Putting our Heads Together

Putting our Heads Together
I don't think he sees me

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Evil That Men Do

suffer the little children

Long ago in the mists of mythology, Zeus commanded Hephaestus the god of craftsman to fashion the world's first woman out of earth and water. Athena clothed her modesty, Hermes gifted her tongue with speech, and Aphrodite graced her with beauty. Zeus bequeathed to Pandora a beautiful jar along with the task of keeping it safe. Zeus also warned Pandora to never open the jar. Try as she might, Pandora could not deny that other bequest of the gods, curiosity. She opened the jar the merest crack and all the evils of the world were released. Pandora closed the jar as fast as she could but only succeeded in keeping Elpis the Spirit of Hope locked up as all else escaped. Zeus, unlike God with Eve, bore no malice towards Pandora for he expected this.

The evils of the world whether spread by Pandora or brought about by the sins of Adam and Eve, manifest themselves most forcefully in man's penchant to bring about death and destruction casually, and bring about peace only as a compromise to satisfy self-interest. As the year ends, national headlines reported the wounding of three New Jersey police officers in their own precinct house, the five hundredth taking of a life in Chicago this year, and the death of a New Delhi gang rape victim.

2012 has been a year marred by violence around the globe and for Americans dominated by the home grown massacres of innocents. The seven mass shootings in the United States this year account for a quarter of the attacks, wounded, and dead by mass gun slayings in the past twenty-two years. More than the lingering conflicts in the Middle East, the assaults in 2012 have left the nation mourning and vulnerable and asking what can be done.

The senseless slaying of twenty children five and six years of age, and six adults at a school in the now sorrow draped Connecticut town of Newtown seemed the horrifically nameless punctuation of the harm that people can so quickly and seemingly easily be capable of. The authorities continue to probe, and everyone seeks answers to why twenty small coffins now lay beneath the earth, sealed boxes on lives barely begun. We ask if the killer was deranged, we ask if the availability of assault weapons is to blame. The outcry reaches to the top of our nation, and no reasonable reply from any corner is heard.

Elements of the government are responding to calls for tighter gun control, while the NRA raises its craggy visage and calls for better armed schools. The NRA seems to have forgotten the fact that Columbine had armed guards yet Klebold and Harris were not impeded or repelled from their path of destruction. The government focuses on assault rifle access when statistics since 1990 do not support them as the primary merchant of death in these random slaughters.

The NRA pointed out after the Aurora movie theatre shootings that a better armed populace could have stemmed or prevented what transpired, but at no time since 1990 or before have any of the gun owning citizenry jumped into these situations as saviors. Neither gun control advocates nor gun supporters seem to spend much time noting that it is not the career criminal that bring us to our knees, but well armed private gun owners that are making us fear for our children in schools, and malls, and movie theatres.

Career criminals are far more cautious with guns. Guns are part of their stock and trade and are a link back to them every time they use those guns in commission of a crime. Guns also up the ante on any law induced end to their careers. These criminals are interested more in prospering than going on a rampage ending in suicide. Their guns are a tool and not a means to an end.

The ones we least suspect, the quiet ones are the ones that create the greatest grief and fear of the unknown. The wolves that creep among us in their sheep-like skins keep us glancing about furtively. How do we defend against ourselves?

The answer doesn't lie in knee jerk governmental control of a single type of weapon that bears little relation to the problem at hand save to appeal to some element of the voters. The answer doesn't lie with the NRA that makes the ludicrous defense of its position that killers will always find something to kill with. The NRA is mainly concerned with preventing losses to a thirty billion dollar a year industry and appeasing the dwindling majority represented by white male gun owners. I don't know where the answer lies, I just know that time honed myopic entrenchment of dueling false ideals is not the way to go about solving the problem or even stemming the tide.

The causation of these attacks are multiple and complex. The picture is composed of social triggers, and psychological predispositions, as-well-as the ready availability of guns. We live in a society not only grown used to, but one that expects immediate gratification through constant contact with the world through the internet, cell phones, and cable/satellite services. The entertainment industry and news agencies constantly try to outdo one another to such an extent that we have become desensitized to the point that only the most violent stimulation can break through our veneer. These things together with the proper personality type and readily available guns has proven to be a lethal combination.

