I opened my first copy of To The Extreme. And as I inserted it into the CD player of my 2007 Mustang, the slow and heavy opening crescendo of the album’s title track, “Chinese Democracy,” filled my car like a consuming haze of modern reminiscence. It was old, but it was new. And I loved it.
But one vital thing was missing: Slash.
Slash, your guitar sound is unique – it’s your musical fingerprint, and no one can replicate it. And while I thought Chinese Democracy was an amazing album, it didn’t feel 100% like Guns N’ Roses. In his review of Chinese Democracy, Klosterman agrees with me on this point, saying your “unrushed blues metal was the group’s musical vortex.” Again, precisely. But that doesn’t necessarily take away from the greatness of Chinese Democracy; it was merely noticeable, like going to the same bar with your new girlfriend that you used to frequent with your ex-girlfriend. So, essentially, although Chinese Democracy was released under the title of “Guns N’ Roses,” it was essentially Axl’s solo album.
That was 2008. This is 2016.
In 2016, you guys mended fences and got back together for a stadium tour. And we got to see a show. Correction: We got to experience a show. My wife and I drove three hours to see that show, because I was excited to see my favorite band reunite for a concert. I was excited, but I wasn’t ecstatic. I knew it would be fun, though I’d spent several weeks prior to purchasing the tickets going back-and-forth about whether or not to spend the money. After all, we’d need a hotel, and the cheap concert tickets were still $79 each. But it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime chance (to see the Not In This Lifetime Tour), so I went ahead and bought the tickets and booked the hotel.
And then the concert happened.
You have to understand, I’ve seen some pretty fucking amazing concerts: Eminem, Elton John, Billy Joel, Ringo Starr, The Rolling Stones (from on-stage seats), and (of course) Vanilla Ice – but I wasn’t ready for the Guns N’ Roses concert. First of all, we were given a free seat upgrade – which was unexpectedly amazing; our $79 seats became $200 seats – and when the show started, and the three original band members came out (you two, and Duff), it felt surreal.
I noticed several things during that concert about you guys. The biggest thing I noticed was that you weren’t deliberately being badasses (like in the 90s). I mean, that was cool and all, but we’re all a little older now. Instead of the rock & roll rebels of the past, you were a group of extremely talented musicians, playing great songs, and simply having fun doing it. You were playing to a stadium crowd of 30,000+ people, but you could have been playing to a bar crowd of 300 people and had just as much fun.
This, above all, inspired me. Everyone in the band has had a somewhat regrettable past with drugs and violence and a whole slew of shit that I’m sure no one knows about. But you’ve risen above all that, shaken it off, and come back with an incarnation of something that is both new and nostalgic. You showed me that the regrets of the past can be a springboard to a brighter and wiser future; and when critics think you’re down and out and irrelevant, you can step forward and say, “Hold on a minute, I still have something to say.”
I’m not a musician, I’m a writer. But my own literary art is being continually inspired by two rock & roll gods – not simply by the music you’ve made, but by the hurdles you’ve overcome and the walls you’ve smashed.
We can’t simply erase the stupid and destructive and humiliating shit of our past, but what we can do is make it clear to anyone who cares enough to listen that the only thing about the past that remains is the lessons learned. And moving forward, it’s okay to resemble the positives of the past, but we must also embody the wisdom of the present and embrace the hope of the future.
Rock on, fellas.
DISCLAIMER: DO NOT READ THIS. You will likely be offended by at least two (but likely more) words included in this article. The following text includes extremely offensive language.
Fuck. I use that word quite a bit when I write. And I use that word in its multiple forms: Fucked, Fucking, Fuckers, etc. And I know it’s considered offensive. So, sorry about that. I don’t intend to offend, but I have been known to be relatively lax with my “verbal morality” (as it was referred to in Demolition Man). But let’s face it: You can’t use PG language to describe an R-Rated life. Sure, perhaps I could make my various points without using profanity, but writing is so much more than the mere conveying of information.
Writing is never just words. Writing is a medium that must appeal to all senses beyond the common physical five. For example, when I write dramatically, I do my best to paint a picture that completely swallows and envelops the reader. Consider the following passage from the book I’m currently writing – After 3PM – as I describe my first night in jail after my initial arrest:
It was the middle of the night. As I lay on the rock-solid jailhouse cot in the Sedgwick County Jail, surrounded by eight or nine other cots filled with snoring inmates or absurd and inane conversations, I pretended to sleep. The air was heavy, leaving an odd aftertaste in my uncomfortably-dry mouth, just from breathing. The jail smelled awful, like a musty old warehouse populated with homeless squatters and drug addicts; it smelled like misery and hopelessness. It sounded like a muffled riot zone with the occasional bangs, slams, and shouts of the profanity-ridden manifestos of the imprisoned. It was what I imagined Hell to sound like. However, to everyone around me (who appeared to have been there before), it was business as usual.
The walls, the ceiling, and the floors were all the same color – not white, but not tan. It was like a very-light taupe. “They say taupe is very soothing.” And the only thing that differed from this motif was the trim around the tank windows (an uncomfortable shade of brownish-maroon) and the cots (which were a dark faded metal grayish brown and varied in rust, with mattresses that were a dirty dark green with worn rips that exposed the white(ish) padding). There were no bars – all the “cells” were stone rooms with windows (trimmed in brownish-maroon) that lined the perimeter of the booking area of the jail. There was a seating area in the center of the booking area, populated by uncomfortably dark blue chairs, like a waiting area with no one waiting and televisions no one could hear or watch, but there were no bars in this jail. Sporadically-placed large cylindrical pillars filled any fluid space in the room, some holding an apparatus that anyone who hadn’t been to jail would describe as a “payphone without a coin slot;” but to someone who had been (or was) in jail, it is was lifeline to the outside world.
All five common physical senses are described in this scene: Sight (describing the colors); Smell (describing the putrid aroma); Taste (describing the aftertaste from the air); Sound (describing the shouting); and Feel (describing the solid cot). However, there are other senses in this passage as well, the most important of which being the senses of emotion: Fear, Annoyance, Uncertainty, or Despair (“it smelled like misery and hopelessness,” for example). Those emotional senses are every bit as important as the physical five senses because everyone has encountered and endured those other sensations as well (in their own personal contexts), and that’s what bonds with a reader just as much as the physical five, if not more. I don’t simply want the reader to see what it was like to sit in that jail cell, I want them to feel what it was like; I want to connect the reader to that setting with more than just a basic description. I want that picture to be clear, both inside and out.
A writer is a painter with words.
And sometimes, those words can’t merely be elegant brushstrokes. Sometimes, those words must be a violent and uncomfortable splatter across the canvas. This is why I use the word Fuck so much.
I had a wonderful conversation with my aunt a few months ago when she visited. She mentioned that she was a regular reader of mine and liked it very much, with the exception of the interwoven vulgarities within the content of my writing. She expressed that she felt the content would be just fine without the profane language; which, from her perspective, is a valid point. She is a very traditional Christian woman with strong moral character and the use of profanity crosses a line for her. And while I expressed my understanding of her perspective, I provided a bit of insight as to why I include this language and vernacular.
“In much of what I write,” I said, “the content itself requires me to amp-up the intensity a bit. 99% of my writing is a personal narrative, and in those narratives, I often find myself worked-up and passionate about the topic. However, what I must do is convey that passion (or anger) in a manner that sufficiently illustrates those emotional “beyond” senses. So in many contexts, if I use the word ‘fuck,’ as in, ‘these fucking people are…’ then when you see that use of vulgarity, it’s as though I’m verbally clinching my body or gritting my teeth.” She nodded in understanding. “Words like darn-it or shucks simply don’t work to convey that same level of intensity. I could artfully describe the intensity, but dropping the F-word has more punch.”
I’m not saying profanity is moral or immoral, permissible or impermissible; right or wrong – but what I am saying is this: The use of profanity in my writing is not due to a lack of imagination or lack of character or lack of morals. My writing is very calculated and very deliberate. And if profanity is warranted, as a way of sufficiently intensifying the emotional punch of a sentence, then it is best used and best used correctly. The word Fuck doesn’t scare me. No word scares me. No word offends me. Words are words. Words only have as much power as they are given. It is not the word that is offensive – it is the person who is offended. Something is only truly offensive if it is universally offensive – to everyone. And there is no word that can do that. There are some words, granted, that come close – Cunt … Nigger … Faggot – these are all terrible, horrible, no good, very bad words, and even I would think twice before implementing any of them into my writing. However, it is simply impossible for these words to be universally offensive. These words aren’t even universally unacceptable. Scott Baio thinks the word “Cunt” is an acceptable word when describing Hillary Clinton. David Duke thinks the word “Nigger” is perfectly acceptable when describing Barack Obama. The band Dire Straits thought the word “faggot” was an acceptable lyric in their song “Money for Nothing.”
Therefore, the point of the word isn’t simply the word – the point of the word is the reaction to the word. The point of the word is the emotion of the word. The point of the word is the purpose of the word. I do not use the word Fuck for the hollow sake of using the word Fuck. I’m not Samuel L. Jackson. I choose every word carefully. Sometimes, I need to crank up the intensity a little. And that’s exactly what Fuck or Shit can do.
I do not aim to offend anyone. But I have lived an R-Rated life. PG language simply will not suffice. My use of vulgarities is not an indicator of a lack of moral character. My use of profanity is not an indicator of a lack of literary creativity – I’m painting a picture with words, and sometimes there’s no acceptable brush for the canvas in front of me. So all I can do is sit back, take a breath, say “Fuck it,” and keep painting.
I am not an American. There. I said it. And I’ll say it again. I am not an American. And all things considered, I’m completely fine with that.
I am a nationless person, much like Howard W. Campbell. Campbell was “an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.” I empathize. But I’m not a Nazi, I’m just a felon.
In Kansas, felons on parole can’t vote. And I was sentenced to lifetime parole. Thus, I will never vote again – ever. I will never again have any kind of “say” or role in the choosing of the Legislative, Executive, or Judicial government officials. I now have absolutely no American voice. Period. My choices have led the forfeiture of my right to vote. So essentially, I don’t even feel like an American anymore, because aside from paying taxes, I’m not allowed to be an American. Granted, I don’t blame anyone but myself – it is entirely my fault – but that doesn’t change the facts.
So, do I love my country? No. I don’t. Sorry, I just don’t. Because it’s not my country anymore.
But I’m not anti-American. I don’t “hate America” or anything like that. I actually used to be quite patriotic. But no longer. I just simply don’t love America anymore. Because it would be completely pointless and entirely frustrating. So, just to be clear: To all agents of the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security, I do not hate America. So do not raid my house and detain me. Okay? Okay. Good. Glad that’s settled.
For me, “loving America” would be as pointless as the guy who is still in love with the girlfriend who dumped him for cheating on her. Loving her would only be frivolous and frustrating because she hates him for what he did. So he’s better off just forgetting about her. That’s a perfect metaphor for why I don’t love America.
My relationship with America now is like that same guy, after he’s over his ex-girlfriend and has moved on; but she keeps calling and texting, just to be a bitch and complain and ask for mundane shit. That’s how America and I are getting along, and I wish she’d just leave me the hell alone. Because while I’ve lost my right to participate in “America,” I still have to put up with America’s bullshit. I have to pay taxes to fund a government in which I have no participatory or civic role. Granted, I don’t mind paying the taxes that fund roads and schools, but that’s not what Kansas uses taxes for; Kansas hates roads, and Kansas especially hates schools. So, you know, there’s that.
Here’s the other thing: I watch the news. I see how the contemporary political landscape is forming (and deteriorating). And be honest, that really makes it easier to not be an American. America is a disaster. America has become a country where a person’s right to own a gun is more important than a person’s right to not get shot in the fucking head. America has become a nation that prioritizes the funding of prisons over the funding of schools. America has become a country where the two candidates for the most powerful position in government is between an ethically-corrupt political insider and a fucking reality TV billionaire. I mean, seriously, allow me to muster-up my best Chris Tucker voice and say, “What kind of shit is that?” No wonder America has become such a pathetic joke to the rest of the world.
America has reached the point that terrorists are now attacking other countries (like France and England) because they realize the sad fact that America is doing an adequately sufficient job of destroying itself. America doesn’t need terrorists; America’s got the whole “destroy America” thing covered. But thanks for the offer.
America is such a self-loathing nation – Americans hate each other. That whole “spirit of America” bullshit that everyone harps about on the 4th of July is complete bullshit. The words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty are meaningless. America is more divided now than at any time since the Civil War. Republicans blame the Democrats for that; Democrats blame the Republicans for that. But they’re both at fault. America has seriously become a media-driven nation where people can literally choose the facts they want based on their views. And that’s just pathetic. Republicans always whine about the “liberal bias” in the media, which is just a cop-out excuse for why the facts don’t fit their narrative. The truth is, the news isn’t “fact” anymore. The days of newsmen like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather are gone. Now, nationally-known news anchors are just making shit up. And if a person doesn’t like what a news network is saying, they can just change the channel, hear the same story, and hear “facts” they like more. If you’re a Republican, you watch Fox News and you believe they tell the Gospel truth about America; if you’re a Democrat, you watch MSNBC and you believe they tell the Gospel truth about America. Networks like CNN and CSPAN are just trying to keep up, but essentially, neither side thinks either of those networks reports the news the way they think it should be reported – Republicans think CNN is too liberal and Democrats think CNN is too conservative.
America has become a sadly-accurate Saturday Night Live skit. So I’m not very broken-up by not being able to participate. I’m just not an American anymore. I’m a nationless person. Granted, I abide by their laws and conform to their norms, but I hold no pride in this nation, I hold no patriotism or love-of-country anymore. I just, essentially, don’t give a shit. I don’t hate America, I am just entirely indifferent to the way the country insists on repeatedly screwing itself. It’s just not my problem – I’m like Pilate, washing my hands of this travesty.
So I’m just going to let the Americans deal with the pile of shit they’ve created, and I’ll merely go-with-the-flow. See, I honestly thought I’d care more, but the truth is, I don’t. I am my own nation, and I am the only constituent. I can’t worry about the state of this failed nation – my first priority is living my own life in a manner that serves and honors my wife, my daughter, and my family. They are my strongest allies. Granted, I’m not going to try to be my own independent nation or anything nutty like that – Peter Griffin tried that; it didn’t end well – but what I can do is simply worry about me, my choices, my lifestyle, and my future. Because Americans are obsessed with the lives and behaviors of everyone else, yet they refuse to admit that they are fallible and flawed. And that’s one of the biggest reasons the world hates Americans – Americans think they’re superior in every way while being dominantly flawed and imperfect.
My senior year of college, I spent Spring Break in London and Ireland with a group of fellow students for a week-long Study Abroad class. Prior to boarding the plane to cross the ocean, the Travel Supervisor gave us all a vital piece of advice for when we were in a foreign country: “Tell them you’re Canadian.”
The sad part is, that was really good advice.
“Operation Rescue” is a terrorist organization. I’m Pro-Life. But holy shit, I absolutely despise and loathe these Pro-Lifers. Seriously, Pro-Lifers make me wish I was Pro-Choice. Literally, part of me would rather support abortion just to spite these abhorrent hate-mongers. These people are so unhinged, so unstable, so uncaring that they terrorize their way into recognition. Shit, I fucking hate these people.
Granted, I’ve known some Pro-Lifers who weren’t psycho, but they are few-and-far-between. It’s perfectly fine to be passionate about an issue. I’m completely fine with that. For example, the pastor who married my wife and me, he’s very Pro-Life. But he’s not psychotic. When he talks about abortion, he’s passionate, but he’s also logical and respectful. So he is not the kind of person I’m talking about. I’m talking about the people who set-up daily outside of the South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, the office formerly occupied by Dr. George Tiller (who was murdered, in his church, but the ultimate Pro-Life psycho). These people walk around with a giant sign featuring a full-color picture of a dismembered baby. I mean, what kind of shit is that? Are they trying to traumatize young children driving by in their parents’ car? These children aren’t going to understand what an abortion is, and won’t comprehend the magnitude; the only thing they will see is blood and death and trauma. And the Christians think this is what Jesus would do.
I’m completely Pro-Life. I really am. I may be a Liberal, but I’m Pro-Life. But here’s the thing: I don’t believe that life begins at conception; I don’t believe life doesn’t begin at conception. I just really don’t give a shit. If my wife got pregnant again, we would have the baby, without question. But that’s just because I believe that pregnancy is a blessing. I choose life. But that’s my choice – our choice – and that’s where my opinion splits from that of the generic Pro-lifer. My choice to be against abortion is no more valid than a Pro-Choice person’s decision to have an abortion.
So maybe I’m sort of Pro-Choice(ish), I guess. Because, while I don’t believe abortion is right, I also don’t believe in forcing my beliefs onto others who do not share my perspectives. And I certainly don’t believe in forcing my beliefs into legislative action – thus, if abortion is legal, fine; if abortion is illegal, fine; I really don’t give a shit. I just choose life, and anyone else can choose whatever the hell they want.
Pro-Lifers – the crazy ones – obsess over the minutiae of the pregnancy process while completely ignoring the science of it. I’m Pro-Life, and even I think their justification for why a fetus is a “baby” is complete bullshit. A fertilized human egg that leads to impregnation is not a baby. It’s just not. Seriously. If I take a seed and plant it in the ground and water it, it’s not a flower. It’s a seed in the ground. An egg in a chicken coop is not a baby chick; it’s just a fucking egg; it could just as easily be an omelet.
Babies cry; babies breathe – babies have birthdays. Using Pro-Life logic, my “birthday” should be my date of conception, not my date of delivery. Then again, “Pro-Life logic” is a bit of a contradiction in terms. By Pro-Life logic, an abortion is a pregnancy that is terminated by a doctor, prior to birth. So does that mean a miscarriage is an abortion caused by God? And wouldn’t that make God the most prolific abortionist in history? Obviously, I don’t believe that, but it’s just another example of the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the “Pro-Life logic.”
But here’s the biggest thing about Pro-Life logic that gets me: They want to stop abortion while simultaneously serving as the most powerful advertising tool of the reproductive health industry. These people stand in front of clinics with giant signs saying “Stop Abortion,” which is the dead giveaway that the office in which they are protesting does in fact provide abortions. So if someone perhaps wasn’t considering abortion, then saw protesters outside an abortion clinic, suddenly that has become an option; they’ve taken out-of-sight, out-of-mind and completely reversed it.
Personally, I wouldn’t even have known there was a clinic in Wichita that provided abortions if it wasn’t for the protesters. I drive by the South Wind clinic every day on my way to work, and every day, these people are outside the clinic, harassing people as they enter. I mean, seriously, as people drive into the parking lot, they block the drive and delay their entry, when they finally get through, someone stands with a pad of paper and writes down the license plate number of the car entering the lot. Seriously, what kind of shit is that? And these are Christians? No. These are extremists. These are bullies. And some of them are terrorists (well, we don’t call them terrorists because they’re white and they act on Jesus’ behalf, rather than being brown and acting on Allah’s behalf).
Next week, there will be a week-long protest in front of the South Wind clinic to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the “Summer of Mercy,” which was a long drawn-out series of protests here in Wichita that featured the most extreme Pro-Life nut-balls doing shit like screaming at patients, blocking access to the clinic, and laying down in front of cars. And what difference did they make in the grand scheme? None. Zero. Absolutely nil. After all that, abortion is still legal and they only made themselves appear more and more unhinged and less and less credible. The movement itself has become out-of-touch and extremist and terroristic. So now they’re having the “Summer of Justice,” which is even more pointless than the “Summer of Mercy,” because it seems completely logical for them to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their previous huge failure.
Pro-Lifers make me wish I was Pro-Choice.
“Operation Rescue” is a terrorist organization. They have inspired and encouraged violence for decades, regardless of their public denunciations and plausible deniability. A Pro-Lifer murdered Dr. George Tiller, in a Wichita church (2009). A Pro-Lifer walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic with a semi-automatic rifle and opened fire, murdering two civilians and a police officer (2015). An off-duty police officer, working as a security guard, was killed when an abortion clinic was bombed (1998). And there’s more, and more, and more.
But here’s what angers me the most: They do this in the name of Jesus Christ. And that is the most sickening part of all. That’s the only part that really offends me.
I consider “Operation Rescue” and these Pro-Life extremists to be on the same level of Christianity as Westboro Baptist Church. Seriously. And while they seem to work tirelessly to end abortions, they only perpetuate them by driving the wedge of irrationality deeper and deeper, making people more likely to be Pro-Choice because their words and deeds are so pathetically hypocritical that they push people toward the Pro-Choice ideology.
Brennan Manning wrote, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” This is exactly what “Operation Rescue” and the Pro-Life extremists are doing to their cause and their faith. Not only are they driving people toward the Pro-Choice ideology, but they are also driving people away from Christianity and the Love of Christ.
Pro-Lifers make me wish I was Pro-Choice.
But hey, what do I know; I’m just a criminal.
Or, at least, that’s how the “Christians” see me.
You’re never too old to do the things you enjoyed when you were younger. You never outgrow the things you love.
My dad raised me on the music of The Beatles. And when I was about ten years old, he bought an old drum set at a garage sale and taught me how to play. Thus, Ringo Starr became my favorite member of The Beatles, and I became a drummer. I play several instruments somewhat proficiently, but the drums would be the only instrument at which I excel. Granted, I’m not as good of a drummer as I am a writer, but hey, I’m pretty good – or, at least, I used to be. Years ago.
For Father’s Day this year, I took my dad to Hartman Arena in Wichita to see Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band. My dad and I have a bit of a tradition of going to see classic rock bands and artists. We’ve seen Jerry Lee Lewis; we’ve seen Elton John & Billy Joel; we’ve seen and met Arlo Guthrie; we’ve seen and met Peter Noone, and we even had on-stage seats to see the Rolling Stones when they were in town in October of 2006. So taking him to see Ringo Starr was a no-brainer; there was no way I was going to pass-up the chance to see one of The Beatles, and the only person I wanted to take was my dad. And it was a great show! It greatly surpassed my expectations and I was very pleasantly surprised. I knew the show would be good, but this show was really good!
During the show, members of Ringo’s band, who were also members of other major bands like Toto, Santana, and Mr. Mister sang songs from their group’s hit catalog as well. And when they did, Ringo went up and played the drums. I actually got to see Ringo Starr play the drums, live and in-person. At one point, while he was playing, my dad leaned over to me and said, “Does it make you want to get the old drums out and start playing again?” I smiled at him and nodded; but the truth was, I was thinking exactly that. I’ve seen so many bands, locally and nationally, but essentially, Ringo Starr was the first drummer who I ever liked as a drummer. He was the drummer who made me love the drums. So getting to see him play somehow reignited my love of the instrument.
Only one problem: My drums were stacked away, covered in dust, stashed in the upstairs storage room at dad’s house. I hadn’t sat behind a drum set in – years. My most recent regular drumming gig was in the Newton Christian Church praise band back in 2011. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that 2011 was the last time I played. And I missed it, a lot. When I was ten, eleven, twelve-years-old, I had a record player that I’d crank up as loud as I could and play along with old 45rmp records of The Beatles, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, and – of course – Guns N’ Roses. In high school, I was in a band called “Acid Reign” and we regularly played the keg party circuit, doing music ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Nirvana to The Beatles, and our own original music. We even recorded a CD.
Today, I went to my dad’s house and loaded my drum set into my convertible Mustang and drove across town with the top down, blaring Guns N’ Roses with a drum set towering out of my back seat. On the way, I stopped at a music store and bought drum sticks. I even remembered what size I played with – 5A. (Why do I remember that? Because 5A is also Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment number.)
I haven’t played the drums in years. But when I did, I loved it. Whether I was playing hard rock, heavy metal, or Christian praise music, I’ve always loved playing the drums. And I think, at some point, I thought to myself, “I’m just too old for that anymore.” But seriously, I’m not.
You never outgrow the things you love – you never outgrow the things that make you happy and give you peace. Ringo Starr is 72 years old. Seriously. And he’s still running around on stage and rocking out behind his drum set. I suppose he just figures, it’s what he loves, it’s what gives him peace, so that’s exactly what he’s going to do. You don’t have to be great at something to enjoy it. Ringo Starr isn’t a great drummer – neither am I – but that doesn’t matter. What matters is how much we both enjoy the drums. Ringo Starr is the drummer who inspired me to be a drummer. And when my dad asked me during the concert if it made me want to play my drums again, I may have merely smiled at him, but in my mind, I was in complete and absolute agreement – not simply because I love playing the drums, but because playing the drums is something I love. And thanks to Ringo Starr – thanks to being able to see him play, in-person, at a concert with my dad – I’ve gotten my drums out, dusted them off, and have once again twirled drum sticks between my fingers and let loose the therapeutic power of music. It’s something I love; it’s something that gives me peace.
You never outgrow the things you love…
I was in Federal Court on Monday afternoon…
Tuesday morning’s air smelled like the past. The past really does have an aromatic quality, and sometimes the breeze rushes it into your nostrils like a powerful jolt of remembrance and reminiscence.
Or maybe it’s just me.
