Under the Gun

Content Warning: School shootings, gun violence

A while back 6 Degrees to Kevin Bacon was popular. It started as Six Degrees of Separation. Though the Kevin Bacon version was supposed to involve actors, we just thought about how closely every day people were connected.

That came back to me today as I wonder how closely connected to mass shootings you need to be to actually have a change of heart. Every school shooting panics me as both a mother and a teacher who has to practice for this possibility every year. Someone I love was less than 20 miles from the Las Vegas shooting and had friends who were there. That puts me at two degrees away, which feels much too close.

Our country’s love of guns goes back to the beginning, to that fateful second amendment. 1950s kids might play non-PC cowboys and Indians. Today inner-city teens face gang violence, while their more affluent peers stage Nerf Wars complete with “making kills” and their own version of drive byes. We say, “Shoot!” and “Pull the trigger” and “Jump the gun.” Hollywood movies are full of mavericks surviving raging explosive battles, the little guy overcoming those in power. Is it any wonder that the NRA reigns supreme?

Right up front I want it clear that I don’t want to take all your guns. I know too many hunters to want that, law-abiding citizens who are more conservation minded than many others I know. If you feel you need a weapon for protection, I won’t quibble with you from my safe little corner of the universe. Maybe you have been closer than two degrees to violence.

But the only reason to have the assault weapons used in recent shootings is to have the ability to take multiple lives at a time. I have a problem with that, as do most Americans today, on both side of the aisle.

The gun supporting side often cites mental illness as a reason for mass shootings. But reality is that people with mental illness commit crimes at a tiny percent of the total crime rate, less often with firearms than the general population. Still, it makes sense to keep someone in poor mental health from having firearms. So background checks make sense, right? Then why did President Trump and the Republican Party recently roll back Obama era measures that would have made it more difficult for those with mental illness to buy guns?

Guns don’t kill people. People kill people, of course. But the reality is more available guns and more powerful weapons means more people killed. International study shows that the availability of firearms drastically increases the mass killings a country experiences. Correlation does not imply causation, but how else to interpret this data?

I recently listened to a story on NPR’s This American Life about Dodie Horton, a Republican lawmaker in Louisiana who tried to make it illegal to bring fake guns to school (not real ones which are already illegal in schools) at the request of a sheriff. A high school student brought a fake gun to school that looked and felt like the real thing, which caused a lockdown and evacuation. The sheriff was concerned about the risk for the student of being shot if officers thought the pistol was real. State Republicans wouldn’t back the bill. To be fair, some wanted to leave the matter for local control. But some were worried that measures to restrict toy guns send the message that firearms are bad, which could lead to kids growing up to support gun control. The safety of students and disruption to instruction, not to mention the trauma of thinking your classmate had brought a gun to school, were all less important than the idea that someone might “brainwash” kids into thinking firearms are bad. The local town council easily passed a measure prohibiting fake guns at school. If state lawmakers were a few degrees closer to someone being harmed, would they have decided differently?

Recently we’ve heard from students at zero degrees separation. Students from Parkland, Florida are loudly asking for change. Lawmakers seem unwilling to give it, even before students who place them at one degree from murder. But these 17- and 18-year-olds have been taught to lead, communicate, and persevere. Other young people are listening across the country. Where our generation has become critically divided, theirs seems driven for change. We may be at the cusp of cultural shift. Too bad it won’t happen before the next lone gunman makes news.

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Telephone

The other day my husband said, “I think the phone isn’t working.”

Now, that might sound like something that should be obvious. Not so many of us still have landlines, but we do. We don’t make calls, but we have an answering machine hooked up that gets mostly scam artists worried about our credit or computers, pleas from charities, real and fake, and occasional messages from the library saying that a book I’ve requested is in. The phone connected to the machine is a cordless with a failing battery that could die any day. So really, it could just as easily have been the receiver as a wire.

We went to the desk I hardly use, which holds a computer I never use and an actual corded line that I use when the power is out and the cell towers have issues, which is rare. But that one was dead too.

We only noticed that the spam calls had stopped because a doctor’s office emailed when they didn’t get an answer.

