Renouncing Guns — Imagine This

Renouncing Guns – Imagine This

Guns were introduced into Japan by the Portuguese in 1543. Over 16 factories manufacturing high-quality matchlocks were in business by the end of that century, concentrated in Nagahama and Sakai. But after a last major battle in 1637, Japan gave up guns for over two centuries. There was no mandate to abandon firearms and no clearly articulated prohibition against their manufacture. Rather, the Tokugawa shoguns gradually restricted manufacturing and sales of guns. Gun manufacturers went back to making swords, which were once again the weapon of choice. Interest in guns was not revived until British, Dutch and ultimately American traders convinced the Japanese that firearms were essential to military control in modern Japan. Guns finally replaced swords as the weapon of choice after the abolition of the shogunate and the defeat of the samurai rebellion in 1876 .

It is hard to pinpoint why the gun effectively dropped out of sight and out of use for two hundred years. Noel Perrin, in his gem of a book Giving Up the Gun – Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, posits several reasons rooted in Japanese culture and society. Swords were valued, even revered, as works of beauty and regarded as symbolic of honor. The efficiency of guns as killing machines cut no ice with the samurais, Japan’s substantial warrior class until the late 19th century, for whom swords represented aesthetic values of movement and ritual. Shooting a matchlock required disregard of aesthetic principles, as a 1607 manual by the Inatomi Gunnery School made clear.

             Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu also attempted to ban smoking as a means of fire control, Professor Perrin notes. Smoking was not counter-culture, however, so the edict was wholly unsuccessful, despite the penalties it carried. It is a curious contrast to the American experience. Cigarettes remain a major cause of death throughout the world, including almost a half million deaths in the U.S. annually. They have, however, been widely denounced as dirty, smelly, deadly and uncool. Regulations, prohibitions, litigation, exposes and taxes have reinforced a powerful anti-smoking marketing campaign that have together saved 8 million premature deaths in the U.S. since 1964. At a mean addition of 19.6 years per person, the reduction in smoking in the U.S. accounted for 157 million additional years of life between 1964 and 2012.

At the same time, the carnage resulting from gun violence in the U.S. is growing. As of August 5, 2015, there were 7,641 gun deaths in the U.S. this year, and 15,000 more injuries. Children under 12 accounted for 442 of these incidents. If we were only as effective as we’ve been in reducing smoking deaths, those numbers would be reduced by one-third. But other than collective gasps of horror, we do little to discourage or even burden the manufacture, distribution, ownership and use of guns in this country. As has often been noted, gun ownership is engrained in American culture. Guns are associated with freedom and bravery. Renouncing guns seems impossible in this country and any attempt at regulation is met with the equivalent of the 19th century samurai rebellion, which was triggered by an edict prohibiting the warriors from wearing two swords.

            But imagine, if you will, a pervasive ad campaign that depicts the gun owner as a fearful coward, a barbarian. A campaign that drives celebratory gun violence from movies and television. A campaign that depicts the ugliness of deaths from guns – much as Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open casket to force America to face the violence done to her son. Heavy taxation of the manufacture and sale of guns – rather than exemption from federal excise taxes for small gun manufacturers and importers.   Relentless prosecution of unlawful gun sales and ownership; persistent lobbying to reverse the exemption from strict liability for American’s gun manufacturers; and large-scale litigation to secure an interpretation of the Second Amendment that squares with effective regulation, reason and life. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke. We, men and women in America, have done nothing about guns for too long.


Donald Trump finally got my attention with one word: aliens. He does not use it as a legal term but as a condemnation. He spits out the word, conjuring up weird, bug-eyed creatures with Spock-like ears and antennae – ugly, lawless ETs. This is what comes of being illegal. Legal immigrants are, well, immigrants, and some of them are “really talented people.” We know that because they’ve gone to Harvard and Yale. Or are some of these people among the aliens? If so, they can come back some day, but first they’ve got to go. As if they belonged in level 7 or 8 of Dante’s Hell but might prove themselves to be a better sort if they hung out in Limbo for a while.

I wonder if my three immigrant grandparents were aliens in Trump-speak. One came from Russia as a baby with her parents. They ran a candy store on York Avenue in Manhattan – clearly not “really talented people” or they would have founded Hershey. My Irish grandmother came alone to this country from the tiny town of Clara where she worked in a jute factory. She was 17 and never finished elementary school; she became an “upstairs maid” in Brooklyn. Her priest commended her as a very “good girl,” the kind he hated to lose to America. But a “really talented” person? Not by Mr. Trump’s standards, unless washing bed sheets counts for something. And finally my paternal grandfather came, speaking only Yiddish and Hungarian, trained as a journeyman mechanic, and a card-carrying member of the radical Wobblies. Positively dangerous.