The pale-grayish Wichita highway spun like a giant treadmill beneath the wheels of my car this morning, as it does every morning. Just as it does in the Flint Hills, the scenery that passes me by creates a highlight reel of memories from a long-passed past as Highway 54 takes me through west Wichita, then between the two private colleges, then through downtown, then next to the high school where I was a student, a teacher, and a criminal; until I finally reach my office. And even more than the highway through the Flint Hills, Highway 54 (known as Kellogg to those of us stuck living in Wichita) holds a scenic scrapbook of my past.
I reminisce too much.
I don’t particularly believe in the theological concept of Purgatory, but as my life unfolds – specifically in the manner which it has – I’ve begun to feel like I’m in it, right now, in my own head.
The Catholic faith believes that Purgatory is where a soul goes after death to “purge” for all the unforgiven sins committed during life. And once that time is complete (contingent on the quantity and quality of sin, I suppose), the soul can move on to Paradise. Admittedly, this may be a simplified and somewhat misconceived understanding of Purgatory, so I’m not saying this is indeed 100% factual, it is merely my interpretation.
That being said, I am in my own Purgatory, right now, in my head, held captive by my bygone reminiscent memories, and I feel like there is no escape, no relief, no release in sight. But yesterday, I fully came to understand how much I truly needed to: a) let go of the past; b) live in the present; and c) appreciate what I have now and where I am now.
I remember sitting in the courtroom at my sentencing hearing on November 2, 2012. I remember how it felt to sit at the defendant’s table next to my attorney as the prosecution laid-out his case against me. I remember being separated from my family by the divider which separates the attorneys and defendants from the gallery of spectators. I remember the harsh feeling that accompanied the sound of words entering my ears – and my soul – telling me I would be going to prison. I remember how much it hurt to stand up at the conclusion of my hearing, looking back at my family and friends who attended my hearing, seeing the tears in their eyes, and saying goodbye.
I don’t “remember it like it was yesterday,” I remember it like it happened an hour ago. That moment is burned into the deepest depths of my memory, because for the first time, at that moment, I looked into the faces of the people who cared about me and saw just how much I’d let them all down; and I looked back at my former student with whom I’d had the relationship that led to that hearing, and saw how much I’d let her down too, and her parents; and I felt the weight of failure fall heavily on my shoulders; and my eyes were filled with defeat.
I remember standing there as the jail deputy put handcuffs on my wrists – standing in front of my family and loved ones – hearing the barrage of clicks behind my back as the iron bracelets tightened around my few remaining feelings of freedom. I remember feeling the slight tug in the front of my shoulders as my arms were pulled behind me. I remember looking up and seeing the tears in the faces of my sister, my parents, and my wife. “I love you all,” I said to them, and I dropped my head in failure.
I remember too much.
Yesterday, my wife and I sat in Federal Court. Understandably, sitting in another courtroom wasn’t something I was thrilled about doing, but it’s something I wanted to do – something I needed to do. And this time, I sat on the other side of the divider – the spectators’ gallery side.
On Sunday night, my wife and I sat in the living room of my friend, Joel. We sat and talked for three hours with Joel, his mother, his sister, and his priest. And we talked about prison. We talked about prison because, the next day, that’s exactly where Joel would be going. Prison. Federal Prison.
I met Joel in Sex Addicts Anonymous – a fact that I am writing about with his full and expressed permission. He started attending SAA after being arrested for transporting child pornography (having underage material on a laptop that he took from Kansas to Colorado – crossing state lines made it a federal case). And the night I met Joel at SAA, it happened to be one of the nights my wife attended the group with me. And at the conclusion of the meeting, he approached me and asked if we could talk. He told me about his arrest, his charges, and that he knew he would be going to prison. So he asked me a series of questions predicated on his knowledge that I’d been through the situation, the stress, the torture of being in prison, and the finality of being released. I did my best to tell him as much as I could, based on my personal knowledge and experience, with the hope of easing his stress a little, but also knowing that he had a very long road ahead of him.
I have never met a more remorseful and repentant individual than Joel. He was never merely sorry he got caught, which is a sentiment to which I greatly related. I think his perspective was the same as mine: I’m glad I got caught, because it broke the cycle of self-destruction and forced me to face my demons head-on. We are both deeply remorseful for what we’ve done, the people we’ve hurt, and the damaged we’ve caused, but we both understood that we’d reached such a level of personal depravity that being caught was simply “what it took” to pull us out of our own self-imposed Hell.
However, I will readily admit that Joel handled his arrest and his court hearings exceedingly better than I did. I handled mine with guarded apprehension. Joel handled his with (as Gene Wilder said in Young Frankenstein) “quiet dignity and grace.” Sitting in that federal courtroom, watching how he handled himself, I wished I’d handled myself in the same manner when I sat in a similar chair, on the other side of a similar divider, November 2, 2012.
Joel’s Purgatory began yesterday.
During his sentencing hearing, his family and friends were given the opportunity to address the court. Part of me regrets not speaking. His priest spoke, his neighbor spoke, his SAA Sponsor spoke; but I didn’t speak. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to stand up and be the felon who was speaking on his behalf. I didn’t want to make his situation worse. I knew that remaining silent could not worsen the situation. But I knew I could have said some very positive things. I could have said that I’ve known guys who have gone through prison and treatment and have made far-less progress than Joel made before even going to prison. I could have said that, and so much more, but I didn’t.
At the conclusion of his sentencing hearing, he was sentenced to 75 months in federal prison. When the hearing was adjourned, Joel and his attorney stood up. And at that moment, he looked into the faces of the people who cared about him and saw just how much he’d let them all down; but his eyes were filled with encouragement.
He stood there as the Federal Marshals put handcuffs on his wrists – standing in front of his family and loved ones – hearing the barrage of clicks behind his back as the iron bracelets tightened around his few remaining feelings of freedom. I again remembered that slight tugging feeling in the front of my shoulders as my arms were pulled behind me at my hearing, and I knew he was feeling it too – right then, at that very moment. He looked up and saw the tears in the faces of his sister, his friends, his family, and me. “I love you all,” he said to us, and he held his head high, knowing the next step would be tenuous and arduous and difficult – but in the end, he would be the best possible version of himself.
I’m proud to say, I taught him that.
Last night, at different points throughout the evening, I kept thinking about where Joel was sitting at that very moment – the holding cell, the evaluations, the questions, the waiting, and more waiting. I hope and pray that he did not have to endure the Hell that I had to live during the first 72 hours following my sentencing hearing.
But I kept thinking about my past – my time in prison – and about how at that very moment, someone I knew and cared about was living it. And suddenly, being held in the Purgatory of my own reminiscent memories didn’t seem like such a bad place to be after all; I knew someone who was sitting in the physical Purgatory of prison, just as I did, and having lived that particular Purgatory myself – and being released – I became much more grateful for the air I was breathing, the sounds I was hearing, the bed in which I slept, and the office where I began my Tuesday morning.
I will continue to be haunted and somewhat confined by the Purgatory of my reminiscent memory – I’ve accepted that this is just part of who I am. But Joel has taught me something important: Being confined by something – memories, addiction, or even prison – does not make me a slave to something. My memories, my addiction – these are things with which I can cope (just as I coped with prison), and I can continue to be successful and continue to live this better life, regardless of the obstacles (many of which are self-imposed, admittedly) that are stacked against me.
Helping Joel during these recent months has been encouraging and inspiring. He took his transgressions and immediately sought a better life for himself. He knew he had problems that were (and are) far beyond anything he could fix himself, so he sought the support of his friends, his family, his church, and Sex Addicts Anonymous.
Joel’s story will eventually be a small byline in the media and people will comment on the internet about how he’s sick and twisted and should be immediately executed and castrated and beaten and raped in prison. How do I know this? Because that’s exactly what was said about me. But I am fully confident that he will do what I’ve done: Walk out of prison as the best possible human being imaginable, ready to be force of good rather than evil.
As Joel was being handcuffed by the Federal Marshals, the prosecuting attorney approached him and said, “Joel, if you’re still wanting to do presentations when you get out, get in touch with me and we will make it happen.” Even the prosecutor saw the encouraging changes in Joel’s life and sought to assist him in doing something productive to combat the evil which he’d previously perpetuated. And even though I’d had similar ambitions when I was sentenced, my prosecutor was only out for blood and could not have cared less. So for me, this was extremely encouraging.
Joel will be in prison for at least five years. Of the 75 months he must serve in prison, he can earn 15-20% “good time.” And I have every confidence that he will be as encouraging to his fellow inmates as he was to me as I sat in his living room on Sunday evening trying to encourage him, while being inspired by the manner in which he was handling his situation.
Joel committed a terrible crime and deserves to go to prison.
So did I.
But as a person, he is already far-beyond where I was when I began my Purgatory in prison. I am encouraged and inspired by the progress he has made as a person. I’m not sure if people can (or will) see the progress I’ve made, but seeing someone else stand up and say I refuse to live this life anymore, further enables me to live my own life of self-improvement, striving to be the opposite of the man I was, and embody the man I can be. The Purgatory of my memories will always be there but what I must teach myself to do is use those memories as benchmarks for who I am now, not regrets for who I was then.
Joel has already figured that one out, and his Purgatory is just beginning.
God Speed, Joel McClure…
Tuesday, June 28, 2016 – 10:07 PM
Tomorrow night, my wife is taking me to a concert to see a band. We’ve been to lots of concerts. We’ve seen lots of bands. We’ve been backstage, we’ve met rappers and rock stars and actors and activists – and it’s always been so much fun. We’ve been to L.A. and to D.C. and countless places in between. We’ve watched from the front of the stage, from the back of the stage, from the cheap seats and from the best seats. All the concerts we’ve attended – all the bands we’ve seen – seem to blend across the canvas of my past, like a hazy two-dimensional cloud of mixed and muffled memories. But we just love going to concerts. It’s our thing.
She’s sleeping right now, peacefully and beautifully. I’ve heard of people being “ugly sleepers,” as though they turn to a decomposing corpse the instant they enter REM sleep, or that guy with the melting face at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark; but my wife isn’t one of them. She looks so peaceful when she sleeps, like photograph, touched-up and perfect; so peaceful that I don’t want to move a muscle. Because if anyone deserves rest in this world, it’s her – she has to deal with me, and I’m sure that’s exhausting. But she’s just such a strong person.
It doesn’t take strength to walk away from a cheating husband; it takes strength to stay when the world tells her to go. It doesn’t take strength to forgive an unfaithful husband, it takes strength to forgive and move forward, together. It takes strength to understand that everything was broken, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try it again.
Sometimes, when everything falls apart, and it seems like there is no hope in sight, the right set of circumstances and the right amount of motivation and drive can make anything possible.
It takes strength to forgive and move forward.
And tomorrow, we will see a perfect metaphor of that.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016 – 2:17 PM
The drive from Wichita to Kansas City is as prosaic to me as my walk to school in junior high. I’ve made this trip so many times that it nearly feels routine. However, as I watch the Flint Hills pass me by like familiar strangers in an open and crowded hallway, the scenery holds the memories of seemingly countless hours of contemplation’s past and passed. There will forever be scenes of scenery that will remind me of making this trip, experiencing something in life, remembering something in life, struggling with something in life as I made that drive – each curve and straightaway sparks a new and old and unique feeling of reminiscence or remembrance or regret.
It’s hot outside, and I’m excited to stand outside in it – in only a matter of hours. Because in less than six hours, we will be at a Guns N’ Roses concert at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016 – 5:27 PM
I love staying in hotels. I love to travel, but I really love hotels. To me, staying in a hotel means I’ve departed from my everyday reality, stepping into better (but temporary) existence with my wife, doing something we seldom or never do in places we seldom or never go with people we seldom or never see. The hotel is our temporary domicile while we embark on something unique and exciting in a part of the world not called Wichita, Kansas.
My wife is getting ready. She wants to look cute. She always looks cute, but she especially wants to look cute tonight. She has a Guns N’ Roses tank top that I bought her on their website, and she looks amazing in it – just the perfect combination is sexy and sassy and splendid. She says she wants to look cute for me because she knows tonight’s concert will be special for me.
Guns N’ Roses is my favorite band. Ever since I was a kid, they’ve been the metal band that I’ve rocked at inappropriate volumes at inopportune times. During junior high, I think I just liked them because they were rebels, and I wanted to be one too. But as I progressed through adolescence, I began to truly appreciate the musicianship of their music. Then, in 1994, my connection to the music of Guns N’ Roses changed.
On November 2, 1994, my grandmother died. As a kid, my grandmother, affectionately known as “Mamma,” [‘mam-aw] was essentially my other best friend. I have wonderful memories of my Mamma. I used to hang out at her house and play “Uno” and watch her favorite show, “Dallas,” while eating her entire stash of chewy chocolate chip cookies from her owl-shaped porcelain cookie jar. Honestly, I have no idea if those episodes of “Dallas” were new or reruns, but in my memory, it seemed like it was on every night. But regardless, whenever I hear the theme song to the show, I think of her – every single time.
On November 2, 1994, she died. A few days later, we attended her funeral in the small town of Chanute, Kansas. It was chilly and overcast, and there was a light steady rain that gently blanketed the day. In my melancholy frame-of-mind, the only thing I could think to do was put on my headphones and turn on my CD player, hoping to find the perfect song that reflected my sadness at the loss of one of my best friends. I remember not particularly caring about lyrics, but rather seeking the perfect melodic tone.
And I found it.
I opened the red and yellow case of the Guns N’ Roses album Use Your Illusion, Vol. 1 and clicked the CD onto the tiny rotating wheel that secured the disk in-place. I closed the lid, pressed play, and selected the perfect song. Track #10. “November Rain.”
Wednesday, June 29, 2016 – 8:37 PM
The Rock & Roll Gods are smiling upon us right now. When we got here, to the stadium, we made the long walk up the spiral Arrowhead walkway, bound for our cheap seats in the nose bleed section. But as we neared the top, we were met by a stadium employee who stopped us.
“We’re closing the upper decks,” she said. “What section are your tickets?”
“326,” I replied.
“Okay,” she said, “just go to that section and they will give you your new tickets.”
“New tickets?” I asked, hoping she would indeed say what she was about to say.
“You’re being moved down,” she said.
My wife and I both smiled and quickened our step. And sure enough, when we got to the entrance for Section 326, we were greeted by a nice lady who took our Section 326 tickets and handed us different tickets in return. I looked to see where we would be sitting: Section 121. In one little exchange, our seats went from being third level to field level, almost floor seats!
So, here we sit, in Section 121 ($200 tickets, according to StubHub), listening to the opening band – legendary grunge band Alice in Chains.
So… Alice in Chains is about to finish their set and we are awaiting the performance of my favorite band – Guns N’ Roses – as we sit in $200 seats; a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because, of course, this is the “Not In This Lifetime* Tour.”
*The tour got its name from an interview Axl Rose gave in 2012.
When asked if the original band would ever tour together again, he responded,
“Not in this lifetime!”
Wednesday, June 29, 2016 – 9:47 PM
I’m taking a moment to sit down during the concert and write this (thanks to the WordPress app on my iPhone). Guns N’ Roses just finished performing “November Rain.” Slash and Richard Fortus are playing the opening riff to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” right now. The show isn’t even over yet, and it’s already the most amazing musical performance I’ve ever seen – ever. It’s nearly overwhelming to watch these guys. During Slash’s iconic guitar solo during “November Rain,” I leaned over to my wife and said, “I hope you realize that right now, you’re watching arguably the greatest living guitar player.” And she smiled at me. But I think she smiled at me, not because of what I said, but because she could see how happy I am, how much fun I’m having, and how much I really enjoy sharing this experience with her.
Thursday, June 30, 2016 – 2:57 AM
We’ve finally made it back to our hotel. We met some awesome Kansas City people after the show who were at the concert, and all reflected on how great it was; all of us recounting our favorite moments and collectively speaking in awe of the spectacle we’d just witnessed. I was not the only one to declare this show to be the best I’d ever experienced. This was actually a popular sentiment among those who attended. It was simply unbelievable…
And now, I’m completely exhausted. My wife is already asleep.
Tomorrow (or, I suppose, later this morning), we are getting up, checking out of the hotel, and driving back to reality.
Thursday, June 30, 2016 – 12:27 PM
On the road. Going home. The hum of Interstate 35 is vibrating beneath the floorboards and we once again are making that familiar drive, today in the other direction. My wife is driving, giving me the brief opportunity to write. We’re both worn-out from all the walking and standing and cheering and singing – belting “Sweet Child O’ Mine” at the top of our lungs can be tiring.
But for me, getting to see my favorite song, “November Rain,” performed live by Axl and Slash wasn’t just an event or a concert. For me, it was a life experience. That song has such far-reaching meaning for me that I nearly wept from the mere sentimentality of the experience. I remember using the music video of that song to teach symbolism and imagery to my high school students. But most of all, I remember listening to that song, over and over again, on the cold rainy day of my Mamma’s funeral.
She was born on June 30, 1916. Today would have been her 100th birthday.
She died on November 2, 1994 – a cold rainy day outside. Eighteen years later – to the day – on November 2, 2012, I was sent to prison – a cold rainy day inside.
Guns N’ Roses made a come-back. They fell apart in the mid-90s and there seemed to be no hope that they would ever tour again. “Not in this lifetime” would they ever play together again, Axl said. But that wasn’t the case. They have been able to put things back together and be as solid as ever. And that inspires me.
There was a time, after Guns N’ Roses broke-up, that Axl Rose and Slash hated each other. Any hope of hearing them play together again was shattered. But nothing lasts forever.
Sometimes, when everything falls apart, and it seems like there is no hope in sight, the right set of circumstances and the right amount of motivation and drive can make anything possible.
Tragedy, sadness, depression, poor choices, bad circumstances – none of that has to be permanent. All-too-often, things that seemed impossible at one time are now entirely plausible; or in the case of Guns N’ Roses, what was certain to never happen has now become a huge success.
I know my Mamma would have been rightfully disappointed in the choices I’ve made in life, but what I can hope is this: Beyond that, she can now be proud of the way I’ve put things back together. I hope she sees who I am now. Because even though my past will always be a permanent scar in some aspects, the weight of it doesn’t have to last forever.
In the darkest times of life, moving forward is the most difficult and most rewarding thing a person can do, because with enough determination, success awaits.
So never mind the darkness, you still can find a way.
Nothing lasts forever, even cold November Rain.
Onward we drive.
How about I tell you a story. I’m good at telling stories. I do it well. It’s my gift. So here, let me tell you a story – a true story. This story, like all of my stories, has a moral. Often, it is difficult to fully divine the moral of a tall tale, true or not; sometimes I don’t even know the moral until I’ve finished writing. But this one is true, and I happen to know it: “Never tell life that it can’t get any worse; it will gladly accept your challenge.”
I’ve been told by a very close friend that I should write less about my crime. As she put it, “I read your writing because I love your writing, not because of what you did.”
So this isn’t a story about my crime. I promise. Well, perhaps it’s peripherally related, but the nature of my crime matters not.
This is the story of my first weekend in jail.
Did you know that when you go to prison, you have to go to jail first? True story. They literally book you back into the county jail.
I spent twenty-five months and three days in prison. That’s 763 days. That’s 18,322 hours. That’s 1,098,720 minutes. And I felt every – single – one. But the most painful of those 18,322 hours happened in the first 72.
The judge, after handing down my sentence in court, graciously allowed me the chance to hug my wife and family goodbye before I was uneventfully escorted through a door in the courtroom behind the jury box; a door that led into a long ominous back hallway – a door that led out of my free world.
The hallway was long and tortuous – or at least, it seemed that way, like the back hallways of the Bellagio in Ocean’s Eleven. And when I was finally guided by the wordless jail deputy onto an elevator, I knew instinctively we would be going down.
Because according to lore, that’s the figurative descent into Hell; according to the layout of the Sedgwick County Courthouse, that’s the literal descent to jail.
The elevator doors closed with an uncomfortable clank, and the elevator itself sounded labored as it did its best to lower my temporary and momentarily-automated casket toward Dante’s Inferno without dropping us into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.
When the doors opened, I was escorted to a heavy thick automatic sliding door, and when I walked through, it closed behind me as I stood before an identical door. There was a span of several torturously long moments between the closing of the door behind me and the opening of the door before me, like being in the airlock of a spaceship, knowing that the comfort and safety of the interior was behind me and the chaotic unknown void awaited.
The jail deputy escorting me stood silently, like a moving statue. In fact, he didn’t say a single word for the entirety of our journey downward. He was my escort to the Underworld, like Charon, the mythical “Boat Man” from Greek Mythology who carried newly-deceased souls across the River Styx. The deputy’s facial expression never changed – an unmoved expression that was either boredom or apathy. Here I was, being led away from freedom and this man had absolutely no fucks to give that I was heading to prison. I was nobody to him and his level of give-a-shit was nonexistent. It was my first and most profound lesson about prison: “You do not matter.”
I could see through a thick window opening in the door in front of me as I awaited its inevitable opening: The booking area of the Sedgwick County Jail. I’d been here before. Once. The night of my initial arrest, seven months prior. I spent seventeen hours here before being bailed-out by my family, who chose to show me an irrational amount of love and support. And as the ominous heavy door opened, breaking the uncomfortable silence between me and Deputy Boat Man, an invisible and uncomfortable mist filled the airlock.
They say smells and scents are the biggest triggers of memories. As the brain processes scents and memories, smells get routed through your olfactory bulb, which is the smell-analyzing region in your brain. It’s closely connected to your amygdala and hippocampus, brain regions that handle memory and emotion. And trust me, being in jail the first time created quite an emotional memory. So when that familiar smell – that odor – wafted into my nostrils again, I knew – and remembered – exactly where I was.
There’s an episode in season 7 of “House M.D.” where Dr. House sends his doctors to break into someone’s house to look for clues about a patient’s illness, and they are busted and arrested. After finally being released, Dr. Taub, one of House’s doctors, remarked in a depressingly-comedic tone, “I smell like jail.” But as comical and whimsical as that line sounded on television, I happen to know for a (very serious) fact that such a smell does exist. And it’s putrid.
I was walked to a chest-high desk and essentially dropped off by Deputy Boat Man and he promptly retreated through the airlock without a word. The desk deputy gave me a look, seeing that I was standing there in a tie and glasses and looking all sophisticated and dressed up and shit, and motioned me toward an awaiting deputy behind me who would walk me to my holding cell – he motioned with his chin and head, apparently not willing to put forth the effort of raising an arm or extending his index finger, let alone using actual words. And before this third deputy put me into the holding cell, he took my tie and my belt, asked if I had a watch, wallet, or wedding band (which I didn’t, having given them to my wife in the courtroom before being removed from the Free World), and then escorted me to a corner cell with ten or twelve other people waiting on benches to be either transferred to the housing units of the jail or bailed-out.
I stood in the doorway of the holding cell as the heavy door slammed behind me and locked with a ringing thud. No one appeared to look up from their conversations or snoring to see that a new contestant had entered this dejected contest of life-failures. It only took a fraction of a second to realize that I looked like a fucking idiot standing there, and I saw that there was an open corner, and I quickly but casually made my way toward it and staked my claim. I sat down on the floor, pulled my knees to my chest, and hid my face from my inevitable future – my only thought being, “Life can’t possibly get any worse.”
There is no feeling of failure that equates to that of sitting in jail, knowing you’re on your way to prison. It far exceeds the feeling of failure at a specific task. When you’re sitting in jail, on your way to prison, you haven’t failed at a mere task – you’ve failed at life. I’d failed at life.
After sitting in my self-constructed ball of solitude for a few hours, a deputy opened the door and said my name. “Brundage,” he called in an apathetic monotone, holding a small index card. I stood up and walked with him, not asking why or where or how or what or anything. He motioned me toward a very overweight and hairy man sitting behind a curtain in what looked like a cheaper version of a high school nurse’s office. And as I went in and sat down, I knew precisely what it was, having been through the same drill when I was initially arrested. This was the health screening, as part of the booking process. He asked me about my basic medical history, drug use, tobacco use, alcohol use, etc. My answers were mindless and unremarkable. Then he asked about mental health. And I should have lied.
“Are you feeling depressed right now?” he asked.
“I’m heading to prison, so I’m not exactly thrilled,” I replied with as much sarcasm as I could muster-up (which, admittedly, wasn’t much – I sounded more like an asshole).
“Have you ever attempted suicide?” he asked. I was a little bothered by the manner in which he asked this question. This particular inquiry had a lot of weight to it, especially in light of what was about to happen to me, not to mention the severity of the act itself, but when he asked, he might as well have been asking me if I was allergic to peanuts or cats.
“In March,” I said matter-of-factly, “I swallowed a bottle of pills.” I paused. “But clearly I’m still here.”
[I did, in fact, attempt suicide seven months prior, after my initial arrest. It’s not something I am at all proud of, but nor is it something I try to hide.]
The gargantuan hairy guy in scrubs, who looked like he’d just finished his janitorial shift, didn’t even look up when I sardonically indicated that my life had reached such a depth that I’d tried to end it. He simply moved on to his next innocuous and inane question before indicating that I could go back to my holding cell. There, I would await transfer to the residential section of the jail.
I sat back in my corner of the holding cell, but was only there for a half-hour or so before another deputy, one I had not yet seen, came to the door and called my name. “Brundage,” he said in a nearly identical monotone voice as the last deputy. I again stood and followed him, no questions asked.
