Friday, January 5, 2018

Why We Hunt

Photo credit: Adventures Plus Outfitters

Just before Christmas, hunter Michael Taylor shot and killed a massive black bear here in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. At 640 pounds, this black bear weighed 150 pounds more than the average black bear. It yielded over 300 pounds of processed meat.

A kill like this is big news in a small rural county like ours. We see black bears from time to time, sometimes crossing the highway, or out in a farmer's field, or sometimes casually strolling down some small town main street. News of this monstrous black bear traveled and was even picked up by a big news outlet from Raleigh.

As pictures of the hunter and his kill plastered local papers and social media outlets, the self-righteous came out in droves to criticize this hunter (and hunters in general) and to whine and cry about how black bear lives matter. #blackbearlivesmatter #BBLM



Photo credit: Eva Shockey
It isn't unusual for hunters to receive this type of backlash. In 2014, professional hunter Eva Shockey killed another North Carolina black bear. This one was a measly 510 pounds but apparently still warranted massive repercussions, including some 5,000 death threats.

According to much of the loud and ranting public, the lives of human hunters are worth far less than the animals they harvest and eat.

I can't help but wonder how many of the individuals slinging death threats at the likes of Eva Shockey and Michael Taylor have recently enjoyed a chicken sandwich or picked up a package of hamburger from their grocer's cooler. Because if you think attacking hunters for harvesting big, cuddly, unpredictably dangerous bears is okay, while exploiting acceptable "meat" animals, often raised in inhumane and dirty conditions, is perfectly acceptable...well, there is a deeper moral issue here than I thought.

I understand that the general public doesn't understand hunting. We are so far removed from our food sources that most people have never looked their dinner in the eye (unless you've picked a crustacean out of the tank at Red Lobster). We tend to think of meat as something that comes sealed in neat little plastic and Styrofoam packages. It is easy to forget that the meat between our hamburger buns was once an actual living, breathing animal.

The thing is, if you aren't a hunter, it is difficult to explain why we hunt, and it goes far beyond meat. Words fail to describe why we get up before the crack of dawn to sit for long hours in often uncomfortable conditions to harvest game, when we could just roll on down to the local Food Lion and pick up a pack of steaks. We wouldn't even have to wear sensible shoes.

I am a hunter.

In fact, the day this bear was killed, I was hunting in another part of Edgecombe County.

I won't apologize. I won't act ashamed because you think I should. And I will proudly take pictures of the game I've been lucky enough to tag.

I hunt because I love hunting.

Not because I love killing, although that is definitely a part of hunting.

I'm lucky to have spent large portions of my life in the woods. My father started toting me along on his hunting trips as soon as I was old enough to sit on a five-gallon bucket, pink-sneakered feet swinging inches above the ground. Yearly the woods call me back. Stepping into the forest on opening day feels like coming home.

Sitting on a deer stand, I thrill at every new morning, watching the darkness turn murky gray. Hearing the first songbird chirp out a song so strong it starts up a whole chorus. There is overwhelming satisfaction in knowing that the majority of the world is missing it, tucked tight in their comfortable beds in their climate-controlled buildings waiting for the shock of the alarm clock.

Sitting alone in a tree stand, you become part of the landscape as the creatures around you either forget you are there or accept you as one of their own. And you know that everything good. There is no wasted time in the woods, whether you release on arrow, squeeze the trigger, or go home with nothing more than the experience.

I've heard people wonder why hunters can't just take pictures. Couldn't we enjoy nature and the experience of being outdoors without harming any wildlife?

Pictures are nice, but taking pictures isn't hunting.

As a photographer, you are an observer of nature. As a hunter you are a participant. Hunters are part of the drama and the dance that is life in the wild.

We are predators, but the humane sort. Nothing dies easily in the circle of life. Don't let The Lion King fool you. It's not some sunshiny musical in the wild. Animals die every minute, with or without the help of a hunter. Most lives end in violence. Whether by the jaws of a coyote, the talons of a great horned owl, the claws of a cougar, or by merciless disease and starvation. All life comes to an end. Often death caused by a human hunter is the most humane. I choose to make my kills quick and clean, something Mother Nature isn't particularly good at.

While it is true that hunting is an essential part of wildlife management, that hunters are the largest source of funding for wildlife agencies and conservation efforts, I won't use these reasons to justify why I hunt. These are just side benefits, the reasons that sound good enough to justify hunting to the uninitiated.

I hunt because I love it.

Plain and simple.

With every fiber of my being.

And I know that these are just a smattering of words that you will read on a computer screen, and they are unlikely to change one single mind. Because mere words can never explain the magic or the drive or the feeling of being alive that accompanies the hunt.

If you are a hunter, you already know. We are kindred spirits, you and I, a misunderstood minority that will continue to be spat on, hated, and threatened. The masses will try to humiliate and threaten us. They will try to outlaw the sport that we love most.

But to be honest, I feel sorry for those people. Because they have no idea of the common yet breathtaking beauty that is alive in the woods. They have no idea what it feels like to have every nerve in your body thrumming like a live wire as you line up your sights on an animal you've been waiting for your whole life.

I hunt because I am.

