Sunday, June 22, 2014

Special Delivery

When my son Devin was just a squirt, he was figuring out the difference between male and female (the TERMS - he was having a hard time keeping them straight).  He would use the words in context and then kind of look at me to see if he had them right.  “That female is wearing a scarf,” he would remark casually as we were driving down the road.  “That is a male cardinal,” he would observe looking out the window at the bright red bird.

It so happened that our letter carrier was a young woman.  She was always friendly and outgoing with Devin as almost everyone was.  He was a pretty engaging child.  One day as we were out walking in the summer and we saw the postal jeep approaching, he took off running toward her shouting, “Look daddy, it’s the mail female!”

Remember when going to the mailbox was a pleasure?  Probably not if you are under about 35.  But back in the day, mail was often used for written correspondence.  Hard to believe, I know, but the US MAIL was the way we communicated when we were long distance from a loved one (a term probably unfamiliar to you thirty-five-and-unders).  Rather than spend a few bucks on a long-distance call, we would often pick up a pen and paper and write down our thoughts, carefully crafting our words, making the effort to record our sentiments clearly and concisely.  A hand written letter was a work of art for some of us.  I remember getting letters from my mom all throughout my life.  I treasure those artifacts.

She would often go on about the weather, what birds she had spotted, what was happening in the lives of old family friends.  She would write eloquently about the changing seasons, what books she had read lately, perhaps a recipe she had tried.  It was just life, you know.  And I would have to open an envelope that she had licked shut, after she had written my address on it, after finding a stamp and walking it out to the mailbox and putting the flag up.  And I was left with a piece of paper in my hand with her neat, tight cursive on it.  Something she had touched.  Something she had breathed life into. 

It is a sweet gift to receive a letter.  While we are used to receiving bills and notifications, ads and announcements, a letter is something altogether different.  It is a little piece of who you are, what you are thinking, events that shape your current self.  It is deeply personal; there is not another one like it in all the world.  It is like a fingerprint.  It is something that starts as a blank piece of paper, an empty vessel waiting to be filled up with news and emotions, little glimpses into who we are and what is important to us. 

Sure, it would be so much easier and much more immediate to email, or text, or Facebook, or tweet.  And it is nice to hear someone’s voice on the phone – although even phone conversations are becoming more rare. 

Facetime is cool.  Once while I was painting a room in our home, I heard a voice from my pocket calling my name…  “Tim?  Tim!”  It was my nephew Mike.  I had never even used Facetime before, had no idea it was even on my newfangled phone.  Turns out I had butt-facetimed him.  After wiping the paint from my hands, we had a long face-to-face chat.  It was cool.  Like Dick Tracy with his two-way wrist radio or something.

But none of these things equals the effort of writing a letter to a loved one.  How are you doing? Never sounds so sincere when you are in conversation, right?  It comes off as a single time-filling word…  How-you-doin’?  Or Hi-how-are-ya?  And the response is equally vacant.  Fineyou?  But it is not the same with a letter.  Dear Mom and Dad means something entirely different than the often hollow ‘Sup? 

The best letters are often written sort stream of consciousness style.  You sit and think of nothing and let what comes, come.  It doesn’t have to be lyrical, just you.  You can turn from something funny to something tragic…  We had to put old Sasha to sleep.  She was a good old pal.  I remember the way she loved the kids when they were all puppies together…  I opened the bluebird house the other day and saw a tiny little flying squirrel crammed into the corner, making himself as small as he possibly could, his big eyes bulging with fright…  It sure was hard to say goodbye to my third graders as they left the classroom on that last day of school.  A part of me went with them.  The older I get the harder it is to say farewell to my young friends…  You won’t believe how great Heidi’s new book is.  Seems like that brain tumor left her even more brilliant than she was before…  

These are all things I would have written to my mom if she were around.  And she would have appreciated them.  And she would have written back in her own time.  And there would be this thread of conversation out there, this ongoing connection over time, a delayed exchange of ideas and feelings that made coming home and going to the mailbox something to look forward to.

My old mom was the last one to write letters to me.   Sometimes we would speak on the phone after she had written one and before it arrived in our mailbox.  I don’t want to talk about that,” she would say from time to time, “You’ll read that when you get my letter.”  And I waited the two or three days to open that envelope that she had licked shut and read those precious words that she had put on that page her very self.  And when I was finished reading that letter, I would most likely read it again.  And maybe again.  And maybe I’d share a few well-chosen words with Heidi before stashing it away in my rubber-banded stack, waiting for a day, years later, when I would return to that stack and reread those precious thoughts.  

And those words would bring me back to a place and time like nothing else ever could.  Who says you can't go home again?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Gun Rights and Wrongs

As I write this (and the statistics definitely change from day to day) there have been 74 school shootings in the last 18 months.  74 school shootings since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 children and 6 adults were killed by a madman with guns.

