This is the longest break from writing I’ve had since my diagnosis. It’s been a busy few months, but in truth it’s becoming more difficult to write. I’m a totally one-handed typist now (except for the shift key – I do a great job with laying on the shift key with my left hand, and sometimes I don’t realize I’ve typed a whole paragraph in caps until it’s too late). And to make things worse, I had the misfortune of accidentally sitting on the headset and microphone for my voice recognition system. It didn’t survive the experience, and I haven’t replaced it yet.
These are just convenient excuses, though. The main problem is that I’m having a harder time choosing topics to write about. Although I’m still volunteering in the PD community and having a great time working with high school students in the CyberPatriot program, I’ve noticed that being retired involuntarily at a relatively young age makes me feel isolated and a little irrelevant. I’m fighting back against that, too, just as I continue to fight against the slow physical deterioration, but this is a hard enemy to attack directly. In my pre-PD days, I spent most of my time moving from one forest fire to another (one of my colleagues described me as a “steaming brain on a cart, being pushed from one crisis to the next”). As with many others of my generation, I thought that what I did was what I was; if that’s true, what am I now that I don’t really have to do anything?
Of course, the whole “you are what you do for a living” mindset is a load of misguided nonsense, but the habits of 50 years are hard to break. So, I’m fighting back by realizing that I have the rare gift of being free to choose where I spend my productive time; PD advocacy and working with bright, talented, eager, and forgiving young students both figure high on my new list. Spending time with my wife, listening to her as she struggles with career issues I remember struggling with myself, and being able to give her advice that she actually takes; that’s way up there, too. Developing friendships that I can focus on, rather than just treat as a diversion from the work day; that’s been wonderful. I wish that I’d done that before – I might have been a better friend.
But, I still feel sometimes that I’ve skied off the trail and gotten caught in a tree-well. For the non-skiers among you (I just realized I’m one of you now – wow, THAT sucks), a tree-well is a pit at the bottom of a snow-covered tree. If you blunder into one, it’s tough to climb out, and if you happen to blunder in while wearing skis, it’s like being sucked into your own personal black hole. If you’ve never had that particular experience, my suggestion is that you don’t try it. My beloved daughter, who is good at everything else, can tell you all about tree-wells. Even now, she makes a disgusted spitting noise whenever someone mentions skiing.
From my tree-well, I can see the rest of the world engaged in life, and the harder I fight to join them the more exhausted I become and the deeper I sink. I’m sometimes overwhelmed with the thought that, in the end, none of this fighting and “noble struggle against insurmountable odds” will matter in the slightest. PD will win in the end, and nothing I do will have made any difference.
But, I also remember the wisdom of a man I’ve been fortunate to claim as a friend and who helped shape my kids into the wonderful young adults they’ve become – their swim coach. He was a high school teacher for many years (which I think deserves canonization, now that I’ve seen what my wife goes through), but was also a gifted leader, trainer, and mentor of young people who also happened to be swimmers. He has trained Olympic gold medalists, but he didn’t do it at the expense of the rest of the team – he spent as much time with the kids that were destined to become good at something else as he did with the world-class swimmers. He is a rock-solid man who lives his principles, and one of his life philosophies has stuck with me, even though it was meant for my children: “Success is a journey, not a destination.” My eventual destination is different than I once thought it would be, but it almost doesn’t matter – the manner in which I travel and the things that I do on the way are no less important than they ever were; perhaps they’re even more important now.
So here I am, back to writing, carrying a renewed faith that it matters. And I’m choosing to write about a subject that is undoubtedly controversial, especially right now, and may be offensive to some of you. I’ll warn, but not apologize – however, if you are offended, you may be the one I most want to communicate with. A meeting of minds between like-minded people is easy; it’s more important to create understanding between those who disagree. I prefer to listen first, but in this forum, I have to talk first; then, I can listen.
I’ve mentioned before how much I loved scuba diving, and how difficult it was to give it up after my diagnosis. I probably didn’t have to stop as soon as I did, but I’ve always been safety-minded and conservative. I’ve also discussed how I’ve developed an interest in shooting and firearms, and how similar, in unexpected ways, it is to scuba diving.
My father was a police officer when I was growing up, but firearms weren’t really a part of my upbringing – the only time I ever saw my dad’s .38 service revolver was when he came home from work and put it in the cabinet above the refrigerator, where we were warned never to go. We did have an old Winchester single-shot .22 rifle that we used to take to the lake on weekends, but I think the only things I ever shot were tin cans and small flat candies called Necco Wafers that came wrapped in waxed paper – they tasted terrible, but made good targets at 10 – 15 yards.
I was never a hunter, either – I hunted once or twice with my brother in elementary school, but never as an adult. Even in the military, although I was required to qualify with an M-16 and a .38 to be assigned overseas, my duty assignments in space operations and engineering never involved firearms. But, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution as an Air Force officer, and part of my preparation for that oath was to understand what I was defending. Although I no longer serve, my sense of obligation to the principles that founded our country remains, and forms a background for my interest in the theory and practice of arms.
