NBC’s Brian Williams is a liar. Plain and simple. He did not make a mistake. He did not misremember. He lied. When you lie, you are, by definition, a liar. If you do not like that title, don’t lie. I do not know whether he did it for ratings or if he has all the insecurities of an adolescent girl, and I really do not care. That is not the story here. The real story is how other journalists respond to Williams lie. You see, journalists have a moral obligation to tell the whole painful truth, even if they do not like it. Too many of them, like the LA Times’ Stephen Battaglio, too easily abandon that mandate. They pull punches. They let things slide. They promote their personal political agendas instead of reporting the truth. Battaglio cannot bring himself to use the one most accurate word to describe Williams in his article. Battaglio says Brian Williams made a mistake. He says Williams issued a false statement, told a tale, a version of a story, a conflation, an erroneous version, and strayed from the facts, but he refuses to call Williams a liar. That is bad journalism, folks, and it makes me wonder why Battaglio abandons his journalistic integrity and pulls that punch.
My friend Tom Koslowski died Monday, January 12th 2015 from complications secondary to cancer. He died in his tiny, one bedroom apartment, a man alone, forgotten by most of the world. There was no hospice or visiting nurse at his side. His elderly mother found his body on Thursday. She called me on Friday. You will not see his obituary in the newspaper, nor will there be a memorial service, because Tom was a member of America’s invisible population of mentally ill citizens. He did not have two nickels to rub together, few friends, and no family besides his mother. He was sixty-one years old.
Tom was a paranoid schizophrenic who bore a marked resemblance to Tolkien’s character, Gollum. People instinctively recoiled from him, as though he were a ghoul. I will tell you right now, he was one of the kindest, most honest souls I have ever met, and as much as the ill-mannered stares and rude whispers from “normal” people hurt him, he never held a grudge or wished anyone ill.
In a life where he very heavily relied on government agencies, caseworkers, and healthcare providers, Tom came to hate being a burden to other people. He did not drive, was terrified of public transportation, and did not have the stamina to walk any sort of distance. Going to the store or doctor or pharmacy always required the reluctant help of someone else. Sometimes it was a government-funded taxi or the TriMet Lift, and sometimes it was a friend or neighbor. Regardless, Tom always had to work the phones and beg for the transportation that you and I take for granted. It embarrassed him and he hated it. Sometimes, if he were in a bind, I would stop by his apartment and drop off his prescriptions on my way home. I would always stay for an hour or so to talk and, most importantly, to listen.
When Tom was as a little boy he wanted to grow up to be a doctor. He wanted to help people. His symptoms emerged when he was nine years old and, instead of being the doctor, he became the patient. He suffered a lifetime of cruel tricks at the hands of the voices in his head, not to mention those wounds inflicted by the world around him. While Tom was often reluctant to talk about his adventures in life – most of our conversations revolved around his medical needs – once in a while, if he was in the mood, he would tell me a tale or two from his past. Sometimes the stories were painful, but sometimes they were downright funny. The pragmatic, self-effacing humor he spun into his recollections made Tom a good storyteller. His tales were good enough that I offered to write his biography. It would have been a best seller, and I am confident it would have been an honest accounting of his life. Tom declined the offer for fear of the pain of dredging up a continuous history, much to my regret but with my understanding. While he considered himself a worthless human being, his story would have been more interesting than 99% of the biographies ever written. He was a good man and he survived a life in a world we little understand and greatly fear. He was anything but worthless.
In deference to Tom’s wishes, I am not going to commit those stories he gave me to writing. There is but one story of his that I feel a need to tell and that is his last one. Last autumn, Tom had to make a decision to fight his cancer or let nature take its course. He was physically quite frail, and odds of him surviving the procedures and treatments were not in his favor. His oncologist and GP were pushing him towards treatment, so he came to me for advice. Medically, oncology is far out of the scope of my practice, so I left the clinical question alone. Instead, I asked Tom, “If you go through the treatments and survive, then what?” Tom knew what I was asking. We all die. Life is the leading cause of death. Did he want to be comfortable for six months? Or did he want to be miserable for eighteen months? At his age with his health, no matter what, death was relatively imminent and inescapable.
