Why every order should be questioned

I suggest reading this post to the end, then watching the videos and reading the links. -DM

“Think for yourself, question authority.”

These words are more than an anti-authoritarian exhortation from Timothy Leary and part of an excellent TOOL song. It’s a way of interacting with the world that helps guard against charlatans and others who would seek to manipulate you. Lately I’ve noticed more and more people saying things like, “You should always do what a police officer tells you,” or, “If he’d only followed orders everything would have been okay.” This line of thought ignores human nature when wielding authority, and it’s the sort of mindset that leads to excuses such as, “I was just following orders,” a phrase which has been used to justify some of the worst abuses in recorded history.

“The experiment requires that you go on.”

The average person will administer electric shocks to the point of killing or injuring another so long as someone in a lab coat–a perceived authority figure–encourages them using the quote above. This was shown in the early ’60s, roughly two decades after the end of World War II, when Stanley Milgram’s experiments showed that 26 out of 40 subjects would apply a 450 volt shock at the urging of someone in authority, possibly killing the other participant (who was an actor, a fact unknown to the subject administering the charge). One of the purposes of this experiment was to show why the average German citizen didn’t do more to oppose the Nazi party.

Think humanity has improved since? The experiment was repeated in the UK less than a decade ago with similar results.

Surely this is a reflection of British culture, right? Modern-day Americans are no better, as shown by NBC in 2010.


(Click here to watch the full episode on NBC’s website.)

Why is default trust of authority such a bad thing?

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. -Lord Acton

This phrase was uttered hundreds of years before the Stanford prison experiments showed that even seemingly normal people possess the capacity for great evil. We owe it to one another to ask questions and to demand accountability regardless of title or social standing. If you see someone doing wrong, do your best to oppose them. That’s how to make a difference. One person acting alone can affect change. All it takes is questioning orders you believe to be wrong, and not accepting easy answers intended to shut down that line of questioning. Freedom of speech and of the press are so important that they were included as some of the very first protections delineated in the Bill of Rights, yet in a video posted just days ago, a Detroit officer violates the first amendment rights of a journalist who’s covering a protest. His excuse? “I’m gonna enforce what my supervisors tell me what to do.” This officer could have made the choice to uphold what is unambiguously written in the constitution, but he did not.

Stated simply, it’s in humanity’s nature to obey authority. In the eyes of many asking questions is discouraged and standing out is anathema. When these attitudes combine it’s a recipe for long-term disaster, a world where saying, “I was simply following orders,” is praised until hindsight turns it to castigation. It’s a world where we spend more time talking about fictional lives endangered by the information given to Wikileaks by Chelsea Manning instead of the very real Collateral Murder video showing US forces firing on a reporter, those trying to help him, and children. It’s the type of world where police officers murder people, mostly minorities, again and again (and again and again and again and again and again) and seldom face a jury, while many excuse their actions and blame the victims.

It’s time to admit there’s an institutional problem with policing in America.

It’s a problem cameras won’t fix, because there are now several examples where cops murder or abuse people on camera, put conflicting information on an official report, but still are never charged with any crimes. How many times has this happened with no video evidence? More cameras won’t do any good if the cops can turn them off or “lose” the footage, and citizens recording the police doesn’t do much good if they turn off the camera as soon as a cop demands it. The problem goes far beyond cameras and viral Youtube videos though. Part of the problem is accepting when a local DA with close connections to the police department calls a sham Grand Jury–in which the DA defends the accused–and then pointing to the result and calling it “Justice”. Justice is a trial, a cross-examination before a jury who has been selected after the prosecutor and defense attorneys have had cause to interview and excuse them. That is why you hear protestors chanting, “No Justice, No Peace.” Another part of the problem is the media portrayal of police as heroes, when in fact they’re as fallible as you or I. Yet another facet is a police culture that glorifies violence and views every person as a potential perp, an attitude which enables departments to abuse its citizenry and then sell t-shirts joking about it or encourages a cop to wave to the camera minutes after choking a man to death because the man deprived the State of tax revenue.

So there’s nothing we can do, then?

No, there are many things we can do! Amidst all this seemingly abysmal news there is a positive takeaway: many of the people in the Milgram experiment (and subsequent offshoots) expressed distress at their actions. There are also examples of police speaking out against their own (although it does not usually end well). Most of us have some sort of conscience. Even people who don’t are usually observed by those who do. If you see something wrong, at the very least record it. Report it to anyone who will listen. Go to the media, post it online, stand on a street corner holding a sign if you have to. Hold authority figures accountable, and to higher standards than those who don’t wield the same power. If someone abuses their authority they should lose it, not be shielded from consequences. Get involved locally. Call police stations that abuse their citizenry and demand answers. Don’t rely on mass media for your information (because they often distort or outright misreport the facts); instead be the media (or network with those who are).

A healthy skepticism of those in authority helps ensure a free society. All it takes is asking, “Why?” It’s a good start, anyway.

