Guns or butter, Bread and butter, Bread and roses, Guns ‘n’ roses

When I was growing up, playing with (toy) guns was daily reality. I had a pair of six-shooters, a white hat, cowboy boots, and spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle. Later I got a Fanner 50, then a Rifleman rifle.

We usually shot imaginary bad guys. The TV shows we watched (Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp) didn’t involve shooting Indians. The bad guys were usually white settlers like us.

We didn’t usually shoot each other, as that involved too much argument/negotiation – “I got you!” “No, you missed!” “Did not!” “Well, you just winged me!” Then I’d have to pull out my red bandana, fold it into a sling, tie the knot with my teeth, and play one-handed for a while.

Our parents gave us weapons for Easter. My sister and I in a gunfight.

We had a backyard shack that served as a hideout, fort, or saloon to fit the scene we enacted. We were too young to realize that Miss Kitty was a madam and all those saloon girls were prostitutes, so they didn’t figure in our adventures.

When we went to the doctor and got a shot, we’d wear a sling and pretend we’d been shot in the arm. If it didn’t actually hurt (only tetanus shots hurt), we’d punch each other in the arm to make it hurt so it felt more real.

I also had an M1 with wooden stock, steel barrel, and rubber bayonet. The next door neighbor dug a foxhole in his garden so we could hide out to shoot Germans. We threw dirt clods as grenades. Our WW II education was mostly from the TV show “Combat!”, which took place in Europe, so we never fought the Japanese. I had a helmet and olive drab fatigues.

Most of my toy guns were cap guns for realistic noises. Since caps cost money, we usually made noises with our mouths instead. Caps were a special treat. The kids who could make the best shooting sounds were admired. My M1 replica had a metal strip in it so, when you pulled the trigger, it made a clicking sound like a dog training clicker. This meant no money need be spent on caps and we could save our mouth noises for exploding grenades. As for shooting real projectiles, I had a pump action gun that shot ping pong balls and a dart gun that shot ducks on a rotating tripod. While I inherited a couple of BB guns from older sibs, I hardly ever shot them. They tell me that dad set up a range in the dining room of our old house and they shot there. We moved out of that house when I was a year old and the new house didn’t have an acceptable shooting gallery. The back yard was forbidden for that.

When I became a conscientious objector and met with a draft counselor, he asked about my history with guns and if I’d thought about what I would do if I had children. We discussed how kids can make a gun out of anything, so forbidding toy guns may just drive gun play underground. He told me of a family that treated their house like a saloon in some of the old westerns, where you had to check your guns at the door. That way their kids, and all the neighborhood kids, would be a bit more conscious, but firearms could still be incorporated into their play. When the time came, my kids had little interest in playing with guns.

Real guns

Real guns didn’t enter my life until later. My best childhood friend moved away. I went to visit him and we went outside with a BB gun – he and I and his neighbor. The neighbor shot a songbird. We saw it fall from the tree; all of us astonished that he’d hit it. As we bent over the dead bird with one missing eye (an amazing shot), I felt sad. The excitement of hitting something was replaced by the realization of the senselessness of it. We had killed without reason. I did not enjoy the rest of the visit.

When I was 18 I worked a job with overnight shifts. I was in the office with one other person. Just before quitting time, several things happened in close succession. I felt the heat of something passing closely over my forearm. I felt the sting of bits of plaster striking my arm from the wall just behind me. I heard a gunshot. I saw my co-worker, .32 caliber revolver in hand, with a shocked look on his face. I looked at the hole in the wall and realized he missed me by about an inch. I hadn’t known he was armed.

Later that same day we were hanging out at someone’s house, drowsy after our sleepless night. I was reading. I was roused by the sound of a gunshot. I looked up and saw an acquaintance with a neat little hole in his chest, just to the left of center. A shocked look was on his face, matched by the look on the face of the person facing him with a gun in her hand. She later told me she pointed it at me first but, since I didn’t look up, she turned and aimed at R as he came through the doorway. That got a better reaction.

