Sunday, November 11, 2018

Success or failure is a product of both heritage and effort

“Don’t be so arrogant; you’re not as almighty as you think.”
That is what my better self tells me, and my better self is always right. I am not solely responsible for my successes or my failures. Like all of us, I am a complicated amalgam of my heritage and efforts.
Let me explain. Luck was with me when I was born. I am an American white male in good health and respectable intelligence, graced with parents who worked hard and remained married. In other words, my heritage was adequately, some would say notably, rich. As such, I am privileged. Yes, there are those who are more privileged than I but only in number, not in kind.
Millions of others are not so lucky and are handicapped by their gender (or gender identity), race, social/economic standing, and physical/mental capacities. They are the underprivileged.
The other half of the formula is effort. Nurtured by my privileged status, I have worked hard. I have reaped a university education, earned a decent living, and pursued my passion for the arts.
Conversely, when heritage is meager, the story is likely to become more strident. Many struggle to find their way. They lack initiative and are easily distracted or derailed. Sometimes, the promise of success is completely extinguished.
Here is my point. Our success is not solely a product of our effort, our self-governance. It is the product of heritage and effort.
Do not be so quick to condemn the misnamed slackers. You do not know the steepness of their climb. For when the slope is arduous, effort tends to dwindle and, with time, stall and arrest. For example, it is easy to study when the desk lamp is bright, the room is warm, and the belly is full. It is not nearly so effortless when deprived of these essentials.
There are those who overcome their impoverished heritage, who, despite the odds, generate the will to break through the barriers and elevate themselves to positions of influence (although, too often, lagging respect). Those people are the true heroes. (In contrast, I am no hero. My life has been entirely too easy.) Such luminaries include Stephen Hawking, Thomas Edison, Jesse Owens, Helen Keller, Fredrick Douglas, Victor Frankl, and, most recently, the Pakistani schoolgirl advocate for human rights Malala Yousafzai. Although these people are inspiring, they are uncommon exceptions. Our 2.2 million American prisoners—56% Black or Hispanic—are more representative of the systemic interplay between heritage and effort.

Can we do this? Can we begin to honor the people who are battling to beat the odds? And can we stop fawning over the excessively privileged, especially those who merrily coast on the silken advantages of their heritage? They are no heroes; they are only the fabulously fortunate.

Friday, July 6, 2018

I am the invisible man

I am the invisible man, which is strangely horrific. I can flick my ears, lace my fingers, even witness the rise and fall of my chest with every breath, which makes me wonder if I am a ghost and only visible to myself.

My translucence began two years ago when I offered my services free of charge to regional educators. I began by telephoning high school principals who refused to return my calls. My next tactic was to write to principals and teachers. The thundering silence made me question my existence, so I created a five-minute video (see the video below) that highlighted my half-century experience as an educator. I sent that video to principals and the superintendent of schools with the hope that their screens would not snap to black when they pressed “play.” Perhaps I’m invisible on screen as well for there was no response.

Finally, I set up face-to-face meetings with two principals, quickly presented my proposal, and, with one principal, forced him to watch my five-minute video. At last, I might have been visible because both principals said they would recommend me to their staffs. Those meetings were followed, once again, by an infinite black hole of silence.

How could that happen? After all, the only compensation I sought was the reward of helping young people become the best versions of themselves. Whatever the administrators' misgivings, all doubts could be easily allayed by testing the water—by simply allowing me to correct a single essay or critique a single speech. If I offered little value, they could send me home to tend to my garden in silence.

The nature of invisibility

            Many people know about invisibility:
·         Introverts among extroverts
·         Artists among engineers
·         Liberals among conservative
·         Millennials among baby boomers
·         Nonbelievers among believers
·         Minorities among majorities
             and vice versa.

Perhaps you are invisible. If so, your only alternative is to keep banging on the door of blindness, like all revolutionary ghosts who would not stand for institutionalized oppression—the suffragettes, the civil rights protesters, and all the journalists and historians who refused to violate their covenant with truth.

