Holes in the Wall

Istvan’s Story

The evening air was cool. It was a relatively clear night. Istvan could see the half-moon through thin clouds. That was a bad thing. If he could see the moon, the moon might help the guards see him and his friends.

Istvan crouched with his friends near the fence. The wooded terrain was rough and muddy. He nodded silently at Anton. No words were necessary. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to form them. Fear, anxiety, and hope made it feel like his heart would leap out of his throat. He rubbed his hands together. His palms were sweaty, despite the cool night air. In a matter of hours, he might taste freedom for the first time in many years. In a matter of minutes, if Anton was wrong, he’d be dying in the mud with a bullet in his back.

Istvan watched Anton run his hands along the fence. It wasn’t much of a barrier. It was 1955. The Iron Curtain had quite a few tears and worn spots, especially in this secluded region near the Austria-Hungary border. Anton’s hand stopped. Anton looked at his watch, and then peered at the distant guard tower. Anton nodded, and peeled back the broken stretch of chain-link fencing. Istvan went through, followed by Adam, and then Anton.

Istvan and Adam looked apprehensively at Anton. Anton tried to flash a quick smile to soothe their nerves. It didn’t work. The time for smiling would be on the other side of the border. The Austrian side. The side without Communism. The side without oppression.

Anton slapped Istvan on the leg. “Follow me,” he whispered. Anton shuffled at a crouch, then ran low and hard into the darkness. Istvan followed, with Adam behind him. Istvan could feel his lungs burning. He waited for the flash of floodlights on the treeless clearing. He waited for the sound of the rifles. The hairs on the back of his neck rose, waiting for the bullets that would follow the sound. Their entire plan was dependent on this moment. Anton claimed to know when the guards changed shifts. At the shift change, the guards’ attention would be on reports and forms, not on the clearing below them. If Istvan and his friends were to escape Hungary, they had less than 90 seconds before the guards’ eyes would be back on the border.

Where they’d see three scared men running for their lives.

Istvan saw a cluster of bushes at the edge of the clearing. He saw Anton through the thin shrubbery, motioning for them to join him on the other side. Istvan slid past the bushes and shuffled to join Anton in a crouched position behind the largest of the shrubs. He heard Adam clumsily bust through the bushes behind him.

“Quiet down, you oaf,” Istvan whispered fiercely.

“Sorry,” replied Adam, gasping for air.

Istvan felt sweat trickle down his forehead. Floodlights didn’t illuminate the area. The guard towers were silent. They made it to their first waypoint. Istvan looked eagerly at Anton. Beyond Anton, he saw a rough wooden sign with warnings written in both German and Hungarian.

DANGER! MINES!

The skull and crossbones and exclamation marks accentuated the point. Just ahead of them, death lurked once more. An explosion would certainly attract the attention of the guards, and likely take a few limbs from Istvan and his friends. The pain would be temporary, because they would be shot.

Istvan shuddered. Maybe not. A Hungarian without a leg wasn’t a threat; he was a source of information. Death might be preferable at that point. If he was captured, he would be tortured. He thought of Edna, his sister, sitting at the dinner table back home. She would never leave Hungary, even while it was ruled by an oppressive Communist dictatorship.  But if Istvan were captured, the police would come for Edna. They’d torture her, just for sport. Istvan gritted his teeth. He couldn’t let that happen.

Anton removed a small piece of paper from his pocket. Istvan peered over his shoulder at it. He expected to see a map. Anton promised a map. Instead he saw a few scribbled words.

Clusters in center. Heavy clusters on right. Keep left. Left mostly clear.

“What the hell is that?” whispered Istvan fiercely. “You said you knew where the mines were!”

Anton shrugged and tried another smile. “This tells us where the mines are. Let’s keep to the left and watch our step, eh?”

Anton slapped Istvan on the leg and moved forward at a quick shuffle, crouching low to avoid drawing attention to their position. Although they were out of immediate danger, a guard with a keen eye would still be able to spot movement from the tower.

Istvan grunted and followed closely behind Anton. From what their sources told them, the mines in this field were likely inept. The few that were present had been there for years and were cheaply made at the end of World War II. That thought was of little consolation to Istvan. A cheap landmine could still blow off his foot. He kept his eyes on the ground in front of him, looking for any wires or metal, jutting up from the soil below. After what seemed like hours, he reached the edge of a concrete embankment. Below them was murky sludge and muddy water. It was a poor man’s moat, designed to serve as a barrier to American and British tanks.

Past the moat was Austria. There was no fence on that side of the border. They had no reason to keep people trapped in the country like animals.

Anton smiled at Istvan. “See, I told you. Left was good.”

“Yeah, yeah, left was good. Let’s get the hell out of here,” he replied.

“Right,” said Adam behind him. “On with it, Anton. You first.”

Anton hopped down. The water and mud came up to his waist. “Come on in, guys, the water’s fine!” he said.

“Shut up,” replied Istvan, sliding into the water. Water was a euphemism. This stuff was semi-solid and smelled like shit. He came to the sickening realization that it was likely the run-off trench for all the sewage coming from the guard post.

“Oh, God!” whispered Adam, making his way through the muck. “Who shit their pants?”

“Will both of you shut the hell up?” grumbled Istvan, doing his best to breathe out of his mouth. It didn’t help. Smelling it was preferable to tasting it. He strode purposefully through the sludge. He could see the tree line in the distance. Austria was within sight.

After ten grueling minutes, the trio reached the other side. Istvan reached up and grabbed Anton’s hand. Anton pulled him up out of the concrete trench. Istvan helped Adam do the same.

They made it. They were in Austria.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Istvan could see the first glimmers of daylight emerging from the east. He was exhausted and smelled terrible. He glanced at his wristwatch, a gift from his deceased father. After 6AM.

They’d emerged from the forest after several hours, and were following a rough road, hoping to find civilization.

Hoping to find freedom.

Istvan patted the plastic bag in his pocket, containing his identification papers and a letter requesting asylum. He hoped it would be enough. Even after crossing the border, they were still not out of danger. If they ran into a Communist sympathizer, they might get pointed back to the border instead of the asylum office. If the asylum office turned them down, they’d get shipped on the next train back to Hungary.

Istvan shuddered at that thought. What if this were all for nothing?

Anton patted him on the back. Istvan nodded and put his hands in his pockets. Anton was good at reading emotions. He could tell that Istvan was anxious. Anton was probably anxious as well. He was just better than Istvan at hiding it.

Istvan saw the shadows of buildings ahead. He clenched the plastic bag in his pocket. This was the moment. In the far distance, he saw the umbrellas and picnic tables of a beer garden. His stomach rumbled. What he wouldn’t give for a sandwich and a beer right now!

A middle-aged man emerged from a side street and looked at the three men skeptically. He scratched his beard. Istvan waited for him to break the silence. He could feel his palms beginning to sweat again.

“Ungarn?” asked the man curiously, pointing the three of them. He pointed past them, toward the southeast. “Ungarn, ja?” he repeated.

“Ja,” said Istvan, recognizing the German word for Hungary. Istvan pointed at his compatriots. “Wir…Ungarn….” he said, doing his best to keep calm.

Istvan tried a smile. He waited eagerly.

“Gut!” said the stranger. He waved them onward. “Komm mit mir!” The stranger pointed at the beer garden. “Frühstück!” he said.

Istvan patted his stomach. “Ja, Frühstück!” he said.

Istvan and his friends followed the stranger to the beer garden. Their first taste of freedom would be breakfast at an Austrian beer garden.

 

The Problem with “Waiting in Line”

My grandfather was one of the bravest and most decent men I ever knew. He was also an illegal immigrant. He didn’t wait in line or apply for a visa. For my grandpa and others who believed in liberty and democracy in mid-1950s Hungary, that wasn’t a real option. Applying for a visa meant exposing his family to danger. The countries that bordered the Iron Curtain, such as West Germany and Austria, recognized the resource of asylum-seekers like my grandpa, and did their best to help them. Talent and Youth were escaping Communist countries, and it was the duty of democracies to bring them in and light their path. The losses of Hungary, Poland, and East Germany were victories for the West.

After his escape from Hungary, my grandfather built a life. He served in the military, training service dogs near Freiburg, Germany. He eventually found his way to Canada, where he raised a family and had a prosperous career selling appliances. His friends on that treacherous night created lives for themselves in Arizona, and their children and grandchildren are prosperous and productive American citizens.

My grandfather died a few years ago, surrounded by friends and family. His life was a testament to the man he was, and his legacy lives on in each of the lives he touched. As I said at his funeral service, his life was a triumph of the human spirit. I do my best in my own life to honor his memory, treat people with kindness, and pass on the lessons he taught me.