Instead of pandering, the government should take a multi-pronged attacked such as:

  • Finding sociological commonalities among the perpetrators of mass shootings
  • Determining psychological commonalities among the perpetrators of mass shootings
  • Develop laws that will limit access to guns through third party individuals such as someone buying guns for someone else
  • Track guns better, perhaps through annual ownership taxes similar to automobiles, the taxes can be used to fund gun violence programs
  • Better education of people of what may be tell tale signs of contributing factors such as overly morbid behavior and suicidal tendencies

As a native of the South, I and many people I grew up with were raised around guns. We were taught to respect them, how to use them properly. Not to say that we didn’t sometimes have fun with them as well. I can still remember using a shotgun on my first derelict toilet in a ramshackle barn. I realize that guns themselves don’t kill people, there has to be a person holding the gun with a willing finger on the trigger. Finding what makes a person decide to take as many innocents as possible with them when they decide to end their lives, is at least as important as reasonably implemented controls on firearms.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ghosts of Christmas Past

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I am not looking to hear reindeer pawing at my rooftop tomorrow; I am not going to have visions of sugar plums dancing about my cluttered jagged thoughts when I go to bed Christmas Eve. I will be listening to the sound of my wife’s breathing and trying to dream of the tiny miracles of Christmases passed to settle my spirit from a year that has been difficult and at times painful.

I wish my childhood memories were more clear, that I could pick out defining Christmas moments from each year that passed beneath my young feet, but they no longer are, they are blended together. One of the memories unattached to time or age is of a nocturnal exploration of presents beneath the tree. I do not recall if I was joined by any of my siblings (and would not implicate them even if I did) only that on this secret venture I peeked at every present I was receiving that year and it ruined the surprise on Christmas. When I told my mom of this just today on the phone, she told me two things: 1) She didn’t know that I had done that, and 2) She had done the same thing when she was a child. I was surprised and pleased by her admission as it established a new link to have with my mother. I love Mom.

Childhood memories also bless me with mental snapshots of what made Christmases in my youth wonderful. Closing my eyes I can see images of my father in varying degrees of Santa garb, of trees overflowing with gifts for five children who were just lucky to have the parents we did, of fires in the hearth, and of incredible food prepared by my mom for her small army.

Memories are better defined thinking back to my college years. When I was a sophomore, I moved off campus to an apartment that would become known as the “Sex Palace”,the same way a large man is given the nickname “Tiny”. It was there that I erected the first Christmas tree that I would call my own. It was a scrawny pine tree sapling adorned with handmade ornaments, topped with a picture of Cap’n Crunch’s Crunchberry Beast. It was that same Christmas that I returned to Orangeburg for the holidays and got the idea to do a photo series on the season. I made a corrugated cardboard sign bearing a large arrow and the word tree. I then drove to all my friend’s houses and asked them if I could take a picture of them with their families holding my sign pointing it in the direction of the Handal family tree. I wish I had kept those pictures, but somewhere back the line I wrongly decided that the mature thing was to toss those memories in favor of an image of who I should be and what I should carry with me. But nothing can take away from me the memory of the smiling faces on photo stock of the Wilsons, Lovejoys, Barkers, Campbells, Whitakers, Fogles, and others.

Many Christmases have come and gone since then. Not all of them happy, but they produced far more smiles than tears. This upcoming one will be significantly lessened by the recent loss of Dennis (more family than friend) and the sorrow that the love of his life, Marc, will be going through as part of himself is forever gone. This creates a void in the soul of our Christmas that cannot be filled and that we will always carry around.

This is where out of self-preservation I selfishly invoke Christmas magic, and yes I believe in it. I believe in the myriad small miracles that happen at Christmas that bring smiles to our faces and ingrain memories to keep those smiles in reserve for whenever they are most needed.

This has been a year for which only the biggest smile can help, so I look within to my favorite Christmas. It was the Christmas of 1998, and our daughter Haley was pregnant and living at home with us. She was round and seven+ months along. She had been miserable with a winter cold that she could not shake because of the limited medicine that her pregnancy would allow. The house was filled with relatives in for the holidays, and things were buzzing with activity by all of us on the day of our annual Christmas open house.

