Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Old Woman Sweeping

I saw an old woman sweeping today. She was sweeping the gutter in front of the apartment building where she lives. Not the sidewalk, the gutter. She was stooped over a broom of yellow straw, one like you might find in any kitchen pantry, sweeping carefully, methodically, moving forward slowly, as if to make sure nothing in her small pile of debris got away. I was on my bike, so the moment, the visual image, passed quickly.

But not the question: why was she sweeping the gutter? It wasn’t particularly littered. No scraps of paper or soda cans. Just a few leaves and twigs, and not many of those, as street-sweeping trucks with whirling brushes scrub our gutters weekly. What brought her out on a fine sunny morning to perform her solitary chore?

There is another woman in my neighborhood, nearer my house, on a route I take to walk my dog, who is often out sweeping her sidewalk when we come by. She lives in a nice house. Thanks to her continuing diligence, her sidewalk is pristine. It is usually the brown leaves and red berry pods of her magnolia tree that I see her nursing along with her broom. I smile and say hello, sometimes making a gentle joke about how hard it is to stay ahead of nature’s messiness. She has a warm, open face and an easy manner and always responds brightly as she continues sweeping.

On that same walk there is an older man who sweeps the pavers in front of his garage. There are liquid amber trees all up and down the street. They drop brown spikey seed pods that look like big round cockleburs. They are everywhere, except in the sweeping man’s yard. He gets them all.

My grandfather cut his own grass with an ancient gas lawnmower until he was ninety four. I thought he should hire someone, but he said he liked the exercise. In Tennessee, where he lived, grass has to be cut or it grows waist high. But sweeping your already-pretty-clean-and-soon-to-be-swept-by-the-street-sweeper gutter? Why do that? Other than a paid gardener or an impressed teenager, I’ve never seen a young person doing such a thing.

As we grow older, perhaps we become more more compulsive. I don’t know if that’s scientifically verified, though. More anxious, perhaps, but that’s not the same thing. I don’t think it’s a compulsion for a tidy yard that causes my neighbors to reach for their brooms--or, now that I think of it, my grandfather, the ex-university president, to have fired up his lawnmower.

The one woman I chat with on my walk is a widow, but you don’t have to be alone to feel useless. Indeed, having someone else in the house might intensify the feeling. You know your worthlessness is being observed. You can’t kid yourself.

It’s not just Princeton from Avenue Q who is searching for his purpose. We all are. Constantly. Continuously. Even when we find it, it rarely lasts. A child grows up. A job ends. And there you are, back on Avenue Q, starting all over again. Looking inside yourself for the answer, over and over again, can be tough. Sometimes it’s easier to look for something to sweep out of the gutter.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Laying Down Arms

First I had a BB gun. A Red Ryder lever action with a leather thong hanging from a gold ring. Then a Crosman CO2 pellet gun. To a twelve-year-old boy of my time, a pellet gun was a bazooka. I could knock a quarter off a log from twenty yards.

When I was sixteen, my father gave me a shotgun. A single-shot, bolt-action, sixteen-gauge J.C. Higgins from Sears. It was exciting but also a bit of an embarrassment. Two of my best friends had fancy pump-action Remingtons. They were a little reckless. One was shooting birds in his suburban front yard and shot out his neighbor’s glass storm door. They used to take me to a field with an old barn where we waged campaigns against tin cans, pigeons and the long grass that quivered where rabbits had been a split-second before.

I didn't shoot again for twenty years, until my father-in-law, a hunter, gave my first two sons Browning Sweet Sixteens and took us all out on opening day of dove season. Doves hurtling in black silhouette across a bright September sky are like targets in a video game, at least until you pick up a wounded bird, soft and warm in your hand, to break its neck.

The boys and I hunted doves with their grandfather back in Tennessee for a few seasons, and pheasants once. In L.A. we used to go up into the foothills above our house and shoot clay pigeons. The boys were good shots, particularly my oldest. When a rattlesnake snuck up behind us while we rested in the shade, I shot and missed twice and he took the gun from me and saved us with the last shell.