Here in the United States in 2018, we face a crisis of identity. Are we the beacon of hope that lit the path for my grandfather’s escape to freedom? Or are we a country that separates asylum-seekers from their children? Are we a country that creates “tender age” detention centers, where babies and toddlers scream for their mothers? Are we a nation that abandons its position and leadership role on the UN Human Rights Council, just as we’re committing human rights violations? Are we a nation that turns away battered mothers and their children from entering the country as asylum-seekers, along with victims of gang violence? Are we a nation that invokes Scripture as rationale for building de facto internment camps for modern poor and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free?

It is very easy to sit on our sofas and callously demand folks to wait in line and apply for visas. It gives us the emotional rationale to shift the blame from our government to the asylum-seekers for the separation and internment of children and babies.

That rationale is flawed. I think about my grandfather and wonder about the humanity in making such a demand. Would a police officer in Mexico who refused to accept a cartel bribe in Mexico have the luxury of waiting in line when he was threatened with torture and death? Should a journalist in El Salvador be told to apply through the proper channels and wait 18 months after he publishes an article exposing government corruption? What about an informant whose testimony led to the arrest of a cartel member, who discovers that his entire family is now on a hit list?

Defending this separation policy is callous and inhumane. We can treat people with dignity during the asylum process and keep them together during the duration of that process. The President can end this brutality with an executive order and a phone call. Instead he’s content to use thousands of children as a bargaining chip for his immigration policy goals, which include a border wall.

This shouldn’t be who we are as a nation. We shouldn’t cheer the President when he uses the brutality of Mexican cartels and MS-13 as a political punchline, and then hands a death sentence to those fleeing that exact brutality in Mexico and Central America. We are a nation of immigrants and can enforce our laws with a measure of humanity. I wouldn’t exist today if my grandfather and his friends found a 30-foot concrete wall on the other side of that muddy moat on the Austrian border. The correct response to tyranny and brutality is to stand as a beacon of liberty and strength, providing those escaping oppression a pathway to become the next generation of Americans. It certainly isn’t callousness, inaction, internment camps, and ripping children from their mothers’ arms.

We can enforce the law. We can continue to deny entrance and deny asylum to those with criminal records. We cannot continue to claim to be the leader of the free world when we abandon our history and march down the path of authoritarianism, blindly parroting the positions of the President and vigorously defending everything he does, even when his Administration defies our foundational principles.

Modern versions of my grandfather are making their own journeys to freedom right now. They should be given breakfast instead of bondage when they arrive at the asylum office.

 

Dr. Rudolph Lurz holds a doctorate in Administration & Policy Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He lives in Virginia with his wife and cat.

 

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Thoughts, Prayers, Sound, and Fury

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

 

As a teacher, hearing the news of last week’s massacre in Florida hit me hard. All school shootings affect me in a similar manner. Even lockdown drills create a crippling feeling in the pit of my stomach. As I huddle with my students against the wall in the dark, contemplating oblivion, I wonder how we have fallen so far as a society.

I wrote a blog post almost two years ago under my semi-anonymous pseudonym, the one I use mainly for political commentary. I discussed how much better life has become in the 21st century, despite the uptick in domestic terrorist attacks. I offered some practical solutions, and called for civility in policy discussions.

I had a semblance of optimism then. After another two years of pain, vitriol, and random terror, I don’t have that optimism anymore. As dozens more cities and schools have become hashtags, and more dates on the calendar have been stained black, stoic fatalism has replaced that hopeful naivety.

There are practical measures we can institute to reduce the casualty count. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to stop the violence completely. In American society, these events will continue to take place. When I sit with my kids in the dark during lockdowns, I pray that our number never comes up.

That helpless feeling haunts me.

My despair is not assuaged by policy statements from the right or left. Well-meaning people who haven’t set foot in a school have put forward ideas, imagining them to be panaceas. As someone who has studied education policy for six years earning a doctorate, and spent a decade in classrooms, it’s annoying to see people claiming to solve our nation’s problem of school shootings with a Facebook meme. Let’s break down these basic arguments, moving right to left on the political spectrum.

A.) Arm the Teachers

Argument: Gun free zones invite lunatics armed with guns. If these lunatics knew their teachers had guns, they wouldn’t try to shoot up their schools. Allow teachers with concealed carry licenses to carry in schools. Or offer teachers a stipend to carry a pistol. Throw that gun-free zone sign into the trash, because recycling’s for pansies. Counter force with force. You bring a gun to school, and your calculus teacher will end your life.

Breakdown: Do me a favor. Imagine your 11th grade math teacher. Now imagine your school librarian. Now imagine your 9th grade English teacher.

Imagine a hallway filled with screaming kids, running from a lunatic with an assault rifle. Is old Mr. Fuddlesticks going to step into that hallway and win that firefight with his .38 special? How about Laura the Librarian with her 1911?

Unlikely. This is a bad idea. In the firefight described above, CSI would have the gruesome task of figuring out which holes in the bodies came from the AR-15, and which came from Mr. Fuddlesticks’s  .38. Additionally, a nervous teacher would kill an unarmed kid before one would heroically prevent a massacre.

Arming teachers would increase the body count without preventing a single tragedy.

Well, what if we just arm teachers with military experience? They’re trained!

Great. If we limited the arming option to veterans, they’d be much less likely to draw and fire on an unarmed student. But would they win the firefight described above? No. They’d have the discipline to duck back into their classroom and realize they didn’t have a shot. Or, on a vast open campus like Douglas High School, they might be in a different building 3 acres away from the site of the carnage.

This option assumes that the only place a lunatic would fire is in the classroom with a clear line of sight for the teacher to draw that .38 and end the threat. But that’s not where these massacres usually take place. It’s in the hallway before school starts. It’s in crowded cafeterias and libraries. It’s outside the school after the fire alarm has been pulled.

ANALYSIS: This is a bad idea all-around. Body Count: unchanged, maybe even higher.

B.) Beef Up Security

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was one of many who wrote in favor of additional security measures at schools. Using familiar rhetoric of “good guys with guns” and denigrating “Gun-Free Zone” signage, he pushed for a hybrid system of a few teacher “air marshals” who’d carry, and an increased uniformed police presence on school campuses.  He believes that these additional security measures would serve as a deterrent to school shooters, and keep students safe.

I think Mr. Gingrich is half-correct. More security on campus would keep students safer. It would also bring the first rapid-response officers much closer to the scene, because they would be on campus instead of at the local PD.

It wouldn’t stop the body count. As stated before, those teacher “air marshals” would have problems in a firefight in a crowded hallway against AK-47s and AR-15s. As for the additional police on campus, Mr. Gingrich acts as though Douglas HS and Columbine were defending their campuses solely with Gun Free Signage, and didn’t have SROs (School Resource Officers).

They did.

How many more would have stopped the massacres from happening? If a school has a 7-acre campus with over a dozen buildings, are you going to put uniformed police officers in each spot? Even if you do, if a kid is willing to die in the massacre (and most wind up killing themselves after they’re cornered; the Douglas HS shooter was one of the first I’ve seen who managed to evade the initial police dragnet), all you’ve done is bring the police closer to the scene of the massacre.

Even if a school has officers in each building, a student can draw and open fire in a crowded hallway between classes, or on kids outside during fire drills, or in the middle of a packed cafeteria, or in the library, or in the bus loop before school.

ANALYSIS: More cogent proposal. Expensive. Body count reduced, but not eliminated.

C.)Fortified Campuses with Security Measures at Building Entrances

Do you love TSA lines at the airport? Well, let’s bring them into schools. Radically restructure open campus schools nationwide into single-building entities with a security checkpoint at the entrance(s). You’ll probably have to spend billions creating covered connections between buildings. Along with billions more for hiring screeners and equipment for them to monitor each backpack and student entering the building.

I hope you enjoy getting to school at least one hour early. For schools as large as my alma mater (Sarasota High School) or Douglas HS, you’re going to have lines. 2,000-5,000 students/faculty will take a long time to get screened. Creating walkways to connect 12-18 buildings over 7 -15 acres, and then constructing checkpoints, will be crazy expensive.

Have you made the school safer? Maybe. During school hours, once everyone’s entered the fortress. But you have created a giant target outside the fortress, as all those students and teachers line up to get through the checkpoint every day. And what are you going to do for football and basketball games? You going to set up TSA checkpoints outside the stadiums as well? Or are sports and concerts and any after-school activities going to be the next sacrifices?

ANALYSIS: Expensive as holy heck. Body Count- Unchanged. Schools-radically altered. Those who tout this plan must picture a high school as it appeared in Back to the Future’s depiction of 1959. One building, one entrance, three stories. They should do research before spouting nonsense.

D.) Patriot Militia on Campus

This is a popular idea I’ve seen pop up on right-leaning social media. For no cost, veterans and former police officers will patrol our country’s schools and protect our children. They’ll volunteer on their own time and instead of the expensive uniformed security presence proposed by Mr. Gingrich, we get trained, local, free patriots to protect children. They’ll volunteer for background checks, of course.