Really, I’m not sure why I want to keep a landline. Few do anymore.

I’m old enough to remember big, solid telephones with dials. As a child, they were an endless fascination. When you dialed, the low digits spun and released with a satisfying whir, but the nines and zeros seemed to drag on forever. If you released it too soon you had to hang up and start again, or else risk a wrong number. Long distance calls were saved for emergencies because they were expensive.

Numbers back then started with words rather than digits. I still feel a certain affection for our old Keystone nine prefix and the home phone that belonged to all of us.

When push buttons replaced rotary dials, they were a wonder, but they didn’t have the loyalty-inspiring sensory impact of those earlier ones.

I really liked my last flip phone. It felt small in my pocket, but felt right against my ear. I could dial without looking and knew my speed dial numbers by touch. The screen was readable without my glasses. I had the hang of the click-click-click text messaging. It was almost perfect.

Finally, I caved and got a smart phone. For simply making calls, it leaves a lot to be desired. I swear the sound quality isn’t as good, though I don’t think any cell sounds as good as a landline. I have to be looking at the touch screen to have a prayer of dialing right. But…

It isn’t just a phone. It’s the computer I carry around in my pocket, and with that I finally let social media into my life. It’s my flashlight, my calculator, and my alarm clock. It streams videos and plays podcasts. It notifies me when I have email and when bad weather is coming. It lets me play games. It’s my camera, step counter, my GPS. (And with my sense of direction, or lack thereof, that’s important.) With my smartphone, I can text, call or video chat, and do it all with just my voice if I want to.

With all these services, of course I pay. It’s more each month than my landline, and certainly more in lost privacy. When I look up a product, ads for it show up in all my other apps, as though my searches have become part of my proverbial permanent record. Things come in the mail that are somehow tied to my online presence. Big brother is watching. The cost of convenience is allowing your life to be pigeon holed by vendors.

Maybe I keep the old phone line so I have an out if the cost becomes too high.

I called the company, who sent a repairman within a few days. A line had been cut, chewed through by an animal. The repairman said he was surprised that no one else had reported it, because it would have affected multiple homes.

Maybe we’re the only ones still on the line.

Lockdown

 

In light of recent events, I’m running this post again. Gabriel Gifford: “Our nation has experienced 13 mass shootings already this year, and it’s only January.” 

CW: Details about shooter drills and the causes of gun violence.

 

The call comes in over the intercom.

“Lockdown, lockdown.  This is a hard lockdown.”

Today it’s just a drill. I pray we never have to use all our practice for the real thing.

If you were a child in the 1950s and early ‘60s, you may remember fire drills, tornado drills, and air raid drills, hiding under your desk. The air raid drills, that could never have protected anyone from an atomic bomb, have gone by the wayside. Today’s students practice a safe escape in case of fire, taking shelter in case of tornado, and evacuating the building in case of gas leak, attack, or another emergency. We also teach students what to do if someone comes into our building with the intent to shoot everyone there.

We do not tell elementary students that someone with a gun could come into our school. I introduce the idea of the drill this way.

“Boys and girls, you know how we practice fire drills even though our school has never had a fire? And we practice tornado drills even though we’ve never been hit by a tornado? Next week we’re going to practice another kind of drill. In this one, we’re going to practice what we would do if someone bad came into our building. This has never happened and I don’t think it ever will, but we’re going to practice just in case.”

We go over procedures, pretending that I’m the shepherd and the big, bad wolf is coming. But my third graders know the difference. They imagine details far worse than any I provide. I think it says something about our culture of violence that most of my little boys promise to beat up any bad man who would come in.

I won’t give you the details of the drill or procedures. No point in advertising. If you have children in school in the U.S., ask them. What they say may surprise you.

The FBI says, “Odds are one in 1 million that a student will die at school as a result of a violent act.”

For the parents at Sandy Hook, that statistic can provide no comfort.

The unfortunate reality is that no amount of drill practice can prevent a shooting. The best we can do by teaching these skills is to minimize the number of casualties. As a police officer assisting with one of our drills told me, the shooter’s primary target will be shot.

