Some thoughts over breakfast, on America’s “deadly gun culture”

Some thoughts over breakfast, on America’s “deadly gun culture”

Reading the front page of the Brattleboro Reformer today over a half cup of coffee, after finishing my eggs and toast, I glance to the bottom of the page and see the lead to an inside-page editorial, “America grapples with its deadly gun culture”. My first thought is that “gun culture” is not a single thing, is not the same in every part of the country, and is neither wholly nor intrinsically “deadly”. My second thought, a little later, was of the seeming incompatibility of the concepts of ‘gun’ and of ‘culture’, the former being a tool of violence, the latter conveying thoughts of arts, food, dress, customs and other beautiful expressions of our many different human ways of living.

But I do think that there is such a thing as “gun culture”, so allow me to tell you a bit about my experience of gun culture and we’ll see if that sheds any light on the first thought above.

I was born the in the year following the end of World War II. When I was 10, both Japan and Germany were still occupied by American and Allied troops.   Movies and newsreels made during the war could be seen on television. New movies, both of the war and of the new post-war life in Europe were in the theatres.   My friends and I absorbed all these images through the still unexplainable process of childhood osmosis, so that we shouted “Geronimo!” whenever we jumped off a swing or down from a high place, or we dramatically intoned the words, “Bombs over Tokyo!” while pretending to bomb the enemy with our model planes. We had no idea where we learned these phrases, or where they came from. It was just what you said, it went with what you were doing, that’s all. Of our outdoor games the most popular was to play war. We usually fought as a single commando squad against an imaginary enemy, although if there were enough of us, say six or more, we might divide into two squads and plot ambushes against each other in the fields and woods around, and the outbuildings of our yards.   The imaginary enemy was always either the Germans or the “Japs”. I don’t recall that it mattered which we chose at the outset of any game, the game itself just being a series of imagined situations in which we could display great heroism, and great sacriifice, dying over and over in frontal assaults on machine gun nests, falling dramatically while dropping our imaginary gun, like Robert Capra’s famous Spanish Civil War photograph, or shooting all the enemy down in the trenches like Sergeant York at the Meuse-Argonne offensive in WWI, neither of which we had any inkling of at the time.

But all of this was done without hate. In my family, hate was never expressed toward other cultures or nationalities or people, ever.   Our imaginary play was an excuse for drama, for playing the hero, for displaying bravery and sacrifice, not a way to express our hatred of a nation or a culture. We held no such hatred, could not imagine it even.

Let me tell you now also about my experience with real guns as well. A year or two later, I became friends with D____. D____ played flute in the high school band where I played trumpet.   D____ was a big fellow, a tackle and ball runner on the high school football team. During football season, he would be on the field, while I would be in the stands playing college marches like “On Wisconsin” and our school fight song, “Our Director”.

My family never had guns. If the subject ever came up – in those days the iconic boy’s Christmas present was a BB gun or a .22 caliber rifle – I am sure it was put away very quickly. Mother had an answer for things that she did not want us to do, like chew gum, or have guns, or read trashy comic books (I loved comic books and would bore my friends to death, sitting in their room trying to read all their comic books, while they itched to do something else.) She would simply say, “We don’t do that. We’re Wyckoffs”, instilling in us, she hoped, a sense of aristocracy and being above the hoi polloi. Oy vey.

But D____’s family had guns. His parents had a camp up in New Hampshire and I occasionally went up with him for a weekend.   And we would go hunting together, along with his dog, Princess. He’d loan me an extra rifle, a single shot .22, and with a few bullets in our pockets we would go out walking through the woods, looking for squirrels or other small game. I never shot anything but twigs as a target. I had no wish to kill any animal.   But my friend had grown up hunting with his father and would readily shoot a squirrel or a raccoon if we spotted one. I never disapproved or thought less of him for doing so.   I knew him then, and I know him now, to be the kindest, gentlest person on earth. I know that may seem a contradiction, but I can only report what I felt at the time and what I still understand. I have never seen him express hatred or anger.

