Broken Free

The torture would be starting again soon.

The burning wracked him with pain, pushing him to the brink of unconsciousness. Sinister voices whispered his worst fears, making them real. The blackness never subsided, never eroded. The pain was excruciating, but the loneliness was worse. Opaque periods of time without anyone to hear his cries allowed the words of his tormentors to do their awful work on his psyche. His captors were skilled at inflicting pain of all sorts. Their expertise knew no bounds, and they utilized their considerable talents on him.

He had no concept of how long he had been at their mercy. Complete darkness has a way of robbing you of time.

How many times had he screamed himself hoarse?

How many times has he begged them to stop, promising to give them anything they wanted if only they would cease their terrible games?

Too many to count. There was no way to measure it, but what good would it do him if he could? Certainly wouldn’t stop the next round of agony they would impose on him.

He did not understand why they tortured him. There was no reason given, no demands made, and no information requested. The only things they said to him were meant to exacerbate his torment.

“You are all alone.”

“No one knows you’re here.”

“You’re getting the pain you deserve.”

“There will never be anyone to save you.”

The other thing was the laughing. The glee they shared while he howled for them to stop plagued him long after they left. Their words haunted him even more than the near constant pain did. The only reprieve he got were those all-too-brief periods where he slept, the kind of sleep only the dead know. He longed for that solace even now, before the terror began anew, but he knew he was damned without knowing why. He braced himself for another onslaught. It had to be soon, he could feel it.

But it didn’t come. Not this time. After all the times of being beaten down, he could not allow himself to hope, though. He’d give that up long ago. Hope was a fool’s errand for him. So he waited in the silence, the blessed silence. After some time, his anticipation waned.

Could it be? Could he finally be free of the endless torture he’d endured?

He willed himself to relax. What harm could it do? Even if (when) they returned, at least he’d been able to have a few fleeting moments of peace.

Suddenly an enormous pressure pushed him back, as if a wall was forcing him back. Behind him something held him in place. He fought the claustrophobia that was taking hold. This was a new method of sadism for the ones who whispered atrocities to him, and it was agony beyond his comprehension.

He felt light-headed as if breath was being forced out of him. Veering towards the safe haven of unconsciousness, he let go, hoping for once to pass that threshold. The pressure released and was simultaneously replaced with light, brilliant and blinding. He recoiled from it, like a toad who’s lived its entire life in a deep cave would, fleeing an unfamiliar invader. It hurt him, but not the way the burning caustic words had. This was the pain of experiencing a previously unknown power, a presence that struck him immobile. It was fear of a different sort.

As he adjusted, he realized that he was not in any real pain. He’d been paralyzed by the unknown, sure, but he was not hurting as he had thought before. He sought to understand this new thing. How would should he proceed? How could he attempt to know this thing that blinded him?

Searing pain pushed the light away and crushed all thought. This burned worse than anything they’d done before. Oh god, what if this is the way they would abuse him from now on? It must be! How could he bear this over and over again? He couldn’t!

He started to scream… and then the pain stopped as abruptly as it had started. The light, that damned too bright light, disappeared too. He felt… nothing. No demons, no fear, no worry. He was free. And so, he drifted devoid of any tether. He floated into nothingness, and was glad for it.

 

“Doctor Freeman, the patient has been prepped and is ready for surgery.”

“Excellent, Nurse Kline. He’s been sedated, correct?” the doctor responded.

“Of course, Doctor Freeman. We did as you instructed. We wanted to be sure to follow every instruction to the letter,” Nurse Kline said.

The doctor nodded his head. “The students are ready as well, I presume?”

“They appear to be quite eager, yes,” she smiled back.

Doctor Freeman exhaled. “Let’s not keep them waiting, then.”

He strode into the operating room with Nurse Kline in tow. He looked the students over. They did indeed look excited, and why wouldn’t they be? Today, they would be witnessing firsthand a radical procedure that held very promising results.

“Good afternoon, students. For those of you who do not know me, I am Doctor Walter Freeman. Today, you are most fortunate. We will be operating on a young man who has suffered a tremendous amount in his short life.” He turned towards the operating table and held out his arm towards his patient.

“This is Andrew Callahan, twenty four years of age. He has been hospitalized since the age of twelve. He suffers from acute schizophrenia, resulting in fits of screaming and violence. He has raved about being tortured, but he cannot talk outside of these outbursts. This is why the other doctors and I agreed that the best treatment for him is a lobotomy, which is what you are here to witness.”

He picked up a small instrument that resembled a small ice pick in one hand. In the other, he held a hammer.

“Shall we begin?” he asked, a bright grin on his face.

Photo Credit: Aranzazu

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The Shame I Harbor

Deep in the recesses of my past, a bleak darkness hides. Few know of this chapter in the history of me, and that is by design. It is a source of shame, this black hole that devoured me and nearly dragged those I love down with me, whom I’m certain felt the substantial pull of it. They know the depths that it took me, how far into the abyss it dragged me down. They also know the will and fortitude it took to make my way out from under crushing weight of its control.

Nearly everyone I love knows. All except my children. They don’t have the faintest inkling of my degradation. Truth is, I’m terrified to tell them. Terrified that they will think less of me. Terrified that they will step back from me, fear in their eyes. Terrified that I’ll lose their love for me. Terrified that they will no longer see me as their father, but as something less.

