Monday, March 19, 2018

Another generation betrayed by those who should know better

This Saturday, thousands of young people will stage the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence rally in Washington, D.C. Expecting huge crowds, officials have changed the opening day of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival to Sunday, March 25. This also marks the beginning of tourist season for D.C. Spring is gorgeous. The cherry blossoms that surround the tidal basin are spectacular. But this year, the weekend's focus will be on ways that we can stop the slaughter of our children in their schools.

I can only guess at the pain that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students from Parkland, Fla., feel as they watch their elders dither over gun control. These are the results you get from us – hypocrisy and betrayal. The students’ adversaries are monumental. Its structure will have to be dismantled brick by brick.

I imagine what would have happened if a gunman had entered my Florida school 50 years ago and murdered 17 of my classmates and teachers.

The year, 1968. The school, Father Lopez Catholic High School in Daytona Beach. We 17-year-old juniors have Valentine’s Day on our minds. I hoped I had bought just the right thing for my girlfriend. My girlfriend might have been contemplating the very same thing. Basketball season was winding down and it looked like my Green Wave team was going to win the conference. We had all given up something for Lent. Chocolate. French fries. Cussing. Fear of eternal damnation kept us chaste so there was no reason to give up sex, although we joked about it. Spring break was on the horizon, as was summer, and we were thinking about summer jobs and days on the beach.

We had an open campus. Anyone could walk in and did. Moms delivered forgotten lunches and homework. Visitors dropped by at any time. We would have been sitting ducks for a killer.

It never happened at my school and never has. If 17 of my classmates had been killed, I would have known them all – we had fewer than 400 students in four grades. One of the dead or wounded could have been me. I like to think that I would have been a hero no matter what. I have nothing to base that on because I had never faced a shot fired in anger – and I still haven’t. We would all be devastated. We would be looking for solace and answers.

What would adults have told us? Don’t worry. This is an aberration. The gunman was crazy. It will never happen again.

And we would have believed them.

That was our first mistake. It wouldn’t be our last.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., would be gunned down in Memphis. Our school’s mostly-black neighborhood would not be safe. Riots would erupt on Second Avenue which, during those segregated times, was where the black population lived.  

On June 6, Robert Kennedy would be murdered by an assassin. I idolized the Kennedys. RFK and JFK were imperfect human beings. But I was a teen looking for some heroes.  

Florida native Charles Whitman murdered 16 people, most of them from a perch at the University of Texas tower, in July 1966. Not the first mass murder but the fact that it was a former Marine sniper made news. And he was a very angry white man.

On Valentine’s Day 1968, the Tet Offensive was just winding down in Vietnam. Surely this meant the end of a failed experiment, one that was claiming the lives of my peers and many Vietnamese. The war dragged on for another seven years. Our elders, “the best and the brightest,” insisted it was the right thing to do.

None of the adults gave us the real facts about sex. Parents and nuns and priests decided that fear was enough of a deterrent. They were mostly correct, although at least one of our female classmates missed part of the senior year with an unplanned pregnancy. You would not be surprised that pregnant teens found the same censure at public schools. It just wasn’t done. The boys were never blamed.

We knew betrayal, we didn’t yet have a name for it. Members of our generation possessed a simmering rage. That was a problem, because the Summer of Love and the Age of Aquarius had dawned. Peace, love, and understanding. If that was true, how come people were filled with anger? Blacks vs. Whites. Cops vs. pot smokers. Rednecks vs. hippies. Viet Cong vs. the U.S.A. Irish Catholics vs. Protestants. Jews vs. Arabs and almost everyone else.

Flash forward to the present. Seventeen killed and a dozen wounded at a Florida high school. The only ones making sense are 16- and 17-year-old classmates of the dead at Douglas High School. Adults in positions of power are dangerous fools. They spout nonsense that get their children killed.

Betrayed. It’s déjà vu all over again.

