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Today, I am Captain America

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Today, I am Captain America

John Sommers-Flanagan

One of the hardest things about being a superhero is maintaining a secret identity. Sometimes I get so far undercover that even the Marvel Comics people don’t know who I am. This pretty much drives them nuts. But they deal with it, because, after all, I am Captain America.

I was born with the name John Sommers. This might be confusing to those of you who thought Steve Rogers was the original Captain America. That’s a myth Marvel and I perpetuated to help keep my identity secret. To further the deception, in 1985, I changed my name to John Sommers-Flanagan. This addressed the dual objectives of expressing an equal partnership with my wife and further obfuscating my identity.

Hyphenating my last name was a strategy similar to how my friend Superman is able to maintain his secret Clark Kent identity just by wearing nerdy glasses. Obviously, if you wear nerdy glasses, nobody will think you could possibly be Superman. Well, I wear nerdy glasses AND I have a hyphenated last name. Nobody in their right mind could possibly think I’m Captain America. Think about it. One time a guy I know asked me, “What sort of man hyphenates his last name?” I didn’t tell him because I was maintaining the secret identity thing, but the answer was and is: “Captain America.” #perfectdisguise.

I told Superman I was coming out of the secret identity closet and he asked me, “John, why are you choosing, at this moment in history, to give up your perfect disguise?” I said, “Hey Clark. . . ” (we’re on a first name basis because it always feels awkward when people call me Captain), “. . . radical times call for radical measures.” He just nodded thoughtfully. He’s like that.

The thing is, while growing up as Captain America, I realized early on that women were competent and I wanted to work alongside them, as equal partners. This eventually led me to be against the objectification of women and in favor of women’s rights to make their own healthcare decisions.

Being Captain American has also helped me clarify other values. I’m a big fan of the phrase “All men are created equal” but I’m inclined to substitute “people” for “men.” It seems only right that Captain America would support statements that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Over the years I’ve had Gay and Lesbian and Transgender friends and family and colleagues, and you know what, I found that they’re kind and competent and respectful and loving and safe people to have in my life who are equal to everyone else. I’m also pretty big on liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people, and that includes Muslims and Mexicans and Native Americans who have sacred lands threatened by oil pipelines and other minorities, including sexual minorities and persons with disabilities.

It might surprise you to find out that I really love music. I’m not that much of a dancer—although I’ve cut a rug or two in my time. Now that I’m older, I’m more into lyrics than swinging my hips. Like that phrase in the Star Spangled Banner about America being “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” To me and most Americans, I think the meaning of those words is simple. We have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to marry whomever we like, and we’ve got the courage to accept and embrace the goodness inherent in all this freedom and diversity. We also have the freedom to hate, although most people end up feeling so good about living in America that they usually find they prefer loving over hating.

Another musical reference that gives me tingles is the part of America the Beautiful where it goes: “May all success be nobleness and every gain divine.” That’s massively deep stuff, but right now it doesn’t feel like Wall Street, income inequality, and tax breaks for the wealthy fit with the idea of success being noble and divine. What would Jesus think? Well, along with Superman, he’s one of my besties and so I asked him. Wouldn’t you know, he got all analogy on me. He said something about rich people getting to heaven being as likely as a camel getting through the eye of a needle. My follow up question was about whether that meant it would be easier for Ant Man to get to heaven? At that point Jesus said, “Sure, Ant Man gets in, along with everyone else who makes himself or herself or their-self small and is interested in serving others instead of trying too hard to be bigly.” Then he giggled for almost a whole minute. Sometimes I’m not sure I get Jesus’s humor, but He thinks he’s funny, so that’s good enough for me.

Here’s another thing freedom means to me. Freedom means that we don’t have to register ourselves or be profiled or be put on watch lists because of believing in a particular God or because of having a particular color skin. It also means we’ve got the freedom to vote. And that means registering to vote should be pretty darn easy for all Americans and that voting lines should be equally short in poor and rich neighborhoods. Mostly we should be registering cars and college students, and, because I’m a superhero, I’m also in favor of registering guns. My reasoning is that in the real world it’s not as easy to sort out the good guys from the bad guys as it is in comic books and on television. What helps me is that I wear an easily recognizable spandex red white and blue outfit.  So I figure if you’re planning to carry firearms, you should register them and then at least have the decency to make it clear that you’re one of the good guys and if that involves putting on some spandex, so be it. That’s what my friend Thor would say. He always likes to say “So be it” in his loud, thunderous voice. He can be pretty convincing.