Sounds awesome.  It’s filled with American can-do spirit, which rises to the challenges faced by modern society, and preserves 2nd Amendment freedoms. Matter of fact, it takes those 2nd Amendment freedoms and shoves them in the face of the bad guys! It just makes you want to fist pump and start singing Toby Keith songs.

But we’ve got the same problems we had with Mr. Gingrich’s proposal. The patriot militia will likely be faster than local PD’s rapid-response teams, since they’re already on campus. But they won’t stop the hallway shootings between class, the bus loop before and after school, crowded cafeteria and library, etc.

Reduced body count, but it still happens. Also, when the police do arrive, they have the added difficulty of differentiating between the school shooter(s), the patriot militia members, and terrorized students running in fear.

As a teacher, I also worry that some members of this patriot militia, especially if they’ve got kids on campus, could turn into vigilantes. What if they hear that someone is bullying their kid? Instead of scanning their zones for security threats, they’re cornering some 8th grade boy in the bathroom to put the fear of God in his heart, while showing off their .44 Desert Eagle. As a teacher, I sometimes deal with helicopter parents who flood my inbox asking about their kid’s missing work, or schedule a lot of parent teacher conferences to express issues with test and quiz grades.

I’d get a lot more nervous if an armed patriot militia mom or dad just “dropped by” my classroom to “have a chat” about little Johnny.

ANALYSIS: Similar to Mr. Gingrich’s proposal but cheaper. Likely a reduced body count. But doesn’t eliminate school shootings. Also adds the complication of vigilantism/reprisals against students and teachers.

Let’s move on to the proposals coming from the Left.

A.) Ban Assault Rifles (and maybe more?)

Many mass shootings are committed with assault rifles. During the 2012 and 2016 Republican primary debates, no event or person other than 9/11 was mentioned more than Ronald Reagan. Republicans elbow each other out of the way to claim the title of Reagan’s successor.

Ronald Reagan supported expanded background checks, waiting periods, and a ban on assault rifles. Joe Biden recently noted that the US Government already limits 2nd Amendment freedoms, by restricting access to weapons of war like grenade launchers and bazookas. Wouldn’t assault rifles be the next logical step? Aren’t those also weapons of war? If Joe Biden and Ronald Reagan are on the record agreeing on something, shouldn’t we be able to get that bill through Congress?

Let’s assume you can. Let’s say we get a reprise of the 1994 Clinton-era assault weapons ban passed. Let’s say the Freedom Caucus in the House has a come to Reagan moment and joins forces with moderate Republicans and Democrats to get it done.

No assault rifles means no school shootings, right?

Doubtful. The Columbine massacre of 1999 happened in the middle of Clinton’s assault weapons ban. Some of the weapons used during that slaughter could be classified as conventional. The Virginia Tech mass shooting, one of the deadliest in US history, was committed with a humble 9mm handgun.

Ok. Let’s repeal the 2nd Amendment and ban all firearms, unless you’re retired military or police.

Let’s assume you can actually do that. Would that completely stop the violence? In 2015, we passed a dark milestone in the US. There are more guns in this country than there are people. Over 357 million of them. Any weapons ban that doesn’t involve confiscation is toothless. Any confiscation attempts would require significant re-interpretations of the 2nd Amendment, or its outright repeal.

Good luck with that.

Ok, how about issuing a buy-back program? Heck, make it mandatory if you have any felony on your record! If we can restrict felons’ rights to vote, we can certainly restrict their access to firearms, right?

Make the price high enough, and you might get 50% of them. Maybe. But are you going to get them all?

It worked in Australia!

Australia didn’t have 357 million guns. Australia didn’t have a 2nd Amendment that most conservatives can quote more readily than Scripture.

Give people $5,000 for assault rifles and $2,500 for handguns and you might reduce the number to around 100 million. Refurbish the guns you receive and give them to National Guard units and local police departments, and you might be able to justify that cost.

You’re not going to get them all. 100 million is still a lot of firearms. Are you going to go door to door to confiscate them all and turn every 10th house on the block into Ruby Ridge or Waco? I don’t want to be in this country when you try to do that. It’s going to be awful.

The toothpaste is out of the tube on this one. While I like the idea of an assault weapons ban, and I think stopping production on all new AR-15s will be useful, it won’t stop the violence.

It will slow it down, but it will continue.

ANALYSIS: Sound and fury. Brothers grabbing brothers’ throats on Facebook feeds and blocking Grandpa on Twitter. Record levels of vitriol in political process. Maybe violence in the streets if you try the confiscation angle.

Body count in schools-slightly lower. Weapons of choice might change, but kids will still die.

B.) Raise the Age for Gun Purchase, Expand Background Checks, Close Gun Show Loopholes, Restrict High-Capacity Magazines (30+), Fund Mental Health Facilities, Raise Taxes on Ammunition, Restrict Access to Firearms for Everyone with History of Domestic Violence and/or Status on No-Fly Terrorist Watch Lists, Charge Parents of School Shooters with Negligent Homicide if They Allow Their Firearms to be Taken by Underage Children

These are the ideas that have a chance at denting the violent epidemic of school violence. They are supported by Democrats and even a few Republicans who aren’t getting their talking points directly from Dana Loesch.

As President Obama said last year, it’s lunacy that American citizens who’ve been on ISIS websites and have been identified by the FBI as risks to public safety…can simply walk into a gun show and buy a weapon of war. Everything else on the Bill of Rights has limitations. Why is the 2nd Amendment regarded as ironclad? Why is everyone who suggests any of these measures instantly portrayed as tyrannical as King George III?

Perhaps the tide is finally changing. Maybe we’ll get a few of these reasonable measures passed. If President Trump can serve as a broker and absorb some political heat from his base, perhaps GOP legislators will follow.

The NRA will offer a ban on bump-stocks. That’s nothing. They want this to go away. They want the Douglas HS Students to go away. They want people to “stop politicizing” tragedy. As in, just shut up, accept your fate, and die if your number is selected. If people are loud enough, and persistent enough, some of these measures could get passed.

It won’t be enough. The numbers will be moderately reduced, but to me, it’s a math equation that can be done on a napkin. 320 million Americans. 357 million firearms. Let’s assume that just one in a million is deranged enough to shoot up a school. Or a theater. Or a McDonald’s. Or a church.

That’s 320 people with at least one gun and the desire to kill random people. We’ll still have at least 1-2 school shootings a year.

ANALYSIS: Body count moderately reduced. Incidence Number=reduced. Best ideas on paper that we have so far.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The moments after school shootings feel like an American rendition of the dystopian Hunger Games. We are all glued to our TV sets. We hear stories of the carnage. We admire the heroes. The faces of the fallen are displayed on CNN and Fox News.

And we do it all again next time.

As a teacher, I used to be filled with righteous anger at the callous nature of American society. This volume of school shootings doesn’t happen anywhere else in the civilized world. Western democracies look at us with horror. Canada looks down at us and wonders, wtf, eh?

French philosopher de Maistre noted that every nation has the government it deserves. As I stated previously, the toothpaste is out of the tube. This is what we are. This is what we’ve accepted. Every morning when I show up to work, I play a twisted lottery game, and hope my number won’t be selected at the next American Reaping.

During the moment of silence each day, I pray for my students. But my thoughts aren’t enough. My prayers aren’t enough. My words aren’t enough. It’s going to continue to happen. And I have no faith in my leaders to change anything, because as a policy analyst, none of the options I’ve seen can stop this carnage.

After the Las Vegas massacre, Bill O’Reilly callously opined that mass shootings were “the price of freedom”. As much as it pains me to say it, at this moment, he’s right. That is what we’ve chosen to accept as a nation. It’s disgusting. It’s also disgusting when policy actors like Ben Carson blithely tell students to attack the guy with the rifle, as he did after the Oregon community college shooting when he said, “I would not just stand there and let him shoot me.”

No, Mr. Carson. You’d be running in terror, like any normal human. Or frozen in place, which is also a natural reaction. When someone has the drop on you, there isn’t much you can do. When given time to prepare, maybe you have a chance. But you’re also going to die. As I’m putting the finishing touches on this blog post, I’m presently sheltering in place at my own school, first in line in the corner of the room, armed with a kettle of boiling-hot water and a pair of scissors. If that door is opened by anything other than an administrator or police officer with a key, 80% of us are likely to be cut down, and I’ll be the first to die.  But I guess 80% is better than 100%, right?

We’re sheltering in place because there’s a rumor a kid brought a gun to school, and the police are investigating. Yesterday, at another school in the district, a 7th grade boy actually did bring a loaded gun to school, ‘on a dare’.

How sick are we as a society? One of the most triumphant talking points that the far-right brings up is the fact that the commonly quoted figure of 18 school shootings in 2018 is misleading. In actuality, it’s three or four, depending on your interpretation.