R headed straight for the stairs and down to the street. I caught up with him and a voice from behind yelled, “Make him lie down and wait for the ambulance!” I soon heard sirens. When I asked where he was going, he said he knew where my car was parked, so he was walking to my car, figuring I would follow him there and drive him to the hospital.

After exploratory surgery and removal of the bullet, he returned to his parents’ home in another state to recuperate. He was recovering slowly, since they had cut open his ribs to trace the bullet’s path to check for damage. (It had grazed his aorta and punctured his lung in several places as it rattled around inside him, bouncing off ribs both front and rear.) I moved out of state and it was much later that I learned no one had been charged in the shooting. The shooter was a minor, as was the victim. The weapon owner was a paid informant for the police and FBI, so she was not charged. The person who had nearly shot me that morning was also a paid informant, so he was also not charged (having been the person who left a loaded weapon accessible to minors). It seems the lack of charges should have blown their covers, but I wasn’t around so I don’t know how they explained that. The upshot is that people being paid to keep track of potential violence on the left and in the anti-war movement (this being 1971) were actually responsible for the only violence that affected me personally.

A year or two later I was at the home of another acquaintance who wanted to show me something he had just gotten. It was a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol. I started to shake. He removed the magazine, inspected the weapon, then tried to hand it to me. I left instead.

Another year went by. I was at a friend’s house and we were in the backyard. Over the fence I saw folks in the next backyard. One was the former co-worker from above. He had a firearm in hand. I told my friend I was going inside and would explain when we got there. I did not want him to see and greet me, thinking I was his friend, nor did I want to witness another “accident”.

So that’s one reason I’m not a big fan of firearms or unfettered access to them. [For those who would recoil if I were to compare the requirements to operate a car vs operate a firearm, by pointing to the second amendment to the Constitution, let me just emphasize the beginning of that amendment, the part that people conveniently ignore: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”] As for whether toy guns inure us to violence and lead to real violence later on, I’ll leave that to someone else to figure out. Didn’t work that way with me.

TV Violence

is another topic too big for me, but we’ll touch on it anyway. I am currently studying the history of the cold war with Professor Alfred McCoy. We’re looking at the CIA’s change from gathering intelligence (its original mission under President Truman) to covert operations (under Director Allen Dulles during the Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies). Lest you beatify the Kennedy brothers (President Jack and AG Bobby), it was on their watch that the CIA expanded its covert ops – from 170 major operations in 8 years under Eisenhower to 163 of them in 3 years under the Kennedys. See “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” by Tim Weiner (2007).

It was in this environment that we were greeted with the TV show “Mission: Impossible” in 1966. The IMF (Impossible Missions Force) was a covert operation that took down enemy governments in the way the real CIA took down elected governments in Greece, Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, and Chile; and attempted for years to overthrow the Cuban government, including multiple plots to assassinate Fidel Castro (with poisons in his food, exploding cigars, prostitute assassins, a Mafia hit order, etc), not to mention an armed invasion.

In 2001 (the year of the World Trade Center bombing), when the US needed to justify torture, “extraordinary rendition” (kidnapping for the purpose of torture to be carried out in secret sites), and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture), we were presented with the TV series “24”. The premise was a fascinating one – a series that took place in real time – each of 24 one hour episodes covered one hour of a single day. Each season used the “ticking time bomb scenario”. This is a philosophical/moral question in which you are asked, “If a person has knowledge of an imminent threat and will only give up the information if tortured, is torture justified?” You can probably guess the show’s answer. There is one glaring problem in the scenario: torture doesn’t work. People who are tortured will tell interrogators what they think said torturers want to hear in order to stop the torture. Truth has little to do with it. This has been covered extensively by Professor McCoy in works such as “A Question of Torture : CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror” (2006) and “Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation” (2012).