Here’s one last point on the gun thing. You may have noticed, I only carry a shield. Make of that what you will. I believe in the right to bear arms, but I believe even harder in gun safety.

Growing up, I went to public schools all my life. I even went to public universities. And as I’ve made clear, I ended up becoming Captain America. That’s not to say public schools are perfect, but Damn, American public school teachers are fucking amazing (I think that’s how my friend Pink would say it). Do you know how hard teachers work? Do you know how little they get paid? Did you know that John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States said something like (paraphrasing here), “there’s no way you can spend too much money on education for poor people.” Now, if you studied some proper history in a public school, you’d know that during his time, John Adams was just about the smartest and most persistent dude on the planet . . . and you’d also probably know the difference between educational measurements of proficiency and growth. Just saying.

I should confess right now that I’ve thought long and hard about whether to support the new president of the United States. The disrespect he’s shown for anyone he considers beneath him and who didn’t donate to his campaign make it difficult for me to endorse anything about him. But then I had an epiphany. I realized, “Wait, I’m Captain America, and that means I’m all about supporting values and not people.” This epiphany (BTW, “Thank-you Jesus”) helped me see and understand that I’m not a republican or a democrat and that I don’t support specific politicians. Therefore, whenever our new president upholds the values of equality for everyone, freedom for everyone, health insurance for everyone, gun safety, and better education for everyone—I’ll support him acting on those values. Also, whenever he sacrifices his own wealth and ego and treats women, minorities, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and everyone else with the respect they deserve, I’ll support those actions too.  However, to the extent that he advocates unequal treatment of individuals, restricts religious and other freedoms, meddles with women’s health decisions, or interferes with the common person’s pursuit of happiness, I’ll be opposing him along with my friends Jesus, Superman, and Pink.

That’s because I’m Captain America.

And you can be too.

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist, a professor of counselor education at the University of Montana, the author of eight books, co-host of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, and Captain America.

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The Morning of November 9, 2016

**This is only a semi-coherent first reaction to the Presidential election. Read if you want. Be aware that I channel a little Albert Ellis at the end.**

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In four hours I’m supposed to teach a three-hour course on advanced theories of counseling and psychotherapy. The topic today is emotion-focused therapy for couples. It’s a good day to focus on emotions. I have more than a couple of them bouncing around inside me.

Maybe that’s why I made my way to a coffee shop at 5am this morning. That’s abnormal. But today is abnormal; the new abnormal.

Back in college a fellow student who was from Nepal explained to me the meaning of the greeting, “Namaste.”

“It means,” he said, “I salute the light within you.”

It’s a sad and painful morning. I’m not sure about the light in me. Instead, mostly I’m certain that yesterday and last night was a cosmic mistake. It feels like sexism, racism, and hate have triumphed over “. . . all men (and women) being created equal.” I feel this, even though I’m a White, heterosexual, Jewish-Christian-Agnostic male. Given my privileged status, it’s hard to comprehend the pain this vote has caused women and minorities.

But I can imagine it.

When I woke up to sounds on the street at 3am, my mind created evil agents of Donald Trump gathering outside my home to take me away. It was the sort of paranoid thought that can come in the night—even to those of us who are well endowed with safety and privilege. It makes me wonder if that what’s it like for my Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Mexican, and Muslim friends and students?

Late last night I got a text from a wealthy White Christian man who described himself as in tears. “What’s happening to our country?” he asked. And then he wondered what he could tell his children in the morning. He had put them to bed with kisses and the anticipation that they would awaken to the first woman President in the history of the United States.

There’s too much pain and sadness and suffering in the world. But there was too much pain and sadness and suffering in the world last week. And there will be too much next week.

I hold vivid memories of suffering through Reagan’s election, and George H. W. Bush’s election, and George W. Bush’s election. Those were difficult times. In each case I was certain that an evil force on the planet had somehow made it possible for the less honest, less compassionate, and less competent candidate to win.

But this is worse.

Even so, I refuse to believe that the majority of Americans are sexist and racist. I see too much kindness. I hope that Donald Trump is only a temporary phenomenon. I hope his existence will motivate us to swing the pendulum back toward justice, kindness, and empathy.

I’m reminded of the alleged words of Jesus, “Forgive them father, they know not what they do.”

Somewhat irrationally, I still have faith.

