THE SHEPCAT CHRONICLES

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Perchance to Dream

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Last night I dreamed I was entering a beachfront bar when Susan Sarandon approached me and said hello. I was surprised she remembered me. (In the subtext of the dream, we had apparently met briefly or worked on a film set together once.)

After a moment it became apparent that she wasn’t merely being gracious but actually wanted to continue our conversation, so I asked if I could buy her a drink.

At the bar we ordered, and as I opened my wallet I discovered I had misplaced my credit card. So I reached for cash, and instead of a couple of neatly folded 20s, I produced a wadded-up fistful of small bills, counting to make sure I had enough, then handing the lump of cash to the bartender, as though I was a 9-year-old who had been saving up his allowance, not to put toward a baseball mitt or a new bike but to buy drinks for Susan Sarandon.

This has been a story about how even in my most sensational dreams I exude the same suave, worldly sophistication I possess in my waking life.

Written by Shepcat

April 8, 2017 at 10:41 am

Posted in Life

In Which Maow Throws Up on Some of the Things but Not All of the Things

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gak \ˈgak\ v. to whork up a hairball or other vomitus, as a cat does; also, n. the substance thereof
gakked; gak•king; gak•ker

 
I’m a fairly heavy sleeper. As such, I long fretted fatherhood, certain that I would most likely sleep through the wailing of my child and later face the wrath and recriminations of my sleep-deprived wife.

Then cats entered my life.

At which point I learned that the clutching, gulping, premonitory sound of a cat in the throes of gakking up a hairball — though much subtler and more subdued than a baby’s shrill cries — is enough to pierce my veil of sleep and catapult me into action.

Of course, Maow used to sleep with us, right there on the bed, so we were more likely to hear her when she went into her prelaunch countdown. But as we fumbled out of our slumber, from zero to 60 in mere seconds, we still faced two immediate challenges:

1. Could we get the lights on quickly enough?
2. Could we find a magazine quickly enough?

The latter of these, of course, is the critical element. The availability and proximity of a magazine or newspaper — long since read and kept on hand only to be sacrificed so that our carpet or comforter might be stain-free — is paramount, particularly the part about proximity. Because every second counts, and the fewer seconds devoted to a panicked search, the more time available to give one’s cat an approved target.

Because periodicals tend to be filed away neatly, tossed aside indiscriminately, or relegated to the recycling bin, I had suggested that perhaps we should buy a dustpan and hang it from a nail or hook on the wall. A solution dedicated to a singular problem, situated in a place where we’d always be able to find it when time was of the essence. One for the bedroom, one for the TV room — the two rooms in which we passed the most time — should do the trick.

We never executed this plan. We fumbled for light switches and darted across rooms and back again, sometimes more successfully than others. But we never followed through on any kind of emergency gak protocol.

And so it occurred last April or thereabout that the Spring 2016 issue of my alma mater’s magazine, The Jayhawk Journalist, arrived in the mail. After I had paged through it and read at length about the retirement of a favorite professor of mine, I set it aside and didn’t think much about it … until the next time Maow started to gak.

There it was. Right place. Right time. That time and, well, every time thereafter.

Because after the magazine caught the first of Maow’s gaks, I just rinsed it off at the bathroom sink, let it dry, then returned it to a discreet but convenient location until such time as it was again needed. For the next eight or nine months I did this, and over time the magazine became warped with repeated usage, rinsing and drying.

The spring issue’s cover subject was a fellow KU alumna who is now associated in some capacity with a vineyard and winery in Oregon. More than once I entertained the notion that I might someday cross paths with this woman and pause — “Excuse me. Don’t I know you from somewhere?” — until it occurs to me that, “Oh, yeah, you’re the woman my cat throws up on,” at which juncture I must sheepishly remove myself from the conversation.

Finally, a month or so ago, I sojourned to Bed Bath & Beyond to pick up a few items, and at long last I procured a new plastic dustpan. It’s a little bigger than the task requires — I had only the one to choose from, as, oddly enough, Bed Bath & Beyond doesn’t offer a selection of dustpans that aren’t attached to brooms — but it is an exemplar of its form, a damn fine American-made dustpan.

Except that Maow is terrified of the thing.

