2013 Posts That Went Nowhere

I decided to clean out my draft folder as part of my end-of-year housecleaning, a practice I picked up while living in Japan where housewives work hard to start the New Year with a clean house in contrast to the western practice of waiting until the end of Winter. Writing for this journal doesn’t follow any particular routine. Sometimes the words flow; other times each one comes out snarling and biting. Often I’ll start a post without knowing where it’s going, only finding in retrospect what my subconscious had planned. What follows are posts where I thought I knew where they were headed only to find myself stranded in a desert without a map or cell phone coverage. Here are the results.

The Clash of Western and Islamic Values – Part 2 – April 2013

The first part of this series is here.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This has come to be interpreted as the separation of Church and State put forth by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 in which Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Secular Christians can trace this doctrine back even further, to Jesus Christ’s answer to the Pharisees seeking to entrap him. “Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.” Matthew 22:15-22. This doctrine was later expanded upon by St. Augustine writing four centuries later noting  the differences between an “earthly city” and the “City of God.” Martin Luther took St. Augustine’s ideas even further in his Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms which postulated that God worked his will through secular institutions as well as through divine acts. Luther also promoted secularism in his book “On Secular Authority,” writing that a government could not force spiritual beliefs on someone because such beliefs would be held insincerely and would therefore be invalid in God’s eyes. Luther’s ideas would then be picked up by John Calvin and other Protestant reformers, and later James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the United States.

Even with a relatively clear and consistent philosophical lineage the United States has struggled with the concept of separation of Church and State almost since its inception. For the first hundred years of the Republic the First Amendment was viewed as applying specifically to the federal government; states were free establish official religions. Massachusetts supported Congregationalism until 1833. States continued supporting religion by enacting Blue Laws, abiding by religious holidays and providing other public concessions to religious groups. The Supreme Court finally began to weigh in on the issue, ruling in Reynolds v. United States (1878) that state laws prohibiting bigamy trumped religious laws (Mormonism in this case) that allowed it. It banned school prayer in public schools in its rulings in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963). Since then the Supreme Court has delineated a distinct line between religion and secular society. Nevertheless that line continues to be defined by lawsuits challenging the legality of public religious displays and the wearing of religious head coverings on the job.

Islam is quite different…

Classic Parables Revisited: Teach A Man To Fish: April 2013

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie

Sir, why where did you get that fish? Do you have a fishing license? Sir. Turn around. TURN AROUND! HANDS ON YOUR HEAD! NOW ON YOUR KNEES! ON YOUR F***ING KNEES SIR!... You have the right to remain silent…

Give a man a fish, unless he’s a vegan in which case you might want to consider a protein substitute such as soy or seitan. I’m not sure about the rest of the parable though since both require extensive farming and production skills.

Give a man a fish? Sure go right ahead and pull a helpless animal out from its environment and murder it. How would you like it if a being plucked you out of your house, suffocated you and laid you on a plate, you speciesist!

Give a man a fish, but only after obtaining the necessary permits from the Interior Department and your state’s Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. Since you will not be consuming this fish, you will therefore have to acquire permits for safe food handling and storage. Was the fish immediately refrigerated upon its catch? Can you guarantee that everyone who touched the fish did so with clean gloved hands? Has the fish itself been tested for toxins, particularly mercury which tends to accumulate in the food chain? As a food distributor you will also be subject to additional local, state and federal laws controlling the safe distribution of foodstuffs. Have your facilities been inspected by these relevant authorities and have the forms been filled out? Can you prove with 100% accuracy and certainty that all documentation of your seafood distribution service is on file with the appropriate state, local and federal authorities?

Give a man a fish just make sure both you and the man claim it on your taxes, otherwise he could be subject to penalties including fines and jail time for failure to report income.

Give a man a fish? How about a woman or those of undetermined gender? Would you have them starve – or do you relish your traditional role in a male-dominated hierarchy as provider?

Why I’m a Gun Owner and Member of the NRA - May 2013

I grew up in suburban St. Louis in a household that never owned guns. My father served in the Philippines in World War 2 and brought back a Japanese sword as a souvenir, which he sold for a pittance in 1972 because he was afraid I’d find it and hurt myself with it. During my teens it was probably a good thing that I didn’t have access to a gun because I suffered from depression after surviving several deaths in my family including that of my father. I was different, nerdy and bookish in a world before nerds became billionaires and elevated their social status. Dungeons and Dragons? I played it for nights on end. Science Fiction? Some of the best books I’ve ever read.

I attended college in San Diego. I worked part time at a video store in La Jolla, and was robbed at gunpoint for $500 and two videotapes while making $4.25/hour. I was so scared I couldn’t leave my apartment for three days and ended up quitting my job. I lived in a gay neighborhood in San Diego although not gay myself. As a social outcast I had like many found acquaintances with other social misfits and out-of-the-closet gays have always been a welcoming group for those who accept them for who they are. One summer a group of youths were attacking gay men with baseball bats, and killed an 18 year old boy a block away from my apartment. It was the first time in my life I ever considered owning a gun because just how is a single person going to fight off a gang of toughs? And they weren’t asking questions to verify their target was a homosexual, like “Can you name the bar where Liza Minelli’s character sings in Cabaret?” Or “Who is the Divine Miss M?” (Answers: Kit-Kat Klub, Bette Midler) I ended up attending a candle-light vigil in his memory soon after, and marched in a parade against gay bashing although the attacks continued. I left San Diego and the country soon afterward.