We walked through the open area and out a door that led to another hallway that led to a hallway that led to a room that led to a room. The room where we eventually ended up looked like an abandoned locker room, and certainly smelled the part.
“Strip search,” the deputy said. I expected this and began to reluctantly and uncomfortably disrobe. He took each article of clothing, checking them for contraband and personal items, and subsequently bagged them to be sent home. And when I was fully disrobed, standing before him completely naked and utterly humiliated, I waited for him to complete his paperwork and put his clipboard down so that I could be given the cliche County Jail jumpsuit.
But that’s not what happened.
“Here,” the deputy said as he put down his clipboard. He extended to me a large piece of heavy material with sleeve holes and Velcro. I had no clue what the fuck this thing was, and the look of confusion on my face prompted an explanation from the deputy.
“You’re being put on Suicide Watch,” he said.
I was speechless. And I think he picked up on my bewilderment because he somewhat immediately explained.
“Policy is, if you’ve had a suicide attempt within the last year, you’re automatically put on Suicide Watch.” He spoke as though he was telling me how to change my windshield wipers. To him, no big deal.
I took the odd green heavy Velcro smock from him and held it in front of me, naked, trying to figure out how the hell I was supposed to put this fucking thing on. I was contemporaneously growing more and more agitated the more I thought about the fact that I was being put on Suicide Watch, even though I wasn’t suicidal.
“So who determines that I’m not suicidal?” I asked as I uncomfortably examined this one-piece heavy smock.
“The mental health nurse on duty,” he replied.
“Can I talk to her?” I asked with staccato in my voice. “It will take like 30 seconds for her to realize I’m not suicidal, at all.”
“They don’t work weekends,” he replied with seemingly no fucks to give.
“So, she’ll be back Monday?” I asked. I could feel how wide my eyes were.
It was 9:00 on Friday night.
I paused and stared at him, hoping my facial expression and silence would convey; a) how pissed off I was about this; b) how irritated I was that he didn’t seem to give a shit; and c) how utterly fucking stupid it was for a correctional facility to not employ any mental health staff on the weekends.
“Fine,” I said, having never made eye-contact with him. I fastened the heavy green smock over my shivering and humiliated naked body, and stood motionless – barefoot and furious – awaiting my next instruction.
He led me down another hall to an open jail pod and into a cell specifically for Suicide Watch. I entered the cell, feeling simultaneously enraged and defeated. The door closed behind me and sounded as though the thud rang for an eternity.
Shit just got real.
So, I stood there in the middle of this one-man cell and evaluated my surroundings. There was a metal toilet attached to a metal sink, the floor was stone and cold, the walls were brick and stone, the bed was metal and cold – and had no mattress. Suicide Watch precautionary measures remove anything that a person could use to cause harm to himself, including clothing, all personal effects, and anything in the cell that is not bolted-down. There wasn’t even toilet paper. And to add to it, they took my glasses. I’d worn my glasses to court in a shallow attempt to look smarter, so when they took my clothing from me, they also took my glasses. I couldn’t see a single thing.
So when I sat down on the cold metal slab that would serve as my bed, I thought to myself . . . nothing. I could think nothing and I could see nothing. But I could hear other inmates congregating in the commons area of the pod; I was not allowed out of my cell. There was only one light in my cell, and it flickered like a dull indecisive and inconsistent strobe light. But I literally couldn’t form a fully-functional cohesive thought.
But I could still feel. And at that moment, I felt the metaphorical thud of my entire life finally hitting rock bottom, sinking to the deepest valley of the Abyss.
I looked around, let out a sigh, and laid my head down on the metal slab that would serve as my bed. And after trying several positions without any comfortable success, I stood up and walked to the door of the cell, pressing the button that paged the desk deputy.
“What,” the deputy said without inflection.
“Can I have a roll of toilet paper?” I asked.
No reply. I pressed the button again. Nothing.
Then, the door unlatched and swung open. An apathetic hand thrust a cheap roll of toilet paper into the cell. “Let me know when you’re done,” he said in a clear I-don’t-give-a-damn tone of voice.
“I can’t keep it?” I asked.
He paused and looked at me like I was high-maintenance. “Fine,” he said, shutting the door briskly.
But the truth is, I didn’t need to use the toilet. I needed a pillow.
When I returned to the metal slab bed, I unfastened the Velcro on my heavy green smock and used it (as best I could) as a blanket to cover my body. I turned onto my side, placing the roll of toilet paper under my head, and curled up into as much of a ball as I could and tried not to move. I had to grit my teeth until the cold metal against my naked skin was warmed enough by my body heat to keep my body from shivering uncontrollably. If I moved, the cold uncovered metal jolted me like an icy shock.
After several hours, I finally drifted off to sleep. But it didn’t last long. I woke up repeatedly, each time thinking it was all a nightmare from which I would soon be pulled. Not the case. The nightmare was my reality. And each time I happened to find a shallow bit of slumber, my body would shift and the cold metal on my leg or my hip or my arm or my shoulder would jolt me awake again.
I had no way of knowing what time it was; there was a clock across the pod from my cell, but as I looked out the cell door, I squinted as hard as I could and still couldn’t read it. They took my glasses. I was trapped, helpless, sightless, sleepless, and frigidly cold. I could only curl myself into a ball and do my best to cocoon myself between the heavy fabric of my green smock and the depressingly cold metal slab bed.
I have no idea what time it was when they brought me breakfast. According to my window, it was still dark outside when I was served my morning meal. I got up and looked at it, and I literally could not identify it. Seriously, I have no fucking clue what the hell was on that tray. It wasn’t moving, thankfully; so, there’s that. It may have been grits, perhaps, but it looked and smelled more like the liquefied corpse that Walter White and Jesse Pinkman dissolved in acid on “Breaking Bad.” This was breakfast. No thanks. I didn’t eat. I dumped it in the toilet and left the tray by the door, returning to the safety of my cocoon.
When the sun finally came up, the noise of the jail pod awoke me from whatever brief bout of sleep I’d managed to find. And it wasn’t long before my mind began to race. The depression turned to stress and the stress had me pacing the tiny cell in my heavy green smock and bare feet.
The more I paced, the quicker my steps became and the room kept getting smaller and smaller and colder and colder and louder and quieter and the ringing in my ears and the fleeting thoughts in my mind never stopped and I kept getting exhaustively energized and frustrated and depressed and angry and I paced and paced and paced until the bottoms of my bare feet became sore and my naked shoulders became chafed from the Velcro that rubbed and scratched my bare skin which was only made worse by the cold sweat that covered my entire body and made me even more cold which made me shiver more and my face became sore from clenching my cheeks and grinding my teeth and all I could do to alleviate the stress and the pain and the despair and the depression was pace the room until I had no energy left in my body.
And that’s how it was for me, in that little cell, all day. I was never even let out to bathe.
Lunch, like breakfast, was delivered on a clunky tray and was barely identifiable. I tried to eat, but couldn’t. I had no appetite, no desire to eat, no desire to even sustain any sort of nutrition at all. I knew I needed to eat; my body was telling me it needed nutrients, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to shovel this mystery sludge into my mouth. It smelled like something that was left-over from dinner . . . six weeks ago. But honestly, I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to eat it. I seriously began to contemplate whether or not death-by-starvation would be a painful way to put myself out of my misery, if death meant being able to leave the cell. Because in all honesty, I was fine (though pissed off) as I sat in the holding cell, waiting to be transferred to the residential area of the jail. I wasn’t suicidal. I wasn’t even contemplating death – I was merely daunted by the two years of prison that awaited me; but I’d spent the previous months preparing myself for the possibility. But staring at that “meal” they gave me, I could only wonder if starving to death was painful, because I couldn’t think of anything more painful than being in that room. So, like breakfast, I dumped it in the toilet and left the tray to be picked up. Ah, the irony: I hadn’t even contemplated death until I was forced into Suicide Watch.
At one point, they wheeled a television out into the open area of the pod, and Training Day was on. I’ve seen the movie numerous times, so although I could not see the screen, I could hear it. And since the only opening between my cell and the open pod was the crack beneath my door, I curled up in my cocoon on the floor and listened to the sound of the movie as it crept into my cell – I watched the movie in my mind. I haven’t seen that movie since.
That movie is the last solid categorical memory I have of being on Suicide Watch. I mean, I have other recollections, but they all seem to mesh together into one huge cacophony of cognitive cluster-fuck. Hours felt like days and time stopped. Well, not literally, but at one point, time literally did go backwards. Because I was in jail during the first weekend in November. Fall-back. It was Daylight Savings Time. And in a place where an hour felt like a long and endless day, adding another hour to my solitary confinement was just a cruel joke.
It was always dark in my cell, except for the flickering light. It always smelled musty with a hint of odor from the toilet that clearly hadn’t been cleaned since Jimmy Carter was president, so I was reluctant to use it. And in a cell of stone and metal, it seemed to somehow radiate with varying degrees of cold. In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, he describes the deepest depths of Hell, not as a fiery burning lake of sulfur, but as a bitter cold wasteland, devoid of God. And those two attributes described my surroundings perfectly: It was bitter cold, and God was not there.
Of all the places I’ve been and all the things I’ve experienced, that was the first time I’d ever been anywhere – at any time – and literally felt like God was not there. Because He wasn’t. I honestly believe the time I spent in that cell was the first (and hopefully only) time that God has chosen to turn His back on me.
Time stopped. For days, time stopped. I could only base a general estimation of the time on what meal was being brought to me (though I didn’t eat them); however, at one point I expected lunch and got breakfast, which was my biggest indication that I was beginning to lose the only firm grip on reality I had left.
And then, on Monday morning, it was over. A woman came to the window of my solitary cell and began asking me questions.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said.
“Do you have any thoughts of hurting yourself?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “None.”
“Okay,” she said.
And then, the door opened, I was handed a Sedgwick County Jail jumpsuit, and led to the residential area of the jail.
So, just like that, with a few well-placed lies, I was released from Hell and led out of the Abyss.
I was led to another elevator, then through another maze of hallways, and then told where I would be going for the time-being. “Pod Ten,” the faceless deputy said as he herded me toward the barracks-style pod. I was carrying a standard-issue set of sheets and a blanket. They don’t give out pillows at the Sedgwick County Jail – but you can rent one. And once I got to Pod Ten, I saw that the mattresses were the same disgusting worn bed pads that were in the holding cells. Disgusting? Yes, but at least it was a mattress. I was thankful for a mattress. So I was assigned a bed and told to put my things down and go shower. Yes, shower. I was thankful for a shower.
Finally, my ordeal in that particular circle of Hell was over, and I was thankful to begin my climb out, with or without Dante and Virgil’s assistance.
After getting showered and situated, I was – for the first time – allowed to use the phone.
I called my wife.
And at the very instant I heard the sweet sound of her voice, I wept.
I wept because in the beautiful sound of her voice and the loving embrace of her words, God had returned to me, and I felt Him next to me again.
And still, I wept.
If you don’t know who Roger Bannister was, don’t worry. Not many contemporary Americans do. However, there are certain circles and communities where the name Roger Bannister equates to that of Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, or Joe Montana. Essentially, Roger Bannister was the Babe Ruth of Track & Field. On May 6, 1954 in Oxford England, Bannister became the first human being in history to run the mile in under four minutes.
“It can’t be done,” people said to him. “Impossible,” they said. The thought of a man running the mile in less than four minutes didn’t seam feasible. But he did it. And then, 20 years later, a skinny high schooler from my home state of Kansas, from my hometown of Wichita, from my alumni high school – Jim Ryun – became the first high school runner to accomplish the same feat. Now, as of today, the current world record in the mile is 3:43.13 by Hicham El Guerrouj.
That’s really fast.
Roger Bannister didn’t wake up one morning and race a sub-four mile. He woke up one morning, and he ran. And then, he woke up the next morning, and he ran again. Because it was what he loved. Running was in his blood. It was in his bones. It was in his heart. So running became his life. Roger Bannister had a dream, but instead of merely relishing in that dream and eventually waking from it, Roger worked. Roger made it his life’s ambition that his dream and his reality would collide in a massive and spectacular explosion of success and accomplishment and victory. And it happened. So now, Roger Bannister isn’t an unremarkable skinny British kid. Roger Bannister is a pioneer, a trail-blazer, a revolutionary, a founding father of his sport. Roger Bannister is a legend.
Roger Bannister did not simply make a contribution to his dream, he made a full commitment. And that made all the difference.
There’s an old story about the difference between contribution and commitment…
A father and son were sitting at breakfast one morning. The father, making small-talk with his son, asked him, “So, what are you studying in school?”
“Well,” the son replied, “yesterday we were studying a book, and the teacher asked us to describe the difference between contribution and commitment. But I wasn’t quite understanding the difference.”
The father thought for a second, then said, “Well, let me give you an example.”
“Okay,” the son replied.
“Look down at your plate,” the father said. “What do you see?”
“Ham and eggs,” the son said.
“Exactly,” the father said. “That chicken made a contribution. That pig made a commitment.”
I told this story to my wife yesterday while we were out running together. Then I said to her, “I’m tired of being the chicken.”
Roger Bannister wasn’t afraid to be the pig. He committed his entire life to his goal, his ambition, and his dream. And as a result, he succeeded. Nothing about Bannister was half-effort. He didn’t make mere contributions to his dream – not just whenever he had time, whenever he had energy, or whenever he felt like it – Roger Bannister put it all on the line to make it happen. He knew he was good enough, but he knew it wasn’t going to happen on its own; he had to make it happen.
* * *
For every 10,000 people who have heard the name Jim Ryun, maybe one of those people has also heard the name Mike Peterson.
Running track at my high school was like being part of a massive legacy. And as I wrote in “I Run,” my high school track coach embedded that sense of legacy and tradition into all of his runners. So one day, as we were stretching in the gym before practice, I looked up and saw something on the school’s Track & Field Record Board that I’d never particularly noticed before. Under Jim Ryun’s school record placard for the One Mile, there was an asterisk, followed by the text, “Thanks Mike Peterson.” Somehow, of all the times I’d looked up at that board, I’d never seen that. But that day, I saw it and it puzzled me.
“Coach Sell,” I asked, “who is Mike Peterson?” I pointed at the record board.
“Well,” Coach Sell said with a smile, “Mike Peterson was Jim Ryun’s teammate in 1964 when he set the high school record for the mile. Jim has always said that if Mike Peterson hadn’t been on the team to support him and push him and keep him going, he never would have broken that record. So when he did, he insisted that his record also have Mike Peterson’s name on it. Because Ryun thought that the record was just as much Mike’s as it was his.”
Coach Sell would know. In 1964, he was a Wichita East High School Track & Field teammate of both Jim Ryun and Mike Peterson. Literally, he was there.
My wife is the Mike Peterson of my life. She is my support and my driving force. And soon, I will hopefully embark on a new and frightening endeavor, putting all of my cards on the table, making a full commitment to accomplish my dream.
Right now, I am staring into the deep dark chasm of uncertainty, and I’m steadily running out of time. However – like the at end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Harrison Ford makes his leap of faith from the Lion’s Head – I must extend my foot and take that great step into the unknown. I must be driven by difficulties, not discouraged. I must be motivated by failures, not defeated. It will be the most difficult thing I have ever attempted to accomplish in my life. And there is only one thing I know for certain:
When Roger Bannister was on his last lap, 300 meters away from the finish in that first sub-four minute mile, he knew that it would be close. So he put on a finishing kick that drove him down the back-stretch, around the last curve, and down the final straightaway to the finish:
He knew that if he didn’t make his move, it would be too late. My own experience as a high school and college track & field athlete taught that starting a finishing sprint with 300 meters to go was risky, but effective. One of two things would happen: Either I would sprint for 200 meters and struggle for the final 100 meters to the finish, fighting off the runners who chased me; or I would drive all the way through those 300 meters, leaving my competitors safely behind. But either way, it was a risk, and it was a risk worth taking.
I feel that I have reached that point in my life. I am quickly approaching the 300-meters-remaining point in my own race. Granted, I’m not going to go out and try to be an Olympic runner or anything like that; but there is one thing in this world at which I feel I am truly great. And I believe the time has come to pursue that greatness and bring my dream to fruition. So in the race that is my life, with 300 meters left now, I can either sprint and try to win, or just keep my current pace and be content with whatever place I happen to finish.
I choose to sprint.
I will stare into the faces of skeptics and naysayers and tell them, “I will succeed.”
I will stand up from every crushing blow that knocks me down and say, “I will succeed.”
I will push forward into the headwinds that slow me down, and shout to the heavens, “I will succeed!”
Some will question whether I’m being practical or realistic.
Some will even tell me flat-out, “You can’t do this.”
My response to that: “Challenge accepted.”
I choose to sprint.
Maybe it’s a bit cliche that I would write about Brock Turner. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should stop writing right now. Maybe, since I am who I am (or more accurately, “was who I was”), I don’t have the right to comment on this situation. Maybe it’s in poor taste that I write anything about it. Perhaps? But what if I had something relevant to say? What if it wasn’t what someone would expect? Is it assumed that I’m immediately going to leap to the defense of the “offender” since that seems to be stagnant pond of shit where my reputation evidently marinates.
(CLICK HERE if you don’t know who Brock Turner is or what he did).
But about him specifically, I only have one thing to say: By all indications, his crime has not changed him. When I stood at my sentencing hearing, I fully admitted to what I did and could only beg for the forgiveness of all those impacted. Not him. From the beginning, his story changed repeatedly and the many versions of his assault on an inebriated unconscious woman only attempted to further vindicate his actions. The feelings of guilt and repentance that paralyzed me don’t seem to be phasing him at all. I hope, for his sake, he has a change of heart and is willing to admit fault, but it doesn’t seem that this will happen anytime soon.
Admittedly, my opinions on this story were not at the level they are now, until yesterday. I mean, shit like this happens so often, it’s second-nature in the media (though this one has gained substantial traction), so as far as I was concerned, it was just another story. But that changed when I read the transcript of the Victim Impact Statement that his victim read aloud in court.
(CLICK HERE to read it.)
To preface my statements, here’s a brief summary of what Brock Turner did: After a night of drinking, he sexually assaulted a 22-year-old woman while she was intoxicated and unconscious, behind a dumpster. Two men passing by saw him, chased him, and held him until police arrived.
A significant part of her Victim Impact Statement recalled her experience following the assault, detailing her experience with the “Justice System” as they questioned her, investigated, poked, prodded, tested, retested, and interrogated. And her experiences in court were even worse as she was forced to relive the experience (which she didn’t remember in the first place), and listened to the defense call her entire life into question. And when that was all over, Brock Turner still refused to admit his crime.
So as I read her statement, I had one immediate feeling: Relief.
After seeing, in her own words, what she went through and how it made her feel, I was filled with an immense sense of relief that, in the summer of 1998, I never told anyone that I was sexually assaulted by a (former) friend while I was intoxicated and nearly unconscious. My impression of her experiences with the “Justice System” was that being forced through the investigative and judicial process was equally as horrifying and intrusive as the assault itself.
Being sexually violated (as I wrote in “Scandal“) is a horror unlike any other – indescribable. I mean, I’m a writer; I use words to paint pictures, convey ideas, and build thoughts; no words I could ever string together into a cohesive sentence could ever adequately describe the feeling of sitting in a room, alone, trying to forget what it was like to be sexually violated. The words just don’t exist.
However, the closest thing I’ve ever heard to what it feels like was almost perfectly conveyed in this Victim Impact Statement. “I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.” I read that sentence and it felt like my heart stopped. I knew that feeling. I felt that feeling. But I felt that as I sat in my bedroom, alone – she had to feel it as she was surrounded by nurses and police. And my heart broke for her. “I felt too empty to continue to speak,” she said, referring to how it felt when her sister picked her up from the hospital. I knew that feeling too.
In 1998, I did not report that I was sexually assaulted. In fact, I told absolutely no one until 2014. And over the years, part of me has always wondered if I should have. But now, after reading the Victim Impact Statement of Brock Turner’s victim, I am exceedingly glad I didn’t. I can only imagine the horror I would have had to experience as a part of that process – the “Justice System” has convinced me that I did the right thing by seeking “justice.” And the added variable of me being a guy, and my assailant being a guy as well, there would have been an added crippling sense of humiliation and emasculation as well – of this I’m certain. And I still haven’t told anyone exactly who it was, although nearly anyone who has known me since high school, knows him.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t report these things. Logistically, they should. But what I am specifically saying is that, in my situation, I’m glad I didn’t. Of course, perhaps everything in my entire life would have been different if I had immediately spoken-up. But I didn’t. And as of now, for me, I’m glad I didn’t.
That’s not right. The “Justice System” shouldn’t victimize victims a second time with the process itself. Brock Turner’s victim was violated twice: Once by Brock Turner and again by the process. And when it comes to my situation with my “former student,” I am glad – for her sake – that I didn’t fight the charges against me. I knew what I’d done, and I was insistent that she not be put through anything else. Maybe, on a deep level, I knew what the victim chair felt like, and I didn’t want to make it any worse for her. I knew what we’d done, and neither of us wanted to relive it. But Brock Turner had no such consideration. His high-priced attorneys did everything they could to minimize the situation and reduce his assault victim to nothing more than a faceless drunken floozy. I do not wonder why people hate lawyers.
I don’t know how to fix the system. But I do know that I handled the situation correctly, the two times I was faced with it: I did not report it when I was sexually assaulted (because I didn’t want to experience the horror of that process), and I did not fight the charges against me when I had a relationship with my former student (because I didn’t want her to experience the horror of that process).
As I see it, it is less traumatic for victims to not seek justice. The “Justice System” is populated by elected officials, so it is driven by statistics, rates, and results – not compassion, fairness, or genuine justice. I am eternally thankful that I did not seek justice. Because the “Justice System” is just another broken, callous, and careless process.
God Bless America…
“God loves you as you are, not as you should be, because none of us are as we should be.” -Brennan Manning
Please, judge me. I invite your judgment. I really do. By all means, look at all the terrible things I’ve done, things to which I have publicly admitted, and judge me. Your judgments, your suppositions, your assumptions – I welcome them all. Please, by all means, pass all the judgment on me you can possibly muster-up. Furthermore (and I’m not kidding about this), I invite you to voice those very judgments to me, to my face, without concern for retribution, grudges, or anger. I want to hear it all. I want to be judged.
I’ve seen numerous tattoos on people who seemingly seek to put forth this “I’m a badass” image, with tattoos that say “Only God Can Judge Me.” And while this idealistic concept may be true on some levels, I find its authenticity to be suspect. People who seem to project this particular concept with their body art, attire, or affect tend to be the kinds of individuals searching for a viable and irrefutable excuse to live a life devoid of morality – the very antithesis of what God would approve – then throw it into the face of society by claiming that the only individual who can judge their immoral behavior is God. And while this is quite accurate, using this logic to justify contemporaneous immoralities is merely kicking the can down the road. And I can’t help but think that this mindset is just a slap to God’s face, abusing His gift of Grace and taking His love for granted.
This is why I invite the unveiled judgments of my peers. I want to know what my peers think – family, friends, etc. And granted, I don’t expect anyone to actually do this – to actually tell me exactly what they think, no holding back – but I feel that it’s important for that opportunity to be out there. And I have a very specific reason for this.
The one redeeming quality of the human capacity to judge others is the extensive ability during these times of judgment to be thoroughly observant. Essentially, we look harder at people when we are searching for their faults – it’s just human nature. Thus, I want to know those faults, as seen through the eyes of my peers. And here’s why: If I know the faults that are seen by others, it will lead me to know the faults I must fix within myself. I want to live a life worth living – a positive, productive, peaceful life – because I spent too many years living the life of a horrid and horrific human being. But sometimes, looking into the mirror isn’t enough.
Do my family and friends really understand how much I’ve changed in recent years? Honestly, I suspect not. A few people do, but most don’t care enough see beyond the prejudiced assumptions they’ve held since seeing my mugshot on television.
People like to judge that way – people enjoy those feelings. Those feelings bring forth subtle sensations of superiority. And if there’s one thing we Americans love, it’s feeling superior. And when we throw morality into our superiority, we feel like our judgments are above reproach; because, obviously, we’re judging on moral grounds. And morals are concrete, right?
This is why the contentious contemporary climate of politics is filled with vitriol: People are confusing moral stances with political stances. The common assumption is that “Democrat” is synonymous with “Liberal” and “Republican” is synonymous with “Conservative.” No. No, no, no, no! Here’s the difference: Democrat and Republican are political stances: Liberal and Conservative are moral stances. Thus, it is entirely feasible to be a Liberal Republican (like Mitt Romney) or a Conservative Democrat (like me). Granted, I call myself a Liberal because it pretty well sums-up how I interact with other people (i.e. I don’t care if people are gay; abortion is a low-priority issue for me), but I personally hold Conservative values (I personally believe that homosexuality is sinful; I am personally pro-life). Therefore, just because a political ideology and a moral stance happen to often coincide does not mean they must.
I am confident in two things now: my life as I live it now, and my beliefs as I believe them now. And because of this, I am fine with being judged. I’m fine with this, because it affords me the opportunity to prove that I no longer fit into the boxes in which I’ve been placed by my behaviors, my reputation, my betrayals, and my crimes. As I’ve written before, I am – right now – the best possible version of myself. This is not to say that I no longer struggle – I do. But the finality of those struggles are now ending in triumphs rather than failures, thanks to some very supportive (and sometimes forcefully tough-loving) people in my life.
