A Guitar in the Sky Brings Me Back to Myself

I’m not sure how to describe the last month. An awakening? A healing? Whatever. All I know is my spirit feels like my eyes do in the morning, after I rub them and the world comes into focus. What little truth I know has been closer to me than it has in years. The clarity hasn’t given itself all at once, but in instants of inconspicuous awareness.

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Amiable English professor Kirk and his pup Ryan.

One month ago today—September 19, 2013—while perched at Starbucks, I read a short piece in the Erie Times-News: “Coffee? Leave your gun at home.” “Starbucks,” the report begins, “says guns are no longer welcome in its cafes, though it is stopping short of an outright ban on firearms.” Whew. Glad I hadn’t brought my glock with me. My immediate thought: What’s the big deal? I understand the need for Starbucks to issue a press release to announce this—what?—friendly request, but what have we come to when a coffee shop has to ask patrons not to show up packing? A confederacy of dunces? I tore the article out and slipped it into my bag. A truth was being lifted up to me, something obvious when seen under a certain light. (Note: I happen to be writing this at Starbucks, where Kirk Nesset happily works away with Pomeranian pup Ryan on his lap. I suggest Starbucks put out word that well-behaved dogs are welcome.)

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“Iron Mike” Webster, who died at 50. His autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Some doctors estimate that his brain had suffered the equivalent of 25,000 car crashes. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Then I watched “A League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” on PBS’s Frontline, my jaw growing more slack by the moment. Everybody’s affronted by clear evidence that the National Football League has been playing dumb for years and covering up what it knew about how unhealthy it can be for a man to have his clock cleaned every Sunday. Seriously? The NFL deserves to get its knuckles cracked—more than 765,000,000 times—for letting its lucrative human demolition derby go on and on, but we’re not dealing with a league of denial here. We live on a planet of denial. What sane player or fan would suppose that you could repeatedly slam your head against other heads, bodies, and the ground and not spend your retirement dazed or worse? And don’t say, “Oh, but they wear helmets.” Um, okay, but no protection is going to prevent your brain from smashing about your skull if your head smacks into a hard surface. My point: this Frontline program holds a truth, but it’s not about football. It’s about a society’s capacity for reason. I love to watch football, but how compassionate is it to watch men risk destroying themselves? Time to give it up.

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A Rolodex like Mom’s, except hers was an ugly orange. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Next: on October 10, 2013, the Erie Times-News carried a short article by Patrick May of the San Jose Mercury News: “Tech stress: With proliferation of digital devices, we’re freaking out.” (Side note: Nobody forwarded me the memorandum announcing the change in practice of capitalizing first letters of words in a title. I’m not against it, but it looks wrong.) Mike Kushner, co-owner of Palo Alto, California’s Bay Area Computer Solutions, describes the rabid stress techno-junkies live with: “We see people crying; we see people angry; we have people lash out at us because we can’t recover what they lost . . . . People are under incredible pressure these days because of how dependent everybody is on their computers and especially their smart phones.” Boy, I’ll tell you, all this iTechnology is, in the words of Rick Postma of Holland, Michigan, “slicker than a harpooned hippo in a banana tree.” My mother of blessed memory kept a $1.99 K-Mart Rolodex on her end table and never once cried or lashed out over lost contacts. Meanwhile, I and thousands of others suffer from, as May puts it, “’phantom vibration syndrome,’ that creepy sensation that your smart phone is buzzing in your purse or pocket when in fact it isn’t.” As an iPhone owner, I ask members of the tribe, “Have we lost all good sense?” Suspected truth: We have.

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“”The Good Samaritan” by Amie Morot.

Next: A few days ago fellow Starbucks barfly Alan stepped out outside on the porch where I was sitting, raised his closed eyes to the clouds, and took in a cosmic breath. “Yeah,” I said, “things could be a lot worse, huh?” Alan is Zen2 (tall, lanky, constant half-smile, slightly wild gray hair). He told me about a twenty-year-old guy he met at the Regional Cancer Center: “My throat cancer was nothing compared to what that guy had.” We breathed together a few times, then he bowed slightly and walked to his car, chewing his scone on the way. Truth: at every possible opportunity, close my eyes, breathe, and bow to my neighbor. (“And who is my neighbor?”)