            As for me, I take solace in the lines of Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I will not be deterred. Why? Because I can still make a difference. Humility be damned, I’m a master teacher. I’m a doctor of psychology but also an entertainer. As such, I know how to reach teenagers. I am an authority in English, speech, drama, musical theater, and counseling.

Surely someone somewhere can benefit from that expertise. I just need to pound on the bolted doors until someone with eyes to see and ears to hear releases the latch, swings the door open, and says, “Come in, Allen. I’ve been expecting you. Let’s put you to work.”

Monday, June 25, 2018

Would you tear off the wings of a monarch butterfly for a million dollars?

My brother, Ray, was always more athletic than I, which is not something that I like to admit because brotherly rivalry may be the last puerile impulse to be tamed. On the rare occasions I beat him playing horse on the Emerson Elementary basketball court, it was because I reverted to my patented trick shots, like my blind, backward bucket launch, a shot that my brother would protest with a squawking voice because it was not an orthodox play that anyone would use in a real game.

Ray particularly excelled as a softball pitcher, able to throw a whirlwind fastball that made me jump out of the batter’s box out of raw fear—even when the pitch streaked through the center of the strike zone.

He had an arm with pinpoint accuracy—no question. He proved it in the summer of 1960 on the banks of Newman Lake. Ray was twelve and I thirteen.

It was a cool, still evening. We spoke quietly, feeling wonderfully languid after a full day of swimming, waterskiing, and sunbathing. The sky was cloudless and the water a blue-green plane of glass. We were standing mid-calf in lake water, watching the fingerlings swirl around our ankles like shinning orbiting moons.

It was a chirping robin’s call that interrupted our reverie. Ray looked up and spotted the bird mid-way up a tall sycamore tree.

“Watch this,” Ray said, selecting a smooth, flat stone from under his feet. He drew his arm back and let it fly.

It was a direct hit. The bird tumbled mindless, wingless to the ground. It was dead still.

“What a shot,” I said. “I’m gonna call you the ‘bird killer.’” It was a stupid thing to say, in the way thirteen-year-old boys often say stupid things. The idiocy of my comment fully registered when I looked into my brother's eyes.

The blood had drained from his face. He looked sick as if he would throw up in the next heartbeat. “I didn’t mean it,” he said, his voice full of remorse that rose from the depths of his gut. “I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to scare him; I didn’t wanna kill him.”

“I know, Ray,” I said. I wanted to hug him and tell him that everything was okay. But it didn’t seem right; nothing was okay. It was personal, and my embrace would distract Ray’s need to sort out his own grief and shame.

Decades later, I came across an article that reviewed a self-report survey that measured morality. One question caught my eye:

Would you tear off the wings of a monarch butterfly for a million dollars?

I once put the question to attendees at a seminar I was leading on ethics. The class was divided. Most said “no,” but several said “yes.” A catholic nun argued that a lot of good could be done with a million dollars. A burly man, who looked like he drove a pickup with a gun rack and a bumper sticker that read Duck hunters need love too, said, “Hell, for a million dollars, I’d eat it.”

When rethinking the question, I asked my wife what she would do. Her face scrunched in disgust. “Why would you even ask such a question? Of course not.”

“Not ever?”


I have not put the question to my brother. I don’t need to; he would be equally horrified.

Call it his unique nature or, if you prefer, divine design. Whatever the source, my brother has a tender heart. He helps those in need; he champions people on the fringe; he lowers and drives his shoulder into building community.

Those two incidents—the felling of a robin and a profound survey question—have both haunted and inspired me for years. They both represent a pivotal moment for any conscientious human being, a time to be reflective, to ask, “What are the important things in life.”

For me, I am disgusted by all braggarts who glory in causing harm: the grinning hunters alongside their kills, yes, but also the greedy, the heartless, the rabid nationalists whose perverted definition of empathy is “behavior that makes my life easier, more luxurious, more grandiose, more privileged.”

In contrast, I will always exalt a person who celebrates the dignity of all living things, of those who know the danger of throwing a smooth stone and grieve—as my brother grieved—when the stone hits it mark.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

BOING and the power of commitment

This video is a 13-minute presentation I offered at Northwest Nazarene University, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the class of 1968, the year I graduated from NNU.