So, experiencing at least one deadly shooting a month, perhaps two, is supposed to put my mind at ease? Would my anxiety be soothed if I was wounded by an “accidental discharge” from the firearm of a 12-year-old girl, who gravely injured a number of her peers in California a few weeks ago? Is it supposed to be heartening that some of the school shootings reported are actually students committing suicide in bathrooms? Thank God! Students are so depressed that they’re just killing themselves instead of others. Darn those liberals who count those in their stats of shootings committed on school campuses.

Whether you are left, right, center, or somewhere on the fringes, we all have to face the realization that there is something seriously wrong with our country right now. You can’t just repeat one or two of these common talking points and triumphantly sit back in your chair and believe you have the answer. Or maybe you can.

I can’t. I’ve got to play the Hunger Games every day. The music from those films plays in my ears every time I step on campus in the morning.

I hope that the odds are in my favor, and that today isn’t the day that my kids and I are chosen as tribute to this madness.

 

Dr. Rudolph Lurz is a teacher and education scholar living in Roanoke, Virginia. He received his doctorate in Administration & Policy Studies from the University of Pittsburgh in 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Some Strange

The Challenge of Convincing Complete Strangers to Buy Your Novel

Getting Some Strange

The Challenge of Convincing Complete Strangers to Buy Your Novel

 

Over 1,000,000 authors published a book this year; 300,000+  were released in the United States. My dystopian novel, Realms of Glory, was one of these new novels.

I spent the weekend of my novel’s release eagerly refreshing my Internet browser, and examining my sales rank on Amazon Author Central. I got encouraging feedback from my friends on Facebook. I felt warm and happy. I imagined my novel ascending the bestseller charts, overcoming its small publisher label, and becoming an overnight success. I theorized about which actors would play which characters when I inevitably sold the movie rights to a major studio. I was on Cloud Nine, which should be renamed Cloud Delusion.

Shortly after its release on Amazon, sales dissipated. To be more accurate, they flatlined. Enter darkness. Enter despair. I’m the worst author ever. My novel sucks.

(Hits refresh on sales figures on Author Central).

My novel still sucks. I suck. I’ll never be a writer.

About a month later, the cheaper e-book was released on Amazon, and I saw a brief bump in sales. Those also flatlined. I came to a sobering realization.

Writing is hard. Selling might be harder.

With so many options out there, visibility is minimal. The general public didn’t care about my book. Millions of potential readers were out there, but they didn’t even know my book existed. How could they? Even if they narrowed down their browsing by genre, there are still tens of thousands of books to scroll through in the United States alone.

So here we are. Six months later. It’s winter, but my sales have picked up a little bit. Not through any marketing miracles. Not through a random tweet with a link going viral. No. To sell a book, an author has to grind it out the hard way through old-fashioned work and a lot of patience.

The Facebook Well Will Run Dry

The first thing that happened between Point A and Point B was annoying my Facebook friends with numerous posts about my novel. I was advised by my author friends to keep my book posts to under 10% of my total posts.

The problem is-that’s still a lot of posts. You’re also advised as an author to stay active, engage with others on social media, post a lot of thoughts, and talk about your life. If you’re posting multiple times a day, 1/10 posts will still add up. I’ve likely been muted by a lot of my friends, and rightly so.

I created a new author profile, and an author FB page. I did my best to push most of my book stuff to those locations. But I still would sneak in an occasional share to my main personal page. That’s the one with over 800 people that I’ve friended since I first created a profile as a college sophomore in 2004. I don’t know how Facebook’s algorithms work. Maybe a girl I went on a few dates with a decade ago would see my book, and buy it out of curiosity. Maybe some random bro I met at a random party during graduate school is a huge fan of dystopian fiction, and after clicking the link and reading the book preview, would immediately rush-order a copy on Amazon Prime.

Those were daydreams. The facts are these. Most family, friends, and friends of friends who will buy your book will buy it during the first month or so that it’s on the market. I was annoying everyone else.

I’m also really sorry about that. Many authors are shy people. I’ve grown more introverted over recent years. Authors are self-conscious about their work and hate trying to promote it. I also really would like to do this for a living, so that leaves me in a Catch-22. If I want to do this for a living, I have to increase the visibility of my book. To increase the visibility of my book, I have to engage with people online and post about my book. Which means I have to talk about my book and overcome my self-conscious doubts about the strength of my writing.

In short, sorry to anyone who’s been annoyed by those posts. That well is dry. I realize even that recommended 10% mark on book posts is too high. To increase visibility, the pathway isn’t bombarding your Facebook friends. Within a month or so, they’re well aware you’ve published a book.

The pathway is getting some strange.

Getting Some Strange (Readers/Potential buyers)

I am still very much a novice in this department. But I’ve been getting some slow, steady sales using a few methods that will hopefully give my poor Facebook friends a break.

 

A.) Face-to-Face on the Road

I made a hundred business cards. When I travel, and hit up local bars/restaurants, I have one handy. If I talk to someone, and mention my book, I can give them a card and tell them to check it out. People are more likely to buy a book if they have a personal contact with the author. I’ve made a few sales (and a few friends!) by stepping out of my shell and talking to people directly.

B.) Providing Samples to Indie Bookstores & Libraries

This one will sting a little, because it costs money. But it’s vital to get books on shelves. I’m mailing out free signed samples to small bookstores across the country. Included in the package is an order form for them to buy more copies if those books sell. I’m also providing books to libraries, to get them in the hands of new readers. Trips to the library were a treat for me as a teenager. I’d like to spark some of that same excitement by getting my book on the library shelves. While most of my business has been via the Internet (especially Amazon), growth opportunities for me (which will hopefully boomerang into more online sales) are physical copies on bookshelves.

C.) Pushing all my Book Posts onto my Facebook Author Page, and Creating Sponsored Ads

A former student helped me set up my author website, and showed me how to create posts and sponsored/boosted posts. I’m still learning how to narrow my targeting to get my book in front of the readers who are likely to click/buy, but this is a cheap way to increase the visibility of the book. Much cheaper than buying physical copies and mailing them to bookstores/libraries.

I’ve seen my page visits go from a few dozen people (my loyal friends/family who actually enjoy my annoying posts enough to like my page), to over 5,000 a week. That’s still not where it needs to be for any tangible sales, but it’s resulted in a few. I noticed a small sales spike after two old Canadian ladies made snarky comments about my sponsored post, calling it “nonsense”.

Any publicity is good publicity. When they called my book link “nonsense”, they put it in front of the eyes of all their Facebook friends. Maybe they have a grandson who wants to piss Grandma Crankypants off by reading my nonsense novel. Either way, I increase the visibility of the book, avoid annoying my beleaguered friends and family, and reach new readers. It’s actually really fun as well to select the exact metropolitan areas/target demographics to put my book in front of. It turns an annoying task (marketing) into a game.

The game is simple. If 1-500 people will click, and of those people, 1-25 will buy, I need to get it in front of several thousand people every week to get those sales. I’m still figuring it out, but I don’t hate it. This part is fun.

D.) Twitter

Twitter isn’t an effective way to actually sell books. Authors who buy followers and create profiles that blast their books 24/7 are muted quickly. Or straight-up unfollowed.

What it’s given me is a community. By engaging with other authors, I learn about the industry, marketing, writing, and even get to talk with a few literary agents, who could provide the ticket to mainstream success.

Writing is lonely. Selling is lonely, and also makes me feel slightly dirty. Talking to other writers provides humor, encouragement, and education about this field. While I’d prefer a community in my town, and the ability to talk about books over coffee/pints of beer, Twitter erases state and national borders. My community is everywhere my phone is. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable that’s been to me.

E.) Time

Patience is necessary. For my book to reach commercial success, I need strangers to buy my book, talk about it with other strangers, engage with me on my social media sites to reach more strangers, and create enough interest for bookstores to make orders. That’s the path for me to eventually get signed by a literary agent and secure a contract with a mainstream publisher.

I’ve already sold more copies than most indie/small press first time authors, despite all my bumbling and mistakes. That tells me that I have a good story, in spite of my self-conscious doubts.

I have control over A-D on this list, but E is the variable that will provide the most impact.

In conclusion, writing this book was a personal journey, and attempting to sell it has been an educating and humbling process. I really hope to get some strange (sales) soon, and get my book in the hands of new readers. If any of you older, wiser authors (or younger and wiser authors!) have any tips, I’d be happy to hear them. For any of my fans out there who are looking for advice, I hope that this post has been helpful to you.

To all of you out there reading this, have a joyful holiday season. My cat is crawling all over me and meowing, and might soon eat this computer, so I’m going to publish this post and sign off now.

Happy Writing!

 

[RWL}

 

 

The Errors & Omissions of a Former Grammar Pharisee

My Road to Damascus Moment

Errors & Omissions

Learning to Accept Imperfection

I graduated from the University of Florida. I earned two degrees. My B.A. is in History and German. My M.Ed. is in Secondary Education. I defended my dissertation in Administrative & Policy Studies at the University of Pittsburgh in April. I’ll soon graduate with a doctorate, the highest degree in my field. I teach both English and German. I help college students with essays and research papers. I’m considered an expert. In short, I’m no stranger to the written word.