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“I want a human being.” (Credit: Wisson/Jordan)

Next: I was standing in line at the bank. An old guy sat in an armchair and voiced a single desire into his cell phone:  “No, I want to talk to a human being. No, I want a human being. Any human being who’s there. No, I want a human being.” Of course, he was speaking to an automaton, but speaking a sane truth all the same. Is it too much to ask for a human being? On the phone? At the grocery store check out? On the front porch? I’d like to invent a social media just for this man. I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) name it Facebook. I’d just call it Face.

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A guitar in the sky brings me back to myself.

Finally: Micah needed a drum pad, so we stopped at Erie’s World of Music. As he walked to the door, I stayed in the car and reached for my iPhone—a habit, impulse. For no particular reason, as I thumbed my phone’s snotty leather cover, I looked out my window at the sky and saw a guitar. I used to park in that lot once a week for Micah’s drum lessons and never noticed that guitar next to the World of Music sign. A wordless question brought me to myself: John, aren’t there better things to look at than text messages, e-mails, and ABC’s news stories? Check out the guitar in the sky and while you’re at it, receive the sky.

I’ve don’t think objectivity exists, but I do believe in truths. Though I’m not smart enough to define them, I now have sightings. Truths rest at my feet or hover in the sky when I’m aware, when I breathe. I see them and give thanks. I feel like myself. I feel at home.

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So Long to an Expired Dream

Some dreams sting to give up. Some principles need a whipping to change.

I’ve been writing nearly every day for over twenty-five years. Before that I was an English major, publishing my first short story in a decent literary magazine in 1984, my senior year of college. A master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins followed. I’ve said many times that I learned more in three half-hour individual sessions with John Barth and a couple of manuscript reviews from Doris Grumbach than I did all the rest of that expensive year.

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The afternoon editor James Olney called to accept my sequence of poems about Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, felt like a breakthrough–years ago!

With essentially a graduate degree in fiction writing in hand, I moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania, with wife Kathy and promptly started writing poems and teaching college composition. 1985-1989 was a productive stretch. In my study at home I’ve got a box full of journals, rags, and newspapers containing one of my essays here, a poem or two there. I was on track for getting a poetry collection out within five years.

Toward the end of that period, Kathy and I bought a house, she gave birth to our daughter Elena, and I had a nervous breakdown. I muscled through panic attacks and depression, popped Xanax only when desperate, taught my classes, and kept on writing, this time nonfiction. I wanted nothing more than peace, so that’s what I wrote about.

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Groovy cover, customers eh.

Questions from Your Cosmic Dance came out in 1997 (Hazelden), The Unexpected Teachings of Jesus in 2002 (Jossey-Bass). An agent sold the first book, for which I received a $6000 advance. In the course of finding an agent for the second, I connected with an acquisitions editor who thought my proposal sounded promising. The publisher advanced me $4000. I consider both books the work of a young writer—hardworking, persistent, competent. Sales were modest, which is a euphemism for disappointing.

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In “Publishers Weekly,” I received a scorching unsigned review from a schmutz who didn’t take the trouble to understand the intended audience. The book got buried–not that I’m bitter.

I kept at it, though, squeezing in an hour every morning smithing a couple hundred words about something. When sixty minutes weren’t there, I’d do thirty—whatever. I have a couple of manuscripts at various levels of blah; with a ton of effort and a sturdy attention span, I might be able to get them into publishable shape. Another manuscript, which I’ve entitled Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is a proofread away from something I’d ask a reader to pay for.

I won’t whine about the process of trying to find a publisher for this book, which I genuinely believe would be appreciated by the audience for whom it’s intended. I’ll only mention that an agent gave it a go and waved the white flag; meanwhile, I occasionally felt like I was selling the book’s soul and my own in the process.

So the book sat. I wrote some more. Years passed. M. Somerset Maugham said, “Writing is the supreme solace,” but maybe that’s if you’ve got readers. I’m fifty-one now and gravitate toward Sylvia Plath’s thinking: “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” Thousands of my words sit cobbled together in files and on hard drives and now in clouds, having moved from the solace of composition to the stink of storage. Though I say this myself, I’m not a crap writer. I’m not great either. But I’m decent enough for my work to land in somebody’s hands. A few weeks ago I wondered if I would labor morning after morning, year after year, making chairs and stacking them in a barn for nobody to ever sit on. How dumb is that?

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Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry. Go ahead, call her lazy for self-publishing! (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why have I let my word-furniture pile up for so long? Because of a dream and a stubborn standard. The literary milieu I was brought up in dismissed writers who self-published. Serious writers never paid reading fees and never sent material to what was referred to as a vanity press. Even though Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Walt Whitman had their own work printed and sold, I’ve always considered not getting into print through traditional gatekeepers (i.e. agents or editors) an admission that I’m really not talented or, worse, ignorant of my own mediocrity.