The drill has always been, whenever she begins expelling something from her esophagus, I’ll kneel beside her and put a hand softly on her back — partly to calm her, partly to keep her in one place — then slide the magazine in front of her until she defaces it. There are usually two or three stages to this, so I may have to follow her a few steps while she works up her next expulsion, but she’s always been pretty cooperative.

Until now.

Now when I slide the dustpan in front of her, she bolts from it, wide-eyed with terror, as though I’m the feline Grim Reaper bidding her to gaze upon her reflection in the blade of my scythe. Which, in the absence of a readily available alternative, is how I ended up with puke in three places on the TV room carpet today.

It may also explain her historical disdain of our kitchen lineoleum, which has always been right there, just a few steps away. Slick surfaces. Who knew?

The good news? It’s March. The Spring 2017 Jayhawk Journalist should show up in the mail before too long.

Written by Shepcat

March 8, 2017 at 11:13 pm

Posted in Life

Tagged with

The Night Of: August 20, 1994

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a pre-Chronicles tale adapted from the journals of Brent Shepherd
 
The place: a coffeehouse called Insomnia Café, on North High Street in Columbus, Ohio, across from the university, with décor that I described as “sterile … with metal-topped butcher’s-counter tables and artsy, architectural-metal chairs. They served me a giant cappuccino that may have been brewed in hell and express delivered — it stripped the nerves off my tongue and still hasn’t cooled down some 30 minutes later. …

“There’s a huge American flag on one wall that may have been stolen from a Perkins restaurant. At any minute I expect George C. Scott to stand up over there and tell us not to let the bastards get us down.”

The time: Our story begins in earnest around 11:15 p.m.


 
I had decided I wouldn’t stick around long because I had an earlier-than-normal (for me) flight to catch the next morning, but I ordered an Italian soda and turned my attention to the book I had brought with me. Across the room, a lumpy, dirty but comfortable-looking garage-sale sofa was vacated by the trio of girls who had occupied it since my arrival, so I made my move.

I had read only a few pages when the guy whose picture appears next to the word dreg in the dictionary sat down in the chair opposite me with a mug of steaming-hot tea. He wore abused work boots, some kind of fatigue pants with cargo pockets, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, even though the temperature was 80+ degrees in Columbus that day. He was attempting something like dreadlocks with his hair, which had aluminum-can pull tabs tied to the ends. (Don’t ask. I was hoping you’d tell me.) He had a sparse and stringy excuse for a beard, dirty teeth, and a glazed expression that extended from his eyes to his whole face. He looked like he had bathed once or twice that calendar year and had maybe been released from jail as recently as that morning on someone’s recognizance other than his own.

He took from his fatigue pockets a rolled-up graphic novel that was as ratty, stained and disheveled as he was. He unrolled it, opened it and read as he fiddled with his teabag. Occasionally he would mumble some question about the café to me as though I were a local.

He asked if Insomnia had a chess board. I told him I didn’t know. He asked if I’d be up for a game if he were able to find one. I said sure, why not. Much to my eventual chagrin, he found a board and pieces and we were all set to play.

I tried, somewhat successfully, to feign concentration while we played and thus kept conversation to a minimum. I spoke to him only when spoken to, which was difficult enough given his slurred speech. Nonetheless, he found things to talk about, asking me still more questions about Insomnia Café which I was unable to answer. Only much later in the proceedings did I venture to explain that I was from Kansas City and therefore not intimate with my surroundings, if for no other reason than to assure him that I was merely ignorant, not an imbecile. I chose to let my chess strategies speak for the imbecile in me.

To this point, I have neglected to mention one important feature of my opponent’s costume, a prop, if you will: the knife tucked into his belt.

Apparently no one in Insomnia minded that this most unsavory character was walking around with a knife handle in conspicuous view. You’d have to be Ray Charles not to notice this detail. Then again, probably everyone figured he could do more harm to himself than to anyone else, because of the way he wore it, the blade pointing straight down toward his genitals. (I have no idea whether he was wearing a sheath of some kind in his pants and was really in no hurry to ask. I didn’t want to know him that well.)