I became interested in shooting for all the reasons I’ve talked about before – it can be dangerous, but with training and discipline, it’s less dangerous than driving to the grocery store. It requires specialized knowledge, but that knowledge is available to anyone who chooses to seek it. There’s a technical and engineering element to it – I enjoy talking with friends about the relative merits of one design feature vs. another, and discussing/arguing about good ways and bad ways of doing different things. And, I enjoy being a part of a community of like-minded people who share a common interest, and who help each other out. With just that description to go on, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether I was talking about scuba or shooting.
However, I’ve also gravitated toward the self-protection and defense elements of firearms ownership for some unexpected reasons. It’s a dangerous world, and there’s no use wishing it wasn’t, any more than there’s any point wishing I didn’t have PD. It just is, and it needs to be dealt with. As a person with a visible disability (more visible at some times than others), I’ve come to realize that I may be at more risk in this dangerous world because I may appear to be the “wounded antelope in the herd” – an easy target. I’ve been exposed to risk and lived and thrived through dangerous situations before, and not through ignorance, denial, bravado or foolish belligerence, but because I was trained and prepared. I’m choosing to be trained and prepared now, too.
I was horrified and disgusted when I learned of the recent events in Aurora, Colorado, and I grieve with every other thinking person in the world over the devastation the affected people and families are being forced to bear. In a rational world, there’s no conceivable reason that this ugly and monstrous act should have taken place, but it’s clear that the world is often not rational. Civilized people must take steps to protect themselves and each other from this kind of senseless, depraved indifference. I think we all agree about that; perhaps our only difference is in how we choose to provide that protection.
I believe that every competent person has not only the right, but the responsibility to protect themselves from harm to the extent that they are able. When we are not able (as will happen to me in some undetermined future), we delegate the execution of that responsibility to others, such as family, friends, fellow citizens, police, soldiers, and governments. However, we never give away the responsibility for self-protection – that always remains with each of us until we are no longer able to be responsible for our own actions.
I also believe that a society of well-armed and well-trained citizens is a safer society. If either of those factors is missing, though, the premise doesn’t hold. According to Mark Twain, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, but I think a clear-eyed reading of the numbers shows that populations that are without private ownership of firearms are not necessarily safer, and that gun bans don’t reduce violent crime. Our last one, which lasted 10 years and ended in 2004, didn’t. Lest we forget, Columbine occurred during that ban.
Given the conditions that have been reported to exist inside that theater in Colorado, I really don’t know if lawfully armed and well-trained citizens would have been able to help. The shooter had body armor and a Kevlar helmet, the advantage of surprise and position, and was reportedly using homemade chemical weapons and the cover of darkness. The environment was chaotic and confused, and even a well-trained citizen would have had extreme difficulty choosing and being sure of the target. These are precisely the conditions in which a trained private gun owner is trained not to fire.
However, the shooter had one additional advantage given to him by the theater owners and condoned by the government – the theater was a “no-gun zone.” That gave the shooter the sense of assurance that he would likely be unopposed there, and reduced almost to zero his immediate risk in perpetrating this horrible act of violence. Clearly, no-gun zones don’t apply to criminals and psychopaths, but only to those citizens who might otherwise have the ability to intervene.
The responsibility for this terrible crime lies solely with the person who committed it. Our shared responsibility is to take steps to protect ourselves more effectively when this inevitably happens again, and to do it in a way that does not ignore reality, misunderstand and misconstrue cause and effect, and make things worse rather than better. Bans on specific firearm features and characteristics, availability of ammunition, or the right to lawfully own and carry firearms miss the point, and are just not helpful.
One other comment before I step off this subject and encourage your comments – in my view, the Framers of the Constitution did not make a mistake when including the 2nd Amendment in the Bill of Rights, and I strongly believe that it still applies as much today as in the past. The Framers wisely understood that one of the potential threats to a free people is their own government. The 2nd Amendment is not solely about private gun ownership for self-protection, or for hunting, or for sport, or for any other lesser purpose – it is also about protection from a potential future government that would depart from the rule of law written into our Constitution that has served us well for almost 250 years. As a military officer, I swore to support and defend the Constitution. It has within it a lawful mechanism for change – if we as a free people need to change it, we can. What we cannot do is stand idly by and allow any future government to ignore it. That is why the 2nd Amendment exists, and why it’s important to protect it. This is not about “gun nuts versus gun haters,” or the NRA versus the liberal establishment; in my view, this issue is about preserving the basis of our 250-year-old experiment in freedom.
Even with all of the above being true and sincere, my primary thoughts are of sympathy and compassion for the terrible heartache and loss borne by the victims of this tragic crime. I think the best way to serve both those lost and those left behind is to take constructive action to keep this from happening yet again. We’ll have to decide together what that action will be.