But our state requires the drills, as well as the sign at the front door. It warns that no guns are allowed in our building, as though that will stop an individual with intent. Just as in so many other areas of crime prevention, we put our emphasis on preparing potential victims, rather than using proactive prevention, a multi-faceted approach.

There is no single cause for school shootings. But something I know after more than thirty years of teaching is that violent people are unhappy people. Certainly, caring and awareness are essential first steps.

People often say that shooters are people who have been bullied and this is how they are striking back. This can be true, but it can also be just the perception of being treated unfairly that provides the “reason” for the attack. Feelings of alienation can be the cause of outward violence, but also of self-harm. We need to reach out and always be kind.

One theory often proposed is that school shootings are caused by mental illness. It’s true that our country has repeatedly failed in dealing with mental illness. We’ve gone from jails to horrific psychiatric institutions, then back to prison and homelessness. Our funding, facilities, and public attitude toward mental illness have progressed very little since the 1800s. According to a Mother Jones timeline, the ratio of psychiatric beds to population today is the same as it was in the 1850s.

So, does mental illness cause attacks? Sometimes, yes, but the reality is that mentally ill people are more often victims than perpetrators of violence. The New York Times and This American Life tell a frightening story that partially resulted from the increase in armed security guards in hospitals. More guns are clearly not the answer for mental illness.

Sandy Hook parents have banded together to provide free information on prevention. They want you to know the signs. One is, “Exhibiting excessive over-reactions or aggressive behavior for a seemingly minor reason can signal someone who cannot self-regulate their emotions or control their anger.”

Reading this rings bells for me. A major issue in education today is working with children of trauma. Paul Tough in The Atlantic writes about the results of “severe and chronic stress in childhood” which results in that hair-trigger fight-or-flight response. Poverty is strongly correlated with alcoholism, family instability, violence and more. Sadly, over 50% of students in schools today are children of poverty, most of whom are the working poor. We must address income disparity, but children also suffer trauma in wealthier communities. Issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual abuse sadly happen to children everywhere. Programs for partners and children from the CDC can be a first step.

Then there is the smoking gun. Critics would say that guns don’t kill, people kill. True, but the reality is that automatic weapons significantly increase the number of people someone can kill. School shootings are largely an American gun-culture phenomenon, as shown on this annotated list detailing events since before the Revolutionary War. In time, weapons have increased in number and efficiency. We need screening, monitoring, and restricted access for youth and those with mental illness.

We must act. To reach out to those on the outside. To compassionately serve those with mental illness. To combat sources of childhood trauma. To control the availability of firearms for those who cannot be trusted to use them safely. Until then, we will continue to read the headline, “Another School Shooting.”

Whose school will be next?

Resolution

‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions. Most years, I seem to have the same two and fail miserably almost immediately. I’m a stress eater and a fair-weather exerciser. Haven’t managed to improve.

Last year I gave up and made a new goal. I’d remember birthdays and be sure to get in touch. I didn’t do well with that one either, unless belated text messages count.

Even the word resolution is a problem for me. It’s not just the denotations; it’s the connotations. To resolve involves spine stiffening, making the change through sheer will, showing your strength of character. Essentially, breaking a resolution implies a greater failure than not meeting a single goal.

But we all want to start fresh, make the new year a better one. Some people pick a word to live by, a single concept to center their lives.

Picking only one is hard. Not thankfulness, although I’m thankful, nor gratitude, although I’m grateful. Those both imply an unworthiness to me, a gift for the undeserving. Hope and kindness are very timely and while they are definitely worth striving for, they are not entirely within my control. I’ll just hope that circumstances allow me the opportunity to be kind.

The word that is floating to the surface is appreciation. It seems more egalitarian, an acknowledgement among equals. In appreciating I can value without owing. I can honor without obligation. I can look life in the eye, so to speak. Appreciation might just involve acceptance.

I think this could alter my mindset. I appreciate my legs that still walk and my arms that still lift, so walking and lifting might be activities I choose to do. Could I focus on what goes into my body, rather than what I deprive myself of? When stressed, maybe edibles are not necessary for comfort. But can I accept without guilt that chocolate is food for the soul?