It may have its roots in the betrayal that ignited our generation. That was never resolved, or forgotten, just buried as the years passed. We weren’t the first. It’s possible that adults of every generation betray their children. Over time, we lose touch with our values and our kids pay the price. You can say that every generation needs to experience hardships to find out the true nature of the world. Center for Disease Control figures come up with 1.55 million deaths from firearms in the U.S. from 1968-2016. This includes the span of many generations. Wouldn’t a smart, caring community have come up with some solutions by now?

Good people do bad things. Bad people do bad things. That’s an old story. But why do we make it easier for anyone to buy an AR-15, walk into a school, and shoot down 17 people? Haven’t we learned our lessons by now? Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas. The list goes on and on. If we don’t do something about it, we betray our children. If we do something about it, we betray only the NRA and our thick-headed politicians.

The choice should be clear. More betrayal, the generational rite of passage? Or do we do something new and different and constructive?

Which will it be?

Friday, March 16, 2018

"Lincoln in the Bardo" explores the gap between tragedy and comedy

George Saunders' novel "Lincoln in the Bardo" is eerie and hilarious. The novel is written by an experienced short story writer and is structured as a series of scenes set in the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln visits the resting place of his 11-year-old son, Willie. Saunders has constructed an excellent novel from snatches of dialogue from dead people and swatches from books about he Civil War era in Washington, D.C. You can be excused for getting lost amidst the first few pages and wondering where the book was going. I did. But I persevered, as you sometimes have to do with a challenging literary work.

At the core of the story is a man mourning the untimely death of his son. How do you cope with such a loss? You could write a book about Lincoln's monumental depression. We have seen public figures deal with the death of their offspring. Joe Biden publicly mourned the death of his son Beau and Beau was a seasoned adult and war veteran. But mourning a young son or daughter is a special kind of hell, one that doesn't require a belief in the actual Hell of the Bible or religious iconography or even Dante. It's a hell on earth.

First, what is a bardo? From Merriam-Webster Online:
The intermediate or astral state of the soul after death and before rebirth.
As is true with all online research, you can use this dictionary definition as a launching pad into a universe of references. Bardo is a Tibetan term that's found in the Bardo Todol in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Bardo Todol is translated as "Liberation in the Intermediate State Through Hearing."

Here's a quote from a Lion's Roar piece from April 2017:
More generally, the word bardo refers to the gap or space we experience between any two states. The lesser-known bardos described in the traditional texts include the bardo of dreaming, the bardo of meditating, and even the bardo of this life—which is, after all, the intermediate state between birth and death. 
A bardo can even be seen as the pause between one thought and another. I experience bardos on a daily basis but didn't realize it.  Once you know that, the shades that inhabit the cemetery where Willie Lincoln is buried take on a new dimension. They are not ghosts, really, or those dead people with unfinished business who haunt old hotels and abandoned mental asylums. You know, the ones who get the attention of the guys on TV's "Ghost Adventures." These souls in the bardo make up a compelling cast of characters who comment on Willie's funeral and Lincoln's nighttime foray to his son's final resting place. The two main narrators are printer Hans Vollman and Roger Blevins III, an eternally young man with some secrets.

In the reader's guide that follows the novel (Random House trade paperback), Saunders describes the core question in the novel this way: "How do we continue to love in a world in which the objects of our love are so conditional?"

Heartbreak is at the heart off "Lincoln in the Bardo." Lincoln is so heartbroken by Willie's death that he can barely go on, that he forgets he has another young son at home in a sickbed. Some of the most amazing lines in the book happen when each of the spirits admits he/she is dead and transforms into the next life. As they depart, onlookers get a glimpse into their lives before death and the lives they could have led had they lived to a normal life span. I was reminded of the graveyard scenes in "Our Town," when the dead comment on the fragility -- and ignorance -- of the living. Life is a mystery and a tragedy. Heartbreak is our destiny. The ones we love leave us and we are challenged to keep going in this sphere. Lincoln lost a son, lived with an off-kilter wife, and had a war to run. We often hear of "Lincoln the Emancipator" and "Lincoln the Rail-Splitter." The mythic Lincoln. In recent years, we have heard more about the Lincoln with crippling depression. I can hear R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe wailing "Everybody Hurts" as Lincoln makes his way home from the cemetery.