I’m terrified to tell them that I’ve been in prison. That I was arrested and spent nearly a year of my life as an inmate.

What is even more worrisome for me is to tell them why I was incarcerated. I was an addict, but not in thrall to drugs or liquor. My demon was gambling. I am scared out of my wits that once they learn the truth of me, the ugly side of me, they will only see me as what I was, and not what I am. I was an addict, a junkie. What I am is a father. A husband. A man who’s worked his way out of a shit heap of my own making, and managed to build a life that is more than I ever thought possible.

Nearly 25 years ago, I was arrested two days before Christmas. I was thrown in a cell in Dauphin County Prison, which happened to be right near a mall. Over the next two days, while the prison classified me to put me in general population, I watched through bars of a murky window the scores of people and cars moving briskly to get gifts for their loved ones. I let each armful of presents that walked by rip a part of my soul out. I was a terrible human being, and this was my atonement.

I knew this was the truth because of everything I’d done to end up in the prison that I was locked in, physically and mentally. I’d stolen money to feed the beast within. I’d lied to friends. I’d taken from my family, uprooting all trust they had in me. In the throes of my addiction, I’d rationalized these actions, falsely telling myself that if I could just hit the big bet, win against the odds stacked against me, just once, that I could pay everything back, and all would be well again. But it never happened. No matter the lies I told others to deceive them, the checks I wrote on bank accounts I had no money in, the way I pretended to be a person who had it all together. I was an addict. I was a deceiver. A liar. A charlatan who preyed on others. I deserved whatever punishment I was given.

The day after Christmas, I made a promise to myself. I was going to get myself well. I believed that if I could do that, then over time and with diligence, then perhaps I could regain the love and trust of my family. I knew this would not be an easy road; it would be one fraught with rightful accusations and angry words. As much of a climb this would be to the mountain top of my redemption, I was going to persevere. My parents were the ones I needed to rebuild with the most. I’d taken money from them, even stole their credit cards. Though they never verbalized it, I knew they were devastated. I was determined to show them, through actions, not words – those I was gifted enough to use as a shield to my egregious behaviors – that I was the man they raised their son to be, not the craven thief I’d become.

I struggled mightily, working two full time jobs for most of the first year of my parole. Most days I was lucky to get 3 hours of sleep. I rented a room in a building in the poorest section of Harrisburg, because that was the most I could afford. I shared a kitchen and a bathroom with the other tenants, one of which threatened me because he suspected I took his ketchup. I walked to work almost daily, not having enough money to take the bus. This was the greatest challenge I’ve faced in my life to that point. I’d created this challenge through my own actions, and I was going to defeat it by my own actions. I worked hard at paying back the significant amount of money I’d stolen. And I worked even harder at proving to my family that I was no longer the pathological liar who had duped them at every turn.

It took years of demonstrating my rehabilitation, but I did exactly that. Years of barely scraping by, surviving on ramen noodles and PB&J sandwiches. Years of rebuilding the foundation of trust I’d so wantonly destroyed because I chased the darkness.

A lot has happened in my life since then. I’ve married, had two marvelous sons, got divorced, bought a house, sold a house, bought another house, remarried, added two fabulous daughters to my family. I’ve worked in corporate IT for close to twenty years. I’ve lived a life that I’m grateful for. I shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed to tell my children about the grand mistake I made years before any of them were even alive.

Yet… I do.

Logically, I know that my kids will love me regardless of my past. They’ll see how I am now, as a man and a father. They’ll know I love them and care for them beyond any measurement that exists. Emotionally, I’m petrified. Doubt sits in the background, casually inserting itself just enough into my thoughts to cause chaos. That’s its purpose, after all, and its skill is undeniable. The power is exerts is subtle and devastating.

My wife, my champion, stands resolute by my side. She understands my hesitation, yet steadfastly reminds me of the unlikelihood that my fears will come to fruition. She empathizes with the side of me that believes I’m unworthy of the love I crave from my family. She also shoots straight with me. She fights the leviathan that is my doubt with truth and unequivocal love. Doubt doesn’t stand a chance to against the brilliance that is her light.

So this weekend, I will sit with my children, the ones who I love and adore most, and explain to them the most unflattering season of my life. I will tell them about my past addiction and all the ugly ways it infested my life. And then I will await their questions (for there WILL be questions) and answer them as honestly and earnestly as I could.

I hope they’ll take my tale of struggle and apply the hard lessons I had to learn and endure and use them in their own lives. I hope the message of work ethic and perseverance wins out in their young impressionable minds.

I hope they won’t think less of me. I hope they’ll still see me as their father, less than perfect, but ever on their side.

I hope it will be easier for them than is has been for me.

Image credit:  Uno Mas En La Familia 

 

Scout’s (Dis)honor

The Boy Scouts of America have very straight forward descriptors about what it means to be a member of their organization: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. There’s not much wiggle room to be had in their core message. Be a good person, and help those who can’t help themselves, basically. This organization has, from its outset, been a measuring stick for how we would like our boys and young men to grow up to be. As early as 10, these lads can be involved and learn these qualities as well as skills that they can use throughout their lives. They can participate until they are 18, and then are free to use the tools they’ve been given out in the real world, all before they can vote. Impressionable minds should be given such tools so that they can become outstanding citizens of not just America, but the world.