Sometime shortly after we graduated from high school my friend enlisted in the Marines and was sent into combat in Vietnam. I saw him briefly again when he returned a couple of years later.   He told me of going out on patrol twice and being the only man to return.   He was changed, though I did not have the understanding then to realize how much. Indeed, I did not begin to understand until I saw him two decades later at our 25th reunion and he handed me a poem he had written, “Finally Home”, about how the war changed him, asking in the last line, “When can we be finally home?”

Now if by this point, dear reader, you feel that I have drifted from the topic into a rambling life reminiscence, please stay with me just a bit longer. The experience of war has much to do with the topic of gun culture. As the preacher says, I am nearly done and I will sit down shortly.

It seems to me that there are at least two kinds of gun culture. The one I know from childhood, both in play, and from my friend, is a culture which grew out of the fabric of the best values upon which this nation was founded.   A child’s fantasies of being a hero, of sacrificing, of defending against enemies, are the same stuff of which a good soldier is made. The sacrifice of self that we played out on our childhood battlefields was done out of love of family, love of country.   We did not hate when we were playing. And my friend’s hunting was also a thing of love and of his family, something which grew out of this nation’s long traditions of frontier readiness and independence.

But there is another gun culture which grows out of hate and fear.   Guns in this culture are not primarily for hunting, but for the ability to attack and defend against other human beings. Military style and high powered guns are not only preferred to hunting weapons, but they are collected and stockpiled by many, along with caches of ammunition sufficient to arm a squadron or a platoon. I do not believe hate and fear ever furnish good reason to act, in any context.

Vermont is a small, rural state, though not the only rural part of this country by any means. There are few gun regulations in Vermont. Other parts of this vast nation are different.  The conditions in many of our cities, for instance, are different from the many rural areas like Vermont.  The suburbs differ from both.  I do not propose here any specific solution, legislative or otherwise, to the current level of gun violence. What I would propose is that people consider thoughtfully how these two kinds of “gun culture” differ from one another and proceed from there.

A current national candidate has suggested that people need to stop “shouting at one another” and begin talking about what can be done. To say that we can do nothing about it strikes me as showing a deep lack of faith in each other, and a deep lack of faith in our strength as a nation and a people.

Some thoughts at 3:00AM on charity, beggars and tipping….

Some thoughts at 3:00AM on charity, beggars and tipping….

I occasionally find myself confronted or solicited by a beggar in the street. I only rarely give them something, even though in other situations I feel that I am generous. For instance, having been a waiter for nearly ten years, dependent on tips for a living, I have always tipped very generously, even when the service may have seemed slow or inattentive, and have done so without regard to whether I will ever be back again or even see that server again. I give the additional above the payment for service not out of obligation, but in the spirit of charity, the greek χαριτος, love. If the service was indeed less than adequate through the waiter’s inattention or lack of care, then I hope the generosity may perhaps surprise them into wondering why they received it and cause them to reflect. If the less than adequate service was due to something out of their control, then I hope they may perhaps see in it a sign from the universe that someone understood what they were going through that day, the problems they faced in the kitchen or in their own life, that frustrated their service or robbed their attention.

But I think it a personal shortcoming when I turn down the beggar in the street regularly, not always because I do not have a dollar or a couple of coins in my pocket, but because I may conclude at a glance, without thought, that they are not trying hard enough, that they are lazy, or working a scam. What I overlook when I jump to that reflexive judgement is the very fact that they are in this humiliating position. They need and can see no other way than begging of a stranger. And the fault is not that I have misjudged them. They may indeed have any or all of the faults that I have judged in them. But that is my judgement, not my knowledge. What I know is what is presented to me, their need. And that is presented to me by God in their face. My fault is to pass over what the Universe presents directly to my knowledge, and to act on what I do not know in my judgement.

