The Big 50

From the Omaha World Herald:

After 50 years, Nebraska’s Radio Talking Book Service is finding new ways to help blind people
Emily Nitcher May 7, 2024 Updated May 10, 2024

As 11 a.m. approaches, Ryan Osentowski waits for his cue.
He puts on a pair of headphones and gets ready to speak into the microphone in front of him.
Any second now, MeMe Smith and Larry Thornton will finish the first hour of reading that day’s editions of the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star on Radio Talking Book Service.
“It is time for our star across the glass here, Ryan, to take over the mic because we’re going to take a short break …” Thornton says, looking through the studio window at Osentowski.
Osentowski, the station manager, takes it from there.
“Thank you very much, Larry and MeMe …,” Osentowski says before introducing a string of advertisements and public service announcements.
The break will give Smith and Thornton, both volunteers, an opportunity to stretch their legs and rest their voices before jumping back on air to finish reading Nebraska’s two largest newspapers to thousands of listeners from Omaha to Scottsbluff in the Panhandle.
For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Radio Talking Book Service provides programming for listeners who are blind, low vision or print impaired. It broadcasts over the radio and internet on radios and smart speakers given to listeners at no cost.
“We are providing for a group of people that most people don’t care about,” said Osentowski, who is blind.
Smith and Thornton’s broadcast lasts about two hours. Then Osentowski fills the 22 other hours of the day with pre-recorded programming from more than 80 volunteers who provide more than 90 hours of programming a week.
The volunteers also read 21 regional newspapers like the Fremont Tribune, Grand Island Independent and Columbus Telegram. They read the weekly grocery and department store ads so people can plan their shopping trips around what’s on sale. One volunteer reads recipes, making sure her broadcast corresponds with upcoming holidays and events.
The voices on the radio have changed as volunteers come and go, but this year marks 50 years of Radio Talking Book Service being a constant source of news and entertainment for the people who need it.
Osentowski used the recent tornadoes in Nebraska and Iowa as an example.
“What just happened, sure, people can listen to their radio and television, but what about the aftermath?” he said. “Who’s going to tell them about the damage in Elkhorn? Who’s going to read them the newspaper? We do it. We bring information from newspapers, magazines and the otherwise printed word that they can’t read themselves.”
Most of the listeners, 82%, are over the age of 65, said Bekah Jerde, executive director of Radio Talking Book Service. She said many of them have aged into vision loss and want to reconnect to the things they used to enjoy. One woman told Jerde she subscribed to The World-Herald for 50 years and missed it when she could no longer read it herself.
Services for the blind change with the times
While the mission of Radio Talking Book Service has remained the same since Dr. Craig Fullerton founded it in 1974, technology has not. That led to some tough conversations between Jerde and others in 2016.
In 2015, the service had 574 documented listeners. Listenership had plummeted for several reasons, including the 2009 requirement that television stations stop broadcasting analog signals. Suddenly, Jerde said, thousands of listeners could no longer use their TVs to hear Radio Talking Book Service.
“In 2016, you were looking at all of it and you felt that heavy question of relevancy and how can we move forward?” Jerde said.
The answer came in the form of streaming, smart speakers and more intentional programming.
Now, when listeners request access to Radio Talking Book Service they can choose between a radio or a smart speaker making the broadcasts available to anyone with internet service. That includes those in rural areas the FM signal won’t reach.
The service added more newspapers to the lineup going from seven to 21. It added a statewide newscast in Spanish. And launched audio description services for people attending local theater performances, exhibits, parades and more.
It also downsized Radio Talking Book Service’s office at Omaha’s 7101 Newport Ave., near Immanuel Medical Center.
Little by little, Jerde said the numbers have climbed again. In 2024, it had about 12,000 listeners.
“I’m excited for the next 50 years because I think we are relevant in so many ways,” Jerde said.
Radio Talking Book Service does not receive state or federal funding. Jerde said about 60% of the service’s funding comes from private foundations and grants, 18 to 20% from individual donors and 17 to 19% from civic organizations.
Most states have a radio reading service like what is provided by Radio Talking Book Service in Nebraska. They can share programming which Jerde said helps fill gaps if volunteers get sick or can’t make their recording.
‘Blind people are human beings’
Jerde and Osentowski said the service couldn’t exist without the dedication of volunteers who take time to read the material so it can be broadcast throughout the state.
Volunteers find the service through word of mouth. Jerde said one man recruited three people from his spin class. Some volunteers, like teachers, have experience reading out loud, but it’s not required.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be commercial, but it just has to be someone who is vested emotionally in the material,” Osentowski said of the recordings.
Jerde said they ask volunteers to read everything. In the past, volunteers have skipped articles in newspapers or magazines about art exhibits or mushroom foraging because they thought it might make their blind and low-vision listeners feel bad.
Jerde said it’s not the service’s job to limit subjects available to listeners because they are so varied in their interests and capabilities.
Cami Cavanaugh Rawlings, who hosts a program called Community Conversations, once booked a fireworks expert for the show. After initially feeling good about the booking, Cavanaugh Rawlings began to question the choice. Do low vision and blind people go to fireworks shows?
Cavanaugh Rawlings consulted Osentowski. Of course they do, Osentowski said.
Give Osentowski the time, and he could spend all day listing the misconceptions about blind people. No, blind people don’t have super senses because they can’t see, they’re not all musically gifted and they don’t all have guide dogs.
“Blind people are human beings,” Osentowski said. “We’re limited in the fact that we can’t see, but we still have the same gifts and curses that everyone else has got.”
To learn how to get a radio or how to volunteer, visit Radio Talking Book Service’s website at www.rtbs.org

I hope you enjoyed reading the article as much as we did. Thanks to Emily Nitcher for her wonderful article. Kudos to Nikos Frazier, who was the photographer who took all of the pictures that I removed from this blind-friendly, text-based version. Screen readers don’t dance with pictures. I’m not trying to undercut the Omaha World Herald, who originally published the article, or the Lincoln Journal Star, who just reprinted it. I’m merely pasting this in my scrapbook because I think it’s a milestone for me and for our organization.

The funniest part of this whole business is that I was supposed to be back in Denver long ago. Three months after I came to Omaha, I was dead sure that moving here was a mistake. Yet, here I am six-and-a-half years later, doing a job I love in a city in which I’ve grown comfortable. Yes, the sidewalk situation still sucks and I now travel almost exclusively using ridesharing instead of the bus, but whatever. Omaha is okay for me.

As for RTBS, it’s the best job I’ve ever had, bar none. That is in no small part thanks to Jane Nielsen, Bekah Jerde, MeMe Smith, Cami Rawlings, the artist known as Queenie, the three angels at our front desk, a very supportive board of directors, our faithful listeners, and the dozens of volunteers who color our world with their presence every week.

As I’ve written in other entries here, I understand the employment situation from every angle. I’ve been unemployed, I’ve worked in jobs that were stressful, toxic and soul-crushing, and I’ve held jobs that were just all right, but that didn’t really challenge me. None of them come close to the fulfilment I get every day when I go to work at RTBS. I hear a lot of my blind friends complain about their jobs. Every time they do, I sit back quietly and thank God that I paid my dues long enough to hold a job I love, working with people whom I love and respect. I’m not lauding my situation over anyone else. I’m just counting my blessings.

Sure, the job isn’t perfect. Nothing in life is. But it’s perfect for me at this moment in time. We are lucky and humbled to have made it to 50. That is an amazing accomplishment in the nonprofit world. Here’s to another 50 being Nebraska’s audio companion.

Ryan Osentowski – RTBS Program Director

The Juice

I don’t remember exactly where I was on June 12, 1994, when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were brutally murdered. Based on the timeline, I’m sure I was in Selleck Hall on UNL campus, attending summer classes. I was probably hanging out in my room watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when the news broke like distant thunder in a dark sky. I don’t remember where I was during the tense Ford Bronco chase either. I was probably taking a nap.

I do remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on October 2, 1995, when the verdict in the trial of the century was read. Like most of America, including children in classrooms across the country, I was tuned in and watching. I was in my room on the second floor of Selleck Hall’s main building, located right next to the elevator and directly above the famous dining hall. I was lying on my bed in front of my small TV with my room door open, as many guys on the floor did during the day hours. I watched in horror as the court clerk read the verdict, finding O.J. Simpson not guilty of murder. I remember hearing crying from the courtroom, as well as someone screaming, “No!”

What happened next is seared into my memory. A guy named Kenji, an African-American student who lived across the hall from me, began screaming and shouting. They weren’t screams of anger, outrage or fear. They were celebratory in nature, as if his football team just won the Super Bowl. I lay on my bed and choked down my anger as several other voices on the floor also joined in the cheers and whooping.

That moment was when I really got it for the first time. I saw the great racial divide that exists in America. Sure, I’d watched the Rodney King drama unfold three years earlier, but the names and voices from L.A. were just concepts coming to me out of the air. And sure, I’d been lectured at by sanctimonious professors in classrooms about racism and such. The Simpson verdict was when I really got the point.