When we are greeted with real news footage of police killing people during traffic stops, TV responds with more cop shows than I can name or count, showing officers as always the good guys, looking out for Special Victims and going the extra mile to stop the bad guys, using the latest technology. Any time they use violence, it is justified. There is the occasional “bad apple” to make a plot point, but he is quickly rooted out by the good guys. If real cops shot as many people as TV cops do…

TV police shows have the subtle side effect of normalizing what we see. Every week on every show, bad things happen and the police save us. Soon we start to see the world that way. Bad things happen every day. We begin to think that violent crime is much more prevalent than it actually is. We welcome intrusion into our private lives to protect us from that violent crime. We think the police always shoot the right person. The charged are always convicted, the convicted are always guilty. We like to think we are too sophisticated to be fooled by this but the statistics tell a different story. Per the University of Michigan School of Law, more than 3200 previously-convicted people have been exonerated since 1989. (The Innocence Project was founded in 1992.) 134 of them had been sentenced to death.

What we see from the two graphs above is that crime (both property crime and violent crime) has been on a downswing for the past 30 years, while we believe that crime is on the upswing – with the caveat that we tend to believe crime is up nationally, but not so much where we live. That certainly looks like TV is working. By showcasing crime, we believe that crime is on the increase and, therefore, increasing surveillance and policing is a good thing. It also shows that we have some knowledge of where we live and we know that what we believe isn’t true in our own lives – or that we think we live in a great city and the rest of the country is going to hell in a handbasket.

And, of course, TV cops solve all crimes. The same Pew study shows that fewer than half of all crimes are reported, and fewer than half of those reported are solved.

Just in case you didn’t know why “Bread and Roses” was in there with those other phrases.

We don’t need no education…

One day at work, when a doctor had done something particularly stupid, I wrote on our white board “Education ≠ Intelligence”. It struck a chord and no one erased it for weeks; in fact, people would point to it to illustrate something they were saying.

I spent years in retail, maintenance, and plumbing before going to college at the age of 40. Did college suddenly make me smart? (“Who says you’re smart?” I hear someone in the back saying.)

The sooner we learn that intelligence, education, and common sense are not the same, the better. I would argue that common sense is the most important of the three. The 18th century swordmaster Chozen Shissai said “If I draw one corner and the student cannot complete the other three, I do not continue”.

| Another way to put that is to look at the line segment to the left. If I ask you to use that to draw a square, can you draw exactly the square I have in mind? People are often paralyzed by the fear of being wrong and stall by deciding that they need more data. In this case, no more data are necessary. We have all we need. The line segment is at the far left margin so the square has to go to the right. We know a square contains four 90 degree angles. We know it contains four line segments of equal length. There is only one square there. Sorry if that seemed obvious to you, but I posed this to a roomful of college-educated folks and was asked for more information. Yes, the problem requires some education, but we should have learned what a square is well before college.

Another doctor did something stupid (that primarily involved not talking to the nurse who actually knew the patient), ordering a bunch of unnecessary tests overnight. The next morning in a meeting, a different doctor said, “Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you can’t be a fucking idiot.”

An advice columnist was talking about college today. When I was contemplating college in my late 30s, a neighbor told me to take one class at night while I continued to work full time. It should be a class that was inherently interesting to me and also applicable to whatever degree I was considering. It was the best advice I ever got about education. For possibly the first time in my life, I liked going to school. I found myself doing more than was expected of me. For a speech on the Black Budget (the Pentagon’s secret budget, concealed in hundreds of separate line items scattered throughout the federal budget in an attempt to prevent scrutiny) I went to a pay phone and called the Pentagon for a response. They didn’t answer my questions, but did ask for my full name, address, and telephone number. Relating that story was probably the most well-received part of my speech. All the data may have been hard to process, but recognizing that the Pentagon wouldn’t talk to me but was trying to keep tabs on me resonated with my fellow students.

On some level, education seems to matter only if you know what you want to learn. As an empty vessel waiting to be filled, or as a student because it was expected of me, I gained little. As a committed learner, school was fun. As a parent, I realized my job was to provide exposure to the things that interested my kids and support them when they found the ones they wanted to pursue. Sometimes we don’t know what interests us until we see it, so a little random exposure helps.