There was something else going on as well. Since fall, we had been working on turning our sagging detached two car garage into a cottage for Haley and the bundle of joy that would be our grandson in fewer than two months. We did this to provide her with her own life, privacy, and a safety net. By the day of our party, it was structurally complete but as yet undecorated.

My amazing wife who is a force of nature, had her heart set on the house being finished for Haley by the night of the party. This added to the work and stress to the day, but if Jean-Marie thought it could be done, I knew it could be. As Jean-Marie dedicated herself body and soul to the cottage, I was tasked with supporting her and directing the party preparations. At one point, my brother-in-law Matt (one of Jean-Marie’s brothers) took me aside and asked me with an air of frustration if Jean-Marie was aware that in a few hours eighty people would be descending on the house and there was a lot left to do. I simply told him that Jean-Marie would not be doing this and leaving the final party prep to us if she didn’t think it was doable.

A great deal of work in a little bit of time ensued attended by my running interference and supplying manual labor for my spouse. Shortly before the party, things were all in place, and we were showered, dressed, and ready. Before the guests arrived, Jean-Marie and I lit the luminarias leading behind our house to the cottage, and led Haley (with her eyes shut) to her new home. Once inside, we told her to open her eyes. As she did, Christmas for my wife and I collapsed in that one moment to our daughter, her unbelieving look on her face, and the tears of joy streaming from her eyes. Moments like that remind me that almost anything is possible, and the happiness of those I love is the greatest gift I can ever receive.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Tribe of the Cathartic Wasteland

In my short bio on my blog site, in my entreaties to people to read what I post, in my essays, I both allude to and actively skirt the question “Why do I write?” It is easy for me to say that it is something that I have always wanted to do and it is something that I have played around with in various small ways for much of my life, but that is a neat little package wrapped in a truth, but not the truth. Not that you are likely to find the whole truth of it here, though I will try to provide just that. A flitter of nerves in my stomach tells me that on some level just below my conscious thoughts I am afraid of the truth. In my head I hear the condescending rant of Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” Perhaps I can’t. Perhaps I am afraid because I feel writing is a religion with any bound writing a bible, and religion requires faith to exist, that finding the truth of it will dispel the act and the gift as surely as the finding irrefutable proof of God will send the Almighty dissipating to the winds in a cloud of logic. I feel I do need to divine it though, and if it has any chance of sticking to me, I must be honest not only to myself but to the reader as well.

There are countless books that describe the process of writing, that help one to write fiction, memoirs, poetry, non-fiction, whatever you wish. I own several of these, but they address the mechanics, the technical, the form and function. The underlying metaphysics of writing are individual and therefore deeply personal, so that no one writer can ever say why all writers write.

My writing life begins with and hinges upon reading. I was born into a family taken by reading. My mother read books that entertained her, probably because her five children were not always as entertaining as she would have liked. My father read primarily for his edification, reading on such diverse topics as history, biology, and philosophy (although science fiction was his guilty pleasure in all that). Between and betwixt the chaos that five active children can raise, all of us were able to find reading that suited us and spoke to us. For most of my formative years, I embraced science fiction which gave me a glimpse of realities just tantalizingly out of reach. My heroes were Asimov, Sturgeon, Niven, and Clark. Family trips to the bookstore or library were mandatory pilgrimages prior to any vacation, the books we were to read as anticipated as the place we would read them.

I found that reading had the affect of allowing me to truly enjoy my classes in spelling, literature, and English. And though I had a perspective spiraling toward the scientific and mathematical (a solitary pursuit when compared to my siblings), I loved learning new words, tasting new phrases, and understanding the structures which comprise good sentences. I was as happy with a writing assignment as I was with a mathematical proof. In retrospect, this is where I wandered far afield from more literate endeavors. Though I loved words, I was attracted by the more stable constructs of science. It was a safer and easier landscape for a boy to explore than the landmine laden frontier of the visceral.