“He committed two felonies: he was black, and he was running.” – Racism and Law Enforcement

No, the quote in the title of this post isn’t about Michael Brown

A parent's nightmare

A parent’s nightmare

Although Michael Brown’s tragic story and the subsequent events in Ferguson, MO are the most recent manifestations of this pervasive and long-standing attitude among those in law enforcement. A couple months ago I (unfortunately) spent some time with a former deputy. This person related a story about the time they shot a black man while on duty. While telling the story this person was laughing and showed zero remorse, noting, “He committed two felonies: he was black, and he was running.” The person then went on to talk about cuffing a black inmate to a large drain in the floor of a jail cell and leaving him there for several hours, and how there were cameras in the jail but all the cops knew where the blind spots were so they could rough up inmates without getting caught.

Never trust law enforcement

Always be on your guard and record any encounters with police if you can, because if it’s your word against theirs you’ll lose every time. Think I’m being paranoid? Time and time again (and again, and again, and again [<- text is followed by graphic video showing man being tasered to death in police custody; don’t watch it unless you have a strong stomach]… ok I’ll stop now since the point should be clear) we’ve seen police assault or kill innocent people, often with no charges or consequences after the fact. Before anyone says, “Not all cops are bad,” I suggest that anyone who witnesses this sort of behavior and covers for it is a bad person. If individual cops wish to be considered good then they need to start actively working against those who are breaking the law, abusing the authority of their positions, and murdering unarmed citizens. I will start to believe good cops actually exist when they show up in Ferguson, MO from neighboring towns, counties, and states–in uniform–and stand against the barbaric, twisted fucks who are currently terrorizing an entire community in the name of “law enforcement”. Until then, film the police, document everything, and continue to demand they be held accountable for their actions.

Badges don’t grant extra rights.

Operation Arduous: Avoiding a cubicle at any cost

I haven’t updated this thing since last year. LAST YEAR. So much has happened since then. Each major life event should merit a post of its own, but my to-do list is long enough to be scary so I’m going to do the flash recap version.

In November 2013, I was involved in attempts to unionize my workplace. Those attempts failed, and I thought little of them until I was walked into an office on May 1, 2014 and fired without cause (May 1 also happens to be an international labor holiday, which I doubt was a coincidence). I had never been written up and had received nothing but positive feedback from customers. So far, unemployment has been . . . interesting. I got a bit of a severance (primarily consisting of my remaining paid time off), which I used to pay my rent ahead several months. Since that’s my biggest expense it has been great to not have to worry about it, but I’m still not entirely sure what I’ll do once I have to start dropping nearly a grand a month just to have a roof over my head. Maybe I’ll get a roommate, or maybe I’ll end up living in my car. Still paying for the car, so that’s another expense. So it goes, I suppose.

Speaking of the car, in June and July I took a 6,000 mile road trip to Ohio and back. It was amazing, and I got to see most of the friends I’ve missed since I moved to the west coast. It was nice to visit, but it really cemented my desire to never live there again. I am not sure if I’ll stay in Portland, but I know I’ll never move back to Columbus. Not to say it isn’t a great place, because it is, but I think there comes a time when you have to move on.

Let’s see… what else? I am dating an incredibly rad girl who’s a marine biologist and a talented artist. I’ll definitely be posting more about her in the future! I opened an Etsy store selling vintage stuffs, have done a few (and hope to do more) IT projects, plan to launch a few gigs soon on Fiverr, want to have some t-shirts for sale by the end of the month, am trying to get some music recorded and for sale, and of course I’m still selling books. (I published The New Jefferson Bible in July 2013, and it had the best month of sales so far during July 2014. That was neat!)

All told I’m working pretty damn hard for someone who’s out of a job, and the goal is to be self-employed for good once the dust settles. I call this Operation Arduous: Avoiding A Cubicle At Any Cost. Cubicles are life-sucking monstrosities, and I am done with them. I am tired of working for feckless middle managers who wouldn’t know integrity if it face-fucked them. Most importantly, I am done working for assholes (at least assholes that aren’t me). The one constant truth in my career has been that no company actually gives a shit about you as an individual. Oh, they’ll give you the standard corporate spiel about how they value work/life balance, are “people-centric”, and offer all sorts of ridiculous amenities (such as an in-house masseuse), but they will toss you out the same as the garbage the second it suits their bottom line or if you threaten the status quo in any way. At-will employment is a joke. An employer shouldn’t be allowed to get rid of you just because they don’t like you, and especially if they don’t like you because you tried to start a union and spoke out against their attempts to cut corners around the law.

So yeah, can you tell that I’m a bit burned out on working for other people? I’m sure it’s clear as I’ve made no effort to hide it. The short term goal of Operation Arduous is to avoid a cubicle for at least one year: May 1, 2014 to May 1, 2015. I’m about four months in, so 33% to my short term goal so far. The long term goal is to never again sit under the droning whine of a fluorescent lights, surrounded by carpeted walls, wondering if your unqualified manager is going to be in a bitchy mood again and find a way to take it out on you. Want to help out? Buy a book or some vintage swag for your domicile! Or you can donate some bitcoin (address: 1CDMbPHqhBGqhikuux4DxJFMEaAUs9G17f) if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m also open to suggestions on how to (legally and ethically) make money.

