You Don’t Decide

I thought I’d mix it up from my usual type of blog post. This is a free verse poem (or at least as close as I typically get to poetry) based on a writing prompt I did last year. I was thinking about people’s inherent value and where it comes from, and these words came to mind.

In the beginning,
the Maker stood and shaped the stars.
Whole galaxies set in motion,
ablaze and coruscating,
swirling arms to dance for
eons across the endless void.
White dwarfs and icy comets,
lonely moons and fields of asteroids,
and beneath it all
a single planet
whispered in the dark.

“Stop. I know what you’re doing.
You sculpt with finest chisels and paint with deftest strokes,
but the hands that brush a billion worlds should hardly pause for me.
Go fill those gaseous giants or shine those stunning rings.
Why should I boast land and oceans? Why make my air fit to breathe?”


But the Maker answered, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

Then he poured the rivers
to fill the jungle tropics
and cast fists of seeds into
the fertile mountain soil.
From clouds spun flocks
of birds awash with sunlight;
On waves rode fish as varied
as the islands of the sea.
Beasts found homes in every corner—
the marsh, the cave, the trench, the hill,
the towering forest canopy.
Yet man
spoke softly in the breeze.


“Stop. I know what you’re doing.
You anoint my soul and craft my heart,
but of all the wondrous creatures, surely I should not appeal.
Go climb with monkeys or sing with whales.
Why should I know self and purpose? Why burden me to rule?”


But the Maker answered, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

A thousand sunsets since we met,
but tonight’s the one that counts.
Humid air and untouched supper
and muddy streaks across the sky.
You speak as if it’s nothing;
you kiss my cheek and say goodbye,
but I block you at the door.


“Stop,” I say. “I know what you’re doing.
You’ll die for me and bear my shame,
but for once, my lord, you’re wrong.
Stand now with me out on the balcony.
Hear the crowds and catch their every slur.
My hands are stained without your bleeding,
my heart will grieve without your leaving.
I’ve cast my nets and found them empty;
I’ve torn seams no mortal hands can mend.
Die for the righteous! Die for the saints!
Die for the name of all goodness and virtue,
but I forbid that you ever d
ie for me.”

Your silence wraps my arms and pulls me down onto my knees.
Walls tilt and crumble, and space itself dissolves to form anew.


The Maker answers, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

The rarest painting is but oil on canvas,
and diamonds just stones pulled from the ground
until someone pays the price.

What price is there on man? I wonder.
What price is there on me?

He ascends and cries
My God
My God
Why have you forsaken me?

The terror of his question is
I already know the answer.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

 

Silent Killer, Mr. Anonymous

The Fake Quote Pandemic
and How to Fight Back

Anonymous.

No, I’m not talking about a computer hacker with a Guy Fawkes mask trying to steal your identity. I’m talking about the single most widely quoted person of our time.

If a quote’s any good, share it on the internet.            -Anonymous

Yes, the word anonymous has long been a convenient place holder to avoid the effort of tracking down an original source or to add some air of credibility to an inspiring text overlay. Yet this seemingly harmless act of attributing quotes to Mr. Anonymous has wide-reaching implications for the way we process information on the web. In the age of Fake News, internet users may be more gullible than they realize, and the problem starts off small.

Inspirational quotes remain one of the most ubiquitous categories of social media posting, garnering likes and shares no matter how many times viewers have heard the line before. Many marketing websites actually recommend sharing quote images as the number one way to engage with new followers, and the practice is not inherently bad—anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I do it too. Yet here’s where Mr. Anonymous makes his entrance. Sometimes anonymous gets slapped on to a popular saying or maxim that doesn’t require any citation. (At least people are making an effort to list some kind of source, even if it’s a meaningless one.) But the ease of anonymous presents a real danger, and that’s a lack of basic fact checking or common sense. While researching for this article, I stumbled upon this gem:

23323

How is this anonymous? It’s a Bible verse. Matthew 6:34 is in the quote! Unless maybe this person is making a statement here by doubting the authenticity of Matthew’s gospel, but then I’m struggling to reconcile any subversive attack on religion with the clear reference in the background image to the God’s-Carrying-You-Footprints-in-the-Sand poem. Either this is just ridiculous, or it’s part of some Matthew/Footprints conspiracy—we’ll probably never know for sure. (As an aside, “Footprints” has its own raging authorship debate with various claimants to the throne. Check out an article from the Gospel Coalition to see the full controversy.)