Appreciation can also mean that you fully understand something, as in appreciating the irony in a situation. Will my perspective change if I appreciate the state of the world? The motivation of my neighbor? The thought process of the other side? I don’t have to approve to accept.

If I appreciate the assistance of friends, it’s possible I can accept their help. If I value the friends themselves, maybe I will be reminded to honor them on their special day. But if I don’t remember, perhaps I can acknowledge my good intentions.

I resolve to forego resolutions this year. I think I’ll appreciate the change.

2017’s Most Popular Posts

It’s always a surprise to me which posts become the most popular. When I reached my first anniversary of blogging I re-posted my own favorites, but here are the top five with the greatest number of views.

Tied for fifth were “Questions,” an October post about the surreal state of our country, and “Marketing,” my reflections on a July visit to Portland’s Saturday Market.

In fourth was another July post, “Unhappy Camper,” a story about my mom’s one and only camping trip.

The Change” from August, about the way I’m getting through this phase of life, came in third .

In second was the June day I cleaned out my closet, “Downsizing.”

And in first place from back in May, my non-morbid look at end-of-life arrangements, “The Best Laid Plans.”

Come back in 2018 for more eclectic posts on the things I think about as I walk my dog and walk through life. Thanks for reading!

The Other Side

Her shoulders were tense and her mouth was set in a line, as she recounted the conversation she’d had with her teenager that morning.

I smiled. “Thirteen is the worst, isn’t it?”

“Yesss!” she said on a sigh.

“There’s hope,” I told her. “Seventeen was a turnaround age for my kids. I was sitting on my bed folding laundry, when my daughter came in, sat down and started telling me about her day. I thought, Who are you? And where have you been for the last few years?”

Her mouth turned up, but she still sighed.

This is what people dread when they say they never want their little ones to grow up. But every age has something we’re happy to leave behind.

Well on the opposite side of those teenage years now, I’m dwelling less on the rough conversations, late nights, and drama. I’m glad the full calendar, endless events and rides, my-needs-come-last time is over.  I do believe that kids must pull away from us to become adults, and that’s hard for everyone involved. But there were amazing moments from that time too.

Last week a coworker showed me a video of her son’s solo in the school musical. And I remembered many other recitals, plays, impromptu performances.

I recalled one daughter’s grace and speed, as she leaped through the air, legs perfectly parallel to the floor.

I thought of my other daughter’s purposeful drive down a soccer field, her powerful kick, coordinated team passes, aggressive play.

I remembered stories told from first jobs, caring for others. I reminisced about proms, lovely dresses and makeup, and where-did-my-little-girl-go?

When else in our lives are we both skillful enough and free to try on roles like hats: scholar, dancer, artist, athlete, singer, star? How many of us continue any of these identities past those tumultuous teenage years?

While you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to my own adolescence, now I can look back at my daughters’ teen years with a sense of wonder.

But for the mother of a thirteen-year-old, there’s nothing to do but wait.

 

Without Words

If I picked one thing to represent my mother, it would be the maroon patterned tote bag of library books she always had hanging from a doorknob. There were always several novels in it, because she’d need a number of books to get through three weeks between visits. It was conveniently placed to be visible from her chair in the living room and handy for grabbing as she went out the door.

My father was a collector of books. He owned far more than he ever read. We had rows of bookcases to house them. But Mom only collected volumes for reference, including an encyclopedia she won by submitting a word puzzle to a game show called You Don’t Say! back in the ‘60s. The ones she read for pleasure always came from the library.

My mother was a collector of words. She did crossword puzzles and was a whiz at Scrabble. We had an unabridged dictionary on top of one of the bookshelves and we learned to use it early and often.

Throughout my childhood, Mom read. She read to us when we were little and she read nonfiction to learn, but for herself, she read mysteries. She did six people’s laundry on an old machine where you had to move the clothes from the washer to the spinner. She cooked meat and potatoes for my father most nights, but experimented with quiche, boxed pasta, and even soybean burgers out of Diet for a Small Planet. She sewed and mended, did mountains of dishes, cleaned a bit, but through it all you might find her surrounded by folded piles of laundry with a book in her hand.