I have faith in the possibility that, as Jesus said, many people do not know what they’ve done. I have faith that although Donald Trump won the vote, that most people are not inherently sexist and racist at their core. I have faith that we can reach out to, reason with, and love our enemies, even when they’re our neighbors.

I will also follow the advice that I give people for coping with crisis.

  • Take care of yourself.
  • Look around and do what you can do to take care of others, your family, your friends, and your community.
  • And, don’t do anything stupid.

After I woke up at 3 a.m. and shook off my paranoid thoughts of evil Trump agents outside my door, other words emerged.

“Don’t mourn.”

An old memory was knocking at my door.

“But I want to mourn,” was my response. “I want to mourn. I need to mourn. I want to feel the pain for myself, and for my community of friends and family who have had their hopes crushed.”

“Okay. The voice conceded. “Mourn briefly. Do not linger.”

I recognized that this message wasn’t necessarily mine or God’s. It sounded like Joe Hill, the old union activist. He was saying,

“Don’t mourn. Organize.”

Then I was up. I had my hour of mourning. It was 4am. The sun will rise. I will teach my class.

But more important, I will focus. I will organize. I will, in Freud’s words, “Sublimate my emotions.”

I will whisper “Namaste” to everyone I see. I will salute the light within them.

Even though, right now, it’s so fucking hard to see the light.

 

What My Card-Playing Genius Father Says About Donald Trump

There are so many things in the world that I just don’t understand.

One of the biggest mysteries to me is how my 90-year-old father can keep beating me at cards. It happens every time. Often it’s not even close. Yesterday he skunked me in two of three games of Gin. I’d switch to Poker, but I know from experience that it would just be worse.

What’s puzzling is that I have the younger brain. But somehow he still counts and remembers the cards better than I do. I’m also the one with the Ph.D. in psychology. He made it through one semester of college at the University of Portland. Mostly he spent his semester playing football. Despite my eight years of college and graduate school, nine published books, and over 50 professional articles in psychology, he reads me like I’m the book. He knows what’s in my hand better than I do. And then, when he obfuscates and complains that I’ve dealt him a bad hand, my ability to reason fogs over and I don’t know if he’s telling me the truth or setting me up. He’s like a card-playing mystic wrapped in an enigma.

All I can say is that must have been one damn good fall semester at the University of Portland way back in 1945.

When I need a break from repeated stinging defeats, our conversation naturally turns to politics. CNN is on in the background. We complain back and forth about various issues. I tell him that I’m disappointed and don’t understand how and why so many people are planning to vote for Donald Trump. I follow that with an over-analysis of socioeconomic disparities, racial dynamics, and voter motivation.

His eyes meet mine and I know it’s time for me to shut up and listen. As he begins speaking, his analysis—like his card-playing, is simple, incisive, and on-point.

“He’s a cheat and a con man,” my dad says, “and a very good one.”

His words are elegant and precise. As a professor and academic, I’d describe it as parsimonious.

“You can see him do it in every speech. He repeats himself. He says ‘crooked Hillary.’ Then he says it again and the media broadcasts it dozens of times every day. He says our economy is a disaster. He says he’ll make it beautiful. Then he repeats that message. It’s a disaster. It will be beautiful. Even though there’s no evidence for what he’s saying, he’s an actor, he’s convincing, and he’s repetitive. That’s what a good con man does. After a while, the truth doesn’t matter, people believe him. That’s how he’s made money. That’s how he gets votes. He says what some people want to hear. Then he says it again. Truth be damned, people believe him.”

In some ways, I still prefer my intellectual analysis. But part of me knows that my father’s explanation for Trump’s success is better than mine. How can you get people to believe the economy is bad when Obama has successfully cut unemployment in half? How can you get people to believe the country is less safe when overall, crime rates are down? How can you convince people you know more about ISIS than all the generals? How can you get away with saying that if you’re a star you can grab a woman by the pussy? How can you convince people that Hillary Clinton is corrupt and dishonest when your lies outnumber hers five-to-one?

“He’s a cheat and a con man . . . and a very good one.”

This is my father talking. He has 90 years of experience on this planet. I believe him.

Then again, maybe I only believe him because he just beat me in Gin again. If I think of him as a psychic superhero it helps comfort my aching ego.

There’s one other thing. My father is also the most honest man I know. He’s never cheated anyone of anything in his life. He’s a role model and card-playing genius. He reads people like I never could. And so when he says Donald Trump is a cheat and a con man. . . it’s simple.

I believe him.

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