Tom took this final decision very seriously. He made it with a clearer mind and a braver heart than most of my sane patients. In the eight years I had known him, he had spent every minute of every day managing his health. Despite his mental illness and other health problems, Tom had learned to enjoy life and did not want to die in the least bit. If he had any fight left in his body, he would have fought. He simply didn’t, and he knew it. He opted to let the disease take its course.
As much as he could be, Tom was a good son and very much loved his mother. This is why he protected her as long as he could from news of his cancer, not wanting her to worry over him. Besides him, she had little in the world, and he knew there was time enough for her to have sleepless nights. The gift of ignorance was the only gift he had the ability to give, and he did it out of love. She found out a matter of weeks before he passed. She was likely a bit angry with Tom for keeping the secret as long as he did. I hope she understands it was an act of love on his part. He carried her part of his burden as long as he could.
Tom Kozlowski was more than my patient. Over the years we had become friends. Friendship is an odd thing, and is often found in the most unsuspecting places. I am a richer man for having known him, and that is no small thing. I hope that now, free of disease and pain, Tom’s soul can look down from Heaven and see how he touched my life. The little boy who wanted to grow up to be a doctor is finally free. As long as I live, I will not forget him.
- The First No. 1 Rule of Writing: Write because you love to write for the sake of writing.
- The Second No. 1 Rule of Writing: Don’t quit your day job.
The Rest of the stuff, agents, editors, publishing houses, marketing and the like, all comes later.
There are an estimated 130 million books written in modern history. Amazon gives readers access to more than 12 million titles. Around two thousand books are published in the United States every day, more books than the most voracious reader could consume in a lifetime. A book that sells 1,000 copies in this environment is a real success. Congratulations, your huge effort might just pay a month’s rent every few years. If you like sleeping indoors, you best get yourself a day job. An average journalist makes about $34,000 a year. A great journalist might pull in $70,000 a year. As you can see, even for the college educated, professional writers, writing is not about the money. You have better odds of getting rich by playing the lottery.
So what is writing about? It is about that endless quest to thread a needle in the dark… on the first try. It is about trying to compose that perfect sentence of that perfect paragraph of that perfect chapter of that perfect book. It is about expressing your thoughts with such extraordinary eloquence that, no matter the reader’s attitude, you impress them and leave them to ponder. I did it once. Oddly enough, it was neither a happy or satisfying moment. It simply was.
Writing is a form of art, no different from music or painting. I know quite a few talented musicians, professionals at the top of their trade. Some are actual headliners. The one thing they all have in common is day jobs. The lucky ones teach their trade, while the others work mundane jobs, all so they can perform in some bar or small venue on Friday and Saturday night. I have published two books, both of which are an intrinsic part of my family history and very much labors of love. Getting rich was never part of the equation. To me, writing this blog, one of more than 150 million blogs globally, is the same as picking at the guitar alone at night or sitting at an easel painting the mountains in the distance. I simply love words, language and writing. When someone else occasionally appreciates it, for good or ill, is just icing on the cake.
Three years ago I started this blog to coincide with the publication of my first novel, The Knight and the Serpent: A Legend of Medieval Normandy (free on Kindle through 12/26/14 – a Christmas promotion). It did not take long for the blog to take on a life of its own and it has proven to be a rewarding experience. It has been fascinating to see what readers are and are not interested in! The following three articles are the most viewed of the more than fifty posts since December, 2011.
The next three articles are the least viewed in that same time period.
It is very interesting as to what strikes a chord in people and what does not.
My great-grandfather, John C. Gabourel, was one of the more colorful characters in my family tree. He served with the British army during the Boer War, and with the American army during WWI in France. I have the good fortune of having original copies of a series of letters to the editor he wrote in the years following WWI. While the letters are a snapshot of events long ago, his concerns mirror the concerns of many Americans today.
For some time past articles have been appearing in the newspapers advocating the deportation of all alien slackers. This presupposes that being a slacker is a crime. If this be so, then how much more of a criminal is the genuine American slacker, the man who willfully and deliberately evaded the service of the country in her need?
We have heard of many such cases being disposed of with absolutely inadequate punishment, and today many of these “yellow dogs” are walking on our streets and holding their heads as high as though they had gone through the Hell overseas. Is there not some way in which these men can be made to feel the contempt in which they must be held by every patriotic minded citizen? Surely (the American slackers are) more guilty than these alien slackers, just as a professional thief is morally more guilty than a man who steals a pair of shoes when his feet are bare.
