I think it was when I was in third grade when it happened. There was a girl named…well, let’s just call her Becky, even though that wasn’t her real name. And no, this isn’t one of those tragic love stories or missed connections or whatever that seem to be the popular rage these days. No, the story was pretty simple. She had a stuffed frog named Elmer. He was a little bean bag sort of thing. And he used to sit, folded up in a seated position on her desk. A friend of mine named Erick and I used to grab Elmer and play catch him with him, constantly alarming “Becky” who obviously adored her little, cute pet. We were brats. That’s what brats do.
Anyway, fast-forward another year, and we’re in fourth grade. “Becky” started leaving Elmer on my desk, all folded in his seated position. I think Erick stopped playing with him around that time as well. At the end of the school year, “Becky” gave Elmer to me, saying: “He seems more your friend these days than mine.”
Well, Elmer’s had quite an illustrious career and life. Over the years, Elmer was with me all the time. In the Army, he used to hide away in my cargo pocket, and when were in villages with young kids around, I’d take Elmer out and toss him to the kids. They’d play with him, but they always remembered to give him back. Over the years, people used to call him Lieutenant Elmer, and I probably wouldn’t be wrong to say he’s done more for American foreign policy than the State Department. He was loved by everybody.
Anyhoos, years later, I was on Facebook and as we normally do, I ended up making contact with “Becky” again. One of the first things I told her in a message was “I still have Elmer to this day.” Her response was jarring: “Who’s Elmer?” She didn’t even remember him.
That conversation has resonated with me more and more these days. And it got me thinking, which is probably never a good thing when it comes to being a writer.
Last night, I made the realization that aside from 13 novels, 4 novellas, 2 short story book collections, a book of poetry, 94 short stories and a plethora of various articles, I have nothing to show for my decades of being here. Furthermore, it also helped me realize that without those few accomplishments, I’d probably not have made much of a mark during my time here. Arguably, I might have made much of an accomplishment even with those accomplishments.
And part of that feels more like a sense of not fitting in and/or ever feeling like I actually belonged to anyone or anything.
You might think that getting into West Point might be considered an accomplishment. I never fit in there. I was always around people who were from a different social class who often treated me like I was an outsider crashing an exclusive party I wasn’t supposed to know about. In the Army itself, I had a few friends, but mostly I was that “other” guy that you kind of remembered, but usually because I happened to be around someone even more memorable.
I remember over the years, a lot of people used to claim they’d read “You Can’t Go Home Again” by Thomas Wolfe, only to realize most had seen the title, figured out the basic premise of the novel and then bluff their way through, kind of like I used to see graduate students doing when they hadn’t read the required reading, but realized they had to present an argument in class or be found out to be a bad student. If you read the book (and you should), there’s a great recurring character who is an old Asian man who lives in the upstairs apartment from the protagonist. He’s constantly yelling down that George Webber, the main character, is “trampling” and making too much noise. This one character I remember more than Webber, and I suspect it may be that I identify with him a lot more because we both live our lives, realizing we’re only significant because of our proximity to the important characters in our stories.
Looking back on all the years, after high school, I never really had any close friends. Oh sure, I have acquaintances, and family, but that’s about it. I have co-workers, colleagues and employees, but that’s a far cry from having that one or two people in your life that you hang out with, share secrets with and do all sorts of things that you wouldn’t dare reveal to other people (okay, maybe I’m overthinking that one; not everyone has a cadre of conspirators in their aura). I had one really good friend throughout grade school and one really good friend in high school. Neither of them stayed in communication with me. When I attempted to contact them years later, we were passing ships in the night.
I never really had a significant other. I had a girlfriend once who dumped me and someone I thought was my significant other who just disappeared one day and then showed up later, married. I had one woman tell me she loved me once, only to not remember telling me that a few months later. Apparently, our love story had new writers, and the new ones didn’t read the old scripts before getting the job.
Which is probably why I focused so much of my life on writing. It’s a solitary exercise, and it can sometimes serve to create a universe where these sorts of deficiencies don’t exist. Years back, I was convinced this was all I was going to do with my life, especially after I got my first book contract. And then the second one. I’m on my 17th book now, and I still don’t feel like I’ve done anything of significance.
