Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Category: Texas

Sonny and Pam

When we first moved to Texas in 2008, it was for the worst possible reason, and naively, we thought, only for a short time. We rented a house thirty minutes north of Houston. It was a cute house, and it had a pool. To be honest, the only reason we rented it was because we needed a rental period of less than a year and finding a property owner willing to agree to that was becoming a problem. My wife had recently been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer and, after witnessing the confusion regarding her treatment here in Rhode Island, I had done my homework online and found that her best chance of survival was if she was treated at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. We broke the news to the kids, and within weeks found ourselves living in Texas. We rented furniture and swam in the pool. The kids were enrolled in a high school four times the size of their Rhode Island school, I was working remotely from the house, and we were constantly on I-45 between Spring and the Texas Medical Center in downtown Houston.

The house was on a busy neighborhood street. Cars were always speeding by, and it seemed the police were always pulling someone over right in front of the house. When we moved in, the people who lived directly across the street came over to introduce themselves. They were older than we were and had lived in the neighborhood for many years. They could not have been nicer to all of us. Pam, like thousands in Houston, worked for a company involved in the energy sector. Sonny was an artist. Not the paint or clay kind, but in leather. He was a master bootmaker. He only worked a few days a week, but he loved it and was helping his nephew get his cobbler business established by teaching him how to use several of the dedicated machines in the shop. Lisa and Pam hit it off immediately, laughing as much as talking. Pam and I also shared an interest. We both loved To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Sonny and I also hit it off, and soon he was inviting me to go fishing with him to a secret spot on an estate his friend had access to. I cannot overemphasize how kind they were to us and how much it put us at ease having moved our family to a new state for the worst reason.

In those first few weeks, it amazed me how quickly life finds ways to get us to go about our routine, even in the face of devastating news and life-changing decisions. Groceries still need to be purchased, dirty dishes still need to be cleaned, and the grass continued to grow. We had handled the first two eventualities in our new life, but the third one stumped me. I knew we were not going to be in Texas forever. The plan was chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and we’d move back home to Rhode Island, cancer-free and ready to resume life as we knew it. Why would I buy a lawn mower for such a short time? Lisa suggested I ask Sonny if I could borrow his mower for the brief period we expected to be there. I looked across the street and saw Sonny sitting in a lawn chair in his garage looking out over the street. I walked over and asked him if I could borrow his mower – weekly! He never hesitated in saying yes. He got up from his chair, walked me through the side yard into his back yard, and showed me where he hid the key to his shed where he kept the mower, gas can, and all manner of lawn equipment. And so it was that once a week, I would walk across the street, help myself to Sonny’s lawn mower and mow my lawn.

Having grown up on an island, I had done my share of fishing. Either from the causeway connecting Goat Island to downtown Newport, or at the piers where the Navy used to keep its ships, I caught mackerel, choggies, and basically whatever was running. Sometimes I would take a choggie, still on my line and cast it onto the pier where a seagull would swoop down and take it. I would then battle the gull with my fishing pole, reeling it in until it would release the fish and fly away. I used to take the squid I’d caught and bring them to my grandparent’s house where I would clean them for my great-grandmother to cook. I once went deep-sea fishing with my college roommate on his father’s charter fishing boat. I was allowed, between vomiting and violent seasickness, to fight and reel in a 636 pound Bluefin tuna. I share this background in fishing because the one time I was able to go fishing with Sonny, you would have thought I’d never seen a pole before, much less what to do when I caught a fish. Everything I did that day was a disaster. I jammed my reel trying to cast. I dropped fish I’d caught. I almost fell into the lake trying to put a fish onto the string we had set up in the water to hold the caught fish. But it didn’t matter. I was spending time with one of the gentlest, kindest men I had ever met, deep in the unknown parts of Texas. I had a beautiful day. One of those days that you know, while it’s happening, that you are creating a memory that will last forever.

When we returned to Texas because Lisa’s cancer had returned, this time not temporarily, but until the end, we moved back to the same town, but not the same subdivision. Such were the vagaries of real estate options available to us. And while we lived across town from Sonny and Pam, we still kept in touch and were always invited to their family Christmas Eve party. I no longer needed Sonny’s lawnmower. Having moved permanently, I bought a mower. As Lisa became sicker, we limited our time visiting and when Lisa died the kids and I knew it was time to go back home to Rhode Island.

I can’t say I liked much about Texas. But meeting Sonny and Pam was one of the great highlights from our eight years there. I heard from Pam the other day that Sonny isn’t doing too well these days. I can only hope that he continues to do as well as possible for as long as possible. This world needs people like Sonny and Pam, perhaps now more than ever before. I count them among the nicest people I have ever met. I can’t thank them enough for how well they treated Lisa and the kids during the most difficult time in their lives. There are very few people we encounter in life who show us the grace and compassion we wish we could display at all times and for which we would like to be remembered. Sonny and Pam are two of those people.

