I was very dubious when I saw the advent of such games as Rock Band and Guitar Hero. My thinking was, “Here is a way for people with no talent or discipline to indulge their fantasies of being rock stars.” This point of view was enforced by my utter lack of ability on any such games.

Now, however, as I walk by my neighbor’s house in the evenings and hear the Xbox-generated music blaring from their living room, I have taken a completely opposite point of view. The mass appeal of these games has actually done a great many positive things that I overlooked in my initial take. First of all, they have awakened an interest in a lot of great music that would otherwise be overlooked by the younger generation, songs from my generation and before that were sadly falling towards obscurity. Also, the games have reawakened an interest in music as an art form and avocation. The time people young and old alike spend belting out “Freebird” or “Carry On My Wayward Son” builds that flicker of interest that, in many cases, is growing into a flame of desire for the real thing. I’ve heard many, many people tell me how they either received musical instruments or are considering buying them after building their confidence through video games. Not all of these Keith-Richardses-in-training will stick to the real instruments, but even a few more would be a great thing.

Now, if somebody would only invent a video game for writing novels like they have for playing rock and roll. Sure, we have National Novel Writing Month, but frankly the graphics on that suck and you can’t unlock bonus stories by posting a high score. Maybe they’ll work on that for next year.

There are a lot of yardsticks you can use to decide when you have, in fact, passed over into being old. No one wants to think they are past their physical prime, but it sneaks up on you, an irrevocable tide of aches and pains and little sources of embarrassment. It may start with a few gray hairs (or a lot of gray hairs), a worsening of the eyesight, or the dreaded middle age spread. Still, I think I have found the true test of when one leaves youth and passes into maturity and that is music.

When I was younger, I used to keep up with all the current music. I slogged through the days of hair bands and boy bands, grunge and techno, new wave and everything else that came down the pike. I was like Forrest Gump, running running running to keep up with all that was new. I may not have liked it all, but I usually knew what it was.

But, also like Forrest Gump, I reached the point where I was tired and didn’t want to run anymore. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point I turned my back on the hip, the trendy, and the current in music, looked around, and decided I was going to backtrack for a while. Whereas I used to listen to all the Top 40 stations and such, keeping track of the Billboard lists, now I mostly listen to stuff so old that I can’t even remember when it was new. A good deal of it is older than me and the sad part is that the more of it I listen to, the more I like it. I’m barely into my thirties and listening to the same music my parents used to listen to when they were my age. Elton John, Bob Seger, and, of course, the Beatles have replaced . . . well, whoever is making hits today. If I look up who won Grammys this year, I don’t even recognize half the names and far less than half the music that won. And the Grammys are chosen mostly by people older than me who have no taste in music. Oh, sweet Jesus, what have I become?

And, to make matters worse, I’ve become a big fan of classical music, particularly while I’m writing. So, not only am I listening to music from before my birth, I’m listening to music from before the birth of the United friggin’ States of America. And jazz. And Spanish guitar. Spanish guitar? What the hell is up with that? I believe that you can tell a lot about people by the music they listen to, but I am clueless as to what my musical tastes say about me. Somewhere along the way, I reached a point in my musical journey where I surveyed the landscape around me and said, “No, no thank you, I’ve gone far enough.”

Oh, well. Screw Justin Timberlake and Amy Winehouse.

Anyway, despite my recent failings as a wanna-be novelist, I’m about to take two weeks off (mostly) from writing to perform my annual labor of love–scoring applications for the Kentucky Governor’s Scholar Program. Two weeks. Almost 2000 applications. Lots of eye strain. Still, it’s the least I can do in exchange for five of the best weeks of my life. I still have two short stories out on submission and I hope to submit The Dead and the Dying to two more agents in the next couple of weeks once I get the query letters down. Maybe some other short story idea will hit me while I’m traveling over the next few days.

It’s that time of year again.  All across the country, kind-hearted citizens are taking to store fronts, malls, and sidewalks everywhere, bells in hand, ringing out the call for people to donate to the Salvation Army.  You see them everywhere.  Many of us, myself included, have actually volunteered for this miserable duty, braving the elements while people walk by pretending not to notice that you are ringing a damn bell in their faces.

As we move toward a cashless society, though, how much benefit does this really offer the Salvation Army?  I know when I go shopping, it is with debit card in hand to avoid the messy wad of bills and leaden weight of change that clutter my pockets.  Having worked retail my entire adult life, I am not susceptible to the tricks modern stores employ to keep the customer shopping.  I get what I want and get the hell out.  And, like so many other shoppers nowadays, I don’t carry any cash to offer the kind-hearted, bell-ringing popsicles by the front door.  So, in this age of credit and personal isolation, how can the Salvation Army keep with the times and raise enough money to fight its war on poverty?


