Another mass shooting where “the gun wasn’t the problem”

The nearest Waffle House is about three hours from my house. The chances that I’ll be dining at one of them anytime soon are pretty small.

Still, the tradition of places like that is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Around here it’s Denny’s or any number of diners, places boringly typical during daylight hours, but which spring to new life after midnight when they fill up with workers leaving their second shift jobs, party-goers for whom the canapés didn’t quite do it, prom-goers not nearly ready to call it a night, truckers, cops, emergency workers—the clientele is as variable as the pages-long menus most of these places provide.

There’s something uniquely American about them, and although the quadruple murder in the Nashville Waffle House last Sunday morning doesn’t rise to the level of other mass shootings over the past twenty years, it gives yet another lie to the premise that guns are not the problem, especially in Tennessee.

This “red state” and NRA stronghold (stranglehold?) adheres to some of the most permissive firearms provisions in the country. You can easily find  statutes on line, but I’ll save you the trouble:

•No permit needed to purchase a long gun
•No registration of firearms
•No assault weapon law
•No magazine capacity restriction
•No owner license required
•No background checks for private sales

and of course,

•Open-Carry is permitted. Open-Carry as it relates to a loaded long gun is “generally prohibited.” (No, really—generally)

The shooter in Nashville murder, 29-year-old Travis Reinking, apparently knew none of the victims, and though he was white and the victims were all black or Hispanic, there is no early indication of this being a hate crime. That may change as more evidence becomes known. There is also no indication that Mr. Reinking was not completely out of his mind, and that his fixation on Taylor Swift was the least of his problems.

It’s true that Reinking’s father enabled his son by returning guns that were supposed to be kept from him, but Ms. Swift may be the wildcard here. I expect that the NRA will soon be issuing a statement claiming that guns are once again not the issue, but that Taylor Swift is; and that instead of trying to remove the Second Amendment rights from the mentally imbalanced, more federal funds should be earmarked for treating Taylor Swift devotees. Outlandish? Don’t forget, some of their membership blamed the Parkland students for Nikolas Cruz’s anger. Is blaming Ms. Swift really that big a leap?

I don’t mean to make light of this: four Americans lost their lives last Sunday in a vulgar and twisted display of Second Amendment rights carried out by a vulgar and twisted young man. In a larger sense what happened in Nashville last weekend demonstrated the clashing of two American traditions—the late-night run for home fries and waffles, and the slaughtering of innocents with military weapons. One of these could be legislated away by a Congress not bought and paid for, but since that isn’t the case in 2018 America, expect a Republican resolution soon to make America great again by banning either 24-hour restaurants or Taylor Swift.

Such political chicanery and unalloyed foolishness will keep us occupied until the next time a semi-automatic weapon becomes the blameless participant in another mass murder, or until November when we will finally have the responsibility to change things. Shame on us if we don’t.

We have part of the aircraft missing….

One good thing about flying is that it gets us somewhere faster, and much more safely.

Okay, the only good thing about flying is that it gets us somewhere faster, and much more safely.

That’s probably why we’re shocked when something goes wrong with a flight, at least a flight involving a U.S. carrier. We should be shocked: until this past Tuesday there hadn’t been a fatality since 2009, the night a commuter turboprop crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 44 passengers and five crew members. That plane was piloted by an exhausted flight crew, both of whom made errors in judgment that even a neophyte home simulator pilot would know enough to avoid, dooming the DHC-8-400 and everyone aboard it.

Between then and this past Tuesday when that Southwest plane blew an engine, American carriers had been unblemished. Part of that record results from the FAA and tight government regulations on passengers and crew; part of it is the planes themselves. (It is ironic that a few months back President Trump took credit for said safety record when (1) seven of those years comprised the Obama administration and (2) he has a knee-jerk opposition to government regulatory procedures.)

Tuesday’s incident cost the life of Jennifer Riordan, an Arizona mother of two. There is no sugar-coating of the tragedy, and no denying that her family is viewing this incident through a much different prism. (I added the photo because we should remember she is not just a name.)

image
Jennifer Riordan (seen here in a family photo) was the only fatality from Southwest Flight 1380 earlier this week.

But the fact that there was one death and not 147 more underscores the other factor in America’s safety record: the skill of our pilots. Tuesday it was Tammie-Jo Shults who calmly guided a crippled plane down from 30,000 feet to a landing that most passengers described as ordinary. (It’s interesting to note that most of the survivors of the “Miracle on the Hudson” in 2009 had the same response to their river landing. Even that day, floating down the Hudson, some thought thy had arrived at an airport.