This detail is important because early in our chess game we were approached by a trio of his friends, the leader of which was a perhaps more unsavory-looking punk with a carelessly groomed green mohawk, nose rings, a leather jacket and — you guessed it — a knife handle sticking out of his pants, also aimed precariously toward his genitals. (At this point, I wondered whether this was perhaps a local characteristic that I hadn’t been hipped to yet, and I glanced around the room to see if anyone else was wearing a knife in their crotch.) The mohawk punk’s knife had an elegantly curved silver handle, obvious without being glaringly shiny.

At one point in the conversation, the mohawk punk blurted out, “Oh, dude — I got a new knife.”

“Do you have it with you?” asked the dreg. “Let’s see it.”

At which point the mohawk punk grabbed the buffed silver handle and withdrew his new weapon to reveal …

“Aw, man — that’s a steak knife,” cried the dreg. Indeed, it was a steak knife that may have been lifted from a Shoney’s or a Ponderosa or some such place.

“Yeah,” spat the mohawk punk defensively, brandishing the knife. “But I could still fuck someone up with it.”

“But it’s a steak knife,” repeated the dreg.

The girl who had arrived with the mohawk punk spoke up then, something to the effect of, “You’re probably gonna end up stabbing yourself with that thing,” thus prompting the mohawk punk to threaten her with the excision of a certain part of her own genitalia. The girl seemed undaunted, but as the mohawk punk repeated his threat a few times, I imagined myself getting tangled up in violence among complete strangers. The girl wasn’t very attractive, but it seemed to me she could certainly do better for herself than present company. In any event, the steak knife was eventually resheathed (yikes!), and the trio bade their farewell.

The dreg and I resumed our chess game, which lumbered on toward closing time.

At perhaps 1:30 a.m. another of his derelict friends approached the table. This one was older, at least in his late 30s, unshaven and largely toothless in a hockey player sort of way, wearing thick-lensed horn-rimmed glasses. They greeted each other amiably, without wielding cutlery, and talked while the dreg and I played.

“Hey, look what I got,” the dreg said, producing the disheveled graphic novel from his fatigue pocket.

“Cool,” said the derelict, apparently recognizing it as subject matter in which they shared a common interest. He began to page through it. “When did you get this?”

“Today,” replied the dreg. I almost couldn’t conceal my surprise. This ragged, stained, shredded stack of pages had possibly been a crisp new periodical as recently as 12 hours ago. Maybe I care about printed material a little too much.

A digression: Earlier that evening, when I overtook the sofa, the group before me hadn’t picked up after themselves when they left. The table, nothing more than some particle board suspended by two milk crates, still held a mug, a cup and saucer, and a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea that was still about one-fifth full. The dreg and I had sat the glassware aside to make room for the chess board, but at some point during our game, he reached for the iced-tea bottle.

“Is this yours?” he asked.

“No.” I shook my head.

“Mmm,” he grunted in acknowledgement, then proceeded to top off his own still-steaming mug of tea with the bottle’s contents. “I’ve gotta cool this shit down. It’s too hot to drink.”

I was (probably visibly) appalled, thinking, You have no idea who might have backwashed into that bottle before you came along. Then I caught myself and imagined that, if the girl who’d left it behind returned to witness the spectacle, she would’ve been more grossed-out by the concept than the dreg would ever be.

Anyway: Closing time was drawing near, and the dreg and I were in a standoff. I knew we had to wrap up the game quickly, so I started playing kamikaze chess, trying to make things happen and force one of us to win or lose the game. Insomnia employees urged us to finish but were gracious enough to put up with us. I went after the dreg’s king.

The derelict became more actively involved and actually made the dreg’s final five or six moves until they were able to checkmate me (or I allowed myself to be checkmated). There wasn’t much fanfare. I bade an unceremonious (and probably unnoticed) farewell and vacated the premises.

It was 2:10 a.m. So much for getting to bed early.

At 3 a.m., back at my hotel, I called to request a 7 a.m. wake-up call. The night manager didn’t seem to find the request unusual.

Written by Shepcat

November 27, 2016 at 6:58 pm

Posted in Life, Travel

Jon Polito 1950-2016

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Allow me to share with you again one of my top three all-time L.A. memories:

On Tuesday, January 6, 1998, I attended the New Beverly Cinema’s 9:25 p.m. screening of Miller’s Crossing, Joel and Ethan Coen’s essential 1990 entry in the gangster genre.