One note about Saunders as short story writer: I hadn't read a Saunders story in awhile. Not sure why. I picked up a 2016 Random House paperback reissue of "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" at my local bookstore. I read the title story and beheld intimations of what would appear in "Bardo." We meet the "ghostly McKinnon family" who occupied the CivilWarLand site back during the Civil War. They met a bad end at the hands of Mr. McKinnon, who was never the same after the Battle of Antietam. The daughter, Maribeth, is "a homely sincere girl who glides around moaning and pining and reading bad poetry chapbooks. Whenever we keep the Park open late for high-school parties, she's in her glory." Maribeth is more real than the narrator's two bratty sons. Saunders makes the real absurd and the absurd real. As Joshua Ferris notes in the intro, it's the latter skill "is a much harder trick to pull off" but it moves Saunders from the pigeonhole of satirist and "into the open air of the first-rate artist."

In "Lincoln in the Bardo," Saunders skill as a writer helps us see that the human tragedy is also the human comedy. Maybe that's a bardo, too, the gap between tragedy and comedy.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

What kind of horse gets depicted in public art -- and who decides?

Donal O'Toole wrote a fine piece for Studio Wyoming Review last week. It critiqued the public art on the University of Wyoming campus and found it wanting. Too many bucking broncos. I agree. Enough with the bucking broncos. Cowboys riding horses out of a rodeo chute is just one small aspect of Wyoming life (for a different look at rodeo, check out RoseMarie London's photographs). Almost every community has a rodeo. Fine. What other aspects of the rodeo can be depicted in public art? Rodeo has a history but I see few representations of that. What about the Hispanic roots of rodeo? Where are our vaquero statues? What about Native Americans on horseback? UW has one sculpture of Chief Washakie. What is that tradition? Hispanics and Native Americans have long histories with the horse.

The horse itself has a long history in Wyoming. I was amazed to learn that an ancient genus of horse, now labeled Haringtonhippus francisci, roamed Wyoming for thousands of years, until about 17,000 years ago. Then it disappeared from the fossil records. DNA extracted from bones at Wyoming's Natural Trap Cave have shown that this horse is a separate genus from Equus, the one that includes the horses depicted in UW sculptures. The line that includes the North American horse, also called the New World Stilt-legged horse, apparently diverged from Equus 4-6 million years ago, according to a 2017 article in Science Daily.  Here is an artist's rendering from

This illustration depicts a family of stilt-legged horses (Haringtonhippus francisci) in Yukon, Canada, during the last ice age. Credit: Jorge Blanco.

As interesting as it would be to see these horses in the wild, it would still be interesting to see artistic renderings of this Ice Age creature on the UW campus. Our history as a geographic place predates the beginnings of cowboys and rodeos. Millions of years of history is explored in science courses at UW. Let's put some examples on display for all to see. There is a funky T-Rex in front of the UW Geology Building. That's so predictable, isn't it? But why not represent all of the flora and fauna that now exists as dirt and shards and fossils (and coal, oil, and gas) underneath our feet? In this era of Climate Change Deniers, wouldn't it be educational to see what sort of life forms led to the eons-long formation of coal deposits which we have burned for fuel which loaded up the atmosphere with CO2 and caused global warming which will melt the polar ice which will then cause the oceans to reclaim some of its ancient territory which includes Wyoming?

Perhaps that is too educational. Chris Drury's "Carbon Sink" at UW tried to represent this and look what happened to that. You have to believe in the values of education to actually make this work. Our current crop of Know Nothing Republicans in the legislature despise higher education because it offers more expansive views of the world than their narrow minds can cope with. These same people fear non-representational art for its ability to challenge assumptions about time and space and imagination.