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National Day of Action

13495181_10208951353837365_94521619094688861_nToday, I was one of the thousands of people across the country to attend an event tied to the National Day of Action. I was fortunate enough to attend a sit-in with Congressmen Cicilline and Langevin, along with mayors, local elected officials, survivors, clergy, members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, members of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, and my children.

We attended adorned in our Moms Demand Action swag and were surprised to see that Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts was there. We have been “friends” on Facebook for several years now, but with me having lived in Texas until three weeks ago, it was a wonderful surprise to see her here in our little state. Everyone started the event sitting in chairs in the auditorium at the Providence Public Safety building in downtown Providence, however, it became apparent that Congressman Cicilline, who had just attended the sit-in in the well of the US House of Representatives with civil rights legend Congressman John Lewis only the week before, wanted us to sit around him on the stage. So we all got up and went to the stage while Congressman Cicilline continued his comments. Today’s speakers included elected officials, clergy, survivors, and advocates. And then Shannon Watts got up to speak.

After having worked with Moms Demand Action for several years now, it was incredible to be in the same room with Shannon and more amazing to hear her speak about the reasons we were all there. Just by way of background, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was founded by Shannon in her kitchen as a Facebook page to vent her anger and frustration following the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012. Quickly, her Facebook page grew into a grassroots movement. Today, there are over 3.4 million supporters and there are chapters in every state in the country. As I wrote in my previous entry, the tide is turning in this country toward those concerned with preventing gun violence and in opposition to those elected officials defending the desires of the previously dominant (and unobstructed) gun lobby. Change will not happen overnight, but it will happen. Taking the work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving as the foundation for this movement, remember that it took MADD many years to achieve a significant shift in public opinion and legislative action. As Shannon says, this is a marathon and not a sprint.

Having now seen the work of chapters in Rhode Island and Texas, it is apparent that there are passionate members of this organization in both states. I have no doubt but that this passion is replicated across the country in all chapters. I thought my friends in the Texas chapter had a much harder road ahead of them until I saw that the speaker of the Rhode Island House is an “A” rated NRA lapdog, not unlike the leadership in Texas. Several important and reasonable pieces of gun violence prevention legislation were left off the docket as the Rhode Island legislature wrapped up its most recent session. Shame on him.

Because the Republican leadership in the United States Congress, in both houses, has no intention of addressing gun violence, gun violence prevention organizations across the country are taking the fight to state houses. Across the country, sensible legislation is being passed against the wishes of the gun lobby, but in agreement with the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Americans (even the majority of gun owners). It was the intention of this National Day of Action to show the national Republican leadership that the people want there to be a vote on two key pieces of legislation. First, a bill limiting access of those on the no-fly list access to firearms, and second, closing the background check loophole allowing the purchase of guns online and at some gun shows.

It was incredible to meet Shannon today. She is as wonderful and determined in person as she is online. She not only remembered me from Facebook, but she remembered that my wife had died and offered me her condolences. I will continue to offer my help to this organization in whatever way they find valuable. Equally impressive, to me, was that my children were there with me because they wanted to be there. Everything I do in this movement is for the benefit of my children and the children of parents everywhere. To have my kids there, wearing their orange and Moms Demand Action t-shirts was heartwarming. Again, they were there because they wanted to be there. I was very proud.

As Congressman Cicilline introduced speaker after speaker, it became apparent that there were several gun rights activists at the back of the room glaring at the crowd. One wore a t-shirt that read Ban Idiots Not Guns. Now I’m not sure what that was supposed to convey, perhaps an allusion to those mentally compromised having access to guns, or maybe it was a comment on the people in the room. Another person tried a strawman argument with Congressman Cicilline at the end of the event, attempting to put words into the congressman’s mouth and then argued against them. Following Congressman Cicilline’s rebuttal, the crowd roared their approval and shouted down the individual, thus bringing the event to its proper conclusion.

I look forward to continuing to work for Moms Demand Action (and any other organization in Rhode Island) to put an end to the daily slaughter of 91 people in this country and the heartbreak it brings to their loved ones and friends. Nothing else is acceptable. Thank you to Congressman Cicilline, Congressman Langevin, Providence Mayor Elorza, Shannon and the moms from Moms Demand Action in Rhode Island. Together we will make a better tomorrow for our children. We are on the right side of history. It’s only a matter of time.