I had scouted out my closest-as-possible-to-dead-center seat and was slumped down, settling in, waiting for the movie to start. And who should walk in and sit down in the next row, directly in front of me? Jon Polito, who plays Johnny Caspar, the Italian mob boss and foil to Irish mobsters Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in the movie I am there to see.

By the standards of the New Beverly — which at that time and for some time afterward was rundown and a little seedy, with squeaky, rattily upholstered seats and dim lighting that hid any number of other flaws and scars — Polito was impossibly elegant. He wore pressed trousers and a blazer with an open-collar shirt and looked as though he may have come over from a party, although it was such a comfortable look on him that — who knows? — probably he was just that casually elegant in everyday life.

I was a fan, not just of his work with the Coens but also his role as Det. Steve Crosetti on Homicide. And yet I couldn’t work up the nerve to say anything to him — even though he was right there. But a braver audience member approached to say hello and give voice to the question burning in all our minds: “What are you doing here?”

Polito replied that hadn’t seen the movie in years and noticed it was playing at the New Beverly, so he came down to check it out. Just that simple.

And so it was that I, who love character actors, had my most meta experience in a lifetime at the movies, sitting behind one of the best, who laughed loudest at some of his own lines, as if he had forgotten what a great part the Coens had written for him.

We lost Jon Polito yesterday. And thus endeth our lesson in — hell, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word — ethics.

Jon_Polito

Written by Shepcat

September 2, 2016 at 10:59 am

The Likeliest Demise

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Late one summer night in 1997 I was robbed at gunpoint, in front of my own house on a tree-lined residential street in midtown Kansas City. Sometime after 4 a.m., having survived the ordeal, observed the processing of the crime scene and, eventually, ID’d one of the perps from a photo array, my racing heart and adrenalized mind slowed down just enough for me to arrive at an oddly logical conclusion and the most spontaneous but fully realized decision of my life:

“If they can get to me here, they can get to me anywhere. … Might as well move to L.A.”

A month and a half later, I was there.

Eight years after that, I was circling another such decision, more pensively this time.

Personally, professionally, actuarially, I could feel my luck running out. Not that I had experienced anything in Los Angeles, of all places, quite as fearful as staring down the barrel of a gun, but there had been a few close calls — many traffic-related. Because L.A.1

In any event, it felt like time to go. So I went.

Now I’m back where I started, more or less: in the suburbs, on another tree-lined residential street. And though at a glance there does not appear to be as much to fear here, my mind still goes there from time to time. Because, as the old saw goes, most accidents and tragedies happen close to home.

How good are the locks on our doors, really? And would they make any difference at all to someone who was determined to get in? How often does a squad car turn down our street on a routine patrol? How much security, actual or imagined, are our tax dollars buying us?

We’re avid readers of our local paper’s police blotter, mostly for entertainment, and yes, most of the quote-unquote criminal activity in our burg is pretty half-assed — petty theft and domestic disturbances. But yeah, one pays attention to the addresses of the reported misdemeanors, lest that element make a foray past the imaginary boundary that separates us from them and offers us no real security to speak of.

It’s also worth noting that I’m middle-aged now — some days more than others — and that I’ve endured a couple of health-related episodes in the last few years that, while not edging me any closer to mortality, have at least made me consider the vulnerabilities of this vessel that moves me around from place to place.

Despite all those considerations, however, my imagination has zeroed in on what I believe, for the time being anyway, is the shortest distance between me and my maker.

Turns out, it’s only 25 yards.

That is, the 25 yards, give or take, between the corner of our street and our mailbox just up the block.

I think about it on rainy evenings, or evenings just after the rain, when the street is wet, and night has fallen before I remember that neither of us has retrieved the mail (or the recycling, as it most often tends to be). If it’s cold or wet enough, I’ll throw on my rain jacket, which, naturally, is black and does nothing to alert passersby to my presence.

There’s a streetlamp, but it stands so close to our neighbors’ tree as to be completely camouflaged by it. It illuminates the corner directly beneath it but does little to cast any light on, say, a pedestrian on the sidewalk just a few steps away.

Just below our corner the street winds out of a curve that, combined with the heedless velocity of many a motorist, shortens the reaction time of pretty much anyone at or near the corner or entering the flow of traffic, such as it is.