A different look at a horse: Deborah Butterfield's "Billings" was part of the "Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational" at UW. From the UW Art Museum blog.

One of my favorite public art installation at UW was the multi-year "Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational" that began in 2008. UW Art Museum Susan Moldenhauer and staff decided to take art outside during the museum's interior renovation. UW hosted 17 works by 16 artists of international renown. Some were on the UW campus, others scattered around Laramie. I fondly recall walking the campus on a warm summer day to view the artwork and then tooling around town to see the rest. One of my favorites was Patrick Dougherty's "Shortcut," an assemblage of Wyoming sticks and branches that, over the course of several years, was allowed to change with the elements. Students helped the artist, which gave them some real-world experience in alternative sculpture. Then the wind and the rain and the snow took over.

We all learned a valuable lesson about power in Wyoming when energy interests persuaded UW leaders to dismantle and remove "Carbon Sink" on one dark and stormy night. Public arty is OK, they seemed to say, as long as it doesn't interfere with the interests of international conglomerates that reap a bountiful harvest from Wyoming. That may be one of the reasons that public art at UW has become so predictable in the Trump era.

The artists continue to make relevant art and the combine, as Chief Broom might say in an inner dialogue, keeps churning along.

My latest art review appeared Friday in Wyofile's Studio Wyoming Review. Read "Worth a thousand words: the work of Laramie photographers."

Keep reading -- and keep making art.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Strong mind, strong body -- take your pick

Just added to my reading list: "Blue Dreams: The science and the story of the drugs that changed our minds" by Lauren Slater. I will tackle it once I finish "Lincoln in the Bardo" by George Saunders.

"Blue Dreams" is a non-fiction account of psychiatric drugs and their effects by someone who is both a patient and a psychologist.

"Lincoln in the Bardo" is a novel that explores something that seems a lot like severe depression and PTSD in Abraham Lincoln, who is mourning the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862.

Would Lincoln have benefited from a regimen of Prozac or other SSRIs? Perhaps. Maybe he would have recovered from his dark moods more quickly with a couple hits of Molly or LSD.

We'll never know. But psychedlics figure into Slater's book. Party drug MDMA (Molly) has been tested on those with PTSD. It has shown some remarkable and lasting results. As Slater recently described it on NPR's "Fresh Air:" those who take Molly and relive their trauma are able to shift that experience into another section of the brain, possibly the prefrontal cortex, helping remove it from the "fight or flight" amygdala. They can then get a handle on a horrible memory without degenerating into bouts of anxiety or self-harm, even suicide.

Slater wonders if this experimentation may lead to another golden age of drug therapy. The previous golden age brought on by lithium and Prozac may be nearing its end. Slater testifies that medications have helped her stay sane, raise a family and write books. They also have shortened her life.

That's the trade-off. So goes the old witticism: "Sound mind. Sound body. Take your pick." After five stays in psychiatric facilities between the ages of 13 to 24, Slater's doctors discovered Prozac. In a rush of Seratonin-laced good will, she finsihed finished her education, married, had two children and embarked on a writing career.

Then came trouble, in the form of the return of depression  and the start of her use of Zyprexa, which caused her to gain weight and lose her libido.

We patients are guinea pigs. Researcher still don't know the inner workings of these drugs. And their long-term effects. If you are in the midst of a severe depression, you want immediate help. Doesn't happen. Prozac or Zoloft may alleviate the symptoms eventually. Studies have shown that two-thirds  of those with depression would recover just as well with a placebo. That's depressing enough. Add side-effects into the mix and you have to wonder what in the hell we are doing.

I have been taking antidepressants for almost 30 years. I feel better, go off them, and crash. One of my psychiatrists once lectured me: "You have to stay on these the rest of your life. You have depression."