Sometimes I feel like Dante, who in The Divine Comedy, was forced to trudge through the deepest depths of Hell and climb the long mountain of Purgatory in order to reach the peace of Paradise. And while life right now isn’t exactly Heaven, it is certainly a far cry from the self-imposed Inferno of my past.
That’s the cool thing about God. The best parts of Heaven can come after the worst parts of Hell, and He’s not afraid to remind you that He’s there, He was always there, and He never left. We learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. Show me a truly wise man, and I’ll show you a man who has failed many times. Just ask Nicholas Cage how many times Thomas Edison failed at creating the incandescent light bulb.
So go ahead – judge me. Judge me by my failures. Judge me straight to my face. Voice your judgments to me without hesitation. Don’t sugarcoat your observations of my many failures. Because for every failure of mine that someone can point-out, I can present an equally powerful lesson that I cherish as a result of that failure.
Nothing that I’ve been through – nothing I’ve put myself through – nothing I’ve put my loved one through – has been worthless or wasted. Everything has meaning – everything has a lesson – experience has been a very powerful teacher. And if that experience – that teacher – has taught some people to exit my life and never return, then so be it. But I invite them to judge me as well.
I’m not one of those “Don’t judge me until you’re perfect” people, I simply think a person should have as much comprehensive information as possible before reaching a conclusion. And I think that many people would find me in agreement with their harsh judgments of who I was six (plus) years ago. But as I’ve written in the past, that man is gone – dead – and the man who remains is older, wiser, and better than ever before.
So please, judge me. But just be certain of one thing: Judge the man who lives now, today, this very minute, this very second, writing this very sentence, and the man who moves forward from here. Because in all reality, if you’re judging me by the man I used to be, you’re judging a man who no longer exists. You’re judging no one.
So I humbly invite you, judge me.
“Lightning Crashes,” a song by the group Live released in 1994, holds a special meaning to me. The song itself is essentially about how life, at any moment and without warning, can change completely in an instant. But I didn’t learn that lesson at the moment of my arrest. I learned this lesson on June 5, 1996 – 20 years ago today.
Two people I went to high school with, Quentin Atkinson and Ashley O’Rourke, were killed on June 5, 1996 when they were struck by lightning in a parking lot in east Wichita. Only a few weeks after the end of our sophomore year, summer had just begun, and the two of them were hanging out in a parking lot with some friends after the passing of a run-of-the-mill summer night thunderstorm. With the storm seemingly moved into the distance, a group of 16-year-old kids with newly acquired driver’s licenses decided to park in a parking lot and enjoy the freedom and possibilities of a youthful summer night.
And that’s when the bolt struck. The lightning traveled through Quentin, a 6’5″ basketball player and into Ashley, a 5’5″ cheerleader as the well-known couple embraced while talking casually among their circle of friends. The lightning bolt blew a chunk out of the parking lot asphalt larger than a basketball. Quentin died almost instantly; Ashley died a few days later.
That is a series of events in my life that I will never forget. I learned that day that in a mere instant, everything can change, forever, leaving nothing the same, ever again. And all-too-often, there is nothing anyone can do to stop these changes. So we have to be ready. Life is too unpredictable to become content with “the way things are,” only to be sent into utter upheaval when everything has changed. But here’s the thing: When things really do change – when something happens, and nothing will ever be the same ever again – we learn one important detail about the world around us. We learn the true meaning of love.
I don’t mean the kind of romantic love in chick flicks and romance novels. I mean the type of love that is bestowed upon all, far beyond friendship and full of compassion: Agape love. When tragedy strikes, love is often the unexpected but deeply needed byproduct that enables those most impacted to persevere.
The day after Quentin died, the principal at my high school opened the school back up and allowed us all to flood to the auditorium and grieve together. Hundreds of people showed up, exchanging hugs, and embraces of sympathy, comfort and most importantly, love.
“I knew that the one thing that we all needed was to be together,” the principal said from the podium as she spoke to those in attendance that evening. One at a time, people came to the microphone and spoke, giving messages of sympathy and encouragement to all of us who struggled to maintain emotional composure. News cameras filmed the impromptu service and broadcast it that night; one camera angle included my mother and me as we sat together among the crowd. But the important thing was that we all came together, to be together, because one common denominator of all our lives had changed, and would never be the same.
When I was arrested, my family and closest friends formed a system of support for me, because they knew things would never be the same for me and they showered me with love, regardless of my terrible choices and guilt. I learned through that which of my family and friends loved me unconditionally, and which of them had love that was merely conditional (which, in fact, is not love at all).
On June 5, 1996, and in the subsequent days of that tragedy, I learned numerous invaluable life lessons that remain with me to this day. One of those lessons was the obvious one: The value of life. But one of those lessons has become even more important as I evolve beyond the battles I’ve won and lost with my own personal demons: The value of love. A single bolt of lightning taught me that.
Quentin was on the basketball team. And if there is one image that is forever burned into my mind from that series of events, it is something I saw at Quentin’s funeral. Following the service, those in attendance stood outside the church and awaited the carrying of the casket from the church to the hearse. After a brief wait, the doors swung open and I looked up to see the casket of my 16-year-old friend being carried from the church; carrying the casket on one side was his teammate (who would go on to play several seasons in the NBA) and his basketball coach (who had become a legend in world of Kansas athletics). And behind them, the remaining pallbearers were Quentin’s teammates as well. Being an athlete myself, there was just something so emotionally powerful about seeing my friend’s teammates and coach carrying the casket of their fellow player. I used to regret not taking a picture, but now I realize I don’t need one; my memory of that moment is that clear.
It’s been twenty years since that day. Twenty years. And I continue to learn lessons about life – most of them, the hard way – but those first two real life lessons were perhaps the most important: Everything can change in an instant; and love – Agape Love – is the tie that binds us all together when the world feels like it’s falling apart.
“Love is the answer, and you know that for sure.”
Years ago, I remember hearing a line from a random movie or television show or something. I don’t even remember the film or the show or even the exact quote, but I can remember the basic gist of it: “With all you’ve been through, how can you still believe in God?”
But here’s how I see it: With all I’ve been through, how can I not believe in God?
I’m the first to admit, I’m not a fall-to-my-knees, hands-to-the-heavens Christian. I make it to church once or twice a month, and I honestly can’t tell you if I’ve opened my personal Bible since I’ve been home from prison. Granted, while in prison, I successfully read the Bible cover-to-cover, but since I’ve been home, I guess the “fire” just hasn’t been there.
I haven’t “turned my back on God” or anything like that. I suppose it just hasn’t been a priority. And that really is too bad because many of the happiest (and most stable) times of my life were when I was more active in church and passionate about my faith – the “Opiate for the Masses,” as Marx said. But regardless, the priority of religion in my life has essentially been pretty low on the totem pole.
I’m not mad at God. I’m not falling away from God. I’m not rejecting God. I guess, in my life, God has become that buddy who I text every once in a while just to say ‘Hi’ and check-in from time to time.
I don’t pray as much as I used to. My line of communication with God hasn’t been very active. I don’t ask him for much other than the blessing of the evening meal. I used to talk to God, a lot. I’d drive in my car and have a one-sided conversation with God, airing my grievances and frustrations, asking for guidance or forgiveness or hope or strength, or just plain sanity. But now, we’ve become just two more people, passing one another on the sidewalk or in a hallway. It leaves a void.
And yet, He’s still there. And yesterday, he reminded me.
Yesterday I was having a typical rough day, battling with my regular “inner-demons” (as Tin Cup liked to describe them), just trying to make it through the day. And on top of my own personal struggles, it was also a busy day; took my daughter to piano lessons, took my wife to go tanning, took both girls to a baseball game – just nonstop stuff to do. And I was growing frustrated with myself and my seemingly endless inability to relax and be happy because I was in a pretty negative head-space (most of which was based on the fact that there are still things from the past that I still can’t seem to let go). So, in the midst of the errands – the driving from here to there, dropping off and picking up, God saw fit to put His hand on my shoulder, just for a moment.
I have an awesome car stereo, a birthday present from my family last year. It lights up different colors and can bluetooth to Pandora or iHeartRadio (via my iPhone) and all kinds of stuff. But it can be a bit sensitive too. My iPhone plugs directly into it, so I typically plug it in to charge, and when the phone plugs in, the car stereo immediately switches to “iPhone Mode” and I have to switch it back to the radio or CD player or whatever. But the cord I use in my car probably needs to be replaced, because if I jiggle the phone end just right, it switches to “iPhone Mode” again, and sometimes, Pandora will pop on as well. I just never know.
Yesterday, I was driving and listening a CD I burned of Ringo Starr’s solo music, pretty much flipping back-and-forth between “Photograph” and “It Don’t Come Easy,” since I’ll be seeing him in concert soon. And as I had stereo cranked up, alone in the car between dropping off my daughter and picking up my wife, my iPhone kept switching my stereo to Pandora. Annoyed, I repeatedly reached down to my stereo and changed the setting from “iPhone” to “CD” to return to my music. But at one point, after picking up a Wendy’s hamburger and eating it as quickly as possible (since I didn’t have time to just stop and eat), the stereo switched again, and this time, I didn’t have a free hand to change it, gripping the steering wheel in one hand and my Wendy’s Classic Single Cheeseburger in the other. So, annoyed again, I just let the song play. I’d had such a rough day, such a long day, such a trying and tiring day; I just simply admitted defeat to the glitches of my stereo.
A low, rhythmic, and melancholy piano riff began, and the first words of the song immediately grasped my attention and held me, captive to the words, unable to turn from something so pleasant, like in Stranger Than Fiction when Harold Crick was “forced” to eat chocolate chip cookies and loved them. “You’ll be okay,” the song sang. “You’ll be okay.” I took perhaps the deepest breath of my life. Here I was, sitting in rush hour traffic, between errands, eating my impromptu dinner while driving, feeling the weight of the world and my inner demons, and somehow my iPhone switched my stereo to Pandora, and the first words of this song – a song I’ve never heard before – says, “You’ll be okay.” And after the day I’d had, the lyrics go on to say, “The sun will rise to better days.” And as the song got going, I found myself stopped at an unusually long red light, and it afforded me the opportunity to simply listen to the words: “Let it go. Fly away. And say goodbye to yesterday.” Wow, I thought to myself. “Cause you’re never alone, and I will always be there. You just carry on. You will understand.”
Not to get all supernatural, but I knew what this was. This wasn’t just some weird coincidence. And it reminded me of the coolest thing about God: He’s always there when we’re ready to stroll back through His door, like the Prodigal Son, returning home. And yesterday, I suppose I just needed to know that, and He knew I needed to know that, and He reminded me. That’s the great thing about God. We can stray a hundred times, and He’s willing to give us a hundred and one chances, and then some. And in those times when life seems unbearable and impossible, He reminds us that bad times don’t last. “And change will come,” the song sang through my car stereo, “It’s on its way. Just close your eyes and let it rain.”
Unfortunately, Pandora doesn’t allow you to start a song over. So the next time I stopped, I logged onto iTunes from my iPhone and bought the song: “You’ll Be Okay” by A Great Big World. And I can’t seem to listen to it enough. What a great song. And I know I didn’t simply stumble across this song by happenstance.
I didn’t feel like this was God’s forceful way of demanding that I pay attention to him or turn from my heathenish sinful ways or anything like that. I just felt like it was a subtle moment of comfort in an atypically difficult moment, when He simply wanted to say, “You’ll be okay,” and remind me He’s there. And if He’s willing to comfort me and remain with me, then He’s willing to stand by anyone.
That’s the cool thing about God. He doesn’t hold grudges or see the worst in you; He sees what can be, what will be, and what should be, and then He extends His hand and offers to help you get there.
So even when it seems like the entire world is coming apart at the seams and our own personal universe feels like it’s ready to implode in a massive collapse of stress, anxiety, pressure, and failure; always remember one thing: God is always there.
“You’ll be okay.”
This isn’t about me. This is about you.
Well, I suppose it’s kind of about me, but really, it’s about you, and all of us. It’s about who you are, who they are, who we are. It’s about where we are in who we are, how we are in who we are, and who we are in where we are.
And it all begins with one very simple, yet very important question: What matters?
Of my own volition, I see a counselor once a week. It’s not required by my parole officer or anyone in the Department of Corrections or anything like that; I simply decided that I wanted someone to have some solid, deep, and meaningful conversations with who has absolutely no vested interest in my life. And by luck-of-the-draw, I happened to get a great one.
We spoke recently about the issue of personal identity, and from where I tend to derive my personal sense of self-image. And after some deep derivative dialogue, I came to admit what I’d always known and what he’d accurately inferred: I derive much of my self-identity from the image I portray to others – to a certain extent, I am who I am only in the eyes of my peers. And this, in my situation, is a problem.
My reputation, to put it lightly, is, well, shit. So if I were to only base my self-image (and self-worth) on the opinions that others have of me, the my self-esteem would be somewhere between the post-flush toilet and the sewage treatment plant. I am so widely-hated by so many people that there is no way I would be able to rectify that. I’ve done evil – there’s no denying that – and to think I could change anyone’s opinion of me would be beyond futile. So there has been a struggle within me (of which I haven’t really been aware until my counselor brought it to light) to find my personal sense of self-image in my newly redefined life. I can no longer define my identity by the way others see me, because if I did, I would only be defined by the overwhelming negativity that blankets the assumption that I am one with my past. And therefore, my “image” can no longer matter to me.
And yet, the past seems to dominate my contemporary idea of “identity.” One of my closest friends said something to me the other day that made me question my own personal concept of how I view myself and my identity. “Are you ever going to write about anything other than your crime?” she asked. This question kind of caught me off-guard. Writing about my crime, about sex addiction, about my struggles – it’s been the constant theme of what I’ve written ever since prison. “Well,” I replied, “it’s kind of my niche, I guess.” I was kind of at a loss for words. But her reply made me even more speechless. “I don’t read your writing because of what you write about,” she said, “I read your writing because you’re a great writer.” First of all, what an amazing compliment! Second, this concept completely threw my personal concept of identity into a tailspin. I guess I’ve just been grasping onto the fact that my struggle is the only thing that makes me unique. But maybe – just maybe – I have a little more to say.
As a teacher, I wanted to be the “cool teacher” or the “popular teacher” or the “edgy teacher;” – I wanted to be John Keating. And that began to matter more to me than anything. It was all about image and ego and appearance. But none of that can matter anymore because a significant part of my identity – the “cool teacher” – has been taken from me. And this broken man is all that’s left.
What is your identity? Here’s an interesting way to quiz yourself on how you view your own identity: If you wrote down your first name, followed by the word “the,” what would go after the “the?” I was “Kurt the Teacher” for quite some time. Before that, I was “Kurt the Runner,” for example. But if I base my identity on who I am in the eyes of others, I’m “Kurt the Felon” or “Kurt the Sex Offender” or something. And granted, all of that is true, but is it how I (or anyone) should identify me? No.
You should not be identified (or identify yourself) by your greatest accomplishment, or your worst failure, or your job, or anything superficial like that – because in an instant, it can all be taken away.
So on what should you base your identity? Well, that’s actually quite simple, and it directly correlates with a question I’ve already asked: What matters?
What matters, indeed…
As Chuck Palahniuk wrote in Fight Club, “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.” Absolutely. None of that matters. Your true identity is something that no one can take from you. So ask yourself, what follows your “…the…”? Who are you. Not what are you; who are you?
Typically I write about me. But today, I’m writing about you. I’ve learned some very tough lessons during the recent chapters of my life’s saga, and want those lessons to benefit more than just me. I’m going to have to spend a lot of years doing a lot of good to balance out the evil I’ve done. And maybe I’ll never be square with the house, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try. If you’re reading this – this very sentence at this very moment – then perhaps you have enough respect for me read what I have to say. Or perhaps it’s mere morbid curiosity to see what someone “like me” would possibly write about – I don’t know. But I do know this: If I hadn’t been forced to face my demons, I would still be identifying myself on the same superficial level that led me to believe that I was only as valuable as the opinions others had of me.
And perhaps I have not yet fully grasped my identity in the new context of my life, but I have at least learned enough to know, for the first 30+ years of my life, I was doing it wrong.
So ask yourself these things…
What is your identity?
What follows your “…the…”?
“You know, you guys are all the same. You don’t care who you hurt.”
I don’t complain about the sentence I received as a result of my crime. I really don’t. I deserved every day – every minute – every second of prison time I served. And I also understand that my crime (and sentence) require additional punishments. I have two post-release conditions of my sentence: 25 years as a registered offender and parole for the rest of my life. And perhaps I deserve all of that too.
But here’s the problem: There’s a chance that the duration of both of those post-release requirements could be unconstitutional.
There is a clause in the United States Constitution known as the Ex Post Facto clause, which essentially states that laws cannot be enforced retroactively. Article One; Section Nine; C.3. states: “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.” And this concept is reiterated again in Section Ten. So twice in the United States Constitution, it is prohibited to pass a law that is enforced retroactively. Laws are enforceable only upon the crimes that occur while the laws are in their current status. If that status changes, they only change from the time of the change, forward. A change cannot be enforced on something done in the past. What occurs in the past is subject to the laws in place at the time of the action.
Here’s a perfect example:
In 2005, Dennis Rader, the serial killer known as BTK, was finally caught after being at-large for decades. But when he was finally sent to trial, the most harsh sentence he could receive was Life in Prison. Right now, the Death Penalty in Kansas is legal. However, it was illegal at the time that Dennis Rader committed his crimes. And according to the United Stated Constitution, BTK has to be sentenced under the guidelines that were in place at the time of his crimes in the 70s and 80s – and during that time, Kansas did not allow Capital Punishment. Therefore, even though the Death Penalty was legal at the time of his trial, Dennis Rader’s life was protected by the Constitution because when he murdered those people, the Death Penalty was prohibited. And since Capital Punishment was not legal in Kansas until April 23, 1994, Dennis Rader could not be executed for his crimes. The Ex Post Facto clause of the Constitution required the prosecutors only apply the laws that were in place at the time of his crimes, not at the time of his trial.
My crime – the crime to which I fully admit – was committed in January of 2009. According to the Kansas Offender Registration Act (KORA) as well as the sentencing guidelines and requirements in place in 2009, had I been convicted immediately following my crime, I would have received a similar prison sentence to what I received, but my post-release supervision (parole) would have been ten years and my registration duration would have been fifteen years. However, in 2011, KORA was changed and the new requirements became twenty-five years of registration and lifetime parole. And I was subsequently arrested, charged, and convicted in 2012. But here’s the thing: I was sentenced under the 2012 requirements, not the 2009 requirements, as the United States Constitution requires. So, by law, my duration of parole should be ten years and my duration of registration should be fifteen years.
However, I have little-to-no hope that this will change for me. There is such an ignorant fear and hate of sex offenders in this country that no judge or politician would ever side with anyone seeking justice for someone convicted of a sex crime. Granted, I’ve done some pretty fucking horrible things in my life; but I’m not asking for leniency – I’m only asking for the law to be applied justly. But that simply will not happen. The Kansas Supreme Court tried to end-around the clause recently, and in the process, ended up handing down several conflicting decisions on the matter in the same day. This was apparently noteworthy enough to catch the attention of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who instructed the court to clarify (and change, if necessary) their rulings in the interest of justice. In a public statement the day of the rulings, Schmidt said in a public statement, “We continue to study today’s peculiar group of Kansas Supreme Court decisions involving the Kansas Registration Act. The court in part issued three decisions and then immediately overruled them. In the coming days, we will endeavor to discern what the court actually has done and will assess all options for next steps.” Clearly, Mr. Schmidt saw the errors in play and sought clarification, part of which directly impacts the laws that would govern whether or not I am to serve the post-release sentencing requirements of 2009 when my crime was committed or 2012 when I was sentenced.
In one case decided on that day, Doe v. Thompson, et al., the Kansas Supreme Court decided that the plaintiff, “John Doe,” a registered sex offender from Johnson County whose registration was extended in 2011, would only be subject to the registration requirements effective when his crime was committed – which is exactly what the Constitution says should be the case. But on the very same day, in a different case, State v. Petersen-Beard, the Kansas Supreme Court barred the decision in Doe v. Thompson from applying to any other registered offender in the exact same situation as “John Doe.” Essentially, the Court handed down two decisions on one topic with two opposing results; evidently, the decision in the Doe v. Thomson case would only apply to “John Doe” and no one else, as though his situation was somehow unique. Thus, according to the Kansas Supreme Court, only one person receives the full protection of the Constitution.
Here’s a little more irony: The attorneys who argued the case before the Kansas Supreme Court in Doe v. Thompson were from the same law firm as my defense attorney in 2012 who successfully lobbied to have my potential prison time cut in half (thanks, in-part, to the incompetence of the prosecutor). But when I inquired about assistance with my sentencing issues, I found on the firm’s website that they “will no longer be offering consultations to individuals seeking general advice about their KORA obligations.” So here I am, stuck.
These judges don’t care about the actual lives of the people they are impacting with their cases and decisions. Sure, criminals hurt people, and for that, we deserved to be punished. But the legislature’s desire for vengeance, coupled with the indifference of apathy and influenced by the politics of elections, can bring about unintended consequences for those of us who have served our time and only seek to move on as better people. Judges don’t care who they hurt, even if one of those is a ten-year-old girl whose only mistake was having a father who lived as an out-of-control sex addict.
I can never go to my daughter’s school performances or science fairs or sporting events. I can never attend a school function or a graduation – nothing. Why? Because of my crime, because of my status, because of my restriction. Here’s the kicker: Even my parole officer – who knows every detail about everything – knows that I’m absolutely no threat to anyone. But the rules say that I can’t go. So I can’t. No exceptions.
Do I have a right to complain? Nah, not really. If I didn’t want to be in this position, I shouldn’t have done what I did in the first place. But what people don’t seem to grasp (or, inversely, seem to enjoy) is that being a registered offender is prison beyond prison. It’s a Scarlet Letter. Is it deserved? Perhaps. But think about this: If someone is such a danger to others that they must be monitored by law enforcement and the public at all times, why was that person even let out of prison?
Here’s my theory: The legislation behind the KORA is not driven by reality or justice or facts or statistics. Did you know sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rate of any crime other than murder? And the only reason murder has a lower rate is simply because many murderers are never released from prison. As I previously wrote in “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid,” the sex offender recidivism rate is approximately 4.3% (and I’ve been told that this number may err on the high side). But according to the National Institute of Justice, “Property offenders were the most likely to be rearrested, with 82.1 percent of released property offenders arrested for a new crime compared with 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders.” And an even more intriguing factual statistic, 95% of all sex crimes are committed by people who are not registered sex offenders. The registry only serves to waste money and feed irrational fears. But wasting money and feeding irrational fears are two of the most effective ways for politicians to get elected, and that’s exactly the prime purpose of the registry. A politician who appears tough on crime – specifically sex offenders – is considered strong and gallant and powerful and proactive. But it’s just a tool to feed the fears of the sheep who flock to the voting booths and press the button for the candidate who can fill their heads with as much fear as possible, then convince them that their vote will protect them. This is how the contemporary American political landscape takes its shape. This is how the system works, pure and simple.
But let’s be honest, there’s nothing I can do about any of this. Shit, I can’t even vote anymore. Did my crime cost me my freedom? Yes – for 763 days. But I’m still in prison – contained by the practical limitations of wearing that Scarlet Letter. And beyond that, it’s also cost me my right to vote; it’s cost me my right to bear arms; and it’s cost me my rights to Constitutional Protection and Due Process.
I don’t even feel like an American anymore. I really don’t.
Like Howard W. Campbell, I have become “a nationless person by inclination.”
“Pain is the only human process that is completely defined
by the person experiencing it.”
I’ve been through some shit.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m the first to admit that the shit I’ve been through is mostly of my own doing. But regardless, I’ve been through some shit.
Sometimes I feel like my whole life has been a scandal. I’ve lived the life of a liar, a manipulator, a cheater, an adulterer, a criminal . . . and a victim.
For years, I kept the fact that I was sexually assaulted, at age 18, a deep dark secret – a very deep, very dark secret. It’s humiliating to be a man, and a victim of rape. But I am, and nothing will ever change that. I was raped.
I can say this now – “I was raped” – but until my offender treatment program during prison in Lansing, I’d never ever spoken audibly about my assault – ever. It was the gap in the plot; it was the hole in the storyline. I kept it a secret from everyone and buried it so deep that it almost began to seem like a bad dream – a nightmare – that never actually happened. But it did. It happened, and I never told anyone.
As a part of the treatment program in Lansing, we had to write and present our “autobiography” to the treatment group. The group was comprised of twelve guys who were in prison for sex offenses, and of the twelve, eight were there because they did something to a relative; only four of us were there for a non-relative, and my former student was the oldest of anyone’s victim. And as each person read and presented their “autobiography,” many of them told their own stories of being abused, but I kept mine to myself. When I read my personal story aloud, I was brutally honest about everything I’d done – except that. And when I received feedback from the therapist, she flat-out called me on it. “Something’s missing,” she said to me in front of the group. “No one just becomes what you were. Something’s missing.” And, of course, I lied, saying something like, “No, that’s everything.” She merely shook her head and sighed.