The problem, however, gets more serious when people leave out Mr. Anonymous and valiantly look for a real human being to whom they can attribute the quote. Not all wise people are equal, and a quote belonging to the likes of Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, or Abraham Lincoln will see far more shares on social media than those from less notable public figures. In fact, most people trust these names so much that they’ll accept a wise or inspiring quote with one of their names on it, no questions asked.

Consider these quotes, all of which I’ve found published on the internet.

“A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
-Albert Einstein

So the great frizzy-haired physicist was really into boats? Although it’s a clever saying, this line predates Mr. Einstein.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt / -Marilyn Monroe

Misbehaving in different ways, I suppose. Sadly, the saying gained popularity several decades after these two women.

“A house divided cannot stand.” -Abraham Lincoln

To be fair on this one, he did give a famous speech in which he quoted this Bible passage. So maybe we could write it like this:

“A house divided cannot stand.” -The Bible -Abraham Lincoln

xByII

Too much of Mr. Anonymous teaches people that they either (1) won’t find a source or (2) shouldn’t bother looking, and these are horrible habits to develop online. It often takes less than a minute to double check a source, whether it’s for a simple quote, a news story, or a compelling infographic. Don’t stop there, either. Comment on posts with misinformation, and respond when people unknowingly share hoaxes or fake stories online. I’ve posted three of my favorite fact-checking sites below, and feel free to join the conversation and comment with more. Before sharing anything on social media, unmask Mr. Anonymous and demand that the source provides its real name.

Some of my favorite resources:

Quote Investigator – Great site for uncovering quote origins
Snopes – investigating rumors in online stories
Politifact – fact checking politics
Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

17 Reasons I Hate List Posts

Number 13 Will Shock You!

It’s borderline epidemic. I’ll be at my desk, minding my own business while minding everyone else’s business on Facebook, when BAM! It grabs me.

The list.

10 Disney Movies Your Kids Should Avoid
22 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Vegan
99 Ways to Make $1,000,000 While Sitting on Your Couch

The ever-present clickbait soon drags me down into that dark rabbit hole of internet time-sucking. I admit it: Many a list has trapped me with its claws. So what’s my issue with the increasingly popular article format? Hold on—I’ve got a few.

1. I feel swindled.

Hoodwinked. Double-crossed. Downright duped. I’m halfway through “101 of Our All-Time Favorite Cat Memes” when I realize that my productive workday has transformed into a gallery of indignant felines. What happened? How’d I get here?

its-your-fault-595e49

2. Lists encourage my indecision.

Why can’t we have just one Best New Restaurant to Try This Summer? Too many lists and pretty soon I only drink beer in sample flights and want to know if extra cheese can go on a quarter of my pizza instead of the full half.

3. They insult my reading ability.

I can skim for relevant keywords without your bold title text, thank you very much.

4. The burdens are unnecessary.

Why do I need to worry about “where they are now” for all 25 women of The Bachelor Season 1? I didn’t want to know where they were then.

5. Actual burdens seem unnecessary.

My brain automatically categorizes “12 Ways Global Climate Change Will Affect Your Children” alongside “15 Foods You Didn’t Know You Could Microwave.” Oops.

6. The organization never makes sense.

This probably should have been my first point.

7. Random advertisements pop up in the middle.

this_space_for_rent_rectangular_sticker-r78bcd1767df64555b13d09fda9993922_v9wxo_8byvr_324

8. It’s hard to be original.

As Solomon said, there are no new life hacks under the sun.

9. They’re rarely controversial.

I prefer highly charged, one-sided political rants that I can post to Facebook without actually reading them. Really, nobody ever leaves amped-up five-paragraph responses to list posts. “9 Reasons You Should Start a Protest” just doesn’t fan the flames.