I’ve always been an aviation geek—still watch every plane approaching BDL—but even I weren’t, I’d find the chatter between the pilot and the air traffic controller fascinating. She could have been ordering pizza and the tower could have been asking “pickup or delivery?”—it was that calm. But it was also focused and cooperative: two professionals who most certainly had never met and under most circumstances never would, combining to save a planeload of people to whom they understood a shared responsibility.

There is little that makes us feel good these days, from the Starbucks debacle, to the police shooting of Stephon Clark, to the ongoing embarrassment of the Trump swamp: but when something positive does happen, even when the ending is far from perfect, we can exult a bit, knowing that, soon enough, the rest of TrumpAmerica will return us to the imbalance and chaos to which we have reluctantly grown accustomed.

Everybody lies.

The dyspeptic Dr. Gregory House, portrayed by Hugh Laurie in the former FoxTV series that bears his name, dealt with every patient based on the same overriding principle: everybody lies.

The medical drama, which ran successfully for eight seasons and treated each patient initially as a victim of either lupus or sarcoidosis before the final epiphanic diagnosis came from the lips of the brilliant doctor himself, probably made no-one particularly sanguine about entering a hospital, but most of us more confident about leaving one alive.

And through it all, his sardonic mantra—everybody lies—invariably rang true.

The last episode of House aired in May of 2012. With a president of high character in the White House, lying then was still considered an aberration. Yet today House’s assessment of humanity seems almost quaint—not merely a wary or frightened patient lying about his condition, his social life, his symptoms. Six years later lying has evolved to an almost incalculable presence, an art form mastered by a huckster named Trump, a mannequin names Sanders, and a host of novices learning their skills on the job

It’s not merely distressing; it’s paralyzing.

The other day I was ready to launch another tirade against the president, one having to do with the FBI raid on his lawyer and Trump’s equating it with an attack on America. (That was a phrase I had always reserved for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of 9/11/01, and maybe even the presidential election of 2016 in the world of cyber-warfare.) But I stopped writing halfway through when I realized that everything I was saying I had said before.

Now I’ll admit that I often suggested to my writing students that there was seldom anything new to recount, only better and more imaginative ways to tell the old stories. Maybe that’s truer in fiction than in real life, for it seems that I—and I’m not alone here—keep pointing out the same malfeasance, the same deceit, the same chicanery and stupidity, the same everything day after day. And nothing changes. House was right: everybody lies. Everybody.

Yes, we win little victories when a porn star underscores the president’s treachery, or a candidate the president railed against wins an election, or a woman’s march draws a larger crowd than his inauguration, or some White House underling is given jail time. But more and more it seems likely that when the 2020 elections come around, Trump will be the incumbent. And the damage that can accrue before that—to our country, to our world, and to ourselves—lies outside the realm of my imagination, even as a fiction writer.

And when I say it’s paralyzing, this is exactly what I mean: I’ve been reduced to blogging about blogging.

Look, I get it: the longest journey begins with a single step and every vote counts and Rome wasn’t built in a day. But all these appeals to patience and persistence are difficult to honor when we no longer know whom or what to believe.

When that ornery but brilliant Doctor House said everybody lies, we all smiled and said, “Well, that’s House.” I don’t think we knew at the time that, half a decade later, we would live in a country whose guiding precept was the same, and whose president would become its benchmark.

Trump even tweets with House’s orneriness, but (and this is not a lie) with the brilliance of a bedpan.

 

 

Trump, Pruitt, Zinke: making ignorance acceptable again

Part of the fun of learning anything is the actual act of learning, of going from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge. We’ve maybe lost sight of that these days as education has become more systematic, more regulated, more legislated, more standardized—in short, more conventional.

I saw it coming: we all did. As much as I was a fan of Barack Obama, I winced every time he spoke about education as if it comprised only science and math. What about the arts? I used to think. Why isn’t poetry important? And Shakespeare? Why isn’t rhetoric as vital as calculus? Why isn’t journalism as valuable as computer science? Why can’t literature and technology coexist?

They can, of course, if we would let them.

In my English classes Friday used to be vocabulary quiz day; and as if the torture of learning twenty new words a week wasn’t bad enough, I often gave my students supplementary lists that were a little more obscure. One of my favorite involved the phobias. Nycto-, ailuro-, phobo-, astra- and more. There are hundreds, many of which we’d never heard of and would probably never need to know, except sometimes the learning itself was fun. (How can anyone be afraid of fear? someone would invariably ask, and we’d be off to FDR.)