Yet each of them, as different as they could be from each other, made a living, and raised and educated their families in New York. All of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren have graduated from college and beyond. And, though only one went to Harvard and Yale, they are, by any measure really talented, and exceptionally lucky. Lucky that their great-grandparents were courageous enough to cross an ocean for the opportunity offered in America and that they, as my mother would have said, made something of themselves. My grandparents did not do that by going to Ivy League schools or by running a big business. They did it by hard work in ordinary jobs, mostly working with their hands.

Mr. Trump’s nativism is not new to America. He did not invent xenophobia. But in fanning these flames, he invites us to despise the courage it takes to risk everything in hopes of coming out ahead. It is ironic that Mr. Trump does not recognize a kindred moxie.

Mobilizing the Creative Community

There is something spiritually uplifting about choral singing, even if the tune is as mundane as the Camptown Races. It is the complex blending of voices, joyful even in sadness, that speaks, no sings, to an inner spirit that craves not only beauty but community. It is the coming together of separate strands of song to make a larger, richer sound that fulfills a need for completeness, peaceful or exuberant, and sometimes both.

The ultimate chorus experience is Ysaye Barnwell’s communal sing.  . The spontaneity and subtly structured combination of a random collection of voices can move the heart more profoundly than the practiced Hallelujah Chorus sung by the elite Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It is the mix of intergenerational, uncurated voices, infused with joy, that works the spiritual magic.

Now imagine this: a community visual art project that engages the hands rather than the voices of hundreds of neighbors from 3 to 93, of every ethnicity in the area. They are being “mobilized” over a period of weeks to create dozens of mobiles that will hang initially at the Atlas Performing Arts Center . The project is the inspiration of sculptor Kevin Reese and playwright/director Mary Hall Surface, funded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and under the aegis of the Atlas. Like Dr. Barnwell’s “sings,” there is no songbook to study or set composition to read. The pieces of the mobiles are designed and crafted from foam core by the participants, then are cut out with a matt knife, sanded, painted and wired by Kevin. The community artists find the balance points to create the mobiles, working from the bottom up, as Kevin instructs. This happening is being repeated over 40 times in various venues – schools, churches, senior and community centers, and, of course, the Atlas. The finished mobiles, consisting of over 400 pieces designed by as many community artists, will be installed and displayed at the Atlas September 19-26, 2015. They will then be parceled out to the 40 participating organizations and perhaps some collectors.

Like choral voices, these mobiles will soar. With the edges sanded, the painted foam core pieces look like finely honed metal, ready to take flight, Calderesque in their elegant balance and bright colors. But the process is itself equally enthralling. Envision a three year old who begins by scribbling circles, then observes the designs of older children, and sets about drawing a gently curved wave. Transferred to foam core, his work becomes a graceful piece that will float along side of the others in the completed mobiles. Pride and satisfaction in the art are shared by children, teens, millennials, boomers and seniors, who dream up and balance the shapes that will compose the larger installation.

These mobiles will be the sum of their parts, but the parts are more than foam core and wire. The parts include the collective yearnings for communal expression — a non-verbal, non-competitive collaboration to envision and shape something beautiful, something that transcends an individual’s hands and self, something that enlarges our possibilities, like a community of voices in a chorus. Thus the mobilization of this community for art’s sake speaks to the highest creative purposes of humankind.

The Millwright’s Epiphany

Twenty years ago this summer, my late husband and I successfully settled a plant closure litigation in Charles Town, West Virginia. The defendant, Dixie-Narco, had put 800 workers out of jobs without notice – indeed, it had encouraged them to believe their jobs were safe. The $16.5 million settlement provided generous awards for many of the former employees we represented, but it did not, of course, restore their lives. The experience inspired me to write a short story, The Millwright’s Epiphany.

Now, widowed and retired from litigation, I rediscovered the story, which speaks to me more personally about identity and purpose. Ultimately, it is a story of recognition, optimism and determination.