In which Thom Hartmann destroys Eric Hovind, creationist dumbass

Eric Hovind, well known creationist idiot (not to be confused with his father Kent Hovind who’s currently serving time for tax fraud), was recently a guest on the Thom Hartmann show. I like Thom’s program a lot, but haven’t listened to him in some time. This video is definitely worth the nine minutes, if only to hear Hovind’s ridiculous assertions that evolution claims mankind evolved from rocks and bananas. It’s a claim Kent Hovind first made (see the first paragraph in this section of the wikipedia article for Kent) over ten years ago, and it’s just as intellectually dishonest now as it was then.

Jesus Christ, Marie, they're minerals

Hovind also claims that the earth’s population growth is proof of a young earth. Keep in mind that this is a high-profile media appearance, so there is no doubt Hovind is trotting out all his best arguments . . . and his best arguments are apparently that evolution teaches we come from rocks and/or bananas, and that the population growth of humanity proves that we all descended from a single family after the christian god killed everyone else in a flood. I don’t even know how to respond to the first “argument” (it’s painful to even call it that) with anything other than mockery, but if you don’t understand why the second “argument” is also profoundly stupid, here and here would be great places to start. The first link is from 1986, so it’s nice to see Hovind using arguments that were discredited only a few years after I stopped wearing diapers.

How do these sorts of hucksters–the Kent Hovinds, the Ken Hams, the Ray Comforts, and the Ron Wyatts–keep finding people who are so willing to accept the bullshit they peddle? It’s a failure of education in this country and proves that the old adage is true: apparently a sucker really is born every minute. I used to be one of those suckers until I started looking things up and realized the “proofs” these guys offered were demonstrably false. Even if you believe in this claptrap there is hope for you yet, just as there was hope for me. Realize that if we destroyed all religious holy books and every science textbook in existence, we’d some day remake all of our scientific discoveries, but no religion would ever be recreated as it had been. Educate yourself. Start here.

A better name for christianity

Colbert on the 'Christian Nation'

Courtney posted this quote on facebook earlier today. I’ve seen it before, but it got me thinking: why aren’t some American Christians more Christ-like? Despite being an atheist, I think I have a fairly decent understanding of the moral teachings of Jesus. Last year I compiled a new version of the Jefferson Bible in updated English, which included a lot of reading of the first four books of the New Testament in the Christian Bible, also known as the Gospels.

Each of the first four books paint a slightly (or vastly, in the case of John) different picture of a man (or God, though in some accounts he makes far fewer references to divinity) named Jesus. I’m not religious and haven’t been for a long time, but if you aren’t familiar with the story you can read it for free online. Start at the beginning of Matthew and keep going to the end of John if that’s your thing. If you are familiar with the story, you should read my re-creation of Jefferson’s work (available for free at NewJeffersonBible.com), because it paints a very rare picture of Jesus as a person.

I’d be interested to see someone take only the words of Jesus and list them in order, Matthew through John. None of the exposition, none of the descriptions, just the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian Bible. I would imagine it’s quite different from modern American Christianity in a number of fundamental ways. So, based on this, I propose a new name for the current batch of American evangelicals loudly proclaiming their own righteousness: Paulists. There are a few Catholic orders that use the same name, but in this case that’s an added bonus because many evangelicals don’t see Catholics as “real” Christians and will hopefully work harder to avoid the distinction.

Who is Paul? Well look, I’m no historian. Wikipedia has an article about the guy. The tl;dr is that Paul was originally Saul. He hated the early Christians and persecuted them fervently. He supposedly had a vision while traveling to Damascus in which a bright light appeared and he heard the voice of Jesus, who said Saul was being a bit of a prick. Jesus then made him blind (because who doesn’t love a major trauma?) and apparently sent another guy to gather up the bumbling blind Saul. When the guy appeared, Saul regained his sight and realized he was wrong, Jesus was the bee’s knees, and he changed his name to Paul and started spreading this story around to everyone who’d listen. That’s a paraphrase of the story, you can read it yourself if you want all the specifics. Acts 9:1-19.

Full stop. I’m about to get a little contentious, but it’s not as if people haven’t provided alternative narratives to established religious doctrine before. Look at how religion is used. It’s used to control people and keep them in line. Saul was already a religious guy, then this new religion comes along. The founder died and isn’t around; they say he went up to Heaven. You can bring a lot of clout to the table as far as your family and connections (Paul was a Roman citizen and had many contacts in Judaism circles, having been born into a family of Pharisees). You get in on the ground floor and get to shape the direction of this burgeoning movement. You had a vision of Jesus, after all! Who will question the things you say?