One phobia I never included—never heard of—was epistemophobia: the fear of knowledge. I guess I thought it was too theoretical ever to occur. Then came Donald Trump. Then came Scott Pruitt. And here we are, bending under the weight of a band of epistemophobes.

And here I am retracting every snarky comment I ever made about science and math and every occasion when I made up my own answer for what STEM stands for. The arts have been under siege since the Soviet Union launched its first satellite some sixty-odd years ago; now it’s science’s turn, though the attack has limited scope: it appears to be indigenous to America where, in case you haven’t noticed, Scott Pruitt’s EPA has virtually outlawed the acquiring and dissemination of scientific knowledge.

The reason? Fear. Fear of the vast, evangelical, ignorant base that still views Trump as its savior.

Pruitt remains in lockstep. One of his latest assaults disallows policy based on studies that included participants who were assured of confidentiality. Many victims of pollution—water and air—have shared their very personal and heart-wrenching stories only because they were promised anonymity, and these stories have helped to set pollution standards and eliminate toxic elements in rivers and streams, and of course in our atmosphere. From now on, however, only publicly available health data will be valid. Of course fewer people will go public and regulations will diminish further.

In a recent op-ed piece, a former E.P.A. administrator and an air quality expert described it this way: “Mr. Pruitt’s goal is simple: No studies, no data, no rules.”

Many years ago a doctor friend told me that medical schools had begun seeking out history and English majors in hopes that young people with a more diverse education would eventually become better able to interact with patients. They weren’t discounting science—far from it—nor were they contributing to the mistaken stereotype of the asocial lab rat; but they were admitting that the humanities played a key role in our social development also. I never learned if that shift ever played out, but I do believe that a new ignorance—the same one that led us to suck down every spurious Facebook post two years back, to accept unquestionably the rantings of Hannity, Drudge, and the like, and to accept the premise that a lying deviate like Donald Trump fit the mold of President of the United States—has come home to roost.

It started as an ignorance of language: our unwillingness to parse (for example) Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Great how? And how far back was it great? When it was white? When women knew their place? When child labor was acceptable? When gay people hid from view? When highway signs did not have to be written in Spanish? When abortions were performed in darkened rooms? When the strong could subjugate the weak with impunity? When the Marlboro Man could sell death on television?

Does that last example seem frivolous? It isn’t. What chance do you think we would have, given the current leadership in Washington, that regulations curtailing tobacco sales and advertising could ever be imposed? Who Republican Congress members in 2018 would accept as scientific fact the deleterious effects of cigarette smoke, of lead in drinking water, or asbestos, coal dust, sun exposure? Trump, Pruitt, Zinke (Mr. Offshore Drilling)—they and their cohorts are impugning everything that we know is true. At the Agriculture Department, for instance, staff members are encouraged to use terms like “weather extremes” instead of “climate change,” as if giving something an anodyne title will diminish the threat.

The simple acquiring of knowledge—something on which Americans have prided themselves since the country’s inception—has become a threat. Trump assails community colleges and the administration fails to forgive student loans. School budgets are slashed and a bungling billionaire serves as our education secretary. Newspapers are the enemy and television makes policy.

Our country has successfully built defenses against attacks of all kinds for 250 years, but we never prepared for this one: we never thought it was possible that, in an enlightened country, enlightenment would become the enemy.

There is, among those hundreds—maybe thousands—of fears, one called tyrannophobia, but before you go claiming to suffer from it, remember: phobias are irrational fears: the ones we have as we watch our country diminish, are far too reasonable.

Ben Carson: sickeningly comfortable with the Trump agenda.

I for one have grown increasingly uncomfortable with Ben Carson and HUD. I know in light of what’s going on with Stormy and the Russians and Bolton and the nukes, it seems trivial, but I don’t think it is.

The Trump administration is attempting to scale back fair housing laws, freezing their enforcement, and sidelining officials who have aggressively pursued civil rights cases. It’s all in keeping with Carson’s decision to strike the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” from HUD’s mission statement.

The first thought I had when I learned of it was that this kind of activity comprised Trump’s first foray into the court system: remember, he was charged with discriminatory rental practices in the 70s. He’s a vengeful man, Trump, and for him to remember that part of his life and work to overthrow those laws lies well within the realm of possibility. But there’s something almost perverted—even in the enlightened world of 2018—in cajoling a black man to do the dirty work that white men have often done without encouragement.