The Millwright’s Epiphany

            Farrell Jackson’s neighbors made it a point to lower their voices when they spoke of the rope burns on his neck. Farrell himself, a small wiry man – if he were a woman, you’d call him petite – with unexceptional features save only his sky-blue eyes, had no such qualms. He would recite in a gentle monotone that belied the violence of his act how he’d hung himself with a seven foot length of three-quarter inch rope, purchased at Lederer’s Hardware some years ago for a use now forgotten, that had been lying in a loose coil on top of the furnace in his sister’s house long enough to acquire an overcoat of soot. He’d attempted first to clean it up a bit, brushing off the pieces of dirt and dust snared in its crevices, picking out the sticky threads of cobwebs.

It was this fastidiousness, in part, that cost him his death for, having spent a good hour at the task, he left too little time for the business of tying the noose, threading it securely around a basement pipe, setting up and then kicking over the kitchen footstool, to allow the rope to finish the job. His sister, returning home from work as a checker at the Sunrise Market, found him dangling, but still alive, at 4:15 p.m.

At the hospital, Farrell initially provoked alarm by responding “I don’t know” to the question, “Who are you?” His sister Francine concluded despairingly that he’d lost his mind, until a doctor rephrased the question.

“What is your name, Sir?” he asked.

To this, the patient promptly replied, “Farrell Jackson.” His response both relieved and angered his sister who demanded to know why he’d not said so in the first place.

“No one asked,” Farrell said.

The doctor urged Francine not to argue the point as her brother needed rest, so the matter was dropped. Instead, Francine went home, removed first her white plastic-clip-on earrings and then her soft-soled shoes, notified Farrell’s daughter who lived in Ohio of the near-tragedy (as she called it), took a little bourbon straight up in a juice glass and went to bed.

“It was the job was the last straw,” she told her neighbor, Anne Lawson, the next day. “Losing the job after 23 years was too much. I told him not to mind, he’d find something else, but he took the plant shutdown like it was a personal thing. He wasn’t the only one, I told him, there’s 300 others just like you, I said, but he didn’t see it that way. ‘Not with 23 years,’ he’d answer me. ‘What’s a millwright going to do in Newcastle with the plant gone?’ I told him something’d come along but nothing I said made a difference.”

This is what she also told Carol Dietz, the other daytime checker, Jerome Buckle, the day manager, Emily Walters, her neighbor on the other side, Father Don at Christ Methodist Church, and Tim Lederer, who was the second generation Lederer to own the Hardware. “It was the job,” they repeated over their breakfast tables, across their newly budded gardens and around the counter at the Star Mountain Diner, even as they raised an eyebrow at the explanation.

“There’s 300 others out of work too,” said Suzanne Belcher, the Star Mountain waitress on the early shift. Tim Lederer sat before her in his regular spot, the red plastic covered counter stool nearest the cash register. “Nobody else done such a thing. He’s a little soft in the head, if you ask me. Jacksons was always a peculiar family.” She held aloft a Pyrex pot of coffee. “More?”

Tim shook his head and swallowed a last lukewarm mouthful of coffee. He squeezed his thin white napkin into a tight ball and dropped it in the empty ceramic mug. “Well,” he said, as he laid out 65 cents on the counter. “The apple don’t fall far from the tree.”

It was a thought that had passed through other minds, and across other lips as well. The more timorous usually added, “Anyway, that’s what they’re saying,” but others maintained that there was something funny about that family. As a result, people tended to look sideways at Farrell when he was released after eight days with a prescription that was supposed to perk him up, the nurse said, in a week or so. Farrell touched his tender neck lightly with his fingertips and said thank you to the nurse, he guessed that was right and he appreciated it. The Democrat, the weekly county paper, noted his release from Providence Hospital, though it had thoughtfully omitted the news of his admission a week earlier.

At home, cheering up her brother became Francine’s mission. She cooked his favorite dishes and ironed his favorite shirts and watched his favorite TV shows. Several times a day, she took his emotional temperature.

“You feeling better, Farrell?” she’d ask, knowing that her brother would reward her concern with reassurance.

“I’m doing fine, Francine, just fine,” he’d say.

“He’s doing much better,” she confided in Anne and Emily. The three women stood by the overgrown hedges separating the Jacksons’ yard from the alley that ran behind their homes and the row of battered aluminum trash cans with misshapen lids. Francine plucked at the collar of her floral print shirtwaist and pinched the neckline closed a little higher.