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The indie-published Charles Dickens with a fierce wind at his back. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Sue Grafton articulates what is still a prevailing attitude, particularly among writers who have reached the Promised Land: “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops . . . you already did.” After indie-authors threw a few well-deserved haymakers at Grafton, she apologized: “It’s clear to me now that indie writers have taken more than their fair share of hard knocks and that you are actually changing the face of publishing. Who knew?! This is a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”

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Sue Grafton (Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the detective novelist’s mea culpa is sincere, but it tastes bitter to this clock-is-ticking writer who doesn’t believe in short cuts either. It’s hip and intelligent to be an indie-filmmaker, but lazy and bumbling to be an indie-writer? My tipping point came a month ago when a small press rejected a manuscript eighteen months after I’d submitted it. Here was the deal: send the manuscript, a check for $25.00 (the no-reading-fee rule is slipping), and a CD with the manuscript on it. A month later my dollars were in the press’s bank account, and the waiting began. Two follow up e-mails and a letter, tic toc. At last a recently hired submissions editor returned everything I’d sent along with a complimentary book, ironically a collection published by the family of a poet whose life ended prematurely. The rejection letter—like most writers of my generation, I’ve got a fat file of them—didn’t acknowledge his boss’s using what I’d submitted as a doorstop, but he did let me in on a secret: “We receive far more submissions than we can possibly comment on or publish.” No lit, Sherlock. I’ve also had an essay with a sharp online journal since March, this after a general e-mail to authors stating the editors’ hope to have news on submissions in a month or so. It’s been “5 months, 21 days,” the handy submissions manager just now told me. At least this journal is saying something. Many agents, publishers, and editors state with an occasional apology that writers can feel free to submit, but they should simply accept silence as rejection. I trust that folks in the publishing world are overburdened and underpaid, but no response is rude. No, thanks might irk a few writers, but at least the door gets closed.

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“$9.99 for as many books as you can fit into a hand basket”–the destination of many printed books. Is print on demand really slummy?

Basta! A Napper’s Companion started in April of 2013 in part because of frustration at shabby professional treatment and a desire to connect with readers who might enjoy my work. Through this blog I’ve found gladness in sharing, which is the right word, since I’m happily tapping away at this keyboard gratis.

With luck, in a month or so, I hope to have Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren available on Kindle. After that I’ll indie-publish a paperback edition—I’m whipped but still can’t bring myself to say self-publish. Let me indulge my denial a little longer. We’ll see what happens down the road.

My blog is “in celebration of napping . . . and all sane practices.” I’m saying so long to an expired dream for sanity’s sake. It’s time get my word-chairs out of the barn and put them around tables and on front porches, where people can relax on them and disappear into a book.

The Monsters, the Lunatics, and Me

Blogger’s Note: Winston Churchill sang the praises of blessed oblivion (a nap) in the afternoon. Of course, not all oblivion is blessed. Some oblivion is deplorable, and some naps are a dereliction of duty. Some naps are insanity. Yesterday the United States Senate proved that it continues to be taking a long, nightmarish, irresponsible nap when it failed to pass even the most timid gun control legislation: tightening of background checks and limits on high capacity magazines. I finished the essay that follows about two months ago. It articulates my frustration with what I see as a root cause of America’s growing litany of massacres. What I have to say doesn’t deal with napping. I’m talking about sanity and our national inability to practice it.

The Monsters, the Lunatics, and Me

In late January of this year, a boy’s stunned, pale face greeted me on msn.com along with this headline: “Teen: horror movie inspired crime.” “Here we go again,” I thought, but clicked on horror anyway. If you don’t want to feel sick, don’t read on.

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Photo Credit: jiji-bean

On October 3, 2012, Jake Evans (17) killed his sister Mallory (15) and mother Jami. In a four-page confession, Jake explained that he’d watched Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween several times earlier in the week, and the movie got him thinking. “While watching it I was amazed at how at ease the boy was during the murders and how little remorse he had. Afterward, I was thinking to myself it would be the same for me when I kill someone” (dailymail.co.uk). He planned to use a knife, but he thought some more: “If I were to kill my mom and Mallory, I wouldn’t want them to feel anything, so I decided to kill them both with the .22 revolver I stole from my Grandpa.”