Goodbye, Texas

We moved to Texas seeking medical treatment for my wife. I found the people friendly and honest, the streets clean and free from potholes, and the weather devoid of snow. We were renting our home in Spring, about 30 minutes north of downtown Houston. We arrived in town just in time for Hurricane Ike to hit; fortunately, we didn’t suffer any damage. Treatment at M. D. Anderson was going well and my wife was responding to the chemotherapy. Her surgery had been a success and she was enduring the radiation as best she could. The kids were freshmen in high school and adapting well to the new “normal” in our lives. Their grades remained high and they immersed themselves in extracurricular activities such as theater and debate.

Following Lisa’s successful treatment and a declaration that the doctors could find no further trace of cancer, we packed up our belongings and made the long ride back to Rhode Island, our home, and the friends and neighbors we had known forever. Nine months passed and we were readjusting to our life in Rhode Island when the news came, following her third follow-up appointment, that the cancer had returned. We determined that we were too far from the hospital and all of the medical expertise and technology that M. D. Anderson could bring to bear so we put our beloved house on the market and moved to Texas permanently. We bought a house, again in Spring, and re-enrolled the kids in the same high school. However, this time, the glossy varnish of southern hospitality wore thin to show an ugly side of Texas. Say what you will about northerners, but we have a thick skin and a good sense of humor when it comes to handling adversity. The same cannot be said about Southerners, or perhaps some Texans in particular.

The ugliness appeared after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012. Driven to action, I began reading and reaching out. What I found was a gun culture enmeshed with religious self-righteousness that defied understanding or explanation. Rather than agreeing that something needed to be done to prevent another mass shooting I found a society determined to double down on protecting the guns instead of the children and then watched as the Texas legislature passed several pro-gun laws, including open carry and campus carry. As I spoke before democratic groups, I found tepid approval of my message or blank silence. I felt as though I had been transported back to the Wild West of the 1850’s. Fortunately, I met the most wonderful mothers from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. They began speaking at the same meetings I was being asked to speak at, and they were kindred spirits in gun-crazy Texas. Together, we made the rounds speaking out and protesting easy access to guns, including protesting outside the NRA Annual Paranoia Jamboree held in Houston several years ago.

Now, perhaps my initial illusion of southern hospitality was misplaced. Perhaps I saw what I wanted to see, perhaps I had bought into the travel brochure’s salesmanship and had assigned characteristics to all of the people here before they had earned them. However, the fact remained that I was seeing people all over who flared with road rage at the slightest infraction (even though they were usually at fault!) and the initial kindness I saw displayed was revealed to be a thin veneer beyond which an angry populace lived. Again, perhaps it was my fault that I expected kindness to go along with their initial genteel hello. However, the initial hello was shallow and provided no shelter to the storm of their real feelings, especially to someone from “up north.” The least informed tend to have the firmest convictions, and here the stupid were downright rigid in their unexamined beliefs.

As Lisa continued to fight against the ravenous cancer, we came to an understanding of the culture in which we found ourselves and tried to make the best of it. I attempted to let go of the mixed up anger I had at both the people and our situation, especially as it became evident that the cancer was killing my wife. When she died, part of my world became frozen in time. I cannot convey in words what telling my kids was like. The pain is too real.

And yet, as we close in on our moving date to move back to Rhode Island, less my wife and my dog who cancer finally took over the past nine months, I have a soft spot in my heart for Texas and the medical center here that brought us seven years together we would otherwise not have enjoyed. Granted, it’s not a big soft spot. Along the way, I have met good friends at work. My job has been fantastic to me, and their kindness, compassion, and comfort have made this situation a little more bearable. Nothing can break the pain I have associated with Texas as the place where Lisa drew her last, labored breaths and where we had to put our beloved dog down because of his cancer pain. Nothing can change the past nine months and the grief we have endured. My heart is shattered, but we are going home where we belong. We will be going to a new town for us, but back to a culture we understand.

The last chapter of our Texas odyssey is being written, and the kids and I are in a mad packing frenzy right now as the truck is soon to be on its way to pack all of our belongings and take them to our new home. The kids have graduated from college (with honors), a true testament to their work ethic and determination and are scheduled to apply to graduate school in the fall. Samantha has been challenged to apply the design lessons she learned from Lisa and school to the new house. God knows I don’t have a clue! We will make the most of our home while the kids research the grad schools and work on their portfolios. I’ll be working out of the house and trying to balance a new social life. A new chapter is beginning, and we will do our best to live up to the expectations Lisa set for us. Texas will soon be behind us, home to immeasurable pain. The pain will travel with us to Rhode Island, but a new beginning carries with it the hope of better days ahead. Goodbye, Texas.