10. Talented authors sell themselves out.

Dear list writer: We both know you could create Pulitzer-worthy journalistic exposés, but we also both know your freelance blogging career is better launched through “23 Superfoods That Won’t Break Your Budget.” Fine literature, I grieve for thee.

11. I’m ashamed of how much Netflix I watch.

You want the truth? I clicked on “50 Shows To Binge This Weekend” because I wanted to. Because I can’t sleep without it. Because nothing in my life has been the same since Sherlock. Now go away.

next-episode-in

12. Those photo galleries where I have to hit the next arrow each time instead of just scrolling down and then a whole new window opens just because I clicked on something.

I can’t even.

14. I don’t trust lists.

“4 Fantasy Quarterbacks to Start This Week and 3 You Should Sit” all but guarantees I’ll start the wrong guy. But if I don’t click on it now, I’ll always wonder…

15. I like the idea more than the thing itself.

A post like “15 Ways To Improve Your Concentration” sounds good until I realize that I actually have to do stuff. Breathing exercises? I think I’ll just move on to “35 Workout Routines to Finally Burn That Belly Fat.”

16. They’re always way too long.

When I’m saying tl;dr to a list post, you know I’ve got attention-span problems. By the time I get to the bottom, I don’t even have the energy to troll the comments.

17. I still have hope for our world.

Stand up, dear reader! Raise your voice! We are more than just sponges to absorb whatever random bullet points these internet marketers decide to drop in front of us. Am I wrong to yearn for quality over quantity, knowledge over gossip, and cultivated discourse over mere stimulus injection? We must fight for meaningful content!

By the way, any good documentaries on Netflix?

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

Modern Mayflowers: Global Immigration

aka Where Are You Really From?

I remember watching the 2012 London Olympics and seeing one of my favorite athletes, Mo Farah of Great Britain, capture historic gold medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m. In a conversation later that week, someone asked me if I knew where Mo was really from, with a let’s-be-technically-correct sort of voice, the kind people use to explain that tomatoes are actually fruits. I had a suspicion where this was going, but I felt stumped all the same. Farah grew up in London (where his father was born), only ever competed on British teams, and has a decidedly British accent, so…Britain?

No, the person informed me. Mo Farah was born in Somalia and moved when he was a little kid. So, he’s not really British. Britain was only trying to claim him for the London games. (This isn’t just one person’s bias, by the way—the Spanish runner Fabián Roncero infamously argued that Farah’s European records should all contain asterisks.) I was born in Ohio but grew up in Michigan and went to Michigan schools, so should my high school track times have asterisks? Of course not. While I’m guessing that for most of my readers I’m preaching to the choir here, unfortunately, this kind of ethnic prejudice is alarmingly common. Sometimes, it starts with a simple misconception.

For one, some terms that many people use synonymously actually hold different meanings.

Nationality denotes a person’s affiliation to a particular country, most often through citizenship or another designated status (e.g. US Nationals). It’s a little complicated because not all nations have international recognition as states, and different countries have different requirements for citizenship, but in short, nationality means nation in a legal, official sense.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a much wider, looser term that can refer to any number of shared cultural traits, including language, heritage, or religion. Race refers to socially constructed groupings of physical characteristics that can (and do) belong to people of multiple ethnicities. Hispanic is an ethnicity containing people of many races; black could refer to a racial or ethnic identity depending on the context.

So why does this matter? With an increasingly global economy and international events like the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration and resettlement are worldwide realities. While the USA has long prided itself on being “a nation of immigrants,” its foreign-born population is relatively small compared to others. As many as 46 million people living in the US were not born there, but foreign-born numbers in nations such as Canada and Austrailia are even higher by percentage (Pew Research Center). In 2016, citizens from a whopping 143 different countries applied for asylum in the European Union, with Germany receiving the most applications (Eurostat). People have been migrating for all of human history, but it may be happening now more than ever. As first-generation nationals become second- and third-generation and cultures assimilate, narrow definitions of what a person must look like, sound like, and act like to be “from” a particular country must go out the window. Ethnicity entered the English language less than a hundred years ago, and while it’s served us in some ways, it’s also supplied obstacles to those holding multiethnic identities—by some arguments, that’s most of us.