In Tanzania we lived in an extremely isolated research camp on Lake Tanganyika accessible only by a 6 hour trip by speedboat. The greatest threat we faced there was leopards. The Wife found a large male a few times on the trails, and I walked into a female with cubs on a path alone one day. She growled, and I froze before slowly edging backwards out of sight and running like hell back to camp. There were no guns where we were, even though we lived among wild chimpanzees and other African animals that place humans on the menu, with hippos being the greatest threat we faced while traveling the lake. About two years after our stay the camp was raided and researchers were held hostage by Congolese pirates, and since then researchers have had armed guards on site.

After returning to Delaware a friend of mine got me interested in target shooting, but I didn’t shoot or own a gun for years. During that time I came out of my bank and passed a black woman wearing a full burqa going into the neighboring bank. I learned later that she robbed it. I was also once behind a man at a local WaWa who had numerous Nazi and white power tattoos on his neck and face. My gut instincts were going wild; the guy was clearly such bad news and I half expected him to rob the store. He didn’t, was polite to the black cashier and left. I couldn’t get out of the store fast enough. A few days later three black women were attacked while on their way home from church in downstate Delaware. The suspect in custody was the tattooed Nazi at the Wawa.

I took up target shooting because of the challenge. That friend of mine told me with practice everyone can achieve 90% mastery of a firearm, but every point of that last 10% requires much more. It’s just you and the target, with the variable being you. The gun can be sighted and turned into a constant. Ditto the ammunition which is so precisely made that any two rounds in a box will fire with the same velocity. It is all about breathing, self-control, awareness – all very familiar to anyone who has studied Zen. When in the zone, there is nothing else but you and the target. The gun becomes just a means for you to place the hole you see in your mind on the paper target down range. A bystander would think it’s nuts to speak about Zen and mindfulness with guns, but you have to experience both to believe it for yourself and see that it’s really not as crazy as it seems. I just wish I was better at both. I indulged myself with a membership at an indoor range, and the Kid and I would go once or twice a week to try different guns.

I didn’t purchase my first firearm until just before we moved to rural North Carolina in 2009. It was a Marlin .22 bolt-action rifle with scope, a good beginning gun according to the salesman at the gun range. It proved to be a very good gun, easy to learn on and very easy to get acquainted with the responsibilities that come with gun ownership. Renting a gun at the range was easy compared to ownership. Owning a gun meant that I had to clean it, zero-in the sights, and most importantly keep it safely. That meant storing it unloaded at all times with a locked cable running through the action with the key on my person but not on my key ring to keep it hidden.

The .22 led to to a pump action shotgun, a New England Arms 20 gauge that introduced us to skeet shooting. Shooting a moving target is much more of a challenge than a stationary one, and the Kid excelled at it shooting much better than me. Later we traded that shotgun in for a 12 gauge over/under when he joined the shooting team at his high school.

The third gun was a S&W M&P 15-22. This gun looks like an M-16 to the uneducated eye and use a 25 round magazine. Technically this is an assault rifle, although it’s difficult for me to consider as such. It is best used for target practice at close range (50-100 yards) with iron sights.

I then purchased a Ruger Mini-14, my first large caliber (.223 or 5.56mm) rifle that could be considered a true assault rifle. It is a serious gun that I originally bought to set off exploding targets but then proved useful in the bit of drama that I can’t go into detail about. It was this event that brought home the seriousness of guns for self-protection. The time between the 911 call and the arrival of the police was too long and during that time we were in extreme danger. At the time I couldn’t determine whether the person I was helping was a threat or not, so I had to keep him outside where I could watch him as well as look out for the threat he had escaped from. I looked into the foggy darkness surrounding our home and I wanted the ability to if necessary throw up a curtain of lead. For that reason I purchased the Saiga 12 with extended magazine. The Saiga 12 is a Russia semi-automatic shotgun modeled on the AK-47. With a large cap magazine, it could done exactly what I needed that night where my targets would have been shapes moving through the dark fog. I purchased it soon after the incident and added a drum barrel that holds 20 rounds, a mix of slugs and 00 buck shot.

Another need the drama pointed out was a secondary weapon, a handgun. I am not a big fan of handguns because they are much more prone to accidents than a rifle. But the incident showed a need for something small that I could resort to if I became separated from my rifle. To that end I have become a serious fan of Glocks which are guaranteed not to fail when you need them the most.

