Tuesday, November 29, 2016

This Damn Month (Brian Katcher)

I have to say that 2016 was really gunning for the title of worst year in a long time, what with the Cubs and Brexit and all, but things really solidified there at the beginning of November.

I feel like there are no more heroes. I feel that the bullies and bigots won.

Here's a little something I wrote shortly after I found out. I think it's time for all of us to step up and be heroes for people who are going to lose their voices shortly:

You know, I've followed politics since Reagan was in the White House. And it occurs to me, no decision a president has made has ever affected me directly. Seriously. I'm too middle class to worry about government aid or tax breaks for the wealthy. My parents paid for my college. I never served in the military. I'm male, so I've never worried about sexism or feared for my safety. I'm white and Christian so I've never been discriminated against, overtly or subtly. I'm heterosexual and cisgender, so I've never been told my love was wrong or illegal. Honestly, I could wait out the next four years, no problem.

But I'm not going to. I've known too many women who've told me about men who hurt them and didn't even realize what they were doing was wrong. I spent too much time in Mexico to dismiss a nation as a gang of 'rapists and murderers.' I've seen too much poverty to mock the desperately poor and the refugee, demanding they solve their own problems. I have too many LGBTQ friends who fought for their hard-earned rights for decades and rightly fear they're about to lose everything, including their personal safety.

And while my life has been blessed, I do know what a bully looks like. 

This is not the America I believe in. These are grim times, my friends, but we've been through worse. We will survive. No matter what happens, I have your back (whatever that's worth).

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Heroism (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

We're blogging about heroes this month. For me, heroes are people who do something heroic; they're not perfect people to be emulated in every detail. (Nobody could live up to such myth-making, such adulation, and we've all heard the crash when role models tumble off their pedestals.)

By "something heroic" I mostly mean people who speak truth to power, who stand up against injustice even (especially) when injustice is backed by force and numbers. People like Malala, and Bayard Rustin, and the Chinese student who blocked a tank in Tiananmen Square.

It takes uncommon bravery to act heroically, because in general we don't treat heroes well. They live under constant threat of punishment. They are mocked, beaten, impoverished, assassinated, imprisoned, exiled. Sometimes, long after the fact, they are lauded. Sometimes, if they're lucky, they live to see the changes they've helped bring about.

Sometimes writers aid the cause, challenging unjust systems on the page, whether through straight nonfiction or allegorical fiction. Writing, telling stories, is part of the consciousness raising that goes into adding voices to the groundswells that drive historic change, or that try to warn of dark paths we'd best not take. On this bookshelf we find Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (about the plight of workers and the hazards of industrial food production) and George Orwell's 1984  (about the dangers of misinformation and constant surveillance) and Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (a dystopian novel about the rise of fascism in America) and M.T. Anderson's Feed (about the human costs of technology and the obliviousness of privilege) and many, many others.

Stories are how we make sense of the world, and that's especially important when we find something in the world that doesn't seem to make sense.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Heroes and Enemies (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

Wow, has this ever been a month. Can we all agree on that, maybe, for just a second? I've revised this several times, unsure exactly what it is that I want to say about heroes. Certain only—based on the evidence of my abandoned-for-the-sake-of-my-sanity Facebook feed—that whatever I do say, someone will be sure to find fault with it. It will be too much, or not enough.

So I will let another, far more accomplished, historian do it for me.

I am passionately interested in the colonial beginnings of the United States, which led me to Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower. I reread it in October, which is when I highlighted the following passage. It remains valid now.

When violence and fear grip a society, there is an almost overpowering temptation to demonize the enemy. Given the unprecedented level of suffering and death during King Philip's War, the temptations were especially great, and it is not surprising that both Indians and English began to view their former neighbors as subhuman and evil. What is surprising is that even in the midst of one of the deadliest wars in American history, there were Englishmen who believed the Indians were not inherently malevolent and there were Indians who believed the same about the English. They were the ones whose rambunctious and intrinsically rebellious faith in humanity finally brought the war to an end, and they are the heroes of this story.

--Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006)

It seems like I often find that the real heroes are the people who manage to see the humanity in everyone, even their enemies. Is it "intrinsically rebellious" to have faith in humanity? I don't know, but—again based on the evidence of my Facebook feed—it seems like it might be.