Put them all together, and all that’s missing from the equation is some jackass teenager with a noisy carload of friends or some soccer mom trying to fish a smartphone out of her cavernous purse before the seventh or eighth incantation of her regrettable ringtone before I’m jellying up the sidewalk and stepping toward the light. With my back to oncoming traffic, I’m at a visual disadvantage, but on my return, I’m always thinking, Tree. Tree. Streetlamp. Signpost. These four things and my once Jedi-like reflexes are all that stand between me and the likeliest demise I can conjure.

Think of it as you would Achilles’ heel. Absent motive — and don’t think that the possibility of someone tear-assing around that curve some night with malice and intent hasn’t at least once crossed my mind — cosmic or karmic opportunity must conspire with the available means and a singular method to thread a very small needle in order to punch my ticket. On the face of it, those are pretty great odds. And yet …

Achilles had his fated archer, so are my jackass teenager or distracted soccer mom really such remote possibilities?

Anyway, that’s the grim little scenario I think about for roughly three minutes a day. Perhaps I’ll dwell on it more if that old luckless feeling ever rears its head again.

In the meantime, I’ll be right here, behind our locked doors, in the relative security of our house, on this quiet tree-lined street in this idyllic residential neighborhood, waiting for those patient conspirators bacon and cheese to carry out the hit for which they’ve been contracted.
 
 
 
 
 
1 On one occasion, as I enumerated the various ways my number might come up in that city that has so many ways to kill you — from malice aforethought and criminal intent to the carelessness or inattentiveness of some random motorist — my friend Chris joked that his money was on lethal injection.

Written by Shepcat

May 16, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Life

On Teachers Packing Heat

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In the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, there has been a lot of renewed talk about the possibility of arming teachers and principals so that our children might be better protected in the event of such attacks.

Let me be clear: This is a terrible, patently ridiculous idea.

Not the protection of our kids, of course, but the notion that we’re going to turn our teachers into marksmen and gunslingers on the off chance that this will happen again in any given school on any given weekday. As frighteningly frequent as school shootings seem to be at the moment, these incidents are still the exception rather than the norm. And on some level, arming our teachers for battle seems to accept and even invite their likelihood.

In all fairness, there are pros to this argument, but in my mind they are disproportionately outnumbered by the cons. We shouldn’t leap to such drastic measures in the heated aftermath of a tragedy like Newtown, nor should they be undertaken without thorough investigation and careful debate among all the parties involved and affected.

What follows are just the hypotheticals I can think of off the top of my head, and I’m just a guy who writes and brainstorms ideas, not someone with skin in the game, as it were. Not yet, anyway. Again, I don’t really endorse any of this; any suggestions I offer are as discouraging as they are deliberative and would serve only to make the plan less ridiculous for any community desperate enough to attempt it.

1. First and foremost, unanimous approval would be required. Full stop.

A school district can’t just unilaterally decree a solution of this magnitude, nor does it get approved by a mere simple majority of those who show up to a Tuesday-night school board meeting.

Arming teachers would demand the approval of no less than 75 percent of all parents and teachers in the district by means of a comprehensive, explicitly worded outline of the plan and a mail-in ballot. And the plan should be up for review, revision and a full referendum every couple of years to account for new children and parents entering the district’s schools.

Such a plan requires the unanimous buy-in of every family affected by it, because it’s not strictly about the dreaded possibility of one or more gunmen running rampant and shooting up a school on some random, unpredictable day in the future. It’s about having deadly weapons in your schools all day, every day, beginning tomorrow.

2. Be prepared to hear from teachers unions. And lawyers.

So many lawyers.

3. You can’t arm every teacher. You might not be able to arm any.

The Law of Very Large Numbers supports the inference that most, if not all, teachers did not sign on for what you’d be asking them to do. I’ll concede that there are some inner-city teachers who go in with their eyes open to the possibilities of violence; suburban and rural teachers not so much (even though the rural teachers, on average, are probably more familiar with guns).

The majority of educators, I would imagine, fall somewhere between a casual indifference to and a mortal dread of firearms of any kind. They pursued this avocation because they wanted to enlighten young minds and equip kids for a better future, not stand between them and a hail of gunfire hoping to squeeze off a few rounds and buy a little time. And remember: We already don’t pay them enough.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t teachers who own and regularly use firearms. (See my next point.) But I’d bet that you’ll find a lot fewer of them in elementary schools, which clearly are no longer off limits. Elementary-school teachers tend to be women, and gun ownership skews predominantly male.