What is almost impossible for anyone who is not familiar with guns to understand is that all guns are not equal. Just because you have a gun doesn’t mean you can protect yourself or your family. For example, the Marlin is a great gun for shooting paper targets but at close range its scope is a hindrance to aiming as is the small capacity magazine. The .22 round is five one hundredths of an inch larger than a pellet fired from a pellet gun, and although it has more force behind it than its air-powered cousin, it lacks stopping power. On adrenaline or meth chances are a bad guy is not going to feel the round unless it penetrates his skull or chest. Even the M&P15-22, an assault rifle in .22 caliber is best employed against a squirrel invasion. Against a group of armed attackers it would be pretty much useless…

Power Outage: June 2013

My son alerted me to the coming storm with a cell phone call. “Are you off the road?” I asked, and he replied that the rain and wind were so bad he had pulled off into a parking lot. I told him to stay put until the worst had passed and hung up. I was driving home and saw the heavy black clouds above the Blue Ridge mountains. There’s dark blue storm clouds and then there’s black, and I knew whatever was heading my way was bad. This was confirmed by two alert  on the cell phone, warning of severe storms and a tornado watch.  At least the Kid was safe, as was the Wife, so I raced home to beat the storm.

It came quicker than expected sweeping through and knocking out power as it did so. Almost as soon as it began it was over. There was little rain that came with the storm, and looking out my office window I didn’t see much, so I stepped outside. Damage was worse than I thought. The ground was littered with small branches and leaves. The gas grill had been blown from one side of the deck to another. Several small trees had snapped behind the house, opening up a gap into the forest behind it. I took the car down the drive and found that several trees had fallen blocking my exit to the road. I drove back to the shed, grabbed a chain saw and as the rain and wind picked up I began cutting up the toppled and snapped Virginia Pines and Pin Oaks. Lightning crackled in the clouds above me, but there’s something about feeling trapped on your own property that stills the fear it would normally cause. In its place was dread, though. These straight line winds are bad in this part of America, earning them their own name: derecho. If things were this bad in my area, I expected them to be worse elsewhere. And I was right. At its height over 120,000 people were without power in central North Carolina.

Power outages are no fun no matter where you are, but they are worse in rural areas simply because when the power goes out, so does access to clean water since most of us rely upon electrically powered well pumps. Suddenly all those little life tasks one takes for granted like brushing one’s teeth or showering after working up a sweat in the garden become problematic. After four years here I had stored a few cases of drinking water in the basement, so I brought them up, instinctively and futilely clicking the light switch as I headed down into the dark basement. I used the dim light from my phone to guide me through the labyrinth that the basement had become in darkness, and retrieved the water, small plastic 500 ml bottles that aren’t the easiest thing to use for anything other than drinking.

The first night showering was not a problem for anyone but me, so I drove the ATV down to the pond with a bar of soap and towel. The pond is fed by runoff and has all kinds of critters in it including large carp and the occasional copperhead and snapping turtle, all things that a man considers especially carefully when stripping down and jumping into the shallows. My feet sank deeply into the muck but the water was warm and the fading sky ablaze with sunset. I had taken similar baths when I was much younger for a complete year in Africa, and there was a certain satisfaction from bathing naked in one’s own pond on one’s own property shielded on all sides by one’s own woods and hills.

The night was spent fitfully even though the storm had brought cooler temperatures. The Kid was hanging outside with a buddy, fishing in the pond in the middle of the night, listening to music on the car stereo, and other things, each of which sent the outside dogs into a panic. Animals are especially sensitive to rhythms and the power outage had thrown everyone’s off. The teens messing around outside sent the dogs into frenzies at various points in the night. Even after the kids had settled down the dogs were hyper alert, barking at anything and everything. This kept me in a constant state of low-level awareness as I lay half-awake in bed, waiting for the air conditioner to kick in, the ceiling fan to whirl, and the phone to beep – all sings of a return to normality.

But those signs hadn’t come yet in the morning, and the world doesn’t stop for those who haven’t slept well or been able to shower with clean water. Another problem reared itself: toilet flushing. It didn’t take too many flushes to release all the residual pressure from the water pipes, presenting us with another challenge. I took the ATV down to the pond with several buckets and an empty trashcan, filled the latter and brought it back up to the house. I then dispensed full buckets of pond water to the bathrooms to be used for flushing. Hand washing was another matter, and the small water bottles weren’t particularly up to the task but sufficed.

Then there was work. I ended up going to the Wife’s office but was refused usage of the secure wi-fi and the public was down, as was power to half of the town. Reports rolled in of people losing entire freezers full of deer, beef, chicken and other meats. The local Wal-Mart lost it’s entire frozen and refrigerated food sections, a loss of tens of thousands of dollars. “It’s such a waste,” the Wife said about the lost food, but what choice did anyone have? At least her office had electricity, so I rigged up my cell phone as a wi-fi hotspot, boosting my Verizon bill by $20 but allowing me to connect to my laptop to the servers it needs in order for me to work.

After 24 hours things were starting to look pretty grim. No power had been restored anywhere in the nearby counties as work focused in the cities and suburbs of Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Rural communities sent their linemen and trucks to help return service to those areas while their own homes and families remained in the dark. The power company said most service would be restored after 4 days but warned that some might be without power for longer. The hotels in the area, at least the ones with power, began filling up, but on a holiday weekend at the busiest time for weddings there weren’t many spare rooms to begin with.  Instead we sent the Kid off to spend the night at a friend’s, and the Wife and I hunkered down for another sleepless night in the dark on our property.

The next morning…

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