Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Month: July, 2013

Real Life

wild rabbitEarly in high school, a friend of mine asked if I would like to shoot soda cans and bottles in his back yard. Having been born with a heterogametic chromosome configuration but into a world without the sanitized war of Halo (1-4) or Call of Duty (1-10) or Battlefield (1-11, plus 12 expansion packs), I said yes. My friend had a pneumatic, pump BB gun. We walked into the woods where he had obviously done this before, based on the aluminum debris littering the area and various shards of different colored, broken glass beside a fallen tree. We lined up cans and bottles (sometimes only the bottoms of bottles whose tops had been shattered) on the fallen tree. Because there was only one gun, we took turns shooting at the cans and bottles. And while every boy considers himself an expert marksman, fashioned after the likes of John Wayne or Dirty Harry, actually hitting the can or bottle proved a little more difficult, no matter the distance we stood from the targets. Real life is funny.

We laid down on a bed of dead tree leaves, twigs and the odd clumps of grass determined to grow despite the lack of sunlight and peat-like soil. Lying prostrate on the ground improved our aim a little and I actually hit a can or two. It was while we were on the ground that, beyond the fallen tree holding our targets, we saw a rabbit emerge from behind a thin, switch-like pine. My friend, holding the gun, quietly loaded and pumped the gun, giggled and took aim at the rabbit. Instantly, my stomach went to ice. Time slowed down as my eyes locked on to the little rabbit and competing thoughts fought to make it to my paralyzed tongue. Should I yell at my friend not to shoot, or scream at the rabbit to run? I jumped when the shot went off, and so too did the rabbit. Unlike the movies where bad guy falls instantly dead, the little rabbit jumped repeatedly into the air, never making a sound, but wounded and in extreme pain. To this day, writing this, the events are before me in Technicolor. My friend, equally silent, watched the wounded rabbit, smiled, got up, reloaded the gun, walked over to the panting, confused, bleeding and exhausted rabbit and shot it again, killing it. Real life.

I could go on and on about how America is awash in guns, desensitized by violence and more knowledgeable about the Kardashian’s and sports than Orwell or Shakespeare, but that’s for another day. Suffice it to say that it seems bravado and showmanship have eclipsed education and empathy in America.

I share all of this because I am again haunted. Driving home from the supermarket Sunday, I was in the left lane of a four lane divided road. In front of me and in the right lane (having just passed me on the right) was an enormous white Suburban. Ahead of us, on the grassy median strip was a small squirrel. Apparently frightened by the sounds of the oncoming vehicles, the squirrel attempted to seek shelter in the trees across the street. Again, time slowed down and I will forever have it in Technicolor horror. The squirrel darted across my path about thirty feet in front of me as I slowed down, somehow knowing the squirrel’s intentions. The Suburban, oblivious and in a hurry did not. The squirrel somehow managed to cross under the truck after the front left wheel and before the left rear wheel. There, it momentarily froze under the train car-length automobile, pulling in its bushy tail and almost holding its front and rear paws together in an attempt to make itself smaller. I can imagine the thunderous noise in the animal’s ears.  Unfortunately, this life saving maneuver was held only fleetingly. The squirrel tried to make it to the curb, grass and trees barely two feet away, only to be hit by the right rear tire. As if hitting play on a long paused nightmare, the squirrel jumped repeatedly into the air, grievously wounded, then it hit the ground one last time, fell on its side and moved no more; the rabbit’s death years ago drowning my thoughts. Screaming and swearing, I made my way home, parked in the garage and cried. Real life hurts.

Real life is neither a movie, nor a video game. And while it can be beautiful, inspirational and compassionate, sometimes it is ugly, painful, unfair and hurts.

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Summertime Thoughts

And now for a few thoughts:

I always wonder what my dog is thinking when he gets inside an elevator. We go into a small room, he looks out at the room we just left, watches the strange doors close and sees a completely different world when the strange doors open. What happened to the other world? What happened?

Is there anything better than a home grown tomato?

Nothing says summer better than hydrangeas in bloom.

In a perfect world, everything would smell like gardenias.

I love how time dissolves when I’m gardening.

Too bad I rarely get the chance.

Too bad it’s 150 degrees outside when I do get the chance.

Summer is going by too fast.

2013 is going by too fast.

My life is going by too fast. I still have a to-do list from when I was six that I can’t seem to get to.

I can’t think of anything so profound I would have to have it as a tattoo. And I can’t imagine any tattoo that isn’t an Oscar Wilde quote. Or George Orwell.

I love driving.

I hate other drivers.

I love to watch airplanes. I always wonder where they are going or from where they have come. What vacation stories are waiting to be discovered or retold. Take me with you.

I feel like my dog in an elevator when I fly. I go to the airport, sit in an aluminum tube for a few hours and exit into a totally different culture. Wonderful!