“I saw him out back just yesterday it was, Francine,” Emily said. “Nice day, isn’t it, he said to me. I told him it surely was and he would’ve said more – he was just about to – but there was my phone, all of a sudden, just ringing its head off, and Joe being over at Lederer’s, well, I had to leave him. So I said, see you later, Farrell, and ran in. I looked for him after but I guess he’d gone in too.”

“Right as rain he is,” Francine said, and stroked one arm soothingly with the other. Her friends nodded, flashing bright smiles at her. But after Francine left them to start supper, they agreed it was a funny thing the way Farrell never looked them in the eye any more.

“He was staring past my right earlobe,” Emily whispered, tugging at her ear. “Squinty-eyed, like maybe he was trying to make out something in the distance. So I turned around to see what it was, but there was nothing.” She glanced furtively towards the screen door to Francine’s kitchen. “I was trying to think what to say when the phone rang.”

“There’s worse than that, Emily. The other day, out front, he starts telling me about the hanging, same as if he’d had a case of the flu or something. Well, I said real quick that I’d heard all about it so, thank God, he said he’d be off and have a good day, he didn’t want to keep me from my business.” Anne gave three staccato clucks and then continued. “It ain’t normal the way he’s acting. You just never know what someone like that will do.”

Emily gave her no argument, but to Francine she said, the next time she saw her out back alone, that Farrell seemed like his old self again.

Farrell, hearing this from his sister, knew it was both untrue and impossible. His old self didn’t act this way. He’d greeted neighbors like he welcomed not just the encounter but the physical warmth of a friend’s hand in his. He looked into their eyes and spoke of his daughter in Ohio, argued over the county sheriff elections and bemoaned the price of gas at the Texaco. The old Farrell was interested in what was going on. He had an opinion about most of it.

Since he’d been released from Providence, he sensed an impenetrable distance between himself and his old friends, as if a referee stood between them with his arms stuck out to keep them from risking an embrace or detecting the persistent ache of his heart. He couldn’t return their gaze lest they read confusion in his eyes, so he trained them on a far off imagined object, squinting a little as if he might really make it out. And when he talked about the hanging or fingered the scars on his sun-browned neck, he could count on an end to the conversation.

The old Farrell was a millwright who made $18 an hour, plus overtime, paid off his sister’s mortgage and saved a little on the side. The new Farrell was used up, a worthless-byproduct of the plant that, until six months ago, had employed 309 workers to manufacture chemicals to clean other factories and their machines. Farrell had kept the machines working. Without him, the metal bearings of the grinders, worn out from continual turning, wouldn’t be replaced and fan motors in the dust collectors wouldn’t be repaired. Columbia Mills relied on the old Farrell. So did the manager and 300 other packers, clerks and operators who stocked and ran the vast, funnel-shaped mills that spilled out powders and liquids into metal drums for shipment to factories in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland. No one ever asked the old Farrell who he was. Like him, they knew.

“They’re looking for someone down at the Texaco,” Francine told him one afternoon, a few weeks after he’d come home, as she bustled into the kitchen with a brown bag of groceries. Farrell wordlessly took the bag from her and began removing its contents to the mottled yellow formica kitchen table, item by item, as if each one bore the full weight of his cares. “It’s work on car engines, Jerome says. You could do that, Farrell. Didn’t you fix motors at the mill? I know you did. You could get that job, Farrell.”

Farrell looked across the kitchen table, right past his sister’s earlobe, through the small, soap-spattered panes of the window over the sink. “The motors I fixed are different, Francine. I wouldn’t know the first thing about fixing a car engine.” He pushed a chrome chair under the table and headed towards his bedroom without glancing at his sister.

“You can’t just walk away like that, Farrell,” she cried, tenderness momentarily forgotten. “Listen to me. People are talking. They think I don’t hear, but I know. They’re saying, you know, they’re saying you’re sick.”

“Can’t stop people from talking, Francine,” he said. “It don’t bother me.”

“Well, then, think about me. I’ve got my pride, you know. What about me?”

“You?” Farrell started. “You’ve got a job.”

“Don’t you understand, Farrell? Are you even listening to me? It’s like you gave up. You sit around like it’s your day off every day. Who do you think you are?”

“Who?” he repeated vacantly, turning the word over in his mind like a strange and delicate object, examining its contours and colors. “That’s the problem in a nutshell, Francine. I used to be a millwright. Now, you tell me who do you think I am?”

