Archive for December, 2012

The second half of the year sort caught me off guard and off-balance. I’m looking to right my ship and get back into the swing of things this coming year, both new and old. But for tonight, the last day in the Julian calendar year, I’m reaching back in time for a tune to replace Auld Lang Syne. It’s called a hymn but it’s a bit of blues rolled into jazz, majestic and hopeful, reaching across time from one turbulent time into another.

Happy year’s end to all.

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Naive. Unrealistic. Fascist.

These are just some of the things I have been called for saying that the biggest problem we have with gun control in the United States is not having enough of it. The presumption is that I have some ill-formed liberal notion about the Constitution or our civil rights or that I somehow want nothing more than a parental state governing my every moment of liberty. Invariably, every person who has passed judgment on my views, most of them either conservatives or gun owners or both, does not have the experience I have had with guns.

I have been held up at gunpoint. Twice.

Many would argue the first time “didn’t count” because the circumstances were far from malicious. I was a teacher at a middle school, coming out of my classroom during the passing period, when a boy of 13 leapt out from around the corner and aimed the revolver square at me from ten feet away. “Freeze!” he shouted, like a cop in a TV show, egged on with laughter by the friends around him. By the time I realized what was happening a campus supervisor – a hall and yard monitor, the closest thing we had to security – wrestled the boy to the ground and called out for help. A group of teachers surrounded and escorted the boy to the principal’s office while a fellow teacher stayed behind to make sure I was okay. The whole thing had happened so quickly, so surreally, that only later I understood they had wanted to keep me as far away as possible from the boy, fearing I had been his intended target and that my presence would antagonize him.

He was only showing off to friends. The gun wasn’t even loaded. It was taken from his home where it was purchased and kept to protect family and property. This was the one and only time it had been ever pointed at another human being.

I was told I was lucky that day.

But that kid was just showing off. One teen with access and a case of severely bad judgment. Perhaps it shouldn’t count as having had a weapon drawn on me but some of my fellow teachers afterward said things like “Makes me wish we could carry our own weapons.”

Why? So we can turn schools into gunfights at the OK Corrall?

The second gun incident was more “traditional.” I was coming home extremely late from a nighttime job – it was after 2 AM – and I was forced to take a different bus than normal because my usual bus stopped running. As a result I had to walk a half mile from the bus stop to my house through a pretty sketchy area. I wasn’t more than a block from the bus stop when I realized I was being followed. One person passed in front of me, pulled a hood over his head, then turned, forcing me to stop. From behind there was a gun pressed into my back from a second person. I was told to lie face down on the ground and make no sound. My shoulder bag and wallet were taken, my pockets turned inside out, and my jacket yanked off my back. Just in case I was doubting their sincerity, the guy holding the gun brought the barrel to my eyes and told me to count to one hundred and not to get up until I did. I counted and listened as they ran to a truck parked nearby and sped off.

When I finished counting I stood up, got my bearings, and saw an all-night diner just a block away. There was a police cruiser in the parking lot, an officer inside on his break. When I approached to report what had happened he looked at me with a start as I pointed to the location of the incident, clearly visible from the windows of the diner. None of the nighthawks inside saw or heard a thing. When the officer asked what they had taken, and I reported my jacket, a bag with a notebook in it, and less than $5 in cash he shook his head and said “You’re lucky to be alive. When they hold someone up and get nothing for it, that pisses guys like that off.”

Lucky. As in, not dead. How lucky would I have been if I’d been carrying a concealed weapon?

This is the problem I have with the self-defense argument. Most of the times you would want or find yourself in the position of needing to defend yourself, a gun isn’t convenient. Nor is it a solution.

“If someone was breaking in you could be damn sure they’d realized they made a mistake!” This is the counter-argument I hear the most,usually said with the bravado of someone who has never actually been in an home invasion situation.

I have. Twice.

The first time, in broad daylight, a scruffy-looking bearded crack fiend started climbing in through my living room window, cursing up a storm and sounding for all the world like he was fixed to murder. My housemates ran to the back of the house, to call the police, while my instinct was to walk up and push him back out the window. It was the first floor, so it wasn’t that far to the ground, and it seemed as if the fall had sobered him up some. I went outside to confront him and on closer inspection he was merely drunk and disoriented: he sincerely thought he was climbing into his own home, having lost his keys somewhere. Many a gun advocate who have heard this story pointed out how dangerous my behavior was. “What if he’d had a gun! I tell you, if it had been me there’d have been one dead hobo on the rug! Next time you might not get so lucky.”