It’s not that Ben Carson, as a black man, must speak for “the” black man, but one would think that his awareness of the generations that have suffered that kind of bias—and the empathy that derives from that awareness— would preclude him from supporting such racially unfair practices, especially when they march in lockstep with a president who has shown himself to be a racist.

A recent Hud statement purports that this is all part of the routine recalibration that occurs when political leadership changes, but the head of the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity division has ordered a hold on about a half-dozen fair housing investigations given the highest priority under Mr. Carson’s predecessor, Julián Castro. This is no recalibration; it is, instead, an attempt to reverse the fair housing standards that were supposed to level the playing field.

Add to this the recent decision not to charge two Baton Rouge police officers with the July 2016 killing of Alton Sterling outside a convenience store; last week’s murder of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, killed by an officer looking for a vandal and emptying ten rounds into the young man; Michael Brown; Eric Garner, Tamir Rice. The list grows daily.

Yet through it all Trump remains silent, and his mouthpiece Sarah Sanders has stated that the killing of Clark is a “local matter.” They’re both wrong—he for hiding behind his own white supremacy and she for not recognizing (or admitting to) the frequency with which these incidents occur nationwide. Of course cynics will gladly inform you that, statistically, police kill more white people than they do black people; but what they won’t admit—though it’s true—is that a black man is three times as likely to be killed by a policeman as a white man.

It’s far from a local matter.

And into this highly charged atmosphere struts Ben Carson with his $33,000 furniture purchase and an eye to keep the black population of America from finding equal housing. It’s more than disturbing or distressing. It’s perverse, even degenerate. The struggle of minorities in this country, especially under an administration that values white America and barely tolerates the rest, deserves an ally in the Cabinet, not another turncoat of the same race.

 

 

If you can tolerate the box jellyfish, the blue-ringed octopus, and the Eastern brown snake, why not consider a trip south?


Near Melbourne, Australia, the only habitable area of the world after a nuclear holocaust, survivors await the inevitable—the radioactive cloud that will descend below the equator and eradicate the last vestiges of human and animal life.

The war began in Europe with a Communist attack on a NATO country, spread to the United Kingdom and America, and eventually drew in Russia and China in a cataclysm of nuclear destruction.

The only parts of the planet still habitable are Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the extreme southern tip of South America, but even those areas are doomed.


Some of you may recognize the plot: it’s from the novel On the Beach by Nevil Shute, an English writer who spent his later years in Australia. Shute died in 1960, three years after publishing what would turn out to be his most famous work.

During the middle years of last century, amid nuclear testing and ICBMs, doomsday fiction was prevalent: Fail-Safe, Commander-1, Z for Zachariah, “There Will Come Soft Rains.” Then when the Berlin Wall fell and there ensued normalized relations between the United States and the former Communist Bloc, we seemed to have overcome the threat of nuclear war. As of November, 2016, we had logged seventy-one years since a nuclear weapon was used in anger.

Then Trump became president and began howling about increasing our nuclear capabilities. He has followed that with varied and continuing attempts at isolationism and a healthy dollop of sabre-rattling. Last week’s appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor seals the deal.

Bolton, who never met a war he didn’t like, has his sights set on Iran, but North Korea looks mighty tempting also. Bolton still believes that the Iraq War was a good idea.

He was last considered for a government job in 2005 when George W. Bush named Bolton ambassador to the United Nations. The Senate refused to approve the nomination when reports of Bolton’s “vicious attacks,” “rumor campaigns” and “infantile” character assassination became known. He’s Dick Cheney without the smirk or self-control, but the endgame is the same for each: war is the answer. (The story goes that Condoleezza Rice worked hard to get Bolton the U.N. appointment—just to get him the hell out of Washington.)

Bolton is a Washington insider, a smart man who knows how to work his way around and through impediments, including those that might deter us from war. Donald Trump is a Washington outsider, a stupid man whose basic unit of communication is a tweet. He is no match intellectually or politically for John Bolton, and though there may be others in Trumpworld who can mitigate Bolton’s most dangerous ideas, Trump is not one of them.

Those of us who grew up in the 50s believed that a coming nuclear war was a forgone conclusion, as inevitable as the dawn. We had the stockpiled rations and the air-aid drills and the fallout shelters to prove it. But for the past fifty years we have learned to embrace what has seemed to be a diminishing threat. Pax Americana some call it.

Whatever it’s called it, it’s over. John Bolton will see to that.