In the coming decades, we’ll debate what it means to be German or Swedish or American with fascinating research studies and dissertations. Essays and artwork will display the beautiful, bewildering intersections of human experience. Starting right now, though, we must teach our current and future generations that people who look different can be from the same places. Nationality belongs to the whole nation, not just the ones who came first.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

In Search of Fairness

When the World Doesn’t Add Up

Educators and activists love to say, “Fair is not equal.” Susie gets extra time on her test but Johnny doesn’t. Sorry, Johnny, but Susie has a documented learning disability and needs this accommodation to level the playing field. So, it makes sense that “fair is not equal.” A quick Google search of the phrase results in a plethora of teacher blogs, advocacy pages, editorials, political fact-checks, and delightful cartoons showing short people finding ways to grow taller.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAkyAAAAJGQwNTVhZDFlLWJlNGYtNGEwOC1iYjE0LTg2ZGMwZTAxZTM1ZQ

This is why we have those extendable-pole fruit pickers, right? Or maybe the guy on the left could have just grabbed enough apples for everyone and avoided the whole issue, but, hey, this way each person gets to pick his own. Problem solved.

The danger, however, comes in oversimplifying the harsh realities of inequality. A trite suggestion that we all just stand on boxes until everyone sees eye to eye doesn’t exactly satisfy most economic and social disparities. The top 1% of the world owns half its wealth. People of color are overrepresented in prisons and underrepresented at top universities. Something tells me the stack of boxes to fix that one will be higher than three.

Interestingly, as a kid, my household exalted fairness. Video games had to involve taking turns. Every new toy had to be shared. If our family of four had a dozen cookies, our sacred covenant assigned three apiece. There was no first-come-first-served; if I wanted a fourth cookie, I had to obtain the rights to it through a complicated ritual of dinner-table bartering. In my rural, middle-class hometown, I’d never heard the term white privilege, but perhaps here was the finest instance of it. I grew up believing the world can and should be fair. Elsewhere in America, millions of people already knew the reality. I could list hundreds of examples to prove it, but I suppose this is one of those universal truths we don’t need to demonstrate. Anyone with half a brain and an ounce of honesty knows the world is not fair.

Really, though, this is where I get stuck. Privilege and opportunity are gifts that I have in some areas and advantages that I lack in others. Some of these gaps can close with hard work or change of circumstance while many cannot. There’s this version of me who wants to fix the system, to shatter ceilings and tear down walls, to find the exact right amount of boxes for us all to pick apples. At the same time, there’s this other version of me who calls himself the realist and thinks I should just be thankful for the apples I already have. Let others mind their own harvests. Then the blame-shifter: Not my orchard—I didn’t plant the tree. Then the deep thinker: What if not everybody wants apples?

Before I go too far with the metaphor, I need to stop and think about the goal. Are privileged people just trying to make others more like them? The implication of saying “fair is not equal” is that some other strategy would be “equal.” Yet maybe it also means that the goal of fairness is not equality, at least, not in the sense of uniformity or fitting a mold. Fair is seeing diversity, valuing difference, making college accessible but appreciating that there’s more than one road to reach a destination and more than one reason to go there in the first place. Fair is encouragement, means, possibilities. We don’t all have to grow the exact same tree, but we should all be able to garden.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

Image credit: Botelho, Rick. Equality doesn’t mean equity. Digital image. What’s Most Unfair about US Healthcare? LinkedIn.com, 02 June 2016. Web. 31 May 2017.

Stereotype vs. Archetype

And Why They Both Matter

Today’s topic for writers and students of writing: proper use of the archetype. The reluctant hero. The wise magician. The power-hungry villain. Yes, we know them.

Archetype: A typical and recurring example used as a model from which to build a character. Readers quickly recognize archetypes, allowing authors to provide context and backstory for their characters in only a few words. I say power-hungry villain, and readers think, “Oh yes, I know him!”