While I teach for a living (much of my work with patients is teaching, plus I teach a workshop to other therapists when there isn’t a pandemic going on) I’d say there’s no such thing as teaching. There is learning and there is the facilitation of learning; but for a teacher to think s/he is pouring knowledge into empty vessels seems like the ultimate in self-importance. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you have to start somewhere. Chew on that paradox for a while. I could write a few more paragraphs to clarify or, as Mike Myers as Linda Richman would say, “Talk amongst yourselves.”

As far as learning is concerned, I never learned anything I already knew. Duh. What I mean is that to truly learn, one must come from a place of Not Knowing. If we are busy showing off our knowledge or trying not to look dumb, there is no room to learn. Only after we admit to not knowing are we able to learn.

Forty five years ago, while contemplating a bike trip across the US, I read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book chronicles a trans-continental journey as well as a journey to mental health. It looks at our relationship to machinery and to the world around us. Caring for a motorcycle is, in part, a metaphor for caring for ourselves. I thought of the book while working on a bike this afternoon. The bike is more than 30 years old and I realized that maintaining it is balancing acceptance and acquiescence. No matter what I do today, the bike will not be new. I have to accept its aging while not acquiescing to letting it fall apart. I have to know what I can fix and what I need to replace, and when. Failing to keep it in shape can be an actual life-threatening situation. Since I am the engine, maintaining the engine is more than a metaphor for taking care of myself.

Years ago, a friend wanted me to go bungee-jumping. I chose not to. The reason is tied to the paragraph above. I may ride my bike down a hill at 50 mph. At that speed, crashing would likely result in death. If I survived, I may not want to, or I may not ever recover from the injuries. Why do I do it? I am responsible for many of the circumstances. I maintain the bike. A mechanical problem is my responsibility. I am operating the bike. An operator error is my responsibility. Sure, there are things I cannot foresee. An animal may dart into my path. I can be watching for that and prepared for it. A car may pull out of a driveway or cross the centerline. Again, I have some ability to respond to those situations. My awareness and my skill at bike handling (or lack of either) will influence the outcome. I don’t go that fast over unfamiliar roads. (Nor do I go that fast very often.)

Bungee jumping requires that I give up all control to someone else. Once I jump, everything is out of my hands. They maintain the cord. What is the lifespan of a bungee cord when used in this way? Hs anyone studied it? How do they fail? Do they snap, sending one plummeting to the earth? Do they lose elasticity, elongating so that there just might not be enough recoil to pull me back up before I hit the ground? Is the platform the same height and the cord the same length as the last time they did this? None of this is in my hands. It is all in the hands of a stranger. Am I willing to turn my life over to this stranger? Nope. Maybe you are. Maybe bungee jumping is a lot of fun. You tell me. I’ll ride my bike up and down mountains.

You may notice I haven’t answered my own question – why? The answer is probably somewhere in the last three years of this blog. It’s also not one of my favorite questions. What is the favorite question of 3 year olds? Can you ever give them a satisfactory answer, one that does not lead to the next “why?”

Why do I ride a bike? Why do I ride down hills? Why do I ride fast? Because I can. Reasons? We ain’t got no reasons. We don’t need no reasons. I don’t have to show you any stinking reasons.

Rather than “for what reason?” I prefer to see the question as “for what purpose?”

Why are these photos relevant? Because I took them this week. One is from my Wednesday Night Bike Ride. We rode from Salmo Pond, which was the turnaround point for many a ride in my youth. We would stuff our jersey pockets with food and ride to the pond, where we would swim and eat before riding back home. (Small pond image from

For this ride, we met at the pond and rode the ridges south of the valley drained by Black Earth Creek. At the end of the ride, a large maskless group was gathered in the parking lot chatting. I still am not ready for that. Soon after, the CDC came out with new guidelines that say we can do just that. A few days later I came across a gathering of 35 maskless people in my neighborhood park. I’m inching towards acceptance. Why did I get vaccinated if I can’t begin to change my behaviors? I have been walking the dog without a mask this week. Maybe I’ll even ride with vaccinated friends this week.

I kinda like that this path appears in the photo to go nowhere. It seems to start and end just for the purpose of crossing the little bridge over the creek.

The other photo is a motivational postcard from a workplace which shall remain nameless.