Steel Blue

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My children, twins, will graduate from the University of Texas at Austin in three weeks. This a full summer semester before campus carry takes effect. I am so thankful they will have enjoyed their time at college before the advent of guns in their classroom. In addition, we will be moving to Rhode Island in the weeks following graduation. This will exempt us from seeing Texas open carry zealots who cannot shop in a grocery store or visit a restaurant without their trusty firearm by their side, like some deranged metallic playmate.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Texas has embraced the gun like never before and this in the face of a plethora of withering facts against such a position and against the wishes of the majority of the public. By all means, don’t let facts dissuade you from carrying out unwanted legislation in order to enhance the state’s swagger well beyond reason. Both open carry and campus carry were passed during the last legislative session. And don’t be lulled into believing that with such measures the gun lobby will be sated and have no other bills pending in the next session. In fact, the next session has already been tagged as the “constitutional” carry session as the gun lobby will push for both open carry and campus carry without any restrictions, training, or registration; another step in the guns-everywhere mentality where even those time travelers from the old Wild West would feel uncomfortable.

And Texas isn’t the most responsible when it comes to its guns. Last week, the TSA announced it had set a new record for the number of guns confiscated at American airports. In a study done in 2015, three of the top 6 airports listed by the number of guns confiscated were based in Texas. In fact, two of them were located in Houston. How can anyone be trusted to carry a firearm when they can’t be trusted not to bring it with them aboard an airplane?

Gun violence prevention organizations have done a good job keeping pressure on legislators and in state houses throughout the country. However, it is still considered a marathon and not a sprint to get meaningful legislation passed at the national level (and in some state houses, like Texas). And there are still too many individual organizations working toward the same goal where economies of scale could be realized if they joined forces. I’ve written about this before, and there has been some consolidation, but the resources, both physical and monetary, are still spread between too many organizations to counter the behemoth that is the NRA.

They say Texas is turning blue. However, it is still a deeply red state in many locations and blue in the larger metropolitan areas. Eventually, there will be a transition. I just hope Texans of common sense don’t turn blue from holding their breath until then.

Rhode Island Bound

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In three months, my children and I will be moving back to Rhode Island. And while Texas has been very good to us in some ways, we are eager to leave all of the bad memories behind as we try to build a new life without Lisa or Delbow. It will be incredibly difficult.

We will make our home in East Greenwich, a town I know very little about but which had the size and type condo I was looking for. I am excited to live there. It is centrally located in the state and will allow me to get to Providence or the beach with equal rapidity. My sister lives in North Kingstown, which is easily gotten to and my mother and brother live in Middletown, which is on the way to the beach.

Moving to Texas was the right move at the time and I do not ever regret that decision. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center bought Lisa, at least, six and a half years that she would otherwise not have had had we stayed in Rhode Island and sought treatment. I cannot say enough about the physicians and nurses at M.D. Anderson. To be sure, there are always bureaucratic snafus that occur and I was always Lisa’s best advocate to permeate the sometimes confusing maze of departments and silos. But, overall, the facility has earned its position as one of the best cancer centers in the world.

We have lived in this house now for over six years. And in all that time, it still does not feel like our home. Lisa decorated it with many of our belongings from Rhode Island and we painted it the same color as our home in Rhode Island inside. However, it never became “home” for us. It always seemed that we were leasing the space until the catastrophic happened. And now it has. The kids will be graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in late May and we will then pack up all of our belongings and make the trek back to Rhode Island and that which we know and love.

Wish us luck on our move and starting our new life without Lisa or Delbow. I would like to think Delbow is sleeping on Lisa’s lap right now as she looks down on us approvingly on how we have handled everything so far. I don’t know what the future holds, but I am grateful to my children for their support and love.

Meanwhile in Texas

Meanwhile in Texas

In light of the horrific massacre of a family in Spring, Texas yesterday, I thought it would be good to gauge the response of our elected officials. Since there was nothing but the sound of chirping crickets in response, I thought we should investigate why. These pictures tell the story. Here they are, your Texas elected officials:

Texas Attorney General and Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Greg Abbott:

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Texas Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Perry:

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United States Senator Ted Cruz:

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United States Senator John Cornyn:

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Texas State Senator and Republican Lt. Governor Candidate Dan Patrick:

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Texas Representative and Republican Candidate for Texas Senate Steve Toth:

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United States Representative Steve Stockman:

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But before we chastise these elected officials (and we aren’t even counting Louie Gohmert), let’s consider some of their constituents:

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Now I understand.

 

 

 

 

 

Give The People What They Want

Give The People What They Want

I am many things.

Male

White

Short

Overweight

Middle aged

Married

College educated

New England raised

Living in Texas

A son

A husband

A father

An uncle

A nephew

A friend

An enemy

Blue-eyed

Left handed

Employed full-time

Middle class

Homeowner

Car owner

Non-smoker

Independent

I am all of these things and these are measurable demographics used by all manner of people and organizations in order to sell me things and, in politics, theoretically, represent me.

