How to Change the World, Starting Now

Boy laughs and splashes

If you want to change the world, like really want to do something, I have the answer:

Don’t build that fence.

You don’t need to pool all your resources together and start a foundation, either.

We don’t need your big ideas. We have enough of those.

Just go stand next to someone you don’t know.

You don’t have to talk. In fact, it’s better if you don’t.

Talk only to keep them talking. It’s not as hard as you think.

My mom used to drive us 20 minutes to go to church. We had churches in our hometown but she wanted to take us to New Haven, because that’s where the black people were.

And she wanted to take us to the Kids Museum because that’s where the poor people were.

And she would always walk us up to people with obvious disabilities so we could talk with them.

All of this was extremely uncomfortable. My friends were miles away from these places.

I never got it then, but I get it now.

Proximity is a better teacher than textbooks, better than the great lectures extolled from within the fence line.

I really believe that the animosity between warring leaders would dissipate if they were left in a room together, without weapons. Perhaps we’d have to shackle them first (hands can be weapons, too.).

But if they sat on the same hard floor, under the same wicked lights, away from their allies and echo chambers for long enough, they might do that thing that is so hard for all of us:

Put aside what we think we know as fact, and let something new in, something as uncomfortable as a pill without water, as a pebble in our shoe.

Both are more powerful than a bomb.

Suicide, war, gang violence, mass shootings, domestic abuse, hate crime, genocide. It’s easier to shoot people than it is to talk to them.

But I guess it’s even harder to listen.


Judge signing on the papers

Years ago, I was in court testifying for a friend, and the defense attorney was doing his thing: trying like hell to discredit me. (Good luck with that, bruh.)

“So you’re saying you drank some beer and smoked a few bowls.”

He said this in a lazy faux-SoCal sort of way. It was probably my long hair and slow talking that made him feel like he had a license to do so. But he didn’t know shit about me.

“No” I rebutted. “I said I had a beer bottle in my hand, and I took a few tokes from a bowl.”

It bothered me how this guy’s rendition of me was admissible in court, even though he was anything but unbiased, and even though all he knew about me was what he saw that day and what he’d read in a transcript. This was our very first conversation: a fun Q&A with the goal of making me look like a loser, someone not worth listening to. Such is the point of a cross-examination in our justice system.

“Tell me, Mr. Flamer, what were doing this whole time, up by yourself while everyone else was asleep?”

“Just sort of zoning out.”

He looked around the court even though there was no jury to impress, just a judge, who he probably knew much better than I did.

“Just sort of zoning out? Could you elaborate on that, Mr. Flamer?”

“I like to think.”

“When you’re high?”

“No. All the time. It’s just something I do.”

“So you’re saying you like to stay up late and zone out?”

“No, I’m saying I like to sit still and do nothing.”

This guy was looking for something, and he wasn’t going to find it. I had a job, a home, a girlfriend, and a stable upbringing. But above all, I liked who I was. You can’t pierce the confidence of someone who has that. And the more you try, the more you look like a fool.

But he kept pushing, kept searching. I was full of surprises.

I wasn’t a stoner
I had a degree
I made more than him
My boss loved me
I was well read
I was monogamous
I was content

He looked at his notes, flipped through the yellow-lined pages.

His ace in the hole fell deeper into the hole. He had a look on his face like a hunter, realizing for the first time out there in the cold and icy snow, that he was the one being hunted.

He thrusted and parried a few more times before dropping his notepad to his side.

“No further questions, your honor.”

Yeah, that’s right. Take a seat, bruh.

You mess with the bull, you get the horns.

The Revolution Is Not Necessarily Good for Your Grade Point Average

Road man people woman

Our public school system shut down for a week and a half so teachers could strike for a living wage and continue living in the city where they teach.

They fought for a lot of other amazing things too, selfless things, like making sure the families in the district have a say in what happens to their schools, making sure homeless students and foster youth are looked after, pushing for equity in this black-white town where most of the black kids are in public school and most of the white kids (after 5th grade, anyway) are in private schools, or other cities…

It’s revolutionary: fighting for integrated public schools to thrive.

Public schools are the last chance in the US for kids of different backgrounds, income levels, and experiences to truly be alongside each other. And, it’s my belief that being alongside each other when we’re young is what gives us hope for a peaceful, less divided future.

That’s what makes it revolutionary.

But there’s plenty of loss required to join the revolution.