That made an impression. Unfortunately, I don't always listen. I went off my Zoloft six years ago and the walls came crashing down. I was out of work for a month. My psychiatrist at the time, who fled Wyoming for Hawaii one winter and never came back, tried a return to Zoloft and then several other meds. We finally went back to Prozac with a nighttime dose of Remeron. Several months later, I felt better but also was back exercising on a regular basis and eating right, which helped. Also, I was in talk therapy with a therapist and regularly saw my psychiatrist. Still, that summer I was still experiencing bouts of depression interspersed with anxiety. It probably took a good six months for my moods to stabilize.

Six months later, on Jan. 2, 2013, I had a heart attack. I recovered quicker from a "widow maker" than I did from depression. Got more help, too. Add an inept mental health care system to the fact that the docs know so little about the drugs and the human mind. That makes for a killer cocktail of ignorance. At least I have both Medicare and private insurance which enables me to navigate the system without going broke.

But I am not only here to complain. I am here to critique books. "Lincoln in the Bardo" is a wild ride and I'm only on page 98. This is how an award-winning short story writer writes a novel. Truly unique. I am a short story writer working on a novel. I find encouragement in Saunders work.

I have ordered Slater's book. I, too, would like to know what happens with long-term use of these drugs. My life depends on it.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Drama nerds and debaters seize the day after Florida school shooting

It seems that arts education can be a wonderful asset in standing up to bullies.

That was on display last week at the CNN town hall meeting on gun violence. Young people from Margory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., schooled Sen. Marco Rubio and an NRA flack on just about everything. No surprise that the students had honed their skills by participating in the school's drama club and speech and debate programs.

Memorizing lines and defending your views in front of a crowd can give you the confidence to take on a U.S. senator and the NRA. I encourage these students to continue the fight. Their #NeverAgain movement is sponsoring March for Our Lives march on Washington on March 24. Allied marches will be help around the world. Some are being planned for Wyoming. I will keep you posted on these pages. Several high-rolling liberals have donated to the cause. The rest of us can donate by going to . As of noon Sunday, the campaign has raised $2.5 million of the $2.8 million goal.

Further reading on the topic:

Emily Witt wrote this Feb. 19 New Yorker piece on how three drama club nerds sparked the #NeverAgain movement:

New Yorker article on Feb. 23 about high school protester Cameron Kasky and his "Spring Awakening" at

The high school's drama club wrote and performed an original song for the CNN-sponsored town hall session Feb. 21. Get more here:

Here are some of the song's lyrics:
But you're not gonna knock us down
We'll get back up again

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

No more Mr. Nice Guy

Our young people feel betrayed.

Youngsters are getting murdered at a sickening rate. After the Florida high school attack, survivors are angry. They are speaking out, staging sit-ins and planning protest marches. 

Their elders have abandoned them. As one of those elders, I am ashamed of my country. And I see myself as one of the good guys. I've worked for decades to derail the nefarious plans of crackpot right-wingers. I have allies in the fight. Fellow travelers, in the terminology of the Red Scare 1950s. In a small place such as Wyoming, we tend to know one another. Right now, we have our eyes on a state legislature dominated by wingnuts. I would say wingnuts from the hinterlands, but some of the worst ones are from the state's most populated county -- Laramie. My county. 

Sad to say, being a good guy is not enough. 

The children can teach us. Today, 100 teens from Parkland, Fla., got on a bus and took their pleas to their legislators in Tallahassee. We send them our thoughts and prayers. Scratch that. Thoughts and prayers have already been tried. I send my anger with them. They will confront a building filled with earnest faces.  Good guys -- mostly guys. They are involved in their churches, love their wives and children, are kind to animals, and care for the state of the nation.

Sad to say, being a good guy is no excuse.

To paraphrase Jesus: "You will know them by their actions." Matthew 7:20: " their fruits you shall recognize them." These legislators, many of them from rural America, are good Christians and read the Bible. Perhaps they neglected this section of Matthew. To use another phrase, "actions speak louder than words." What are their actions? They rail against immigrants. They demonize their LGBTQ neighbors. They cut food and medical benefits for those who need it most. They hatch plans to stop blacks and Hispanics from voting. They cut funds to education. They give carte blanche to gun dealers. 