It's possible that this is the hardest kind of hero to be, the kind of hero that sees people, fellow human beings, even when she looks at her enemies.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Looking for heroes -- Jen Doktorski

November has left me feeling short on words and heroes.

Knowing I had to write this blog post didn’t make it any easier to find the right ones—words or heroes—but I gave it a try, searching my memory for people and moments in recent history that inspired me. Here’s what I came up with.

Esther Htusan, Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza.

Recognize any of those names? Probably not. These women are all reporters for the Associate Press. In 2015 they conducted a dangerous and exhaustive investigation of the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. As a result of their reporting 2,000 people were freed from slavery—yes, I said 2,000—dozens were arrests, and a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service was awarded to The Associated Press.

Heroic work is being done by news reporters and the media. Why aren’t stories like these highlighted on the nightly news or in a Barbara Walters during special? These women risked their lives to uncover the truth and used the power of the printed word to stop injustice and cruelty. Freedom of the press is one of this nation’s greatest gifts. Maybe our job as American citizens is to recognize that our own search for the truth cannot begin and end with what can be absorbed from watching FOX news and MSNBC or flicking through headlines on our social media feeds. Not when these four women had their lives threatened and spent four days hiding in the back of a truck to indentify the ships carrying the seafood obtained from slave labor.

Here’s a more complete story about these extraordinary women.
Next, I’d like to mention the courageous individuals who testified at the bail hearing of the alleged killer in the Charleston, S.C. church massacre.

Two days after a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church ended in a violent death for nine church members, survivors and family members of the victims stood in a courtroom and spoke directly to the alleged killer. They had suffered an unimaginable loss and had every right to feel hatred toward the person who had caused their pain. But they choose another path instead.

Nadine Collier, whose mother Ethel Lance died in the rampage, was the first to speak. “I forgive you. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you … If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Her mercy and grace were echoed by all those who testified that day including Felicia Sanders, who survived the attack only to watch her son die, Bethane Middleton-Brown, who lost her sister, and Wanda Simmons, who lost her grandfather.

It takes an extraordinary person to stare hatred and evil in the face and offer mercy and forgiveness. I was awed and inspired by their ability to embrace love when it would have been so much easier for them to hate. Heroes, every one of them. This country and the world would be a better place with more people like them.

Finally, I’d like to mention all the artists out there who use their voices to fight injustice, bring about social change, and give a voice to those who lack the platform to speak. There were two wonderful moments recently—the cast of Hamilton addressing our next vice president and Ellen DeGeneres receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. The Hamilton thing? Awesome. On so many levels. As for the courage shown by Ellen DeGeneres when she risked everything and came out on national television more than 20 years ago? President Obama says it better than I can.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The true meaning of heroism (by Patty Blount)

This post includes my personal politics. You have been warned.

Last month, I was on a business trip (for my dayjob) and the flight attendant announced our plane held some very important people: three former service men -- one who fought in Korea, another who fought in Desert Storm and a third in uniform, barely old enough to shave, heading home to surprise his mom. 

That got me thinking (the flight was several hours plus I had a connection, so yeah -- I did a LOT of thinking) -- thinking about the people we call HERO and the word's connection to our work -- creating fiction. 

Let's start with the word. We slap it on quite a few people don't deserve it and rarely, if ever, apply it to those who do. 

The dictionary definition of a hero is "a brave person" and willingly marching into battle certainly takes bravery. First responders fall into this category... everyone else runs from danger while they run into it. But I think it's dangerous to assume that just because a person is wearing a uniform, they're automatically a hero. Sometimes, even the most elite organizations sees its fair share of jerks. Sometimes, a person in uniform exploits their power to suit selfish agendas. We've seen this in the Catholic Church, and we've seen it in various police forces. 

Who stops this corruption? Who shuts down this level of deceit? 

Protestors. (Let me be crystal clear on this: protestors, NOT rioters. There is a difference.)

It starts with a single injustice that compels one person to step outside the bounds of what's 'acceptable' and raise a little hell. And that one voice becomes two. And then many. 

And that's how change -- real, positive change -- finally gets made. 

Bill Cameron's amazing post on 11/4 mentioned Colin Kaepernick -- arguably the most hated athlete in sports right now. 

To me, he is a hero. 