In that moment as I listened to Kenji rejoicing over the liberation of a guy who butchered the mother of his kids, I hated the fucker. I didn’t hate him because he was black. Kenji and I served together in Selleck government and I always liked the guy. But now, I hated him for cheering on a rich asshole who literally got away with murder.

Nine years later, I was attending an NFBNewsline seminar in Baltimore. I was in a room known as the Quadrangle, a large space that held four beds. I had three roommates. Two of them were black. Somehow, the subject of O.J. Simpson came up. I remember feeling outnumbered and attacked as I stated that I was dead certain that O.J. had gotten away with murder. The two of them laughed at me. I remember the laughter to this day. It was scornful, mocking and derisive. They were confident in their assurance that O.J. had been framed for murder. Based on the way Nicole and Ron’s throats had been cut, it had obviously been done by gangsters to whom O.J. owed gambling debts. The murders were a warning to O.J. to either pay up or die. That’s why he ran. He feared for his life.

These two guys are suckers, I thought. They actually think that O.J. was innocent. They are buying into a conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact.

Now, after the death of O.J. Simpson four days ago from cancer at age 76, I have come to doubt my initial impulse. It was born of reflexive vexation for being mocked as if I were a loveable but simple child. Looking back on it, I firmly believe that both men knew full well that O.J. was guilty. They knew the truth for what it was, but they chose to advance a certain narrative in solidarity with their community. In other words, they were gaslighting me. They were gaslighting a dumb hick from Nebraska who didn’t know what it was like to grow up black in Atlanta. They were contemptuous of a white boy who just didn’t get black anger in America. They were chiding a clueless idiot who didn’t understand the healthy, well-earned suspicion that many black people harbored toward the police. That Ryan O. was a nice enough guy, but he was naïve at best, ignorant at worst. Yes, they had very good reasons to lie to me, but they were lying none the less.

How do I know they were gaslighting me? Because, I’ve experienced it time after time after time over the past 10 years. It’s been done again and again for the same reasons. The pattern is sickeningly familiar. The reasons are varied, from supporting a certain political candidate to protecting society from an invisible disease to condemning a foreign country for defending itself. But the motives, benevolent at the beginning and sinister as they mushroom, are always the same. If the stakes are high enough, the lie is a noble one. It has to be told to serve a greater good. If you choose not to believe this lie and engage in a full-throated support of it, you are the problem. You are racist. You are sexist. You are Islamophobic, or transphobic, or whatever the cause du jour might entail. You are bigoted and close-minded. You’re a dupe for the invisible puppet masters pulling the strings. You are the true enemy and you deserve to be canceled, shunned, ridiculed and maybe even to have righteous violence visited upon you.

How ironic that the reasons for those noble lies often come back to the doorsteps of those who are rich, powerful and influential in society. Maybe they are politically influential. Maybe they are culturally influential. But, at the end of the day, they have money and success, so morality must take a hit in the name of service to a certain community.

I’m not writing this to relitigate the O.J. trial. If anyone is interested, there are hours and hours of retrospective analysis and raw historical footage that you can view from any lens if you wish to understand what it was like to live through that time. I’ve already said that I believe he was guilty and that he got away with murder. Unless the real killers should magically turn up with smoking gun evidence, my view on this will never change.

My reasons for writing about this now are merely to take note of the fact that our modern age of mass gaslighting didn’t start when Donald Trump first ran for president in 2016. It didn’t start when he won that election. It didn’t start when COVID-19 broke free into the world. It didn’t start when George Floyd was murdered. It didn’t start when a violent mob assaulted the U.S. Capital on January 6, 2021. It didn’t start when Russia invaded Ukraine, or Hamas raped and massacred thousands of Israeli citizens on October 7, 2023.

It didn’t even really start when certain voices began to excuse 9/11, or when Bill Clinton avoided paying a political price for the Monica Lewinsky affair. To my mind, our modern age of mass gaslighting started on October 2, 1995, when an entire segment of the country knew that a rich and powerful man murdered his wife and an inconvenient bystander and got away with it because he had the means to hire the best lawyers that money could buy, and they carried his water anyway, knowing damn well that the story wasn’t true. The modern gaslighting age started when the internet was only in its infancy, cellular phones were a rare luxury and you actually had to go to the library to do research. DNA was a semi-magical concept shrouded in the respectability of science, but still elusive to the masses.

How the acquittal of O.J. Simpson on double murder charges has served the larger interests of the African-American community is beyond me. I certainly know how it served the activist class, including certain journalists, pundits and academics who have a vested interest in the racial grievance game. But how it served the interests of the average, decent mom and pap folks who just want to make it through life with their fair share of dignity, respect and opportunity that goes beyond their skin color…I have no idea.

Supposedly, video has surfaced of one of the jurors from the O.J. murder trial admitting that everyone on the jury knew that he was guilty, but they wanted revenge for the Rodney King beating in 1992. I appreciate the candor. I’d rather hear unpleasant truths than be lied to for the advancement of some self-serving fiction. On the other side of it, the implicit understanding is that O.J.’s subsequent conviction for robbery in 2007 at the hands of an all-white jury was payback in kind for his skating on the murder charges in 1994. He served 10 years in prison, which was merely a fraction of what he actually deserved, but at least it was something. In the meantime, it looks as if O.J. was able to get away with not paying the bulk of the hefty judgement against him leveled by the Goldman family in the wrongful death civil suit.

And so, round and round we go, tit-for-tat. Each side in the grievance game can hold up their chosen avatar when the argument comes. The white folks have O.J. Simpson, who should’ve died of cancer while serving a life sentence in prison. The left has Mark ‘scumbag’ Fuhrman, who still enjoys being a celebrity contributor on Fox News. It appears that this is how we will be playing the grievance game for the next while. There does not appear to be an off-ramp on this doom carousel. Only God will decide when he’s ready to turn off the music.

I have no idea what became of Kenji. We were never close. I do hope he’s well. I do know that one of the two gentlemen I argued with in the Quadrangle became very prominent in NFB leadership. I heard from reliable sources that he ran cover for Fred Schroeder long before the sexual scandal broke in 2020. How appropriate that he had a chance to sharpen his gaslighting skills and that he could be useful to the so-called, “greater good.”

Incidentally, I do recommend the limited series, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, aired eight years ago on F-X. There are some unfortunate casting choices to be sure. Cuba Gooding Jr. was a terrible choice to play O.J., and John Travolta was cartoonish as Robert Shapiro. But the story is saved by excellent performances by Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Courtney B. Vance as Johnny Cochran, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian (Kim’s dad) and especially by Sterling K. Brown as Chris Darden. The writing is thoughtful and deliberate, taking no definite positions about guilt or innocence amidst the growing circus of the trial. If you can find it, it’s well worth your time, unlike the successive ACS series concerning the Bill Clinton impeachment saga. I have not yet watched the five-part documentary, O.J. Simpson: Made in America.

God bless the Brown and Goldman families. God bless O.J.’s kids. They didn’t ask for this. And God help America. You can turn off the music any time now, Big Daddy.

Silence is Complicity

I’ve come to the conclusion that the only reason I maintain this blog is so that there will be a record of my thoughts, feelings and actions if I should die unexpectedly. Who was Ryan O? What did he believe? Did he measure up to the standards that he set for himself? This blog will not persuade anyone of anything. It will not move the needle. I’m just another American nobody with a series of opinions. Let the record reflect that, after a certain point in my life, I tried to do the right thing when it mattered most. Or maybe I’m just writing down my thoughts so as to keep my own reality solidified in a world that seems to be tilting ever more toward the psychotic zone.

I think I’ve been pretty consistent in these pages in condemning sexual assault and misconduct. For those of you that are so inclined, check out my entries throughout 2016, particularly in Mid-October. Check out my very lengthy, very emotional entries in early 2021. Weigh those entries against what I’m about to write here.

Last Sunday, a clip of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal went viral on social media. Dana Bash was interviewing her and asked why politicians and women’s groups who claimed to stand against sexual violence were not more forceful in their condemnations of Hamas terrorists on October 7. Jayapal hemmed and hawed in typical politician fashion. The noteworthy part was when Bash pushed back on her, refusing to let her get away with the typical progressive stratagem of deflecting all criticism of Hamas back on Israel.

A day later, Jayapal came out with a statement, but it was too little, too late. Any reasonable person can and should read Jayapal’s tepid and tardy statement as a reaction to being publicly shamed. This was not a statement born of principle and conviction. It was a move born of embarrassment and damage control.

On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood came out with a generic statement condemning Hamas. The United Nations for Women organization also recently came out with a statement condemning the actions of Hamas against Israeli women on October 7. All of these bodies, who claim to speak for women, did so only after mounting criticism that they were too slow to acknowledge that Israeli women had been systematically raped, tortured, kidnapped and murdered during the attack. It is also not a coincidence that the statements began to drop after female hostages were released from Hamas captivity.