During the strike, our kids didn’t have school for a week and a half.

This meant our high schooler got her AP study sessions cut short, some kids’ sporting events were canceled, seniors missed out on crucial last days of everything. My eldest may miss the opportunity to bring her grade up. My youngest isn’t going to be in a music recital she’d been looking forward to all year.

We had to scramble (and pay) to find childcare. We went to bed anxious every night wondering if school would be open the next day.

What makes it more difficult is looking around at other school districts, their books and doors open, GPAs rising.

When I look back at all of the social justice groups, schools, and movements I’ve been part of, I see the same thing, at least among affluent, empowered people like me: individual sacrifice for community well being. Giving things away, willingly, without reward or recognition.

This is not an easily embraced requirement, which is why, I’m guessing, so many of the rooms where the revolutions are planned are full of empty chairs and IOUs.

The strike (like the ones before it) reminds me of a quote from Frederick Douglass, a slave who taught himself to read and became one of the greatest scholars in US history, against all odds.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

But embedded in Douglass’ own origin story is an exception to his rule. There was a white woman, not nearly perfect, but open enough to see the brilliance in Douglass and risk her own well-being to introduce him to words — words he then used to change human history.

That’s revolutionary.

I think we often forget where power lies.

It’s easy to wave a fist at the slave trade, at the government, at the school district.

Much harder to recognize and concede our own small bits of reign.

How We Deal With Road Rage

Screaming blurry face

I sometimes read Quora to find out where job seekers’ heads are at and to read stories of human kindness, particularly among strangers.

One such story involved a woman’s victory over road rage.

Something happened out there on the road, and a man pulled in next to her in the parking lot and began yelling at her.

Although she hadn’t done anything wrong, or perhaps because she hadn’t done anything wrong, she apologized. She wasn’t trying to win the fight; she was attempting to deescalate it. It was a conscious choice.

Later (and I don’t even know if this part is true, but who really cares), the man left a note on her car that said he’d been through a lot and was sorry for yelling. Honestly, though this is a nice happy ending and we all wish for nice happy endings, I think the note takes away from the more important message: that we can all beat anger.

Apparently, that’s not how a lot of people in the forum felt.

Nutjob deserves a punch in the face.
I would have taken a pipe to his head.
He does that to me, he’d regret it.
You should have called the cops.
The minute he followed you, he crossed a line.


Now, I can see what we’re up against.

Righteous anger. Justified hate: the most dangerous of our emotions, because it not only puts the pipe in our hands but compliments us after we swing.

This woman, rather than beating the man, beat her own anger. And, in doing so, created the possibility for the man to beat his. That is to be celebrated.

Compassion is not a weakness. Apologies are not submissive; they’re courageous.

We, as humans, only evolve in one direction: from anger to kindness, from alienation to understanding, from aggression to forgiveness.

Never the other way around.

Why Do We Hate Each Other So Much?

Is it possible that the feuds between Red&Blue and Black&White and Black&Black and White&White and Rich&Poor and Rich&Richer and Tenant&Landlord and Boss&Employee and North&South and East&West and City&Country and This&That and That&This actually stem from the carefully planned, cultivated, and nurtured violence of a small group of people who desired to be free years and year ago?

Just as a thief can’t find peace without giving away the money, or a cowboy can’t find love without holding his mother’s hand, or a couple can’t live together without talking about the fight, or a murderer can’t rid themselves of nightmares, perhaps an entire nation needs to look back and see each other gathered around the body.

It took us a while to believe in psychology; now we all go to therapy (at least those of us who want to heal).

How long before we recognize that this model applies to the whole of us? That healing requires getting down on our knees and crying hard and loud for hours until we’re too weak to rise, until someone else needs to lift us up, and we can look into each other’s eyes with that incredible feeling of complete emptiness and dried tears on our faces.

(It really is an incredible feeling.)

Everything is possible in that moment, and nothing is possible before it.

I don’t understand why; that’s just how it is.

For each one of us. And all of us.

All of us are parents at funerals, killers at large, bodies in the morgue. And in the name of freedom, as it was defined centuries ago.

So let’s kneel – every one of us, crumpled at the joints, like parents over our child looking at the blood on our hands and the knife on the ground and the holes in our children and the holes in us. Let’s let it hurt for a while, let’s watch our own hands do the killing and our own hearts stop beating.