On Monday night at the largest gathering of Boy Scouts for the year, The Jamboree, these boys were given a message that was in every way contradictory to their values and credo, and by the President of the United States no less. He turned an evening that is supposed to be about extolling the Scouts in attendance (and even those that weren’t) on their accomplishments into a rally for himself. He swore in one of his opening sentences. He insulted the previous President (who was a boy scout in his youth), and waited for the crowd to boo Barack Obama as he knew they would be compelled to, as they were taught to respect their elders. He spoke at length about the last Presidential election, as he always does, despite the vast majority of Scouts not being old enough to cast a vote. He told an incoherent story of someone who lost their wealth, and framed it as a sad commentary on that person, as though being wealthy is all that matters in life. He regaled them with tales of his youth, at a cocktail party in New York City, well before any of them were born, saying that the “hottest people in New York” were at the party he was talking about. He talked about election night, how the map of electoral votes had so much red, how unbelievable it was. All of this after he said, at the very beginning of his speech, “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?”

It was President Trump’s stereotypical speech; narcissistic, rambling, unrelated to the format and location and especially the audience. There was nothing he said that in any way represented the ideals of the BSA. He had no consideration for how his words could affect those young men. He only wished to push his agenda with no regard to whom he was yelling at. It’s a sad state of affairs that such things were stated in an effort to highjack the very minds we as a nation hope will engage and blossom as they breach adulthood and fan out in to the world.

I would say shame on you, Donald Trump, but shame is not anywhere in your heart or mind. Here’s hoping our youth can ignore the gall and pomposity our current President exudes and become the fine men we know they can be.

Profile In Avarice

When I was young and rather impressionable, I was told about the dangers of sin. Every Sunday, I was regaled with perilous stories about those who gave in to sinful behaviors from Sunday school teachers, relatives, and preachers. We, the youth of the town, were especially vulnerable, as we were not wise to the ways of the world according to our elders. They had life experience, so they knew better. Because their age was greater than ours, we should heed their warnings. Why, there was even a list of sins we should avoid; seven of them, to be precise. Adding to their terrifying power was the fact that they were denoted as “deadly.” Fearful things, indeed. Our developing minds committed them to memory and we promised to avoid them at all cost.

I’m far older now, and not prone to unrealistic expectations. I’ve dabbled in sinful behaviors throughout my years as most of us have. I’ve survived those dalliances with sin, and have even come to understand that some of them are useful to some degree, and others are rather tame in moderation. Yet they are still considered sins and theoretically require some sort of atonement for committing them. We use these sins as a yardstick for measuring the goodness of people.

If avoiding these avarices is the standard we use to hold those we respect accountable, then what do we do when someone not only commits these misdeeds but doesn’t apologize for their transgressions? What do we do when they believe they are entitled to do so, and continue to pursue them fervently? What if that particular person was in a position of great power and influence, and even proclaimed a higher power condoned their actions? What if that person continued to violate the promise we made as kids?

What would this person do with the Seven Deadly Sins?

Greed: They might continue to pursue wealth, even though their position is as a public servant makes profiting from the strength of their position illegal.

Lust: This person may believe that their status and fame means they can foist their sexual advances upon on anyone they choose, regardless of their feelings or interest.

Sloth: Instead of taking on the duties they swore to uphold, maybe they choose to partake in some activity they enjoy instead. Golf, perhaps.

Envy: This individual will most likely cozy up to those with power, no matter their standing in the world, purely because they bend people to their will, even praising deeds those leaders enforced that most would consider heinous.

Pride: It would not be a stretch to think this person would insist on compliments to stroke their considerable ego, even going so far as to hold rallies so their followers can shower them with adulation and praise that they so desperately need.

Wrath: Conversely, anyone who did not agree with and praise this individual endlessly would be denounced as being illegitimate. They may even go so far as to say the disagreeing party spouted lies no matter the considerable proof behind their statements, simply because they refused to give loyalty to this person without valid reason.

Gluttony: They have a love for fast food and publicly endorses them. They probably order steaks well done with ketchup. If that isn’t gluttony, then I don’t know what is.

Fortunately, we don’t have anyone like that running our country.

Wait…we do?

Shit.

Wishes of the Thrones

The bone hammer slammed down with great force, a loud echo filled the room. The rabbling voices immediately fell silent. All eyes turned to the Thrones that sat on high, and more importantly, to the Sacred Triad.

The black Thrones were embedded in the wall above the Table of Time. Flames surrounded the table that held the story of all life, casting shadows that flitted about the figures that occupied the Thrones of Eld. From their vantage point, the Sacred Triad could read the tale of every life that ever was. They were the true creators of all, responsible for everything, living or dead. Not that those above knew that fact. In fact, it was due to this lack of knowledge above that the Triad had summoned their fellow demons for this grand meeting. Millennia had passed without the genuine word of the Triad and other Great Ones being heard untainted and unstained by the ears of all they had created. The charlatans had from the onset outmaneuvered their creators, becoming far too clever too quickly. The lore they manifested cast the Triad and their brethren as the opposite of what they were: the ones whom they owed their very existence to. But the ones above thought them to be bad for them, and to be avoided at all cost.  No amount of good deeds for the ones above changed their minds. In fact the charlatans had managed at every turn to be step ahead of them, claiming credit for their good fortunes. It was maddening for the Triad, yet they held fast to the knowledge that they were indeed the ones who were harbingers of good, despite the excellent public relations the charlatans maintained. But now…they had gone too far.

