It is not often that I take to this diary and talk about very personal issues. For the most part, I like to focus on issues I care about. Yesterday, a trend circulated about football player Michael Sam, and in comment after comment and tweet after tweet, people asked: Why should I Care about X? Why do we care?
I had spent the afternoon in Lawrence, discussing with fellow Kossacks what I thought of the Kansas race. Campaigns I had been in contact with, politicians who had sent us good will, and goals that I had for the summer. What could we do to help our candidates in a unique way.
But as I went to sleep last night, the last conversation I had with anyone was a back and forth over issues like LGBT which boiled down to: Why do I care?
This morning, several friends posted their early thoughts about Tori Amos new album, Unrepentant Geraldines. I've been a Tori fan for decades now, but reading through some of their thoughts on how that music shaped their life, I thought I would take mothers day to settle for myself the question of: this is why I care.
I wrote this story somewhat about four years ago, but I wanted to re-write it with a slightly altered summation.
I often divide things into my life as a 'before' and 'after'. I do so because so much of the 'before' are things that I don't know for sure.. they are question marks, memories that are tinged with a combination of hope, dreams, and fears.
On January 25, 1995 my word changed to the 'after'. From that point forward, my world would always be in the 'after'. Almost 20 years later, I still find that there are moments where my mind wanders to this event. It doesn't help that he escaped prison for several years before being recaptured, released and is now back in prison.
But for me, that moment began a huge change in my life. The first time I went through rehab to recover from the crime, I had the world looking out for me. I was a top tier student at a university who had worked with professors and I enjoyed what I did. Competitive speaking and speech writing came easy to me. So did so many other things.
Laying in a hospital bed, waking up for the first time about a week after this event I found my mind was scrambled, messy. I rejected that the idea that something was wrong. I was right as rain, I thought. Physical therapy? Counseling? I didn't want any of it. I wanted to get out. A neurologist and a therapist came to me and said: You are making a huge mistake, stay. Get things right. Don't do this.
I'll never know if they were right or wrong. I spent a few weeks in rehab, working to be able to walk, to talk the way I remembered, to think coherently. It would be years later before I would go back to re-establish some of the skills I lost in that event to ask for help where my bull-headed nature refused to ask before.
My love for Tori Amos, an artist I had enjoyed before this event, grew. I listened to people tell me I would never be the same, my life had to change, and I thought: I don't believe it.
I woke up from my first mini-coma to her music. It was a song I had loved but had new meaning to me.
Hey kid, I've got a ride for youIt was how I felt. In one song, one moment, everything about my first trip through rehab was summed up. People were telling me I wouldn't be the same, and I didn't want to believe them. They told me my memory wouldn't ever go back to being correct, and I didn't want to believe them. They didn't say it, but I felt it: what will you do with your life now?
They say your brain is a comic book tatoo
And you'll never be anything
What will you do with your life, oh
That's all you hear from noon till night
I didn't know what the world held for me next. I returned to university to stay with friends for a while, and then with my former roommate. People were nice at first, but as time went on and my memory problems didn't recover it was hard to adjust. It was hard on me, hard on them.
I walked alone to the court house every day to attend the meetings with the district attorney, the staff and police officers who were so helpful to me. I greeted them with smiles and I told them I'd help as I could.
Despite the desire to feel bitter hatred at my attackers, I was so frustrated that I couldn't remember what had happened I pushed for every deal possible for all involved because I needed to know what happened. It was the one memory I could control, something I could be absolutely sure of, that the way I remembered it was the way it actually happened in the real world.
We reached deals with two of the kids involved and the third went to prison on a 7-10 (he escaped Hutchinson prison at about 5 years of his stint). I was given many reasons as to why I was attacked. It was a crime of opportunity. It was just one of those things. Or maybe, as he told the attorneys at one point he did it because he 'thought I was gay'.
What made me feel helpless wasn't the change in who I was as the fact that I needed something to do going forward. I had grown up with such powerful advocates in my family - a mother who fought for the ADA, a brother who had overcome severe disabilities - that I asked myself: what purpose do I really have here? How can I do the right thing?
I struggled the summer of 1996 to come up with a way to do that. Working in the basement of admissions in our university in the 'computer lab' at the time, I had unknowingly met my wife to be through an online forum, Rec.Music.Tori-Amos.