Today is December 7. Two months ago, Israeli endured the worst attack and loss of life in one stroke since the Holocaust. The simple fact is that female politicians and activists, as well as groups purporting to speak for women, have been shamefully silent on this issue. This despite the fact that, unlike many claims of sexual violence which ultimately boil down to ‘he said/she said’ there is ample evidence that mass rape did in deed occur. In fact, the perpetrators bragged, laughed and celebrated their brutality against Israeli women. They took live videos of their assaults, posted them to various social media accounts and shared them with sympathetic parties. The only doubt fostered as to the depth of depravity of these crimes come from conspiracy nuts, leftist extremists and useful idiots for the cause of Hamas who want to water down the events of that bloody day.

Here is the bitter pill with no chaser. The brutal truth is that the left has now experienced it’s Hollywood Access tape moment. It faced the same test confronting Republicans in October of 2017. And, just like the bastions of “conservative” politicians, activists and common voters six years ago, the left has now failed the test.

No one likes to be the villain of the piece. No one likes to think that their actions, or inactions, result in a villain achieving power. This is why people are so emotionally malleable. They can lie to themselves, to others and to their god of choice, all in the name of justice, righteousness and principle. But it’s bullshit.

It’s all well and good to speak supposed truth to power when you’re in a friendly crowd. It’s all fine to pick a fight and throw bombs when you think you’re going to gain a lot of “likes” and “shares” from it. But it’s quite another when you run the risk of speaking your truly held beliefs, only to be ridiculed, threatened, taunted, mocked and maybe even assaulted because of those valid views. That is the honest to God meaning of conviction, and once again, we learn that those who scream about justice in public come up well short when it really matters.

Do you think I’m waggling my finger here? If you do, then you haven’t been paying attention over the past eight years. I’ve been largely alone since Trump came to power. Six years ago today, I walked away from a community from which I derived a good deal of my self-worth. Four years later, I walked away from the other major community from which my identity sprang. IN both cases, it was because of the issue of sexual predation. So, with all due respect, fuck you if you think that I’m enjoying myself here. Being a man without a country really sucks.

I honestly don’t understand why progressives have to make it an either/or scenario. Why can’t they say, “Sure, we support the Palestinian right to statehood and we want them to be free of Israeli oppression, but wanton rape and murder are a bridge too far.” By not taking this position right out of the gate, they’ve destroyed any credibility they had in the realm of sexual justice for women. All the counter forces have to do is stand up and parrot New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. “Silence is violence, but not when it comes to Israeli rape victims.”

So, if progressives love call-out culture, let me employ it here. Shame on all of you who rightfully spat fire over Donald Trump’s callous admission of his assaults on women, only to hold your tongue when video evidence was set before you of a woman begging for her attackers to kill her after being gang-raped. Shame on all of you who stridently attacked Brett Kavanaugh based on hearsay testimony, while ignoring video images of a woman crawling on the ground with her pants full of blood. Shame on those of you who screamed about the systematic cover-ups of sexual abuse in the National Federation of the Blind who now downplay the forensic evidence of female corpses that had their pelvic bones crushed from violent and repeated rape. Shame on those of you who proudly posted #MeToo on your social media feeds, but who now turn a deaf ear to the testimonies of the hostages who are now home, and refuse to call for the release of the remaining hostages who are very likely still enduring repeated rape and maybe worse. Shame on those of you who are reading this right now, who know I’m right in all that I say, but who refuse to speak up because…you don’t want to ruffle feathers, or make people uncomfortable, or maybe show your true colors.

Donald Trump knows he can, “grab ‘em by the pussy,” whenever he wants because scores of people from politicians to law enforcement to church ministers will defend him, regardless of the evidence. Now, the Hamas terrorists who raped, murdered and pillaged, and who have sworn to do it again and again and again, hold the same comfort. They know that a collection of western idiots will give them either passive or active permission to act on their blood hatred and brutalize women as they see fit. If silence really is complicity, than all of you are guilty. I hope you’re proud of yourselves.

The reason that the left remained silent for so long isn’t particularly complicated, even if they claim otherwise. Just as they believe in, “good trouble,” or, “good violence,” maybe they actually believe in, “good rape.” Rape as a form of resistance to the so-called occupation of Palestinian land. Stop for a moment and examine this rabbit hole from a slight remove. See where it takes you? It does go to a very dark place, indeed.

My ultimate message today is the same as its been all along. Sexual assault is not a partisan issue. It affects everyone, no matter what their gender, race, political stripe, sexual orientation or ideology. If you want to sit on the sidelines and ignore it, that is your choice. If you want to pass yourself off as a courageous defender of justice, then be consistent in your message. Otherwise, you’re nothing but a hypocrite and a fraud and your contradictions will follow you.

I stand with Israel. I stand with survivors of sexual assault, no matter what the circumstances may be. If I haven’t done enough to combat it in my past, I’m trying to do my bit now. Can those of you who invoke the cause of justice make the same claim?

One last point. KFAB radio personality Jim Rose recently delivered one of his morning monologues on this very topic. It was one of his best. He forcefully condemned the silence on the part of women’s groups toward the brutality against Israeli women. It was a moment worthy of applause…until you realize that Jim Rose will gladly pull the lever for Donald Trump if he is the Republican nominee for president next year. What a shame. Hypocrisy seems to be the order of the day.

The Death Sound

This entry is going to be more or less scattershot. Pretty rough and unpolished. I figure it’s best to just write down what I’m thinking and let the shit sort itself out, come what may.

I did not spend last weekend as I originally planned; that is, hanging out with my cat. Instead, I took the bus to Iowa to support a friend at a funeral. She was mourning the loss of her long-time partner, who died by his own hand. It was not a fun trip, but it was a necessary one.

The thing I remember most about the service was the sound that my friend made as she went to the altar where his urn was being kept. As she bid him her final farewell, she emitted the death sound. This is a somewhat melodramatic but accurate way to describe the mournful sound that a loved one makes when he/she has had someone ripped from their life unexpectedly. I don’t care if you’re a part time community theater player or goddamn Meryl Streep. You cannot duplicate this sound unless you’re experiencing it firsthand. It’s also not the sound that you hear when attending the memorial service of someone who has died in a natural or totally expected manner. I’ve been to funerals for my grandparents and a few aunts and uncles. I also attended a friend’s funeral last year after she succumbed to kidney failure. The grief was muted, but genuine. The tears were sincere, but expected. It was nothing compared to the death sound.

The death sound is a series of cries and sobs that are suffused by a wailing or keening quality. It is raw, audible heartbreak, pain, loneliness, loss and despair, all wrapped into a series of breaths and cries that swoop and dip from bass to treble. It can last for a few seconds, or a few minutes, but in the moment, it seems as if it will never end. It is the closest thing you will hear to the sound of a person’s soul as it shatters in front of you. It is a siren song of complete and utter brokenness that is enough to freeze the blood and maul the spirit.

There are no words to respond to the death sound. There are no actions that can provide comfort or any sort of soothing to lessen the pain. All one can do when they witness this rending of the heart is to try to be a rock in the midst of a tremendous earthquake. You stand there helplessly and watch as a close friend endures the battering ram of a life storm and you wonder when (or if) they will ever recover.

I’ve heard the death sound twice. Once was last weekend. The other time was six years ago when another close friend lost her husband to cancer. I hope I never experience it again… But I know I will. The pain of sudden loss and wrecking ball grief is as unavoidable as blizzards, tornados, hurricanes or dickhead politicians.

Aside from the deep sadness I felt for a friend who was beyond comfort, I also felt a fire tide of anger. The man who died by his own hand was “honored” by a Christian funeral. Yet, he was not Christian. As far as I know, he was not religious in any sense of the word. The closest that he came to religion was to appreciate the gifts of nature by spending time outdoors. The fact that he was given a Christian burial, complete with worship songs and a rambling, impotent sermon from an ignorant pastor, made more of a statement about the living than it did about the dead. The Christian trappings served only to protect the feelings of family members who could not reconcile who this man was in his life. In lying about him to cushion their own grief, they did serious harm to those who knew and were closer to the deceased.

This is Christian hypocrisy at its worst! It did nothing to endear me to any church or any denomination that would tell bald-faced lies about one who has passed, thereby dishonoring his memory,, just to help the survivors save face in the eyes of a chosen few who were sold a convenient narrative. After all, what is the purpose of a memorial service but to honor the memory of someone who has died? This wasn’t honor. It was an exercise in goddamn deception and denial.

I can tell you for a fact that the way that my friend was marginalized and disrespected was a twisted knife in an already open wound. She knew more about the man who died than a lot of other people there, yet she was treated like a stranger in an alien land. Aside from a small group of friends who gathered around her to try to offer consolation, no member of the family initiated engagement with her. It was infuriating.