Usually, the story moves onto a lifetime of success after that, but that doesn’t always happen. My life has been somewhat of a tragedy more than a rags-to-riches story. Not always does the boy get the girl, the entrepreneur get the success or the writer become Stephen King. Right after my second book was accepted for publication, we had the Internet revolution, and it happened while I was serving in the military. I went from on the path to success to literally witness the birth of Amazon and ten billion writers all self-publishing their novels into the world. Being a writer was no longer a career unless you were somehow either already famous or capable of building a brilliant social network following. Living a life of being picked last in kickball doesn’t really put one in that successful category.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t an article about depression or about being depressed. Cause I’m not. I’m just a bit more cognizant of my minor place in the grand scheme of things. I suspect that that’s where most of us tend to reside.
But what I’ve started to suspect is that there are a lot of people out there who are just like me. We have become consumers rather than participants in the greater process of life. And those numbers are becoming extremely lopsided, so that more and more people are becoming the consumers, and there are really very few actual designers, and bunch of people who pretend to be that, but are actually consumers who just get more attention. You might wonder what I’m talking about, but that’s basically the process of being an “influencer”. This is a class of a society that pretends to be a producer, designer or creator, but in reality, they’re just as worthless as the rest of us consumers in that they spend the majority of their time trying to become somewhat relevant by just being. But they’re not. But we pretend they are.
I started to realize this during the last presidential election. In the old days (not that long ago), people used to ask me for my political opinions, probably because I have a doctorate in political science and a masters in communication. Plus, I had done stuff. Real stuff.
But this time around, I found myself the recipient of information and shut out completely of being able to even offer a voice. If you’re not a celebrity or an already established talking head, your voice is practically silent. This time around, most of the voices were coming over social media, which means that mostly we were hearing from celebrities and people who had a huge following. Not the people with actual answers, but just people who were capable of creating a social impact by being popular, which means if you had solutions, no one cared. What kind of gave away the whole facade was whenever I tried to engage these “popular” people in conversations, only to realize that my only contribution to them was to be one of the numbers of people who supported or followed them; they didn’t care what we had to say, unless it mirrored what they were thinking already.
I started to notice the parting of the waters years back during the Clinton Administration when there was a notification that the new administration was going to be hiring professionals to help run the country. I applied. Didn’t even get a “no, thanks.” And it’s not like I don’t have the qualifications; I just don’t have any clout, and to be honest, never will. I tried again during the Obama Administration because they had a sign-up sheet on their website when they were first transitioning into the government. No call back. No “no, thanks.” I’ll be honest, I even tried to offer my services to the Trump Administration, especially when they hit a point where I felt they could really use the help. Nothing. No, “no, thanks” or even “You’re fired!” Honestly, I would have felt privileged for even that.
The point is: I think we’ve hit a point where there are a lot of people in our ranks who feel like they’re useless to society, and we’re only treated as consumers to help the coffers of people who have been deemed “useful”. If you want to start exploring why this country is so horribly divided, you might actually examine what I just said. When people feel they aren’t relevant, they turn to avenues where they might feel they’re being listened to. It’s mostly why we had Trump in the White House instead of Hillary Clinton; he was put in office by a large segment of the country that feels the powers that be just don’t listen to them, and don’t actually care. It’s also why the pollsters got 2016 and 2020 so wrong; they can’t seem to find this invisible voting bloc that exists mainly because they’ve made such a great showing of ignoring them for so long that those people aren’t responding when they start trying to poll them.
That’s not going to change.
Anyway, I do have solutions to all this, but the reality is: No one cares. No one listens. And everyone is convinced he or she can man- or woman-splain solutions, even though they’re oblivious to actually being able to figure out the problems. Let’s just say that a large segment of the last few generations have been dismissed as not being cool or relevant.
Which kind of brings me back to my frog Elmer and my encounter with “Becky”. Becky kind of exemplifies the problem that exists right now in this country. When you forget about the people who put effort into caring about you in the past, you’ve taken the first step towards creating a future where, when added to the millions of people who are paid this same type of response, we have a country of people who are so disaffected and disconnected that we end up with a future where people care mostly for themselves, and only the ones who had access to society’s goods are going to be the ones who succeed going forward. But that success only means so much as the rest of civilization collapses behind them.