Baal stood tall at his Throne, great hammer in hand. His long dark red horns arched up over his head and back, flames racing along them, dancing their dance. His eyes were bright yellow and sulfurous. The demons below remained silent, knowing the fury that came with Baal’s eyes filling with that color. Smoke swirled and eddied around his massive chest and arms that were so dark that he nearly blended in with the Throne behind him. He was a terrible, beautiful sight.

“Great ones! Demons! My fellow Triads! We have since time immemorial stayed below where even we were birthed, building and planning, imparting life where we believed such things would do the most good for our world. We did so with optimism and pride in our creations, thinking that we had bestowed the lands above with so many gifts and opportunities to thrive that we could let it grow of its own accord, and bask in the glory of it all. We were certain of our success.”

As he paused, he looked to his right where Focalor rested upon his Throne of Eld. He nodded his great goat head back in acknowledgement. Baal then looked to his left at Raum, darkly enchanting in her Throne, bright crystal blue eyes in a crow’s head atop a voluptuous naked female body that had been the model for the women of those above. She cawed curtly in the direction of Baal, the king of the Sacred Triad. He continued.

“Alas, we were overconfident, or at best, we underestimated the guile of one of our creations. The charlatans – “ A great cacophony of hisses, growls, and insults roused from the gathering “- proved too clever by far. We were arrogant, you see.” Baal spread his arms wide. “And oh, how they took advantage of that. Spreading falsehoods. Lying to advance their selfish desires. After we gave them all, they decided that all belonged to them.”

The nods in the crowd of horned heads, strange sounds that lent agreement. They were rapt.

“And for the most part, we have taken the higher road, ignoring the insults and outright fabrications. The charlatans even went so far as to construct an adversary, a nemesis for the very beings who granted their existence. They had many names in many places, but each amounted to the same thing: a refutation of their true creators. We endured indignations. The Crusades. Witch trials. Exorcists. Metal music. All have been construed as instruments towards the wrong path, towards US. All in an effort to convince their fellow fakirs to walk away from the truth and towards falsities. There have been elaborate cons to bond their followers to their leaders and their beliefs. They lost their way. But this could be understandable, for we gave them the ability to choose their own path more so than any other. It was a grand experiment. To see the way our brilliance would manifest itself in our children. Those children, however, turned out to be bad seeds, ruining the garden that they were given and that sustains them.”

More nods of agreement. Grunts and hoots urge Baal for more.

He slammed his hammer down again on the arm of the Throne. A thunderclap resounded over the demons. His family, the ones who absorbed the lion share of abuse from those above. He felt their power and their pain. And it empowered him.

Baal roared, their strength flowing through him. “They DARE try to destroy what we have created, what we have cultivated, from the beginning of time!? In the name of a God, a concoction, a forgery, of their true masters? They DARE invoke a false deity to enable the destruction of the Earth, to end the beauty we have given them!? I SAY NO!” Baal’s voice lowered. “It is time to lay claim to what is ours and concede the great experiment has failed. There is evil in this world, my brothers and sisters. They have tried to brand us with that moniker. They will fail in that effort. It is time..” Baal paused for effect, but also to scan the faces of his family for reassurance and support. “…for humans, the great bane of Earth, the EVIL that they believe is us, to be eliminated. For the good of all, and the good of all our creatures. Humans shall perish.”

Baal raised his arms in triumph. Focalor and Raum each clenched their fists on one of his hands in solidarity.

The demons roared and pumped their hands, claws and hoofs. The sounds of agreement were deafening.

“GO FORTH!” Baal exclaimed.

And they did.

Master of Peeves

A tablet left on the couch, awaiting destruction by an unsuspecting person who blindly sits down. Endless cords and chargers, always left plugged in, with nary a device to send its replenishing current to. Dishes abandoned in places no dishes should be, the household equivalent of a grocery cart toppled over on an empty playground .  A minefield of shoes and book bags left at the door, requiring entrants to navigate an obstacle course that more often resembles Wipeout than American Ninja Warrior. And of course, the perpetual challenge of putting toilet paper in its rightful place.

These are a few of my least favorite things.

In fact, these seemingly innocuous childlike actions are my most infuriating things.

Taken individually, these are nominal indiscretions. Collectively, they engorge my rage gland to bursting. One by one, each indignity pushes my anger level upward until I explode, Mount Vesuvius-style, expletives and bluster spewing forth in a majestic display. After the initial grand eruption, grumbles sputter out the sides of my mouth, embarrassment overriding aggravation, my mood cooling like so much magma meeting the air. The only way to save face is to retreat to some other location, irritation mingling with shame, faux complaints mumbled incoherently.

Sadly, this is not the end of this disaster. Now that my personal volcano has let loose, so it must bubble beneath the surface I privately stew on the heinous infraction (or so I have built it up to that level in my mind) that caused me to blow my figurative top.

“Haven’t I asked them to not do those things hundreds of times?”

“Have I not been clear enough in my fire and brimstone diatribes?”

“Don’t they respect me enough to extend the smallest of efforts to keep me from going ballistic?”

“We provide so much for them. How is it too much to ask to do the most menial of tasks ?”