The older I get, the more I love my wife.

The older my children get, the more I love my wife.

The older my wife gets, the more I love life.

What’s next?

Year One

blog

I started this blog one year ago tomorrow. Not that I expected anybody to read it, but as a way for me to pour burning liquid emotion onto my keyboard in hopes of having it coalesce on the screen into something resembling understanding, logic or rationality in order for me to carry on. All too often, I have failed.

My first post was simply a reposting of a blog entry made by Jessica Redfield who had escaped a mass shooting at the Eaton Center in Toronto. She had posted it on June 5th. One year ago tonight, she was one of twelve murdered and 58 wounded at the Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Here, frozen forever, is her last Twitter post:

JessicaRedfield Twitter

Having been cast to live in Texas as a result of the world-class medical facilities at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and seeing them as the best chance we had to fight my wife’s rare and aggressive breast cancer, I had become increasingly angry at the cavalier attitude Texans have with their guns. The “Come and Take It” crowd, most of them displaying Zimmerman-like bravado (when armed with a firearm), hiding anatomic shortcomings (if shoe size is a true indicator and not some urban legend) and compensating by driving the tallest, most ridiculous looking monster-trucks legal to drive on public roads.  The shooting in Aurora drove me to write. It was a cathartic exercise.

Mixed with equal parts sarcasm, anger, depression and pomposity, I put down in words my boiling rage. A few comments popped up, although in the vast universe of the internet I have no idea how these people tripped over my little blog. And so it went. Until December 14th.

I was sitting at the hospital while my wife was being restaged when the first news reports began to flash about a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. A shooting at an elementary school will be very traumatic for the children, I thought, assuming that the victim(s) would be adults involved in a deadly dispute of some kind. Slowly the details emerged. Children were among the victims and their numbers kept climbing. Like most of the world, I read the reports in disbelief, hoping for a clarification from the news outlets of a terrible mistake. Instead, the numbers continued to climb. More children were injured; more children were among the dead.  Like many other dates that are seared into our collective consciousness, I will never forget where I was when I heard the news. My wife and I made the hour drive home from the hospital that evening, although I cannot remember actually steering the car. That night, I shook.

The next day I told my wife that I needed to do something, anything to try to change the world in which I had sentenced my children to live. I was ashamed for my previous inaction and tacit acceptance of gun violence; I was ashamed for the country. The rest of the world looked upon America as a land populated by blood-thirsty renegades armed better than Dirty Harry with a fuse shorter than a Bruce Willis’s hair. Surely, after this mind-skewing, paradigm shift, Washington would act responsibly? Americans would demand it! Politicians would push and shove their way to the front of the line to co-sign responsible gun legislation! Unaware of any grassroots organizations and devoid of any previous political activism, I reached out to the one group I knew with a history of fighting the gun lobby, the Brady Campaign.

“I haven’t had a representative in the Houston area for three years,” said the head of the Texas Brady chapter. Roll that around in your head for a second. Houston is the country’s fourth largest city with a population of over 2 million people and the Brady Campaign has no local chapter? Hell, Connecticut has three!

And yet, in spite of my newly embraced activism, it all still seemed a little remote. I could still only partially allow myself to invite in the nightmare of what it would have been like if it had been my children. Emotionally, as a parent, as a human, it was a door I was only willing to open a crack, lest the devastating emotion behind it drown me. That all changed on a conference call.

The head of the Texas chapter of the Brady Campaign invited me to participate in a call with hundreds of other members and a guest speaker. It was scheduled for Monday, January 7th at 5:00. Because I was still at work, I stayed late and joined the call already in progress. There was a woman speaking with intimate knowledge of the shooting in Aurora. I listened intently, but removed and muted. However, as I listened, I began to piece together who the speaker was. At the moment my mind made the connection, she spoke the words that will forever haunt me. It was Jessica Redfield’s mother, and she was describing, in vivid detail, the events of that night and how, where and why her daughter had been murdered. I could no longer prevent that nightmarish door from opening. Jessica Redfield’s mother was telling me how that door had been ripped from its hinges and cast into space. Suddenly, it was all very real. I had come full circle. What I had started in July as an angry blog by simply cutting and pasting an entry from a theater shooting victim had brought me to listening to the mother of that same victim on a January night. Surreal. Emotional. Devastating. Goose bumps. Real.

I assumed I would write a few articles and make a few calls on behalf of the Brady Campaign. However, soon, word spread and I was being asked to speak at local area democratic clubs. Then I was asked to debate a state representative on a local PBS television program. (The Tea Party twit backed out at the last minute!) Immediately, armed with logic, a rational ethos and compassion, my inner Toby Ziegler/Josh Lyman/Josiah Bartlet took over. I carried photos of the Sandy Hook victims in my wallet. My speech ballooned to 45 minutes. I was able to scan the crowd, in front of whom I was soon to speak, and pick out the planted RWNJ’s itching to ask me to define an assault weapon. It became my personal goal to piss off at least one person in the crowd at each speech, although living in Texas, that was not a lofty challenge. Panel discussions followed and more speeches.