Thousands of names are said to have been turned into our Department of Justice for investigation as to presumptive evasion of military service. With what result? A few men have been hauled into court and then either the cases against them dismissed or totally insufficient punishment to fit the crime meted out. The poor aliens are thrown into prison, there to wait until the deportation question is decided, while the more culpable offender, the real genuine native slacker laughs in his sleeve and considers that he has been real smart. The Country seems to be asleep on this question which doubtless suits the policy of some people, but the ex-service men are beginning to ask “WHY?” and perhaps before long they will demand an answer.
Back in the day, a slacker was a person who shirked their duties to society, especially their military duties. Today, right around 50% of Americans are tapping social services of some sort. Instead of taking the job they can get, they abuse unemployment while they wait for the job they want. They make themselves as unappealing as possible to employers with piercings, tattoos, ear gauges, and a generally slovenly appearance, and they cry foul when their jobs are lousy and their pay is low.
Much of America’s work force regularly call out sick to get extra vacation days, refuse to work hard when they are on the job, and do little to improve their lot in life because food stamps and other social services are such low hanging fruit. They spend a lot of time bemoaning it all, but if you suggest they take a bath, get a decent hair cut, clean up their language, work hard, and stop dressing like a 1978 Soho Punk, they will rip into you, screaming, “Don’t you dare judge me!” It is like Honey Boo Boo has become America’s norm.
Anyway, the more things change, the more things stay the same. The existence of slackers, both alien and domestic, is nothing new. That the government caters to slackers is also nothing new, as is proven by a ninety-five year old letter to the editor.
I took my truck in for routine service the other day. As the young kid at the service desk went to hand me my keys he asked me to fill out an online survey grading his performance.
“You did just fine,” I offered.
“Well, if you fill out the survey, make sure to give me a perfect score. If I get anything lower than a perfect score, it goes against my performance review,” he explained, “I need a 10 out of 10. If you give me a 9 out of 10, I might not get a raise.”
“No shit?” I asked, “So you are either Bo Derek or the ugliest girl at the dance? No in between?”
“Yup,” he smiled, though I am not sure he really knows who Bo Derek is.
“How does that make you feel?”
He laughed softly and gave me my keys without answering.
If this were the first time I had heard this story, I would think he was pulling my leg, just trying to game his score. He was a nice kid, and he did his job competently with a smile on his face, but it was an ordinary transaction. Average. Just like every other transaction I have had at the dealership over the last fifteen years, and the very reason I keep coming back. Consistent competence. A 10 out 10, a perfect score, is like seeing a woman who is so beautiful or a man who is so handsome, that you actually give yourself whiplash when you snap your head around for a second look. That is 10 out of 10. On a scale of 1 to 10, the average person is a 5.5. I would give this kid a 6 out of 10, and feel good about it. To have this kid tell me that, if I generously give him a 9 out 10, his boss will put a bag over his head because he is just too damn ugly seems a little wacky. Nobody is that big a dick, are they? The kid has to be lying, right?
Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have heard this story. As a matter of fact, just about every shop I do business with has the same sort of survey request on the bottom of the receipt. Whenever a cashier mentions the survey, the story is always the same. Their scores have to be beauty-pageant perfect, or they will suffer some sort of consequence. A bad review. A demotion. No raise. Get fired. That sort of stuff. As a matter of fact, some poor sap begs me to give them a “review” almost every day. If I log into some web account or another, they are always wringing their hands, asking me to “take a minute to rate their performance.” I get these desperate, attention seeking requests in my e-mail all the time (one just popped into my inbox as I am typing. I cannot even write in peace without some drama queen CEO shopping for compliments). I get literally hundreds of survey requests every year. It is as pervasive as garlic and heavy perfume at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Get me some fresh air, please! And if I applaud the employee, but criticize company policy in my review, it is the employee who gets hurt because the score is not perfect. So when this poor kid at the auto repair shop begged me to give him a good review, he really meant it. His livelihood will be on the line if I do not tell his boss that this $11.95-an-hour kid could star on Broadway and that the boss is the most handsome devil west of the Mississippi. Crazy, huh?