Here’s a side question. Do all of you fucking self-professed Christians who behave like this, treating certain friends and family members one way in private and another one in public when your Christian brethren are nearby, think that God doesn’t know? Do you think he can’t see behind all of your masks? If you believe that God is all knowing and all seeing, don’t you suppose that your ass is gonna get judged when your time comes? Who were you really protecting at the funeral? Was it the man who passed away, or was it yourselves? Why didn’t the dipshit pastor walk up to my friend and say, “Ma’am, I don’t know you, but I’m praying for you.” Do you think that by ignoring the 500 pound elephant in the room, you can just wish it away? Do you suppose that, if you pray hard enough, God will just scrub away reality? Fuck. That.

I’m gonna be honest. This episode fucked with me a little for a few days. I’m over it now. I’m calm and collected and back in my routine with my kitty nearby to lend physical and emotional comfort in the absence of human affection. But I sure as hell won’t forget what I saw. I’ll never forget the death sound, or how it might have been lessened, if only for a brief instant, by a small measure of warmth and compassion.

As it stands, the memorial was a farce. The real service occurred with a small group of friends gathered on the patio of a restaurant somewhere in Iowa, drinking beer, eating burgers and telling stories about the man who left this world all too soon. In this scenario, the Christians were the liars before heaven and earth. The socially branded transgressors were the authentic truth-tellers.

I freaked out some of my Facebook followers, because the day after the service, I wrote a post making my wishes known should I be killed in a bus crash or something. I really appreciate the kindness and concern from others. I’m doing pretty well, actually. It’s a great time to be alive and autumn has come to be my favorite time of year. I haven’t had dark thoughts in years. I can definitely say that owning a cat and having a stable job that I love helps immensely.

Still, if I should die. I’ll write my wishes here as just one more place where they can be found.

I don’t want a church service. The fact is that, despite a few flirtations over the years, I am not religious. I believe in God and Jesus Christ, but frankly, I don’t want anything to do with church. Too many people wearing false faces, seeking the approval of their fellow men and worshiping false idols in God’s name. My ultimate guiding authority is the Constitution of the United States, including the First Amendment. I want my memorial to be a place of openness where everyone can come and talk about me honestly. You don’t need to trash-talk. You don’t need to white-wash. Let the tears and the laughter come freely and honestly. Pray or don’t pray openly and without fear or favor. Everyone is welcome, except predators. The best way to honor me is to find the back room or patio of a bar and grill somewhere, play some good music, drink beer and eat unhealthy food and have a nice celebration. It will not be a true tribute to Ryan O. unless George Strait is included in any playlist.

As for my remains, cremate them and dump my ashes in Johnson Lake. That is my happy place. Do not bury my ashes at the Colorado Center For the Blind. I loved Denver, but that time has passed. I hope the people who take the boat out include close family members and a couple of my closest friends. After I’m overboard, have a drink of your choice (and a cigar if you want) and tell a few stories on me.

Finally, September is suicide prevention month. The mental health crisis is real. The pandemic only exacerbated it. If you’re in trouble, for fuck sake, get help! Choose to live. It won’t be a picnic, but it will be worth it.

The man who took his own life left a teenage daughter behind. I encountered her, but I didn’t meet her. I’ll be praying for her. I hope God can help her through the dark night to come.

Tosty

In the autumn of 2016, I was seated in a banquet room in Denver at a convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, swigging beer number three (or was it four) listening to Kevan Worley, the bumptious and loquacious master of ceremonies, as he berated the sound guys from the stage.

“Hey! Sound guys! I’m just gonna say…Where we are…where we wanna be!” he bellowed. Then he said, “If our sound guys can handle it, we’d love for anyone listening on our stream to give us a call on Skype and say hi.”

I pulled out my phone and sent a text. “You should call in,” I wrote.

Two minutes later (or was it five) my phone rang. I answered and the warm, familiar voice said in my ear, “What’s the number?”

Five minutes later (or was it 10), Kevan eagerly grabbed the mic (again) and said, “Folks, we have a guy on Skype who wants to say hi. Maybe you remember him. Tom Anderson, from Kansas.”

The room exploded in the loudest ovation that I’d ever heard at an NFB convention anywhere. It was a riotous, joyous shriek that kept going and going. Eventually, much of the crowd burst into the chant, “TOSTY! TOSTY! TOSTY!” In my beer-fogged brain, I remember a thought emerging; this is the most authentic, heartfelt cheer I’ve ever heard at a convention. At the point, Tom had been absent from Colorado for almost 18 months.

In May, 2015, Miles Thomas Anderson retired from the Colorado Center for the Blind as a Braille instructor after a 27-year career. I left work early to attend the party. It was a strange, almost surreal affair that was dampened by an accidental power outage that left the CCB in total darkness throughout the entire proceedings. The good lord was making a statement that was unmistakable. The CCB was losing a light that could never be replaced.

Tom could often seem nonplussed when speaking publicly, but he took the occasion with his usual good grace and humble humor. The party was well-attended, including many VIPs from the national office in Baltimore. Many of his former students were in attendance as well. It was clear that Tom was leaving a professional legacy that was vibrant and strong. I remember the speeches from the leadership seeming canned and perfunctory, counter to the tributes from his students, which all seemed natural and sincere.

A year before Tom’s retirement party, I was hired as a summer counselor for the CCB youth program. I was set to be a cane travel instructor. It was the most tempestuous, heartbreaking three months of my life. Two weeks of training were not nearly enough to prepare me when the students came to the CCB. On the third day after they arrived, a latecomer named Andrew joined us. He was a soft-spoken lad who seemed overwhelmed by everything at the center. At one point I asked him, “How ya doing?” He said, “I haven’t even had a tour yet.”

So, I gave him the nickel tour. At one point, we came to the braille room in the basement, in which were housed shelf upon shelf of braille volumes. Andrew and I walked through the door and were greeted by Tom’s customary, “Hi, Ryan.” It was at that point, with the smell of the library in my nostrils and Tom’s warm greeting in my ears, that I began to relax a little.

After Tom explained the braille room, I sent Andrew upstairs and lingered with Tom for a moment.

“How you doing?” he asked.

“Tom, I think I’m in over my head,” I said as I exhaled a cloud of pent-up anxiety.

“Well, you’ll be alright. Just take it one day at a time and try your best to listen to what your students are telling you.”

As I walked out of Tom’s library I thought, if I could be half the teacher that Tom was, I would count it as a win.

As it turned out, I didn’t even come close. Not even in the ballpark. But then, Tom Anderson was (and is) a tough act to follow. He was a steady, unassuming leader without exuding the forceful qualities that are so often sought and projected within the power players of the NFB. There was nothing artificial or disingenuous about Tom Anderson. When he spoke in his halting, tentative style, you knew that he was not selling you anything that he did not believe in his own heart. When he spoke of the history of the National Federation of the Blind, he spoke with love and affection. When he imparted the NFB’s positive philosophy of self-empowerment, he spoke in the spirit of gentility, not in hackneyed clichés. When he spoke critically of the organization, there was no self-serving aspect to it. Tom did not trash talk other people for his own personal gain, even when they deserved it. His honesty was always tinged with compassion and an empathy that came from a real and humble place.

I’ve alluded to the fact that Tom was not the best public speaker. He could sometimes stutter or fumble his words, as if he were searching through his vast book knowledge to pull out just the right modifier or qualifier. But the veil of hesitancy fell away when he spoke of his faith. He orated upon the subject of the love of God with a rising, staccato-like barrage of verbiage that resembled the thunderous “click-clack” of a Perkins braillewriter. Tom Anderson was an unashamed Christian. There was a reason why he was always asked to deliver the invocation at both state and national conventions. When his words turned heavenward, his timber would sharpen and his voice would rise and fall like the tide, sometimes bordering on tremulous passion for his holy savior.

Everyone who knew Tom Anderson knew where he stood with regard to questions of the power of the almighty Jesus Christ. Yet, I don’t ever remember Tom castigating anyone who did not share his view. He was not a fire-and-brimstone preacher man who hurled pronouncements of doom for those who did not accept the holy word. I remember him more as a stalwart messenger who spoke of his witness openly and unreservedly, but who did not cast stones at others. Tom was that rare kind of Christian that I respected. He always appeared to live the beliefs that he preached to others. I remember vowing that, if I ever got married, I would want Tom Anderson to officiate my wedding. How sad that this will never come to be.

I remember when I first met Tom in the summer of 2001. I was visiting the CCB for a three-day stay and met him in the braille room. I spoke to him of my belief that braille was paramount in the learning development of blind children. Naturally, he agreed. Then he asked me, “What would you say that you struggle the most with in your braille?”

My answer was automatic. “The slate and stylus.”

“Ok,” he responded. “So, I want you to slate me one page of contracted braille telling me about yourself.”

So, I wrote Tom one page of braille talking about myself. When I was done, I slapped down the stylus and said, “My right hand hasn’t been this sore since I watched The Spice Channel a few months ago.”