I quickly describe how the pivotal and decisive crossroads in our lives require a faithful commitment. But here is the happy news: if we are loyal to our commitment, we are abundantly rewarded with peace, love, and joy—perhaps not constantly or supremely, but, as a whole, steadily throughout our entire lives.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Laughing Out Loud: How Today's Language Made Me Crazy

I’m old, and it’s all my fault. I ate every day, went to bed at night, and invariably woke up the next morning. The next thing I knew, I was tottering to the bathroom for the third time in the middle of the night to dispense a tablespoon of liquid the color of brake fluid, which makes sense because for decades the damn broth has put the “brakes” on any semblance of a good night’s sleep.

I’m getting carried away before I’ve started. My point is this: I’m old, which may be the reason I’m feeling so cranky. Everything seems to upset me these days: rap music, tongue piercings, and facial tattoos—to name a few. And when did electricians and plumbers start charging $85 an hour for connecting a wire or unclogging a sink? But mostly I’m miffed by today’s vampiristic attacks on language.

Okay, I know that speech does change and that there is always a new form of twisted underground chatter among youngsters to give them a sense of identity. For heaven’s sake, when I was a kid, the secret language was pig Latin, which, by the way, is created by transferring the initial consonant or consonant cluster to the end of the word and adding “ay.” In that way, “really stupid” becomes “eally-ray upid-stay.” I could never get the hang of it; it just sounded really upid-stay to me—and more work than it was worth.

I admit that we said some pretty dumb things in our day, but it seems to me that today’s youth have taken language to a new septic low. And, what’s worse, the new jargon has been taken up by perfectly sane and socially responsible adults—some of them matching my age!

Time for a few examples. Here are four expressions that make me want to go to bed early.

No problem
This is the young person’s response to requests for courtesy or service. The exchange plays out like this:

“Excuse me, where would I find the bathroom?”

“Straight down the hall and to the right,” says the twenty-something-year-old with a tattoo of her ex-boyfriend’s name on her neck.

“Thank you very much.”

“No problem,” she says over her shoulder as she strides away.

That sends me into a tirade of internal dialogue. No problem? Was there a possibility that my question might be problematic? If I had asked for directions on a bad day, would you have punched me in the bread basket? Are you being magnanimous for taking a moment out of your day to help another human being find his way to the John? Oh, I’m sorry, you don’t know the word “magnanimous”? It means agnanimous-may.

Dis, dissed, dissing (transitive verb, if you were wondering)
As far as I can tell, “dis” is shorthand for “disrespect” or, on occasion, “criticize.” “I’m not dissing you when I say you’re ugly; I’m just tellin’ you the truth.” Or “You have the nerve to dis my driving skills?”

Is there anything wrong with the verbs “disrespect” or “criticize”? I’m sorry, but “dis” is not a word, it’s a prefix. The antonym of “respect” is created by attaching “dis” to the beginning of the root. It’s a nifty tool. Try it, you might like it.

So, what if we only spoke in prefixes? Let’s take another prefix—“un”—which also reverses the meaning of a word. But without the root, understanding the message is impossible. If you said, “He was really un the other day,” does that mean that he was un-happy? Un-forgivable? Un-dressed? There is simply no way of knowing.

But wait a minute. Maybe I’m being too crotchety. Maybe we should speak entirely in prefixes. Just think how much time we would save by saying things like, “I de the para on my tri,” Which could mean, “I deciphered the paradox on my tricycle,” or—less likely, but still possible—“I defrosted the parachute on my triceratops.” You figure it out and get back to me when you have the answer.

Totes presh adorbs
Young people are equal-opportunity corruptors of the English language. Their abuse is not limited to verbs. They also take great joy in snipping the sense out of adverbs and adjectives.

It took my friend Melinda, a street-smart Millennial, to teach me that “totes presh adorbs” means “totally precious and adorable.” It’s a descriptor applied to budding romance, cuddly puppies, or cute babies. I’m glad that she explained because my best guess was “Tote bags for preschool doughboys,” which didn’t make any sense to me either.