4. You could allow teachers who do own firearms to be armed.

You could. But as the majority of those teachers likely own rifles and shotguns for hunting, they may be less likely to own a handgun. The school district would still have to issue, train and qualify them to use one.

5. It pretty much has to be a handgun.

In my mind, if a teacher has to leap into action to face down an armed assailant, he or she needs something a) portable and b) requiring the least amount of thought to operate. Flip the safety. Point and shoot. Duck and cover.

6. Where is the ordnance to be kept?

You can’t have teachers walking around holstered with a sidearm like it’s the Wild West. But certainly, if a teacher is armed, logic dictates that the firearm must be stored within reach, somewhere in his or her classroom.

However, a classroom doesn’t offer a great many logical hiding places. A desk drawer. A closet. The handgun should be locked in a strongbox, which in turn should be bolted down so that it can’t just be grabbed and carried off. It shouldn’t be anywhere in plain sight.

Also, the strongbox might have to be somewhat larger than just the gun and any additional ammo. If we were to submit to this experiment, I would think that teachers should be issued bullet-proof vests as well. I mean, we want to give them a fighting chance, right? In which case, the larger the strongbox, the more difficult it and the identity of an armed teacher are to conceal.

Which brings me to my next point …

7. Ideally, nobody should know which teachers are armed.

They would have to be regarded as we regard air marshals. The selection would have to be based on anonymous surveys and a blind lottery. Except for the principal, vice principal and a handful of district superintendents, no one should know who’s armed.

Teachers would have to be apprised that one or more of their number is armed, and they can decide for themselves whether they are comforted by that knowledge. Apart from that, it’s probably best not to have a lot of discussion about it in the faculty lounge.

And students would have to know even less than the faculty. Not just because the next potential Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold could be among their number. But because loose talk can get out of hand — and outside the school — in a hurry, putting confidentiality, anonymity and school safety at further risk, as well as becoming a central preoccupation of a lot of wild, curious young imaginations that are already hormonal minefields.

As for the parents, this part of the plan might be the biggest leap of faith: not knowing specifically who is designated to be the armed protector of their children. On the other hand, it would make them more alert to the actions of the school and district leadership (principals, superintendents), more wary of their judgment, more apt to hold those officials’ feet to the fire now that the stakes would be so much higher.

8. Who do you trust?

Just because a teacher is familiar, maybe even proficient, with firearms doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is the person you want to single out for this responsibility.

The people in charge of the decision would have to weigh each teacher’s character, personality, eccentricities and ability to act decisively, and to pore over every detail or incident recorded in one’s personnel file to determine the overall fitness of a teacher to be armed.

9. The law of supply and demand

How many armed teachers per school? Per hundred students? Per square foot? As many as want to volunteer? For that matter, after you sift through all the available prospects and narrow down the field, do you have among your faculty enough qualified teachers willing to answer the call to be a live target instead of just a sitting duck?

Where do you put them? One classroom per hallway, so any one of them can react and respond quickly when the first shot rings out nearby? Or is it enough to have one trusted gun of your own anywhere in the school and hope that that teacher will be able to act quickly enough to head off an assailant and draw his fire.

Because, again, that’s what we’re really talking about here: distracting a shooter by presenting him with a degree of difficulty and a target to shoot at other than our kids, at least until the police can arrive at the scene.
 
 
Or here’s a Plan B: Maybe we could just quit being so damn cheap, and instead of treating our teachers like so much kindling, we could go out and hire honest-to-God, fully trained, vetted and qualified security personnel to become a daily presence in our schools. Not rent-a-cops — organized, dedicated security professionals better equipped to supervise the safety of our kids.

There’s much more for them to do than just sit around with a gat under their jacket waiting for a school shooting.

  • They could be more thoroughly involved into the day-to-day disciplinary oversight of a school;
  • they could participate as needed in counseling at-risk students;
  • they could oversee morning drop-off, afternoon pick-up, and coordinate with bus drivers and crossing guards;
  • they could have a hand in fire, tornado and earthquake safety and evacuation planning;
  • they could supervise alarm testing and regular system upgrades;
  • they could evaluate school infrastructure and make recommendations for building improvements that would facilitate better emergency evacuation; and
  • they could better coordinate with police to delineate and execute an immediate and effective lockdown plan in the event of a shooting or other attack.