There it was, that word again. Lucky.

The next time there was nothing innocent about the invasion. We were living on the fourth floor of an old Victorian, our windows open in the summer, safe from outside intruders by the virtue of having no access that high up short of a ladder.

Or the old tree next door, as we discovered.

This time a young man intent on performing some sort of mischief climbed the tree, hopped onto the roof, and was attempting to lower himself into my kitchen by hanging from the rain gutters. He’d managed to get half way in, his head, a leg, and one arm trying to squeeze through ll at once. And in his had, a gun.

I hadn’t heard anything and was simply on my way into the kitchen for some water when I saw him there, looking for all the world like he was stuck. I yelled, in a voice so deeply unhuman that to this day I simply think of it as my reptile brain voice. “You get the hell out of my house!” I shouted and then proceeded to take the nearest thing I could find – a cast iron skillet – and threw it at him. I got him in the leg, and between my yelling and throwing things he must have figured I was crazier than he was so he backed out of the window… and dropped four stories to the ground. The police were called and he was eventually caught – sans gun – limping along with a broken ankle. No word on whether it was the fall or the skillet that broke his ankle.

But he’d had a gun. And that, according to some, should have been enough to convince me that even if I didn’t believe in gun ownership for protection that I should be sympathetic to others who do.

But I don’t.

This is where I get called naive, suggesting that we treat the cause and not the symptom. Because guns are the symptom of diseases called fear, ignorance, and violence. Fearing (and hating) other people provides people the opportunity to find the justification in killing other people. A teen boy who thinks its “funny” to pull an unloaded gun on a teacher at school is simply ignorant of the reality behind the imagery he emulates from TV and movies. Violence, no matter the source, is a learned behavior, one that alters the chemistry of the brain over time the same way that abuse, drugs, and fear do. And if we knew for certain that a person’s brain was impaired I’d like to think we wouldn’t knowingly give them access to weapons (or armies for that matter) because what would follow would be carnage.

We are, as a society and individuals, defined by the choices we make. If you choose to live in fear, and raise children to live in fear, that fear will consume your thinking and alter the prism of your world view. If  you believe that American liberty and freedom are inexorably linked to the ownership of a machine whose sole purpose is to kill then there will be no argument that will persuade you otherwise.

If this is how we choose to live as a society we should expect to see scores of violent gun deaths and massacres, because unless we choose to change things we have agreed to choose gun violence as a bi-product of freedom and liberty.

I long thought the phrase “Live by the sword, die by the sword” was a fair enough summary of the notion that violence begets violence but it hides a bitter truth about who suffers the most.  Sadly, those who live by the sword (or gun, as the case may be) kill and those who choose not to live by the sword are more often the victims of those who do.

I will no longer argue with those who believe that gun ownership in America is what the Second Amendment is all about. People will stand behind any excuse that allows them to continue thinking what they believe, without question. If those who shout the loudest in favor of a right to bear arms will not more actively help solve the problem of gun-related violence in this country I am forced to accept only one conclusion: they have chosen to accept the slaughter of innocent victims as an acceptable price in exchange for the false sense of freedom and liberty their belief provides.

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Signs of advanced age: I was getting sparked up to write a cranky post about how it seems like the majority of commercial YA looks like crappy romance novels when I decided to scrap it. The world doesn’t need a case made for the obvious, and my birthday deserved something better.

So I started scrawling out a poem. Yeah, that’s age for you right there. Skip the cranky and get loopy.

It’s a sort of personal influences/appreciation/homage thing that came to me in a sing-song way while my brain was still trying to noodle off on my morning commute to work. Pretend it’s 50-plus years from now and you’re a kid in fifth grade who stumbled onto this.

Vonnegut, Pinkwater, Steinbeck, and Lear,
One tall, one squat, one stoic, one queer.
They sailed the seas for a day and a year,
Old Vonnegut, Pinkwater, Steinbeck, and Lear

Vonnegut, being tall, volunteered as the mast
With his back to the bow and his eye on the past,
Shook his head at the foibles of mankind so vast,
“You’ve got to be kind, so it goes, nothing lasts!”

Pinkwater sat cross-legged, he centered the craft
With plenty of ballast both forward and aft.
Self-appointed zen master both thoughtful and daft,
You could hear lizard music whenever he laughed.

Steinbeck manned the oars with a heave and a ho.
When the seas were becalmed he pulled steady and slow
From bowls full of dust on to cannery row
Drunk on wine from the vines where the grapes of wrath grow.