Only after we kneel, can we rise.

Picking Out Images

Man in black suit jacket holding black leather bag

You can learn a lot about humanity when picking out images for your blog.

Plug in the word “kind” and you’ll see a bunch of people with animals.
(Hey! What about people with people?)

Put in “listen” and you get a bunch of people with headphones
(the exact opposite of listening, actually.)

Put in “planet” and you get protest signs for reversing climate change.

Put in “career” and you get people in suits.

Until recently, I could only pull up white people. And “business” meant “men with briefcases.”

Our minds work the same way as the image search. “Dog” makes us smile. “Planet” makes us tense. When we hear a name, we have a reaction. A single word on a page can make us happy or sad or angry.

Associations are often rigid, like an equals sign. We, as a species love to link things together. We love to classify.

It’s efficient but it creates beliefs that aren’t true. We’re constantly manufacturing facts and putting them in glass cases.

We should remember this.

An Integrated School, Sort Of

Abstract wallpaper

Evaline’s big play was last night, and her sister and I laughed through the whole thing.

But the best part, at least for this parent, was that moment afterward: watching all the actors and production crew buzz around in front of the stage, hugging each other, cracking jokes, and reviewing their mistakes with laughter. Family members and younger siblings filtered into the frenzy to sneak in hugs, deliver roses, and take pictures.

It was lovely — that elusive, yummy cookie of accomplishment in everyone’s tummy. I sat on the arm of an auditorium chair about 3 rows back and watched, a big goofy smile on my face.

I caught myself staring, wondered why I wasn’t running into the crowd like the rest of the proud parents, and why, instead, I perched on my skinny wooden armrest.

Perhaps this.

As gleeful as the crowd was, it was divided.

To my right, the White kids and White families. To my left, a bit louder and more expressive in their joy, the Black kids and their families. Between them, about 6 feet of space.

This is an integrated school in America.

Indeed, it’s one of the most superbly integrated schools in Oakland: 26% Black, 22% White… These stats are what people love about the school. The students are damn proud of these figures. And they should be.

But, truth be told, it looks better on paper than in real life. It’s less of an “integration” and more of an “alongside.” Two worlds right next to each other, learning differently, laughing differently. I suppose it gets the job done, that job being the silent and ongoing production of empathy. On both sides.

It sure was a huge space between them. All Black on one side. All White on the other. No exceptions.

Well, one exception, I guess. (grin)

Me! Propped up in the middle, glued to my armrest like a gargoyle, big goofy smile on my face.

I had to laugh when I noticed this. Of course, Cliff. Of course, you’re sitting in the middle.

A small, near-invisible gesture on my part.

With the mystery solved and the colorful crowd dispersing into the aisles, I got down off my perch and went in for my hug (the White side, if you’re wondering).

At least my kid was the loudest.

Finishing Dreams

Child walking on grass path

Whether good or bad,

dreams get into us.

We’ve all had the experience of waking up

or being woken up

in the middle of a dream,

forced to put that dream aside

for reality.

Incomplete dreams are like incomplete conversations,

a puzzle still in pieces.

Freud called them unfulfilled wishes.

Fritz Perls called them unfinished business.

Whatever the term, the point is the dreamer is left unwhole.

And unholy.

It’s a nagging feeling.

Sometimes for my morning visualization,

I pick up where my dreams left off,

remembering the last fragment,

calling back the characters,

and letting the scene play out,

like a spiritual improv show,

wild and dangerous,

until the conversation runs out of words,

until the last line of the riddle is dropped into place,

sunlight shining on an open field,

my biggest fears snarling like chained dogs.

And I wake for the second time that day.

The Fire in 7th Grade

7th grade interview about a fire

My friend found old news footage of a fire in our 7th-grade classroom. The teacher, one of my favorites, was trying to take chlorophyll out of a leaf. Alcohol got on the hot plate and, BOOM, big explosion.

In the newscast, after some panning shots of the charred classroom, the reporter interviewed one of my best friends.

And there I was, mulleted, in a non-descript, grey sweatshirt, standing off to the side.

What struck me was how tired I looked.

I wasn’t vying for attention or making funny faces at the camera. I was staring off into the distance, black circles under my eyes.

Perhaps I was just in shock, but I did the math — I was twelve, and twelve was hard.