For a religion called Christianity, an awful lot of it is based on Paul. There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament. The first four deal with Jesus. Thirteen of the books–more than half of the books not directly dealing with Jesus–were purportedly written by Paul. Jesus talked about the poor, Paul talked about a woman not having authority over a man. Jesus spent time with the people at the bottom of society’s ladder, Paul wrote what is the only mention of homosexuality in the New Testament. Jesus turned over the money-changing tables in the temple and fought against the religious leaders in his day, Paul became a top leader in the nascent religion formed in the name of someone who wasn’t around to contradict his teachings. It’s clear that Christianity is a misnomer. Paulism is a much more apt name. If Paulists in this country start acting more like the person they call Jesus Christ, then maybe some day they can earn the label “Christian” back.

Sweat Man (the worst superhero ever) [flash fiction]

I wrote this after seeing a prompt on a writing community. Prompt: “You have THE most useless superpower. Write about a day in your failed / hilarious / successful / ludicrous attempts at heroism.” Here is the result.

# # #

“So, you’re telling me you woke up yesterday morning with a new superhuman ability, and your power is that you get sweaty?”

“Yep, but there’s more to it than that. I can do it regardless of my physical state. Lounging in bed, riding in the elevator, standing in line at the grocer, I can sweat during the most mundane tasks you can imagine, even ones requiring no physical effort. I can stand in a walk-in freezer and sweat as if I just completed a triathlon.”

“That is so dumb,” my friend Keith replied, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “What’s the point?”

“The point? Watch this,” I said. I closed my eyes and felt the perspiration manifest on my forehead. I wiped my hand across the expanse of skin, gathering a handful of my salty excretion, and slapped Keith in the face.

“OW!” Keith exclaimed. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his button-up shirt. “Dude, what the fuck?”

I smirked. “That’s right, bitch. Don’t diss the Sweat Nap.”

I was surprised by the volume of Keith’s laughter. After he stopped laughing he said, “Sweat Nap? Is that your superhero name? Wow, man.”

“Yeah, it’s like wet nap, but with swea–”

“No, I get it,” he interrupted. “Still stupid.”

“Look, it’s still a work in progress. Think you can come up with anything better?” I demanded.

Keith looked up at the ceiling, rubbing his chin with his hand. “Hmmm,” he said. “Sweat is salty, right? Like sodium chloride? How about ‘The Psycho Sochlo’? Or maybe ‘Lean Mean Saline’?”

“Jesus, Keith,” I said, pounding the countertop of the bar. “I want villains to be scared of me, not seek me out when they need to clean their contacts. Come the fuck on, dude.”

Keith opened his mouth to reply, but before he could speak there was a slam from the front of the bar. Both of us turned to see the door resting against the wall, open. In the entryway stood two men dressed entirely in black, wearing balaclavas and long jackets. “Shit,” Keith whispered. “Anarchists.”

“Oy mate, we’re the black blocheads,” the taller of the two said. He swung his arm out from under his coat. He held a sawed off shotgun in his hand. “And we’re here to free you from the bonds of your capitalist oppression.” The shorter man standing next to him grinned lecherously and brandished a knife.

“Uhhh,” I said, unsure of how to respond. “We’re both unemployed, guys, so we’ve pretty much already been freed from our capitalist fat cat overlords.”

Keith laughed. “Yeah, what he said. Plus, we already spent most of our money at the bar.” He motioned across the wood platform that separated us from the rows of bottles. We all looked, but the bartender who’d been standing there was nowhere to be seen.

The taller man stomped over to Keith and slammed the barrel of the shotgun against the back of his head. “Shut the fuck up, cunt, and give us your wallets!” he yelled.

Keith rubbed the back of his head. He glanced at me pleadingly. It was then that I knew I had to make an attempt to save us with my new-found power. I closed my eyes and began to summon the sweat. I could feel it gathering on my forehead, on my upper lip, even under my eyes. It began to run down my face, but I knew I’d have to do something more drastic if Keith and I would make it through this night alive. Focusing all my concentration on the liquid that was sliding toward my chin, I began to imagine it as a stream–no, a mighty river–springing from my forehead.

I opened my eyes and felt my head forcefully jerk back as a stream of sweat with the diameter of my forearm burst from face. It washed over the two men, drenching them with liquid. Thinking quickly, I aimed the stream at the eyes of the taller man, then those of his shorter companion. The two men started screaming and rubbing at their faces.

“It burns!” squealed the shorter man. He dropped his knife with a clatter and hopped around, rubbing his eyes with both hands.

The taller anarchist grunted and started shaking his head wildly. I stood up and smacked the shotgun from his hands, then bent over and grabbed it. The two men rubbed at their faces for another minute, and when they opened their eyes they were staring down the short barrel of the shotgun. They looked at me with shock and I said, “You two are all washed up.”

“You’re so bad at this,” Keith groaned from behind me. “But, uh, thanks for saving me.”