You know them by their actions. So why do you keep voting for them? I ask these questions of Wyomingites, too. Florida may be in the news but we are seeing some ridiculous behavior in our own reps. In Wyoming, we are looking at a bill to allow conceal and carry in churches. Really? Have these people no sense of right and wrong? Didn't they get their butts paddled if they lied and cheated and bore false witness against their neighbors? Didn't they get Atticus Finch or Andy of Mayberry-style lectures when they broke the rules? They show no evidence of this. Apparently, you can't trust the words of good guys.

Our children and grandchildren now show us the way. I am not going to rain on their parade. Tread carefully, I could say. Be patient. After all, the world won't change with one fit of outrage, one speech, one march. But they will have to discover these hard facts as they work for change. 

As many aging activists will tell you, the struggle for black civil rights took hundreds of years. Women's Movement veterans can tell you the same thing. The struggle for gay rights didn't begin with Stonewall. Environmentalists have been publicly advocating for change since the first Earth Day in 1970.  But those battles have been going on a lot longer as people discovered that their fate is tied to that of the planet. 

This is beginning to sound like a graduation speech. I apologize. Aging good guys see themselves as founts of wisdom even though they may be just tired and afraid. I advise you -- wear sunscreen and don't take any wooden nickels.  

And don't let the good guys get in your way. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Dear President Trump: Please don't put mental health care on your radar screen

The most distressing news to come out of the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre is that President Trump is now going to pay attention to mental health.

We have seen what happens to issues when Trump starts paying attention to them. His "concern" about our immigration laws have led to families being ripped apart by ICE and the Dreamers dreams to be abandoned.

And then there is the ridiculous border wall.

He and his Congressional cronies addressed the economy by passing the TaxScam bill that turns the economy over to the billionaire class.

Healthcare? He wants drastic cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, the country's two largest health care programs.

SNAP or food stamps? Replace the SNAP system with a plan to send food boxes to those on the program. I would say those "poor people" on the program, but I know better. Our family used food stamps on an interim basis when I was underemployed and we had four mouths to feed on a salary for two. My disabled daughter is now in the SNAP program. SNAP feeds people. I hesitate to guess what kind of Republican-approved edibles would show up in a Trump Food Box.

Education? I have one name for you: Betsy DeVos. She is our so-called secretary of education who wants to privatize our prized public school system and to turn college students into paupers. Trump's base hates the educated class because we insist on using facts in our political arguments.

Now mental health. I have written about the mental health system numerous times. I am not a mental health professional. But my daughter has been in the system for 11 years and I can speak with some authority of her experience -- and ours.

My daughter Annie has been diagnosed as bipolar and has borderline personality disorder. Over the years, our family has sought treatment for Annie in many programs in five states. Why so many? First, she was unable to get the care she needed in Wyoming which, to federal granting programs, is considered a pioneer state, as if we were still rolling across the prairie wagons or handcarts. We are fortunate to live in the state's capital city and have used the services of good therapists and psychiatrists, some in private practice and some who work with Peak Wellness. As a minor, we had some say in the places she was sent for treatment, some of those in Colorado and California. When she turned 18, she made some of those choices, not all of them good. Some were excellent, as was New Roads Treatment Center out of Salt Lake City. Her caregivers in 2018 are at Summit Stone in Fort Collins, Colo. Colorado has a leader and mental health advocate in Gov,. John Hickenlooper.

One of the strengths and weaknesses of the United States is that every state sets its own agenda. Colorado has a Democratic governor and mostly progressive legislature. Wyoming has a Republican governor and a Know Nothing Republican legislature. Guess which state takes better care of its mentally ill?

Just take a look at some of the crackpot bills that are on the agenda for this year's Wyoming Legislature.

Please, I beg you President Trump, don't pay attention to mental health care. It has enough problems without you.