A few weeks later, I knew I needed to tell her. I went into her office one day after our group session and told her everything. I told her about how one night when I was 18, the summer after I graduated from high school, my buddies and I went out drinking at a club in Wichita’s Old Town called “The Cowboy” – a club that was extremely casual about asking for the proper ID before administering alcoholic beverages to patrons. We drank and danced and what-not until the club closed, then we all went back to my house. I drank exceedingly more than usual that night, so going back to my house was my convenient preference. And after hanging out for an hour or so, my buddies decided it was time to call it a night, and they all left, except one. And this is where my memory of that night gets even more hazy. I was excessively drunk; I was sitting on my bed leaning against the headboard, trying not to throw-up, and I was reasonably certain that I was ready to slip into a drunken coma(ish) slumber. But since one remaining friend was still lingering there – lurking in the drunken fog of my peripheral vision – I felt the social (and obligatory) responsibility to remain awake as his host. I cannot recall what he was saying as he began rambling along with (what sounded like) a heart-felt soliloquy about one thing or another, but I remember him getting up from his chair and slithering across my bedroom to sit down next to me on my bed. My memory of this point in the night is more like flashes or film clips, like an old 8 millimeter reel-to-reel home movie being projected onto a grayish wall, with no sound, and numerous frames cut out and haphazardly taped back together, clicking and clacking sloppily through an old movie projector. And I felt paralyzed. I felt that if I moved, I would throw up; and even though my body remained motionless, the room sluggishly swayed like a rickety old sailboat in the wilderness of a wavy dark open sea. It was as though I was powerless and completely at the mercy of what would happen next. And then, what happened next, did.
I refuse to put the details of my assault into print, but that night, unable to move, unable to speak, unable to think – it happened.
“And that, Mr. Brundage, is the missing piece,” the therapist said to me in Lansing during our one-on-one conversation. I had no reply to this. “Don’t you see?” she asked me. “You talked in your Autobiography about how all of your out-of-control sexual behavior started in college, but you never mentioned what could have started it.” She looked to me for a reaction, but I was statuesque – motionless. “It makes perfect sense,” she said with an air of optimism, feeling as though we’d had the quintessential breakthrough. “Your promiscuous behavior as a young adult was your own subconscious way of trying to regain control of your own sexuality,” she paused, “and prove to yourself that you weren’t gay.”
The moment she dropped this on me, I suddenly felt like I had to look back and redefine my entire life. I’d lived with this pain, buried so deep for so long, and now that I’d actually spoken about it – audibly, using consonants and vowels and nouns and verbs and punctuation – suddenly, it was real.
And I wept.
That night, I told my wife, in a letter. I couldn’t stand the thought of telling her something else that might make her think differently of me, so I wrote it. After all, writing is what I do, and that was the best way I could imagine to tell her. And a few days later, when she received the letter, she reaffirmed that this revelation did not diminish the way she thought of me. We talked about it in-person at her next visit, and since then, we’ve moved forward.
During a follow-up one-on-one conversation with the therapist the following week, we spoke about how I was dealing with the fact that people now knew. I told her that it still didn’t really feel real – it was essentially “horrifyingly surreal,” as I put it – so she instructed me to do one thing: “Repeat after me,” she said. “Say, I was raped.” I looked at her, bewildered and dumbfounded. Hell no, I thought to myself. But she just stared at me. “Go ahead,” she said, “say it.” And I could tell from the way that she intently locked her sights on me that I wasn’t going to walk out of that room until I’d complied. And yet, I remained mute.
The silence in the room was deafening. I could hear my heart pounding against its better judgement. I could feel my teeth grinding like an unstable submerged ocean fault line, ready to slip and set-off a tsunami of emotion. And still, she stared. So, with seemingly no other option, my vocal cords primed for use and I inhaled, knowing that when the oxygen currently rushing into my lungs subsequently would rush out as carbon-dioxide, that air would form words, and those words would say something I’d never said before, but had known, for sixteen years, was true.
“I was raped,” I said.
My voice sounded hesitant, uneasy, afraid to step into the open air, like James Spader as he nervously stepped into the Stargate for the first time. The words shattered the silence like an assassin’s bullet. Those three words seemed to somehow speak the past into existence. Days earlier, I’d described in detail (as much as my tattered memory would provide) what had been done to me that night in 1998, but it didn’t seem real; as though it hadn’t happened to me, but rather to the protagonist of a book I’d written. But when I heard my own voice say, “I was raped,” it was suddenly very real. And it hurt. I remember crying, uncontrollably, and rather than saying anything to me, the therapist let me get it out of my system and allowed me to regain my composure before continuing our conversation.
Here’s where it gets stranger: When I stood up to leave that session with the therapist, I literally felt lighter. I felt like I was suddenly and simultaneously stronger and slimmer – as though I’d sat down wearing suit of armor, but stood up wearing silk pajamas. And ever since that day, that event – the 1998 assault on my body, my masculinity, my self-image, and my soul – holds no power over me. So now, I can talk about being a victim of rape. I can talk openly about it with the confidence of knowing that I survived a sexual assault.
I don’t blame my past sexual behavior or my crime on being raped. It was, of course, a catalyst to my slow-growing addiction to sex, but I had a choice – I always had a choice. I wasn’t an adulterous womanizing criminal because I was raped. But I do understand this: Of the many contributing factors, that one was the most significant. We do what we must do in life to cope with the pain of . . . life. And I clearly did not cope well with being raped. I should have spoken to someone about it, but I didn’t. I should have gone to the police, but I didn’t. I don’t know if either of those things would have changed anything, but I do know that my life today would be different; maybe better, maybe worse.
But regardless, my life is still recovering from the scandal – and at one point, it was a Top News Story and a Front Page News scandal. However, my infamous downfall came and went – thank God for the 24-hour news cycle. Now, I can only pick up the pieces and move forward, hoisting the past over my shoulder like an old duffel bag. And part of what I must now carry is my willingness to be open and honest about being raped. “You’re a classic case of the Cycle of Abuse,” the therapist told me in our final one-on-one session. That very well may be. And if so, it is my responsibility to do everything in my power to halt that cycle with every fiber of my being. I can only pray that it’s not too late.
No more scandals. Only honesty. Only truth.
I now have the power to define my pain – my pain no longer defines me.
What is your Incognito Band?
Everyone has that band they like, but they never really talk about the fact that you like them. It’s not that you’re ashamed of them or anything like that; it’s just that band or that singer that you really like. It’s a band you probably don’t even really realize you like until you hear one of their songs again, but you’re a fan all-the-same. You wouldn’t necessarily make an effort to go buy one of their albums, but if you saw it one on the discount rack, you’d consider picking it up. You don’t make an effort to keep your liking of this band a secret, but they are, regardless, your Incognito Band.
Here is the criteria for the Incognito Band band in your life:
- Most people with whom you are close are unaware that you like this band.
- This is not your “favorite band.”
- They are, for the most part, considered “cool” by contemporary or nostalgic pop culture.
- You turn them up whenever they’re on the radio.
- One or more of their song is often stuck in your head, and you’re fine with that.
- You cannot name all members of the band.
- For you, this band embodies the concept of loving the music without giving a damn about the lives of the band members.
For example: For my wife, it is Dave Matthews Band. When we had this conversation and she said this was her Incognito Band, I bought her tickets to their concert and made her a MixTape (okay, a CD, actually, but if you’re old enough to remember the concept of the “MixTape,” you know exactly what I’m talking about. If not, watch the movie – or read the book High Fidelity). And of course, the MixTape I made for her included the DMB song “Dream Girl.” Because, well, she is.
So who is your Incognito Band?
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a big fan of Vanilla Ice. But he does not fit the above criteria – at all. Nothing “incognito” about it. Rob is my friend and I love his music, but essentially, everyone I know knows I know him. He’s my favorite performer of any category for so many reasons. And of course, it’s not considered “cool” to be a Vanilla Ice fan, although it’s cooler than it used to be. I became a fan in the 5th grade, and that has never changed. In the mid-to-late 90s, when it was extremely uncool to like Vanilla Ice, I was buying albums such as “Mind Blowin” and “Hard to Swallow,” when no one even knew he was still recording.
My favorite “band” is The Beatles. But anyone who loves music must, at the very least, appreciate and respect the Beatles. They are in their own category. In rock & roll, there are bands, and then there’s the Beatles. Thanks to my dad and the local oldies radio station, I was raised on the Beatles. I like the Beatles to the extent that I’m taking my dad to see Ringo Starr when he comes to town, and I bought the tickets without being able to name a single Ringo Starr song (but in my own defense, after a quick iTunes search, I found that I’d heard – and really liked – the song “Photograph,” as well as a few others.” But beyond Vanilla Ice and the Beatles, there are a few others.
Guns N’ Roses could possibly be a candidate to be my Incognito Band. Well, not really. When I was growing up, they were clearly my favorite metal band, and even to this day, I own (and regularly wear) two Guns N’ Roses shirts and I’m going to their concert in June. And I’m sure my parents were fully aware of my affinity for Guns N’ Roses, since the band inspired a phase of early teenage rebellion, complete with questionable hair decisions, intentionally torn jeans and the unseasonably unreasonable choice of year-round flannel.
Perhaps my Incognito Band would be the band that did my favorite song: “Fix You” by Coldplay (though “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses is as close to #2 as a song could possibly be). But I’ve actually made no attempt at keeping that fact secret. I’ve always liked Coldplay because: a) I love their music; b) I relate to their lyrics; and c) it seems to be specifically uncool to like Coldplay, which is a concept toward which I seem to gravitate. (Example of ‘c’: I once bought Snow’s new album, “Two Hands Clapping,” without having heard it – and loved it.) That being said, their music is absolutely amazing, and I’ve never kept that opinion a secret. When “Fix You” is played on my favorite episode of “The Newsroom,” my eyes tear-up every time.
Queen, perhaps? At one point in my life, yes. But then I liked the band so much that I bought several of their albums. I – along with many people of my generation – learned about Queen from the car head-banging scene in Wayne’s World (you know you saw it). And then I found out that I’d actually heard Queen’s music years before in my favorite childhood Sci-Fi movie, Flash Gordon. And beyond that, I’ve had a natural liking for “Under Pressure” (for obvious reasons) and I was truly sad when Freddie Mercury died. I watched the entire Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert from start to finish when it aired live on MTV.
There are numerous bands I “like”: U2, The Beach Boys, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Blues Traveler, Eminem, Bon Jovi, The Rolling Stones, Blessid Union of Souls and more. But I do have one band that fits all the criteria – my Incognito Band:
No one I know would ever describe me as a Pink Floyd fan. But I am. I am, because of several songs that I relate to very well – songs that strike a cord with me – and it all started in high school.
When I was in high school, my track coach was also the art teacher. And for the more-talented artists in his upper-level art classes, he allowed them to paint a small mural or painting on one of the many cabinet doors in his monstrous art studio classroom. And one of those works caught my eye and was always my favorite thing to see in that ridiculously artful room. It was a cabinet painting by a friend of mine, Kenneth, of an eye. It was close-up so that the iris of the eye filled the entire canvas, and in the pupil of the iris stood a man, a figure, a faceless figure, hands raised, pressing them as though the inside of the iris was a glass imprisonment. And below read the caption, “You lock the door and throw away the key. | There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me” (from Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage”). That line was deeply poignant to me as I grew through the adolescent uncertainty of high school, not because I was schizophrenic or something, but rather, because I felt like I was always at odds with who I was as opposed to who I wanted to be as opposed to who I should be; and I felt that this concept made me a very unique and individual person, just like everyone else.
Then I graduated high school, experienced some things that changed me forever, and returned to my high school as a teacher. That’s when I learned about the true individuality of being a person: None. I was just another flawed, damaged, desperate soul, searching for meaning. I wish I could say that, between the time that I left Wichita East High School as a student and returned as a teacher, I’d learned some valuable lessons about life. And maybe I had, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. All I’d learn to do successfully was drink heavily, seduce women, manipulate people, and hide the deep/dark pain of having been raped.
Most teachers begin their teaching careers wide-eyed and optimistic, but not me; I was a pessimist from the start. And how do I know this? Every first day of school, for every class, every year I taught, I made sure that as students walked into my classroom for the very first time, they heard the same song: “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” the Pink Floyd song with the classic line, “We don’t need no education. | We don’t need no thought control;” and concludes with the simple fact that, “All-in-all we’re just another brick in the wall.” Essentially, this was my way of telling them, “You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake” (from Fight Club). However, I didn’t mean this to be mean or callous to them. I was simply being a brutal realist.
I recently reconnected with a former student from Eudora High School, the school I left East to go teach after I’d confessed to my wife that I was a serial adulterer. When we moved away from Wichita, it was supposed to be our chance to start over, but I still played that same song at the beginning of the school year. But anyway, as with this former student she said something that made me step back and think. She told me several times during our conversation that her time in my classroom was the most valuable of her entire time in school. After about the third time she said this, I had to inquire.
“Why did I matter to you?” I asked. “Why was I so important?”
“You were fucking real,” she replied. “You weren’t sugar-coating shit.” You told us how it was. All the other teachers just bullshitted us through class so they could get through the day. No one truly cared and I felt like you were actually there making a real impact.”
This caught me off-guard.
“You deserve to hear,” she continued, “that you’re not just a high school teacher to me. You’re someone who made an impact on my life.”
“How? And Why?” I asked, still a bit puzzled. “I’m sorry, I just don’t hear that anymore.”
“What do teachers drill into your head,” she continued. “Get good grades, go to college, don’t do bad things, you’ll ruin your life. Make something of yourself. But in all reality, I don’t need any of that and you have shown me that you could go through the hardest times and still be someone because at the end of the day, you still lay down at night with your wife and have your happy family. Yeah, things may be hard at times, but you don’t have to have a damn degree to know that you’ll be okay at the end of the day.”
This was something I needed. To her, I wasn’t just another brick in the wall of life, I was a teacher who mattered in the way that I was supposed to matter – as a teacher. Yeah, I taught her literature and grammar and writing, but I also taught life. I taught real life, and she got it. She understood. As a teacher at Eudora, I was the kind of teacher I wish I’d been at East. In Eudora, where I’d finally managed to do it right, my time was cut short when my past transgressions caught-up with me. And I had to pay the piper. And that’s fine. I deserved my punishment. But up until that moment when I was arrested, I had the peace-of-mind that I was doing it right. For once in my life, I was doing it right. So when she told me those things, it helped, amazingly. When the media and internet comment boards tear me down and paint me as the worst example of a teacher, this one student wasn’t afraid to tell me, knowing everything I’d done, that I’d still made a significant and positive impact on her life as a teacher.
Words do not exist to describe how much I appreciate what she said to me, and how much it meant.
But none of that will ever matter in the eyes of anyone else. Because I will forever be judged by the worst choice of my life. And to many people, it won’t matter that I made positive impacts on students in the manner in which I was supposed to; it will only matter that I failed in the worst way. So essentially, any good I did is washed-out by the bad.
So now, I’ve become comfortably numb. And I can only breathe and let the future eclipse the past, knowing it’s just us and them, and hope that the future holds the happiest days of our lives. Hey you, does anything I’m saying right now matter, at all? All-in-all, we’re just another brick in the wall.
“Have you ever had a dream,” Morpheus asked Neo, “that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”
I woke from a dream this morning and had to take a moment to look around. Actually, this happens to me quite often. Lately, my dreams have plagued me. I haven’t had nightmares, per se, but these dreams have certainly been … uneasy. Because they’re real.
I dream of the past. I dream of my life before my crime. I dream of my life before my arrest. I dream of life before prison. I dream of normal life.
But here’s what makes these dreams uneasy: I dream about my life without the context of addiction or out-of-control sexual behavior. I dream of my life with the context and perception that I really was a normal guy, teaching high school, married, father; just a normal guy living a normal life – and perhaps that’s the “dream” part of it. So when I wake from these dreams, they feel real, because they kind of were, but they certainly weren’t. The line between dream and memory seems to blur itself when I enter REM sleep and when I wake, I sometimes need a minute to grasp a firm hold on what is real, and, more importantly, what is not.
Every morning, my wife wakes me before she leaves for work. She kisses me, and tells me she loves me. And as she’s walking away, I always say, “I miss you already.” Perhaps it is this moment of happiness that makes me feel like everything in my life is okay. But as soon as she leaves the room, reality crashes into me like a bucket of cold water, and I remember who I am, and what I’ve done. And I can’t go back to sleep.
The Matrix is one of my all-time favorite movies. And there is one scene from this film that is slowly but steadily changing my life.
CLICK HERE to watch this scene on MovieClips.com
This is the “There Is No Spoon” clip from the film when Neo (Keanu Reeves) watched a boy bend a spoon with his mind, then tells him how it’s done. I’ve always known that this one simple scene carried innumerable levels of deeper meaning, but I never really put the effort into analyzing these levels beyond the context of the film itself – until I spent months upon years trying to bend the spoons of my life, without success.
—“Do not try and bend the spoon,” the boy told Neo. “That’s impossible.”—
Indeed it is. If something exists in a factual context, it cannot be altered beyond its own limitations. And as Kevin Bacon said in A Few Good Men, “These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.”
I’m seeing a therapist. I’m seeing a therapist, not because I’m on the edge of breaking down or feeling unsure of life or anything like that. I’m seeing a therapist because I need someone to whom I can speak candidly regarding my own perspectives on my life, my past, and how to best approach life as I move forward; and I can receive feedback from someone who is completely detached from my reality, and can therefore provide objective perspectives and criticisms. I need this. I have no “best friend” anymore, other than my wife and a few people who are as close as family, but I don’t want to burden them with this. Someone once told me that I somehow force others to carry the burden of knowing me. So, essentially, seeing a therapist is my way of lessening that burden.
But anyway, one of the first things the therapist told me was that there was nothing he could do to change my past. The past was there, my crime was there, my addiction was there, and no clever head-shrinking would change the facts of the not-so-bygone past. The spoon was there, and I could do to bend it. “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible.” Very impossible.
—“Instead,” the boy said, “only try to realize the truth.”—
The truth. What a concept.
I – can – handle – the truth!
When I started my therapy sessions, the therapist, who was aware of my criminal history, kept using the word “alleged” when referencing my crime, carefully unsure of my personal perspective regarding my own guilt or innocence. I let it go the first few times because I didn’t think it was important. But it was. So at one point, I interrupted him (as politely as I could) for a brief aside.
—“What truth?” Neo replied to the boy.—
“Just for clarification,” I said to the therapist, “I did the things I was accused of.” He gave me a look of surprised comprehension. “I don’t deny what I did. I did it. I was guilty. You don’t have to operate as though I deny anything. I was guilty. I am guilty.”
Until this fact was firmly established between us, no progress could be made. And that progress would be made only when I could accept my crime – accept my “status” – and work productively toward my goal. But first, I had to realize and understand that no amount of therapy could alter the past. And this too was a “truth” I had to grasp. It was a truth of which I was certain on an intellectual level, but have struggled to grasp on an emotional level. Because unlike Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop, life does not have an “Undo” button. So there is one lesson I must learn in order to achieve my goal of happiness and contentment within the context of my own life.
—“There is no spoon,” the boy said to Neo. “There is no spoon?” Neo repeated.—
It’s not as though I don’t understand this. I’m a smart guy. I’ve learned a lot. I saw a quote once that said, essentially, that some of the smartest people in the world are the ones who have made the biggest mistakes, because they’ve learned the biggest lessons. And if that’s the case, I’m a really smart guy. But the fact of the matter is, my life is my life, and the past is a part of that life. I’ve been told by nearly everyone (all with good intentions, I’m sure) that I need to let go of my past, my infidelities, my crime, and my addiction in order to move forward and be happy. I respectfully disagree. My past is a part of me. And while I refuse to relive my past, I also refuse to walk away from it. The life lessons I’ve learned from my poor choices have molded me into what I am today – the best possible version of myself. I am a better man right now than I ever have been, in my life – but now, unfortunately, I also carry baggage and a warning label. But here’s the question: Is that baggage – is that warning label – merely a small price to pay to finally be able to live a good and moral life? Because it seems that my struggles led to a consequence that essentially straightened my life out for the better. And when it comes to stepping from the broad path of immorality and onto the narrow path of a better life, there is no magic cure; there is no instruction manual; there is no best method. There is no spoon.
—“Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends,” the boy said. “It is only yourself.”—
As I told my students repeatedly, “Life is not based on reality; life is based on the perception of reality.” This concept has never been more true than in my life, right now. I can not change the past, what I’ve done, or who I’ve hurt. But what I can do is change the way in which I perceive these events as I move forward. These events are now part of who I am. If I put my effort into merely pushing them to the wayside, then those events – good and bad – were for nothing. So I carry those events – those choices (good and bad) – with me every day. I carry them as a weight, not to weigh me down, but to make me stronger. The more weight I carry, the stronger I become; and I have not reached my limit. In The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino says, “Guilt is like a bag of fuckin’ bricks. All you gotta do: set it down.” Well, true. But if I carry those bricks, farther and farther, further and further, imagine how strong I’ll be in the future. I can guarantee this: If I am constantly feeling the weight of those bricks, there’s no way I’ll forget they’re there – there’s no way that I would deliberately add to them.
Admittedly, sometimes the weight gets a little heavier than normal, and sometimes my reactions aren’t what I would like. Here’s an example: I love the song “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. Great song. Fun song. Happy song. One of the radio stations to which I listen regularly plays it daily. The problem is, sometimes when I hear it, it puts me in a better mood simply because it’s a fun song and it’s nice outside and I’ve had a decent day. But then, something in my mind stops me and says, “Wait, you’re a criminal, remember? You ruined your life, remember? You’re labeled now, remember? Why the hell are you happy about anything in life?” And then, depression sets-in. Granted, this only happens sporadically. But it happens.
So now, the paramount challenge of my life is to figure out how to exist in a world that, for the most part, wants nothing to do with me, while simultaneously being happy with the world in which I live. Because happiness is a state of being – a state of mind. And reality is immovable. As I’ve said before, there’s a song by Sister Hazel that says, “If you want to be somebody else, change your mind.” Oh, how true.
You can only be happy with your life if you change your perception of your life. And you cannot change your perception of your life without first living it differently – better. Because who you are now far exceeds who you were then; however, who you are now is because of who you were then.
In life, there is forgiveness. In life, there is redemption.
In life, there is no “Undo” button, there is no do-over option, there is no take-back. But also, there is no limit to what can be accomplished when you see life through the lens of lessons learned. To those questions, there is no right answer; there is no wrong answer.
There is no “reality.”
There is no spoon.
I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I speak like a character from an Aaron Sorkin show. I speak quickly, I speak precisely, I have an extensive vocabulary (I almost always choose polysyllabic methods of conveying information, because that’s how I am), and it seems like nearly everything I say has an unintended (yet unavoidable) sardonic intimation. I don’t do this on purpose (as I have been blamed for doing); I don’t do this to make others feel inferior (as I’ve been told I do); and I don’t do this to grandstand (as it may or may not appear). It’s just simply my modus operandi.
But for all the complexities of my speech, the complexity of my intrinsic “thought life” far exceeds anything I say. Essentially, I over-think everything. As an English teacher who taught literature, it literally became my job to find the deeper meaning in everything I taught, be it a book, a chapter, a sentence, or just a word. So, as an unintended byproduct, it rubbed-off on my way of thinking as a whole, and has impacted the manner in which I approach my religious faith.
I remember when I was younger and faith came so easily to me. I could “feel” God during church or in a Christian song on the radio or during prayer or in times of difficulty when I felt that God may have been comforting me. But anymore, it’s almost nothing. And I think it’s because I think too much. I hate the way this sounds, but faith and ignorance seem to go hand-in-hand. I don’t mean that negatively (because the concept of ignorance is merely a lack of knowledge – when it comes to brain surgery, I’m very ignorant). If knowledge is in the act of knowing and faith is the act of believing, then knowledge requires facts and faith only requires evidence.
[Readers note: As I type this, I have no idea where I’m going with it. So just bear with me. My thoughts are fluid and I’m just typing, and typing.]
For clarification, I believe whole-heartedly that God exists. I believe in the Christian concept of God, I believe that Jesus Christ was His son, and I believe in the crucifixion, resurrection, and the forgiveness of sin through Grace. I believe this, and I doubt it not.
Maybe it’s not ignorance, but naiveté that I miss. I was never swayed by how “science” seemed to sometimes contradict Biblical teachings. I’ve always believed that if God created the Earth, he created science as well, so by saying that “science contradicts the Bible” is essentially meaningless because if God created everything, he created science, and can alter or manipulate it as he pleases. Believing that God created the universe, but is also constrained by its limitations, is ridiculous. If God created the universe, he can do whatever he wants with it. So, for example, if people believe that it was logistically impossible for all of the animals to fit on Noah’s Ark, they are operating under the assumption that God does not exist and therefore cannot cater to the situational need of that particular instance. He’s God. He can change what he wants.