My companion who was with me at the time gasped, sure that I had offended Tom’s pious sensibilities. For his part, Tom threw back his head and laughed. It was a warm, infectious sound that drifted through the room like the smell of freshly baked bread. Tom was a strong Christian, but he was not a prude. He did not swear, but he did not police the language of others out of moral purity. Later that day, we all sang Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” with Tom singing the loudest while stomping on the floor as if he were leading a revival.

Tom and I kept in touch after he left Colorado. Through the power of WhatsApp, we spoke about the changing nature of politics, the changing culture of the NFB and of small things such as new-fangled iPhone apps, country music and books worthy of attention. When I moved to Omaha in October of 2017, Tom was a stable presence throughout my emotional turmoil. “Colorado is not the center of the universe,” he would tell me. “The Midwest really is a great place to live.” I took a measure of comfort knowing that Tom was just down the road in Overland Park.

Tom and I were closely aligned politically, which often made us feel like outriggers in an organization ubiquitous with professed liberals, many of whom were drifting toward progressivism. But Tom professed his political views in the same manner that he spoke of his faith. He was open and honest, but not a firebrand. He bemoaned the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Party, but ultimately, he set upon the path I could never tread when he seemed to accept that Trump was a force that had to be dealt with reasonably, if not fully embraced.

In the past year or so, Tom and I drifted apart a little. I must confess that I pulled away just a bit. I drew back instinctively after January 6th. In discussing it with Tom, I was disconcerted to hear him describe the attack on our nation’s capital as, “civil disobedience.” Recent Facebook posts from him seemed to take a turn toward anti-vaccination, a position that is distasteful to me. In a world where so many people that I once loved and respected seem to have gone off the map, I didn’t feel I had the heart to fully reckon with the idea that calm, gentle, reasonable Tom Anderson may be losing his marbles. For me, a certain remove served as a measure of self-protection.

August has been a month bookended by death and loss. My uncle passed away at the beginning of the month after suffering a stroke on the 4th of July. We were not close, but I have fond memories of him from my childhood and I grieve for his remaining family. Two days ago, a close friend suffered the loss of her long-time partner. I didn’t know him, but watching her suffer the ravages of his death will be painful. But, of all the losses I’ve felt of late, the one that impacts me the most is that of Tom Anderson. When I heard of his passing last week, it was a bolt from the blue.

I was not prepared when I heard the news that he was gone. My first thought was one of anger, toward myself. I wish I had given Tom the same benefit of the doubt that he gave so many others when he taught all those years. If nothing else, Tom earned respect from me. If I was going to write him off as another Christian broken by Donald Trump, at least I should have given him a fair hearing before making my final judgment. Now, I will never know where he truly stood. I will never have the chance to thank him for all he did to inspire me during my time in Colorado. I will never be able to bid him a proper goodbye.

And yet, knowing Tom’s belief system as I did, I know that he is with God right now. I know he can see into my heart and can see my regret at not keeping in touch. I know that he is following the word of his lord and savior and that he has forgiven me. Someday, perhaps I’ll be worthy of that forgiveness.

As for Tom’s legacy, I will always remember him as a light that touched a great many people. Tom believed in the power of the written word and its ability to transform lives for the better. Whether he was reading Harry Potter, Lonesome Dove or The Bible in braille, he was always reading something. May that spirit continue to flourish amongst the blind of the world.

God bless you, Tosty Andersox, and thank you for all that you have given to us. We love you and miss you.

God’s speed, my friend.

PS: If you want to know while we all called Tom, “Tosty,” find someone who knew him and ask them. The best way to keep Tom alive is to speak of him.

Don’t Stop Believing

In their comprehensive tome, The Sopranos Sessions, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz write the following:

“We all know David Chase’s view of human nature is bleak. The Sopranos is set in a universe where good and evil have renamed themselves, principle and instinct. Animals are not known for their inclination to act on principle. Nearly every significant scene enacts the same basic struggle, pitting the self-preservation instinct against the influence of what Abraham Lincoln called, the better angels of our nature. These angels have glass jaws.”

Dumbing it down to Little Carmine’s intellect, the recurring theme in every episode of The Sopranos is the same. Given a choice, Tony and all humans in his orbit will never, ever do the right thing. They will always yield to their darker impulses.

This theme, hammered home with the blunt force of a baseball bat, alternately whispered in soft, sub textual tones of the demon on your other shoulder, is impossible to miss. Over seven seasons, 86 episodes and eight years, Humanity sucks! Capitalism sucks! America sucks! Depression sucks! No one on The Sopranos escapes without either being killed, emotionally broken or otherwise crushed in the giant maw of the great big nothing. The only survivors are able to do so by becoming willfully blind to their toxic reality.

I’ve written about The Sopranos before and I’ve said that I believe that David Chase is a miserable prick of a human being. If the old adage, misery loves company, is true, then Mr. Chase has a legion of companions. Like the garbage dumps along Tony’s routes, Chase loves to spread his noxious refuse far and wide, polluting the perfect landscape of what he views as willful human denial with his version of the truth. If that truth causes further emotional rot, so be it. That’s the price we all deserve to pay for our steadfast refusal to see the big picture.

There is no question that The Sopranos was groundbreaking for its time. It took a character who would have been treated as an antagonist in any former TV show and made him a protagonist. Furthermore, all crime shows that came after Tony Soprano carried the essence of his genes. Some offspring were worthy, such as The Shield and Breaking Bad, while others like Sons of Anarchy and Ozark were little more than sad, bastard children. Even other shows outside the crime genre such as Lost, 24 and Mad Men owed their success to The Sopranos. All of this may be my opinion, but it should be factual.

Last year, I was excited when I learned that The Sopranos had finally been offered with audio description. I waited for it to come out and have spent the past two months watching the show. I have finally come to the end and I can tell you two things.

The first is that the series still holds up after 15 years being off the air. The writing, acting and production values are supreme.

The second is that the show is an exhausting, dispiriting, ultimately redundant slog to get through. Even the complexity of the show is still predictably formulaic. Every season, Tony confronts new challenges in both his personal and professional lives. Every season, he prevails, but he doesn’t, all while dragging everyone around him down on his sinking pleasure barge of hedonistic misery. Tony Soprano never changes. No one in his world ever changes. Human nature is static.

This is a starkly conservative concept, so it should be comforting to me. Somehow, it’s not. That leads me to an inescapable question. Have I changed? I don’t hold the deep and abiding love of The Sopranos that I used to. I like the show. I respect the show. But I don’t love the show.

So what is different about me? Is it my age? Is it my emotional state? My physical state? The world around me? Jesus! If there’s anything to validate David Chase’s shitty view of humanity, it should be the current state of things. So why do I come to the great black screen of ambiguity at the end of the series and not rub my hands together in glee and say, ahhh, brilliant! Kylie, lets run it again! What’s more, why do I find myself contemptuous of Mr. Chase, rather than figuratively sitting at his feet in pure reverence?

Why haven’t I written in this blog in a while? Maybe, like Tony and his motley crew, I worry that my writing is reflective of a man in stasis. Why pass that misery on to others? If this world is steeped in bitter bile, why add to it? Why pass it off as artistic brilliance when it’s really just tepid mediocrity? Have I run out of source material? Are all of my themes exhausted? Am I dying a slow death of the soul that James Gandolfini might have undergone while inhabiting the vacuum that was Tony Soprano?

David Chase seems to be trapped in a paradox. On the one hand, he seems to be saying that humans can’t change. On the other, he displays repeated contempt for the whole of humanity for being unable to change. Am I incapable of change? Have I slowly, gradually changed and have just been unaware of it? Obviously, I’m older. I’m heavier. My ankles hurt more than they used to. I’m now a pet owner and I love Kylie dearly. I have a job that brings me immense pleasure on a daily basis. I love the surface pleasures like food, cigars, beer, music, a rainy thunderstorm, a good book or TV show, old-time radio, clocks, a stimulating conversation and swimming. My greatest pleasure in life is sex, which of course has proven to be elusive over the past few years.

But what else is there? As Tony Soprano muttered when he was trapped in his Kevin Finnerty coma dream, “Who am I? Where am I goin’?” I am now 47 years old, which coincidently was the same age Tony was when the show ended. What will I leave behind when the black screen finally comes up for me? Will I be Tony, trapped in an endless wheel of doom, or will I be someone else? If I had my druthers, I’d be more like Hank Schrader, able to do the right thing in spite of my flaws. But who knows. There’s the role we write for ourselves, and then there’s the role that we actually play.

I’m still trying to answer that elusive question. But I’ll tell you this… I’d rather be surrounded by a group of people who traffic in vapid inanities, but who are content with themselves, rather than to be accompanied by one deep thinker who wallows in syndical existentialism, all the while going about in pity for himself.

Or, maybe I’m just cloaking writers block in philosophical argle-bargle?

Plain Cake Square

The plain cake square sits before me on the desk and speaks.

“Ryan,” it says. “Eat me.”

And what if I don’t, I ponder.

Refracting my thoughts, the plain cake square says, “Consider the alternative. Flat, expansive, empty, yawning vacuum.”