I turned to him and replied, “Of course, man . . . don’t sweat it.”

 

Stay tuned for the next episode of Sweat Man, wherein our intrepid hero is trapped in a box of silica gel by his newfound arch-enemy.

What grief means to me as an atheist

When discussing the different paths which lead to non-belief it’s interesting to see how much variation there can be, and what so many of us have in common. One thing I have in common with many atheists is that I used to be a christian. Another thing I share with a number of people is that I’ve lost loved ones. My story is not unique in several ways, but my own journey has been strongly tied to death and loss–because they are immutable aspects of life–and I assert that my search to find realistic and reasonable ways to cope with loss led me to my current worldview, and that I am a better person for it.

I could write an entire book (and someday will) about the things that brought me to this point, but my first experience with loss was in the third grade. My friend Nicole died after her father fell asleep while smoking a cigarette and burned the house down. She was afraid and hid under the bed. I remember asking my dad why it happened and he responded, “Daniel, everything happens for a reason.” I don’t recall the rest of the conversation, but I do remember wondering what reason there could be for her death. Even at such a young age I knew there was something fundamentally wrong with that answer.

My dad and I lived in the country, and I’d ride my bike to the baptist church a mile or so away each Sunday to sing in the choir. If one can imagine how warmly I was greeted, coming sometimes without my father and happily singing with abandon, then one might be able to understand how appealing aspects of christianity were to me due to positive feedback and association. They also talked about “God’s Plan” as if that were the answer to any and all questions.

September of 1990 was a bad month for me. At almost ten years old, I came home from school to find my dad with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. To this day I can tell you exactly what I said: “Oh God, please don’t let my father die. Jesus, save my dad.” I said this before even calling anyone. Needless to say, that prayer went unanswered.

That loss is what led me to become stronger in my faith as a christian. My earthly father was gone, and I replaced him with the heavenly father promised by christianity, one who was all-powerful and would never leave. This persisted through my late teens, during which time I studied the bible and helped lead youth groups. I was in the worship band at church and was the president of the christian club at my high school. I wrote christian rock songs. Eventually, I started attending an apostolic church. Though it is embarrassing to admit, I have spoken in tongues and at one point in my life unquestioningly believed it was possible to heal someone by laying hands on them and praying.

Shortly after the end of my junior year, a good friend and fellow church-goer hung himself, but he didn’t die. His mom found him and performed CPR until the paramedics arrived. He ended up in a coma in the ICU. This really got the holy rolling among the faithful. I remember prayer sessions in the church, people standing up to say that god had spoken to them and said he would heal this young man. I remember sitting at my friend’s bedside in the hospital, singing hymns and reading the bible to him. I was convinced god would save him.

Isaac Asimov said, “Properly read, [the bible] is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” After my friend died a handful of weeks into June of 1998, I spent the rest of that summer reading the bible. I started at the beginning and read straight through to the end. By the time I finished I no longer believed in god, though many months passed before I was able to admit it to myself or others. Christianity, the very thing that had given me solace in my younger years, became hollow and unfulfilling even as I had yet to emerge from adolescence into adulthood.

One of the most difficult things with which to come to terms was relinquishing the idea that I (my soul, anyway) would live forever. By extension, I had to let go of the hope of seeing those I’d lost and spending eternity with them in paradise. I struggled with this for some time. These and other thoughts brought me to despair. It was a difficult period because there was still a part of me that desired the ability to believe these things, but there was no part of me able to implement those beliefs in any meaningful way. I no longer believed, and no amount of prayer or soul-seeking could change that. It forced me to come to terms with my thoughts on death and loss, and what it really meant to grieve for a time and then move on without the benefit of consoling myself with the promise of a reunion in an afterlife.

Recently a good friend of mine passed away. He had spent the last decade here in Portland, but was originally from South Carolina. His family held a memorial there, which left many of us with no way to mourn the loss of this wonderful person. The night he died I spoke on the phone with people all over the world–Qatar, England, Australia, and other countries–who counted Greg as a friend. As I spoke with those who loved him, I realized they, too, would need to mourn and grieve for their loss.

For me, grieving has always been a social process. I seek out others with whom to share stories and hugs. When my fiancée passed away in 2011, my way of coping was to spend the next day calling her friends and loved ones to let them know what had happened. There were so many who cared for her, and a Facebook message or email just seemed so impersonal, even cruel. It was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done, but I will never forget the kind words and memories shared that day. I remember wishing at the time that I could do it in person, that I could wrap my arms around them and sob with them, that I could look them in the eyes and tell them that eventually things would be all right.

I did something similar when Greg died last week. I was on the phone with people I had never met or even seen, laughing and crying as we shared stories of our mutual friend. We were brought together by our shared affection and loss. Many of the friends Greg had were from the internet. He was a member of an organization that finds people who post animal torture videos online and turns them over to the authorities, and many of the people who knew and loved him were met through that group. As I talked to these people, I found myself wishing I could speak to them face to face or that we could all get together in a room and share stories of our friend.