So, if adjectives can be used to paint a world of sugar and spice, how about adjective splinters to describe the things that are nasty. To that end, I have invented a new expression: “ex vi vish” or—to squeeze it into one word—“exvivish,” meaning “extremely vile and vicious”? Exvivish! Pretty cool, huh? Start using it around the water cooler at work. “Oh, man, the boss was really exvivish this morning.” “Yeah, I’ve never seen him so exvivish.” People will think you’re really like . . . uh . . . with it, dude.

Since I’m focused on clipped words, allow me to end with the acronym “lol.” It took me three years to realize that lol did not mean “lots of love,” but, to my horror, “laughing out loud.”

Let me tell you, that was a letdown. Whenever I wrote a few words on Facebook that was slightly humorous, I would often receive a friendly comment or two that ended with lol. “Oh, Allen, you tickle my funny bone. Lol.” “You are a CRAZY man. Lol.”

I was feeling the love. I was thinking, I’m just too darn hot. Everybody loves me. And then I learned the truth of the matter. In reality, all the love was really laughter—nor was it clear if the laughter was a friendly titter or a malicious guffaw.

It felt like the night in Las Vegas when I was strolling down the street past the time when every other reasonable town was asleep. A beautiful woman with high heels and great stems was walking my way. No, she was not “walking”; she was sashaying. When I was close enough to make out the details of her figure—firm and curvaceous—she smiled at me. When I was close enough to make out her ravish-me-red lipstick and thick, extra-long, eyelashes, she lowered her chin, lifted her bare shoulder, and puckered her lips.

I tugged at my belt and thought, God, I’m good looking. And then when she had passed, it suddenly hit me like an interstate smashup: She was a lady of the night and I was her unsuspecting mark. I swallowed a warm wad of delusion, while my stomach seized up and gurgled. I was not her prince; I was only a walking, talking dollar sign. I don’t know when I ever felt so devalued, so defiled.

So there it is: a few gripes about contemporary language. And to tell you the truth, it has made me a little depressed. I think I’ll go to bed early tonight, which is sad. I’ll just wake up before dawn—one day older and a little more grumpy—and start my day by mourning the trashing of language in a plugged-in, checked-out, hopped-up world made for people who don’t understand why “rap music” is an oxymoron. Humph.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Making of an Artist

I’m passionate about the arts—both visual and performance—which is why I decided to create this special video tribute entitled “The Making of an Artist.”
Artists will endure almost anything for their professions. Writers will brave months of dreaming and researching and plotting and rewriting—and rewriting again. Painters will paint all day and late into the night--often on huge, expensive canvases. Dancers will practice for years, torturing their feet, and stretching beyond incomprehensible limits. Musicians will sit at the piano for hours every day, practicing one scale after the other—even when they would rather be hanging out with their friends. Metal sculptors will work through heat and ice to create gargantuan works of art whose heights are only surpassed by their expenses. Actors will audition, rehearse, memorize thousands of lines, and study the craft of acting throughout their entire careers. Photographers will study the art and technology of creating powerful images—and do it all in very expensive studios.
Being an artist is demanding—no question. So what is it that draws people to the arts? What are their missions? What brings them joy? What challenges them? And what are their recommendations to young artists? These are the questions that we posed to seven professional artists.