My father-in-law found three errors in my published novel. My entire identity as a writer and scholar was destroyed by a single text message.

With the help of a strong community, and a lot of introspection, I’ve rebuilt my identity and self-worth. It’s stronger than it was before. Like the rest of my colleagues, I’m a flawed writer doing his best to tell a story. I will no longer demand perfection of myself or fellow authors with a misguided sense of douchy intellectual arrogance.

The How & Why

I was a smug douche for the first 34 years of my life. I sneered at CNN, Wall Street Journal, and other publications whenever I saw typos in their published copy.

“Fire that bum,” I’d say. “Automatic F”.

How could I commit such a cardinal sin? Should my novel also receive an automatic F from my readers?

In my shame, I thought it should. I was reluctant to even write this post. Why should I call attention to my flaws and write that F on the cover of my novel myself? Maybe no one else would notice it.

I talked to other authors. To my relief, I discovered I was not alone. Since I’m not alone, I felt obliged to start a dialogue on this important topic.

Indie authors and bestselling superstars alike suffer the occasional lapse in their published works. Jared Yates Sexton, author of The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage, spelled “wavered” as “waivered” and refers to Rupert Murdoch as “Rupert Murdock”. Sexton is a national political voice and a NYT bestselling author. I’ve found minor typos in the published work of some of my favorite writers of fiction. It happens.

But it shouldn’t. The questions remain. Why does it happen? How does it happen?

My publisher is a small press. Much of their editing is reliant on mechanical formatting software. Such programs won’t always catch omissions like a missing word.

But my editor should. Right?

Yeah. My editor is a saint. She caught 99.9% of the errors and omissions in a 472-page novel. However, she’s an academic like I am. We’re trained to read quickly, often scanning entire sentences and paragraphs with a single glance. When there’s a missing word, our brains fill it in for us. Many voracious readers of novels read books with similar strategies. Perhaps that’s why just one of my readers has noticed my novel’s flaws. On the other hand, perhaps everyone else is just being polite.

In short, both technology and the human eye are imperfect. Despite layers of protection, an error sometimes sneaks into the published draft.

Coping

I once took an urban planning course at the University of Florida. During one long lecture, our professor discussed all the measures different cities used to ameliorate traffic congestion. At its conclusion, the professor opined that city leaders should do their best to minimize traffic issues, but most accept the fact that some congestion is the price of prosperity and growth.

Like these mayors, we authors strive to ensure clean copies for our readers. Rest assured, I edit and revise until my contact lenses pop out of my eyes from staring at the computer screen too long. I hired an editor to do the same.

But it still happens.

When it does, we shouldn’t assume it’s a result of carelessness or stupidity. I’ve made both of those haughty judgments in the past.

It happens because writers, like everyone else on this planet, are imperfect. We should support and love our fellow writers when we discover errors and omissions in their drafts, blogs, and published novels.

As a former Grammar Pharisee, I’ve had my “Road to Damascus” moment. Having realized that I live in a house of glass, I’ll refrain from throwing stones. I hope that my readers will judge my work on the strength of my story, and forgive the occasional sin of syntax.

When the criticism of other Grammar Pharisees arrives, I will smile in resignation and accept it as fair recompense for the numerous times I’ve been an arrogant douche in my lifetime. After building a deficit of negative karma in this field, I must now hope for grace. There are probably typos in this blog post. Since I’m on a bumpy Amtrak train to New York, just putting a word together is difficult.

Feel free to share your own personal stories of error & judgment. As imperfect writers, we’re all in this together!

 

{RL}

The Terror of Judgment

Why write?

 

A mentor of mine at the University of Pittsburgh called writing a battle against “the tyranny of the empty page”. On many mornings, I lost that battle. The causes were numerous. Procrastination, random videos on Facebook, Playstation4, self-doubt, doing all the chores in the house…these are just a few of the reasons for past defeats.

Lately, I’ve experienced a few minor victories. I finally published my first novel, and I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation.

That should be cause for celebration. Instead, I’m experiencing anxiety. If the act of putting pen to paper is a battle against the tyranny of the empty page, waiting for sales reports and literary reviews consists of anxiety-fueled trepidation. After victory against doubt, a writer experiences the terror of judgment.

How does a writer determine success? What brings that writer back to the empty page?

I recently sat down at brunch with my wife and her cousin. I contemplated those questions while conversing with Cousin Robert, a published author and a kind soul. I told him and my wife that I was uncertain about whether I would write the next book in the trilogy. If few bought it, and everyone who bought it hated it, why keep writing? Wouldn’t that be a message to put the pen down and shut the hell up?

Personally, I don’t give a damn if people hate my dissertation. The opinions of four people mattered: the scholars on my committee. They said I passed.  If people hate it now, I don’t care. I’ll smile, forget their names, put my head on my pillow at night, and sleep like a baby. Additionally, academics are normally passive-aggressive with their hatred of work. They might give me an underhanded compliment at a conference presentation, or write a snarky message about my methodology on a comment card, but they are very unlikely to tell me I suck directly to my face.

Reviewers and Twitter’s Keyboard Warriors, on the other hand, can be vicious. My novel is also not an academic piece analyzing an aspect of public policy formation; it’s a part of my soul. It’s my own artistic expression and voice. If people think it sucks, then they think that I suck.

Finally, why would I write another book if no one buys the first one? Isn’t that the perfect example of Sisyphus-rolling my own writing boulder up the hill of futility? I might as well tell my story to the trees outside my window. At least there’s no chance that they’ll tell me I’m horrible.

Robert opined that I was looking at it all wrong. A writer should not look to others for verification about whether a book was a success or failure. Such conclusions should come only from the writer himself. Robert also advised me to avoid reading reviews. Neither ego boosts nor soul-crushing critiques were good for the spirit.

Likewise, sales reports are often an indication of an author’s visibility, rather than his ability. Indie and micro-press publications often only record around 75 sales, and debut authors can expect half of that. While my book is doing relatively well at the moment, I can’t expect to appear on any best-seller lists.

Robert’s advice and personal reflection have led me, I believe, to the most suitable approach to writing. I have to write for myself, and no one else. Sales and reviews are irrelevant. If I’m compelled to tell my story, I need to tell it.

In a way, the act of writing is simultaneously selfish and altruistic. It’s selfish in the fact that I will say what I have to say, even if the entire literary world tells me to be silent. It’s selfless, because I will bring the next chapter of my story to my readers no matter what, even if my audience is limited to just one excited fan waiting for Book 2 in her local library.

Charles Bukowski once wrote, “If it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it”. That short quote encompasses all of my feelings about writing. For better or worse, my story is bursting out. I await the world’s judgment of Realms of Glory. I will write its sequel. I am both anxious and excited about what lies ahead.

{RWL}

This is CNN?

The Free Press is Imperiled. America Needs its Flagship Cable News Station to Become Boring Again.

“This…is CNN”.

The booming bass voice of James Earl Jones was a fixture in my living room during my childhood. When I heard that declaration, I knew that the news on TV would be reported without bias or exaggeration.

Or excitement, for that matter. CNN was reliable, but it was also really boring. When I saw CNN on TV in the family room, that was my cue to retreat to my room and play Sega Genesis.

Who would want to watch the news for fun? The only time the news was interesting was when events were interesting.

I vividly remember the family gathered around the television during the Gulf War. Colin Powell and Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf pointed at maps to illustrate military strategy. Green and black images of bombs exploding in Baghdad showed the American people what modern warfare looked like. When the war ended, CNN turned the camera to George HW Bush arguing about tax policy with members of Congress. I went back to my room. The news was boring again.

In recent years, all that has changed. On cable TV, the news became THE NEWS! Fox News led the charge. They put bells and whistles, along with a sense of urgency and right-leaning slant, on each of their news stories. “Breaking News!” would flash on the screen, accompanied by music. The network’s banners and graphics would project intense messages, no matter how mundane the story was.

During prime time, the network would ditch the premise of neutrality entirely. Pundits like Bill O’Reilly invited left-leaning guests on the air, and then made them look foolish while attacking their positions with ruthless efficiency.

The message Fox News projected was clear. The Left was destroying the country. The News was important. And America had to tune in.

America did. Traditional media outlets looked at them with disdain. Many felt that the network lacked basic objectivity. Their stories failed to meet the objective standards of journalism that my father learned at Ohio State a half century ago.

But by God, they did well in the ratings. Few outside the political right respected them, but that didn’t matter. The Right revered Fox News. Fox didn’t just have viewers, they had followers.

Putting a political slant on the news stories of the day was not invented by Fox. It was common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries. Print media outlets on opposing sides of the political spectrum were denigrated as “rags” by their opponents. Insults of “fake news” are a recurrence of that theme. We’re leaving the neutrality of Walter Cronkite behind and re-entering a new era of yellow journalism.