I have a lot of empathy for that poor kid. Sympathy and pity, too. It is hard to have someone with whom you have such a close, personal relationship put such unrealistic expectations on your performance every minute of every day, then berate you on a daily basis when you are not cover-girl beautiful (those photos are always airbrushed and photo-shopped, by the way). It is even harder when the person telling you that you are ugly is in a position of authority over you, and threatens your future as a punishment for failure. So now I have to make a decision. Do I lie and help this poor kid with the cooking and the chores, and get him cleaned up for dinner… making him out to be better than he is… so that when the Old Man comes home drunk the kid does not get a beating? Or do I tell the truth, and screw the kid? Do I punish the boss by taking my business somewhere else on principle? Or do I walk away and say nothing, refusing to play the game at all?
Well, I am no liar, so any review I give will be an honest review. Unfortunately, an honest review will result in a good kid getting punished for treating me decently. I cannot be a party to someone being punished for basic decency, therefore I cannot, in good conscience, give any sort of feedback whatsoever. If I take my business to the dealership down the street, their boss is also using the same review process to browbeat his employees (true fact! I know guys at both shops), so that would be like robbing Judas to pay Pilate. The only choice I have left is to not play the game at all. That poor kid is on his own. I am not going to hurt him, but I cannot save him. Nor can I save any of the other millions upon millions of $10 an hour employees just like him.
What I have noticed in recent years is that corporate America has become obsessed with being told they are beautiful.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most beautiful of them all?
If you say ‘tis other than me, I will punish my employee!”
It is as though these companies know they have a history of not being good citizens and are so desperate to put lipstick on the pig that they are attempting to coerce our compliments so they can report to the world that they are truly loved. It is a sort of Wonderland madness, really. Instead of them worrying about getting 10 out 10 on their surveys, perhaps they could start doing right by their employees and their customers instead of treating them like property. (Hey, stop laughing! I am being serious here!)
As for me, I am everyman. I do not complain. I do not fill out surveys even if you offer me free tacos, coffee, or car washes. If I come through your door, you have already passed the test. If I don’t come back… if I am spending my time at your competition… I guarantee you it has more to do with your culture at the top than with some poor kid at the bottom, so stop being “that guy.” Your employees might actually learn to like you, instead of being terrified that the beatings will continue until morale improves.
ps. I just have to add this – I was just driving home a few minutes ago and my phone rings. Luckily I was not in Beaverton city limits yet, so was able to use my hand-free system and answer the call. It was a robo-call asking me to rate the service of business I had recently used, “Were you satisfied with our service? Please answer YES or NO,” so I roll my eyes and say loudly, “YES!” The robot computer (think free labor and zero personal touch) responded, “I am sorry, I did not understand your response,” so I hung up. Sorry there, boss man, the service was fine, but I am only going to give you a 1 out of 10 for being so flipping needy and annoying, and, according to loads of researchers and investigative journalists, the vast majority of your customers feel the same as I do.
We need to lose. We need to experience loss and failure… and take personal ownership of our trials. We need to know what suffering is so that we can appreciate success and comfort… without falling into the trap of believing a comfortable life is an entitlement. I am not saying everyone who loses will appreciate success, only that without facing real loss most people cannot appreciate success. Without real trials, most people are simply going to feel entitled to a life of security and comfort, even when they make consistently poor choices.
The Greatest Generation (Simply Doing What Needs Doing)
A century ago my great-grandfather, August Reitz, was the patriarch of his Wisconsin family farm. He lived and worked in a time when not only did he have to take care of himself and his family, he had to take care of his neighbors. All of the local farmers cooperatively joined forces at harvest time to bring in all the crops to ensure their mutual success. A farmer who did not work hard and did not give and receive help would fail. The very real possibility of losing everything was ever threatening. When the Great Depression rolled across the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s, combined with the Oklahoma and Texas Dust Bowl, America’s citizenry suffered huge losses. The U.S. Government responded to the crisis with the creation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a federal social safety net. In essence, FDR created social insurance so that Americans no longer had to suffer the full brunt of losses and failures. It only took one generation for the work ethic of August Reitz to began to crumble. The president who made the bold claim, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” was laying the very foundation of a society that would soon become consumed with fear of fear.