Because he didn't remain silent about injustice. You know, America is often called the Great Experiment in Democracy. We're full of ideals about freedom and liberty and civil rights. But for most of us, those are nothing but pretty words. We pledge our allegiance, we stand up for the anthem, but when it comes down to DOING anything? Most of us go back to our sofas and TVs. 

We're hypocrites. 

Unless it's our OWN freedom, liberty, and civil rights under threat -- then it's a different story. Then, we want blood. Take the concept of flag-burning, for example. In 1969, the Supreme Court decided it's not illegal to burn the flag -- and then the Flag Protection Act was passed in 1989 -- and then in 1990, the Supreme Court again ruled flag-burning is protected under the First Amendment. 

It's an act of the utmost insult because the flag represents those ideals -- freedom, liberty, rights. So, I ask you a philosophical question -- when somebody decides to set fire to that symbol -- an act of protest if ever there was one -- doesn't it stand to reason that this person must have witnessed or experienced some horrible form of injustice? For what better way to call attention to that injustice than by using an equally horrible form of protest?  But most of us rarely see the protest itself in such terms. We call it treason, betrayal, and all manner of insults instead of recognizing this as the opportunity it truly is -- an opportunity to continue the great experiment.

Colin K. was outraged by abuse by people in uniform. He protested that injustice in a profound way...a way that caused no physical damage to people or property, and that caused no interference with anyone else's rights. It is a legal protest -- in fact, it's an act that many other countries might punish with prison or death. He carried out this protest fully knowing and accepting the fall-out -- loss of income or even his place on the team, loss of popularity with fans, even threats -- and did it anyway. 

That, right there, is the literal definition of heroism -- "a brave person." 

In a world whose motto has become "Not my circus, not my monkeys," I am inspired by the acts of protest and heroism I'm seeing. Here in New York, a man on a bus saw a pervert touch a child and stopped him, getting arrested in the process. That's heroic. The story unfolding in Standing Rock as I write this is full of heroes. Do you remember the iconic images of Tiananmen Square -- of one lone figure staring down a tank? 


Coming from the romance-writing world as I do, there's a lot of emphasis in creating alpha heroes, the "man's man." In one of my contemporary romances, the hero I'd originally envisioned for the story was slightly goofy, maybe a bit of a nerd. He was quickly vetoed and I wrote the stereotypical alpha. But in YA fiction, we have a lot more flexibility. In young adult fiction, we have the unique opportunity to craft characters who are on the cusp of being heroic. 

SPOILERS: Let's look at some popular fiction -- Harry Potter is a protestor. While most of the wizarding world supported Voldemort or at least, remained silent, he began Dumbledore's Army to fight him. Katniss Everdeen is a protestor...refusing to murder her friend and threatening to kill herself instead. Ian in my own Some Boys, is a protestor. Though he spends a good portion of that book confused, he decides -- and ultimately takes action based on that decision -- what it means to be a good man. He saw an injustice and protested it, knowing he could lose friends, lose his spot on his team.   

I've been paralyzed by fear since the U.S. elections and mourn the loss of the America I knew. I've been forced to listen to people demand that all the protestors be arrested, that flag-burning be made illegal, that it's really not such a bad idea to force Muslims to register and I want to cry. 

Does no one understand that protestors are the heartbeat of America? America was literally BORN in an act of protest -- the Boston Tea Party, which led to the creation of the first Continental Congress. Does no one understand that by legislating displays of patriotism, we would be OUTLAWING freedom? And does no one understand that forcing registration upon segments of our population by basis of their religion or nationality violates/negates/spits in the face of the very civil liberties we boast of?

The groups protesting are increasingly comprised of high school students and this lifts my bleeding heart. As authors, this is our target audience. Young adults who are witnessing things they don't agree with and refusing to stay silent about it. Young adults who will FIX what we just broke. Young adults who are showing us that "America" is not a label you display on a t-shirt -- it's a verb -- it's an ongoing, long-term fight. Our country, our democracy, is only as strong as the citizens who actively and purposefully engage in it (and in this vote, about 46% did NOT).  We get to create the stories and characters who inspire this next generation of heroes -- the next generation of protestors. 