We live in an age of unprecedented connectedness. The virtual world of the internet allows us to meet in real-time with people all over the globe, so we decided to do just that. The organization Free Geek was kind enough to allow the use of its facilities, and we had a virtual memorial there on Saturday, July 27. With a combination of a chat room and live-streaming video (special thanks to Steven Olsen for helping me figure out how to live-stream a Google Hangout), people from all over the world gathered and shared stories of our friend, read dirty limericks (he requested this before he died), listened to Greg’s favorite songs, and generally had a great time.

We did not need a church and a minister or even a funeral home and an officiant, all we needed was technology and the shared love of a dearly missed friend. I’ve been to a number of funerals and wakes. As far as memorials go, this one was the most fun I’ve ever had. I want something similar when I die, an event that brings people together regardless of their location and is as geeky as possible. While there’s a part of me that wishes I could believe I’ll see my friend again someday, I am moved by how many people thought him an integral part of their lives and honored to be able to put together a memorial that paid tribute to his memory, personality, and life.

Our remembrance and celebration of one another is the closest we will ever get to immortality. The chat transcript and video from Greg Traylor’s memorial were saved and are available at http://greg.overtgeek.com.

In memory of my friend Greg

When I first met Greg, he was living on the streets a few blocks from my office. I hadn’t been in Portland long, maybe nine months, and he had posted to the Portland subreddit about losing his job, then apartment, and eventually becoming homeless. He seemed like a nice guy, and I get an hour for lunch, so I offered him a meal and conversation. I had just started my job–in fact I was able to afford lunch because I’d just received my first paycheck–so I was still in training and working a 7-4 shift.

It looked a lot like this (because this is it).

It looked a lot like this (because this is it).

Greg was waiting for me outside as Old Town Pizza opened their doors. We sat in a cozy elevator shaft that had been converted to a dining area. He brought his laptop and showed me some of the things he’d been reading. (At this point I don’t even recall what they were, I only remember being impressed that he had a number of interests spanning multiple disciplines.) We talked about technology, politics, and human nature while eating warm pizza as the late February wind rattled the windowpane. After lunch, I returned to the controlled comfort of my office building. Greg went to a coffee shop until it closed, then spent the night on the sidewalk.

Truth be told, Greg could have been one of my coworkers. That’s what I kept thinking after meeting him and talking with him for an hour: he could have been any number of people I’ve worked with over the years. It’s a bit overwhelming to realize that, save for a different set of circumstances and poor decisions, you or someone you consider a colleague could be living on the streets. One of the things Greg kept mentioning was how difficult it was to find social services to help, though he did say there was an abundance of food to be had for those who could not afford it. What a sad thing to be proud of in a first-world country.

We spoke often. I’ve known him for a year and a half, and looking back through my inbox there are over a thousand messages traded back and forth between us. Some of them are short, such as, “Sounds good! See ya soon.” Others are long, rambling paragraphs about teaching crows to collect change that would then be donated to charity, how best to hide your trail online in the new reality of constant electronic surveillance, or funny stories from our pasts. He met my girlfriend and she loved him. He was so charming it was almost impossible not to. Even the dog loved Greg, sometimes seemingly more than me.

<3

<3

He found a few different places to stay for short amounts of time, including with us for a few weeks. We live in a quiet cul-de-sac in the suburbs, and I think he missed being in the middle of the frenetic energy that flows through downtown Portland. A friend of Greg’s was kind enough to put him up in her basement while he worked to get back on his feet. During that time, he began to volunteer at Free Geek with more regularity, and would come to teach several classes. One of the things so impressing about Greg was how adamantly he desired to help others. In my belief, this desire is what led him to work with the Animal Beta Project and to teach classes at Free Geek. Looking at his reddit history, just a month ago he commented on a post to leave encouraging words to someone dealing with depression. Even while his own life was falling to–no, was in–pieces, he gave of himself.

There’s so much more I could say about him, and I’m sure I will eventually. Right now I simply hurt. I don’t hurt for myself, though there is a degree of pain because I’ll never see my friend again. I hurt for those who will never get to know Greg, for the people who would have walked right by him sleeping on the sidewalk without giving him a second thought, for the people who weren’t there when he needed them the most. I hurt because I am no better than this to others. I walk by people every day who sleep wrapped in newspapers and threadbare blankets. You become desensitized, maybe even to the point you don’t consciously recognize they’re there. But they are there. They are people. Most of them are probably very different from Greg, but they are still worthy of some basic aspect of human dignity.

I’m also angry. So damn angry. Over a month before his death Greg had an accident, followed by another a few weeks later that put him in the hospital. Both of these accidents occurred at least in part due to mental health incidents. I told them as much at the hospital. Since I’m not related to Greg, I had no legal or medical pull while he was in the hospital. He was admitted with a broken arm, broken ribs, and an ankle swollen to the size of my bicep. They wanted to send him home that same night. If you know anything about the American healthcare system you know why. Greg had no insurance. I firmly believe this was a factor in the quality (and quantity) of care he received.