Over the past five years, and especially in the 2016 election cycle, CNN got tired of getting their asses kicked. They added flair and excitement to their reporting. They put up provocative headlines and titillating banners on-screen while anchors reported the news. Primary debates were promoted like boxing matches. Talking heads of opposing viewpoints sat around a table screaming at each other. The hosts frequently joined in the shouting matches that took place on the air.

Carson
Unnecessary.

The 2016 campaign was always going to be dirty. CNN turned it into a brawl. It should come as no surprise to the American public that Donald Trump, the most unpolished brawler of them all, emerged victorious in the arena that CNN built. Over $2 billion in free media coverage, much of it from CNN, helped Mr. Trump in that cause.

Now we have a President who is openly bellicose with the media.  In a previous article I wrote on another blog, I predicted that Trump as President would be the greatest threat to the 1st Amendment since President Adams and the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798. Sadly, that prediction was accurate. During his first six months in office, Trump has restricted access to the White House Press Briefing and openly denigrated respected journalistic outlets like the Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN as “Fake News”.

Where does America’s flagship cable news network stand? They’re furious. Jim Acosta and others at CNN consistently complain about the indignities they endure at the hands of the Trump Administration.

Yet they are at fault for their present status. CNN became Fox News to overtake them in the ratings, and now they’re upset that they’re being treated like them.

There’s still time to turn it around. The hour is late. The free press is standing on the precipice of destruction. The country needs CNN to become boring again. Deliver the news without the sensationalism. Drop the overt glee on-camera every time the Trump Administration does something unpopular. Drop the O’Reilly-esque “gotcha” interviews that devolve into shouting matches. America doesn’t need to see endless replays of the following script:

TRUMP SUPPORTER: “Thanks for having me on, (insert first name of reporter, here)”.
CNN: “President Trump said this today. Let’s go to the clip” (intense whooshing sound effect).
(CLIP OF TRUMP SAYING SOMETHING STUPID)
CNN: “Do you think Trump sucks now? Do you regret your previous support? Explain how you can still support this garbage fire of a president”.
SUPPORTER: “Trump’s not garbage. He’s awesome and you’re Fake News”.
CNN: “That’s outrageous!”
(Talking over each other, yelling, name-calling, etc.)

It is unproductive to have Chris Cuomo yelling at Kellyanne Conway on New Day every week. It’s playing right into Trump’s hands. Look, the President will attack stories he doesn’t like. That’s who he is. Don’t respond or become indignant when he does. I learned a phrase when I was a football coach in rural Polk County, Florida. When you’re wrestling a pig in the mud, sooner or later, you’re going to discover that the pig is enjoying it.

President Trump revels in the brawling atmosphere of modern media, because he can paint a picture of himself as the victim. When you get in a shouting match with a fool, from a distance, you can’t tell who the fool is. The President knows that he can get the desired brawl by goading the media, and he can therefore flip any story that portrays him unfavorably.

The response to such actions? Just roll the cameras. Trust the American people to come to the correct conclusions on their own. If you try to push them in that direction, they’ll inevitably run into Trump’s arms.

Follow the example of the Washington Post, which continues to do solid investigative journalism, and doesn’t brawl with Trump every time the President tweets at them. NPR (National Public Radio), in a brilliant move, just tweeted the entire Declaration of Independence one line at a time.  Trump supporters rallied to the defense of the tyrant, King George III, and accused NPR of politicizing a national holiday. Those types of stories make Trump look bad without making the network look bad.

The Germans have an expression- Der Ton macht die Musik. The tone makes the music. Right now, CNN’s tone is strident, and it needs to be neutral. CNN doesn’t need to be a participant in Trump’s downfall; it only needs to be its recorder. Keep the cameras on him and he’ll create the mess himself that results in his removal from office, whether that removal comes from the 25th Amendment, impeachment, resignation, or electoral defeat.

If they continue on their sensationalist path, CNN will drive the American Center and Center-Right directly onto the Trump Train in 2020.

Objectivity is boring, but in this age, it’s essential. Let Fox win the ratings, and CNN will win back respect.

Until CNN is boring again, I will be watching PBS. The news is sensational enough without the additional urgency CNN pumps into each broadcast. In an era of noise, CNN should return to its roots as the voice of reason.

{RWL}

 

 

 

 

 

Closing the Door

By rolling back Obama-era Title IX requirements, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is turning her back on victims of campus sexual assault.

I shouldn’t watch the news.  It often changes the focus of my blog posts.  However, I feel that this week provided important stories that shouldn’t be ignored.  U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently explored the possibility of rolling back Obama-era Title IX requirements which protect victims of campus sexual assault.

On another blog last year, I wrote an article titled, “The Girl in My Roommate’s Closet”.  Given the events of this week, I think it is important to republish this article. This is an issue that is larger than petty political differences. I urge Ms. DeVos to show the American public that the U.S. Department of Education supports women on campus. Women nationwide face the crisis of campus sexual assault.  The Department of Education should not abandon them in their hour of need.

Here is the article I wrote last year. It’s a long read, but an important one.

The Girl in my Roommate’s Closet

I sat on the couch in my apartment, staring at the clock, drinking a bottle of beer.  It was 3AM.  My roommate sat next to me, sipping a beer of his own, questions written all over his face.  He had a big presentation early in the morning.  He went to bed before midnight, hoping to get some sleep.  His plans were interrupted by an event neither of us expected.

“Dude,” he began.  “Why is there a girl in my closet?”

I took a sip of Amber Bock, which we thought was good beer when we were in college.  “It’s a long story,” I replied.

It’s a story we would tell often in the years that followed.  We had many strange nights in that dingy college apartment.  This one ranked among the strangest.  I never committed it to paper because I didn’t consider our actions extraordinary.  To me, how my roommate and I handled that odd situation reflected basic human decency.

Brock Turner’s arrest, conviction, and early release from jail spurred me to put pen to paper.  The Department of Justice estimates that 1/5 women are sexually assaulted during their college years. Turner’s crime is unique in the fact that he was brought to trial and convicted, despite his light sentence.  Over 90% of campus sexual assaults aren’t even reported.

Perhaps basic human decency isn’t as basic as I first believed.  The girl in my roommate’s closet left our apartment with a story and an ugly Cleveland Browns T-Shirt instead of physical and emotional trauma. I tell her story with the hope that it can instruct other college students about alcohol and consent.  As I said on that couch, it’s a long one.  I’ll start at the beginning.

First Date

It was April, 2005.  I was a junior at the University of Florida.  I just finished my final presentation for an education course.  I had a crush on a girl who sat next to me in class. Let’s call her Edith.  In the last class of the semester, I finally had the nerve to ask her out.  I said we should meet at Gator City, a bar on University Avenue, to celebrate.  She said she was eating dinner with her girlfriends at a Mexican restaurant, but would meet up with me afterward.  We exchanged Facebook information, which was a new thing at that time.

I waited that evening at the bar in Gator City, nursing a beer.  I tried to watch the random NBA games on TV.  Anything to take my mind off of the fact that Edith was over an hour late.  I didn’t have her number.  Smart phones and 4G Internet access didn’t exist, so I couldn’t check Facebook to see if she wrote me a message. I sighed.  Wasn’t the first time I’d been stood up. Wouldn’t be the last. I got up from my stool.  I was heading for the door when I saw her.

“You’re still here!” she exclaimed, enveloping me in a huge hug. I could smell the tequila on her breath.  “Sorry I’m late,” she said.  “We had margaritas and nachos!”

“No worries,” I said.  I pointed at the seats I’d been saving for 90 minutes.  “Want to sit down and have a drink?”

Edith grabbed my hand.  “Let’s go to XS!” she said.  “I want to dance!”

I suppose I should explain about XS.  Gator City was divided into two parts.  One side was a sports bar and pool hall.  The other side was a dark, windowless dance club.  XS was known for cheap drinks, grinding on the dance floor, and make-out sessions with random strangers.  It was normally where folks went late at night after fueling up with liquid courage on the sports bar side.

It was a bit early in the night to head to XS, but I wasn’t going to decline dancing with a girl I had a crush on.  I let her lead me into the darkness of the dance club.

I was hit immediately by the pounding bass music of early 2000s hip-hop.  Cigarette smoke permeated through the club.  The dance floor was already filled with college kids grinding on each other.

Edith led me to the bar.  “Let’s do shots!” she yelled into my ear over the din of the club.  “Yeah!” I responded, taking out my wallet.  The bartender came over.  “2 double tequila shots!” she said.  I did my best not to cringe.  Tequila wasn’t my favorite.  “Got any salt?” I asked the bartender.  He shook his head and handed me a sad-looking lime wedge.