Monday, November 21, 2016


At the end of the first chapter of my latest YA, SPARK, Quin says:

"Who am I to expect something magical to happen for me? I'm the great-granddaughter of the biggest kook to have ever walked the streets of Verona, Missouri. I'm a B-average student with big glasses and plain hair. Magic is for girls who have far flashier backgrounds and powers and look like drawings of superheroes in comic books."

Only, magic does happen for Quin...and isn't that truly the most satisfying story of all? The story in which the clumsy, the awkward, the less-than-perfect suddenly becomes the star of the show? Find that they had strength of abilities they never could have imagined?

And isn't it satisfying because it allows us to believe that we could also be the heroes of a sweeping tale? That as imperfect as we are, we could step up and save the day?

I think that's the best part of writing for younger readers, actually--telling a tale that lets whoever that is holding my book believe that they are a hero. All they need is an opportunity to show their heroic side. All they need is a story to star in...

Friday, November 18, 2016

Champions for the Future

Is it too self-serving to say that my heroes are the bloggers who champion YA books? In these tumultuous times it is important to remember that the next generation is watching. Blogs, such as YA Books Central are helping to move our focus forward to a hopeful tomorrow filled with new books and big ideas. Also, ahem, they just revealed the cover to my next novel! Woot! Check it out and enter to win a copy of LOVE AND VANDALISM!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Coward Not Shown in the Picture

A couple of years ago I visited dear relatives that I hadn't seen in forever. They welcomed me into their beautiful home and I spent a weekend with them, catching up, smiling over old family picture albums and sharing memories and funny stories.

One night after dinner, we were all sitting around chatting, and an elderly aunt mentioned that she rarely went into the nearby city because there were too many black people living there. The place was being taken over by them. The Blacks, she said, angrily as if it were a curse word.

I sat there looking down at my plate during this tirade, not knowing what to say, so utterly uncomfortable that I think I started sweating. Maybe only a few minutes went by and then someone changed the subject and we all went on to talk about other things.

But I replayed the exchange, such as it was, in the years after. Should I have said anything? What would I say? This was my aunt, someone I had always loved and admired and respected. Was it worth getting into a discussion with her? I only saw the woman occasionally. Why have a confrontation? It's not like I could change her mind. Why hurt her feelings or make her feel uncomfortable?

So I let it go. As I have let other things go over the years, for the sake of family or neighborly harmony. Because I don't like being confrontational. Because I want to be "kind." Because, honestly, it is easier to not get into it with other people who feel differently from you.

There's a picture most of us have seen before. A young black woman wearing sunglasses, holding school books, walking through a crowd of angry white people. It was 1957, three years after Brown v The Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were against the law, but Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, still did not allow black students to attend. It took an order from President Eisenhower and the National Guard to force the governor of the state to agree to let nine black students enroll.

The young woman in the iconic photo is fifteen year old Elizabeth Eckford. She was accidentally separated from her group and found herself alone in the mob.

I've looked at that picture a lot. I always felt it belonged firmly in the past, a heartbreaking bit of long ago history.

But sometimes I ask myself who I would be if I'd lived back then.

Not Elizabeth Eckford, because I have never been in a position where I have been surrounded by a crazy mob. I have never been courageous like her. I have never been a hero.

I know that I would not be the angry yelling white girl behind Elizabeth, or the laughing jeering people, or the scowling scary ladies. I know this because I have never hated or feared or felt I was superior to people who are different from me.

So who would I be?

That night, at the table with my aunt, I wonder what would have happened if I had challenged her. Not argued or tried to change her mind, but simply spoken up.

Said, I don't agree with you. This is not how I feel. 

I have no idea how this response would've been received. Maybe my aunt would've felt uncomfortable.

But is this so terrible? Then we could be equal at the table together, sharing our discomfort.

I regret my silence that night. And I have a great many other regrets this week, after this particular election,

for all the times when I remained silent in the presence of bullying and bigotry, when I laughed uncomfortably at sexist jokes, when I made excuses for or minimized racism.

I understand now who I've been and what I've done. I was the person who walked somewhere in the background of a photograph not so firmly in the past after all,

the person who saw the crowd gathering, and crept away.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Super Brave by Nancy Ohlin

So I want to talk about PTSD.