My nieces have gone to high school under the daily protection of a veteran city police officer who was assigned as their school’s D.A.R.E. program representative. He also happens to be an old friend of mine, and don’t think his presence hasn’t made me feel 100 percent better about my nieces’ school environment. And while I’m certain that not every community’s police force has the manpower to commit an officer to every school, they can certainly partner with, train and supervise school security personnel in their city.

One meme going around on Facebook right now suggests that we should hire our returning veterans to serve as school-security personnel, and I actually think this is a fantastic idea. We have rotating home on a regular basis a remarkable pool of well-trained, highly skilled soldiers and marines who have spent the past several years securing much broader perimeters in much more dangerous neighborhoods than we have here. And once they’re discharged, they have to look for work like everybody else.

Of course, I also think it’s a fantastic idea to ensure that all our men and women in uniform are receiving the best mental-health screening and psychological counseling we can provide upon their return, to be vigilant in treating them for concussion symptoms and post–traumatic stress disorder among other things, and to ease their transition from active duty to daily life in their old surroundings.

But pending medical clearance, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be putting these brave, talented, supremely qualified people to work — in their own home communities, no less; possibly even in their own schools — instead of ignoring all they have to offer after all we’ve asked of them and all they’ve already given.

It’s a win-win situation, for important work that can’t be outsourced to the highest overseas bidder and ultimately for the possibility of a nightmarish task that shouldn’t be thrust upon our teachers as casually as the “other duties as required” line in a job description.

Written by Shepcat

December 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Life, The Nation

A Personal Monologue About Gun Control (in the Absence of a National Dialogue)

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Whenever a shooting occurs in this country — whether it’s Tucson or Aurora or, now, God help us, Newtown — someone will argue that it’s “too early” or “too soon” or “a knee-jerk reaction” to engage in this long-overdue conversation, and more important, to demand that our elected representatives engage in it. And I don’t get that. At all. It’s a conversation, after all — not some draconian witch hunt. And there’s no reason to believe that it can’t serve the best interests of everyone involved, though its first responsibility is to the public good.

Personally, I have complicated feelings about guns.

As both a consumer of popular culture and an aspiring writer of same, guns have always been present in my imagination as dramatic devices — often necessary to the plot, occasionally gratuitous. There are shades and degrees of necessity and shades and degrees of gratuitousness and varying standards by which individuals will measure both. That’s just the free market at work, though — box-office dollars being the final arbiter of taste and artistic merit — not a matter of actual life and death.

My entry into the conversation, however, begins with having had one pointed at me. Not a film prop. An actual handgun.

I didn’t like it. I’m fortunate enough to have survived without a scratch, but I wouldn’t recommend the experience to anyone.

There is a definite feeling of helplessness in that situation, and it breaks down into two parts:

1. The gun itself is very much to be feared. When one is pointed at you, you will unquestionably regard it as the instrument of your imminent demise. So the trite, hollow “guns don’t kill people” argument carries no weight with me, because during the longest 90 seconds of my life, that was pretty much the only thing I was thinking about.

2. Yes, people do kill people. It takes a finger to squeeze the trigger. The helpless part is not having the first clue about what is going on in the mind of the man holding the gun. My guy got nervous. And let me tell you that the nervous guy with the gun scared me a hell of a lot more than the confident guy with the gun who first stepped to us thinking it was going to be a short, simple piece of work.

Though one might argue that I could have used a gun, I have never wished that I had one that night, nor did I run out the next day to get one, nor have I felt the impulse to obtain one at any time during the intervening 15 years. I haven’t required one — lightning rarely strikes the same place twice — and besides, it’d just be another damn thing for me to keep clean.

On the other hand, I know a great many sane, reasonable, responsible people — friends, acquaintances, extended family — who own and regularly use guns. Mostly they hunt, for sport and for food. A few of them probably own a firearm specifically for home protection or self-defense, though I’m fairly certain no one I know has ever had to use one for that purpose. I don’t begrudge any of them — or any of you — the ownership of guns. Within reason, anyway.