Edith held her lime in one hand and the shot glass in the other “To the end of the semester!” she said.  I clinked glasses, took the shot, and sucked all the juice out of that tiny lime.  I did my best to look normal, but that shot hurt my soul.  The feeling quickly passed. I felt energized.  I looked up at Edith.  She was looking at me flirtatiously.

She grabbed the collar of my button-down shirt, pushed me against the wall, and kissed me.  It was turning into a good night.

Edith grabbed my hand and led me onto the dance floor.  While dancing, I could tell that she was extremely intoxicated.  Dancing turned into a strange alternating experience between keeping up with her erratic movements and making sure she didn’t topple over.  When we went back to find a spot on the wall, she could barely walk.  She leaned on me and tried to kiss me again, but her lips landed on my neck.

It wasn’t sexy.

Edith giggled. “Sorry, she said.  She held up two fingers and pointed at me.  “I see two of you.”

“Ok,” I responded.  I realized I was subconsciously using the “teacher voice” we’d worked on in our education class.  “Stay here, I’m going to close out the tab, ok?”
I went to the bar and closed out my tab.  I looked to my right and saw Edith taking another tequila shot. “Dammit,” I muttered, signing my check.  I walked the three steps over to her.  She put her arm around me and led me back to the wall again- an awkward attempt to find something to lean on.

The din of the crowd and music had become louder.  “Edith,” I began.  “Do you have a ride home? One of your girlfriends you went out to dinner with, maybe?”

“I lost my phonnnnne,” she slurred.  She stuck out her lip, making a pouty-face.  I was now supporting almost 100% of her weight.  She thought it was sexy, and was trying to do some awkward half-dance against me while swaying back and forth.

I realized I was going to have to take care of Edith.  “Alright,” I said.  “I’m gonna take you home. Let’s go.”

“Yeahhh!” she slurred.  I don’t think she understood that this date was over.  There’s nothing sexy about a girl who can’t even stand up or talk.

Blockbuster Video is not your Apartment Complex

The two block walk to my car was a grueling ordeal.  I was practically carrying Edith.  Drunk frat guys gave me the thumbs-up on the sidewalk.  A few even tried to high-five me.

Why are you trying to high-five me, dude? I thought to myself in wonder.  I was too busy trying to keep Edith from falling over to high-five anyone.  She drunkenly began singing “Take me home tonight,” humming most of the words and speaking the unintelligible language of the severely intoxicated.

I finally got her to my car and helped her into the passenger seat.  I got behind the wheel.  I pulled out onto University Avenue.

“Alright,” I began.  “Where’s your place? Where am I going?”
“So bright,” she said, pointing out the window at the passing cars.

“Edith,” I said, with more authority, using the teacher voice again. “Where do you live?”

“Just go to Archer Road,” she said dreamily, staring out the window.

Archer Road is one of the main roads in Gainesville.  Driving up and down Archer means driving all over town.  Nonetheless, I made my way to Archer Road.

“Ok, Edith,” I said, nudging her arm. She had passed out against the window.  “We’re on Archer.  Which way do I go now? What’s the name of the complex?”

“Left, left, left, left, left,” she said.

“Left at the next light?”

“Yes,” she murmured.  “Left, left, left, left.”

I turned left.

“Ok, now where?”

“Right, right right right right,” she said.

I was beginning to think she was just giving random directions.  “What’s the name of the complex?” I repeated.

“Turn right here!” she shouted suddenly.  “That’s it!”

I pulled into a Blockbuster Video parking lot.  “Here we are!” she said, beaming.

“Edith,” I said slowly. “This isn’t your place. This is a Blockbuster.”

“We can make it my place,” she cooed.  She tried a wink.  Maybe the tequila was closing one of her eyes. Either way, her meaning wasn’t difficult to infer.

“Where do you live, Edith?” I asked again, trying to change that subject as quickly as possible.

“I don’t knowwwww,” she slurred.  “Let’s just stay here.”

I sighed.  I wasn’t going to spend the night at Blockbuster.  I was thankful my car had child safety locks that clicked on the second the engine was engaged.  Last thing I needed was drunk Edith trying to run into a closed Blockbuster Video.

“We’ll go to my place,” I said.  “I’ll set you up on the couch.”

“Yeah, you will!” she replied.

I didn’t respond.  I drove the car back to my apartment, hoping she’d go to sleep the second she hit my couch’s pillow.

Someone who was drunk enough to think Blockbuster was her apartment complex was most likely drunk enough to puke.

Toddler Mode

I pulled into my apartment complex.  Edith was passed out against the window.  I parked in front of my apartment and nudged her.  She yawned and stretched.

“We’re here, Edith,” I began, turning off the car.  “Let’s get you some water.”

Her eyes widened as she opened the door.

“You found it!” she exclaimed. “My apartment is right upstairs. Let’s go!”

She bounded out of the car with surprising energy and charged up the steps toward the second floor.

“Edith!” I said loudly, trying to keep my voice down but also trying to get her attention.  “That isn’t your apartment!”

My apartment was on the first floor.  My upstairs neighbor was a 300 lb. man with cornrows who loved working on his car in the parking lot. He had a custom license plate on that big sedan displaying his nickname: TRU-PLAYA.

Tru Playa would come down and have a beer with me and my roommate sometimes.  He was a fan of Bud Light.

Tru Playa would not appreciate a random stranger trying to break into his apartment at 1AM on a weekday.

I caught Edith right before she put her key in the lock, wrapping both of my hands gently around her own.  “That’s Tru Playa’s apartment,” I whispered.  “We’re in my complex.”

“That’s right,” she said, seemingly in realization.  “My apartment is across the courtyard!”  She ran down the stairs.

“God dammit,” I grumbled under my breath.

Where the hell did this energy come from? I thought.  I strode with purpose down the steps, not wanting to wake up my neighbor.  She turned the corner and headed toward the grassy courtyard area.

It had rained earlier that evening. Edith slipped the moment her heel hit the muddy lawn.  I ran toward her, worried she was hurt.

When I arrived, she was laughing. I reached out my hand to help her up.

“Come on, Edith,” I said, taking her hand.  “You’re getting all muddy.”

“I like it,” she said.  With surprising strength, she pulled me toward her.  “Let’s get dirty,” she slurred. “Come lay with me in the mud.”

I helped her to her feet.  “Let’s just go inside,” I said, exhausted.  “We’re right around the corner.”

She did a sort of skip/frolic toward my apartment, staying about three paces ahead of me.  I realized the best way to keep her from running off was to turn it into a game.  “Keep going,” I said.  She skipped a few more paces, looking back over her shoulder with raised eyebrows.  “One more door down,” I said, taking my keys out.  She leaned on the wall next to my apartment door, pointing at it, a quizzical expression on her face. I reached the door and nodded, opening it.  She went inside.

I closed the door and bolted it. Last thing I needed was drunk Edith frolicking all over our apartment complex or trying to walk into my neighbor’s apartment again.

“Which one is your room?” she asked, kicking off her heels.

“Around the corner to the right, the master,” I answered automatically, more concerned with ensuring the door was locked.  I realized my mistake immediately.

Shit.

I walked into my room just in time to see Edith leap onto my bed.

“No!” I called out.  I hurriedly took a pair of pajama pants and an old Cleveland Browns shirt out of the dresser, along with a towel from my closet.  I placed them in my bathroom.  I came back out to find Edith trying to get out of her shirt, flinging mud all over my sheets.

“Shower!” I said in my teacher voice, pointing at the bathroom. I felt like a middle-aged father yelling at a child.  That’s exactly what excessive alcohol turns us into.  Children.  Children should be taken care of, not taken advantage of.  They also can be really annoying.  Those were new sheets.

“Finnnnne,” she slurred.  She went into the bathroom and slammed the door.

I heard the water turn on.  I walked to my computer and logged onto Facebook.  I clicked on Edith’s profile.

Friends, friends, friends.  I scrolled through her friends list, looking for anyone I recognized, anyone who could come pick Edith up.  Most people didn’t put phone numbers on Facebook at that time.  A few did.

Then I realized it was super late.  Edith was my responsibility.  I sighed.  I needed to find someone to write a message to.  Someone who would be able to pick her up in the morning.

I clicked on her profile again.  I saw a picture of her with other girls at a Mexican restaurant.  I wrote a message to the girl who posted the picture, telling her that Edith was really drunk, but I was making sure she was safe, and she’d be on my couch with a bucket next to her face. I asked if she could pick her up in the morning and provided all of my contact information.

I opened the beer fridge in my room and cracked open an Amber Bock.  Before I even took a sip, I heard Edith yelling.

“Hellllp!”

I listened to the water. It sounded like she was running a bath.

“Helllllllp!!” she yelled again, with more volume and urgency.

I opened the bathroom door.  The tub was about a quarter full.  The remnants of salsa and nachos were around the drain.  Water weakly ran from the faucet.  Edith sat there, staring at the running water.

“I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the shower,” she said.  “I also threw up,” she added unnecessarily.