Not to be confused are stereotypes, or the widely held and oversimplified ideas of certain people. The power-hungry villain, yes, but not all villains want to take over the world. (Cue The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”)

Whenever I’m in an airport, I people-watch. Duty-free shoppers, low-battery outlet hunters, those efficient types who power walk on the moving sidewalk. Sleepless individuals zombified at the terminal, trapped in layover purgatory. Their clothing, facial expressions, juicy snippets of conversation. Hemingway said, “If a writer stops observing he is finished.” Everyone there has a story, and I try to figure it out.

For example, the woman by herself toting a purse the size of her carry-on, Kindle and neck pillow already out, is on her way to visit her parents. She bought the chips and bottled water at the snack stand; she’s comfortable, bored, and makes the trip a few times each year. Suit jacket guy is some kind of consultant making twice as much as me. It’s the end of the week, so I’m guessing he’s on his way back instead of on his way out. That family of four with kids glued to iPads, Frozen backpacks, and ziplock bags of Goldfish is going to Disney World—too easy, that one.

Anyway, to my point: Writers are detectives, deducing the logical, likely, and mundane aspects of a situation. After all, good characters are grounded in reality so that the inevitable twist in the plot comes with a willing suspension of disbelief. Certain universalities of the human experience tie readers to a story and allow literature to speak its transcendent truths. Readers understand the rebellious teen, the loathsome stepmother, the insightful mentor. Archetypes provide a framework, a proper syntax for the writer and reader to communicate. Conflict needs archetypes—the average office employee has no appeal until he becomes the workaholic father or the guy with a dead-end job lacking love or adventure. Readers know these starting points; they understand and relate to these problems.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, shut down a story instead of open it up. While archetypes provide background information to enrich a character, stereotypes limit and flatten them. The rebellious teen starts out okay until readers realize that their spike-wearing, punk-rock-loving, high-school-failing, parent-disobeying heroine is, well, just a stereotypical rebellious teen. Without anything fresh or unexpected, the story implodes. The characters are two-dimensional; the plot is no longer one to care about. Clever use of archetypes says, “Look, readers, you already know the beginning. Now keep going and find out where this adventure will take you.” Careless use of stereotypes says, “Look, readers, you already know the ending. So why bother?”

Back at the airport, my archetypes help me make sense of what I’m seeing. If I needed to know which gate is boarding a flight to Orlando, I’d do well to ask the Disney World family. Stereotypes, however, end the story prematurely. Assuming that the traveling consultant is an arrogant know-it-all? Well, I might miss out on a stimulating conversation aboard the plane. Real people are three-dimensional with story and complexity, and real characters ought to follow.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

Finding My Limit

Or, Why I Like Calculus

The speed of light in a vacuum is approximately 300,000,000 meters per second, meaning that photons from the surface of the Sun take roughly eight minutes to reach planet Earth. That’s a long time or a short time depending on one’s understanding of distances between celestial bodies, but it matters that it’s eight minutes and not seven. Nothing can hurry the sunlight; it’s going as fast as it can, and, still, it takes eight minutes.

There’s an epic moment in the movie Without Limits, the 1998 biopic of great American runner Steve Prefontaine. Bill Bowerman, Pre’s coach, shouts at him, “Be thankful for your limits, Pre. They’re about as limitless as they get in this life.” Pursuit of greatness can quickly turn into obsession: Pre once held the American record at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000m on the outdoor track, and still he wanted more. There’s something so tantalizing about a record. It taunts a man to go just a little bit faster, to push just a little bit harder.

In 1954, Roger Bannister recorded the first sub-four-minute mile. As of this writing, the current men’s record is 3:43.13 by retired Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj. Most experts would agree that a sub-three-minute mile is beyond human capability, but what about 3:42? Or 3:41? Following Bannister’s achievement, the world record dropped every few years, but El Guerrouj’s mark has stood since 1999. Perhaps sociocultural factors have lessened the global interest in distance running, perhaps elite athletes no longer carry that singular focus, or perhaps the world has already seen the fastest a human being will ever run 5,280 feet. Another decade will provide a hint; another century may tell for sure. It makes for an exhilarating thought experiment: Is mankind still reaching its greatest potential, or has the moment already passed?