Absent, what, I wonder mutely.

“You know. You’ve always been aware, even though your senses are tuned to a lower frequency than you may believe, like a bat with a haywire radar. You can still feel the hum, even if you can’t hear it,” the cake says. “I know. I know. I know I know I KNOW!!! I saw Queenie in the hall outside of the women’s restroom taking an ungodly amount of gumballs from the vending machine and she knew that I know. Her large, shark-like teeth gnawed the wad in time with some vague Electric Light Orchestra song that you heard in your head in that gray borderland between wake and sleep, with lightning crackling like an electronic Muppet in the middle distance.

I know.”

A gumball drops. “Tink!”

“The busy, buzzy drones at the front desk know. They know too! They only seem as if they are animated shells operating within the vacuous vacuum of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy laden with alive but dead carrion. The bureaucracy a great tomb of damned souls crying over the eternity of lost thought and action in the expanse of time, their waling chorus like a dirge to the fallen and bleeding parents in war-torn countries in Europe that will never know a safe space.

I know.”

A gumball drops. “Kla-tink!”

“So much time! So little time! Time to consider. Time to plan. Time to try to sleep, only to lightly doze with the shadow of looming nightmares over the snow-covered horizon. Nightmares that lumber and clumber like a coming juggernaut. Nightmares of an arpeggio of cries…sobs…laments of the unsaid. A night flight of echoing refrains.

I know.”

“Kliddle-tink!”

“Time enough at last! Isn’t that what Burgess Meredith once said before he was The Penguin? Before he was Rocky’s doomed coach? Time enough at last! I whisper to you. I implore you. I beseech you! I shriek at you like your psycho neighbor who doesn’t believe that black lives matter. I howl like the werewolf in the closet of the house in Cypress Canyon. TIME ENOUGH AT LAST!!! Time enough to make sense of the hum. Of the dirge. Of the cacophony of Kafka. Truths whirl and flail in truly arabesque fashion when they are truly truths.

I know.”

“Klakl-tink!”

“I tried to warn you! When you stole the Fisher Price plastic apple from Shane’s office, I tried to warn you. I jingled and tingled and sing-songled at you behind a thousand warnings and you shunned them like a classist clam shuns an oyster…”

You mean, shucks…

“DO NOT PRESUME TO TELL ME WHAT I MEAN!!! I tried to warn you, but you left the musical apple somewhere in the catacombs of Denver. The yawning, gnawing maw of Denver. That is your oversight. That was your failure!

Be cool, Cal. I know.”

“Phut!”

“There’s a gumball on the floor. You wanna pick it up. Queenie not here to direct your hand.”

My throat feels as if it is coated with caramelized sugar. I…I…can’t accept it.

“Well then… There’s always frosting.”

The plain cake square flicks its tail, shakes its ears and slinks from the room in search of more springy, sinewy prey, leaving nary a tell-tale crumb in its wake.

Betrayal: Part Two

I get it.

There’s a reason why I pasted Erick Erickson’s letter in this blog. It resonated. You live with something for years until it becomes part of you. Every day, it stares back at you from the depths of the mirror, but you’re so used to it that you can’t see it. You don’t know when it became a part of you. You don’t know when you learned to live with it. But you know it’s there. Kind of like being fat. One day, you put your pants on and your belt is tighter and you have to go up a notch. You don’t know when it happened, but you know why it happened.

It feels as if the last six years of my life have been rife with betrayal. In 2015, I was a Republican. I held a certain set of conservative beliefs that informed my world view. My daily enmeshment in a hostile work environment where my beliefs were constantly challenged, assaulted and ridiculed only strengthened them. Those who identified as liberals and progressives in my life acted predictably. The derisive barbs, the clumsy baiting in the break room, the pointedly unsubtle conversations within earshot, the mocking laughter were all true to form for leftists. At some point, I stopped arguing, recognizing the futility of any attempt at constructive dialogue. Mike Rosen and conservative allies on social media were my quiet workplace refuge.

It was one thing to be assailed by liberals. It was quite another when the party I believed in slowly surrendered to a hostile external force that sought not to change it for the better, but to erode it for the sole purpose of self-glorification.

In April of 2016, I attended the Colorado state Republican convention in Colorado Springs. I heard a lot of dialogue during that day. Most of it was healthy and respectful. Some of it was unhealthy and toxic. All of it was robust. I had no inkling that five years later, the GOP would be transformed into a monoculture of personality held hostage to the ego of one man.

I didn’t leave the GOP after Trump was elected. I recognized that most of the people who voted for him did so for reasons of pragmatism. He wasn’t their first choice in the primaries and they were stuck with him. Trump was not the final straw for me. That honor belonged to Roy D. Moore, a senatorial candidate in Alabama who had quite apparently sexually harassed a number of women. The GOP didn’t care and happily endorsed him. Apparent electoral victories had blinded them to reality. That was when I walked away.

That was over four years ago. Nothing the Republicans have done in the interval have made me regret my decision to leave. On the contrary, their subsequent words and deeds, particularly after Election Day, 2020 have only shown me that I made the right choice in walking away. The putrid resolution passed a week ago censuring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, while simultaneously labeling January 6th as, “Legitimate political discourse,” proves to me that the GOP party I once knew is now an alien wasteland.

But worse than the betrayal of a national party populated by figures I don’t know is the sudden and radical metamorphosis of people I do know. Relatives and friends who once championed the same conservative values as I do (the value of honesty in politics, respectful discourse, the value in the rule of law), now make sad excuses when leaders like Trump take every rule we’ve ever lived by, wipes his ass with it and flushes it down the crapper. It makes me wonder if these people, some of whom were moral mentors, ever really believed what they preached to me, or if they were always lying. Sadly, they can’t see the changes within themselves. They think everyone else has changed while they have remained static. But this isn’t true. Their refusal to see what they have become while deflecting their role in it is tantamount to betrayal.

One person who was fundamental in the shaping of my conservative values literally got in my face when he learned that I wouldn’t vote for Trump in 2016. “Ryan, your problem is that you’re unseasoned!” he said.

Unseasoned? I participated in two separate Republican primaries as a delegate in Colorado. I’ve visited Washington D.C. three times and been to Capitol Hill as a member of the National Federation of the Blind. I was even involved in student government at UNL for two years when I went to college there. I think it’s safe to say that I am the member of my family who is the most seasoned when it comes to politics. Another mentor, a man who is a devout Christian, characterized the attack on the capitol as, “Civil disobedience.” Sadly, this style of argument has only become more commonplace during the reign of Trump and after.

I’ve never been accosted while peeing in a public bathroom, but I have been bullied, hectored and guilt tripped by people who took my descent from the common Republican ethos very personally. They acted as if I was the traitor. I’ve even had idiots on Facebook call me a traitor, as if my refusal to bend the knee to one man embodied the betrayal of my basic patriotism and love of America. Yet, this is their warped view. This is where we stand today.

As bad as things are in the mainstream political realm, it’s worse as a blind guy. In 2015, I was a solid member of the National Federation of the Blind. My journey with the Federation had been a rocky one. As I stated in my resignation letter, my level of involvement with the organization has fluctuated over the years. When I first became involved, I was deep in the movement. By the time I moved to Colorado, I was on the periphery. By 2015, I had worked at the CCB as a summer youth counselor and was an elected officer in the Denver chapter. It felt good to be home again. When I moved to Omaha, I was quickly elected as Second Vice-President. I agreed to serve despite a growing reservation about the changing direction of the organization. This was solidified in December of 2020 when the #MarchingTogether Movement took root.

I won’t go back over my journey in detail. One can read my past blog entries on the subject if one wishes to chart my progress. I will simply write of two separate incidents that happened that proved to me that it was time to head for the exit.

The first occurred on July 31, 2021 during a contentious state board meeting of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. The subject of the suspension of Fred Schroeder came up. Naturally, much volatile discussion ensued. One member who was a participant at the meeting, though not elected to the board, began to defend Schroeder, claiming that he should not be judged solely on his transgressions. He worried that Schroeder’s accomplishments would be overshadowed by these accusations that some leaders felt were a result of a, “Kangaroo court.” I argued vociferously that the punishment of Schroeder did not go far enough. His retort to me was, “Ryan, you don’t know what you’re talking about!”

This was a man who identifies as a Republican and a conservative. This was a man who sat with me in a Village Inn in 1998 over green chili and peanut butter pie and argued passionately that Bill Clinton should be impeached for his conduct in the Oval Office. This was a man who argued vehemently that character matters in our leaders. Yet, I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about!?

While this verbal tumult was occurring, the people who should have had the most to say sat silent. That includes the state president, who also serves as a member of the national board. She largely stayed out of the conflict. She might have weighed in and given us a clue as to the happenings behind the scenes that went into the decision-making process, but this isn’t how Federation soldiers are trained. They don’t go off script, they don’t contradict the national leadership and they always refer questions (particularly those born of descent) up the chain of command to the message factory in Baltimore. In other words, she was doing her duty as a Federationist, all while neglecting the needs of the membership on a local level.