As we grew older and moved away, she had more time to read. By the time she was living alone, when we only came back to visit, she read so many mysteries, so quickly, that she sometimes found herself a chapter into a book she’d already read. So, she started a list of all the ones she had read and updated it regularly. Then she’d take the list to the library with her to check before she brought more home.

So, it was a surprise when we found the tote bag empty.

______________________

In the doctor’s office, she answered all the questions correctly. She knew where she was and why she was here. She told the date, the time and who the president was. She recognized all the people around her.

How could I explain my concerns without hurting my mother? Feeling disloyal, I started with the books.

“Mom used to read several books a week and now she reads none. She did crossword puzzles in pen. She’s the smartest person I know, and something is wrong.”

While the doctor answered in careful clinical-speak, I looked over at my mother to see how she was taking this, my betrayal.

I saw a familiar look on her face as she gazed at me, a half-smile of pride.

And I could see that she knew – she knew – what she was losing.

Small Blessings (a listicle)

 

Two weeks past Thanksgiving, I’m still feeling thankful. Yes, I’m thankful that the larger parts of my life are going well, and no, I’m not happy about the events in my newsfeed. But the little things in life have been catching may attention lately, small blessings that can make my day, in the same way that frustrations can ruin it.

I’m thankful when the sun comes out after days of gray.

I’m thankful that living in the country means I don’t have to rake leaves.

I’m thankful that my little Prius still runs well, for the simple reason that it’s the only car that I’ve ever loved and I want to continue driving it.

I’m thankful that my commute is ten minutes long. (Jealous?)

I’m thankful for a keyboard that had power to run for two years and especially for the friend that lent me her charger as soon as I questioned, “How do I charge this thing?” Because after two years, I had forgotten what that black cable was for and who knows where I put it.

I’m thankful for canceled meetings, like gifts of time opening in my day.

I’m thankful to be vigorous and active, though getting up off the floor isn’t as quick as it used to be. (Do you sit on the floor? I find myself there often, not just working with students, but playing with the dog, getting things off low shelves, and looking under the bed to find my missing sock.)

I’m thankful that I work with children, because with kids there is always hope for the future.

I’m thankful for peanut butter, especially the crunchy kind. (If you’re allergic, that’s unfortunate. I’ll eat it somewhere else.)

I’m thankful for openings at the doctor’s office when I need to get in and a good stick when I give blood.

I’m thankful for a cup of hot tea on a cold day and for chocolate, because who wouldn’t be?

I’m thankful not only for my wonderful daughters, but that their chosen fields make them great sources of information for me. My life is richer and better informed for knowing them.

I’m thankful that my friends still want to see me after we’ve had busy months away from each other. (That seems to be a condition of my friendship. You have to wait to see me and then pick up exactly where we left off.)

I’m thankful for new adventures, even if they are only online ones, and for the new people I am meeting through writing. (You can never have too many friends.)

I’m thankful for those who read my blog and come back to read more. I’m especially thankful to the ones who stop to chat, offer words of encouragement, yes, but also just share their thoughts and experiences. It continually amazes me that my words reach people around the world.

I am thankful that I come home to a wagging dog and to eat a warm dinner that I didn’t cook. I’m thankful that I have a comfy spot on the couch and can spend time with my husband as I end my evening. Then to bed, where I’ll be grateful to sleep.

Different

The doctor said the red spot on my nose was an overgrown blood vessel left over from pregnancy.

“Unless you’re hiding a serious drinking problem.” Knowing me, he chuckled.

He referred me to a dermatologist to get it removed. I made the appointment on a school holiday, because that’s what teachers do with their days off. It’s too much work to be gone and we don’t like to leave our students to someone else.

I left the dermatologist’s office with a wad of gauze on my nose attached with surgical tape. It was so big I could see it and had to keep myself from staring at it as I drove.

I stopped at a Walmart to pick up painkillers to get through the rest of the day. The parking lot was crowded and I wove around looking for a spot, then walked toward the store, trying not to walk in front of cars or people.

By the time I got to the door, I realized I was attracting a lot of glances. I felt like turning around and heading for the car, but my nose was starting to throb and I wanted relief. I told myself that I didn’t need to see any of these people again and headed in.