But soon, I found that while the name “Brady Campaign” got me in the door to speak, they did little else locally. I believe the Brady Campaign in Washington continues to do wonderful things standing up to the vitriol of the NRA and battling in state legislatures across the country. However, I needed to belong to something at the local level. What I found was my gender shutting me out of the most amazing group of people I had met in this fight.

It seemed that whenever I was asked to speak, so too was a rotating posse of equally exorcised and like-minded members of the Houston chapter of the newly formed Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, or just Moms Demand Action. These women were phenomenal. Educated, passionate and ready to go toe-to-toe with any gun rights wing nut, this group of similarly accidental activists bolstered my spirits and strengthened my resolve. Fuck not with a mama bear protecting her cubs, lest you unleash her limitless wrath. Enrage 100,000 of them and I pity the NRA. In short, they were the grassroots organization I longed for. I longed to be an “honorary Mom.”

We saw each other everywhere. From speech to speech, there they were. They were on-stage at a rally on the steps of the state capitol in Austin where I managed to get into a verbal confrontation with a RWNJ who tried to crash the proceedings (with his young grandson in tow). They were at a protest outside the Houston-hosted, annual paranoia jamboree (officially known as the NRA Annual Conference) where, again, I got to piss off a different RWNJ. It was there that I saw Neil Heslin, father of Jesse Lewis. Jesse was just one of the 20 children murdered at Sandy Hook. I stood ten feet from Mr. Heslin and wanted to speak to him, but my brain could conceive of no combination of words that could pacify him or rally him. What could I say that didn’t sound shallow, condescending or meaningless?  His eyes conveyed a pain, a hollowness that seemed to match the emptiness he must have felt inside, an ember and ash hole where his heart had once lived, a void which Jesse once filled.  I also saw Erica Lafferty, daughter of Dawn Hocksprung, principal of Sandy Hook and one of the first killed on that still inconceivable day. Ms. Lafferty had the same look of pain, but also a sense of fury behind her eyes that I wanted to bottle. And the Moms were there at a press conference with United States Representative Sheila Jackson Lee outside the Rothko Chapel commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and beseeching the Senate not to filibuster the Manchin-Toomey amendment. This was a cause with character (and characters). I was not alone in this. There were now faces and voices with which I could bond.

And so, it has been one year since Aurora and 217 days since Newtown. The challenges that lie before us are still all there. Washington is still lethargic and paralyzed. The Texas legislature has passed 14 laws weakening gun laws. Countless assault rifles have been sold to those paranoid “patriots” convinced that the president will come knocking on their door to confiscate their guns. And the American public, with their fruit fly length memory and fickle attention span have moved on to other more current atrocities, shifting their outrage to a new target, resigned to the fact that their demand for gun control legislation (within the confines of our instant gratification society) was not fulfilled.

 Brady Fact Sheet

It has been one year since Aurora. One year, but for me, this is only Year One. We haven’t done enough. But we are not alone and we are not dissuaded. In a country awash in guns, there will be another mass shooting. Americans will again display their transient outrage and, maybe, Washington will listen. It is a long road through an unfair and uneven process, but change will come. We will be here fighting for those who cannot. And when change does come, ask yourself, “What did I do?” Let this be your Year One.

Observations from a Recent Holiday

Orwell 1984

War is Peace

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

A change in my wife’s chemotherapy regimen recently opened up the opportunity for us to visit Paris and London. It was originally supposed to be an early 25th anniversary gift to my wife last September (our 23rd anniversary), but a sudden, nasty infection forced us to cancel the trip hours before we were to leave for the airport. Crestfallen doesn’t begin to cover our disappointment. When presented with this window of time (before she began a new phase II clinical trial), we decided to schedule a last minute trip and take our twins with us who were home from their freshman year at college.

Armed with my own agenda of sights and attractions I wished to see, I found that instead, I saw the trip through the eyes of my family. My daughter, studying fine art and enamored with art history, provided me with a different appreciation of the architecture, style, culture and art of these cities that I would otherwise have missed. My son, the philosopher, showed me the political and societal differences beyond language that I would otherwise have missed. My wife, showed me that while the Champs Elysses essentially looked like Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street or any chain-choked mall in suburban America, it was the small side streets two blocks removed from the tourist centers that offered the best food, flowers and shopping. And together, they all agreed that while it was important to tick-off as many items from our “bucket list” as possible, we all enjoyed and appreciated sitting at a sidewalk café eating tomato, basil and mozzarella sandwiches on the most amazing bread while watching the world go by the most. To a person, we all agreed that we wished it was our second trip to these wonderful cities so that we could immerse ourselves in the local culture and pace without the pressure of “seeing” everything. I was forcing us to run everywhere, to the detriment of my wife and the chagrin of my children.