Those boys grew up and went off to college and I put my Smith & Wesson twenty gauge up on the closet shelf, where it has been for so long I've forgotten the combination for the trigger lock. I remarried and had young boys again, but I did not teach them to shoot. I didn’t even like for them to have Nerf guns. I think I had become ashamed of how easily I had killed harmless creatures in my other life, before they were born. What did that say about me? Nothing I wanted to admit.

A few months ago, my oldest son, my defender-from-rattlesnakes, called to say he was taking his own son to a skeet range. He said my sweet little twenty-gauge would be perfect for that. I know he likes the gun, and I’ve always told him he could have it one day, but before I got around to shipping it, twenty schoolchildren were massacred in Newtown, Connecticut.

When I see a policeman in Starbucks with a gun strapped on his hip, I want to say: Get out of here with that god-awful thing. You’re making me nervous. Guns don’t belong in coffee shops. My sensitivity is like an allergy: I was exposed for a long time with no bad reaction, then one day I began breaking out in hives. Maybe it’s myself I fear, the me of my killing days, the me in others.

My shotgun is still in the closet. As much as I love my son, as much as I enjoyed our days in the field together, I can't bring myself to send it to him. There are too many guns, doing too much damage. I can't get rid of them all, but I can get rid of one.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Right to Yield Your Ground

If I could abolish one word, it would be the noun “right.” As in Bill of Rights. Right to life. Right to privacy. Gun rights. Reproductive rights. Calling something a right is too absolute. A right is non-negotiable. We don’t like it when someone tries to take one away. It’s hard to even talk about it.

All rights share the road with other rights. We have the right to free speech, but not to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. I had a law professor who put it this way: there are no rights, only interests. When individual interests conflict with each other or with broader societal interests, someone has to weight each in the balance.

That job has largely fallen to the Supreme Court. On their scale, an individual “fundamental right” is outweighed only by a “compelling state interest.” Sometimes it seems that a faction on the Court has its thumb on one side or another of the scale, but overall I think the Justices do a better job than many of us at recognizing the legitimacy of competing interests.

Outside the courtroom, in social and political discourse, too often our arguments sound like this:

“I want an abortion.”  
“That’s murder.”
“You’re not the one who has to raise the unwanted child.”
“Murder is murder.”

Or this:

“I want to marry my same-sex partner.”
“That’s just wrong.”

I own a shotgun. I used to shoot skeet and the occasional dove. I’m giving the gun away. After Newtown, I just don’t want it around anymore. I was raised in the south on hamburger and bacon. I took that kind of food for granted. Now, though, when I think about how animals are raised to support those food choices--pigs and calves spending their entire lives in crates--my interest in eating ham and veal doesn’t seem so compelling.

My metamorphosis on these and other issues has been gradual and organic. No one has pushed me. But sometimes events bump up hard against us. When that happens before we’re ready, we’re likely to dig in. Fearing that if we don’t stand our ground we might lose a way of life we cherish, we stop making an effort to understand the other guy’s point of view.

I love religious freedom, not least because implied in that term is freedom from religion. I don’t have to abide by another’s beliefs. The Obamacare contraception controversy is a good example of “rights” being swung like cudgels. Some business owners say it offends their religious beliefs to provide health-care coverage for abortions. What if they were Christian Scientists who didn’t believe in medical care at all? Could they refuse all health coverage for their employees?

The things we call rights are like coats. They keep us warm. They protect us from all but the most extraordinary conditions. They are not swords. They are not meant to slay heathens. It has been a long time since infidels were burned at the stake, but in many debates over things like abortion and gay marriage we are no less intolerant. It seems to me we have more to fear from becoming the kind of people who turn away from empathy than we have to fear from two men who want to live peacefully together or a pregnant teen who isn’t ready to be a mother.