Having been raised in Rhode Island, I grew up thinking the majority of the country was just like me, white, Catholic, middle class. There were blacks and Jews in school with me, and while they were the minority, I did not treat them any differently, nor did they see me (I hope) as an oppressor. They were my friends and part of my world.

As I grew, I began to see the political landscape of Rhode Island as the basis for the fabric of America. At the same time, I joined the workforce and began to understand Churchill’s remark:

“Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”

Rhode Island politics is dominated by trade unions. Democrats control the legislature and the state constitution essentially renders the Governor moot. As I began to bring home part-time, high school student paychecks with deductions to anagrams I did not understand, I began to think like a conservative (Republican). I worked for this money; don’t give it to somebody else. Business drives the economy. Without jobs there are no unions. Ayn Rand would have been very proud. But in retrospect, I think this reaction was more a rebellion against the Rhode Island Democrat mindset and less a political ethos. Taxes were too high, handouts too easy and I did not feel my hard work was being protected in the state house. I was a Conservative with no heart.

As with everybody, as we get older, the world gets smaller. College, just next door in neighboring Connecticut, opened my eyes to other religions. No longer was Catholicism the dominant religion. No longer did liberal tendencies dictate legislation. So, too, were these the days of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economy. As a burgeoning economics major, this philosophy made sense and met with my understanding and expectation of things. However, as a college student trying to get loans and seeing my parents struggle to shoulder the weightiest financial burden for two college aged children with a third coming up through the ranks, coupled with the seemingly never ending string of corruption issues emanating from the Reagan administration, my conservative leanings were shaken. Was this a reaction to the financial situation I found myself in? Was it a reaction to the broadening of my understanding of the country and the world? Or was it simply another shift against the grain?

Careers, a marriage and parenthood quickly followed. Once again, I found myself trying to provide for my family and build a career in an economy growing under Clinton’s watch through economic structures established by his Republican predecessors. And once again, living in the Rhode Island Union, I saw the expansion of social programs as a long term detriment to the local economy, but those were heady times and we were all (relatively) happy living on the dotcom bubble. When that burst, and September 11, 2001 hit, Rhode Island was slow to respond to the economic crisis that ensued. Like the rest of the country, I was angry and wanted to strike back at somebody for the evil perpetrated on my neighbors (Boston, from where the flights originated and New York). Following the morally damaged presidency of Clinton, I fell into the political pit warned about by Bertrand Russell when I voted for W:

“Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man.”

I had ascribed FDR’s tenet, “I’m not the smartest fellow in the world, but I can sure pick smart colleagues” to W and assumed he would do the same. Unfortunately, I think Kurt Vonnegut put it best when he said:

“The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.”

My wife’s diagnosis with an aggressive breast cancer in 2008 forced us to reevaluate our lives. Because family and her survival weighed so much more over career and home, we picked up stakes and moved to Texas to seek treatment at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

At first, this change of environment seemed to meet my expectations and stereotypes. Southerners were friendly and slower. Northerners were rude and always in a hurry. I ignored the conservative predispositions of Texas even though Texas-bred W took us to war in Iraq over bogus intelligence and OBL and the Taliban hid in the lawless Hindu Kush on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. And even though Rick Perry, W’s intellectual equal, continued to gut the education system and pilfer jobs from other states, it didn’t matter to me as long as my wife was receiving the best medical treatment. My once expanded understanding of the world didn’t matter to me when my family was suffering.

Then, on December 14th of 2012, while working on my laptop at the hospital while my wife was undergoing restaging tests, news broke of a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. I read with horror as first the casualty total rose and then it was reported that children were among the victims. That day, coupled with the local reaction in the following weeks caused a seismic shift in my perception and attitude. No longer was Texas the friendly, slow state with questionable education standards and a job-pilfering, slow-witted governor, now it showed itself to be a gun loving, religious zealot, paranoid, racist, American anachronism. Unfortunately, as time elapsed, I came to understand that this political/religious background was neither limited to Texas, nor the south. “Red” states throughout the country began to show their prejudices, paranoia, fear and hatred. The “Gun Control” debate had ripped the genteel mask of civility off of otherwise, (seemingly) generous people. I saw the people who attended the NRA’s Annual Paranoia Jamboree here in Houston. I argued with them. I argued with the dimwitted grandfather who brought his grandson to a gun control rally in Austin to argue for more gun rights. I was scheduled to debate a state senator, who had introduced a firearm protection act, on television, until he chickened out. I had become a liberal without a brain.

And then it hit me. The Kinks were right!