Eight days after the board meeting from hell, I sat alone in my recliner with a cold beer in my hand and listened to a podcast featuring Wayne Pearcy’s story of abuse suffered at the hands of a camp counselor during his time as a summer student at the Colorado Center for the Blind in 2004. Wayne never named his abuser, but it was clear that he was talking about Brent Batron.

Brent Batron, a one-time mentor and friend to me and to dozens of other students and counselors. Brent Batron, who had espoused the paramount virtues of positive role modeling at seminars, chapter meetings and in private conversations. Brent Batron, who had resigned abruptly from the CCB eight months before the podcast dropped. The Nebraska board meeting was bad, but this was infinitely worse.

I worked for Brent for three months in the summer of 2014. I loved the guy. I respected the guy. Hell, I even hoped that when the time came for Julie Deden to finally step down, Brent would take the reins as the Executive Director of the CCB. Brent was smart, but not intellectually imperious as are so many leaders in the NFB upper crust. He was relatable in a blue collar, down-to-earth way. He was a family man who appeared to be faithful to his wife and kids. He was a born teacher who made you want to be better at your job. He was funny, good natured, friendly and approachable. He was also a predator. When Wayne dropped his revelations, I instantly knew they were true. I didn’t have any direct knowledge. I’d heard a lot of names whispered throughout my time in the NFB. Brent’s was not one of them. I don’t know how I knew. I just fucking did.

It is impossible to explain the pain this harsh truth wrought without explaining the role my time at the CCB played upon my psyche. Looking back, I view my job at the CCB in the Dickensian sense. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” I was a guy doing God’s work, showing blind youth how to live as independent, self-reliant blind people. I was also a guy in over my head, teaching teenagers skills that I was never fully sure of within myself. I always felt as if I were running in quicksand, never certain if I was serving as a positive or negative example as a competent blind adult. The constant weight of responsibilities for the welfare of someone else’s kids after years of bachelorhood took a toll. I found myself sleeping in fits and starts, jerking awake suddenly in the night wondering if one of my boys had snuck out to smoke pot. I would stand in the shower in the early morning wondering how to face another day guiding a kid with obvious cognitive impairments, hoping he could just get himself dressed. I would go through another day dead sure that I was facing harsh judgments from my fellow counselors. There were even a few times when I thought of just quitting and going back to my quiet life, but I stayed for the kids and for Brent. If I could just stay on Brent’s good side, I knew I was doing something right.

By the end of the summer, I was burned out, exhausted and in a black hole of despair. I felt like an utter failure. I had planned to get certified in O&M instruction, but honestly, it was a relief when the job at AIN became available and I could change course. Being responsible for other people was too soul-crushing to be endured for an intractable period of time. Now, years later, I discover that I spent the best parts of myself worrying about what affect I was having on the young and impressionable, all in service to a sexual predator and his enablers! Days and weeks of partial insomnia and self-torment while others who were guilty of actual sins slept soundly? Nights of sweating bullets wondering how I would get through the next day without making another mistake while our leader drew his designs on one of our boys!? Fuck! That!

Sidebar: Karma can be a royal bitch or it can be kind. If not for my time at AIN, I never would have ended up at Radio Talking Book, which proved to be the best job I’ve ever had. God bless Jane and Bekah. They both shepherded me through a lot of heart healing.

Last August was when I stood in front of the mirror and saw betrayal staring me in the face. That was when I knew with absolute clarity that it was time to leave. Now, I am a man who is politically homeless and philosophically destitute. I still have my conservative principles, but the betrayal from the NFB cuts far deeper. The Republican Party was merely an apparatus that I would play a minuscule role in in hopes of furthering political change, but the NFB was my community. They were my kindred spirits in the world of blindness. They wrought a kind of betrayal that inflicts the most grievous wounds of all… The betrayal of family.

There is no betrayal more deeply personal. And I don’t mean to get all emo on you guys here, but it hurts. It hurts like a mutherfucker. That’s all I’m saying. The pain is fuckin’ real. And this kind of pain…all I’m saying is…I don’t know when the fuck it’s gonna go away.

Bad Choice Road

In 2014, I spent three months as a counselor at a summer program for blind and visually impaired youth. My time there was largely an exercise in futility. It was, among other things, a stark reminder of why I have no desire to be a parent. I did, however, try to impart certain universal truths to my teenaged students.

One of those truths was, for every action, there is a consequence. Every time you sneak out after curfew to smoke a joint, there will be consequences. Every time you get freaky with another student because you think your blind counselor is clueless as to his surroundings, there will be consequences. Every time you cheat with your sleepshades, there will be consequences.

Six years later, I have no idea whether my message took or not, but I get an A for effort.

Rush Limbaugh always said, “Elections have consequences.” The election of 2016 was no exception. The country chose to elect a man whose professional credentials included bankruptcy, beauty contests, gambling casinos and a successful reality TV show. His personal credentials included open sexual predation, a string of high-profile divorces and unashamed boorish behavior. Four years ago, the GOP (the party of family values) made a collective choice that personal character in a president no longer matters. Four years later, we have seen the consequences of these choices.

Yes, President Trump has enacted some public policies and made some judicial appointments that are favorable to conservatism, but they are overshadowed by chaos wrought by his erratic behavior. His contraction of COVID-19 and the infection of many prominent Republicans in his orbit is merely the latest (and most ironic) example of consequences befalling a leader and a base of supporters too incompetent and thickheaded to affect a course correction.

I think Ben Sasse is exactly right. We are in for a political blood bath. I think Trump is going to lose next month. I think Republicans are going to lose the Senate. I think local races in red states will feel an impact as well. Trump supporters love to tout the so-called, “shy Trump vote.” This is the phenomenon in which those who are secretly supportive of Trump don’t admit it openly to close associates or anonymous pollsters. I think the opposite will and is occurring. I think we’re in for a Trump fatigue vote. I think many voters who did take a chance on Trump four years ago are now exhausted with his antics, particularly in light of COVID-19, and are ready for a return to normalcy at the top of the electoral chain. Given the nature of many of Trump’s supporters who tread a very thin line between persuasion and bullying, it’s easier for these quietly exhausted voters just to smile, nod and go with the flow when pressed. This includes everyone outside of the base from operatives inside the D.C. Beltway to fellows and gals at the local pub who just want to have a beer in peace without being inundated by the MAGA crowd.

Sidebar: I’m not talking about the opportunistic huxters who are raking in the eager suckers through sham operations such as The Lincoln Project. I’m talking about average voters.

I don’t know, of course. Two weeks is an eternity with Trump at the helm and the chaos factor is always high. If the GOP loses, it will be a loss much deserved by a party that was all too quick to abandon its long-held principles for short-term victories. Yes, they’ll successfully appoint Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, but it will come with a very large price tag.

I take no pleasure in this forecast.

The Democrats have also squandered much of their credibility. They refused to loudly and roundly condemn the mob violence that has erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death. They insulted the intelligence of the electorate by equating racism as a comparable disease to the Coronavirus. They constantly move the definitional goal posts of long-held terms such as, “court packing,” “sexual preference,” and “white supremacy,” all in the name of a strategy of domination and cultural subjugation in the public arena of ideas. Their ‘blame and shame’ tactics with respect to all things white is reactionary, short-sighted and it will prove to have a very short shelf life before the public at large cries, enough!

Moreover, the Democrats have chosen as their candidate a man whose chief claim to the White House was won upon the coat tails of Barack Obama. Joe Biden was never a politician known for his deftness, and he now seems decrepit in comparison to his glory days in the ‘90’s. His running mate is a woman who is clearly an authority junkie, given to her own fits of political hyperbole. When they win and enact their leftist policies, whether it be packing the Supreme Court or implementing the quixotic Green New Deal, there will be consequences.

The left is lampooning Trump for holding rallies while numbers of new COVID cases are spiking around the world. This is a valid criticism. Yet, as I type this, the Women’s March is holding a national protest in Washington D.C. This protest is populated mostly by the blue state, pro-lockdown crowd. The CDC is advising people to reconsider Thanksgiving holiday dinner with family, but they are happy to go out and flaunt CDC guidelines when it suits their purposes.

Whatever happens in November, neither candidate has won my vote. Both men are singularly unfit for office. I miss the GOP, but I plan to remain an Independent voter for the foreseeable future.

To any of my former students, have you guys figured it out yet? Have you learned the lessons that the GOP forgot on election night, 2016, and the Democrats forgot after Memorial Day Weekend, 2020? Have you realized that the Bad Choice Road really exists and it only gets harder and harder to steer away from the further along you travel upon it?

If you’re reading this, I will try to impart one final lesson as a nod to the ghost of Ryan O, teacher. At some point in your life, you will face a test. Someone (likely someone you know, love and respect), will ask something of you that you know is wrong. They will have seemingly good and sound reasons for asking you to do, think or speak something that you know in your heart and mind not to be true. At that moment, the courage of your convictions will be tested. You will be standing at a fork in the road of life. One path leads to a road shrouded by the mists of uncertainty, unpopularity and disenfranchisement. The other leads to the bad choice road.