In high school, I blossomed in math, contemplating the concept of infinity with glee, taking in the subtle beauty of Euclidian geometry. Never realizing that amongst the hardened pathways and seemingly solid ground that math and science were built upon, my eye was engaged with their abstracts – a literary-like approach. I also stepped occasionally outside my shell to dip into the warming waters of writing. Two such efforts will always come to mind. The first was a paper we had to write for a DAR contest on the concept of One Nation Under God. I wrote on Satanism and witchcraft in the United States and earned a trip to the office and call to my parents because I was offended that it would not be submitted to the DAR (oh what a rebel I was). The second was a science fiction short story re-telling Genesis for a creative writing class. I still remember cringingly the words I laboriously typed on my father’s old manual Royal typewrite (I am also still proud of it and the grade I received).

Even though I left high school to attend Engineering school at Clemson, and left Clemson to do applied research for the railroads, there were cracks in my self imposed armor that allowed the need and urge to write to slowly seep from me. It predominantly expressed itself through cartooning. In high school, I wrote comic strips for the school telling the ongoing adventures of Super Manager and his able sidekick, Ball Boy. Unknowingly this allowed me a creative release in a life otherwise dominated by athletic endeavors, homework, and fear of girls. In college, I continued to cartoon (and for much of the time to still be scared of girls). I fell in with an incredible cast of friends in a running group we formed calling ourselves the Out-of-Control Track Club or the OCTC. We ran twice a day seven days a week together, and for our weekly beer-based meetings at the bar called “The Study Hall,” I would provide a comic strip of the OCTC in all its eccentric glory. The chinks in my armor only widened once I moved into a professional life as not only would I post the occasional comic outside my office, but would write humorous “articles” (once even an entire “newspaper”) poking fun at myself and co-workers to the delight of all (except those in charge of my professional future, but that is a tale for another time).

All this is to say that eventually amidst the turmoil of adulthood, I found that I wanted to do more than to be funny. I discovered my fingers wanted more than to just draw humorous scenarios in pictures and words. I found that I had been trying to contain that which ultimately I could not contain – the need to express myself in words, black on white. Contrasting shades that miraculously contain meaning, feeling, and texture whose sum went beyond the twenty-six letter alphabet that compose them. I look back and recognize that I have always wanted to write, that there was a hunger that I tried to feed with bare scraps and leavings insufficient to the appetite.

Now as I write more and express myself more, I find myself needing to write more and explore myself more. I find that there is a nature to my desire that is espoused in catharsis and self-definition.

The cathartic aspect of writing for me is self-evident. As I write, I express my opinions, dreams, hopes, and ideas. It is through the written word that I am drawn to put these things forward in an explosive release of scribbling pen and the staccato tapping of fingers on plastic keys. Each time I face the blank page, I yearn to give birth to another feeling or image – not to free myself of it, but to shake it loose of its dusty cage and expose its beauty, horror, or banality, to see if it has the legs to stand on its own.

As I write, I am seeking who I am, what tribe I have been born into. We have all had dreams or fantasies that we are descendants of kings and queens, and few that speculate on their lives before reincarnation claim to have lived as a street sweeper or jester. Writing however is different; lineage is claimed through the authors that most resonate from our reading into our writing. It is not an act of pretension; rather it is a reverent recognition of those that awakened the muse in us. My voice invariably links me to a clan, and this clan is to be found in the pantheon of writers who speak to me the loudest through their works. The ranking gods of my personal Mount Olympus are James Dickey, John Nichols, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Wolfe, and the lordly and damaged Pat Conroy. I do not in the least consider myself to be on a par with these shaman of my tribe. It is because their prose speaks to me and caresses my soul like no other works that I have immersed myself in. Here at fifty I find myself a toddler learning to talk by listening to their words and the dictates of my spirit, as any child learns to speak. And as a child, I refine my accent, my voice through experimentation and mimicry hoping something unique (yet traceable) will result. I do this in hope of growth and in homage of those that have inspired me to writing.