Yep, once you think about it, the solution couldn’t be simpler.  Instead of an elderly lady standing outside freezing her blue-haired ass off, why not put a six-foot-six, 250-pound convicted felon by the front door?  Who knows how to ask for money and get results better than someone good enough at it to earn a prison sentence?  Sure, you might have to chain them to the concrete pylons to keep them from running off with the cash, but with a little supervision, convicts can help repay their debt to society by collecting money from that same society.  When faced by such a character, staring you down and ringing that bell in your face, are you going to tell him no?

As a matter of fact, I did recently encounter a bell-ringing chap of just this sort.  I have no idea if he had ever served time in an orange jumpsuit, but when I approached the door and he asked, “You wanna give some money?” I forked over every last bill in my wallet.  Furthermore, I got cash back when I checked out at the register and forked that over on my way out.  You never know when a guy is going to remember your license plate and you also never know when a guy is getting out on parole.

I think, as concerned citizens, we should all approach the Salvation Army with this win-win idea.  They will surely increase their operating revenue, the bell-ringing felons will be able to help their fellow man and have something to do besides trade cigarettes for chewing gum, and we will be able to satisfy our consciences while avoiding the fund-raising tasks ourselves.

If more people in Washington thought this way, imagine how great this world would be.

 Finding success is like finding a particular restaurant in a large city where you’ve never been. You don’t know how to get there and, even with written directions of how you should proceed, you never know what obstacles you might encounter along the way. There are always things denying us access to the life we want. The most common of these are our own excuses. We hem and haw over the bad luck we’ve had, the uncommon difficulties we’ve faced, the people, legitimate or not, who have stood in our way.

If I look at the friends I had in high school, most of which I have at least retained some contact with over the years, I see a great deal of personal success. They have become doctors and lawyers, engineers and scientists, entrepreneurs and business leaders. In some cases, they have attained exactly the type of success they were looking for when we were all dreamy-eyed high school students, looking out upon a great, open world brimming with opportunity. In some cases, they have gone beyond those ambitions, finding not only professional success, but also personal success in the form of spouses and children. They have nice cars, nice homes, and, overall, nice lives.

In many ways, I feel like I have fallen short of success as I saw it when I was in high school. Graduating third in my class, with a full scholarship and endless possibilities ahead of me, I was expected by all, myself included, to find all those things I have listed above, all those things that, to the world at large, form our definition of success. Instead, I have worked at several mediocre jobs in the retail industry that, while not being minimum wage, are still far less glamorous and lucrative than I was expecting. I have gone through a bitter divorce that often remains bitter to this day. I married too young, became a parent too young, and gave up my scholarship to pursue what means I could to provide for my family. I live in an old, but comfortable house (comfortable when the air conditioning and heat work), not the palatial estate of my dreams. I drive an old minivan instead of the new cars that I moon over as they pass me on the long drive back and forth to work every day. Some days, those cars passing me by represent all the opportunities that I have had, passing me by as I struggle along.

Still, I blame no one but myself for where I am, if these is any blame to be had. My current situation is a direct result of the decisions I have made, not the uncontrollable events that have happened to me. I did not have to do things that led to so early a marriage or divorce. No one forced me to have children at such a young age. I was not coerced in any way to give up my scholarship in order to do what was best for my young family. All these things, and countless others, were my decisions and mine alone. Throughout the years, I have often been forced by my own hand to rewrite my plan for success until almost nothing remains of the hopes I had leaving high school.

Am I a failure? That is a question I have asked myself numerous times over the years and always the answer is the same. No, I am not a failure. What I am is someone that has been forced to take a long look at what success means to me and rework it, change that meaning around, condense it down until it reflects the positives I have built in my life.

I am now married to my best friend and cannot imagine being more perfect as a couple with anyone else. I have established myself as a competent manager and motivator of people who not only gets the results that are demanded of me, but who also supports and builds the self-respect of the people who work under me. I have written several short stories, a first novel, and am nearing completion on a second novel which, I am happy to say, is better than the first. I now have four wonderful children and, although I don’t spend as much time as I would like with them, they are all growing into intelligent, remarkable human beings and that, more than anything, enables me to consider myself a success.

Success is not reached by staring at the horizon. Success is found beneath one’s own feet, a step at a time. No one standing still, basking in their own glory, can look back and see what success has meant to them because success is a constantly moving body, building upon itself one inch, one foot, one step at a time. With these steps forward in my life, there have been some steps backward–lost jobs, financial problems, rejection letters from publishers–but each of these makes those steps forward all that more important to defining my new sense of what success is. I would still like to have the BMW, the six-figure salary, and the house on the hill, but that definition of success no longer applies to me. Success to me is a hug from my children . It is a kiss from my wife when I bring her flowers. It is a well-played tennis point. It is a thousand words on my novel before I go to bed. By these measurements, my measurements, I am successful beyond anything I ever hoped for.