Both political parties have stood at this fork in the past four years and both have taken the wrong path. But then, who am I to judge? I have faced this test more than once and I too have failed.

Take heart, former students. When your time comes, rejoice in the knowledge that you were warned beforehand.

Ben Sasse for Senate!!!

Don Bacon for Congress!!!

Jean Stothert for Mayor!!!

Optimus Prime for President!!!

The Corona Diaries: Week 10

In the Spring of 2014, I sent a mass Email to some close friends and several family members. I can’t locate it now, but the gist was:

“Hi, folks. Money is a little tight right now, so if you try to call or text me over the next few weeks and I don’t respond, don’t be concerned. I am starting a new job after Memorial Day and will be able to catch up on my bills at that time. Please don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right.”

Later that day, several close friends informed me that they were helping me with my phone, electric and internet bills. Furthermore, they informed me that it was a gift, not a loan. One of those friends was my oldest buddy, Wes.

Two years later in August of 2016, Wes was visiting me for a much-needed vacation. Four months earlier, he had been struck by a car while crossing a street in Lincoln. The encounter messed up his knee and didn’t do his emotions much good either. He had received a surgery and physical therapy, but his knee was still giving him trouble. He just wanted to get away from work for a long weekend and Denver was always his favorite vacation spot.

One night, we came home from a baseball game between the Rockies and the Cubs. We walked in and Wes casually said, “Hey man, better take a look at your desk.”

On it was a brand new computer. A brailled card was taped to the top of it which said:

“Merry Christmas from Katy, Marty, Marshal Dillon, Alicia and Wesman. May this serve you well.”

I had been without a working computer for over a year. It was the perfect gift at the perfect time.

Week 10: Who Was That Masked Man?

Saturday, May 23, 2020

At 12:57 PM, Jane texts me with her usual one-word summons, “Here.” I grab the backpack by the door and head down. Jane is talking to her nephew on her phone as I slide deftly into her front seat. It’s a little easier to wiggle and wriggle now that I’ve dropped some quarantine weight.

Jane pulls out of my parking lot and we head off as I press “start” on Google Maps. I fight the urge to grab a pre-wedding beer for the road, deciding to wait for Kelly before I imbibe.

45 minutes later, we’re wandering around in Lincoln in Kelly’s neighborhood trying to locate her home. I guess we may as well have started drinking early. I call her and Jane finally finds it. Kelly slides in and I hand her my back-up folding cane from my bag. Kelly is dogless since Jane is not a fan of animals. Somehow, Kelly’s cane got snapped in half, but I don’t ask her to share the story of how it happened. I secretly wonder if she whacked her neighbor a time or two with it, but I’m too tactful to ask.

We head South on 33rd, then hang a right on A. Street. I pull up the YouTube feed of Wes’s wedding as Jane drives. Unfortunately, I am not able to chorale my inner audio snob. My first thought is, damn, that audio hum is annoying. My second thought is, ‘tsk, tsk.’ The holy man is a little hot on the mic. We listen up just in time to hear the pastor say, “I now present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Wes and Allison …” Then, Clint Black comes on with his folksy instruction that, “Love isn’t something that we have. It’s something that we do.” Weird, I think. Shane and Amy used that same song 20 years ago next month.

We pull into the parking lot. Jane informs me that there are few cars around, so we locate a parking space. Then, I grab a cold can of Coors and pass a Mike’s Hard Lemonade to Jane and Kelly. We roll down the windows, feel the cool breeze and sip alcohol. It finally feels like a Memorial Day weekend. All I need is a cigar.

We sit and soak up the sun. Jane and Kelly sip their froufrou drinks in a very ladylike fashion. I chug my beer like a middle-aged bachelor. Time passes. The sun shines and the breeze wafts through the car. More people arrive. I say hi to Wes’s mother. I can’t believe I recognize her voice. I call Shane and ask, “Where are ya?” He says, “We’re right down the street gathering at an elementary school.” I tell him that we’ll probably be gone by the time he gets there. Later, I learn that a group of them drove by the newlyweds in a pick-up and said hi from the back. A COVID wedding greeting, redneck style.

Then Jane says, “There they are. Wow! Her dress is beautiful.” She starts her engine and pulls up to the happy couple.

I honestly remember very little about the conversation. I only had half a beer in my blood, so I can’t blame the buzz. It was all very brief and perfunctory. Both the bride and groom wore masks. We did not. I remember asking Wes how he felt and he said something like, “Pretty good.” I think it lasted all of two minutes. Then we pull forward, we each get a cupcake as our reward and we’re off. I eat the cupcake hanging out the window so as not to drop crumbs on Jane’s car seat. It is chocolate with white frosting. I play a secret game in my mind in which I name the cupcake Kelly, then lasciviously lick the frosting.

We pull around to another parking lot for a while, wondering if anyone might come over to socialize. No one ever does. Finally, Kelly says, “I’m hungry. Let’s go get Runza.” I love a woman that takes charge.

At this point, I have to blame the beer buzz for interfering with the structured discovery function of my brain. If I were sober, we probably would have located the Runza at 39th and Randolph in a matter of mere minutes. As it is, we spend the better part of 40 minutes searching for it. It boils down to the fact that we don’t know whether we’re going North or South on 40th Street. The heady combination of beer and cupcake buzz causes me not to ask the very obvious question, where is the sun located right now.

Eventually, we locate a convenience store, we all eject some processed beer and Kelly says, “Let’s ask the guy behind the counter where Randolph is.”

The clerk starts to explain where we need to go and I blurt out, “That’s not a guy.” Kelly is mortified. Welcome to the 21st century.

Honestly, it seems funnier to experience it than it does to write about it.

At long last, we locate Runza and sit outside alone at a big concrete table. Kelly shares her fries with me, so I guess she didn’t stay miffed. I get an order to go. I can’t help but feel that this drive-through wedding reception and the search for the drive-up Runza serve as some great metaphor for our current pandemic plight, but I don’t have the wherewithal to process a philosophical corollary.

Later, we drop Kelly back at home and make the long trek back to Omaha. I drink the last Mike’s Hard I brought for Kelly because she doesn’t want it. The comedown makes me realize that I no longer like sugary alcoholic beverages. They give me a headache. Jane talks about her marriage, which gives her a headache, so we’re both in the same condition when she drops me at my apartment.

I come home to a heat wave rolling out of my front door. Alexa informs me that the inside temperature is 85 degrees. I turn on the AC, slump into my recliner and ponder the enormity of the fact that Wes, the oldest friend I have, is now married. This was the inquisitive kid I met in 1987 at blind camp. He was the little guy who had no end of questions about everything from the inner workings of an APH tape cassette player to the name of the actor who played Charlie Moore on Head of the Class. Now, it’s his wedding day and the real questions are only beginning for him.

Some might wonder why I disrupted Jane’s Saturday afternoon to take a trip to Lincoln so that we could talk to a bride and groom for two minutes through a car window. My answer is simple. Wes is my friend. If our positions were reversed, I would feel honored and humbled if my friends made the effort to come support me during such a momentous occasion. Of course, our original plans were quite different. The wedding was supposed to be an in-person affair and I was going to make a three-day weekend out of it. Kelly was going to be my actual date and the gender of a convenience store clerk never would have entered into the equation. But then, a bunch of unfettered germs spoiled everything. What if Trump is right? If not for China, I would’ve thrown Wes one hell of a bachelor party. As a protest, I’ll never eat Crab Rangoon again. I think The Donald would approve.

As I drift off for a nap, the thought occurs that, when my wedding night finally arrives, I hope I won’t be too drunk to discern North from South.

Sunday, May 24

SHOCKER!!! Joe recorded the audio feed of Wes’s wedding. I give it a listen as I wait for my Chipotle order to be delivered. The pastor opens the ceremony by saying, “She looks beautiful, Wes.” I’m sure every sighted person who heard that gushed like a Saudi Arabian oil well. Every blind person who heard it probably silently said, “Ahh, for Christ sake.” I catch myself thinking that, if it were my wedding and my official said something like that, despite the solemnity of the occasion, I’d be thinking, she’s gonna look even more beautiful out of that dress, preacher man!

Later on, the pastor says, “I’m smilin’ beneath my mask.” I try to figure out at what point in history in western civilization one might hear a line like that at a wedding. I can’t help it. I giggle like a Cheeto-snarfing pothead. Maybe it’s a good thing I wasn’t there after all.

Lunch arrives and it is indeed okie dokie.

Monday, May 25

Happy Memorial Day.

1,636,222 confirmed cases in the United States. 97,276 deaths.

PS: In case you’re wondering, Marshal Dillon was really my other best friend, Joe. That used to be one of his nicknames before Miss Kitty made him hang up his guns. God bless married life.