How do I remember, over a decade later, that Edith was at a Mexican restaurant before she met me at Gator City? That image of salsa clogging my bathroom drain will remain eternally imprinted on my memory.

I helped her to her feet.  I made sure the water coming from the faucet was warm.  I turned on the shower for her.  She flinched as the water hit her and then relaxed.

“Ahhhh,” she sighed.  “Thank you.”

I closed the shower curtain.  “Don’t worry about the drain,” I said.  “I’ll take care of it later.  There are pajama pants and a shirt for you on the toilet, along with a towel.  There’s some Listerine on the counter.”

I went back to the computer, double-checked the information, and hit SEND on my Facebook message. I took a long sip of my beer.

Edith came out of the bathroom wearing my old clothes, the towel wrapped around her hair.

“These pants are huuuuge,” she said, giggling. She tightened the drawstring.  I got a pillow out of the closet.  She hugged me.  “Thank you for taking such good care of me,” she said, trying to kiss my neck. I broke away gently.  “Let’s get you set up on the couch,” I said.

She looked at the bed, then back at me.  “Why not here?” she asked.

“Or you can take the bed and I’ll take the couch.  Either way, I’m going to get you a glass of water.”

Her expression changed in an instant.  “Fine,” she said, scowling.  “If you don’t want to sleep with me, I’m going to sleep in my room.”

Oh, shit.

Edith stormed down the hall toward my roommate’s room.  I hurriedly followed.  “Edith, wait-”

She opened the door. My roommate woke up in a flash.  “What the fuck?!” he said, startled.

Edith pointed at him. “Shut the fuck up!” she shouted.

She stumbled into his walk-in closet, curled up on the floor, and promptly fell asleep.  She was snoring within a minute.

My roommate got up and pointed at the closet, staring wordlessly at me.

“I’ll get you a beer,” I said.  We sat on the couch.

A Pillow & A Letter

That brings us back to the beginning of our story.  I told my roommate the entire epic tale.

“Did you write a message to one of her friends?” he asked.

“Done,” I said.

“Is she coming?” he asked.

I pointed at the clock.  He nodded.  “We should probably get her a pillow,” he said.  “Or she’ll have a crick in her neck in the morning.”

I snapped my fingers.  “I’ll write her a note!” I said.  “Bro, she thought Blockbuster was her apartment.  There’s a good chance she’s not going to remember any of this.  If I woke up in a strange closet wearing a Cleveland Browns shirt, I’d be freaked out.”

“Why do you have a Browns shirt?” he asked. “They suck.”

I laughed.  “I know,” I replied.  “My dad gave it to me for Christmas one year.  It’s one of my favorite sleep shirts.”

My roommate and I put a pillow under her head and a blanket over her.  I got to work writing a letter describing all the events of the evening. XS. Shots. Blockbuster. Falling in the mud. Throwing up in the tub.  The clothes she was wearing.  Thinking my roommate’s closet was her room.  And finally, that I wasn’t upset, just wanted to make sure she was ok and not freaked out. I told her the name of the friend I wrote to on Facebook, and said she was going to pick her up in the morning.  I wrote that whenever she was ready, to come on out to the living room and we’d talk.

I put the letter next to her head with a bottle of water. I went back out to the living room.

“Where are her clothes?” asked my roommate.

“My bathroom.”

“I’ll get a Publix bag,” he said.

We went to the bathroom.  He stared in wonder at my room.  The muddy sheets. Her dirty clothes, balled up on the floor. We put her clothes in the plastic grocery bag.

“You weren’t kidding,” he said.  “She actually rolled around in the mud.”

He looked at the tub.  “Oh, man.”

“I know,” I replied.

He went to the living room and began playing PlayStation games.  I put clean sheets on my bed and cleaned out the tub.  It ranks to this day as one of the most disgusting messes I’ve ever had to clean up.

I joined Tyree in the living room.  “Want to play?” he asked, pointing at the baseball game on the PS2.

“Don’t want to go back to sleep?” I asked in response. “You have a presentation in the morning.”

“No way I can sleep in my room with that girl in my closet,” he said.  “I’d be worried she’d come out and yell at me again. Or come out, wonder who I am, and start screaming.”

“You can sleep out on the couch,” I offered.  “I’ll try to sleep a little in the chair.”

“Naw, man.  I’ll wing it on the presentation.  We’re gonna remember this night. Let’s have a few beers and play some video games.”

So we did.  Eventually he dozed off on the couch.  I stayed up, staring at my cell phone, waiting for Edith’s friend to contact me.

The Promise of a Cake

At 7AM my phone buzzed.  Edith’s friend sent me a long text, thanking me for taking care of her and promising to drive over to my apartment within a half hour.

Edith emerged a short time later, holding the bottle of water.  She wasn’t the drunk girl from the previous night.  She was the smart, articulate woman from my education class.

“Hi,” I said.  “Did you read the note?”

She nodded.  “I was wondering why my hair was wet.”  She paused, chuckling softly.  “I don’t know why that was more alarming than waking up in a random guy’s closet.”

“What’s up?” said my roommate, smiling and waving.

“Hi,” she said.  “Nice to meet you.”

Edith’s friend knocked on the door.  She came inside and gave Edith a hug.  Then she gave me and my roommate hugs.

“Thank you guys so much,” she said.

“Yes,” added Edith.  “Thank you. And I’m so sorry.  I’m so embarrassed.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  “Just did what any other guy would do. It happens to the best of us. Tequila is nuts.”

“Just, don’t mention tequila right now,” said Edith, holding up a hand.  “Still not feeling great.”

Her face suddenly became alarmed. “Oh, no, I threw up in your bathtub.  I’ll clean-“

“It’s done,” I said.  “Took care of it last night.”

“We are going to bake you a cake,” said Edith’s friend.

“Seriously, we’ll bake you any cake you like,” added Edith. “We’ll bring it by next week.”

My roommate and I described our favorite kinds of cake.  We gave Edith her bag of clothes.  Seeing them covered in mud brought back snippets of the memory of rolling around in the courtyard.  We gave them hugs goodbye.

Edith never came back with our cake. She was a year older than I was, and graduated the following week. She went to graduate school in another state while I finished my final year in Gainesville.  I never saw her or that Cleveland Browns T-shirt again.

The Problem with High-Fives

I told Edith that I did what any guy would do.  As a doctoral candidate on the brink of a doctorate in higher education management, I now know that’s not the case.  I still believe that most men have the aforementioned basic human decency to take care of the Ediths of American universities the same way that my roommate and I did.  But I know that Edith would have had a much different experience if she was with any of the guys who were trying to high-five me on University Avenue.

Turning sex into an objective, rather than an experience, creates a zero-sum game that highlights “winning” at all costs.  Even the rhetoric of hook-up culture on campus conjures troubling images.  “Sexual conquests”. “Breaking down her defenses”.  “Getting some ass”.  When sex is turned into a zero-sum contest, the losers are women at American universities.

If I had consented to any of Edith’s propositions, I wouldn’t be found guilty in any court of law.  But I certainly wouldn’t be innocent.  Having sex with a girl in that condition, even if she is pressuring you for it, goes against both conscience and human decency.  That girl trying to have sex with me at Blockbuster, in the mud, and at my apartment…that wasn’t Edith.  That wasn’t the sarcastic, articulate woman who sat next to me in class.

That was a drunk person with decision-making capacity of a toddler and the body of an adult woman.

If you’re against having sex with toddlers, you should be against having sex with women as drunk as Edith was that night.

At the time, I thought there was no way in hell anyone would have said yes to Edith that night.  Saying no was a natural response. I have come to the realization that that those frat guys on University Avenue would not only say yes, but would also celebrate afterward. Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman at Stanford who couldn’t even say the word ‘yes’.

Women nationwide face the crisis of sexual assault.

I’ve come to the realization that such encounters happen every night, in every state, on every campus around the country.

That alarmed me and compelled me to put pen to paper.  Edith’s story could illustrate what I thought was basic common sense.  If men exercised common sense and decency became common practice, maybe sexual assault wouldn’t be so common at college. If a woman is too drunk to remember where she lives, then you shouldn’t have sex with her.  Just because you could, doesn’t mean that you should.

Even when she’s saying yes, you should say no.

The Ediths of American universities deserve the confidence to know that even if they have too many drinks, they won’t be victimized by men who see them as objectives rather than people.  They should wake up with clean hair instead of muddy clothes.

Too many women across the country leave the apartments of strangers with trauma instead of T-shirts, and shame instead of stories.  It is my hope that telling Edith’s story can help college men learn to offer a helping hand to their female colleagues, rather than a high-five to the boys who exploit them.

When a night out ends in a closet, it should be a comedy instead of a tragedy.

It is my hope that Edith’s story helps make human decency more common on campus.

 

Rudolph W. Lurz is a doctoral candidate and writer.  He can be reached at rwlurz@gmail.com