Since Jake’s aim was sloppy, his sister died hard. He told the 911 dispatcher, “This is really going to mess me up in the future” and “I’m really worried about, like, nightmares and stuff like that. Are there any times [sic] of medications, and stuff?” Jake ends his written confession by summarizing all his stuff: “I know now though that I’m done with killing. It’s the most dreadful and terrifying thing I will ever experience. And what happened last night will haunt me forever” (dailymail.co.uk).

Jake still has family left, though he doesn’t want to see them. His father and two other sisters weren’t at home at the time of the killings. Red-headed Mallory looked like a cross country runner you’d see featured in the hometown newspaper. Jami appeared precisely forty-eight years old, probably wished God had given her more or a chin, and like many of us in middle age, carried a few surplus pounds; same with her husband. Jake looks like a lanky kid who’d help push your stalled car to the berm and say, “No problem.” His surviving sisters look like peas from the family pod. In short, the Evans were normal-looking, well-groomed white folk from the affluent Fort Worth suburb of Aledo.

Of course, something was amiss, with Jake if with nobody else. He had breathtaking mental illness. And yet, his 911 call and the last lines of his confession demonstrate a mindset that’s yanking America along as if by a nose ring: shooting his mother and sister was “dreadful and terrifying” for [Jake]; his sister’s screaming is really going to mess [Jake] up in the future; the experience “will haunt [Jake] forever.” The kid’s narcissism is glaring, but if we think the germ that was lethal in him isn’t making America sick, we’re kidding ourselves.

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Eric Harris’s Senior Picture (Photo Credit: wikipedia.com)

Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Sueng-Hoi Cho, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold: the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre isn’t the only American who’s called them monsters and lunatics. It’s hard to blame folks for using these words, resonating as they do with our collective rage and dismay. The trouble with such labels, however, is they provide cover for us law-abiding citizens as we ignore our own inconspicuous lunacy. If we can put all Auroras at the feet of sick monsters with assault weapons, the rest of us can give ourselves a clean bill of health. Right?

I don’t think so. We Americans are rights junkies. Not all of us, of course, not even most of us, but the news is packed with stories of people who do lousy things simply because it’s their right. Many would argue that this addiction is healthy, even patriotic—Don’t Tread on Me! But rights, like all wholesome things, are best consumed in moderation.

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Pizza! (Photo Credit: John Xydous)

Admit it: American’s don’t do moderation very well. We binge on practically everything. According to theweek.com, Americans consume 36,500 acres of pizza each year—that’s 1,327 Ellis Islands of pies; solutiondown.com spins the numbers differently, allotting each of us 23 pounds of pizza annually; we like fries even more, 29 pounds yearly. And we can’t get enough of ourselves either.  Smartmoney.com notes that in 2010 Americans spent $33.3 billion on cosmetics and other beauty products; oprah.com has us spending $10,677,415,674.00 on cosmetic procedures that same year. It’s an odd curse: we eat like pachyderms, but can’t stop looking in the mirror. Is it fair to say we Americans can be stuck on ourselves?

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, Dr. P. M. Forni of Johns Hopkins University explains what happens when stuck on myself evolves into sucks to be you: “When the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization turns into self-absorption, other people can lose their intrinsic value in our eyes and become mere means to the fulfillment of our needs and desires.”

Jake Evans’ confession and 911-transcript are part of the story of extreme mental illness, but his me-me-me thinking poses questions to the rest of us garden-variety neurotics: Has “the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization” in America turned into “self-absorption”? And have other people lost “their intrinsic value in our eyes”? I think so and suggest that our narcissism has combined with a lust for individual rights to create a super virus. What we the people are allowed to do with constitutional protection has become what we should to do with a clear conscience. The result: our sense of individual rights has become perverted.

Most of the studies I’ve come across on the rise of narcissism pin the problem on young people, which may explain why some of the mass murderers of late are committed by males in their teens or early twenties. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, which received lots of attention when it came out in 2010, claims that narcissism is as prevalent among college students as obesity. And according to the American Freshman Survey, published yearly by the Higher Education Research Institution at UCLA, narcissism among young people is at a fifty-year high (dailycaller.com). Like Dr. Jim Taylor, however, I think our problem cuts across age groups. In “Narcissism: On the Rise in America?” he writes, “The indifference, egotism, disrespect and lack of consideration that are central to narcissism are also reflective of the increasingly polarized and vitriolic tone of our current body politic, recent unethical corporate behavior, the rise in cheating among students in school and the gamut of bad behavior among professional athletes” (huffingtonpost.com).

