Monday, December 17, 2012

The Day I Became a Killer

When I was thirteen, I went to 4-H camp. We were there for a week and I was given a rifle and taught to shoot. It was nothing unusual. All kids where I lived, Idaho, were taught to shoot.

It turned out I was a very good shot. I still have the target that won me a ribbon in the 4-H competition in 1968. I found it in my scrapbook along with the blue ribbon I received for my banana nut bread that year. I actually have several target sheets in my collection, accumulated over a couple of years of 4-H camps.

I was praised by the adults around me for my shooting abilities and encouraged to practice. I loved hitting the bulls-eye of the target, so I eagerly agreed.

My award winning 4-H target
One day, my parents took me to the shooting range just outside of town. It was not a fancy place. The targets were metal cans set on a fence rail, all of them rusted, punctured multiple times by bullets.

I shot a few cans off the rail, each shell making a satisfying ping as it found its target. I was firing a shotgun that day. I didn't really like it because it was big and kicked me in the shoulder when I pulled the trigger. We were about to leave when my dad pointed to a dark spot on the hillside. It was much further away than the cans on the fence, but he said he thought I could hit it. He said I was a great shot.

I loved being praised for my shooting ability. I don't remember even wondering what the dark spot was. All I remember is lifting the gun, peering through the sight at the spot, and firing. The dark spot disappeared.

My dad suggested we go see what it was. I didn't much care, as I was ready to go home, but I trudged up the dry hill after him, navigating around sagebrush and cactus. When we reached the location where the dark spot had been, I saw them: feathers. Brown and black and white feathers, spread across the hillside.

It was an owl, he said. Its body had probably been blown apart, he said, by the shell exploding inside the bird. I didn't hear anything after that, since my stomach was twisting and I turned and ran, overcome with guilt.

I had killed. I had not intended to kill, but that seemed beside the point. I had done it.

It had never occurred to me that all these shooting lessons were training to be a hunter. I hadn't wanted to be a hunter. What I wanted was the praise of my father and my 4-H leader.

I never picked up a gun after that. In less than a second I had gone from shooting paper targets and cans to being a killer. I could not change what I had done, or who I had become, but I could vow to walk away from the gun culture, the one that glorifies shooting and hunting and vigorously defends our "right" to bear arms.

Advocates of "gun rights" talk about a slippery slope that will ensue if we begin banning certain classes of weapons or types of ammunition. Our right to bear arms will be taken away, they say. The "sport" of hunting will be threatened, they say.

Very little hunting that occurs in our country is undertaken for the purpose of putting food on the table. We need to be honest about the true purpose of this "sport," and ask those who defend hunting why they find it is necessary to kill other living creatures in order to have fun. There is another slippery slope, the one we begin sliding down when we confuse hunting for food with killing for pleasure. This is the truly dangerous slippery slope.

It is true that we, homo sapiens, are predators. Our place in the food chain is at the top and we must kill living things, either plant or animal or both, to survive. Joseph Campbell has said that the one, horrible truth of the cycle of existence that we all must embrace is that other living things must die so that we may live. When we take the life of another living thing for food, in order that we can live, we must do it in a humane and reverent way.

In these few days since the horrific killings in Newtown, Connecticut, many have called for action. Where to draw the line between guns we don't need and those we supposedly do need is being debated. I personally see no use for guns of any kind in our society, except in the hands of the police. A total ban on weapons would be fine with me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Simplifying Complexity

I started this blog four years ago today. I had a somewhat vague idea about what a blog was, and why I wanted one, but it was only through the actual writing of posts that I discovered what this blog is about. 

I'm not going to say what that is just yet, because I've had a sense, for some time now, that the focus of the blog has been changing. It was just a vague feeling for awhile, a sense that the blog was holding me back, was no longer what I wanted to spend time on or write about. Now that I've done a bit of analysis, I can see what that feeling is due to. I can see what has changed.

Take a look at this graph. It shows the number of posts per year on topics from two broad categories: (1) complexity science (the blue bars); and (2) writing (red). The data confirm the vague sense I had that I was no longer posting much about science. I hadn't realized, though, that posts about my writing life had actually crept in to take their place. In fact, the average number of posts per year (around 40) has not changed since 2010. What has changed is the content.

Number of blog posts per year in two broad categories - science and writing

Although I have had this vague sense for quite some time that my blog's purpose and focus has changed, I didn't want to confront it. I thought I "ought to" be writing about science. After all, I'm still interested in science -- I think about it, talk about it, read about it -- I just don't do it anymore. That has been true for a long time, actually. I gave up my lab almost ten years ago, published my last science paper nearly that long ago, and made a successful transition to what I considered a "second career" in science funding administration and, then, science writing.

I find it rather ironic and maybe even a bit amusing that I've figured out what's going on by taking a look at the data and analyzing it. Maybe I'm still more of a scientist than I'm ready to admit! This is just the way I think, though, and I can't seem to stop myself from looking at the world this way.

Anyhow, the upshot of this analysis is clear: this blog is no longer primarily about science. It probably never was, actually. It has been about all those things which interest me, one of which is science. In recent years, especially the last couple, I have been much more interested in writing and publishing than I have been in science. Anybody who is around me would not be surprised to hear this -- writing is what I do now. It is my full-time "job" (the quotes mean that while I consider it my job, very few people have ever paid me to do it) and it is what's on my mind. Hence, it's what I want to write blog posts about.

So, in the new year, I'm going to be doing some updating to the blog, primarily in the tagline area and description box for the blog. You won't see a lot of changes in the posts, although I hope this attempt to simplify the complexity of my life by writing about what I'm actually thinking about, will free me up to post more often. Only time will tell, I suppose -- and next year, at this time, I'll do another analysis of the posting data and we'll all see how well I succeeded.

In the meantime, take a look at my guest post over at the #amwriting blog -- today's post is my list of recommended books for writers. If you have a writer in your life and are looking for a gift idea, consider one of these great books. And if your favorite writing book didn't make it onto my list, please leave a comment with the details. Who knows, it may end up on my own wish list this year.