Having never traveled outside the country before, it was also interesting to see both how other countries existed, but also how they perceived Americans.

My son noticed (and was not a little bothered by) the soldiers patrolling the Eiffel Tower armed with very large weapons. So too did he notice the constant government monitoring in London via video cameras. These were visible on motorway markers and Tube stations, as well as mentioned repeatedly on notices throughout the city. Ironic, that London (Airstrip 1), would spark this observation in my son. Although to be fair, the only mustachioed poster we saw was not of Big Brother but of Brad Pitt on a poster for World War Z. We neither saw Winston Smith, nor any IngSoc signs.

Rather, I had an interesting conversation (or perhaps only a glimpse of a conversation) with the taxi driver (who was an (East) German expat). Sitting in the passenger seat of the small minivan on the way to the apartment we were renting, he asked me where we were from.

Instinctively, I replied, over the whine of the small engine, “The States.”

“Not Canada?” he asked, shooting me a quick, knowing look.

I admit that it took me a few seconds to digest the meaning of his question. Full of ourselves for being the “world’s police,” United States citizens somehow have managed to believe that we can belittle the rest of the world’s population while assuming  we are both more civilized and, therefore, more entitled and have convinced ourselves that the rest of the world is somehow beholden to us. Apparently, more cautious travelers hide their US heritage beneath a more innocuous Canadian visage.  Surely an interesting question from an ex-East German citizen obviously more sensitive to European viewpoints of Americans than me!

Other, more obvious, observations include the size of the cars driven. Nowhere did we see the parade of Tahoe’s, Suburban’s or tricked-out F-150’s that I see on my way to work here in Houston on a daily basis. Rather, the number of Vespa’s, motorcycles and bicycles moving like fruit flies in and out of traffic in Paris showed that the sudden appearance of a Suburban near the Arc du Triomph would generate both a traffic jam and trigger an enormous number of iPhone photos. All of the cars were very small, and yet, we saw no horrific accidents (or even a fender bender). And while they drive aggressively, there is no animosity in their intentions. It is simply a matter of getting from point A to point B. Perhaps “Road Rage” is an American phenomenon (which, coupled with the number of guns in our population can only lead to more problems). Something else we noticed was the absence of bumper stickers on the cars. There were no French flags or Union Jacks on the rear windows, no stick figures of every family member, no honor roll declarations, no personalized high school football/basketball/baseball/swimming/band/dance stickers, no NRA stickers, no Molon Labe stickers, no Come and Take It stickers, no NASCAR stickers, not even stickers of universities or professional sports teams. Apparently, rear view windows are there to provide visual clearance and bumpers are there to absorb collisions rather than replace our Facebook pages.

Another observation was the amount of complaining we heard. Parisians are very animated in their discussions with those with whom they are dining. And yet, there was, again, no animosity in their demeanor. While I couldn’t possibly understand what they were discussing, the physical cues they exhibited showed them to be in stark difference on whatever subject they were discussing. And while voices were occasionally raised, never once (and this goes for London’s pubs as well) did I feel that a disagreement was about to escalate into a brawl. That cannot be said for most places I’ve been in America. Testosterone and bravado seem to flood the American male much quicker than their European counterparts. In fact, the only complaining we heard in all of the lines we stood in was from Americans.

The gardens at Versailles are enormous, dwarfing the colossal chateau itself. As my wife is saddled with the side effects of chemotherapy (and despite her Herculean spirit), we thought it was a wonderful idea to rent a golf cart to tour the gardens, rather than expend her energy walking the estate. The firm contracted to provide the carts could expand their supply a hundredfold to meet the demand, therefore, the line was long and did not move quickly. As we (finally) reached the front of the line, the young man working there, who spoke English and was of Indian decent) took me aside and said that his family was visiting him in France and he was going to give them the next cart. My first thought was, hey, those are the perks of working here! Good for you! However, the woman from Kansas two couples behind us was not so understanding and went on and on about how she would have done this and that to the kid, blah, blah, blah. Truly, the only complaining we heard was from Americans.

I am not naïve enough to think that everything we saw was perfect, nor that what we did see constituted the “average” life of a citizen of these cities. However, there were stark differences and while I continue to struggle with paralysis in Washington, the torpid national response to everyday gun violence in America, the wholesale abdication of personal responsibility, the vitriol of the Tea Party, the ongoing religious hypocrisy of the right wing, the adoration of celebrity, the acceptance of lower educational performance, the increasing fracturing of societal ethos, epistemic closure as an unintended consequence of the internet and the vapid, ossified acid spewed on AM radio, I am reminded that is up to us to make tomorrow better than today. Our children are watching, and so is the rest of the world, and like our children, they will not wait.