The hospital kept him overnight, but only after I made a big stink about the fact that he lived alone, was in a physical condition that greatly reduced or eliminated his ability to care for himself, and would likely end up dead if he had another mental health incident that resulted in injury. Even talking caused Greg to gasp in pain. They discharged him the next day while I was at work. He wasn’t even able to walk or use his arms, and they tried to send him home with only crutches. He had to beg for a wheelchair. They said those costs are typically paid by insurance or out-of-pocket. Neither was an option for Greg.

I met up with him last Wednesday. We went to Safeway to get a prescription filled. He couldn’t afford the $13 cost. I don’t know if there are social programs out there that could have helped him, but I do know he was not in any shape to take advantage of them without some outside assistance. I am happy I was able to be there for my friend, even though I wish I had done more. How many others have no one? We talk about people falling through the cracks as if they were breadcrumbs in grout or coins dropped down a sewer drain. It’s so much messier, nothing but absolute apathy in the face of the meat-grinder gore of reality. Wednesday was the last day I saw Greg. I think I was the last one to see him alive. I’ll never see him again.

I’m ashamed of my country–the richest one in the entire fucking world–for not having it together enough to catch people before they are broken, sometimes irreparably, by hitting bottom. I’m ashamed of the society that demonizes those with mental illness. While I admit a bias against organized religion, I believe that it is an actual demonization, a holdover of the archaic belief that ill minds are caused by evil spirits rather than chemical imbalances that helps to propagate this attitude. Those with mental illnesses don’t need to be ostracized. That’s the opposite of what’s necessary. They need help without judgment. They need us to give a damn. We are failing this group of people in innumerable ways, and the consequences of it are immeasurable, the losses staggering. I’m ashamed of my fellow humans. I am ashamed of myself.

My friend also struggled with addiction. Some who deal with mental illness self-medicate. This tendency can be exacerbated when suffering from other medical conditions that bring chronic pain. As a non-believer, Greg expressed to me a number of times how uncomfortable he felt in most recovery programs, almost all of which demand an acknowledgement of a higher power and are steeped in other religious language. Overcoming addiction requires peace and support. He did not feel he had either.

I didn't know Greg back when this picture was taken, but I bet we still would have been friends.

I didn’t know Greg back when this picture was taken, but I bet we still would have been friends.

It’s so hard to see what drugs can do to people. I love Greg dearly and do not wish to tarnish his memory, but I also think it’s important that people know what it does to not only the drug user but to the people who care about him or her. It got to the point where I wouldn’t give Greg money, but would instead go with him to buy things. Courtney and I would take him to the grocery store for food. He and I took the MAX to Pioneer Square to buy him a Trimet pass. My friend Greg would have never lied to me; the junkie in him would have said whatever was necessary.

I remember telling Courtney at one point that I didn’t feel qualified to help Greg, that I am just a geek, not a doctor or a psychiatrist or a social worker. He likely needed all those things, but he also needed a friend. I’m glad I could provide that to him for a time.

Illegitimi non carborundum. Don’t let the bastards wear you down. I love you, Greg, and I’m really going to miss you.

So it goes.

If you or someone you know is battling addiction or mental health issues, please seek assistance. (If you’re a non-believer, contact the Secular Organization for Sobriety.) If you’re feeling depressed or having thoughts of taking your own life, please call 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE. If you believe someone you care about is contemplating ending their life, please talk to them. Show them you are there. Their lives may depend on it.

Five lessons I learned while self-publishing my first novel

I released my first novel about three weeks ago (as if any of you who know me don’t already know that).  Holy cow. I feel as though I’ve given birth.  There’s a weakness in the core of my being, a memory of exhaustion that has seeped into every moment of the past eight months since I first began the book with, “First days were always the worst.”

Turns out the days after aren’t much easier.  It’s funny, I actually wrote that line because I was dreading beginning a novel.  What if I failed to finish?  This was an especially embarrassing thought since I told almost everyone I knew of my plan to write a novel in a month’s time for NaNoWriMo.  Even worse, what if I succeeded and everyone hated the finished product?  But I had already committed:  Updates posted and discussed on Facebook and Twitter, the news already shared with family and coworkers.  I could not back down.  I had to write a book, even if it was terrible.  For inspiration, I purchased No Plot? No Problem!, a book by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty.  Even though I had a (semblance of a) plot, I figured it couldn’t hurt to see what wisdom I could glean from the guy who came up with the idea of knocking out 50k words in 30 days.  Imagine my surprise when I found this quote near the beginning of the book:

“Even if you’re the worst writer in the world, at least you’ll have the evidence.” —Padgett Powell

Inspiration?  Hell, I had found my mantra!  I set out to write a book, and now had discovered a short phrase to repeat to myself when I was hating the words on the screen, to drive myself to continue even as I wanted to throw my work-in-progress–maybe even the whole computer–into the trash.  Am I the worst writer in the world?  I don’t think so.  I’m not the best either.  But I have a finished book, and that’s an accomplishment in itself.  Now I’ve had to switch gears from author to salesman.  I’ve never been a fan of sales.  Too political, too amoral.  To make matters worse, there’s a lot of conflicting data out there about how best to proceed as a newly self-published author, such as whether or not KDP select is worth giving Amazon exclusive rights to your ebook for 90 days, where and how to advertise your book, even arguments about different methods of ebook formatting.  I’m far from an expert on any of this stuff, and I’m still figuring out more each day, but here are 5 lessons I’ve learned the hard way while finishing my first novel.