I passed many more people on the way to the pharmacy, who all displayed their discomfort with my appearance in one way or another. It surprised me how they fit neatly into categories. Small kids gazed with open faces, no judgement. Adolescent boys gave me looks tinged with disgust or horror. Men stared as well but kept their faces neutral. Girls and women glanced at me, then quickly looked away.

My average looks and appearance generally attract little notice. I walk through life and Walmart anonymously. This visit was unsettling. I was in pain now in more ways than one, hovering on the edge of tears.

None of this is surprising. We are wired from birth to notice differences. What is remarkable is our ability to overcome our natural human instinct to shun those that are different. My guess is that that comes with practice. Those with experience with people who are in some ways different than themselves can learn to see the similarities. My physical difference was in place for only a short while. I can only imagine the bravery it would take to face those reactions day after day.

I turned a corner and came face-to-face with another woman. She was a little taller than me, with dark wavy hair framing her cheerful face. She looked me right in the eye and continued smiling, before side-stepping to go into the next aisle.

I have thought of that woman often over the years and I am grateful that we crossed paths that day. Her smile restored my humanity in that moment.

This Thanksgiving I choose to feel thankful for the kindness of strangers. I feel thankful that more majority voices are rising in solidarity with minority ones. I am encouraged when advertisers who keep their fingers on the pulse of the general population put kindness in their ads to appeal to the masses. I love that the number two movie box office totals for last weekend were for a kids’ movie based on a #1 best-selling novel that sends the message, “Choose kind.” I love that when our leaders display other qualities, many, many more of us are coming out in favor of decency and altruism.

This holiday I wish you hospitality, graciousness and goodness, but above all, I wish you the chance to choose kindness.

Time for a Rant

I open my eyes on Sunday at my usual 6:30AM, except it’s only 5:30. I pretend for another hour, but it isn’t the same. I give up when it reaches 6:30 because the dog doesn’t know about time changes.

While she eats her bowl of food, oblivious to my grumpiness, I change the time on the microwave with a few easy clicks. Then I drag a chair over to the counter so I can climb up and adjust the clock on the wall. On my knees, I take the clock down, fiddle with the wheel at the back and hang it back up, leveling it with the border on the wall, because the ceiling isn’t quite flat. It’s an old house.

Later, sitting on my couch, I stare with annoyance at a clock on the shelf. Sighing, I stand up to change that one too.

At least I’ll have time for a nap today.

On Monday I wake up at 4:32 and quickly do the math. I have two hours till my alarm and my body still thinks it’s 5:32. I convince myself to go back to sleep for a while.  I wake with a start at 5:48, a minor victory.

Then I head into school where bleary-eyed kids do not understand why they’re so tired. None of us will feel like working, but we’ll plod through the week.

I hate the time change.

It will take several days to adjust, at least a week for my students. When we spring forward, it will take twice as long. If you expand that to the general population, just think of the loss of productivity twice each year.

I get a cold every year about now. I always figured it was due to stress and kid germs and frosty days closed up inside. But it turns out, the seasonal loss of sleep is also associated with increases in illness and even heart disease.

So, who’s bright idea was this anyway? Ben Franklin suggested waking people up early, but the US didn’t jump on the bandwagon until 1918. Back then, the idea was that if people were awake more in daylight hours, we’d save on energy consumption. But it doesn’t work out quite that way in our gadget obsessed age.

Also, it turns out Daylight Savings Time costs us money. The increase in daylight hours apparently causes us to spend lots of money. Then the economy suffers when we switch back in the fall. Maybe that’s why they made it another couple of weeks longer?

I would argue that Daylight Savings Time is bad for the environment. All those extra awake hours of daylight mean more hours in the car, which automatically means more fossil fuels, which explains who was behind the extra hour of DST in 1986.

My husband likes Daylight Savings Time better than Standard Time. I just wish we’d pick one and stick to it.

It’s even affecting the quality of this essay.

It’s obviously a conspiracy.

But I have a plan. One day, when I finally retire, I’m going to dutifully change my clocks like I always have. But come spring, I will go to bed an official hour later than I do in the fall. The time will change, but I will not. So there, DST!