On Stephen Hawking and the Rise of the Geek

This morning, I woke to the news that Stephen Hawking had died. These days, celebrity deaths are nothing new. We are in a post-cult of personality age, when a surge of media options and advanced marketing abilities created a mass of celebrity. As time has gone by, those people have aged, and it is only natural that they have begun to pass. I note the ones that mattered to me, though over time, those tributes have been reduced to social media one-liners. Maybe I have become desensitized to the death of my influences in the face of their sheer quantity. Today, Hawking felt a bit different.

I’m not a man of science or numbers. The last physics class I took was Physics for the Non-Scientist.  In enrolled in Math for Decision-Makers just to get that pesky college math course out of the way. I work with words, sentence structures, aesthetics, and rhetoric. I like science for the stories it tells. I like math once a year to do my taxes. I’ve never even read A Brief History of Time. Yet, I know Stephen Hawking, and as a father, I am thankful for scientists life him.

Growing up, I didn’t want to be a smart kid. It felt un-cool to me in some ways, and I have to admit sandbagging my way through school. I under-achieved my way though high school and most of college. Only when I made a switch to English did I actually start applying myself to the work. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t regret all of those years I lost, because I was afraid to be seen as a geek. Not that it mattered. I’m pretty sure everyone saw through it.

Since then, fueled by the prevalence of intellectual men like Stephen Hawking (and probably the internet), geek culture has flourished. I don’t know if we will ever be “cool,” but we are legion. We have conventions and game nights and have invaded modern pop culture. We’ve discovered the throwaway ending moral lesson of Revenge of the Nerds is true. We all have a bit of geek in us, if we are truly honest about it.

So why is this important to me. Why did I feel the need to write a blog post about a man whose books I have never read, whose theories I only know through second-hand sources, who I know almost solely from television, when some of my personal artistic heroes got only a tweet?

It’s because I am a father. At ten years-old, my son intuitively understands things about math that I will probably never know. It makes sense to him. His brain works on some different wavelength, and quite frankly, his IQ tests intimidated me a bit. I never want him to feel that he has to hide that part of him out of the fear of being seen as uncool.

Don’t get me wrong. Elementary school is still a jungle, and I know it. My son gets picked on, sometimes. Some of classmates don’t understand him, and I don’t think he understands them. But he has found friends like him. They have “Nerd Night,” chess club, gifted projects, and academic competitions. They get to go to a plethora of conventions, comic book stores, and game nights. They have each other, and they get to see others like them in popular culture. That’s a pretty big deal.

I think Stephen Hawking was a big part of that. Academia has a tendency to alienate itself. Literary criticism is as guilty as anyone. We create terminology and use it in a way that makes our research pretty much inaccessible to those who don’t have the codex of passphrases needed to decipher it. Want proof? Pass your buddy some Jacques Derrida and see what he can make of it. Hawking took astro-physics, of all things, and made it accessible. He made it cool, and he has been followed by the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and others who have made the information age a bit more informational. They have had a profound influence upon the rise of geek culture, so to speak.

I hope my son will always feel free to be proud of his intellect. If he does, I hope he some day understand that Stephen Hawking was a part of that.

RIP Dr. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

The Invisible and the Forgotten

I didn’t give them much of a thought this morning. You probably didn’t either. Yet, they were there the entire time. I woke up in the house they built, cooled by the recently-repaired air conditioner. The warm shower woke me up thanks to the hot water they made possible. I got in the car they manufactured and drove down the road they maintain.

I stopped to get gas along the way. Gas they transported in tanks they built. I got to my office. They had taken my trash. I made my coffee, ignorant of the miracle of clean, filtered water at my beckoning call. I checked my email, not seeing an amazing infrastructure that allows me to contact a colleague on the east coast instantaneously.

There is a class of worker that is being forgotten in our country, and they are the ones we rely on the most. According to recent studies, employers are having a hard time finding skilled labor. They can’t find the sort of skilled welders, engineers, machinists, and other manufacturing personnel that they need to operate. Vocationally trained applicants are becoming rare.

Should we be surprised? A generation of children grew up being told that blue-collar work is some sort of last resort, and that they should be working with their minds, rather than their hands. It’s a shame, because this country was built by hands.

My dad is a master auto technician, and taught vocational technology classes for awhile. He told me about a couple of instances when parents would bring their kid in to see what he did. My dad would ask, “So you want to be a mechanic?” The parents would answer. “Well, he’s never done very well at school.”