  1. Finish the book!  Absolutely none of these tips matters if you don’t actually finish the book.  Don’t let yourself get hung up on the details.  Need to research something?  Put in a placeholder.  Stay consistent for easy searching at a later date.  I use brackets, so I would leave notes such as “[research how often the subways run in NYC]”.  One of the biggest challenges is completing the first draft.
  2. Edit.  Then edit some more.  Done editing?  No, you’re not.  Edit it again, slacker!  One of the biggest criticisms of self-published works is that they tend to be poorly edited.  This goes beyond simply checking for typos.  While a small number of typos and errors will be overlooked by many readers, especially if you have a compelling story, you need to make sure your finished manuscript is as error-free as possible.  If you’re a first-time author, your readers are much less likely to buy your future works if your first release is lackluster.
  3. Put your best foot forward.  You know the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”?  It’s a saying because people judge books by their covers.  Whether it’s on a bookstore shelf or in search results on a website, the book cover is the first impression many people will get of you and your book.  It’s not necessarily a matter of cost, either.  I’ve seen $1000 book covers that look terrible, and some of the budget covers I’ve seen have been anywhere between acceptable and amazing.  For decent budget covers, check out Fiverr.  There are other options out there as well, which leads to the next point.  Mine was done by MW Messina.
  4. Google, as always, is your friend.  I know research can be overwhelming, especially in subjects such as these where there is so much data out there to consider.  That said, a LOT of smart people have done this before.  Some of them have even written about what worked for them.  Don’t reinvent the wheel; use their success (and their failure) as a blueprint for your own method.  Try to take the best parts of what has worked for other people and make their tactics yours.  There is nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants (or even people who are just slightly taller than you).  There are a number of author forums on the internet that are full of people willing to help.  Find one you like.  I try to spend some time each day reading posts on the kboards writer forum.  William Hertling’s Indie & Small Press Book Marketing is a great primer and contains a lot of useful information.
  5. Don’t rely too much on friends.  I love my friends.  They’re wonderful folks.  I’m honored to know many people with a variety of talents.  The thing about talented people is that they’re often busy with their own projects.  Talented people are also not known for their consistent follow-through.  I’m a musician.  I’ve been the flaky artist-type person before, so I can’t fault people too much for this.  Even if money is involved, there’s a chance your friend may not give your project the priority you feel it deserves.  If you have a good working history with your friend this may not apply, but ultimately you may find it less frustrating to go with a stranger whose portfolio includes work that speaks to your vision.  It’s also easier to be demanding of a stranger than a friend, at least for me.

Again, I have barely scratched the surface of the self-publishing world, but these are the five most important lessons I’ve learned after releasing my first book.  It’s not gospel, just things that worked for me.  I hope they work for you, too.  Another great resource is Reddit.  Here’s a bookmark I use for several different writing related subreddits.  If you have other suggestions you’ve picked up along the way, please leave a comment!

Free books!

It has been a crazy couple of weeks. I’ve been going non-stop since I released The Lightcap, but that’s a good thing. It’s taken a lot of work, but I’ve got my book on the shelves at four bookstores in Portland, one in Vancouver, and at my local library. I’ve got three book readings scheduled for July and hope to record an audiobook version within the next month or two. In addition to all this, I’m still rocking the full time job and a couple other side projects.

One of those side projects is a book review site. It’s interesting . . . I spent $12 to register the domain, slapped the page together in about a day, and now I’m getting free books! I have so many free books to read that I’ve been forced to turn a few people down. I started the review site because I’ve had a lot of difficulty finding places that are willing to even consider reviewing self-published books, and many of the reviewers who list themselves as willing to accept solicitations from independent authors never wrote me back. I don’t fault them for it–after less than a week I’m already swamped with submissions from self-published authors–but it’s still a bit of a bruise to the ego.

So as an homage to my hometown (Columbus, OH . . . 614 area code represent!) I’m offering the ebook version of The Lightcap for free all day today. I’m also kicking off a month-long giveaway on Goodreads. I’ll be giving away three paperback copies of the book. The giveaway ends on July 13. If you wish to enter, you can use the form below.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Lightcap by Dan  Marshall

The Lightcap

by Dan Marshall

Giveaway ends July 13, 2013.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win