We were a band of misfits there, groups of people who had a love of an artist but also talked about everything. It was one of the few environments where I felt free to express ideas I had.. I had grown up very conservative and held onto much of that, but post the attack my ideals had done a quick 180. I was suddenly not religious at all. I went from someone who had considered the priesthood to someone who was... well.. atheist or agnostic at best. From the moment of the attack on, I never attended another church service (outside of funerals) because somehow, the comfort I found there before didn't exist for me.
In that online forum, though, I had people who would listen and talk - sometimes yell - at me and we could talk through issues. I could spill my guts and I didn't have to worry about the fact that they knew 'old me' or 'new me'. They just knew 'me'.
Through RMTA, I met my future wife, the love of my life, and the most important person in the world to me. Then and now. What I really found, though, was a cause. I found something I believed in. I had felt excluded from the world after the crime, and I couldn't really talk to people freely about it because they wanted 'old me', or they rejected who I was now as a phase that would pass, or an attempt by myself to garner sympathy. I felt pretty isolated because inside I had such a huge amount of turmoil and I couldn't explain how frustrating it was to have such wildly different memories of events than other people I knew.
That summer, my roommate and good friend moved out. We stayed friends, but he had to tell me: you're too different. I can't relate to you now, I know it's not your fault, but..
And that was it. My ties to much of my past were over. I decided then that whether things were true or not - whether I remembered things as they happened or if my wish fulfillment had become the way I remembered the past (something counselors had warned us about), I was "OK". And I would be OK.
I also knew that I wanted to change the way things worked. Straight out of the hospital, I ran for student body president. It was a joke of course, and no one took it seriously, but I had one issue I cared about: Rape & Sexual Abuse. I called attention to the fact that the emergency phones on our campus were poorly maintained and that lighting in areas at night wasn't good.
That summer, I met for the first time with a group that worked to help at a battered woman's shelter. I explained why I cared about the issue, and asked if I could help. I spent a few hours here and there trying to pitch in through any way I could. If they needed it, I would help provide it. I didn't have much, but what I had, I was willing to give to them for something I believed in.
Still, though, I wasn't healthy enough or still really 'together' enough to man the world on my own. Relationships came and went with people who took on a role of a mix of pity and real concern for me. Many of my old friends went away. I felt strange around them. The way I remembered history and the way they remembered it weren't the same, and I didn't want to really remember it the way it was. I had to move forward with the way I wanted things to be.
I went home to live with my parents for a while, to finish up recovery and to try and ground myself, but I stayed in touch with my friends from RMTA.. we started an ISP (an Internet Service Provider) in 1996, when such a thing wasn't popular. I had been a Microsoft Beta Tester and we became a Microsoft Beta Site, using Windows NT in one of it's first large scale tests of public RAS.
But I never lost track of my friends at RMTA or the shelters. I kept communicating with my friends who worked with the shelters and posting on RMTA and I kept thinking there had to be more for me to do. When ToriCon '97 came around, I felt like I was visiting 'old friends'.
I didn't know quite at that moment, but I would be meeting my wife to be at that event.. she represented all of the things I wished I was. She had kept her college career together - at the time, my college career was a thing of the past despite my academic achievements. She was confident, brilliant, sexy, charming. I never had a chance.
We sat in a suite and watched films and talked about the things that mattered to us. In a small room, I told someone something I had been afraid to share with anyone since the incident.. I was afraid that 'new me' would never be the same person as 'old me' would have been. Elusis, a friend, stared me in the eyes and said: We like the new you. Be OK with that.
And I was. It was, in all ways, the most perfect thing that could be said to me. They were words I needed to hear. That night in Denver, all of us began to push forward on goals to raise funds for RAINN - Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.
For the next few years, I followed Tori Amos around the country... I attended uncountable concerts (more than 30 I know that for sure) several times backstage, but for me it was like church. Something spoke to me there in a way I didn't get elsewhere.
But all the travel and joy didn't prepare me for what happened next. I returned home from a trip to a concert to an event that crushed me. My youngest brother, one of the most brilliant people I had known would be crushed by his wheelchair shortly after. A student had failed to yield the sidewalk to his wheelchair on his bike, and trying to get out of the way, his wheelchair went over the edge ejecting him and running over him.
My brother, the hero of my life, a man who had always been there for me, lay in a hospital bed in the middle of rural Kansas fighting for survival. He was born with Osteogensis Imperfecta, a brittle bone disorder and had suffered numerous fractures in his life. But this was different. He hadn't juts broke an arm or a leg, he had endured an unthinkable accident.. his rib cage, arms, legs were all broken. He lay in ICU, fighting for his life.