After letting my fingers move of their own accord across the keys and my spirit wander where it will , I do not know if I have shed any light or answered any questions. I only feel that this exploration has run its course for now. That there are no more fossils I wish to exhume from the eroded and exposed walls of the canyon that runs through my soul. I know only what I knew before I began typing, that I write when I can, that I don’t write near enough, and that I will never stop writing now.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Razor’s Edge

Thirty-seven years ago, I was thirteen and watching the first show of what would become an iconic television series – Saturday Night Live. I have no recollection of that show save for one skit, the mock television commercial for the “Triple Trac Razor.” Schick or someone had just that year come out with the revolutionary Twin Trac Razor, the first major advancement in razors since the disposable was invented. In their relentlessly humorous way, SNL described the advantage of the “Triple Trac” by describing how the first blade pulled the hair away from the skin, the second blade catching the hair before it could snap back painfully against face, and the final blade delivering the coups de grace by shearing the hair unbelievably close to the skin. I had not begun shaving by that time, but I was an avid watcher of my father shaving (he had to twice a day, king of the five o’clock shadow was my dad) and I couldn’t imagine a three bladed razor. The thought was ludicrous and hilarious to me. However, in the nearly four decades that have followed which has seen the boom of personal computers, the coming and going of pagers, the rise of the internet, a cell phone in every pocket, addiction to texting, and advent of tablets; science has far outstripped my admittedly meager imagination and razors can now be purchased with up to SIX blades.


I used to use the twin blade razors but when triple blades actually showed up on the market I retreated. I didn’t feel that I could ever keep up with the blade race. I was daunted by myth become fact, and fell back to embrace a legend. I was in an antique store and saw an old safety razor in perfect condition, and bought it before someone else snatched up the treasure. In twenty years, I have never looked back.  I in fact now own four safety razors, treasuring each.

What is a safety razor? It was the next generation of razor to come after the bare bladed straight razor. I would never own a straight razor, they scare me, and nostalgia will only carry me so far. I first saw the safety razor when I would intrude upon my father in his boxers at the bathroom sink, he staring at his face in the mirror preparing to shave. When I first started watching, dad had a shaving mug with soap, a brush for application, and a safety razor to do the actual deed. I loved to see dad lather his bristled face with that brush.  Mesmerized I watched the stainless steel head of dad’s razor drawing through the thick suds, leaving a trail both clean and smooth in its wake. I would stand in fearful awe while watching dad remove a dull blade and shove it into a mysterious slot in the back wall of his medicine cabinet. Where did it go? Would that space ever fill with blades? How could he do that and not cut his fingers?

I was enraptured. In shaving there was mystery (blade disposal), danger (blood beading on throat or cheek, a styptic pencil to stem the flow), and machismo (if I had known the term at that young age). I loved to watch my father shave, a play in three acts – lather, shave, aftershave. I close my eyes see it, and the smell of Old Spice will flow back to me. I cannot help but think of my father each time I look into the mirror and lather my face from my mug filled with bay rum scented soap.

I think there is something almost primal in the act of a man shaving. It is as if we are saying that (opposable thumbs not withstanding) that the willing removal of facial hair is what civilizes us and keeps us several rungs above our more hirsute cave-dwelling ancestors. The deep interior nature of shaving can also be seen by the fascination a young boy first drawn to the act of watching father, or grandfather, or brother shave, yearning for the day when he might have his own razor to shave his own face – a rite of passage.

A father myself, I will never forget the day sixteen years ago when I bought my son Michael his first razor. I was so filled with pride, I went to the mall and bought him an expensive set with mug, brush and razor, bringing it home and demonstrating its use.  I am in part helping to pass on shaving to my grandson as well. I think he was three or four when shaving came across his radar. He would watch me shave, and once even asked if he could shave me. I said yes. On his first stroke he nicked my throat and wanted to stop because he believed he had hurt me. I just smiled and calmed him and let him finish the job. It wouldn’t do for him to fear something so basic to manhood that in not too many years it will be a daily part of his life.

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Even with the beard I have worn since I turned twenty, I shave almost every day, cleaning up my throat and my cheeks.  Making myself less scruffy, more civilized.  One might think that it would become drudgery, but it has not and it never will.  I am a romantic when it comes to shaving.  I am a believer that it keeps me grounded to my manhood, linked back in time to my father, and tied to the future through my son and grandson.