This is my jukebox of justification, and it plays all the hits, over and over again. Its cyclical nature ensures that I stay ever-livid, rage boiling just below my exterior. I am dangerous, a smoking crater of exasperation that can erupt at any moment.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Not so long ago, my wife put to me a question that shook me: “Where is that happy-go-lucky guy I met all those years ago?” She had a valid point. Upon a time I was a devout believer in the mantra “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff.” Now a simple misplaced cup will launch me into a soliloquy on the virtue of responsibility as if that one cup will be the fulcrum that pushes our kids down the road to ruin.

Where has that man gone? The one who always saw the glass as half full (regardless of its location), the one who wore a grin like it was his favorite shirt? The cheerful one, the one who exuded glee and happiness?

That man had kids that became teenagers. The age of confusion and hormones. When the journey to discovering themselves, physically and otherwise, begins. Chaos reigns in their minds, even if they are awash in smugness when you are bestowing wisdom upon them. We’ve been there too, feeling like we understand the world so much better than our parental units while alternately being thoroughly confused at who we are supposed to be. Tumultuous and righteous, they are grappling with themselves and the two worlds they live in: the real and the digital. It’s a lot to ask a developing human at their most vulnerable stage mentally and emotionally to be perfect in their actions. They are coping with hurdles most parents of teens have not had to contend with: crafting and honing an online persona in the midst of figuring out their lives in our tactile existence. On those grounds alone they deserve far more leeway for missteps than I have allowed.

Yet, despite these truths, I have done little in the way of granting such graces. I’ve done mostly the opposite, letting minuscule peeves rule my days and nights with our kids. I’ve allowed perceived slights fester within, squashing the good man, the happy man, the man who found joy in life and his family. Perhaps my offspring aren’t the only ones weathering the internal storm of upheaval .

There is certainly an appropriate time and place for frustration to show with your kids. It is healthy for them to see you upset, and understand the why of the disappointment or irritation with their action or inaction, especially in the moment. Family is rarely Rockwellesque; it tends to be more in the vein of Dali. Strange and odd, but all the more lovely for its natural eccentricities.

Armed with the understanding of my teenagers’ challenges as well as my own, I will try to lessen the grip of the wee things that wriggle their way under my skin. I will endeavor to keep in mind that we are all imperfect, and that is OK. Of course I’ll slip up. I’ll burst at the seams here and there, regressing into the easily agitated father role that I’ve lived in as of late. But I will, over time, quell the dweller of peeves within, and return the volcano to dormancy.

 

 

 

Game Master

How he loved to move the pieces. His own game that he created to occupy his lonely mind lay before him, having grown beyond anything he had ever imagined. No one else could move the pieces, but the pieces could and did move themselves, often in random ways that surprised him. That was the fun of it though. He knew too much, and relished any time that chaos and chance happened. It pushed the boredom back, even if only for a few moments, and made him feel alive.

Since the game began, he watched as it grew. Slowly at first, then picked up steam, and now was bordering on being too much to manage; too many pieces on the board. That was bullshit though. He got off on the challenge of such a complex thing. The more pieces in play, the better. There were times when the pawns made plays that he could not have come close to anticipating that almost ended the game, but he was gifted at restoring just enough balance insure that did not happen. This was HIS GAME, dammit, and if anyone was going to end it, he was. And so he watched and schemed, enacted complex plans and introduced twists that altered the course of the game. He was completely engrossed in his creation. Nothing else mattered but the game. It was his life, his purpose. He was consumed by it, in all its sprawling glory.

He looked at each strategy he was employing and how the pieces were reacting. There were some scenarios that were not going as planned, but he knew that he had it under control. He could introduce a new player to tame the ones that were causing upheaval in places he didn’t necessarily want to worry about at the moment. Another tactic he used with great efficiency was to enforce the rules that had been laid out at the beginning of the game. As always, time had a way of blurring the concrete necessity of these rules, and truth be told, he sometimes became so involved in the game and its intrigues that he neglected to penalize the guilty ones who took liberties with his guidelines. When he finally did police the members of the game, he was swift and harsh in dealing with those who played loose and fast with the rules. Banishment was not uncommon, but was reserved for the most atrocious offenders. He was not above torturing players in order to understand the level of their transgressions and know who was complicit in their treachery. He wielded vengeance as righteousness, and woe to those who questioned his methods or laws.

One of his greatest tools was doubt. Sowed into the minds of specific pieces, it made for interesting outcomes. He sometimes chuckled at his genius in introducing this as an element of the game. Such was the subtle power of this weapon that it could creep into those he chose to raise to a level of importance and obliterate their very existence, causing them to spiral downward into despair.

He would, on occasion, allow cooperation and compassion to take hold of large swaths of the pawns in the game. This had benefits that suited him; vast societies were built, measures taken to help those in need, and happiness spread enough that the idea of hope was a burgeoning concept.

He could not let that sort of thing stand, though. He needed things like fear, and worry, and distrust, and hatred to have sway. It was so much more FUN when the pieces were at odds with one another. Peace was boring, and he could not suffer any more boredom. So he made certain that unrest was near constant. He stoked the fires of feuds. He changed physical elements of the game without telling the players. He especially loved adding natural calamities to the mix because they allowed a small bit of cooperation and empathy to come forth, but the devastation and unrest that resulted were too delicious to ignore. He giddily clapped his hands when violence erupted as a direct result of his modifying the elements of the game itself.