Why, I asked myself, was I always going against the grain? Why were my political positions always running counter to the culture in which I lived? How could I be represented by people so contrary to my positions? Lightbulb! Ted Cruz was elected by people who were pleased by what he claimed to represent. Louie Gohmert was elected by people who believe what he believes. Steve Stockman was elected by people as deranged as him. And so it is. Give the people what they want.

And so, the reason congress is in a perpetual state of paralysis is because America is in a perpetual state of paralysis. We seek to impose our ideal democratic notion on the rest of the world while ignoring fractures at home. Russian president Vladimir Putin wrote, warning America not to consider ourselves exceptional. George Bernard Shaw wrote,

“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it….”

The fact I find most interesting is that Congress has a 19% approval rating, according to Gallup. If we elect representatives who represent our interests and convictions, why is our approval of the job they do so low? At heart, are we not happy with our own convictions? The devil is in the details and it is this process that divorces concept (patriotism and democracy) from reality (legislation and personal responsibility). We cannot give the people what they want because they are not prepared to work for that which they think they deserve.

Year One

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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:

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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.

Gunistan

After seeing the blinder-wearing, simplistic, dogmatic, vitriol of the attendees at the NRA Paranoia Jamboree in Houston (and its glaring lack of racial diversity), I now agree with the speakers at the convention, such as:

Governor Rick “Prayer, Guns, and um…um… oops” Perry

Senator Ted “Filibuster and Lie about an imaginary Gun Registry” Cruz

Ted Cruz website

There was NO gun registry language in the proposed legislation that Senator Cruz first filibustered against and then voted against. In fact, there were strict penalties in the legislation for anyone attempting a gun registry. That did not stop the Senator from posting this on his website and causing dim followers to froth.

Senator John “Poison Pill” Cornyn

Attorney General Greg “Keep your guns, come to Texas” Abbott

Representative Steve “If Babies Had Guns They Wouldn’t Be Aborted/Win an AR-15!” Stockman

Texas Representative Steve “What’s the Supremacy Clause?” Toth

Governor Sarah “Helicopter Hunter” Palin

Ted “Messy Pants” Nugent

Wayne “Tyranny, Confiscation, Tyranny, Confiscation” LaPierre

“Leadership” Forum!

Senator Rick “The Bill of Rights came from God” Santorum

and Glenn “Am I Still Relevant?” Beck.

When these Pavlov-inspired  “leaders” have the ability to distill a solution to all of society’s ills down to a bumper sticker (“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”) and have it swallowed whole by their one-note flock who hug the Bible in one hand and an AR-15 in the other, who can somehow justify loving God and can, with a clear conscience, kill His creatures, who cloak their racism as patriotism and assemble arsenals to defend themselves against the America they profess to love, who consider “victory” to be any time the “fake” black president loses and, of whom  44% consider the possibility of an armed rebellion against the government likely in the next few years, yes, maybe we should give them what they want. Let them secede. Concern over the porosity of our border and a demand for an impenetrable fence begins to sound good. In fact, we should insist that the fence continue around the entire Texas perimeter and commit every gun manufacturer and gun owner in the other 49 states to live in this newly minted country we’ll call Gunistan.  God bless Gunistan. Lock and Load.

Wow. Just, wow.

While the rest of the country is trying to curtail the carnage caused by a society drowning in firearms, the Texas legislature recently passed 12 bills weakening Texas gun laws. So take your guns, hug them tight, tuck them in at night under your pillow and the rest of us will leave you alone. Please do us the courtesy of doing the same. No longer will you fear Texas turning blue. It will forever be, blood-red.

Gunistan

Texas George (or Administering Medicine to the Dead)

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Speaker John Woods, whose girlfriend was murdered at the Virginia Tech massacre listens to John MacLean perform his incredibly moving tribute to the children of Sandy Hook Elementary called Six. Photo credit: Austin Dowling

To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture. Enjoy, sir, your insensibility of feeling and reflecting. It is the prerogative of animals. And no man will envy you these honors, in which a savage only can be your rival and a bear your master.       

Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, March 21, 1778

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

                                                Joseph Heller, Catch-22, Chapter 3, 1961

The gun “debate” in the United States pits two sides against one another which could not be more different had they hailed from different edges of the ever expanding universe.  One side uses rationality, compassion and fact, believing that life is paramount and government’s supreme priority is the defense of its citizens. The other side uses paranoia, fear and hyperbole, gets exorcised at the words “tyranny,” “Obama,” and “confiscation,” and is armed to the teeth to defend themselves against the very republic which they claim to love. Logic would tell you that the fight is not fair. Logic would suggest that reason and compassion would reign over hysteria and fear. Logic would be wrong.