This bothered my dad a lot. He knew that a modern auto technician requires certain skills, including geometry, math, and computer skills. A person becomes a good auto mechanic because he loves fixing cars, not because he never did well at school.

Recently, my dad told me that he has a trust in his will that will act a scholarship for high school graduates pursuing vocational fields. I have a lot of respect in his desire to support the blue-collar workers who will come after him.

There is a long tradition of blue-collar workers in my family. Mechanics, welders, repairmen, loggers, farmers, construction workers, truck drivers…they have been well-represented within generations of Campbells. My father always made sure that my sister and I helped him work on our vehicles, but I didn’t retain much of it. I seemed to lack that particular aptitude. I remember telling my mother that when I was older, I would just pay someone else to do it. Unfortunately, too many of my generation thought the same thing. Every time something breaks, I wish I had the skills of my father or grandfather and knew how to fix it, or even just where to start.

I’m not downplaying my talents. I don’t regret my academic education. The arts are important. Education is important. But so are vocational skills. Too many people have forgotten that. I hope they remember, before it is too late and the world begins to fall apart around us, with no one left who knows how to fix it.

Olympic Imagination

The Olympics are an amazing thing. I’m not necessarily referring to the athletic feats accomplished, even though they are spectacular. They are amazing in how they develop a sense of national pride and teach admiration for dedication.

A lot of the athletes at this year’s summer Olympics will never be rich because of their sports. Sure, these days, there are NBA players, although if the league has their way, that will soon change in favor of competition at a World Basketball Classic type tournament that the owners can use for financial profit. However, a majority of the athletes work day jobs, paid a majority of their way to the Olympics, and will go back to normal lives as soon as the games are over.

For some, such as gymnastics and diving, they will find their careers winding down early in their lives, replaced by athletes who are younger and more capable of the impossible feats they make look so easy.

Fencers aren’t looking at millions in professional leagues, neither are judokas, wrestlers, or many other athletes. Still, they come out every four years, and they represent their countries proudly. I have an immense amount of pride in how most of them represent my country. And now, as the father of a four-year old who has never seen the Olympics before, I have an immense appreciation for the inspiration they have given my son.

Every night, we have been watching the Olympics. He watches and sees that hard work and personal goals can be their own rewards. We have set up our own events at home. The living room became archery and shooting ranges. The basement, where I normally practice martial arts, became a boxing and taekwondo arena, the bed a wrestling and judo mat.

Now, when he runs, he gets down in invisible starting blocks and takes off on the sound of an imaginary gun. He says he is going to swim in the Olympics and he is going to go faster than everyone. He takes part in imaginary medal ceremonies, using medals I won, and sings an imaginary national anthem while covering his heart with his hand. He knows our flag, and he points it out wherever he sees it.

I know this influence won’t last forever. I know that it will be another four years before the summer Olympics will come along again. Still, there are worse things to learn as a four year-old, and in an era when so many people seem to be afraid to express pride in their country, I am thankful that we have the Olympics to make it okay again.

The medal count in London continues to climb. We see amazing feats as records continue to fall. We hear about countries that steal children away from their parents and put them in sports camps at young ages. We hear rumors of countries that only show appreciation for gold, and who punish failure. Yet, our society of free choice continues to perform well. The young men and women we sent to London continue to prove to be our finest.

I would like to personally thank all of the athletes competing at the London games this year.  Your performances have been amazing. Your example has been generally unfaltering. But your influence on my son has been priceless.


Punch the Boogey Man in the Throat, News, and Free Flash Fiction

Punch the Boogey Man in the Throat

Writer’s Block is a controversial subject among writers. Some see it as about as real as the monster in your closet. Others swear they have seen the beast up close and personal. I don’t believe in writer’s block as anything more than a manifestation of stress. I do believe in training to overcome stress. Read about my feelings on the subject in “Punch the Boogeyman in the Throat” at http://www.confabulatorcafe.com/2012/07/punch-boogeyman-throat/.

In other news, Insomnia Press has accepted a short story I wrote titled “Perfect 10” for use in their first issue. I’ll keep you all updated when that becomes available, but they are anticipating a late July release. Check out their website. http://www.insomnia-press.com.

Also, “Whose Woods These Are” can now be found in my pages link. It appeared last week at The Confabulator Cafe and is free to read. If you are interested in a horror story written in homage to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” it is the story for you.

As always, thank you for all of your support.


New Flash Fiction and the Latest from The Confabulator Cafe

“Collectors,” the flash fiction piece that appeared at The Confabulator Cafe last Monday, is now available here on This Average Life. Find it on the pages list to the right.