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Senator Dianne Feinstein (Photo Credit: SS&SS)

The statistics may say that young people are this country’s leading narcissists, but as Taylor suggests, you need only look around to see that all generations are getting in on the fun. And by fun I mean, morally scurvy behavior that’s technically legal. The United States of America is by definition a country of freedom, which means that people who exercise their rights without a sense of responsibility are protected. So be it. Telling a child he’ll never amount to anything is free speech. I don’t think you’re legally bound to correct the waiter or waitress who leaves that shrimp scampi off your bill. You can invest in a company that makes life a misery for its employees—it’s probably profitable. We can’t go ten minutes without tripping over a right.

Nancy Lanza was within her rights to amass the arsenal that her son put to sinister use. So were the Pennsylvanians who, according to pennlive.com, responded to Sandy Hook by purchasing 133,241 firearms in December of 2012 (versus 84,486 in December of 2011). No law stands in the way of Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. Interested in making a great deal of money? Market a video game like Activision’s Call of Duty.

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Call of Duty (Photo Credit: Farazsiyal)

There’s no proof that repeated viewings of Halloween enticed Jake Evans to kill his mother and sister. And while pilots frequently hone their skills on flight simulators, nobody can prove that Adam Lanza’s endless hours spent in his boy cave pretending to cut enemies down in Call of Duty had anything to do with his massacre of the innocents in Newtown (nypost.com). If you believe Wayne LaPierre, the solution to gun violence is more guns; all teachers ought to be packing.

Of course, in the middle of acres of rights exercised out of simple greed and selfishness, serious artists take heat for legitimately challenging us. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was protested by theologically constipated Christians, but I found the film thoughtful and daring. Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photography unsettles me, but I suspect that was part of his purpose. Defending his “Piss Christ” photograph, Andres Serrano challenges Christians to consider the full horror of the crucifixion (guardian.co.uk.com). Anne Sexton’s poetry is graphic, but if ever I trusted that a poet was burning to get human beings to acknowledge her particular experience, I trust Sexton.

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Barbara Hershey and Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ (Photo Credit: terminator)

I trust the authenticity of Scorsese, Mapplethorpe, et. al., but I don’t trust those who accept no responsibility in consideration of their right to free speech. That doesn’t mean I’m about censoring them. But trust them, respect them? No. (Point of clarification: if you could walk into a movie theater, kill twelve people and wound fifty-eight others with a poem, I’d favor some poem control. But the poets and serious artists I know aren’t the shrill voices in America’s rights-binge debate, and Mapplethorpe’s photographs, as far as I know, never led anyone to massacre others with whips and fists.)

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Hadiya Pendleton (Photo Credit: treal magazine)

For reasons I don’t understand, reading about Mallory and Jami Evans so soon after Sandy Hook has proven my tipping point, my enough moment of dismay. Since I first saw Jake Evans, another young face has looked out from msn.com. Somebody please show me a sweeter-looking kid than Hadiya Pendleton, the fifteen-year-old Chicago honor student who was shot and killed days after performing with her school band at Obama’s inauguration. Michael Ward (18) and Kenneth Williams (20) apparently thought Hadiya was part of a gang trespassing on their turf, so Ward fired into her group of friends huddled in a bus stop, and Williams drove the getaway car (usnews.nbcnews.com).

It’s actually odd that these gangbangers were caught. According to nation.time.com, “In 2012, 506 people were killed in [Chicago]. Only 25% of those murders were solved.” Obviously hundreds of people with faces less lovely than Pendleton’s are being cut down, plenty of them kids who aren’t in school bands. And the trouble is, so many are dying coast to coast that we the people are at our wits’ end. It’s been about three months since Adam Lanza opened fire, and slate.com estimates that another 2,605 people have been shot and killed. (Update: as of April 19, 2013, the number stands at 3,526.)

The Violence Policy Center, a pro-gun control organization, notes that in 2012, there were “31,326 gun-related deaths nationwide” (slate.com). That’s 10.9 of every 100,000 citizens. So what explains the roughly 1,119 Sandy Hooks of various denominations we had in the United States in 2012? Nobody seems willing to contemplate, much less admit, any personal responsibility for or even indirect participation in the carnage.

Don’t blame the NRA. Wayne LaPierre and company are only protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights. In 1999, the NRA ran an ad in USA Today stating, “We believe it’s reasonable to provide for instant background checks at gun shows, just like gun stores and pawn shops.” Now it’s Charlton Heston all the way: you can have my gun when you pry it “from my cold, dead hands.”