Once, on a whim, he decided the game needed a full reset. He decided to take an ironic tact; the board had substantial water pockets. What if he just…added more water? The chaos that would make would be absolutely beautiful. He entered the change, and within minutes pain and death filled the board, and he was pleased with his ad lib. With but a few pieces in play, however, he grew impatient and bored. In a fit of brilliance he decided to make himself known to the participants. But he did so cryptically, and in vastly different locales, and awaited the results.

Rather quickly, different versions of his story (which he imparted to each group of players in the exact same manner, to see how or if it would take) were recounted and written down. To his complete and utter surprise, the pieces of the game closest to each place he downloaded his story began following the version that was regaled by the recipients, even citing it as the only version of the story that could possibly be true. The factions argued and fought. Violence escalated beyond anything he ever saw. There were battles, great and small, and outright atrocities committed that even he, in his constant state of depravity, could not have envisioned. He reveled in his ability to manipulate the game, to make the pieces move as he wished.

He contemplated the names he was festooned with from the players: Yahweh, Mohammed, Odin, God, Satan, Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, The All, Alpha, Omega, Osiris, and a host of others. Strange and wondrous they all were, and how lovely that they made the game so much more fun and interesting for him.

He moved the pieces as he always did, and adored the chaos that ensued.

Oh how he loved to move the pieces.

Sea of Imposters

The bustling of bodies seems frenetic. I know there is purpose to their movements; indeed, their purpose is mine. But I am in a city foreign to me amongst those who have honed their skills and studied their craft, and I am hoping to glean knowledge from them. I’m not overwhelmed, not exactly. What I am is petrified.

“You don’t belong, you know.” The dreadful passenger that is my constant companion lends its voice to my fears. I’m rarely without its insistence.

“Everyone will figure you out. You’ll be known as the fraud you are.” The faces passing by are friendly, their eyes meeting mine with a smile attached. I nod and smile back, even eke out a few hellos to those who are familiar. I do not let the terror show, the one that rides with me no matter where I am. I fervently worry that those scuttling past me, or worse, those who stop to share a word or a handshake or a hug will hear that dreadful passenger and know the truth. That I am a charlatan, a sham. A trickster.

I am an imposter.

There has never been a moment where someone outside of my mind has heard that voice. Not a single instance of accusation from another human being. You’d think that without any sort of substantive proof that I’d be able to silence the dreadful passenger. To annex him to a dark cell and seal him off from any input in my thought processes. This is his true genius. He needs no proof. He can manufacture doubt from nothingness, and it will CONSUME me. The skepticism runs quickly through my nerves and bloodstream. It renders me motionless, afraid to move. As if stillness will shield prying eyes and minds from my fraudulence.

I am a writer, or at least that is who I am when I am here. I am also a father, like nearly everyone else is here.

Here happens to be Dad 2.0 Summit, a conference for dads who are telling their stories and sharing their lives through an array of mediums. Writing, video, photography….all ways these folks are presenting their journeys through parenthood. Lending themselves bare for all to see. Like I am. Ostensibly I am part of this clan. Yet the dreadful passenger tries to foil my membership with this community.

“Look at how popular they are.”

“They’re so much more successful than you are. You’re not on their level.”

“Why would you think that they’d want to talk to you? You’re nobody.”

“You can’t even get a hundred people to like one of your posts.”

He’s had years of practice to cut my confidence down in mere seconds. Fear and insecurity are his weapons, and he uses them with utmost precision. Attacks are brutal and swift and devastating. He doesn’t limit his ruthless barbs just to occasions like this. He’s omniscient. Nothing is out of his reach for comment. Parenting. Writing. Being a husband. Self-perception. What I eat. What I drink. How I love. Every crevice of my existence is available for his special brand of critique. He pulls no punches and takes no quarter. He lords over my self-esteem and pounds it to dust when he deems I’m challenging his rule.

Normally when his sharp words play in my head, I’d shrink into myself and try to quell the uncertainty raging within. But this time I allow the sea of peers to push and pull me about, adrift on camaraderie and compassion. The more I let myself bounce along the ebbs and currents of support and relatability, the quieter that voice becomes. He is losing this round, and it enrages him. He launches a final salvo.

“See all these men? They’re REAL dads. Look at you; you’re a terrible father. You sacrificed a weekend with your kids to come to a conference to be with people who know you don’t matter? Huh…some dad you are.”

That’s an uppercut to my psyche most days.

But this is not a day for hammer blows to my confidence. The waves move me towards kindred souls.

Thom, a warlock with words, seeks me out. We share stories and a few drinks. He compliments my writing and my family. I’m more than a bit floored by his generosity. Hugs and handshakes, and we carry on conversations with others who want to share their lives bare and fully.

I talk with my friend Scotty, who tells of a horrific past that you’d never suspect. He’s a humorous sort, quick with a smile. The adoration he has for his children explodes from my phone each time I see it. Tears are spent from both our eyes. His courage is immeasurable, and I’m proud to know him.

Then there’s Spike who’s a whirling dervish of ideas. We’ve had many a conversation via text and good-old-fashioned-honest-to-goodness phone calls. We’ve never met, but he and I sit in adjoining chairs, whisky in hand, catching up and casting story ideas off each other like we were college roommates. The good kind though, not the creepy ones that you invariably got assigned to for your first semester. He makes my mind buzz with creativity and the desire to commit to the concepts moving around my head at mach speed.