In my latest Confabulator Cafe blog, I write about what I consider to be my strengths as a writer, and what I enjoy about my writing. Check out “Artistic Endeavors in Granite and Clothespin.”

Thank you all for your continued support of my writing.

– Jack

Spring Resolutions

“Spring is the time of plans and projects.” – Leo Tolstoy, from Anna Karenina


An Orchard in Spring - Claude Monet

The cold bite of the north wind gives way to the gentle caress of the south. The perpetual scent of cut grass and oncoming rains warms the senses as a reminder that the true New Year is upon us.

If January is a time for resolutions, Spring is the time when those resolutions are given movement. You snap to, realizing the year is already a quarter way gone, and there is so much work to be done. Work means many different things to many different people.

The grass needs mowed, the trees trimmed, the garage swept. The eves need cleaned, the rainspouts unclogged, the house vented of the stale winter air. The sun motivates movement. It gets you to walk, ride bikes, jog, or play a million games that keep you company like the most faithful of childhood friends.

Winter-sore muscles stretch relaxed like flower petals reaching for the sun. There are so many things to do, things that will not get done on their own. There is work to be done on the house, thorough cleaning that has been put off for way too long, but there are others things as well. These things are more goal than true necessity.

There are stories to be written, a screenplay to be finished, a novel to re-write, a million words I want to write or need to write. Blogs, books, movies, short stories of all sizes. During spring time seems eternal.  Energy is boundless. Anything is possible. Lists of chores that once seemed imposing seem more welcoming and friendly, needing only an attached iPod and a smile.

This Fall, I will hopefully be returning to school, working on a Master’s Degree in Literary Theory. As such, Fall will be work, not only in my day job, but in my spare time.  Then, with November comes NaNoWriMo, and even more writing.

Right now, that all seems so far away, as if it is the life of another person whom I barely know. Spring is here, full of resurrection and life. The reality of Fall’s death is but a distant bleep on time’s radar.

Spring is indeed the time of plans and projects. There are a million things to do. Those New Year’s resolutions have been procrastinated too long. They have become Spring’s resolutions. I am ready to get started. How about you?



Site News – Script Frenzy and FREE FLASH FICTION!

Sometimes, when a piece of fiction gets published, the writer retains the rights after the initial publication.

I have decided to make some of that work available on my site, free of charge to my readers. If you look beneath my photo on the right side of your screen, you will see a new page featuring the first story I ever had published, Thousands Died This Morning.

Feel free to check it out. It will be available on this site as a free sample of my writing. Once the initial run of C Is for Cat has completed, I will post it here, as well. In the meantime, check it out at www.confabulatorcafe.com, and support all of the amazing writers featured there.

Also, lower on the right side of the frame, you will find a meter that will track my progress on my upcoming screenplay Close to Home, which I will be writing in April as part of Script Frenzy.

Thank you all. It is easy to keep writing when you get such great support.


– Jack

Our Lost Humanity

NOTE: I normally blog about writing and how it relates to life. However, I was so disgusted by what happened at Penn State this week that I could not help but blog my feelings. After all, in many ways that is what writing is about. In writing, we take life and distill it through words, expressing human nature. But, sometimes, our nature as humans is more important than the art that reflects it. This is one of those times.

There are things more important than our passions. Sometimes, we need to stand back and realize that. There are things, values, more important than any writing or book. There are morals more important than any film or art. There are justices more important than any sport.

People tend to forget that. They get wrapped up in the things they’ve used to define themselves, at the cost of universal humanity. We are writers, readers, athletes, liberals conservatives, artists, scientists…and as such, we forget that we are primarily human.

This week, a bunch of people at Penn State were reminded of the responsibility that we share as humans. It is our duty to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. These people are the young, the old, the infirmed, the otherwise unable to self-protect.

Children, especially, are in our charge. Why? Because we, as adults, take so much authority over them. We command them as teachers, as coaches, as parents, as leaders. Our children are told from an early age that they must listen and obey adults. We send them to other adults, whom we entrust with their safety.

Violations of that trust must be met immediately, and with severity. Those who stand by and allow it are as guilty as those who committed the atrocities in the first place.

People may disagree with me, but in my experience, there is no rehabilitating a pedophile. You cannot tell them to stop and expect it to happen. You most certainly cannot look the other way.