My parents had gotten divorced a couple of years prior; my brother had just moved out of the house (and out of my school) to live with my dad. My mom had either just started (or was about to start) working nights at the hospital. It was either just before or just after my first kiss (and first breakup).

I was on the last hours of my good behavior.

It was the following year, in 8th grade where I started questioning everything. Not in an intellectual way, but because the earth had become the sky, and the sky had become the earth, like a big tornado had spun up and blurred everything together.

I nonchalantly earned myself a collection of detentions and suspensions for silly things like jumping up and touching the ceiling, stepping out of line, and not squealing on my friends.

The times when I had a girlfriend, it’s highly likely she was telling me I was emotionally unavailable. I remember those conversations well.

And she was right. I was.

My dad saw it too. I had turned down the flame until it was just a blue glow. It’s not like I didn’t laugh or smile, but I never let anything out that was important. At first, I had to fight back the tears, and then one day, they just weren’t there anymore.

I’d perfected my pathology, went into hibernation, and allowed all those emotions to fall back down inside.

I listened to dark things. I wrote about dark things. I sat quietly a lot, hidden by the aloofness that’s expected of teenagers. I lived in a quietness that shouldn’t have been there, nestled into the eye of the storm, wrapped safely in dangerous winds.

And the people who loved me — mom, dad, brother, counselor, teacher, friend, girlfriend — they tried their best to toss love through the winds into the hollow in which I hid. And though I tossed very little back at them, the love they sent, it made it through because pure love always makes it through; it’s one of the most comforting truths we have.

I can’t be mad at the tornado. It protected me and my flame. It gave me time. Time to collect all that love. Time to collect all that sorrow. It was an exhausting process. It was hard.

But somehow, that formula of intense love and intense suffering with just enough heat, left alone for so long, produced an elixir that I still have today. And I have so much of it I can pass it along to others.

In fact, that’s how it works. That’s what it does: it makes you want to pass it along.

It makes you want to reach through the howling winds into the hollow where someone is curled up with only their suffering.

It’s not important that they see you out there in the wind, or that they remember you when their fire starts to build again.

All that matters is what you leave behind.

Burnout’s Nemesis

brown and white cigarette stick

Burnout is real.

And he can sneak up on you quick, disheveled and in a bandit’s mask.

At first, you won’t notice him; you’ve been too busy, that’s how he slips in.

And once he sat down at your workspace, he wouldn’t leave, not of his own accord anyway. He’ll just sit there hoping you won’t notice.

The way to tell if he’s there is by looking in not out. If you’re getting tireder and tireder with each hour and each day, then he’s there. If that sense of accomplishment at the end of the day has been replaced by heavy exhaustion, layered on top of boredom, then you know he’s in the room.

Burnout has the upper hand because he’s got you in a double bind: you need energy to find a way to create energy. It’s insidious. No fair!

What you need is an old friend — Inspiration — but she can seem like she’s gone well past the horizon by now, hitching a ride with someone else.

You’re wrong.

That’s the first important piece: realizing that Inspiration is close by, right outside your door, sitting against the wall, chin resting on her knees, waiting for you to finish your endless meeting.

To break free from Burnout, you likely need to remove a task or two from your load, which is never easy because by the time Burnout comes to visit, those tasks are usually intertwined pretty good.

Here are some ideas:
Have someone else do the thing
Call a meeting to call in the dogs
Change your settings
Check your outgoing message
Take one less than before

If all this is overwhelming, start your change far away from work, where Burnout can’t hear. Make sure the coast is clear, then… Tell a friend.

(Don’t worry about what they say. By telling a friend, really, you’re just telling yourself; it’s amazing the power of saying something out loud!)

With a task or two removed, the other pieces will show their outlines. You’ll start to see how you can reshuffle and restack.

But before you get too carried away with the redesign of what you got, remember to bring in something new. Open a door or window: a class, a conversation, a new kind of appointment, something unrelated to everything else.

Burnout hates when we do that.

Because he knows it’s time for him to leave.

He’ll get up quietly, softly, just like how he came in. And you’ll politely see him out, no hard feelings. (I know you’re resentful now, but just wait until the goodbye; you’ll see there’ll be no need for vitriol.)

And just as you’re about the close the door behind you, not sure what to do next, Inspiration will jam her foot in there. She doesn’t bother with being quiet.



You’ll be surprised. It may take a minute to recognize her.

No worries.

She’s there. You’re there.

No need for explanations.

Let her in.