Last year, my daughter, then seven, was traumatized by some teachers at her old school. She has several disabilities, including anxiety disorder and sensory processing disorder (SPD). But for some mysterious, awful reason, these teachers chose to ignore that and punished her repeatedly for anxiety- and SPD-related behavior. When she hid under a desk because she was having an anxiety attack, they reprimanded her for being “disruptive” and sent her to the principal’s office. When she tried to run out of the classroom because she was afraid of them, they physically restrained her.

As a result, she developed chronic PTSD, and her anxiety got way worse, too.  She was mostly not in school during the beginning of 2016 while we tried to heal her with a ton of therapy, meds, and other modalities.

How to explain PTSD?  When a person perceives a really big threat, he or she is likely to go into an instinctive “fight or flight” mode.  Fight or flight is what saved our cave-dwelling ancestors when they saw a lion running toward them.  

When a person experiences a traumatic event and doesn’t develop PTSD, the memory of that event eventually goes into the long-term memory bank.  It takes something very specific to trigger it, for example, a similar event or news of that thing happening to someone else.

But when a person develops PTSD, the memory of that event gets stuck in the short-term memory bank. All kinds of things can trigger it, even innocuous, unrelated stuff. 

Because my daughter has PTSD, she triggers at the slightest thing and becomes overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness and powerlessness (which is what those teachers made her feel).  If someone criticizes her … if someone tells her what to do … if someone touches her arm when she isn’t expecting it … these things can all be misinterpreted by her PTSD-addled brain as threats.  Physical threats.  Life-or-death threats.  At which point she goes into fight or flight mode, and she defends herself.  She runs.  She hides.  She hits.  Whatever it takes to make her think she’s safe from the lions.

She’s in a new school now, but she continues to be afraid, and for the most part, she refuses to go.  Her current teachers are wonderful, kind people, but she keeps thinking that they, too, will turn on her and reveal themselves to be monsters, just like the other ones.  

The incredible social worker at her new school has created a written plan for her; the idea is for her to come to school for a little bit every day and then build on that, week by week.  Here’s an excerpt from his plan (Charmander included):

If you spend 5 minutes in class, you earn a sticker.

ANY AMOUNT OF TIME you spend in school is super brave!

Thankfully, the plan has started working.  Slowly but surely, she’s increasing her time at school.  Slowly but surely, she’s learning to keep the lions at bay.  It’s not a quick fix, and she still has a long way to go, but it’s progress.

I used to think that being brave meant facing down real monsters, real challenges.  Soldiers, firefighters, Martin Luther King, Oskar Schindler, Malala Yousafzai they’re heroes.  But I realize now that being brave means facing down whatever monsters and challenges are real for you.  For my daughter, she’s brave every minute she’s able to spend in school.  She’s a hero if she can walk through that front door and maybe make it through first period.

Here’s to my daughter and to all the other heroes out there who are fighting and conquering their inner, invisible battles.   

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Writing Heroes by Sydney Salter

I've had many different writing heroes.

Early in life, I had inkling that I wanted to be an author, but I didn't think I could be one. Writers didn't live ordinary lives in ordinary towns. I didn't really want to be an alcoholic (wasn't that a requirement?). What if I tried and failed? I mostly didn't try. I planned to try--later. Someday. Maybe.

Natalie Goldberg to the rescue! Her book Writing Down The Bones gave me permission to practice! I loved her ten minute timed writing. Goldberg taught me how to let words flow without judgment. I filled notebooks with writing I never reread. Eventually, I wrote stories.

So much writing advice seems aimed at a man's life--not a mother's. I appreciate so much of Stephen King's writing advice in On Writing. But he writes like a man, hunkered down in his basement, working, working, working. I've had to squeeze my writing into limited time and space.

Madeleine L'Engle to the rescue! As a child I loved her fantasy books, but as a
writer, I loved her memoirs about writing, marriage and family. She gave me permission to forgive the interruptions in a woman's writing life.

Publication did not solve my writerly issues, even though I kind of thought it would. I continue to turn to heroes like Keri Smith whose Wreck This Journal gave me a healthy, productive way to deal with perfectionism.

I've also found heroes in other artistic mediums. I keep buying and giving away copies of Art And Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I found inspiration in dancer Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit.

I also seek heroes in writers. For years I kept an Anthony Trollope quote on my desk: "A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic hercules." I could be a writer during those few hours while my daughter attended preschool!