Last night, a bunch of students rioted because a beloved football coach got fired. I am ashamed of them, supposedly educated adults who were unwilling to hold a man accountable for acts that happened under his watch, simply because he won football games.

Football is not important in the grand scheme. Compared to the safety of our children, nothing is important. My son had been born for about a half a second before I realized that I would die for him. My greatest daily wish is for a single smile, a hug, an “I love you, Daddy.” I would defend him with my life, without hesitation.

But, I know my duty is much more than just the protection of my child. If I witness the abuse of another child, I must take action. This is what the athletic and academic administration of Penn State forgot. Pedophilia is not an internal employment matter. It is a public matter of justice. You do not call your boss when a co-worker is molesting children. You call the police. This is your duty, not just because some of you fall under the role of mandatory reporter, but because you ALL fall under the role of human being.

If you haven’t read the grand jury presentment, I urge you to. I warn you, it is a very hard thing to read through, but it is important. It is important to understand what it represents. It represents the destruction of nine young people who grew up to be most likely damaged adults.

Sexual abuse changes children for their entire lives. For most, there is no moving on. There is no getting over it. The abuse will haunt them for all time.

Victims of sexual abuse are victims of power abuse. It isn’t about sex, it is about power and control. Imagine, having lost all power and control over your own life, to have it all ripped away.

Regaining that control is a hard thing. Some people never manage it.

That is the real crime of sexual abuse, the destruction of humanity, of the victims, of the offenders, and of the witnesses. Joe Paterno and Penn State’s administration lost their humanity when they chose not to call the police.

They took away his keys and told him not to bring kids to the locker room anymore, essentially “don’t do it here.” That disgusts me. Out of sight is not out of mind, not for this. There is no forgiveness.

Every person who knew anything about it should be fired. Any who can be prosecuted for failure to report need prosecuted, and all of those who were victimized need to come forward and make sure that the man who stole their innocence stays in prison for the rest of his life. It is a chance for them to regain some control, the control he took from them.

There are things more important than football. It’s a shame so many people forgot that this week. I pray that none of them forget it again. I pray for the survivors who will have to relive the abuse they experienced, and I feel sorry that they have to watch while so many support a man who failed to support children when they needed him the most.

Joe Paterno may have been a good football coach, but he failed as a man. That cannot be forgiven. No more than the victims can will themselves to forget.

Fahrenheit 2011

The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame – Oscar Wilde

September is Banned Book Month.

I have to confess that I never realized just how important it was while I was in high school.  I was lucky enough to attend a school where The Scarlet Letter was assigned reading along with Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies.  My English teacher lent me a copy of Catch-22 and suggested I read it for a book report.  I remember reading these books and never thinking twice about it.

I wrote a paper on censorship and never caught that many of the books on the banned list could be found in my high school library.  Looking back, I appreciated it.  When I was studying to be a high school English teacher, I emailed my former instructor and told him exactly how much I appreciated it.  It took courage for him to teach a curriculum that he knew may come under attack.

That courage is lacking many places.  I don’t fault the teachers.  Especially in this economy, it is a dangerous thing to stand up when the rest of your world is telling you to sit down.  Teachers have been fired for daring to teach certain books.  Generally, the argument is based on racial slurs, sex, or violence.  Oddly enough, high school students have been exposed to all of these things, even without the masterpieces that they were denied the pleasure of reading.  In spite of school districts’ best efforts, all of these things are still a part of high school life.

Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953.  He imagined a world that must have seemed ridiculous at the time.  It was a world where firemen burned books, people spent all their time with their mind-numbing “families” and rebels committed entire books to memory.  Montag was the unlikely hero, a man who suddenly realized what he had been missing.

As years have passed, I’ve become more and more frightened by Bradbury’s prophetic work.

Not long ago, the 3D television was released.  Now, with the right equipment, we can be surrounded by television worlds of our choosing.  Unfortunately, more and more of that television has been reduced to mind-numbing reality shows featuring dancing with D-list celebrities and people who call themselves The Situation.

In Bradbury’s world, the book burning starts with the simple tearing out of pages that each group found offensive.  Recently, a university professor decided to neuter Mark Twain’s classic on racial tension in order to make it more accessible to students and less offensive to school boards.

Then, there is this quote:  With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar.

We, in fact, now live in a world where the arts are axed due to budget concerns, but every school has a football team.  State universities are cutting majors, while their affiliated athletic departments are thriving businesses, generating millions.  Academics has become the after-thought, the athletics the main attraction.

Recently, I was told there might be a move to remove literature from high schools.