Dancer ReneĆ© Adams has been a professional dancer, dance educator, and arts administrator for fifteen years. Recently, her work has focused on implementing programs that bring dance experiences into community centers and K through 12 
Photographer Richard Breshears begn his career as an enthusiastic and skillful amateur. Soon, his talent and passion transformed his burgeoning hobby into a booming profession. With 20 years of award-winning images to his credit, Richard is a Master of Photography and a Certified Professional Photographer.
Painter Heidi Elkington hales from the Pacific Northwest and enjoys using paint to explore what it means to be human. Her work is often characterized by the liberal use of color and the themes of life and death.
Musician Debi eng started her musical journey with piano lessons at age five. In 1994, she became a high school music educator. Add to that a host of professional gigs dating back to 1979 and continuing to this day. One could easily say that music is her life--24/7.
Author Maureen McQuerry is a novelist, poet, and teacher. She taught middle school, high school, and college for twenty years and is a frequent presenter at schools and literary conferences. She has published three novels for young adults, and her poetry can be found in many literary journals.
Sculptor Joseph Rastovich has been creating large steel sculptures since he was fourteen-years old. He has completed thirteen public sculptures and participates in many of the top art festivals in the Western United States. As a bonus, he is also a musician, dancer, and writer who strives to create space for others to express themselves.
Actor Michael Thomas is an established stage actor with many leading roles to his credit, including Of Mice and Men, The 39 Steps, Same Time Next year, and Frost Nixon.  He also provides voice over and acting services for both film projects and commercial industries.  A native of the Tri-Cities, Washington, he is an active member of the regional theatre communities.
Allen Johnson is a full-time doctor of psychology and a part-time author, actor, painter, jazz vocalist and pianist, photographer, and videographer.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Secret to Getting Along: Accept the Differences

It was the summer of 1972. My wife, Nita, and I had been married for three years, so we were still learning about each other’s idiosyncrasies. I already knew that Nita was a gentle soul, that she never raised her voice in anger because, well, she was never angry. I knew that she had a fondness for corn tortillas, beans, and rice, a remnant of her youth growing up in Guatemala. What I did not know then—not really—was that our core personalities were wildly different.
We were on a secluded Mediterranean beach in the south of Spain. The water, darkly turquoise, was lapping at the fringe of land in rolling rhythms of rise and recede. The morning sun bathed my bare chest in lavish penetrating fervor like victory or young love or the thrill of art conceived and accomplished. I was enraptured.
“Can you believe this?” I asked. “Here we are in Spain. The land of Queen Isabella, Pablo Picasso, and Miquel de Cervantes.” My voice was starting to rise up in rhythm like a Southern Baptist preacher: “They shall mount up with wings of eagles.”
I couldn’t help myself and why should I? I had dreamed about Spain since I was sixteen—thanks to Ernest Hemingway and his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. And now I was there, smothering in the sweet, venerable sunlight of Iberia.
I was rhapsodizing now to my wife who listened politely, placidly, her head tilted like a French poodle trying to make some sense out of her master’s gibberish. “This is it,” I said. “This is the time of my life—my rebirth, my . . . my . . . my . . .  destiny.”
And Nita said, with all the calm banality of reading a grocery list, “Uh-huh.”
“Uh-huh? What do you mean ‘uh-huh’? I questioned, my voice beginning to squeak. “Aren’t you excited? Aren’t you thrilled down to the molecules of your soul?”
“Of course,” she said serenely—or was it morosely. “I’m really excited.”
It was then that I realized that when it came to expressiveness, my wife and I were measured in a way that was vastly different. On a scale of expressiveness, every human being is calibrated one through ten. But the scale is compressed for some—12345678910—expanded for others—1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10. You see, Nita was at her ten in expressiveness. BUT HER TEN WAS EQUAL TO MY THREE. It’s a hard concept to reconcile when you are in the throws of passion—standing at the water’s edge of a land that is the goddess of passion. Hard to reconcile, yes, but nevertheless true.
Of course, the compression or expansion of a personality scale is not limited to expressiveness. The phenomenon applies to any emotion: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation—you name it.
Also understand that scalar compression or expansion is not an indicator of goodness—one calibration is no better or worse than the other.  It only indicates a difference in personality. Parenthentically, there is this exception: when emotion is so compressed or so expanded that it places the individual or others in danger, as in suicidal depression or maniacal rage. But those cases are extremes.
When Nita and I were in Spain, my arms were flailing with excitement, whereas Nita may have, in moments of unchecked rapture, blinked her eyes. That did not make either of us better—just distinctive.
Couples who can recognize and live with the differences will survive, just as Nita and I have survived—and thrived—over the last fifty years. And that’s something I can get excited about. YAHOO.
Sorry, Nita; I lost control for a moment.