This country finds itself at a moral crossroad at a time when it also intersects with a political movement bent on a systemic abdication of empathy in favor of some financial utopia; an Ayn Randian egoism on steroids. Let us assume that the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party was formed with the intention of restoring the federal government’s financial ledger. Let’s also ignore that the ledger wasn’t upended in the first place by Republicans plunging us into two wars based on specious arguments and bloodlust following 9/11. Place into that caustic mixture a society where the internet has led to more granularization of beliefs and less debate and compassion, a youth with the responsibility memory of a fruit fly and the belief that there is a cosmic “reset” button on life, a proliferation of 300,000,000 guns with no oversight because of a lobbying group with rabid members who salivate at the concepts of “tyranny” or “confiscation” and cannot hide their racial/political hatred for our sitting president and would burn the country down to see him fail and you have a toxic environment where compassion and logic are trounced by hysteria and hyperbole.

Nowhere is this confluence of concepts more evident than in Texas, a state being torn from the safety of republican clutches and turning purple before our eyes. While the cities are democratic strongholds, the rural areas are staunchly red.  Unfortunately for Republicans, the urbanization of the country, combined with the influx of citizens relocating from democratic northern states and the burgeoning immigrant population arriving from the south clash in a cultural maelstrom which will result in a blue Texas. Once that happens (and assuming California and New York remain blue), there is no mathematical formula that wins Republicans the White House. The only question is when Texas turns blue, not if.

In the gun debate the lines are equally color coded. Red states love their guns. Blue states don’t.  Which leaves Texas in the unenviable position of being the stage from which we all get to watch Republicans pander to the NRA and their rabid, and predominantly white constituency, who ignore the impending tsunami in hopes of returning to the “glory” days of the wild west where guns were plenty and white men ruled the world. Everywhere there can be seen the angry clamoring for this return to Mitt Romney’s 1950’s America. “Secede” bumper stickers jockey for placement on pickup trucks already adorned with Browning logos, Keep Christ in Christmas clings, and that little imp peeing on the words “Gun Control” next to a picture of a cannon and the Greek words Molon Labe (Come and Take It).

Lawmakers, both on the local, state and national level from Texas enrobe themselves in the American flag in order to conceal the Texas flag they truly wear, as if one is not part of the other. They are increasingly suspicious of the United States Constitution and make legislative overtures ignorant of the Supremacy Clause in feel-good measures enabled to allow Texas to enjoy the fruits of the US Constitution a la carte while simultaneously ignoring the burden borne equally by the 50 states to uphold the union.

Beyond the Ted Nugent’s and Alex Jonses’ of the Loon Star State, it is also home to other less colorful, but potentially more damaging (and entertaining, were it not people’s lives hanging in the balance) due to their lawmaking potential. These include:

  • Governor Rick Perry whose solution to gun violence following the sickening murder of 20 first graders in Newtown Connecticut was to pray and who is wooing gun manufacturers to relocate to good-ole-boy Texas.
  • Attorney General Greg Abbott who has advertised in New York newspapers for New Yorkers upset at the impending sensible gun legislation to relocate to good-ole-boy Texas where EVERYBODY has at least one gun and “gun control is when you use both hands.”
  • US Rep Steve Stockman who invited twisted has-been rocker Ted Nugent to the State of the Union speech in violation of all common decency and decorum in front of the families of Newtown in attendance, and who is also pursuing the “persecuted” gun manufacturers to relocate to good-ole-boy Texas. As a member of the House, he has pledged to prevent any gun legislation from being voted on. A true patriot.
  • State Rep. Steve Toth, (a minister) and Tea Party sycophant who in the weeks following Newtown held a “Gun Appreciation Day” on the steps of the state capital in Austin and has introduced his version of cafeteria style US Constitution adherence legislation called the “Firearm Protection Act” prohibiting local law enforcement from implementing federal gun laws. He appreciates guns and protects firearms. Did I mention he’s a minister? To bastardize the murdered John Lennon’s quip “Guns are bigger than Jesus.” Welcome to the Church of Glock. This is also the same “representative of the people” who cancelled his appearance on a local PBS television show when he found out he had to debate me, a “far left wing radical!” You see, he wants to represent the people, just not talk with them.
  • US Senator Ted Cruz, another Tea Party twit who joined Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee (and 11 other senators) in a ridiculous filibuster designed to prevent any gun legislation from being voted on by the senate. He claims he will do whatever is necessary to defend the Second Amendment, which is Tin Foil Hat language for “I’m going to do everything I can to prevent the “libtards” from starting down the path toward registration and confiscation.” Again, they defend the gun and every nutjob’s right to them with callous disregard to the carnage caused by these “good, honest, law abiding Americans.”