“Why, you’re Farrell Jackson,” she answered, indignation and fear mingling in her voice. “Same’s always. You’re my brother, Marjorie’s father. Millwright’s what you did. You think I’m nothing but a grocery checker? Look at me, Farrell, don’t be looking off into space like that. Look at me – is it a grocery checker you see?”

Farrell willed himself to face her. He saw sagging jowls, wispy gray hairs escaped from bobby pins and one under her chin, faded red lipstick and worried eyes behind her discolored plastic eyeglass frames. She’d grown old, he discovered, though she was only five years his senior. Her white plastic button earrings looked clownish. He wondered that he’d never noticed this before – she’d worn them for years.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I never thought about it.” But seeing the blue eyes like his own grow large with tears, he yearned for a better answer, and in his yearning, he reached into an inside space that he’d never plumbed, that, had he remembered it from childhood, he’d have thought it dark and dried up. Instead, what he found there was soft and warm.

“I see my big sister” he said, and listened to what his voice would say next. “With long dark hair, and a teasing mouth and laughing eyes, like sun on the river. I see pink freckled hands, like Mom’s with the coconut smell of lotion. I see supper on the table, and air-fresh clean clothes stacked on my dresser and a patch of lilies-of-the-valley on the south side of the house.” And then he stopped, face flushed, and closed his eyes for just a moment to seal the images.

Months later, when he painted houses for $7.50 an hour, and his fingers no longer strayed to the scars on his neck, Farrell would summon up that moment as he entered Grace’s Jewelry and Gift Shop down the street from Lederer’s Hardware. He would tap on the glass showcase, point to a pair of gold earrings shaped like knots, and carry them home in a tiny box wrapped in pink paper and spaghetti-thin satin ribbon, to Francine. And she would say, simply, “That’s beautiful, Farrell. Thank you.”

Which is what she said that afternoon in the kitchen, cluttered with abandoned groceries, her voice breathy, her complaints staunched, as her brother stood there in wonder at his own words.

Stuff of LIfe

Stuff of Life

That “tidying” could become a topic of popular discourse strains the imagination but this has come about thanks to Japanese writer Marie Kondo. She expanded her simple thesis – if a possession doesn’t “spark” joy, it’s toast – into a catechism of organizing precepts and a full-length New York Times best-seller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way. Its mandate is to de-clutter your life, preferably in one fell swoop.

This reminded me of the admonition of the Swarthmore College Dean to incoming freshman girls – so we were then – in 1963: “If you’re tidy on the outside, you’re tidy on the inside.” Like my classmates, I rolled my eyes. Fifty-two years later, my life seems to validate the obverse of Dean Cobb’s advice. It also gives the lie to Ms. Kondo’s premise that life can be de-cluttered by fiat. For if you are untidy on the inside, it’s impossible to know what possessions give you joy. It is barely possible to appreciate the essentiality of a can opener.

I am untidy on the inside. Seven months after my husband’s sudden death, I cannot untangle memories that hurt from those that help. That is not the sole reason I’m untidy on the outside – downsizing my living quarters by 50% has a lot to do with it too. Internal disarray does, however, exacerbate the difficulty of sorting through stuff. After 30 years with my partner in marriage, law practice, philanthropy, travel, investing and farming potatoes, I have few possessions that aren’t profoundly connected with him. What to save? To display? To use? To dispose of? How to discern what sparks a flight of joy, what triggers an arc of pain; what I can’t let go of, what I must rub out.

Layers of old grief and loss superimpose their own tangles on this emotional maze. There are garish afghans my maternal grandmother crocheted and a porcelain tea set her mother carried from India in 1900. My mother’s quilted sewing basket and silver jewelry box; my father’s crumbling historic newspapers and first edition of The Common Law. And the remnants of childhoods now outgrown – the white fur muff of a toddler, the karate belt of the 7 year old. Are they sad or sweet reminders? Without them, would I be liberated or lost?

Aging in place sidesteps these issues. Dust forms a gray outline around pictures that hang on the walls. Recent novels pile on top of college texts. Handmade mugs stack precariously on top of chipped china. Old coats hang on as extras in case. I opted out of this stasis by moving, but the clarity I seek still eludes me, as witnessed by unopened cartons of uncertain contents..

I tell my granddaughter teasingly that I will calamari my clothes. KonMari, Grandma, she corrects me and rolls her eyes. I think of myself 52 years ago. I had already begun accumulating stuff. I’ll get it all sorted out when I’ve tidied up inside.