However, the analytical part of my mind gets hung up on the fact that as I’ve gotten older and wiser, I seem to “feel” God less on an emotional level while seeming to understand Him more on an intellectual level. And while I value my intellect, I am often comforted by my emotions. I guess I just miss that feeling of comfort and emotional connection with God – that feeling from church camp in high school when I could just feel (and know) that God was standing right beside me. I wasn’t exactly knock-knock-knockin’ on Heaven’s door, but I could definitely feel the presence of God. Now, I go to church and feel nothing. Now I pray and feel nothing. Now I hear the same Christian songs that used to speak to my soul, and feel nothing. And it’s not that I don’t believe in God anymore – I do. I guess I just miss that naïve feeling that Jesus was sitting in the passenger’s seat of my car. I wish there was a way to recapture that feeling. I wish there was a way to keep myself from thinking my way into doubts.
I guess I just miss that deep-down emotional feeling that God is there.
I guess I just miss the life I had before I ruined everything.
I guess I just miss the days when life made sense.
I guess I just miss the not-so-distant past.
I guess I just miss God.
Baseball is my favorite sport, and today is Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. Today, every team is in first place. Today, every team’s record is the same. Today, everyone is undefeated. Today, everyone has a clean slate.
A player who had an atrocious season last year can step to the plate today and be this year’s Most Valuable Player. A pitcher who couldn’t seem to find the strike zone last year can climb the pitcher’s mound this season and throw a no-hitter. Baseball is the ultimate sport of redemption.
Life doesn’t give do-overs, but it does give us second chances. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” Gandhi once said. It’s what we do with those second chances (and third chances, and fourth chances and thirty-seventh chances) which makes the difference between success and failure. And in life, just like in baseball, the only way to do it right this time, is simply to do it right this time. Every at-bat is a new chance to do it right. “Just do the next right thing” is one of my favorite quips that I’ve taken away from my time in Sex Addicts Anonymous. It’s so simple, yet so brilliant. A few months ago, during a dinner with my sister-in-law and her boyfriend, I used that statement several times, and they (he, specifically) appreciated the simplistic impact of this one statement. In baseball, “do the next right thing” can be as simple as not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone; and that can be the difference between a home run and a strikeout. In life, “do the next right thing” is even simpler; the difference between saying “Yes” or “No” to a choice that can either be left behind and forgotten or indulged with tragic consequences.
Every new choice is a new at-bat. To continue the metaphor, I spent too many years in a slump. I was that player who seemed to strikeout every time, but strutted around the field like I was still the star player. And being sent to prison for me was like being sent down to the minor leagues to work on my swing. And that, I did. And now, even though my reputation is the baseball equivalent of Alex Rodriguez (who, for the record, I despise more than Sarah Palin), all I can do is treat each at-bat or each pitch – each life choice – like it’s my newest opportunity to do the next right thing.
Baseball is a team sport, and my team plays just as hard as I do. My wife is certainly the MVP, and while I’ll never be as good at life as she is, I know that me, plus her, plus my family and friends encompass our team. They depend on us and we depend on them, and we’re all cheering each other along. And as I’ve found, the best teammates aren’t the ones who ridicule a strikeout, but rather, say things like, “You’ll get ’em next time.” Being a good teammate means support and encouragement, not criticism and ridicule. And right now, I play for an amazing team, regardless of my countless strikeouts.
But here’s the thing: You don’t have to fail miserably (as I did – and do) in order to live life in this manner. Everyone has the chance to hit a home run (or even just hit a single) at their next at-bat, simply by doing the next right thing. Every choice in life is the next pitch, sailing toward the plate, either in the strike zone, or not. Don’t swing at the pitches in the dirt. The pitches that life throws at us will flutter like a knuckle ball, or curve like a curve ball, or sink like a sinker, or drop like a breaking ball, or cut like a fastball; and with every pitch, we have two choices: Swing, or don’t.
Do the next right thing.
If it’s a strike, swing. Because this at-bat, right now, is your chance to do it right. And your teammates are watching, and cheering, and hoping.
“We all see our lives as stories, it seems to me. And I am convinced that psychologists and sociologists and historians and so on will find it useful to acknowledge that. If a person survives an ordinary span of sixty years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended, and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over, but the story is.” –Kurt Vonnegut, 1983
There are days when I must ask myself, is my story over? Am I simply living-out the epilogue of my life? Is my punishment for my crimes against my family, my profession, and against myself going to be the living damnation of living a torturously long epilogue? Vonnegut is right; if a person lives sixty(ish) years, they’ve had an ample opportunity to live a full and productive life, and what follows is epilogue. Better expressed is the sentiment of William Forrester, the character played by Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, written in his final letter to Jamal, when he refers to it as “the winter of my life.”
But here is my fear: Have I entered the epilogue – or winter of my life – this early? I’ve visited this particular theme before, in “Act Four,” but I think perhaps my thinking pattern is shifting. I was watching a documentary about Vonnegut recently, along with reading Mother Night (as I’ve mentioned in previous postings), and I’m starting to wonder if perhaps my choices have brought about a prompt cut-off to the story of my life, only to leave a long and indefinite epilogue, taking my story from a comedy to a tragedy.
As Harold Crick was told in Stranger than Fiction, every story is either a comedy or a tragedy (“The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: The continuity of life, the inevitability of death”). As a popular fun teacher, my life was definitely a comedy, minus the beneath-the-surface secret life of lust I led. But that’s where my choices literally cut my story in half – Vonnegut says a person’s “ordinary span” is sixty years; the depth of my life occurred in January of 2009: I was thirty-years-old.
Now, over six years later, I have been trying repeatedly to rebuild my life, to begin again, to set forth on a new path that would lead to the reemergence of my life’s purpose and story. But as of yet, I have been denied. I recently tried to apply to graduate school to begin a new career. Denied by all – four schools want nothing to do with me, including both of my alma mater universities. Logistically, I can’t blame them. On paper, I’m a very viable and capable candidate for graduate school (after all, I already have a Master’s Degree). On Google, however, I’m a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad person. Unfortunately, universities check both. I still have dreams, goals, and aspirations, but it appears that the ubiquitous powers of “life” seek to force me to “settle-for” whatever I can get. Yet, admittedly, I understand that these limitations are of my own doing.
I am stuck between two opposing emotions: Upset with myself for making the choices that put me in this position; and upset with “others” who refuse to give me a second chance and understand that I’m not the man I used to be. Granted, some people have given me a second chance – like my current employer – and I have been remarkably successful. But few people in this world approach life with the optimism and forgiveness of the woman who hired me a year ago. Therefore, just as I hoped for (and found) an employer who was willing to overlook my past and give me an opportunity based on my merits, I’d also hoped to find a graduate school who was willing to see me in the same context – so far, I’ve had no success.
So, as Jack Nicholson said in the aptly-titled film, “This can’t be as good as it gets!”
But please understand that this notion is completely separate from my personal success (i.e. family, recovery, friends, etc.); this is about my success professionally and occupationally. My personal, moral, and familial life has never been better – it’s my professional life that is in shambles, and it is my professional life that I am continually seeking to rebuild. And I can’t just spend the rest of my life doing “a job,” but rather, I want to do something that makes a difference. Some people are content with jobs that complete an objective that forwards the initiative of a company or industry, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But that sort of occupation differs from what I seek to spend the rest of my doing – I want to do something that makes a positive difference in the lives of other people. Granted, this intrinsic drive likely derives from my subconscious need to rectify the evil that I’ve done in the lives of the people in my past, but regardless of my conscious and/or subconscious motives, the drive exists – the dream exists – and I’m not ready to give up just yet. For now, not every door has been slammed in my face – just most of them. And until the very final possibility is exhausted, I will keep trying to achieve my career goal, regardless of my history. My past can be an asset rather than a liability, and hopefully, some day, the right person in the right place at the right time will realize this. Until then, “it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Just like 99.9% of everyone who has ever existed – ever – my life has not gone as planned. And often, in quiet reflection, this thought can be just a little too much to handle. I can look back – at my past and at the life I’ve lived and at the choices I’ve made – and I can make a pretty definitive list of where I went right and where I went wrong. I can clearly see how the difficulties of the present are consequences of the choices of my past, just as the positives of the present are benefits of the choices of my past. Ideally, I would prefer the latter to be more significant than the former, but as it stands, I struggle to keep it at 50/50.
During the 1950s and 1960s (and later revived in the 1980s) there was a television show called “This is Your Life.” The show was similar to the contemporary concept of a “reality show.” Essentially, the host of the show would have a person on stage (typically a celebrity), in front of an audience, and show them a make-shift “documentary” about his/her own life, including “guest appearances” by friends and family. “This is your life,” they say to the person, and the curtain opens.
This concept once prompted me to ask the question, “I wonder what it must be like to see your own life from the outside, looking in.” And then (in a limited context) I found out when my mug shot was flashed across television screens in Wichita in March of 2012.
In “High Treason,” I referenced the book Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. In this book, the protagonist, Howard W. Campbell Jr. is writing the memoir of his life, the manner in which he became a war criminal, and the details about his past that make his public perception less cut-and-dry than originally thought.
I’ve done this. I’ve literally written a book. I’ve written a book that few people will read, fewer people will care about, and no one will publish. It just sits on my computer in a Microsoft Word file, precariously titled, gathering digital dust. But essentially, the book has served its purpose, even if it never makes it to a single bookshelf or even makes it onto paper between the flaps of a dust jacket.
I’m a writer. It’s what I do. It’s why I became an English teacher and it’s why I post repeatedly in this Ongoing Commentary. Writing is the gift God gave me. So as a result, writing is how I cope with the world and how I make sense of the past. As I said in “Act Four,” my cousin’s wife once told me (after reading an entry in this Commentary), “I love your writing; you just have an amazing way with words!” It was the ultimate compliment. Writing is my trade and craft, but it is also my therapy.
Thus, after I’d succeeded in completely destroying my life, I decided to use my primary coping mechanism – writing – to try to make sense of my flawed existence. So I wrote a book. I’ve spent my life learning from the things I’ve read, so after writing 300+ pages about my own life – and then reading them – I managed to gain some valuable insight about myself, the things I’ve been through, and the choices I’ve made. Like a composer who writes a Requiem no one will hear, I’m am a writer who wrote a book no one will read. But it makes me realize the primary purpose of writing:
Writing is not done so that someone will read it; writing is done for the writer, and the process of writing. Writing helps me cope with life, not because someone will read this sentence in the future, but because I am writing this sentence right now. The thoughts and emotions that flow from my heart, to my brain, down my arms, and into my fingertips; and the sound of the keyboard as it types these words into existence, forming the thoughts that finally materialize after bouncing around my jumbled and turbulent consciousness – that’s my therapy, that’s my coping, that’s what writing is all about. I’ve learned so much about life, through writing, and there is still so much more to learn. Every time I sit down to write, I am able to see my own life from the outside looking in, and that has been one of the most useful avenues in helping me understand each stage of every struggle. Every time I sit down to write, I see things just a little differently.
“Kurt Michael Brundage,” I say to myself, “this is your life.” And the curtain opens once again.
In a certain context, I would have been put to death.
Mother Night is a book by Kurt Vonnegut, and is, far-and-away, my favorite work of fiction. In fact, I liked it so much, I figured out a way to incorporate it into my teaching curriculum, and as a result, many students told me at the end of the year that it was their favorite piece we’d read.
The protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., is a Nazi during World War II. But actually, he’s not a Nazi, he’s an American spy. He’s an American spy masquerading as a Nazi propagandist, broadcasting his message of anti-Semitism over the radio waves of Germany, doing his best to sway public opinion in the way Fox News and MSNBC do in contemporary America. However, his job over the radio waves was to incorporate coded messages within his content that would reach all of Germany; a series of coughs, sniffles, misspeaks, throat-clearings, or pauses would send messages across the country in a time before mass-communication. Howard never knew what he was communicating over the airwaves, he was simply given his codes by another American spy.
So Howard was an American living in Germany, and was (by all perception) a Nazi. He lived in Germany, spoke German, and married a German woman, a famous stage actress named Helga Noth. And the two of them fell in love.
It was no secret that Howard was an American. He was born in New York and spoke with a standard American dialect; it was merely understood (or believed) that he was an American Nazi living in Germany. No one ever knew he was a spy, not even Helga. But regardless of their differing nationalities, Howard and Helga were genuinely in love. During World War II, during a time when Americans were forcing Japanese citizens into Concentration Camps and hurling insults at anyone of German descent, Howard and Helga, living in Berlin together, held no such feelings toward one-another. They weren’t an American and a German, they were husband and wife. And as Howard describes it, they were a “Nation of Two.”
The logistical premise of Mother Night is something to which I can relate: The novel is written as the memoirs of Howard W. Campbell, written from prison as he awaits trial for his war crimes against Israel – no one from the United States government will admit he was a spy, not a Nazi. So all he can do is sit in prison and reflect on the life he lived, longing for his “Nation of Two.”
My wife and I had a “Nation of Two,” and it was amazing. I was proud to have the beautiful and loving wife I’d married, and as a citizen of our “Nation of Two,” I gleamed with patriotism. But unfortunately, that patriotism and pride was not enough to prevent me from committing High Treason. I betrayed our “Nation of Two” when I decided to be unfaithful; I became a traitor to my nation, and a criminal.
Marriage is sacred, and it’s a one-time shot. Sure, there are second marriages and third marriages for many people, but each marriage is a one-time shot because of one simple fact: You can never un-cheat. Once that betrayal – that act of marital treason – is committed, there is absolutely no way to undo it. And once you even entertain the notion or consider the possibility, you’re on a very slippery downward slope that can easily lead to the demise of your relationship. I entertained the notion because I thought it made me feel attractive and powerful and young, but the fact of the matter is, the only thing I entertained was the notion of adultery. And when that notion came to fruition, there was nothing I could do to change that. Once it happened, it happened – I was an adulterer. And now, in the eyes of most, that is what (and who) I will always be. Regardless of who we became later in life, or what our motives may have been, Howard W. Campbell Jr. knew he would always be a Nazi, a traitor, and a war criminal; and I will always be an adulterer, a sex addict, and a cheater.
I tried to end my life’s memoir the same way Howard did, but for me, it didn’t work out – that particular sentence was commuted. So I’m left to this life of shame, searching for hope wherever I can find it. My “Nation of Two” still exists, but only because my wife has remained by my side. I can never un-cheat on her, and the fact that she has bestowed upon me complete forgiveness is the exception, not the rule. She should have left. But she didn’t.
You can never un-cheat on your spouse, and that betrayal is the worst kind of treason a person can commit. I was – undeservingly – forgiven. In a certain context, figuratively speaking, I should have been put to death.
DISCLAIMER: I am, for all intents and purposes, a sentimental fool.
It is an odd trait of the human condition that we possess the intrinsic ability to, simultaneously, love and hate someone. I struggle with this regularly. And in one instance, it makes me a complete hypocrite.
I had a “best friend” once. A long time ago. And things were good. We enjoyed each other’s company just enough to make it fun, and we annoyed each other just enough to keep it interesting. Our discussions were substantive and our interests were more-or-less similar. He was my best man, and I his. And then we both became teachers. And that was cool too. But then, I made the unfortunate choices which changed everything about everything, forever.
He disavowed our friendship after my release from prison (along with his entire family) and I, clearly, did not deal well with losing my best friend. I saw him in public about a year ago (a few months after my release), and he wanted to shake my hand. I obliged, then walked away, snarkily remarking to him, “Well, this is awkward.” I was subsequently informed that my actions had offended him, and so, feeling as though I had the upper-hand, decided to fire-off an extremely honest and extremely vulgar and extremely rude email to him.
He never replied.
Listen: I meant every fucking word of that email, and I wish I’d never sent it. I was brutally honest – too honest. He ended our friendship for reasons that were valid to him, no matter how ridiculous I may perceive those reasons to appear. And rather than accepting his perspective, I lashed out.
And therein lies my hypocrisy. There is no way I can expect him (or anyone) to forgive me for what I’ve done without first forgiving the things that others have done to hurt me, even if I was deserving. I cannot demand forgiveness while simultaneously refusing to forgive.
I’m not writing about losing a friend; I’m writing about forgiving a friend – a former friend. Should he choose to forgive me, then so-be-it. But I ask for no such gesture. Instead, I have come to my own peace by forgiving him for the way in which he hurt me, deeply, when I was in need of a best friend. I will likely never talk to him again, and I’m fine with that; but that is immaterial to the overall point: In order to be at peace with this particular aspect of my life, I must first forgive, whether I am forgiven or not.
And yet, the reality is this: Whether or not he forgives me as I have forgiven him, the friendship is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
So it goes.
The first book I ever read, cover-to-cover, was Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. This book is quite bizarre and moderately complex, but in it (in one of my favorite scenes, early in the book), the reclusive fictional science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout is invited to be the keynote speaker at an event in which he is required to wear a tuxedo. And as he takes his tuxedo out of an old trunk to clean it up, Kilgore Trout converses aloud with his parakeet, Bill.
He dabbed at his tuxedo with a damp rag, and the fungi came away easily. “Hate to do this, Bill,” he said of the fungi he was murdering. “Fungi have as much right to life as I do. they know what they want, Bill. Damned if I do anymore.”
Then he thought about what Bill himself might want. It was easy to guess. “Bill,” he said,
“I like you so much, and I am such a big shot in the Universe, that I will make your three biggest wishes come true.” He opened the door of the cage, something Bill couldn’t have done in a thousand years.
Bill flew over to the windowsill. He put his little shoulder against the glass. there was just one layer of glass between Bill and the great out-of-doors. Although Trout was in the storm window business, he had no storm windows on his own abode.
“Your second wish is about to come true,” said Trout, and he again did something which Bill could never have done. He opened the window. But the opening of the window was such an alarming business to the parakeet that he flew back to his cage and hopped inside.
Trout closed the door of the cage and latched it. “That’s the most intelligent use of three wishes I ever heard of,” he told the bird. “You made sure you’d still have something worth wishing for – to get out of the cage.”
My wife and I love to travel. She is the absolute best travel companion. And when we travel, we go meet people we don’t normally meet and do things we don’t normally do and feel ways we don’t normally feel and see things we don’t normally see – We live life as we don’t normally live. It is a sweet escape, but admittedly, it would be nothing without her.
We just returned from Dallas, visiting some old friends and seeing some beloved family and enjoying one of my favorite cities. Saturday night we went to dinner with a few friends we only see a few times a year, and we talked about this-and-that, including our occupations, the banalities of life, and for us, joy of the road trip away from Wichita, etc. And during our dinner conversation, I made the comment that I didn’t particularly enjoy living in Wichita because the amount of negative history I have there and how nice it is to be in a city like Dallas where no one knows me, so I don’t have to worry about “running into” someone from the past (such as a former student or colleague – not that I mind this at all; I’ve never had a negative experience with this, and in fact, each one has been positive). But all-the-same, it’s nice to walk into a restaurant and not feel the need to scan the crowd to make sure there’s no one there I know.
During this conversation, as I voiced my displeasure at still living in Wichita, my friend asked, “Why not just move?” Solid question; a question I’ve asked myself many times. And it is a question, to which I don’t have a solid answer. “Family,” I replied. “My whole family is there and now that I have a daughter, I wouldn’t want to take her away from her grandparents and cousins and everyone.” This, I suppose, was a factual and truthful answer, though not the answer in its entirety – it was not a complete answer because, essentially, I don’t have an answer that even resembles completion. But as I was thinking about this solid question, I couldn’t help but feel like Bill, Kilgore Trout’s parakeet.
Not to seem overly dramatic, but my “dreams” are being shattered left-and-right these days. The choices of my past have limited the opportunities of my present to such an extent that I feel like I’m often merely trying to maintain. For example, I recently applied to graduate school. But, of course, being “me,” it’s a long-shot that any university would allow me to be admitted. I’ve applied to four schools, and of the four, two have denied me. And I expect similar results from the remaining two. That is my reality, here. The ghosts of this town that follow me and peak from behind corners are constant reminders of the choices I’ve made in my life.
“The choices you’re making now won’t even feel like choices until it’s too late,” said Jason Sudeikis, playing the part of track & field Coach Larry Snyder in the new film Race about the life of Jesse Owens. When I heard this line in the film as my wife and I sat and watched it in the theater this weekend, I replayed the line in my mind over and over again. It was one of those quotes that I wish I’d heard years ago. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but maybe it would have. I don’t know. But it certainly capped-off the metaphorical message of how I was feeling at the moment. We stopped in Oklahoma on our way back from Dallas and decided to take a break from driving and catch a movie; perhaps I was subconsciously delaying our return to Wichita as long as possible – I knew that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were days when I didn’t have to live in the reality of “being me,” burdened by the choices of my past, being in a new place with new people who had no clue who I was. But Monday, I would have to wake up, get into my car, and step back into “my life,” plagued by guilt and stigma. Blue Monday, indeed.
I will eventually leave. I will eventually move away from Wichita. There is simply too much history here; there are too many demons chasing me around this town. (I, of course, mean that figuratively; I don’t honestly believe that real demons are actually chasing me around town – although, from a Frank Peretti point-of-view, I wouldn’t completely rule it out.) But until I do move away, just knowing that a bigger better world exists out there is one of the few things that still fills me with hope. The expanse of the great “unknown” of a brighter future in a better place keeps me moving forward. Two graduate schools have rejected me. Two have yet to respond. So I still have … hope. But if (or when) the remaining two reject me as well, I will have no choice but to keep moving on. And I don’t know where that will take me, but I pray it takes me to a new place with better opportunities for me, my family, and our lives together. My wife and daughter don’t deserve the problems that come with being attached to me, so it is my responsibility to provide the best possible life for them apart from the choices of my past. And my aspirations are designed to do exactly that. Some day, I hope to be known by my peers by what I’m doing, rather than what I’ve done; known by who I am, not who I used to be. But I am also not so narcissistic as to think this doesn’t impact my family. They deserve to be the wife and daughter of someone who is doing something great, rather than someone who has done something terrible. So why do I strive for a better life? Not for me – for them.
Because eventually, coming home from a trip on Sunday night won’t lead to the inevitable feeling of dismay in knowing that a Blue Monday will follow, but instead, a feeling of joy in knowing that a bright Monday will follow, in a new place, in a new job, in a new life, but with the familiar and loving wife and daughter whom I love, and who love me. So for now, like Bill the parakeet, I will stay in the cage and keep grasping my third wish. Because sometimes in life, a difficulties “now” can be handled just a little easier when the possibilities of the future still hold promise. And then I will finally be able to say, “Goodbye, Blue Monday!”
There’s a feeling of pseudo-emptiness that comes with the completion of a solid Netflix series binge-watch. When you’ve spent weeks watching ninety or a hundred episodes of the same show, following the ongoing plot, growing with the characters and becoming emotionally attached to them, the final credits of the Series Finale, followed by the return of the Netflix menu showing Episode One again seems to almost bring forth a sense of loss, like a close friend has moved away and now you don’t have anyone to share in the sporadic oddities of your day or your completely nonsensical and random thoughts. There’s literally an emptiness.
I’ve felt this emptiness numerous times since coming home from prison, including as recently as yesterday. People don’t want to be my friend anymore because of who I was and what I’ve done. And honestly, I don’t blame them. If the situation was reversed, maybe I’d feel the same way. Maybe not, but maybe so. I don’t know. What I do know is, if I sulk in the loss and emptiness of all the friends I’ve lost, it would literally encompass my entire day. So all I can do is move on – on to the future that awaits; moving on to the next Act.
My wife and I just finished a binge-watch on Netflix of the entire series of “Parenthood,” a 103-episode drama about four grown siblings and how their lives all intertwine with the fateful decisions of living adult lives, professional lives, and the lives of parents. And the four siblings’ parents, played by Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia, experience nearly identical struggles in their mature marriage as the adult children experience in their own, but within the context of their years of experience and deep dedication to one another.
Late in the series (I believe in the final season), Bonnie Bedelia’s character, Camille, tells her husband, Craig T. Nelson’s character, Zeek, that she thinks they should sell their big house in the country suburbs because it had become too much house for just the two of them in the years since the children had grown up and moved-out. And after discussing the move with Zeek, Camille finally convinces him to sell the house, telling him that moving to a new house would be the beginning of the “Third Act” of their lives. In my mind, I envision her perception of the play of their lives together divided into three Acts: Act One would be their marriage before children; Act Two would be their marriage as parents as they raised four children; so Act Three, then, would be their lives together as grandparents.
Teaching Shakespearian drama to high school freshmen wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I was a really good teacher and Romeo & Juliet was a required part of the freshman curriculum, and (admittedly) I learned a lot about drama simply from teaching it. And so I understand how the basic structure of a “play” works. And in the most basic form, the quintessential Shakespeare play typically has five Acts. And for me, as I watched the final season of “Parenthood” and heard Zeek and Camille talk about entering the third (and final) Act of their lives, I began to wonder, what Act am I in right now, and how many will there be?
It was an easy question with an easier answer: I’m in Act Four – but the play of my life will carry into Act Five, just as Shakespeare’s did, I hope. The play of my life began in the spring of 1990 when I was ten years old and decided to play little league baseball. That decision essentially set the path for the rest of my life because the decision to be a baseball player drove my personal desire to grow up as an athlete (as opposed to a musician or actor or dancer or, something). Being an athlete became the nexus of who I was, even leading up to 1994 when I made the decision to switch from baseball to track and cross country. I learned a lot about life during the 90s. I’m a child of the 90s. I love the music of the 90s. I love the movies of the 90s. I love the TV shows of the 90s. For the most part, Act One of my life was the 90s.