Here is a breakdown of the campaign funding various Texas legislators have received from the NRA since 1990:

Legislator

District

Party

Amount

NRA Grade

Ted Cruz

Junior

Republican

$      9,900

A+

John Cornyn

Senior

Republican

$    17,850

A

Louie Gohmert

1

Republican

$    11,450

A

Ted Poe

2

Republican

$      9,500

A+

Sam Johnson

3

Republican

$    23,450

A

Ralph Hall

4

Republican

$    25,450

A

Jeb Hensarling

5

Republican

$    20,900

A

Joe Barton

6

Republican

$    47,948

A

John Culberson

7

Republican

$    22,550

A

Kevin Brady

8

Republican

$    17,500

A

Al Green

9

Democrat

$             –

F

Michael McCaul

10

Republican

$    19,500

A

K. Michael Conaway

11

Republican

$    11,000

A

Kay Granger

12

Republican

$    13,950

A

Mac Thornberry

13

Republican

$    27,450

A

Randy Weber

14

Republican

$             –

A

Ruben Hinojosa

15

Democrat

$             –

D

Beto O’Rourke

16

Democrat

$             –

N/A

Bill Flores

17

Republican

$      7,000

A

Sheila Jackson Lee

18

Democrat

$             –

F

Randy Neugebauer

19

Republican

$    16,950

A

Joaquin Castro

20

Democrat

$             –

C

Lamar Smith

21

Republican

$    30,750

A+

Pete Olson

22

Republican

$    12,450

A

Pete Gallego

23

Democrat

$      1,000

A-

Kenny Marchant

24

Republican

$    10,750

A

Roger Williams

25

Republican

$      2,000

AQ

Michael Burgess

26

Republican

$    13,150

A

Blake Farenthold

27

Republican

$      4,500

A

Henry Cuellar

28

Democrat

$    18,350

A-

Gene Green

29

Democrat

$    12,950

A-

Eddie Johnson

30

Democrat

$             –

F

John Carter

31

Republican

$    22,450

A+

Pete Sessions

32

Republican

$    64,000

A+

Marc Veasey

33

Democrat

$             –

B

Filemon Vela

34

Democrat

$      1,000

AQ

Lloyd Doggett

35

Democrat

$             –

F

Steve Stockman

36

Republican

$      1,000

A

The total here is almost $500,000, and this counts only the contributions made to those currently holding office. It does not count the amounts contributed to unsuccessful candidates or those who previously held office. It does make me wonder why the NRA would spend so much money in a state so gun hungry as Texas.

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Former Virginia Tech student and EMT Kathy Staats who responded to the shooting there on April 16, 2007. Photo credit: Austin Dowling

Which brings me to Texas George. You see, there was a Gun Sense rally sponsored by Moms Demand Action at the Texas capital in Austin last weekend. Hundreds of people attended to listen to the reasoned and compassionate speeches of victims, family member, first responders and legislators. While one young woman, a volunteer EMT at Virginia Tech who responded to the mass shooting on the morning of April 16, 2007, relayed to us her attempts to secure an oxygen mask to a student whose jaw had been blown off by a bullet and who later died, a local genius who called himself Texas George walked up to the front of the crowd holding a sign with the nonsensical message “Stop Gun Ban.” As other people in the crowd tried to get in front of him to block his asinine, attention seeking stunt, I noticed the sickest part of this display. While he held the nonsensical sign in his right hand, he held the hand of his no more than 6 year old grandson in his left. Two thoughts rang through my head. First, how insensitive and callous to bring your grandson to such an event where his grandfather was being berated and shouted down (by me in addition to others), but that his grandson was roughly the same age as the 20 children blown apart in Newtown, Connecticut. And while that juxtaposition played around inside my head, the most poignant image of that day would have to wait for me to see it the following day.

Texas George

Texas George and his inane sign. There are 300,000,000 guns in America. What gun ban?

The image below shows my child standing behind a woman holding a sign denouncing the murder of 8 children a day in America.  My initial (and eternal) pride in seeing my son stand up for something he believes in and which saves lives gave way to the sick feeling that slammed into my stomach when I linked the message about children to the sight of my child. Something I will never forget and something Texas George, Ted Cruz, Steve Stockman, Steve Toth, Rick Perry, Greg Abbott and any other defender of our “God given” right to blow away any of His creatures will never understand. Joseph Heller’s protagonist would question everybody’s sanity in this drama. Logical discourse with these people is like administering medicine to the victims of Newtown.

My son, Cameron (left) and his friend Austin listen to speeches while a woman holds a poignant sign.

My son, Cameron (left) and his friend Austin listen to speeches while a woman holds a poignant sign.