Old Lear was their captain, a man prone to fits,
Who crafted the boat out of lyrical bits,
Like “There once was a man from thr Isle of St. Kitts…”
That despite lacking sense were as good as it gets.

They hadn’t a map but their course was still clear.
The point of the voyage: Carry on, persevere!
Though they fade in the distance they won’t disappear,
Old Vonnegut, Pinkwater, Steinbeck, and Lear.

Freely, I admit this could be better. And I feel a little sorry for including Pinkwater among the names of the long-gone, but his name fit the meter and his verse came easiest, almost in an instant. It’s also extremely unfair that so many other great influences of mine didn’t manage to fit in the boat – Francesca Lia Block and John Dos Passos in particular comes to mind; I just didn’t think they fit inside that absurd boat but they’re as equal an inspiration as the other four.

And these are just the writers, if I’d started mining illustrators and photographers I’d end up writing a Homeric epic!

Down the road I think I’d like to revisit this poem about four absurd travelers, much like Edward Lear’s longer works like “The Owl and the Pussycat” or “The Jumblies.” Down the road. And it’s all downhill from 51, or so I’m supposed to believe. Let’s just say “for another day” and leave it at that.

I thank you all for your kind attention.

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Many years ago there was this thing I heard about that some guy was doing, a project where people wrote a novel in 30 days. Sounded interesting, but I wasn’t writing novels at the time. A couple years later, in 2001, I thought I’d try it as a lark, mostly because it was immediately post-9/11 and I felt this great urge to do or say something. that was the first year I failed National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

I tried again in 2002 then again in 2004, failed on both counts, and decided it just wasn’t for me. November, it turns out, is just a terrible month for projects of any size. That sounds like an excuse but it’s been true across the board, any new project that starts in November is just a stress-filled wreck, and not just writing projects but for some reason writing projects are especially tough.

But a couple years back I stumbled onto PiBoIdMo – Picture Book Idea Month – which takes place during the NaNoWriMo and I thought Finally, a project that’s just my speed. Instead of a complete novel in 30 days PiBoIdMo consists of one picture book idea per day for the entire month. Not a completed story, no even a title, but simply an idea, a seed, a kernel of something that might one day provide fruit. This seemed like a nice bite-sized goal and one that could keep me feeling like I was still writing-active during a usually tough month.

Did I mention this would be easy? No, I did not. Because as it turns out, you can’t always come up with ideas out of thin air on command.

Nonetheless, for the last couple of years I participated and completed PiBoIdMo, and left the month with a handful of reasonable ideas and a couple of stellar ones, but mostly with a sense of accomplishment.

This year I couldn’t even manage five stinkin’ ideas before the month fell apart on me.

Can I blame the new job I started back in July? Well, for this and many other failures, but that seems like a cop-out because plenty of people manage to wedge in writing and plenty of other creative projects around jobs and family and whatnot. Best I can explain it (again, not to sound like an excuse) is I just haven’t found my groove.

I did have a new idea that I thought would/could have made and awesome NaNoWriMo project, entirely manageable and well-suited for short-chapter writing, but the last thing I want to do right now is start a new project with so many others outstanding. Compounding my November anxieties was the fact that I’d agreed to participate in a New Writer’s series put on at my local library. A reading. Of my own work. In front of strangers. I would be just like the readings I did in grad school, only in front of strangers, i.e. people who weren’t predisposed to being supportive no matter what. You know, like the rest of the real world. So where I might have spent my free time during November working on new pages I instead devoted that time to worrying every line of the one section of my WIP that I would be reading from.

It turned out not to be such a bad thing.

First, when you prep something for reading you are forced to read it aloud. Once you start to hear the lines in your ears instead of just in your head you quickly learn what does and doesn’t work. Sections that “read” well on the page suddenly seem to bog down the story aloud and send action and dialog crashing head-first into a metaphorical dashboard with a tremendous whomp. Stilted dialog gets ironed out, precious details get cut because they are too precious. In the end, the pages are tighter and the story is stronger. None of this alleviates the terror of reading in public, but you take what you get.

My reading suffered as well. I found long passages of text too distracting. This happens when I’m preoccupied, and the best thing I can do is give myself a bit of a reading vacation and let myself get book hungry again.

So here it is, December, and despite the harried holiday season and other possible roadblocks ahead, I’m feeling re-energized. I’m ready to finish this one thing and start something bold and new. Or bold and old. Or anything. I’m ready to tear through a backlog of reading and discover something new to become a new favorite.

November was hard, but November is gone.


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