But like any drama, the happiness of the early-goings of a play must come crashing down; because, after all, every play needs a plot, and plot is driven by conflict. And so, in the summer of 1998, Act One of my life came to a screeching, dramatic, and painful halt – on a drunken summer night, everything changed; I was raped. I was raped by a guy whom I thought was my friend, and whom I did not know was gay. It mortified me.
And nothing was ever the same after that.
Act Two in my play was the dramatic progression of watching the protagonist slowly and unknowingly (yet steadily) decline. In August of 1998, the curtain for Act Two of my life opened in Emporia at Emporia State University as my days were spent running up and down the white-lined straightaways of the ESU track, and my nights were spent running up and down the cheaply-carpeted halls of the women’s dorms. One year of living that out-of-control faux-fratboy life led to a plot twist: I transferred schools, to a Christian school. But just when you thought that plot-twist would change the motif of the plot, I kept the same thematic bullshit at my new school that I’d had at my previous school: Promiscuity; because as it turns out, Christian college girls are just as easy as secular ones. So essentially, I fucked my way through college with reckless disregard for anyone except my own selfish and subconsciously driven desire (to – as I was told years later by a therapist – somehow prove to myself I wasn’t gay by having as much sex as possible). In retrospect, my behavior back then makes perfect sense; at the time, I just thought I was lucky and smooth because I got laid a lot.
So when I met my wife and got married, one might think this plot-twist would change the thematic motif of the play, but nay did it do so. Nope. I kept on fucking my way through Act Two, because apparently getting married wasn’t a dramatic enough conclusion to the Act, so it had to keep going; evidently I wasn’t ready for it to end (switching from college girls to coworkers after I graduated and got a job). Someone (or something) would have to end it for me. And then, I became a high school teacher where I carried on multiple affairs with multiple teachers at the school – literally at the school; and a few years later, I decided to make-out with a former student.
I’ve said this before, but I feel this is a point that merits reiterating: Making out with my former student was not a mistake – it was a choice. It wasn’t something that “just happened,” it wasn’t an “accident,” and it wasn’t something I “couldn’t control.” I was a sex addict in full-force, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have the ability to make positive choices. Being a sex addict simply gave me the drive to which I chose to surrender. I never lacked free will – I simply lacked the will to be free. So when I hear people in Sex Addicts Anonymous say they “couldn’t help it,” it fucking pisses me off. I knew that what I was doing was wrong. I simply chose to do it anyway. It’s just that simple because I was just that evil. True talk.
So how would Act Two of my play finally wind-down? On March 9, 2012, I was arrested and charged with numerous felonies stemming from my brief relationship with my former student. And on November 2, 2012, Act Two of my life finally came to a merciful yet fatefully-deserving end when I was led from a courtroom in the Sedgwick County Courthouse, leaving my wife and family in tears behind me as I was escorted out, to Prison. And with the closing of my first jailhouse door, Act Two abruptly ended and Act Three not-so-quietly began.
And thus, Act Three was prison. Prison was when I, the protagonist, began to resolve (to the best of my abilities) the conflicts that had driven the plot of my life for so long; but in the process, new conflicts drove an entirely new plot. In prison, with the help of an amazing therapist, I was able to face the deeply-buried reality of the 1998 sexual assault I endured, and say audibly for the first time, “I was raped.” And oddly enough, that was the first giant step toward coming to terms with what happened and beginning the healing process. In prison, I began to understand and comprehend the fact that I was a sex addict, and I read countless books on addiction and recovery. In prison, I learned just how much my wife loved me, remaining married to me in the face of not only my betrayal and unfaithfulness, but also in the face of the complete and utter humiliation of being married to – me.
Act Three was the shortest Act, lasting exactly 763 days – November 2, 2012 until December 5, 2014. There is a long and winding road (literally, but I suppose figuratively as well) that leads away from Winfield Correctional Facility, the prison from which I was released. Act Three ended when I could no longer see the prison buildings in the rear-view mirrors, making my way nervously back into reality.
This Ongoing Commentary – this narrative of “Act Four” – is the current Act of my life. I’ve had several people indicate to me or to my wife that they read these writings regularly. And to those who do, from the bottom of my heart, Thank You. Writing about my walk through life began as a way for me to cope with each new experience as the curtain of Act Four remains open and the drama plays-out on the stage of my life. But I’ve been told on numerous occasions that people have been reading the multiple entries of this narrative and drawing inspiration and enjoyment. My cousin’s wife told me recently, “I love your writing; you just have an amazing way with words.” At the time, I didn’t indicate to her how huge of a compliment that was, but it literally made me smile uncontrollably. Today my wife told me that someone she knows has been reading this because my life experiences help her understand and cope with some of the experiences of her past. This was an equally wonderful compliment and I am so glad I’m able to, from a distance, be something positive in someone’s life, even if it’s merely through words on a screen. Because the truth is, I feel like I’ve bestowed so much evil upon the world through the selfish addictive actions of my past that I owe it to – someone – God, maybe? – to be a positive part of the lives of those around me, or perhaps even the people I’ve never met, but who regularly read my writings.
So to those who read this, please accept my humble gratitude for your willingness to come with me on this journey through Act Four. Thank you for your complimentary words of encouragement and support, but also know that your encouragement is appreciated exponentially. Living a better life is essential to being a better person, but when people notice – well, that’s truly rewarding.
My favorite play by William Shakespeare is The Merchant of Venice. I first became interested in this particular one after seeing Mel Gibson dramatically portray it during his film The Man Without a Face. And one of my favorite lines is spoken by Antonio when he says, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano – A stage where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one.” And for the first three Acts of my life, I think I felt this way as well. But Act Four has become the first one with encouragement and potential, even in the face of the limitations of being on parole, being a felon, being a criminal, and being perceived as some untreatable sicko. It’s ironic (in an Alanis Morissette sort of way) – logistically, my life might seem difficult and even “bad,” but the reality is, the hell that I’ve put myself through has turned me into (as I like to put it) the “best possible version of myself.” I suppose the lesson is simple: Even in the worst of times, the best of times can still happen. My bad choices can shape the way other people perceive me – there’s nothing I can do to change that. However, my bad choices do not have to shape the way I perceive myself. And so, on the stage of my world, the part I play will no longer be a sad one, but rather, one of hope, recovery, humility, and gratitude. The curtain for Act Four is still open, and anything is possible.
I don’t typically get really pissed off anymore. Today was an exception.
As I sat in a waiting room today awaiting an appointment, I scrolled through my phone for something to occupy my attention until my name was called. I opened the KAKE-TV app and began reading the local news, as I often do with the apps of the three local Wichita news stations. And as I scrolled down, I saw a headline that prompted me to click. The headline read, “Former Eureka teacher & coach pleads guilty in child sex crime case.” Obviously this type of headline caught my eye, considering in 2012, a similar headline ran about me.
As the story stated, an attractive female teacher named Kourtnie Sanchez admitted to an inappropriate relationship with three high school boys. And the result of her sentencing hearing today? What was her punishment for haphazardly inviting three high school boys into her sex life? Probation. Fucking probation. I was pissed! I was charged with one girl, she was charged with three boys; I went to prison for two years, she received only eighteen months of probation! She received less probation than I received prison time! And my inner-monologue spoke loudly in my head with the voice of Chris Tucker screaming, “What kind of shit is that?”
I’m not saying I should have been given probation – I’m saying she should go to prison.
This trend is scary, but this trend is sickeningly normal. Scroll through the website comments on these stories and you’ll see the clear discrepancy I’m talking about. In the event that a man commits these actions, he’s a “sick” “twisted” “predator” “pedophile” and should be promptly executed on the school yard lawn (all of which was said about me). However, when a woman commits nearly identical crimes, suddenly it’s the “lucky boy” and “where were those teachers when I was in school” and “she was just teaching him sex education,” and inevitably, some douche bag posts lyrics from Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” (shit, I fucking hate that song).
There is a well-known (yet seldom-remedied) inequality in the punitive measures taken against male teachers and female teachers when a relationship with a student occurs. As I’ve pointed out in “American Horror Story,” teacher-student relationships happen all the time – A LOT. It is the absolute worst and most under-reported problem plaguing the educational system. And when a teacher is caught sending naked pictures like the ones Kourtnie Sanchez sent to numerous male students; or if a teacher is caught having a year-long sexual relationship with a student, as was the case with former Clearwater teacher Cathleen Balman who, in May of 2013 admitted to having a full-on sexual intercourse relationship with a 15-year-old boy that lasted over a year. And her punishment as well? Of course, she was granted probation as well. (For comparison’s sake, my relationship with my former student lasted a mere four weeks, and we “made-out” only four times – we never had sex).
I’m not saying I should have been given probation – I’m saying they should go to prison.
We were teachers. We were mentors, leaders, role models – we were entrusted with the safety and security of these students, and we violated that trust in the worst possible way. How the hell can any parent trust the school system when teachers are taking advantage of students, school districts are sweeping instance-after-instance under the rug, and the judicial system (on which these parents depend for justice) selectively allows some teachers to simply walk away with probation? Explain to me how the fuck probation is supposed to deter this sort of crime. And explain to me this not-so-subtle distinction between the sentencing guidelines for men and women and how they differ in this situation.
The Balman case really does piss me off. This woman had a year-long sexual affair with this boy, exchanged sext-messages with him, and she’d even groomed him since being his junior high English teacher from several years prior. When it comes to logistical severity, her crime far exceeded mine. And here’s another kicker: We both were prosecuted by the same Sedgwick County Assistant District Attorney: Justin Edwards. Granted, this pear-shaped troglodyte was not just incompetent, he literally embodied the bumbling moron lawyer who would, in any cinematic circumstance, be considered moronic comic relief. But as it was, he was simply moronic. And this dolt couldn’t manage to send a woman – a teacher – to prison who admitted to having repeated sex with a 15-year-old boy, after having me sent to prison for just making-out with a 15-year-old girl a few times (but then again, my sentencing hearing was on the Friday before the 2012 Election Day, the courtroom was full of television cameras, and my judge was running for re-election – fucked by fate, I guess).
I’m not saying I should have been given probation – I’m saying she should go to prison.
A newspaper in New Jersey did an investigative report about this issue. They found that male teachers do indeed received harsher sentences than female teachers who commit the same crime. In fact, the study examined nearly 100 cases and found that 54% of men received prison time and only 44% of women did, and the duration of those sentences differed as well, men getting an average sentence of nearly two-and-a-half years, while women averaged just over eighteen months. So clearly, an imbalance exists.
My prison sentence was appropriate. In fact, I probably deserved more time. The pain I’ve caused is unforgivable. I let more people down than I will ever truly know, and I carry that guilt with me daily. Anyone who was once a student of mine is now in college or beyond, and some still talk to me – they have forgiven me for my actions and accept (and hopefully appreciate) who I am now. And for that, I am exceedingly appreciative. I’ve made no secret of my addiction to sex and my struggles to live a better life. And here’s the thing: If I’d walked away with probation, the extent to which I have changed the very nucleus of my life would have been to a far lesser degree. I do not – at all – regret the time I spent in prison. I was living an out-of-control lifestyle and prison was exactly the punch in the face I needed to get my shit together. As I’ve written before, right now I am the best possible version of myself. And while I still have struggles, I am not even an afterthought of the piece-of-shit human garbage I was in 2009 – Thank God! Now, I live a life worth living rather than a life worth hiding. And if Judge Philip Journey had given me probation on that day, November 2, 2012, there’s a good chance that I would never have come to the realization that I was a sex addict.
A teacher who has a relationship with a student needs to go to prison. I needed to go to prison. Shit, I should have gone for longer. The severity of Cathleen Balman’s crime exceeded mine; the quantity of Kourtnie Sanchez’s crime exceeded mine. And yet, they both walked away with probation – this is the rule, not the exception, for women. When the justice system applies lighter sentences to female teachers who have the same relationships that would send a male teacher to prison, the justice system fails. Stop considering male students in these situations “lucky guys” while in the same breath calling the female students “victims.” They’re all victims. Stop making “Hot for Teacher” jokes about the female teachers while demanding that the male teachers be locked-up. We all deserve to be locked-up. Lord knows I did.
So as long as the perceptions of these crimes differ, so will the punishments. Cute blonde teachers like Kourtnie Sanchez will continue to sleep with students, get caught, get probation, and change nothing about their lives. And any female teacher seeing these sentences of probation being handed out left-and-right is going to be less likely to second-guess her actions if she’s ever in a situation where an inappropriate relationship can take place. Because, shit, she’ll just get probation and find a new job.
I’m not saying I should have been given probation – I’m saying they should go to prison.
All of them.
I recently wrote in “The Martyrdom of Saint Me,” that I credit my wife with helping me become the man I am now – a much improved version of myself, nothing like the person I was. And forever, I will believe that I could not have made the life changes I’ve made without her. She could have (and maybe should have) left me. But she didn’t. Instead, she stayed dutifully by my side, remaining faithful and determined to make our marriage work, even through my unfaithfulness, my addiction, my time in prison, and my continuing struggles for self-improvement. And as I continue to read the book “Every Man’s Marriage,” I see more and more how amazing she is as a wife and as a person.
People have questioned why she stayed with me, and rightfully so. Her refusal to give up on our marriage is seen as foolish to some. But on the contrary, it took an immense amount of strength to stand with me, for better or for worse, even when the “worse” was as bad as it could possibly be. And in the midst of a wife’s worst nightmare, she could not be phased. She is, by far, the strongest woman I’ve ever met – she can carry an incredible amount of emotional weight and she is amazingly resilient.
She didn’t stay in our marriage because of a lack of options or because she was too weak to leave or was afraid to be alone. She remained in our marriage because she felt that it was her duty as a Christian woman to support her husband – in spite of my many many faults – and to make our marriage work, even when it seemed that I wasn’t willing or able. “I didn’t marry you to divorce you,” she said to me on multiple occasions.
Fred Stoeker writes in “Every Man’s Marriage” that a wife’s life – specifically the way she lives her life – is, in essence, her ministry. And this is exactly how I feel about my wife. As I have told her many times, she is my proof on Earth that God exists. Her faithfulness and perseverance in marriage is her ministry. By living the life she lives, she is able to show the people around her (through her actions and commitment) how strong, dedicated, and faithful a Christian woman can be. I am exponentially undeserving of this woman. Sometimes God gives us blessings we don’t deserve, and she is mine. The things I’ve done to her are unforgivable, and yet, she forgave me, repeatedly. Our marriage has outlasted the marriages of many of our friends (and former friends) and for us, the future is bright and encouraging. We’re in this together, but we are still together because of her, not me. We are still married because she chose not to leave, not by any feat of mine.
So on this Valentine’s Day, I can truly say that not only am I in love with my best and strongest friend, but that she is in love with me as well. We have overcome more in eleven years of marriage than many couples experience in fifty years. And the things that have torn other couples apart have been overcome and forgiven in our marriage. Our marriage is stronger today than it was yesterday, but not as strong as it will be tomorrow. She is the angel who protects me – she is the embrace that comforts me – she is the voice that soothes me. She is my wife, until death do us part, for as long as we both shall live.
Below is a letter I wrote home from prison in 2012. During my first few months of incarceration, I was housed in the Maximum Custody section of El Dorado Correctional Facility in the initial stage of the prison process known as R.D.U. (Residency and Diagnostics Unit) where everyone goes to have their custody level determined. During this 23-hour lock-down (which was only temporary for me, until I was shipped-out to my final destination), there is very little to do except read books and write letters. Very little happened, except on this particular night, when I got to see what real prison was like, luckily as a mere observer.
I have included footnotes to elaborate on the experiences.
December 30, 2012
My Loving Wife,
So last night was an interesting, yet creepy experience. Just about every night, about a half-dozen of the R.D.U. inmates (if they want to) go to another cell house or another part of the prison and do some custodial work. It’s only for those who have completed R.D.U. and are waiting to get shipped-out, and it’s a chance to spend some much-needed time out of the cell and being active. I was asked to work last night and ended up going to Cell House B – also known as “Super-Max” – which is the highest level security cell house in the El Dorado prison (and possibly, from what I hear, the highest in Kansas).
After spending less than a minute inside that cell house, it occurred to me that I was seeing prison in its genuine quintessence. It was built with the same layout as my cell house – an open large room, two levels, both with cells lining the perimeter. But their cell house has some major differences. Their doors had no openings, except at the very bottom underneath. There were no tables or chairs on the main floor outside the cells (as there are in ours), and even the linoleum tiles had been removed, leaving an expansive grid of squares on the floor of bare gray cement. Even with the lights on, the Super-Max cell house was dark, every cell door was a shade of forest green with what seemed like blue mixed into the hue and the remainder of the room seemed blanketed in grays and off-yellows.
The entire cell house – all five cell houses in my section of the prison – is one very large triangle, open in the center with a balcony walkway lining the perimeter of the second level and identical cells on the first level immediately beneath.
These men are locked-down 23 hours a day, always. And their time out isn’t like mine – we socialize in the open room, watch TV, etc. – their hour out consists of being cuffed-and-shackled, walked to the one-man shower (assuming they choose to shower, which appeared to be 50/50), or going to a different cell (roughly the same size as their regular cell) that contains a very crude workout apparatus (which was little more than several pull-up bars welded together). Otherwise, they do not leave their cells – at all.
The cell house was a disaster. Dirty laundry was littered everywhere, along with ripped pieces of paper showered like confetti, mixed with the occasional candy wrapper or empty chips bag. And it was loud! There were inmates yelling from cell to cell, carrying on full (very descriptive, very profane) conversations. One inmate had a radio which he turned up all the way and placed at his door, filling the cell house with echoing melodies of gangsta rap; but oddly enough, also he played some country, some 80s pop, and even some Phil Collins and Bryan Adams. It was bizarre.
The only thing that didn’t surprise me was the smell. Stepping into that cell house and inhaling once, I inhaled the likes of dirty laundry, cheap air freshener, urine, sweat, hopelessness, despair, and rage. The odor hung in the air like a storm cloud in calm winds.
I was given a different prison jumpsuit to work in, and at first, I wasn’t sure why. After spending less than a minute in there, I understood perfectly. Upon entering the populated area of the cell house, my fellow workers and I were escorted to a small room with individual cages where we were stripped naked and searched before approaching the Super-Max cells; it was insanely cold in there.
So I got dressed and got to work, sweeping the floor of the main Day Room with one other worker from my cell house, keeping an eye out for the one thing I wanted to see. Rumor had it, he was in Cell #213. And he was. Every inmate in that cell house – one inmate per cell, obviously – had his name and picture taped to the wall next to his door. So I swept my way down the perimeter walkway in front of the second level cells, making my way casually to Cell #213 – I saw his paper taped to the wall next to the cell number, and stopped. The name on his Face Sheet stood-out like a gargoyle in a dark rose garden: Dennis Rader.
I looked into his small narrow cell window – the only visual opening to the cell, but still thick and sealed – and the sight of him struck me with a chill; the reality struck me that a steel door and six feet of sticky prison air were all that separated me from the serial killer known as “B.T.K.” He merely sat, a brittle skeleton covered in the skin of an old man. But his cadaverous frame and membranous face reminded me of the way Frank Peretti described what a demon looked like. He appeared to be fervently typing something on his typewriter, like Howard W. Campbell trying to justify what made him the monster he was; or perhaps he was answering fan mail; or maybe he was just writing to keep his mind off of the fact that he would never – ever – be free again. But regardless, I could feel the malevolence oozing from his presence – it was almost palpable. To my knowledge, it was the first time I’d ever been face-to-face with a real killer.
So many things crossed my mind as I saw him sitting there. I thought about how this old man could have, at one time, been the very incarnation of wickedness, and yet, now he was nothing more than a fragile old man hunched over a typewriter. As he breathed, I could see the bend in his back slowly rise and fall, and his skeletal frame seemed to give off the figurative sound of wheezing – the broken and sulfurous inhale and exhale of this man, who was also part demon. For one very brief moment, he turned his head ever-so-slightly in my direction, subtly acknowledging my presence, like an apathetic old lion in the zoo; I could hear my heartbeat. I wondered how the other inmates viewed him – were they afraid of him; did they bully him; did they just not give a shit? I don’t know. The only thing I know for sure is that I’ve never felt chills in my body so strong as I felt as I stared into the window of Super-Max cell #213 – the prison cell of Denis Rader. I could only stand there for so long. Eventually, for my own good, I had to continue sweeping.
And as I mindlessly pushed my broom around the walkway, I caught something out of the corner of my eye, darting along the wall like a mouse. But it was no mouse. It was “fishing line.” Fishing line is simply a very long woven string made from threads pulled from prison blankets, pieces of mattress, or whatever else they can use. The inmates use these long lines to communicate between cells. Through what seemed to be genius ingenuity, nearly anything could be passed between cells using this string – anything from notes to food to clothing. These strings, with their little makeshift anchors, whipped all around the cell house making a mischievous skidding sound as it skipped across the gray concrete floor. It was quite entertaining to watch. They even managed to attach a line across second level adjacent cells, across the balcony walkway. It was definitely one of the more impressive things I’d seen in a while. If only these guys had used their powers for good instead of evil; they’d be working for NASA.
And all-the-while, through all the shouting and cussing and filth and fishing line, the corrections officers sat at their desk at the center of the cell house triangle, doing nothing. In the RDU cell house, we get in trouble for being too loud, yelling from our cells, giving something (even a book) to an inmate in another cell; but in this cell house, these guards were ignoring the chaos that rained-down around them. This blew my mind, until I really thought about it.
The men in Cell House B – “Super Max” – are at the absolute bottom of the system. This was “The Hole;” this was “The Pit of Despair;” many of these guys would never breathe free air in their lives again; what did they care if they received a “write-up” or got into trouble? These men literally had nothing to lose – nothing. And being in those guards’ position, they really needed to “pick their battles.” And if they tried to enforce every rule on the books in that cell house, they’d be doing violent cell extractions day-in and day-out. Quite frankly, they didn’t think it was worth it, and I completely agree.
So after sweeping, mopping, restocking the cell house laundry supply, we were done, and exhausted. That was the most physically active I’d been in over two months. We were taken and strip-searched (again) and went back to our cell house after four hours of free labor.
I was allowed to take a shower when I got back, thank God. I felt disgusting after leaving that place and only wanted to scrub it off of me. And by the time I was finally able to put my head on my pillow, it was roughly 2:45am.
Considering the time, it took me a little longer to fall asleep than you might expect. All I could think of was how, earlier that night, I stood for (seemingly) a long time and stared at evil – pure evil – and the cold creepy chills I felt as I stood outside of the prison cell of Denis Rader will likely never be matched, ever. I hope that is the closest I ever stand to Satan, because that was pretty fucking close. Never again.
So there you go, an interesting story.
 Whenever I read or hear people say that people who go to prison “got it easy,” it kind of pisses me off. While I completely think that the people in Super Max absolutely deserved to be there – and most should never be let out – don’t fucking say they’ve “got it easy” unless you’re willing to attempt to live that life for a month – or a week, or even a few days. Yes, they deserve every moment of that – No, it isn’t some sort of cushy prison life.
 This was really awkward for me – just generally uncomfortable. But then I found out later that strip-searches were required at the end of every visitation session on the weekends, so eventually, stripping naked in front of a prison guard became so routine that we’d carry on conversations during the searches. It continues to amaze me how many odd things in prison became “routine.”
 Seriously, I felt like an incognito tourist.
 This paper was known as your “Face Sheet” and was more-or-less a vitals sheet that included all pertinent information, including the inmate’s charges. In minimum security, they just gave us our Face Sheets for no particular reason. Swapping Face Sheets became a common practice to find out what people were in for and brag about their crimes.
 No bullshit. Creepiest moment of my life. I mean, damn…
 It sounded almost identical to slowly ripping a piece of paper in half.
 …but these guys were just mostly dead, not all dead.
 Also a strategy for teachers dealing with students. Actually, as my time in prison wore-on, I began to see (from the guards’ perspective) how much minimum security prison was like high school – including several instances at Winfield of a subordinate (inmate) hooking-up with the one in charge (guard). Some of these female guards were predators when it came to these guys in prison. One of them brought in marijuana, K2, and tobacco on a regular basis for a guy I knew, and of course, they were fucking too.
Making amends is a vital part of the the Sex Addicts Anonymous steps eight and nine. And to the greatest extent possible, I am going to complete those steps: Making a list of those I wronged; and making amends to those I wronged whenever possible. It is a process that will likely a) take the rest of my life, and b) never actually be fully completed.
And yesterday, that list got longer.
I’m reading a book right now called Every Man’s Marriage by two men who have both failed miserably at being married, and have learned enough lessons to now succeed admirably (These are the same two men who wrote Every Man’s Battle). Reading that book prompted an extensive train of thought, which was subsequently exacerbated by a conversation with a close friend, both of which took me to the same unfortunate conclusion: The people I’ve hurt go far beyond the women whose emotions I exploited, bodies I used, and hearts I broke; many (if not most) of these women had husbands or boyfriends. And by having a relationship with these woman, I not only hurt them, but I hurt these men as well by promoting their significant others to be as unfaithful as I was, even if they never knew anything of our affairs. Even the former student I infamously made-out with was also sleeping with two other guys at the time (which may or may not be the same, but it’s at least somewhat relevant).