 Original Thought, age unknown, died Thursday after a long illness. The funeral and burial will be skipped as nobody gives a damn. Any notes of condolence can be mailed to MTV studios in New York where they will be promptly ignored.

Perhaps that is a bit much, but I do wonder where original thought has gone. In today’s society, most of our opinions are based not upon careful consideration on our parts, but on the influences we encounter every day–the media, the church, our peers, our parents. When someone questions these force-fed ideas, they are ostracized and ridicules, often without the strength of will to stand by his or her convictions in the face of scrutiny by the majority. Instead of using our reason and our hearts to interpret what we see and hear, we sit like baby birds in the nest, our mouths and minds open to whatever the meal of opinion is that day.

And why do we do this? What has led us to the degrading position of looking elsewhere for what we should think and feel? In my opinion, laziness is the chief culprit. If someone else, especially someone in a position of perceived authority offers an opinion, surely they must have thought it out properly. Surely the authority figure has a better understanding of what the issue is and what should be done about it. Right? Why should I engage the gears of my brain and actually think about something when a ready-made position is available like a frozen dinner waiting to be microwaved for dinner. We don’t require deeper understanding or a full view of the issue from all sides. All we ask for is a stance that we can heat for 2 minutes, give a quarter turn, and heat for an additional three minutes.

Where have all the philosopher’s gone? There was a time, now in our distant past, when someone could be called a philosopher and not be subject to ridicule. Great thinkers in history, the Kants and the Humes and the Kirkegaards of the world, have all vanished or faded into obscurity. The philosophers of our age are invisible or, worse, relegated to the role of jester in the court of public opinion. Are stand-up comedians like George Carlin our last bastion of free thinking? A person now who would introduce themselves as a philosopher would get, at best, a roll of the eyes and a grin that says “Oh, so you’re not suited for real work?”

The symptoms are most evident in our youth. Ask any but the most exceptional person under the age of 25 about such issues as cloning, North Korea, or Israel, and you’ll receive a blank stare. Trust me, I’ve tried. Having worked with dozens of young people over the years, I am shocked and disgusted by the lack of awareness most of them have about the world. As long as these things don’t interfere with TRL, Sportscenter, or Taco Bell drive thru, they are content to live in complete ignorance of what is going on in the world. America is raising a spoiled, materialistic youth that, much like the current presidential administration, is fine with turning its back on the problems of the world for our false utopia, heedless that such behavior is, in large part, has driven so much of the world against us. The United States, once a beacon of compassion and civility, has denigrated into a global bully, pushing our ideals, our government, our troops, and our religion on those we consider a threat. We have failed in Iraq not because our military was not up to the task, but because our government did not bother to gain some understanding of Islam and the influence is has on every aspect of Muslim life. If the Iraqis had wanted democracy, they would have attained it, just as we did, before we stepped in and forced it upon them. Democracy will not work in a society where there is no separation of church and state, where, in fact, the state is subservient to the church. In the Islamic world, there is God’s law, and that is good enough.

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) said that “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” We are losing that battle, bewitched by the ideas given us by the media, the government, and so many other outlets. We allow ourselves to be relieved of any personal responsibility for how and what we think for fear that our own opinion, arrived at through questioning the world around us and careful deliberation of the facts, will not match the popular opinion set by people in authority with no more right to decide than we have. People who have never cracked open a Bible cry out against sin. People clamor for the legalization of marijuana who have never seen the devastating effect it can have on a person’s life. If you are not for us, as the saying goes, you are against us. With so many opinions born of ignorance and close-mindedness, how can anyone, in good conscience, trust what they believe or feel to the minds of the uninformed?

Perhaps original thought is not dead. Perhaps it has gone into hiding, fleeing from the onslaught of pop culture, pop religion, and pop government. Perhaps it waits in the woods, like a hermit, awaiting a time when it is needed, a time that may never come. Perhaps we are moving toward Durkheim’s theory of a collective consciousness, where all the members of our society share a common understanding and common set of values. But look around you. Look at your neighbors, your coworkers, the people you see on television. Do you truly wish to share one mind with such people?

I’m not advocating blowing up televisions, refusing to pay taxes, or quitting church. All these things have benefits that we cannot otherwise attain. What I do believe, though, is that we should examine what we see and hear, question the information and opinions given us before we adopt them as our own. We should be a part of the world, with its myriad of problems and conflicts, not living in one of our own making. Perhaps then, original thought will creep back into society, take up residence, and offer some hope of reason.