some post 9/11 thoughts

some post 9/11 thoughts

The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 often comes to my mind in the following circumstance. Driving on the interstate, heading for a destination several hours or days away, looking at the endless hills and fields and forests, the big rigs carrying goods and materials, the cars from every state, the police patrolling, the work crews, even the highway itself, which speaks of a national resolve for both growth and defense … I could go on. And my thoughts often arrive in a form similar to this:

“What can these people have possibly been thinking, that they supposed that they could “destroy America”? Did they have any idea how vast this country is? How immense in so many ways, population, geography, resources, history, culture, wealth? Is this not a measure of how incalculably small their understanding and their vision was?”

Or sometimes it comes like this:

“To destroy the buildings themselves, buildings contructed by men and women, bolt by bolt, brick by brick, whose every surface inside and out has been blessed by the working hands who designed, constructed, raised, maintained, repaired, cleaned and served other men and women within … To destroy what human hands built – even apart from the terrible destruction of the thousands of lives within them – is itself a supreme blasphemy, an expression of hatred directed not at America, but at God, Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, Tao, the universe, human existence itself.”

And I find these two thoughts combine in this one thought, the utter weakness of hatred. Hatred, which arises out of weakness, out of fear and anger, never out of strength, or confidence and joy.

So now, two days after the anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers, I sift through the rubble of thoughts, expressions and commentary that have exploded once more in this latest aftershock of remembrance, and again this hatred comes to mind. Not just the hatred of the twenty or so men who planned and carried out the attack. They are dead. They hate no more. No, I ponder the hatred which continues in the living, even which arises in myself.

Hatred narrows one’s view so that a small number of actors come to represent an entire nation, an entire religious community, an entire ethnic community. The violent retribution which the hater feels is just is then visited upon all. An example is the response which I have heard over the years in various forms but recently saw again. It goes like this:

… after 9/11 we should have left only a huge radioactive crater, Lake Afghanistan….

Or this one:

When attacked by a troublesome state or people from a state which harbors them, we go in and break all the furniture and crockery and kill as many of their leaders and defenders as possible and then withdraw with the understanding that if we are troubled by them again, we will be back and do the same again. Rinse and repeat as necessary….

Or this one which dates back to the Vietnam War era but is probably still for sale on a t-shirt somewhere:

Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out!

You get the drift. Reason tells me that responses like these are fundamentally wrong, and will also not accomplish what they intend, the elimination of terrorism and attacks. Religion tells me this also, though in a different way, and you can take your pick or listen to both. I do not find religion and reason incompatible in any way; faith and reason are two sides of the same coin, the human mind.

Let me close with this last thought. War is death and destruction, nothing else. “War is hell”, as General Sherman once said. If reason and religion cannot help us arrive at a better response to terrorism than waging war, then both reason and religion are mere sham. But I believe that they can help us do better, if we can let go of the fear and anger from which hatred grows.

A few thoughts on race and gender and childhood….


Someone from my high school class posted a video of 50s rock and roll, kids like ourselves dancing to Danny and the Juniors “At The Hop”, and the first thing that struck me was that, just as I remembered, a number of the couples dancing in the video, just as we did at the time (knowing nothing about Lindbergh or the “Lindy Hop”), were girls. None of the couples ever were boys. That was unthought and unthinkable, never occurred to any of us that I was aware of. But it was perfectly common and acceptable, and not even to be noticed or remarked, that two girls would form a dance couple if a boy was not available to dance. For me this experience was from around 1958, when I turned 12 years old.