The Advent of Hedonism (It’s a Free Country, I Can Do What I Want)
In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy made this plea to America, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The New Deal was enabling Americans to indulge in selfish behavior, and President Kennedy’s January 20th inaugural address was a carefully worded chastisement of the newly emerging American culture, a culture that has since come into its fullness. President Kennedy saw that America’s safety net was increasingly being used as a crutch, an entitlement. Our survival no longer depended on making wise choices or helping and receiving help from our neighbors. We would just pay our taxes and leave the rest to Uncle Sam. That generation of the 1960s and the 1970s became the generation of hedonism. Our government and industry were gradually removing the risks from risky behavior. Welfare, birth control, antibiotics, drug rehab centers, abortion clinics, FEMA and the FDIC removed the risk of losing, creating a generation of hedonistic gamblers. Suddenly people could take the personal risks of princes and kings and have someone else pick up the pieces if they got called out.
The Advent of Greed (I’ve Got Mine and to Hell With Everyone Else)
This generation of self-seekers went on to have children who one-upped their parents, taking hedonism for granted. They wanted more. They became the generation of greed in the 1980s and 1990s, with their shameless manipulations of banking and financial markets. They took huge risks that finally ended with an American economic meltdown in the early 21st Century. Once again, instead of allowing the players to actually lose, Uncle Sam stepped in and bailed out the generation of greed with no real consequence whatsoever.
The Advent of Complete Entitlement (The World Owes Me an Effortless Life)
Sadly, the generation of greed now has children. Sadly, the prevailing attitude of the generation of greed is that their children must be protected from losing at all costs. Stupid parents, men and women raised in a false culture where losing is considered inhumane… men and women terrified of loss, and horrified that their children might ever lose at anything. So a bunch of soccer moms and sports dads got together and did away with keeping score and declared everyone a winner. Participation trophies for everyone! Last place is equal to first place! This generation of parents is also doing away with academic competitiveness, first by grade inflation in the public schools, and now by doing away with grades altogether. In essence, today’s emerging young adults live with the expectation that success should be redistributed evenly among winners and losers, among the industrious and the lazy. We have reached a point in our society where all the spiritually necessary lessons that hardships teach have been removed from the curriculum. A huge portion of American society now holds the firm belief that they have no obligation to help themselves, let alone help their neighbor. A majority of Americans believe they are entitled to be, at least somewhat, a burden to someone else, and are aghast at the thought of being responsible for themselves. We have become like children who expect sweets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and grow very angry when occasionally the food provided is healthy.
For instance, I recently had two insulin-dependant diabetic patients come to my pharmacy to get their insulin. The first, I will call him Dr. Dumas, had lost his vial of insulin and was terribly upset his insurance would not give him a replacement for free. Grudgingly, Dr. Dumas paid out-of-pocket, but moaned and groaned about the unfairness of it all. The second, I shall call him Mr. Sour, in a similar circumstance, actually went without his insulin for four days because he would rather die than pay an extra $50. Both Dumas and Sour are well-off, upper middleclass men. Both patients believe, on principle, they are entitled to have someone else take care of them. They both believe they are, in fact, entitled to be free of any responsibility for their own life, and become impatient and irritated when they find the rest of the world lacks sympathy for them. All sweets and no vegetables. All winning, and no losing. All reward and no risk. Security with no effort. Rights without responsibility. Tantrums when told otherwise.
This is an immensely false philosophy, and the Republic of the United States of America is crumbling beneath its weight. The majority of our political leaders are proclaimed believers in this philosophy because it gives them control over the masses. They know that in a society defined by entitlement folks will sell their very souls in order to maintain the illusion that they can be insulated from all risk and all loss. Illusion it remains, though. In reality, we are responsible to ourselves, for ourselves, and for our neighbors. Our souls, or psyches if you prefer, need to struggle and earn success in order to live a full life. Our losses, self-inflicted or not, belong to us, and only a fool fails to use the experience of loss for their own betterment. Every loss, every failure, and every trial represents a crossroads in our life where we have a chance to pick a better path. To hold the belief we are entitled to never experience any pains or frustrations, and that when things do go badly the fault and responsibility always lies elsewhere, retards our collective maturity, leaving us a society dominated by an adolescent mentality.
Unfortunately, making note of it here will not change the road we are traveling.