Remember reason? Yeah … reason. Good times.

What follows represents, essentially, where I stand in the conversation we’re not having. My thoughts as a whole may not be as fully formed as I’d like them to be. I’m just thinking out loud here, because in my experience, that’s how a dialogue begins.

  • I’m a liberal — make of that what you will — and, as I noted above, a violent-crime statistic, but I’m not interested in taking away everyone’s guns. I just don’t see why we can’t make it a little harder for just anyone to get one. I see no reason not to tighten regulations and controls around selling them, obtaining them, registering them and keeping them.
  • “If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns” is a damned weak excuse not to do or try anything that might effect a solution. While we’re at it, we might also attempt to outthink or outmaneuver the outlaws themselves. That we won’t put our minds to these problems at all is just laziness.
  • If we’ve learned anything at all from these various recent tragedies, it’s this: Mental-health screening must absolutely be part of this conversation.
  • For that matter, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to flag any registered gun owner who’s recently been fired or gone through a messy divorce or child-custody battle.
  • Consider this: “Over a period of two months, [Aurora shooter James Holmes] bought a semiautomatic variation of the military’s M-16 assault rifle, a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, and at least one Glock .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol from local dealers. He also bought and stockpiled 6,000 rounds of ammunition from online sources. Every purchase he made was legal.” [Source: TheWeek.com] Legal purchases are all well and good, but could we possibly track and cross-reference all these legal purchases to see if any troubling patterns or likely persons of interest emerge?
  • Privacy issues, you say? Let the Supreme Court decide. That’s why we have one.
  • Laws and regulations often make things more difficult or inconvenient for law-abiding citizens, but that seems a small price to pay if they prevent the more violent or unstable among us from shooting up a school or a mall or a movie theater. If I, who have never committed a terrorist act, must remove my shoes every damn time I board an airplane, I think it’s entirely reasonable that you, who have likely never shot another person in cold blood, should still have to jump through the occasional hoop to prove your fitness to own a firearm. I want to fly to Kansas City. You want to go deer hunting. Everybody pays to play.
  • We shouldn’t have to think of tragedies like Tucson, Aurora and Newtown as the cost of doing business so the gun lobby can celebrate its constitutional liberties.
  • Speaking of which, the National Rifle Association, firearms manufacturers, and the more extreme “when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers” types seriously need to chill the hell out and come to the table on this thing. Again, it’s a conversation about solving a very real problem in this country, and everyone needs to be part of the possible solution. Because every time a mass shooting occurs, it’s terrible public relations for one’s first impulse to be a vehement defense of the right to bear arms before the victims’ bodies are even cold.
  • Amendment II
    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.

    • Right up front, from a strictly editorial standpoint, that sentence needs to lose the first and third commas in order to make sense.
    • When was the last time we really needed a well regulated militia in this country? Eighteen sixty-five or thereabout? I’m not saying we don’t want to keep that ace in the hole for future reference, but can we at least stipulate that it’s not part of the discussion we need to have right now?
    • Semantics: I’ve got no problem with the right to bear arms, but for the record, the gun owners I respect most are the ones who regard it as a privilege.
    • in•fringe v.: to encroach upon in a way that violates law or the rights of another. Which definition would seem to place the acknowledged right in relationship to other established laws. That’s one way to look at it, anyway.
  • I don’t believe more guns are the answer. Conceal-carry laws make no sense to me. Where the hell do you live — and who the hell are you pissing off — that you need to be strapped to go to the grocery store?
  • Increased security in schools and churches? I’ve got no problem with that. Arming teachers and congregants? That’s where I have to draw the line.
  • Assault rifles? Seriously? Look, if our nation is ever invaded — by North Koreans, al-Qaeda, Huns, Cossacks, zombies, aliens, whoever — I might campaign for the federal government to issue an AK-47 to every American man, woman and child. In the meantime, though, no one who isn’t enlisted in our armed forces needs a fully automatic assault weapon for any reason whatsoever. Can we at least agree on that?

That’s more or less where I stand. I don’t believe my positions are particularly unreasonable or incendiary nor do I claim to be any more enlightened than anyone on any side of this proposed conversation. Your proportionate response is appreciated.

After all, I’m unarmed.

Written by Shepcat

December 15, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Posted in Life, The Nation