I recall the term “queer” from perhaps as early as the 6th grade but I don’t recall ever having a clear understanding of what it meant. If you wore yellow on Thursdays you were “queer” and that is all I knew. I understand that my experience is just a tiny fragment of it all, but that is what I remember.   I also do not remember ever being aware until well into adulthood that my best friend, Bobby B___, was African American. The term “African American” was some 20 years from coming into use. We were both “Bobby” and we lived just down the street from each other and for a few summers we played together and were friends. Although I had bunked with and been friends with Negros (I use the respectful term that I was taught and that was used at that time) at summer camp when I was 9, 10 and 11, I never made the connection to Bobby B___. His father was Italian, a shoemaker who had a tiny shop in downtown Holliston. His mother was African American, but I never thought of her in any racial way. She was Bobby’s mother, that was really all. I recall her making us peanut butter sandwiches on occasion. I can picture her in the kitchen of their house but I don’t remember what she looked like. Bobby is dead now and I never really knew his siblings, and his house is gone too, across from the grade school we attended, razed and replaced with someone else’s home, I can’t really picture it, though I have driven by it numerous times in the last thirty years.

I am struck and torn by the ways in which politics and advertising have, over my lifetime, forced their way into my consciousness and warped the way that I see the world. I once saw my friend, Bobby B___, as simply my friend. I once saw my bunkmates at summer camp as just who they were, not as Negros, or African Americans, or Blacks, though I was not unaware of their skin color, but just as the kids they were. Perhaps this change, this racialization and gender orientation awareness has been inevitable.  Perhaps it is moving somehow toward, or back to, the child’s world I remember, one not divided by race and gender orientation, just as we were not then. As more and more people proudly claim and express their heritage and their selves, the multiracial and multicultural diversity of our all of our backgrounds becomes better known and understood. The narrowness of making judgement on the basis of a shade of skin color or gender orientation is seen more and more absurd and senseless.

But these are just a few late night thoughts.  I can’t pretend to understand or resolve any of this.  I am going to bed.  See you in the morning….

“The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.” – Gen. Ulysses S. Grant


Today the Confederate battle flag was finally lowered from its flagpole in front of the state capitol in Columbia, SC.  The ceremony was brief and carried out with precision and decorum by a color guard of the South Carolina Highway Patrol.  About the circumstances I have a couple of observations, but first some background.

This was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee’s army, never the national flag.  The fact that it is a battle flag and not a state or national flag has some significance.  True, it was incorporated into two subsequent versions of the Confederate States national flag, but for most of the war, until 1863, the national Confederate flag looked very much like the Union flag, a circle of thirteen stars representing the seceding states and three broad red and white stripes.  Early in the war, troops in the smoke and fury of battle would easily confuse the Confederate national flag with the Stars and Stripes with disastrous results. To prevent this confusion, Lee’s army designed a flag to carry into battle which used the same colors of red white and blue and thirteen stars, incorporating them into a design similar to the British Union Jack.

It was this battle flag that was surrendered 150 years ago at Appomattox, Virginia.  Battle flags are not flown from flagpoles.  Their purpose is a narrow one, to locate and identify troops on the field of battle.  That is what is significant about this flag. Soldiers who carried it in battle left their weapon behind and knew full well they were very likely to die.  One can only imagine the feelings of these soldiers when they had to pile these flags with their weapons, never to be used again.  Rather than being taken prisoners of war, they were allowed to return to their homes on nothing more than their word of honor, their parole, to never take up arms against the Union again.

Fast forward to April 11, 1961, the eve of the centennial of the battle of Fort Sumter which opened the Civil War.   The battle flag that Lee furled and surrendered is raised again, this time over the capitol dome in Columbia, South Carolina, to commemorate the historic battle. But less than a year later the legislature made its display permanent.   It is generally acknowledged by historians that the reason for continuing to fly it long after the commemoration lay in the state’s opposition to court ordered desegregation.

Fast forward 39 years to April 12, 2000, same anniversary.  The South Carolina Senate votes 36 to 7 to remove the flag from the capitol dome.  But the compromise simply moved it to a prominent spot directly in front of the capitol, over a soldiers memorial.

Which brings us to today, when it was finally lowered, folded and removed to be displayed in a nearby museum.