Recently, I discovered a hero in Sinclair Lewis. The heroine in Main Street was so relatable and
human--even a hundred years later. He captured daring human truths at a time that valued more florid writing and idealized storytelling. That's what I'm trying to do in my WIP--tell the truth.

Writing heroes are there to give us the courage we need to succeed!

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Issue of Heroes by Joy Preble

Like a few others in this blogging collective, I met the topic of heroes with not a little trepidation. What do I say? Who are my heroes? Do I have heroes? Is the entire concept outdated? Is there anything I can say--"it's my son!" "It's my mom!" "It's my husband!" "It's Buffy!"-- sound even vaguely authentic and not overused or cliched? I had to think about this one.

So I read this, from the Smithsonian.

Basically, it says that everyone of us has the potential to be a hero. I'm still not sure what I think about it. I think sometimes you have to rise to the occasion and you just never know until the moment occurs.

So I kept pondering. I have lots and lots of people I admire. But my mind was still coming up blank when I tried to figure out which if any of them are my heroes.

Which I suppose is fairly lame since as a former English teacher, I've spent a lot of years talking about heroes in literature and presenting hero charts and reading hero essays. Traditional heroes and tragic heroes and reluctant heroes and anti-heroes and epic heroes and super heroes and on like that. Which one is Beowulf? Which one is Macbeth? How about McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? Luke Skywalker? Katniss Everdeen? Tris from Divergent?

Tragic heroes twisted my heart but a part of me was always like, "Oedipus. Dude. Maybe before it gets to the point of gouging your eyes out perhaps you ought to think things through." The anti-heroes (like McMurphy in Cuckoo's Nest, mentioned above) held me a bit stronger. I'm fascinated by the idea that someone who really is in it for him/herself might end up doing the right thing because it turns out to be the only thing.

I think now that the whole thing was skewed. So many men on those fictional lists. So few women. so little diversity in the books the curriculum required. The subtext was perhaps more educational than all the rest. And yet I still believe in an education in the classics, however we choose to define that. I still believe that we have to root out the origin stories.

Real life -- it's a complicated beast.  Am I hero because I survive when someone shoots me for trying to get an education in a country that doesn't want its women educated and I survive and thrive? Am I a hero because I am a firefighter who runs up those steps into the World Trade Center knowing that I must save lives but will perhaps lose my own? Am I hero because I speak my mind in this wild and frightening political season? Am I a hero because I work two jobs or three to take care of my family and make sure my kids have everything they need? Or tend an aging parent? Or a friend with cancer? Sacrifice usually goes hand in hand with heroism, but that isn't all of it and I don't even know sitting here typing this morning if that's the most important part. With due apology to its fans, I was never fond of where Tris was headed. To quote Washington, speaking to a certain AH in Hamilton: "Dying's easy. Living is harder."

In the end, it's about what it means to be human. About what it means to do the right thing and block out the noise and think, think, think. Sometimes it's about not thinking. It's about just doing. It's about understanding and accepting that, to paraphrase (or maybe I'm quoting-- it's early and I'm too lazy to click over and look it up) Whitman-- that we contain multitudes. Including the people we deem heroic. Some of what they do will totally suck. But when it's time, she will see us and hear us and do something about it. (Note the pronoun? We gotta do something about English pronouns but that's a story for another time.)

Okay. Time for coffee.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Nothing Special (Bill Cameron)

So this month our theme is heroes, a topic I confess I approach with some trepidation. I have a complicated, not particularly positive relationship with the concept of heroes. And yet here I am, first up in the month, ready to tackle this thorny idea. Oy.

Is it too late for me to call in sick?

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in heroes—defined as those who go above and beyond in the service of others. But in current American culture, I feel “heroes” are more often used as a political cudgel, as a way to silence those who would speak out against being victims of the status quo, or people who would ask that law enforcement and public agencies to act with greater understanding and compassion.

Heroism often gets assigned to a job—police, firefighter, or member of the military—and anyone who questions certain specific actions of “heroes” in these jobs in even the mildest way (such as quietly kneeling during the national anthem) is attacked for disrespecting the sacrifice of these “true heroes.” In the case of Colin Kaepernick, his protest has been met with threats of violence, including t-shirts printed with a rifle site targeting his face. For what? Because he’d like one particular group of “heroes” to stop disproportionately killing his people?