We had grown up in a family that was never rich in money, but rich in spirit and effort. My mother was a lion - a champion - a warrior for her causes. Before the ADA, she endured people throwing eggs at our house, breaking windows, insults and barbs because she fought for her son to go to school. When she demanded the town improve and fought for founding a main street renewal in a community of 600, people laughed. But she fought until it happened. When she told people she would never give up on the fight for her kids, she did it - she sued school boards repeatedly fighting to make sure her child would receive education. When I was ill in rehab for the first time, she accepted me - different as I was - and fought for me every step of the way.
Now, I sat in a hospital room with the person I cared for most in my life, my brother, held his hand and prepared to wish him goodbye. I was devastated that such a horrible thing could happen to him, to our family, in such a short time. I was heartsick and, admittedly, I was selfish.
I walked out of that hallway and I said: Look at the champions in my family. In my youth as a poor child I had met Ewing Kaufman thanks to my brother's brilliance. Bob Dole stopped and ate at our house. I had been into senators offices, met the governor. I did those things not because 'stuff just happened', but I did it because I had a warrior for a mother who fought for the people who needed it most. She refused to give up on the idea of equality for those who needed it.
I held my brothers hand and I promised him a few things: first, I would speak at his funeral and I would make it something to remember, and second, I would do something special.
I walked out of that room and I cried the most selfish tears imaginable. I cried for the potential loss of my brother, sure, but I cried in large part because of the agony of feeling: what is there for me to do? With so many champions I've known in my life, how can I fulfill such a big request? What battle in my life do I care for that much that I would put everything on the line for it?
I knew lions and I felt as though I was a sheep.
How could I be that lion, that warrior for the things that meant so much to me?
My brother recovered, but I knew my life had to change.. and that I couldn't deal with the idea that I had made a promise to help change things and done nothing.
Shortly after, I contacted my future wife online and told her that now was the time. I wanted her to marry me. And I wanted to find a way to do something important.
I was still fairly conservative at this point, but I felt as though there were ways to work with all of the politicians I knew to address causes I cared about, to root for things to change. In the 2000 election, I worked numerous campaigns, numerous candidates.. mostly (R)s who all knew me, knew my story, admired my skill at speech writing and wanted me to talk to young kids. I worked with RAINN to help inform high schools and communities of the need to support centers for abuse.
We toured the summer away that year, and on a night in Norman, back stage, my wife told Tori that we were trying to have our first child, but that so far it hadn't been easy. Doctors had told us that due to my issues before, it might be very difficult. Tori hugged us signed a doll (which we have today) and told us: good things can happen.
11 months later, we welcomed our first son.
For the next few years, it went on like that. I worked IT jobs for the money, and I worked causes because I needed to find things I believed in to make that difference I was after.
It was the birth of my son who changed everything. Born in 1999, we knew from birth our son would have issues. Doctors were concerned about developmental and mental development early on, and his APGAR was not good. By 2002, after the birth of our second son, we had clearly established that our oldest would be an autistic child with numerous sensory and behavioral issues. Knowing that my parents had been through this battle with a child of physical disabilities I thought: how shameful would it be if I wasn't prepared to take this on as a cause?
We worked with teachers, friends, families and resources. We had good advice, bad advice, and everything in between. I met with principles, educators, counselors and therapists. I wanted to know more.
In 2004, I was asked to help on a series of new campaigns and for the first time I stepped back, having spent years working with resources for abuse & rape and children's issues and I asked candidates the questions I hadn't asked before: Before I go to work for you, how do you feel about ...
I was heartsick. Many of the candidates I had worked with in the past were so woefully uninformed on any of the issues that I couldn't relate to them. It wasn't that they didn't care, it's that they didn't think I should care that much either. They didn't understand and they couldn't relate to it. I had been working hard to prop up candidates with my words and thoughts and to them, it didn't mean anything. They were just words.
I was recruited to help a major candidate in Kansas that year, who was seeking a federal office. After attending a short meeting I left and said: I can't do this. This isn't making the kind of change I thought I was making.
By the time our son was in fourth grade, his autism related issues were serious and growing, and I had poured a lot of my heart into trying to find resources for them. I learned to not just respect but to love the teachers who came to our house, played with him, spent extra time with him, who loved him with every bone in their body.
At our statehouse this year during the protests, someone asked me: why does a political operative, IT person care so much about education. That picture above is my son, with a teacher who had him as a ringbearer at her wedding. He had lived a life with so many people doubting what would become of him... but in IEP after IEP, three teachers fought for him, they fought relentlessly for him. They were angels for our son, and what have we left them now?