I would make two observations about this event.

The first is that the soldiers who fought and who saw their fellow soldiers die while carrying this flag gave their word of honor never to take up arms against the Union again.  It very much surprises me that their descendants a hundred years later never considered this fact when they chose to raise that flag once more.  I would call it dishonorable.  I think that General Lee would agree.

The second observation is this. I share the feelings of the many people who have been pushing to have the flag taken down, particularly in light of the recent tragic shootings in Charleston, SC.  There is no doubt in my mind that the flag, especially in the last sixty years, has become more a symbol of hate than the symbol of home and soldierly valor that Lee and his army held it to be.  I too was happy to see it finally taken down.  Yet at that same moment, I could not help but remember what General Grant said after the surrender had been signed at Appomattox.  When he heard his troops begin firing their guns and whooping in celebration he issued orders to his staff that it cease.  The following day, as the Confederate troops marched by and threw their weapons and their flags onto two piles, the Union troops stood silently at his orders and saluted their former enemies.  We should remember what he said to them.  “The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.

There was something unseemly and unhappy about the cheering, and particularly the jeering and the singing of a rude song often sung at sporting events, that suggested that for some the war is still not over, and that they consider those with whom they disagree to be still not their “countrymen“.

Lee and his soldiers furled that flag, put aside the terrible feelings that only veterans of war can know, and gave their word. Grant and his soldiers also put down their arms and set aside their urge to gloat in victory. Perhaps today, 150 years later, we can learn from their example. Perhaps we too can put aside such feelings and acknowledge that we are all equally part of these United States.  The final lowering of this flag is a symbolic start, but the change must happen in our hearts if the war is ever to be truly over.

I woke up and found that the anger was gone….

I woke up and found that the anger was gone.  A couple of days later, when asked over the phone by my pastor, Jay Williams, I described it as “satori”.  He asked what I meant.  I recalled to him what I had read fifty years ago in a work by D. T. Suzuki, who said of satori, “Everything is the same, except that your feet are a little bit off the ground.”  Before he asked, I had not thought to describe it other than to notice in wonder that somehow my anger was gone.  Not just my anger over a recent frustration, but from every aspect of my life.  And as the days have gone by since, I have “tested the ice”, looking to see how solid this new footing really is.

And I have concluded that it will not give way, that each day it grows stronger than the day before, until now, nearly a week later, it has occurred to me that I was reborn that moment.  Yes, reborn, as in the Christian concept of ‘born again’.  It is as Suzuki said, the same after as before, only your feet are just a little off the ground.  And it is continual.  There is not one single awakening, only a first awakening.  Or more precisely, a first awakening that you recall, for as you think back you realize that the awakening has been going on continuously, moment by moment, since before you can remember.  And so, after your moment of satori, your moment of rebirth, you find that every moment brings with it another awakening, that your task at all times now is not to go to sleep, not to sink back into the unawareness that takes for granted what it sees and in so doing does not see.

But this was more than an awakening.  This was a removal of anger, and not just the recent anger, but all accumulated anger, like an old, very old, much layered and compacted tumour.  The disappearance of this hardened cyst makes every awakening moment now shimmer just a little bit with the humor and love that is present in it.  The relieving of this weight has left my feet just a little bit off the ground.

I just realized….

I just realized something. As I stood in the Tai Chi room upstairs and looked away from the window and into the mirror for a moment and considered the quantum particles of which I am fearfully made, particles which once danced in the center of suns billions of years ago, before there was an earth in orbit around one small sun whose completed revolution could define a “year”, I realized that the hiss of tinnitus in my ear is the sound of these very particles as they crackle around the synapses of my cochlear nerves.  There is nothing “wrong” with my hearing. This is not “noise” that interferes with my hearing. This is the voice of stars billions of years old, born, burned and exploded and regathered countless times from unimaginable reaches and depths to form this wonderfully and fearfully made being called myself.