In my mind, the hero in this equation is Colin Kaepernick. To some people, by saying so, I’m declaring war on America’s law enforcement “heroes.” I’m not, of course, but that’s how the heroism cudgel works. Some people probably also think I hate the troops,  because the heroism cudgel tends to conflate military and paramilitary groups with one another, all in the name of silencing even the mildest criticism.

A while back, I applied for a job with a public agency, and as part of the application I had to list my military service. Normally it’s not something I bring up—not because I’m ashamed of it, but because—well, I’ll get to that. At the job interview, one of the interviewers thanked me for my service. You may have seen this happen, or even done it yourself. They looked at me, earnest and sincere, and said, “Thank you for your service.”

The thing is, this person knew nothing about my service. They didn’t know if I did a good job or bad, if I’d served courageously or not. They just knew I was a “veteran.”

The moment was awkward and performative, but it’s expected now, because we have to “respect the troops.” We’re heroes, after all.

So, what was I being thanked for? I served in the National Guard for six years. I never saw combat. A couple of times we were called out for disaster relief, and I showed up and did my job—which was to drive a truck. I have no doubt I contributed to a genuine need, and I don’t want to devalue either my work or the work of my fellow troops. But we were just men and women doing a job we’d agreed to do. We also griped and got tired and sometimes were pissy. Some of us were genuine jerks, or worse. But mostly we worked our asses off, because that’s what we’d signed up for.

Were we heroes? I never felt like a hero. I hauled gear and supplies, sometimes tanks (that was cool). I served, did my job, and was honorably discharged. Nothing special. Millions have done the same. I didn’t need to be thanked for that service. (Thirty years ago, I was paid for that service.) And I know a lot of former military folks, including many who did serve in combat, who feel the same way. We signed up, we did our job. Please don’t make a big deal out of it.

That’s not to say there aren’t true heroes in the military—heroes in that old-fashioned sense, people who risked themselves for their fellows. And there are old-fashioned heroes among the police, and firefighters, and other areas of public service.

In Time for the Stars, one of Robert Heinlein’s characters says, “…ultimate courage is the commonest human virtue … seven out of ten are Medal of Honor men, given the circumstances.” Heinlein could be creepy and weird about a lot of things, but I believe this is true. I never met the circumstances, so I don’t know if I’d have been among the seven or the three. Still, I believe a lot more people will be traditionally heroic than not, given the chance and the need.

And for most of them, we won’t make any fuss at all.

What about teachers who show up for work everyday, often underpaid and despised by their communities? And when I say despised, I mean deeply hated. Look at who we elect anymore and how they treat education in this country. Our teachers work hard, often in deteriorating conditions, and offer daily sacrifice despite how poorly we as a nation treat them. If we’re going to gaze earnestly at a veteran and say, “Thank you for your service,” why can’t we do the same for teachers?

Partly because when we say it, it doesn’t mean anything. We know it doesn’t mean anything with teachers—otherwise we wouldn’t keep electing people who want to destroy education. But it doesn’t mean anything with veterans either, because we also elect people who don’t care about the troops—they just say they do. One look at veteran’s health care shows how little care this nation shows to its men and women in uniform. But we’ve declared them all “heroes,” as if that’s enough. We say, “Thank you for your service,” as if it absolves us from the fact that we’re not doing anything concrete on their behalf. (The very fact that I’m pointing out how badly we treat veterans will “prove” I hate them to certain people, the people for whom the hero cudgel is a primary weapon. I must hate myself too, since I’m also a veteran.)

As with “Thank you for your service,” declaring every veteran or every cop or every whatever a hero devalues the very term. We throw it out there, and then walk away, no longer feeling any responsibility to hold them accountable for their mistakes, or identify and meet their actual needs—whether it’s proper health care or proper training. They’re heroes, now shut up and stop rocking the boat!

I’d like to feel better about the idea of heroes. I’d like to believe it’s a word that actually means something. I’d like to live in a country where we hold people in authority responsible when they fail on the job or act with criminality, because only then can we truly celebrate those many who act with courage and compassion above and beyond. And I want to live in a country where we don’t feel the need to use an empty platitude like, “Thank you for your service,” because instead we’ve done the work to actually support our veterans, our teachers, our first responders, and our every day citizens who themselves show up, do their jobs, and far more often than not rise to meet whatever circumstances they face.