I sat through those IEPs and I knew that this was front row center for the civil rights fight for this child. My parents had to sue school boards and fight for the ADA. Like them, though, I had teachers who came to our aid, who fought for us... today, could those teachers fight for my son in the same full-throated fashion?
I don't know. And that scares me for all children like my son from this moment forward.
It wasn't long after that our son needed a more residential care setting. Teachers from his prior school came down and visited. They brought him food. They took him to the movies. They did this out of their own pocket, out of the goodness of their heart. They did it because they weren't just teachers, they were advocates for our child.
When I first heard some of 'Unrepentant Geraldines', Tori's new Album, I thought.. it is good to have this friend back in my life. It reminds me of how far I have come. How many things I've done and accomplished. It also tells me how far I have yet to go.
I look back at the friends I've made, the causes I've supported and despite all of the pain, all the mistakes, all the things I wish I could change I am always grateful that when I was challenged I said: I can't be silent.
To this day, my friends from RMTA remain some of the most important people in my life. They are the beginning of my second chapter in my life.
Whether things were good or bad financially, I felt as though things would be "OK". Because I had built friends who cared for the things I did. We looked after each other.
I tossed and turned last night. "Why do I care". I care about these issues because it is the person I made a choice to be. I care because I've seen firsthand what happens when people don't care. I know we can do better.
I look at the teachers in the pictures above, and I weep - literally - for what we have done for those kind of advocates in my state. Those warriors of the classroom who fight for students every day and go above and beyond. 'It's just a job', someone once told me. Tell that to a boy who hadn't had a real friend until special ed teacher treated him like a close friend and taught him how to respect people as a friend. Tell that to a parent who watches a teacher get excited when a student is excited.
It's been a long journey, Tori and I. Some ups and downs, good and bad. But, like her, I'm unrepentant in the work I've put in. And I have to live life that way going forward. I can feel bad for missing something.. for opportunities not taken, but I won't feel bad because I didn't try.
This past year, I've had meetings with Kossacks and Kansans and Missourians who want change in: Springfield, Missouri, Joplin, Missouri, Branson, Missouri, Kansas City, Missouri, Overland Park, KS, Lawrence, Topeka, Manhattan, Derby, DeSoto, Emporia, Paola, Pittsburg.
Why. Why do I care?
I care because I've seen what real love is, first hand. I care because I've seen real evil. I care because I know that I won't be alive to see the answers for everything, but when the story is told, I want to be the person who when you tell the story people say: damn, he did everything possible to help the right things happen.
Why. Why do I care?
I care because I know the point of life isn't amassing amazing amounts of money, working a deal, or screwing over our fellow man. I care because I know that with the right friends, I can be a part of the story of my child's future... and I want it to be a good one.
Tonight, when I'm asked: Why do I care? The answer isn't about why I care for my fellow man. My answer is a question: Why do you NOT care? Why do you NOT care about what is going to happen to people? Is there something wrong with caring about people? When is that a pejorative?
But the next time someone asks me at a rally for teachers why I care for teachers rights, I have this to say:
I watched a teacher fight her best against a schoolboard for the education of a physically disabled child.
I've seen teachers who went above and beyond and fought for the rights of my child.
How dare I suggest that I want a system where parents of other children, whether they are disabled or gifted, whether they struggle or succeed, should be denied that advocate that warrior in the classroom who lives in fear of losing a job because the position isn't want administration wants.
As someone who's worked with Rape and Sexual abuse, who has seen it first hand..
I challenge you, go talk to someone who has been through it and tell them you know better the hurt in their heart and taking away their options, their resources, their ability to recover away from them works.
As someone who has worked with the elderly in a retirement community, many who remain good friends years later..
I dare you to tell me that they are so greedy they want their children to have less opportunity than they did in the name of some vague tax cuts. I dare you to tell me that the elderly shouldn't worry about healthcare.
As someone who was a victim of a violent crime where a criminal used as an excuse he 'thought I was gay' for a while..
How dare you tell me as a straight man I shouldn't care about gay issues. They are my fellow human beings. They aren't pawns to be tormented because you feel it is the right thing to do. Do you think discriminatory practices work by saying 'we don't serve gay people..' Does a person just 'look' gay? Did I, even when sick then, look the part of being 'gay'? Does everyone need to be interrogated based on their sexual preferences to satisfy you? And what, in the end does it matter? If you target one person based on your stereotype, you are saying everyone who is not just like you is not OK.
I'm done being asked: Why do I care?
The only question I want to know is: Why don't you?