I remember the outrage that accompanied that shooting.  That was it.  We had finally had enough.  We were finally going to stop the crazy laws allowing “freedom” to let just about anyone own just about any gun.  We had reached the apex of our frustration.  Too many people.  Far too innocent.  Far too young.  We were going to do something about it. 

Oh, there has been gun legislation passed.  In just one year after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary 1,500 gun bills had been introduced.  Just over 100 of those bills became law.  And two thirds relaxed restrictions on gun ownership rather than restricting them. Seventy of those laws amplified gun rights and 39 increased gun control. 

Have you seen the open carry rallies down in Texas?  Guys going into fast food restaurants carrying M16s and AR15s.  Crowds of people in malls openly carrying rifles, shotguns and huge handguns.  The NRA in a moment of lucidity released a statement that this behavior was “downright weird”. 

“Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners. That’s not the Texas way. And that’s certainly not the NRA way,” said the post, titled “Good citizens and good neighbors: The gun owners’ role.”

Then the Open Carry Texas folks fired back (pun intentional) that the NRA was attacking it for fighting to preserve the rights of gun owners.  Their stated goal is simply to educate the public about the right to carry firearms and to show that responsible gun owners are not a threat.

A few days later the NRA backed down and retracted their statements disagreeing with open-carry-everywhere policy, going back to their idea that the more people who carry guns, the safer we are. 

So is that it?  Have we just thrown up our arms and given up on rationality?  Think of the kids at Sandy Hook.  I don’t think many people truly believe that if there are more armed citizens, if there are more guns with unlimited amounts of ammunition available to almost anyone, that if there are fewer regulations on who gets to own guns, that we will be safer.  I don’t think even the NRA believes that.  But they are dug in.  And they are powerful.  And they are sticking to their guns.

Bill O’Reilly said the other day that, “No matter what society does, there will always be mass murder.  Always.”  And while I don’t disagree with that sentiment, I think our efforts to minimize mass killings should increase not decrease simply because we are getting used to it.  Think of the kids at Sandy Hook.  Even if we had absolutely no guns, there would still be nutcases who could manage to kill with swords or arrows or spears. 

But with the strongest lobby in America being the NRA, and with politicians sucking up to them, proving their manliness (or whatever) by shooting the biggest guns they can find on camera, to ensure that certain percentage of votes – it looks as if we as a culture are just giving up on rationality.  We have simply accepted that guns will be everywhere and that…  mass shootings are just a part of our culture. 

It’s like Jon Stewart said, “You see people?  Acceptance!  It’s like America has a dog that’s always sh!%$ing in the house and we’ve solved the problem by getting a brown rug.”  But I don’t think we should give up on rational gun laws. 

On average, 86 Americans die each day from gun violence.  That is one American killed every 17 minutes.  Don’t think for a moment that it is because we don’t have enough guns in the hands of citizens.  Every one of those people killed has families, connections, stories of a life.  Some are rich, most are poor, some are old, most are young, some are veterans, some are cops, some are business people, many are children.  Consider this list just from California, just from one week recently.

A shooting at a barbershop left one dead and three injured
         Sunday night.
Derrick Whitfield, 23, was shot to death at the Potrero Hill housing complex on May 21.
Gail Temple, 75, died from a gunshot wound on May 16.
April Jace, 40, was shot to death on May 20, reportedly by her husband, actor Michael Jace.
A 26-year old mom was killed by stray bullet in Compton on Tuesday.
Anthony Johnson, 28, was shot to death on Monday.
A man shot in Oakland on Monday became the city's 31st homicide of the year.
Leonicio Banuelos was shot to death on Saturday.
Janet Jimenez, 17, "was riding in a car late Friday with friends when someone fired into the vehicle, striking her in the upper torso and killing her."
A Stockton, California, shooting and fire left one dead on Sunday.
A 69-year-old was shot dead by an armed robber on May 16 while hiking with his 76-year-old companion.
There was a triple shooting in San Bernardino on May 16 that resulted in the deaths of 21-year-old David Lawler, his 20-year-old half brother Terry Freeman and cousin Kavin Johnson.
Alex Gines, 23 was shot to death on May 17.
A woman shot to death in Hyde Park in Los Angeles on Monday.

Bill O'Reilly says, "There is nothing on earth we can do to stop those people [from killing with firearms].  Nothing that is except to give up our freedom...  Random violence will always be with us.  Always.  Evil human beings armed with freedom make that terrible scenario inevitable."  

No, the shooters are not armed with freedom.  The killers took freedom from others while they were armed with guns.  You know what?  The NRA needs to man up.  Because it takes a real man (and woman) to trust people, to go out and face the world without an AK47 strapped to your back or a Glock concealed under your jacket.  Bravery isn't shown in what kind of weapon you carry - it is demonstrated in how you carry yourself without one.