So as much as I owe these women the heart-felt apologies they deserve, I owe their husbands and boyfriends as well. And admittedly, I deserve every scream, yell, and punch-to-the-face I get. I still carry a lot of guilt — in fact, I carry so much guilt that I sometimes feel like it’s become one of the essential aspects of my identity.
I need my guilt.
There is a very deep and scared part of me that feels like, if I ever forgive myself completely, I am somehow condoning what I’ve done. I’ve told my SAA group that I’ve forgiven myself, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I need to carry this guilt, because if I ever let it go, I’m scared to death that I’ll become that same piece of shit human being that I was before prison. And that scares the fucking hell out of me. Seriously. My biggest fear in life is becoming who I was.
The husbands and boyfriends I betrayed may or may not ever know about me, and there is essentially nothing I can do about that. However, the only productive thing I can do is live my life in a way that will assure that no one else in the world is added to the already extensive list I have accumulated in Step Nine. All I can do now is, “Do the next right thing.”
I heard our song today.
And I thought of you.
I haven’t heard the sound of your voice in over a decade, and yet, if I heard it today, I would recognize it in an instant, like a quote of a favorite sentimental film. But I heard our song today. And I thought of you.
I don’t miss you. I really don’t. I am beyond happy now with my wife. She is my everything. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am a sentimental old fool. I don’t miss you, but I do remember how much I hurt you. I remember all the times I made you cry, and I know that caused you an immeasurable amount of pain. We were in college and naive and … well … stupid – or at least I was.
Step #8 in the Twelve Steps of Sex Addicts Anonymous is to “make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” And although my list is extremely long, your name is at the top. I’ve hurt so many people in my life, but I think I’ve hurt you the most. I’ve caused my wife a lot of pain during our marriage, but I’ve had the chance to seek and receive her forgiveness, so as far as she is concerned, I have nothing more to apologize for (though I continue to do so on a nearly daily basis). But with you, I’ve never actually looked you in the eyes and been truly sorry.
You see, my doomed and tragic relationship with you was a microcosm of everything that was wrong with me, and how I saw the world through my jaded eyes of addiction. I must admit that much of our intimate life was driven my addiction to sexual highs and conquests, not love. I cheated on you more times than I can remember and I used you to enact my fantasies and desires without any respect for your feelings, emotions, or well-being. I would give anything to tell you I was sorry, but I will never get that chance. I will never get the opportunity to make amends as part of Step #8, because of Step #9: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
I saw you at a concert a few years ago in Kansas City, and I know you saw me. And I saw the look on your face when you saw me as I stood backstage with my wife. I saw the horrid disgust in your eyes that blanketed your face upon the mere sight of me, and I completely understood. I (of course) tried to play it off like I wasn’t phased, but my facade was only skin-deep. My wife recognized you as well from old pictures she’d seen. But to her knowledge, all she knew of you were the negatives of our relationship – I never told her about the good things, and I would be genuinely surprised if you even remembered them. But I do. I don’t miss them and I don’t long for them, but I remember them – and I also remember how it was often me who shattered them, not you.
I heard our song today. And I thought of you.
I hear you’re engaged now. Congratulations – seriously. I really am glad that you’re happy. You deserve someone who will treat you exponentially better than I ever did. Because if there was ever a person who experienced the worst parts of the addiction-driven piece of shit I was, you were that person. I will never have the chance to express this, and the odds of you actually stumbling across this particular piece of writing are slim-to-none. And that’s fine, I guess. You don’t want to hear from me, and I completely understand.
But regardless, I am working on Step #8; I’m working on my list of those I’ve harmed, and you are at the top of that list, even above that former student. The pain I caused you during the years of our tumultuous relationship is unforgivable, which is why I will never be afforded the opportunity to say to you, genuinely, “I’m sorry.” But wherever you are and wherever you will go, maybe the universe will find a way to say, just once, “I’m sorry.”
I’m not asking you for anything (not even forgiveness), I’m not really trying to tell you anything (or maybe I am; I don’t know), and I’m not looking for any sort of direct result from … well … anything. I am simply writing, because writing is how I cope, and I have to find a way to cope with how much I hurt you. Aside from my wife, I’ve caused you more pain than anyone else, and perhaps one of these days, you’ll know that I’m aware of that. I didn’t just walk away from our relationship like some bad-ass action hero walking casually away from a massive explosion behind him. I understand the pain I’ve caused and the damage I left, and this is the best method I know to say “I’m sorry.” And maybe you’re completely over all of it and have forgotten about me with the utter finality and swiftness of a Texas death row execution – and if that is indeed the case, then I am beyond happy that you have been able to move forward. But in my heart, that doesn’t take away the weight of the harm I caused you.
I heard our song today, and I needed to say, “I’m sorry.”
This is my amends to you.
To My Wife’s Family,
In all the years I spent as an English major or an English teacher or a writer, I have never come across the words that could adequately describe the complete remorse I feel for what I’ve done to my wife. The indescribable pain I have caused her and our daughter is clearly unforgivable, though they have chosen to do just that. But I also realize that betraying them means I have also betrayed you. You are her family, and, by default, my family as well. You have expressed your displeasure and discomfort with me – both sentiments I completely understand and do not fault you in the least. There is no way I could ever offer enough apologies to adequately illustrate how horrible I feel about all of this; not only how I’ve made my wife and daughter feel, but how I have made you feel as well. My overwhelming betrayal could only be rivaled by my overwhelming remorse. I hate myself for what I’ve done, and nothing I can do can change that.
However, what I can do is try to help you understand some of the things below the surface that she knows, and nearly no one else does. I want to give you complete and brutal honesty, and I want to be 100% open about it, so that you’ll know how serious I am about wanting to work toward regaining your trust. I am not attempting to make excuses or explain-away the terrible choices I’ve made. I only want you to have the full picture. So please, read on.
I am a sex addict in recovery. Sex addiction is real and it impacts the lives of more people than anyone wants to admit, and I am numbered among this sad demographic. Sex addiction can manifest itself in many forms. The most common form of sex addiction is pornography, though this was not my struggle. As I’m certain you know by now, my struggle was with promiscuity and infidelity. I’ve cheated on my wife more times than I can remember. I will spare you the details, but most of it occurred with other teachers while I was teaching. I was addicted to the power, the conquest, the rush, and the high of initiating affair after affair. This behavior started in college, and grew and festered throughout my adulthood. I naively thought that getting married would simply “make me faithful” but it didn’t. The compulsion of promiscuity was such a driving force that I continued to act like an out-of-control frat boy, even after getting married. At the time, I didn’t realize I had a problem (though I always regretted cheating), but now, after seemingly endless hours therapy and regular attendance to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings, my choices make more sense to me.
During prison, in Lansing, I was required to undergo therapy and treatment prior to being released. I had a therapist who was relentless and honest, and who didn’t give up until I was able to put all my cards on the table. When I first told her the story of my life, my past, and my choices – dating all the way back to high school – she flat-out told me, “There’s something missing.” And then she asked, “What are you not telling me?” And the truth is, there really was one thing I hadn’t told her; I hadn’t told her, because I’d never told anyone. In fact, I’d never – ever – spoken audibly about it to anyone. But when I did finally tell her, it was the missing puzzle piece that clarified everything for her.
When I was 18-years-old, the summer after I graduated from high school, I was raped. I was raped by a guy who I thought was my friend, and who I did not know was gay. One night that summer, my buddies and I were all out drinking, and after getting sufficiently liquored-up, we came back to my house, and around 3AM, the other guys began leaving until it was just him and me left in my room. I was so wasted I was more-or-less passing in and out of a drunken sleep, trying to sit still enough not to puke. And that’s when he did it.
My memory of these events is not fluid – it’s more like grainy film clips in the trailer for an old movie. But I remember it. I remember saying “No,” and “Don’t,” but being so drunk that I was more-or-less unable move, it didn’t make a difference, and he kept repeating, “It’s okay. It’s cool.” And when he was done, he left and I passed out.
When I woke up the next morning, I prayed it had been a nightmare, but I knew it’d happened. I’d been raped. I couldn’t wish it away, but I really couldn’t accept it either.
I never spoke to him again after that, and I’ve only seen him once – at my ten year high school reunion (when he walked in, we immediately left, but I never explained our abrupt departure to her). A few months ago, my sister casually told me that she’d seen him in a grocery store (obviously not knowing what he’d done to me) and it threw me into a depression that lasted for several days; last I’d heard, he was living in Kansas City, so knowing he’s in town petrified me.
My therapist in Lansing, once I told her what he’d done to me, told me that my promiscuous lifestyle – which, no-so-coincidentally began a month after it happened, when college started – made sense to her. It was her opinion that the reason I spent so many years and so much effort having meaningless sexual relationships with woman after woman after woman was because, on a subconscious level, I was continually trying to convince and prove to myself that I wasn’t gay. Additionally, I described to her that the crux of my addiction was the rush of power whenever I was able to initiate a new conquest; this, in her opinion, made sense as well – I thrived on the power because during the rape (and for the years following), I felt utterly powerless. And thus, my compulsion for these things drove me toward more and more promiscuity.
Numerous sessions with this therapist were invaluable to me, and after I told her I’d been raped, I told her. We talked, I cried, she listened, she understood – and now that I’ve begun the long process of dealing with the trauma that I’ve kept buried for so many years, it’s almost as though I’ve been freed from that bondage.
Now I understand why I was an addict and can attack the problem head-on. Being “in recovery” for a sex addict means implementing very strict rules about that aspect of my life. And maintaining my “sobriety” has become one of my life’s top priorities. I owe it to my wife and daughter to remain faithful and sober, but I also owe it to you.
You are my wife’s family and I know how much you love her. So I know it pains you to see her going through the things I’ve put her through and I completely understand your anger with me. But here is what I hope you will come to know: The person who did those things to her no longer exists. I’ve been to jail, prison, therapy, and back to reality, and at this very moment, I am the best possible version of myself. I am nothing like the piece-of-shit subhuman being I was before going to prison, and the people who are still in my life tell me this often. I am simply a different person; prison changed me, and for me, the “correctional” system worked. I never want to live the way I lived for all those years, and the mere thought of those horrid choices I made during the height of my sexual addiction literally makes me want to throw-up. I hate myself for who I was, and I know I can’t just say “I’m sorry” and have everything suddenly be fine. But what I want is the chance to show who I am now, and allow you to make the decision for yourself. I would only hope that you would allow this opportunity with an open mind. I know that it would mean the world to all three of us if we could all be in your family again.
I just finished reading Choke by Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk is the same guy who wrote Fight Club and this book is every bit as bizarre. Choke isn’t about fighting, but both Fight Club and Choke are about the same thing: Freedom. They aren’t about freedom in the traditional geopolitical sense that contemporary pundits love to exploit, but rather, these books – Choke especially – are about freedom from the parts of ourselves that hold us back.
Who I am – or, specifically, who I used to be – holds me back. My past plagues me and, to many people, my past is who I am. There are many people who see me and don’t know what I’ve been through since my crime, and assume that I’m the same sorry sick son of a bitch I was when I made the terrible choice to kiss a student. To them (like this former friend of mine, Christina – not my ex, but a different Christina – who absolutely tore me apart online when I was on television being interviewed about a Halloween article I wrote), I am no different now than I was when I was at the lowest part of my existence. So in the eyes of many (if not most) people who don’t personally know me now, I am still a sick fucking piece of shit.
But here’s the thing: If someone were to walk up to me and say, “A high school teacher who makes-out with a student is a sick fucking piece of shit,” I would reply, “You are absolutely correct.” Why do people assume that I’m okay with what I did? Why do people assume that the sick fuck who had multiple simultaneous affairs with multiple teachers at East High School – in our classrooms – is the same person after prison as I was before? When have I ever justified my actions?
My past is not full of mistakes – my past is full of bad choices. Mistakes are faultless; mistakes happen because something went wrong. My choices aren’t faultless; my choices are because I went wrong. I admit that I am a recovering sex addict and I was driven by a compulsion that was stronger than my resistance to it. But I also acknowledge that I always had the choice to say “No,” the choice to walk away, the choice to not go to Mrs. So-and-so’s classroom and have sex with her during her planning hour. And I definitely had the choice to not make-out with my former student. But I did, and that can never change.
I never lacked free will – I simply lacked the will to be free.
In a lot of ways, I didn’t care. I was more obsessed with feeding my addiction than I was with nurturing my own marriage. My marriage was kind of up-and-down at the time of the worst depth of my addiction, and I used that as an excuse to act-out. But as it turns out, my wife’s love for me was exponentially stronger than any addictive impulse I’ve ever experienced.
My wife and I are killers. We have killed. We killed without regret or remorse. We killed someone who needed to die, and if need be, we would do it again, and we would do it together. I don’t regret killing the man we killed and I’m glad he’s dead. The world is a better place without him. Together, my wife and I carefully plotted his death, and on December 5, 2012, this man – this miserable piece of shit excuse for a human lump of waste – was remorselessly killed, and we killed him. He was a martyr for our cause, and he needed to die.
Some people think they see him sometimes – like sightings of Elvis or Eddie Wilson or Tupac – but the truth is, he’s dead, gone; and I killed him – we killed him, on December 5, 2012.
My two heroes from the Bible are two of the worst human beings who are now revered as Biblical heroes: David, the adulterous murderer; and Paul (Saul), the murderous hypocrite. I love these guys because I can relate to them. They both did horrendous things, then saw how absolutely horrendous their actions were, and they became entirely different people. David became one of the greatest kings of the Old Testament and Paul wrote nearly one-third of the New Testament. Both of them became a New Creation – the old had gone, the new has come.
On December 5, 2012, I walked out of prison and entered my new life. I did not re-enter life, I entered a new life. Together, my wife and I insured that the man of my past would die the moment I left the campus of Winfield Correctional Facility, and that’s exactly what we did: We killed the man I used to be – the old had gone, the new had come. And now, I live my life in a way that makes my wife proud to be married to me. As far as we are concerned, we killed the man I was by making our marriage stronger and by – together – working to make me a better husband, father, friend, and human being. She supports my efforts to grow as a person, she supports my attendance to Sex Addicts Anonymous, she supports my writing, she supports my running – she supports my efforts toward building a life free of sexual addiction, a life of stability and morality. She didn’t leave at the first sign of my improprieties, she stood up and said, “I didn’t marry you to divorce you.”
And as a result of her resolve – her relentless dedication to “For Better or For Worse” – we, as of January 7, 2016, have been married for eleven years.
So Happy Eleventh Wedding Anniversary to my partner in crime – my accomplice in homicide – with whom I have gotten away with murder. Because that’s what we’ve done. We’ve killed someone – the someone of my past – and now we are fugitives in love, like Bonnie and Clyde. But I’m sure our fate will differ from theirs, because in the end, “Bonnie and Clyde get shot to pieces.”
But in case anyone wants to know, this is my confession. my wife and I are guilty of murder – We killed the man I used to be. He’s dead. And we couldn’t be happier.
If New Year’s is supposed to be for personal reflection, then I think Christmas should be about personal reminiscence. Guys like my dad and my high school track coach have instilled in me a genuine sense of tradition and sentimentality, so I can’t help but sit and watch my daughter unwrap her Christmas presents and think about my own childhood; I had a very happy childhood.
And if there’s one thing that always takes me back to the happiness, innocence, and endless possibilities of my youth, it’s the music of the Beatles.
Of course, most people who know me would automatically assume (especially after reading “Discography”) that my reminiscent musician of choice would be Vanilla Ice. But not the case. While I do possess an extensive catalog of information about Vanilla Ice, my love for the Beatles is unmatched.
The music of the Beatles – and specifically, John Lennon – has always been a solid soundtrack for my life.
During the summer of 2005 when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I was randomly Googling things to buy for my future daughter, and somewhere I’d heard that after John Lennon died, many of his paintings were used as the foundation of a whole line of baby products. Late in his life, he’d begun creating paintings of animals like elephants and lions and other animals, which were turned into characters on blankets, baby clothes, and even a mobile that played “Imagine.” And I bought it all. I absolutely wanted my daughter to be raised on the music of John Lennon and the Beatles, and as far as I was concerned, that was going to start from the moment she was born. I guess it was just my way of wanting her to be as happy as I was, and the Beatles have grown into somewhat of a family tradition.
One early morning, the following October, around 4AM, I woke up and looked around in a groggy middle-of-the-night fog. After staring at the ceiling for a moment or two, I stood up and walked into the dark living room, strolling to the window and peeking out at the chilly October morning. “What are you doing?” a voice said from behind me. I gasped a startled inhalation of oxygen as I spun around to see my wife sitting on the couch. She was 9+ months pregnant and looked a bit uncomfortable as she sat upright on the couch. “You scared the hell out of me!” I said with a laugh as I attempted to lasso my pulse back into submission. And she, in a very nonchalant and matter-of-fact voice, she says, “My water just broke.” I’d always assumed that the breaking of the fabled water would be a production of dramatic quiescence as we raced to the hospital in a mad dash to beat the clock – because that’s how it is in the movies. But it wasn’t like that at all. Trying to stay calm, I said, “Okay, what do you need me to do?” We had a pre-packed bag (stocked with our John Lennon blanket, John Lennon newborn onesie, John Lennon bottles, and even a John Lennon pacifier – the John Lennon mobile was already assembled and set-up above her crib) so we were ready to go to the hospital at a moment’s notice; there was no lack of preparation. “Give me a few minutes,” she said. To this day, I have no idea what she did for the ten minutes she asked for, but as I waited to take her to the hospital, I sat down in the computer chair at the desk in my home office and waited with patient excitement and nervousness. I checked the date and thought to myself, My daughter will be born today; I wonder who else’s birthday is today. Google knows all, and Google told me. I entered the search “October 9 Celebrity Birthdays.” I clicked on one of the results to find out that my daughter would share a birthday with: Quantum Leap actor, Scott Bakula; The Osbornes realty TV wife, Sharon Osborne; Home Improvement actor, Zachary Ty Bryan; singer Jackson Browne (best known for “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty); and finally, she would be sharing a birthday with the legendary John Lennon.
I was floored! After growing up on the music of the Beatles, and especially John Lennon, my own daughter was about to be born on his birthday. And as I read further, I saw that John Lennon’s son, Sean, was also born on his birthday – John Lennon and I both have a child born on his birthday. It was just too cool. So, as I sat there reading these amazingly cool facts, I said a quiet prayer: “Lord, please let my daughter be born today, because that would just be too cool.” And a few hours later, our daughter arrived in our lives, on October 9, 2005, the day that would have been John Lennon’s 65th birthday.
The music of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison has been an integral soundtrack in the lives of countless people, and I am no exception. This year for Christmas, my dad and step-mom gave my daughter a full-size keyboard on which she wants to learn to play piano. And she loves it when I play songs like “Hey Jude” or “Let It Be” or “Imagine” for her. She calls them her “night-night songs” because ever since she was born, those songs (and other similar Beatles and John Lennon songs) have been on a CD that that she listens to almost every night as she goes to sleep. So she thinks it’s just the coolest thing that I can play those songs on the piano. And now, she will learn too.
The music of the Beatles isn’t just classic and popular music. For my family – and many others – it is music that bonds us through a mutual love of the songs and how they bond us to one another. My dad taught me to love the Beatles – and I do. And now, it’s my turn to teach my daughter the same thing. Because I believe in being sentimental; I believe in being traditional; I believe in being reminiscent; “I believe in yesterday.”
Last Christmas was special – and this Christmas, even more. But in both cases, it’s my first Christmas home. Last year was my first Christmas out of prison, and this year is my first Christmas living at home with my wife and daughter. And in both instances, I feel just a little more loved.
So perhaps next Christmas will be even better still. As I mentioned in “Crash Course,” my wife’s family asked that I not attend their Christmas Day family gathering. So be it – very well – I understand – etc. Honestly, I’ve grown so accustomed to losing people that it’s become somewhat routine. However, when losing people becomes the norm, the opposite becomes all-the-more sweet.
It’s Christmas Eve. So, of course, I was among the masses of last minute desperation shoppers, trying to adequately convey the affection I hold for my loved ones in the form of material gifts – Merry Christmas. And as I walked into Dillon’s to find something small and cute to fill my wife’s stocking, I strolled with brisk intent toward an aisle that looked promising. And that’s when I heard someone say my name.
Here’s the thing: When this person said my name as she passed in front of me, she said, “Kurt Michael?” In college, I ran track, and there were two of us named Kurt on the same relay. So in order to avoid the confusion and give myself a little bit more of a unique and individual nom de plume (or whatever the “personality” equivalent would be), I began going by Kurt Michael. Thus, when she said “Kurt Michael,” as I passed her in the grocery store, it automatically triggered my memory reference to someone I knew in college.
Typically when people from my past see me in public (who “know about me”) they pretend not to see me or give me an awkward look. (Some people don’t know. I’ve twice seen a former student who works at a sporting goods store, and when I was in last week, she asked, “So, you still teach at East?”) So when I saw this woman I’d known over a decade ago in college, I wasn’t sure what to expect. She stopped and spoke to me like an old friend, which immediately led me to assume that she hadn’t seen the news during the week I was the top story. And as we exchanged pleasantries and held a brief “how have you been” conversation, I just decided to flat-out ask, “So, do you know about me?” And she nodded in that way that people do when they want to say “I understand” without using words. And a few seconds later, she said, “You’re my friend, and I just figured that you made some bad decisions.” I didn’t outwardly indicate this, but when she said that, I was absolutely floored. People never see me that way. And this is someone with whom I hadn’t had a conversation in years! We were friends in college and both worked in education afterwards, and then, there she was, on Christmas Eve, standing in a crowded grocery store with me, telling me in so-many-words that she accepted me as a person, regardless of what I’d done or who I used to be.
My “best friend” (and now my Archenemy) doesn’t accept me like that. My wife’s family doesn’t accept me like that. My former co-workers and educators don’t accept me like that. My “buddies” from college don’t accept me like that. But this woman – whom I hadn’t seen in years – did, and she wasn’t afraid to tell me, right there in the store.
She probably just saw it as a chance to say “Hi” to an old friend, but I don’t think she will ever know how much that brief exchange meant to me. We exchanged numbers, though I doubt we’ll ever talk. But the fact that she stood there and told me that she didn’t think less of me because of the terrible choices of my past – that felt like a Christmas present from God. This has been a busy Christmas, but I think that one conversation is the singular event of the season that I will remember for a long time. Because sometimes, an inconsequential act to one person is a monumental act to someone else. So this is Christmas, and that’s what Christmas is all about.
I’ve had a lot of varying problems to deal with in the contemporary shit-storm of my life, and I’ve come to a very important epiphany: My deep-seeded issues have more than one genesis. So as I give my life’s nexus a solid and thorough review, I’m beginning to understand one of the many intricacies of my battered past.
My wedding day was an amazing day. It was a great day. As cliche as it sounds, it was one of the best days of my life. Things went so well, the ceremony was great, the reception was fun, the people were amazing – it was just a great day.
But here’s the problem: When I got married, I knew everything I needed to know, except how to be married. I didn’t fucking know how the fuck to be married. And I say that strongly because I genuinely fucked it up that bad. So suffice it to say, I learned how to be married by being the absolute shittiest husband on the planet. Granted, I’ve never hit my wife, threatened my wife, or been violent toward her in any way; my transgressions had nothing to do with violence and everything to do with faithfulness (or, more appropriately, a serious lack thereof).
I value myself an educated man – even smart. But I’m also the dumbest son of a bitch I’ve ever known, because when it comes to the most vital of life’s lessons, I seem to always insist on learning the hard way.
I learned how to be faithful, the hard way. But here’s the thing: I love being faithful. If I’d know that being faithful to my wife felt so much better than the shallow and superficial “pleasures” of being unfaithful, I never would have cheated. But, in true addict fashion, common sense wasn’t common. But I also know that I’m the luckiest son of a bitch I’ve ever known too, because I married the most amazing woman on the planet. She loves me unconditionally, and is amazingly forgiving.
Her family, well, not so much.
The other day, I was (in a very round-about way) asked not to attend her family’s Christmas Day celebration. And honestly, I don’t blame them. Granted, I don’t fully understand why they hate me so much (I mean, seriously, I’m the one who went to prison, and they’re the ones with the problem?) but I don’t really have the right to complain. This is just another example of sleeping in the bed I’ve made, and so, essentially, I’ve brought this all on myself.
I guess my only “complaint” is that they have made no effort to understand that I’m a completely different person than I was before prison. I mean, isn’t prison supposed to change people? I hate to admit it, but the system worked for me. As warped as it sounds, going to prison was one of the best things that has ever happened to me because it broke me out of the cycle of addiction and forced me to look at my life in a way that prompted strong and immediate change. I was – by my own admission – a horrid human being before prison. And they didn’t have a problem with me then, as long as they didn’t know who I truly was at the time. Now, they know who I was in the past, and hate me now, even though I’m the kind of person I should be, now. Pretty much ass-backwards. If they would make any attempt whatsoever at actually opening a dialogue with me now, they’d find that I’m not who they think I am. I would even sit and allow all of them to vent their frustrations at me, face-to-face, but they have no interest in that either. And since my wife refused to divorce me, it seems as though they’d rather simply pretend that I don’t exist.
And still, I harbor no ill