Considering this question, it makes sense why I liked calculus in school. The mathematical study of limits, the convergence of graphs and patterns toward a single asymptote they will never cross—I saw my life in numbers. One of my middle school teachers told the class, “Boys, when your wife asks what’s the happiest day of your life, the correct answer is the day of your wedding. Maybe until your first child is born, then you can say that.” Not a lot to hope for once the kids are out of the house, is there? Maybe joy approaches a limit until a man’s wedding day but has a line it never crosses. Maybe my athletic prowess peaked in college, or maybe I’ll work out more in my fifties. Maybe my health has already reached its upper limit; hopefully my finances are a long way off.

This kind of talk depresses most readers, and it probably should. There’s a natural limitation to human effort: We are born invincible and gradually learn the truth. The child’s hand on the stove, the teen’s first broken heart, bad news at the doctor’s, a pink slip at the job. Paul writes of the thorn in his flesh, the one to which the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). So there is grace in limitation; God’s power goes beyond the asymptote.

I try to imagine a shape with no boundaries, and suddenly I’m thankful for my limits. I, too, have definition; I too am named. Light takes eight minutes to arrive here from the sun, and it’s well worth the journey. True power comes when I approach my limits.

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.

An Open Letter to My Students

From Your English Teacher

Dear students,

Some distressing news has come to my attention, and I must address it immediately. Apparently a rumor is now circulating our school community that I am, in fact, a “cool” teacher. I assure you—and those of you who’ve known my bad jokes and insistence that we always finish the lesson will heartily agree—that nothing could be further from the truth. Allow me to set the record straight: I may be friendly, but I am not your friend.

You see, friends will invite you to parties, show sympathy when you’re sick, and accept your shy moments when you don’t want to share. They will forgive your dumb decisions and random class outbursts; they will supply you with answers on the homework you forgot about and shrug it off when you turn it in late. A good friend will help you, rescue you, or perhaps even lie for you to get you out of trouble.

I will not.

No, I will ignore your headaches and stomachaches and call on you anyway. Keep your hands down and your heads on your desks—I will call on you anyway. Save your “I don’t know” unless you want to add yet. I will demand your respect for me and for others; I will require your effort on every assignment. Oh, and when you misbehave and I speak to your parents, I will throw you under the bus every time. Count on it.

Such harshness, however, is not without reason. I’m a little ahead of you in life, and that gives me some perspective. I need more from you than you currently give, and, trust me, you need it too. You might think you’ll be okay as long as you do your best—maybe someone has even told you that—but you won’t be. The problem with do your best, dear students, is that you have no idea what it means.

Right now, you think your best is just showing up on time and following directions. As long as you’re ahead of some peers, there’s nothing to worry about. You think your best is a five-paragraph essay, double spaced with a flashy title and word choices like mirthful and astute. You say your best is a 5/5 on participation, and you’re pleased with an A on your vocab quiz. Your best is meeting the standards; your best is fitting the mold.

It’s not.

Your best, my students, means taking a risk; your best goes beyond the horizon. My job is to push you when you’d rather be pulled. My job is to stoke the fire of your ideas that don’t quite fit on the page, to give you voice beyond the expected response, to help you read with questions and speak with answers, to develop in you a hunger for knowledge that a lifetime of learning could never satisfy. When someday you graduate from one challenge and move on to the next, when you create with your gifts and serve with your talents, when you make your marks on the world and see what still can be and not just what is, that is your best. Then I will have done my job.

I set the bar higher than you’d set if for yourselves because I know one day you’ll jump without it, and I want you to soar. So yes, you must use complete sentences, and no, we are not watching a movie today. I am the uncool teacher because you are more valuable than you know and more capable than you believe.

So ignore the rumors because yes, you do have homework.

Sincerely,

-Mr. Leonard

Click here for more lite posts (600 words or less) or follow @AuthorJLeonard.