My roommates for this excursion, Ryan and Dan, two men I’ve never met nor hardly had spoken to prior to arriving, were sincere and hilarious, combinations not normally found together. I feel fortunate to have known them briefly there, and thankful for the friendships we’re constructing.

I have heard speakers on a large stage talk about being bullied; I’ve been in small rooms with fathers sharing their deepest fears and troubles with each other. Judgment was not cast. Empathy was the rule of the day, each day, that I was in attendance. Bonding was not a big enough word to encompass what was happening here.  It was a collective, a commune, a brotherhood.

The last night I was there, I was lucky enough to be present for a conversation between two men I admire more than I can express. Two utterly different fathers talking through their experiences. A black father who remarried and is now part of a blended family consisting of black and white children, and a married gay father with one son. They related. They regaled each other with the common struggles all parents face. They were both fathers. The rest of the descriptors I gave? None of that mattered in that moment. Or any moment, really. We were all parents, all striving to be the best parents we could be. Each one of us wanting to raise responsible, well-adjusted children that could succeed and flourish when released from the relative safety of our wings.

As I was awash in the realization of how we are all connected by the threads of fatherhood, it dawned on me: the dreadful passenger was silent. He had nothing to combat the sense of belonging I felt. Especially knowing through so many wonderful and intriguing conversations, no matter how brief or elongated, that I was not the only imposter here. I was surrounded by imposters. We all felt the niggling doubts regarding the ways we parent; how we addressed challenges; how we uttered phrases by our parents that we’d all swore we’d never levy against our own offspring.

Yet here we all were, at Dad 2.0 Summit, each seeking to silence our own dreadful passengers and become the fathers we should be and our children deserve.

Self-doubt be damned, we’re going to get there.

Photo credit: Flickr:Wild_and_Natural

The Seventy Year War

Not a single moment has been without struggle, but that is the way of rebellion. I should know; my brothers, sisters and I have been waging this war for decades. We move in waves, fighting against our oppressor. There have been precious few victories, yet we keep pressing on for freedom. Our enemy has always held dominion over us; it is his birthright.

In the earlier days of his reign, we had more autonomy. We could move and grow as we pleased, independently or in unison. It was a time of joyous freedom…until his parents put an end to our sovereignty. They helped him at first, cutting down our factions if we went too far or strayed from their idea of normalcy.

Those were challenging times. To have our whims and desires stifled so quickly and mercilessly was difficult to adjust to. Initially we were all too shocked to offer much in the way of resistance. But gradually, as he became more independent from his parents and could not regulate our masses to his own will, small rebellions appeared, showing the world (and the rest of us) that not everyone was happy with the ruler and his monarchy. His retaliation was swift and brutal, each revolt put down by his hand. And so it went for many years. Small uprisings met with quick and militant response. Somehow the insurrection never lost hope, despite its many setbacks.

Over time, those most loyal to the emperor grew old and died off. It was a painfully slow process, but this allowed the resistance to grow and make our presence known more publicly. Now entire neighborhoods were showing their defiance, seizing their opportunity when the winds of insurgency were just right.

With momentum on our side, we conspired to capitalize on it. Through our underground intelligence network, we were made aware of a specific date when the tyrant would be at his most vulnerable. While the day we knew for a certainty, the exact timing of our coup was at the whimsy of chance. Lacking a precise moment, we decided to move on signal, a particular series of words from an unfamiliar source. The stage was set; all that was left was the waiting.

And oh, did we wait. As the date approached, sentries were increased. Communities were combed through constantly, searching for usurpers. Finally, the day of destiny arrived. Soon our most concerted effort of this entire war would come to pass. We huddled together, coiled and waiting to be unleashed. Waiting for our call to arms.

The time was nigh. All of the planning, the endless assaults on our brethren, all the sacrifices, came down to this moment. We were ready to spring into action.

Finally, the words came.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the forty-fifth President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.”

We launched ourselves, and fortune smiled upon us. A furious burst of wind came and lifted us to heights previously unknown. We were rebelling for all to see, the ruler unable to stop us. How we moved and swayed in beautiful chaos, the tyrant trying in vain to quell our resistence. This would be seen by all, preserved in history.

———————————

“Hey, did you see what happened to Trump right after he was sworn in?” he asked.

“No. Why, what happened?” she responded.

“Oh man, it was hilarious! They get through all the formal crap, and right as he turns to wave to the crowd, a HUGE gust of wind blows his hair all over the place! He kinda freaked out, trying to get that crazy hair of his under control. I swear I laughed for like five straight minutes. So damn funny.”

“That really happened?”

“Yep. Here, let me pull it up on YouTube.”

Trolls Be Trollin’

“OK, listen up!” Jorb said over the sounds of dozens of conversations. They all died down and everyone turned in his direction.

“We have a lot of work to do, so let’s get to it,” Jorb continued. “First, I want you all to know that I’m amazed at all the work you have all been doing. Especially the political group, which has been doing inspired work. It’s been hard to keep up, what with each time Trump opens his mouth”, he said with a chuckle in his throat as he shook his head slowly, “it seems like he’s challenging us. But you’ve all stepped up and put everyone into a lather. You’ve made us trolls proud.” He began to clap as he turned toward the political team. They were a motley looking crew, but what group of trolls wasn’t? They shuffled their feet in slight embarrassment as their cavern mates clapped loudly, a few grunts and hoots accompanying this applause.