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Charlton Heston (Photo Credit: devora.z)

Don’t blame James Wan, director of the 2004 film Saw. (In one scene, a young guy has sixty seconds to dig a key out from behind his eyeball or a mask of nails called a Venus Fly Trap will snap shut, with unfortunate results; I won’t ruin it for you.) Don’t be too hard on Tom Six for his 2009 First Amendment tour de force, The Human Centipede. (How are the three humans in this bug sewn together? Imagine the worst.) Rob Zombie was only commenting honestly when he said in a vanityfair.com interview, “I don’t think my movies have a lesson. Or if they do, I guess it’s that it’s a f—ed up world and you’re probably f—ed too.” Nobody in this genre of the film-making industry is at fault; watching folks lose their intrinsic value in tormented, demeaning ways can do viewers no harm.

Don’t blame Rockstar Games for producing Grand Theft Auto or Activision for Call of Duty or parents for letting their kids play with these killing simulators. The latter’s Modern Warfare 3 grossed $775,000 in its first five days on the shelves—that’s over ¾ of a billion sweet expressions of free speech (guardian.co.uk). And about the former, one video game enthusiast tells me that you—you being, say, an eleven-year-old boy—can hire a prostitute, have your way with her, shoot her, take your money back, then speed off to other adventures. No matter. The Entertainment Software Association assures us that “years of extensive research . . . has shown no connection between entertainment and real-life violence” (newyork.newsday.com). (So you don’t think I’m pretending to be guiltless, I’ve let violent games and movies into my home. I regret that.)

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Photo Credit: Phil Renaud

Don’t blame citizens who reject outright the possibility that even the most miniscule limitations placed on weapons and magazines might save a life or two. Restrictions only punish law-abiding gun owners. Besides, any more gun control measures will shove America down a slippery slope, resulting in the Second Amendment falling off the constitutional cliff.

In short, as long as my DNA isn’t on the AR-15, I’m acquitted. As long as nobody can put me at the scene of the crime, I’m behaving like a responsible citizen. This is the epidemic logic of our time. It’s also the self-absorbed reasoning of a rights junkie.

It should not, however, be the reasoning of unselfish citizens of conscience. When deciding whether to exercise a right, I should consider how my constitutionally protected words or actions might impact others, whether I know them or not. Rights and responsibilities have to be held in healthy tension.

Bud McKelvey of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, strikes a nice balance. His February 7, 2013 letter to the editor of the Erie Times-News, two excerpts of which I share here, is encouraging: “When I bought my first pistol, I was told that there was a five-day waiting period before I could get my gun. The five days were to check my background. The exact words I told the gun dealer were ‘I don’t care if it takes you a month. I have nothing to worry about.’” And “I’m a firm believer in the Second Amendment, but when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they didn’t have weapons that could fire 600 rounds a minute, and at the time, the British had their soldiers quartered in the colonies. Naturally, they wanted everyone to be able to keep and bear arms. They didn’t mean for people to be able to slaughter their neighbors and groups of people.”

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AR-15 Variants (Photo Credit: Arvin Banag)

Bud McKelvey understands that, to paraphrase an old high school Problems of Democracy teacher, his rights end where his neighbor’s nose begins. “And who is my neighbor?” It takes only a small leap of compassion to recognize that my neighbors live not only next door, but in Newtown and Aurora and beyond. “Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?” Bloody right I am! I envision the faces of my many friends and family members whose spiritual beliefs are all over the map, and while they may not agree entirely with my argument here, I bet they’d answer Cain’s question as I do. Most Americans probably would, too: I am my sister’s and brother’s keeper. If I have to ask whether somebody’s my neighbor, I already have the answer. Most Americans, not necessarily those with the loudest voices, know this.

At last, then, I land in a naïve, idealistic place. No matter what legislation sneaks through Washington, our body count will be disconcerting until our national rights binge abates. Before speaking freely, I ought to wonder whether my message might unnecessarily harm others. Before demanding unlimited access to weapons with frightening power, I could acknowledge that some limits are reasonable. It wouldn’t make for safe and sane roads if I could put a GE90-115B jet engine in my Mazda 4×4; a magazine with a 100-round capacity poses the same kind of hazard. Before doing anything at all, I should ask myself if my words or actions are in any way helpful, challenging, or constructive.

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Patriotism (Photo Credit: TallestAmerican)

In land of the free and the home of the brave, our greatest patriots are often those who decide, for the sake of the common good, to refrain now and then from exercising their constitutional rights.