I wonder what book I should start memorizing.

Fiction may be subjective, in many ways.  It may not be as test friendly as math or science, but it is just as important.  Fiction allows us to look critically at a subject from a new perspective.  It allows us to examine the darkest and brightest  aspects of our humanity through a different lens.  Fiction is about possibilities.  There was a time in this society when we were driven by possibilities.  We imagined where we could go next, and what it might mean to us.  I shudder to think of where we will end up without that.

Animals are content to live their lives based on survival.  Being human has always been more than that.  Since primitive man first drew on a wall or banged a drum, we have known there is more to this world than simple existence.  Math and science are survival tools.  The arts give us a reason to survive.

Literature lets us see the world as it was, through the perspective of a writer who lived it, rather than a scholar who judges it from a distance.  Literature lets us see how the world could be, good and bad.  A world without literature is a world without stories, without heroes.  A world without heroes has nothing left for which to strive.

Do I believe every student of every age should be able to read every book?  Of course not.  But, I guarantee you, our children see more offensive material in movies, music, and their real lives than you are going to find in any of the books on the banned list.  We aren’t trying to protect our children, we are trying to protect ourselves from the embarrassment of having to actually talk to our children.  Rather than discuss important things, we would rather pretend they didn’t exist.  Our children are not stupid.  They deserve better than that.  A generation who grows up without controversy is a generation ill-prepared for life.  Real life is never afraid to offend us.

If you have a high school kid who likes to read, I encourage you to expose him to some of the books on the banned list.  Read them yourself.  Discuss them.  Love them.  Share them.  Do it, before it is too late.

Jules Verne saw a world where men walked on the moon.  It happened.  William Gibson imagined a world were information flowed worldwide like water.  It came to pass.  Ray Bradbury saw a world without books ending in war.  Are you going to be able to outrun the hound?

This is a link to a list of frequently challenged books.  Find one you haven’t read and take it in.  Devour it.  Love it.


The Horror of 9/11

Ten years ago, the world changed.  9/11 is the most significant event of my generation.  With any luck, it will be  the last of it’s kind.  But I doubt it.  There has always been terror, and there have always been those who wield it.  Some, like myself and other writers, wield terror creatively, not to impose fear, but to face them.  In facing our fears, we find out who we are.  By looking into the shadows, we expose our personalities to the brightest lights.

The best horror has always been a reflection of society’s fears.  Vampires and werewolves were born out of superstition.  Other monsters, such as Frankenstein and Godzilla, were born out of science and nuclear war.  These days, we have no need of superstition, nor monsters.  Our fears lie waiting behind much more familiar doors.

Our greatest threat is human.  Humans are capable of far more destruction than any monster.  As we found ten years ago, our monsters may be anywhere and strike at any time.  We live in a world where a simple search on your computer may find pedophiles next door.  Mothers and fathers kill their children.  We are connected by the anonymous thread of the internet, never knowing who is on the other side.  Yet, we post everything about ourselves and our loved ones for all to see.  Meanwhile, there are those out there who would use that information to harm our children.

This is the world we live in, an age of enlightenment.  We know the capabilities of humankind, both good and bad.  9/11 was a reflection of that knowledge.

You may have seen the terrorists, at the airport, in their cars, out and about before the attacks.  They weren’t hiding in caves.  They were living among us.  They committed a horrible act that most of us could have never imagined would take place in the United States.  Two structures synonymous with our success toppled in a matter of minutes.  The horrified and hopeless jumped to their deaths.  Almost three thousand people died on that day.

But then, the most amazing thing happened.  People ran in to the collapsing buildings trying to save others.  Others dug through the wreckage looking for survivors.  A group of passengers on a hijacked plane said, “Let’s roll.” and showed the terrorists real strength. We came together as a nation, paid our respects, and healed.

We will never forget.  We saw our greatest fears come to life, but that isn’t what will be remembered.  We will remember the great strength shown  in its wake.  Today, we remember the heroes of 9/11, those who died and those who lived.  We remember the day we were thrust into the darkness and found our greatest light.  We remember where we were, how we felt, and how it changed everything.

Ten years ago, I was a journalism student, waking up to a phone call from my best friend.  He said, “Dude, we are under attack.”  I will remember that phone call for the rest of my life.  I will remember the heroic acts of those who refused to give in to fear.  I will remember their affect on me.  I will never forget.  I doubt you will, either.

Our fears make us human.  Our ability to overcome them makes us special.  God bless the heroes who that showed us that.