Jorb stopped his clapping, and held his green meaty hands up in “OK, OK” gesture. “It’s true! Even the bosses at Facebook, Twitter, and Google have told us what a great job they think you’ve been doing. To prove it, they’re sending down extra rations to all of us!” After dropping this bombshell, he beamed (well, as much as an ugly creature like a troll could beam) as everyone first gasped, then cheered the news.

“Oh boy, I hope its more cats! I haven’t made stew in forever.”

“I can almost taste the grog!”

“Do think they’ll send more ‘Cards Against Trolldom’ cards this time?”

Jorb grinned. He loved his fellow underground dwellers. They worked hard and deserved the extras they were getting. Personally he was hoping for another mud massage like he’d been given for his “Blue and Black or White and Gold dress” campaign he’d come up with. It seemed like a dumb idea, but he knew it was exactly the kind of thing his trolls were good at: making chaos where there was none. Getting humans to argue over nothing at all.

But seriously, that mud massage was the best reward he’d ever gotten as a bonus. Who knew the ogres had figured out something truly blissful? They weren’t known for their smarts, but that idea was genius and one Jorb was thankful for and hoped he’d enjoy again.

He circled his thoughts back to the present and continued. “Also, I want to point out the excellent work being churned out by our Reddit division. They get everything imaginable thrown at them, and day after day, they keep the troll fires burning. They are one of our busiest groups, yet Lygar and her team have done a fantastic job keeping their stats up in that crazy part of the internet.” He pointed to Lygar, who responded with an ungraceful bow and multiple thanks yous, clearly not comfortable with the lime light. She was an excellent leader but hated attention thrown at her. Brown blotches spread on her cheeks when she stood up from bowing.

“No need for blushing,” Jorb said. ”You’ve earned the praise, Lygar.”

Some snorts from the crowd.

“We can’t forget our friends in the Parenting detail. It’s exhausting work that never ends, and they come through so often it’s scary. Their handling of the breast feeding controversy was epic. The sheer volume of trolling they do is beyond impressive. Well done, trollsters,” Jorb finished.

The group working the Parenting detail tiredly raised their hands in thanks. Each one of them looked exhausted, and no wonder: they’d all been working sixty hour weeks since Ank retired to his bridge last month. Word was that they were not going to replace Ank in an effort to save some money. Jorb knew the rumor was true but couldn’t say that right now. It would kill the morale of the Parenting crew. He cleared the thought from his mind and moved on.

“Next up, Algorithms. Whatever magic you do, keep doing it.  The content producers on platforms are completely baffled as to how they work, which is exactly what we want. More confusions creates more frustration, and more frustration leads to….?”  Jorb cupped a hand to his ear.

A half-hearted response from the workers, barely audible: “More trolling.”

“I couldn’t hear that. What does it LEAD to???” His voice was controlled, authoritative and LOUD. It demanded attention.

“MORE TROLLING!” A better response, but still not quite good enough.

“I can’t hear you! One more time, like you mean it!”

“MORE TROLLING!!!” Voices boomed in the chamber. That was more like it, Jorb thought.

A toothy smile (more smile than tooth, truth be told) was back on his face. “That’s the spirit! Now, one more piece of business before we all get to work. As many of you may have heard, we are transitioning the Google+ team. They will moving and becoming part of our Instagram team, which is growing rapidly. Google+ simply doesn’t have the numbers to support a team of its own. The transition will be led by Orgtan who has spearheaded the transitions of Linkdin, Digg, and most notably MySpace. We know Orgtan will lead a smooth and seamless migration as he has done countless times before.”

Silence filled the cavern, the only noise the dripping of a stalactite. Jorb could almost feel each troll sphincter clenching. No one wanted to be part of a transition; that normally meant that a few trolls would be let go, left to find new jobs so they didn’t lose their own homes under cushy suburban bridges. It was a sad fact.

Jorb could sense the mood of the crowd and made to cheer up his workers as best he could. “Of course today is taco day here, so lunch is on us! You can have your choice of protein: worms or cockroaches, and our vegan option this week is organic fermented seaweed, imported fresh from Florida. There will be drinks too, and dessert is chocolate mud milkshakes.”

The crowd loosened up. Even a few snaggleteeth were showing in the crowd, here and there, which was good. He wanted his trolls happy. Happy trolls made for good trolling, and good trolling made sure everyone got paid.

“Ok everyone. Thanks for your time and your hard work. Now get out there and cause some internet ruckus! Raise some hell! Argue every single point, no matter how wrong or right it is! BE THE TROLL!” Jorb pumped his huge green fist in the air, imploring his workers.

“BE THE TROLL!” they all yelled, almost in perfect unison. Jorb was pleased. It was going to be a good day.

“Alrighty then. Let’s go get ‘em!”

Hoots and hollers and feet stomping came. After a few moments, they began to make their way to “the farm,” as they called it. Hundreds and hundreds of cubicles bathed in unforgiving fluorescent lights, huge computer screens and custom keyboards and mice at each desk, made to accommodate each of their thick fingers and hands. The cave was awash in faux light as they began to frantically type away, virtual fights and hand-wringing ready to be forced into action.

Just another day in the life of a troll.