I am proud to be a hunter, and I'm not going to apologize for it.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

5 Ways Not to Sexually Harass Your Co-Workers at the Office Christmas Party.

'Tis the season for office holiday parties. Normally when this time of year rolls around, we don those ugly sweaters, get drunk on the company's dime, and engage in some "Dirty Santa" shenanigans.

But the times, they are achangin'.

The most sacred traditions of the holiday are in jeopardy. This year, when everyone from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer to Al Franken have had their careers end in flaming wreckage after accusations of sexual assault or harassment, everyone everywhere is wondering who is next.

Many companies have decided to just do away with the holiday office party altogether. Others have watered them down so that an evening spent answering the customer service line seems more fun.

Who actually wants to hang out with their co-workers when there isn't any alcohol involved? Most of those people are the reason I drink in the first place!

The solution seems fairly clear: "Don't sexually harass your co-workers." But it may be a bit more complicated than that. The lines are still being drawn between what is acceptable social behavior and what is vile, unacceptable, and will send your ass straight into the fiery pits of Hell (aka the unemployment line care of Human Resources).

Things are fuzzy right now. I understand everyone's apprehension and confusion. Don't worry. I'm here to help. Here is the short list of Ways Not to Sexually Harass Your Co-Workers at the Office Christmas Party.

It is a short list, because time didn't allow for my 45 minute Power Point or 378-page Resource Guide. Expect those at the next business meeting.

1. Imagine your incredibly attractive co-worker is actually Doug from Accounting. You know the dude. Every company has one. Doug from Accounting is super awkward, never really knows what to do with his hands, and smells faintly of anchovies. Doug from Accounting has droopy man boobs, wears glasses that were stylish in the mid 80s, and pants that went of style before that.

Now. When you are tempted to comment on how totally hot your female co-worker is in that tight red sweater, ask yourself if you would make the same comment to Doug from Accounting. Would you tell Doug from Accounting, "Wowza! You look hot in that sweater" while staring at his moobs? No. No, you would not.

Would you instead say "Good evening, Doug from Accounting. That's a nice sweater" while maintaining eye contact. Perhaps.

Or maybe you just wouldn't comment on Doug from Accouting's sweater at all, because that's weird and you wouldn't want poor awkward Doug to feel uncomfortable or get the wrong idea about your sexual preferences. Yeah. You probably shouldn't say anything.

The bottom line? Ask yourself "Would I say that, do that, give that to, or otherwise think that about Doug from Accounting?" If the answer is no, then don't do it.

2. Drink responsibly. You aren't at a college frat party. You are an adult now and this should really go without saying.

I'm not about to suggest you shouldn't drink at all. That's the whole point of an office party, and after the year we've had, I think we all deserve to down a few (just be sure to hand over your keys and maybe call an Uber). However, if drinking tends to lead to sexual assault for you, it's time to step away from the cash bar.

If you see your attractive co-worker in the tight red sweater passed out drunk in the corner, just picture Doug from Accounting. Are you going to feel up Doug from Accounting while he's passed out in the corner?

Ladies, this one is for you, too. Having a few glasses of wine is one thing, but getting passed out drunk in the corner of the office party is never a good idea. Too many women have been groped or worse after they've had a few too many cosmos. Besides, that sort of thing isn't exactly professional, and this IS an office party. Drooling on that pretty red sweater while your co-workers watch isn't going to land you that next promotion.

And yes, I realize this is "victim blaming" so go ahead and send your hateful emails. I will continue to believe the person ultimately responsible for a woman's safety is the woman herself.

3. Limit physical contact. Handshakes are always appropriate. A hand on the shoulder might be okay, but let's keep this professional. Don't let that hand linger. Don't start rubbing. And I don't care how soft her red sweater is...

No! Don't let it drift any further south!

ABORT! ABORT!

And you should definitely NOT grab her by the you-know-what. Unless you are the President of the United States, you're definitely not getting away with that.

If you have trouble keeping your hands to yourself, just shove them in your pockets. Sure you might look awkward like Doug from Accounting, but he's never had a sexual harassment charge, has he?

4. Get rid of "Dirty Santa." I know it's just a fun office gift exchange, but playing anything called "Dirty Santa" is just begging for someone to be inappropriate. The minute someone gifts a dildo, the entire ship is going down. Even Doug from Accounting.

5. Make an early exit. Like Mama always said, "Nothing good happens after midnight." Hanging around until the wee hours of the morning while the alcohol flows is just begging for trouble. The minute someone says, "Hey, Doug from Accounting! Hold my beer while I grope this passed out chick in the red sweater," it's time to hit the road.

"Hasta la vista, co-workers. I'm off to work on my end-of-the-year reports."

Because even though sexually harassing co-workers might sound like fun, there are consequences now.

Finally.

There are consequences.













Thursday, August 17, 2017

What Do You See When You Look at a Confederate Monument?

The Durham monument before it was vandalized.
I was in Rochester, NY enjoying mild temperatures and low humidity when "protesters" clashed in Charlottesville, VA last weekend. On Monday, when Durham, NC vandals tore down a Confederate "monument", I was driving through picturesque Valley Forge, PA. I don't often head "up North" unless it is to visit family, mostly due to a serious lack of sweet tea.

In spite of enjoying weather that made me question my decision to live in the sweltering South, I was in a hurry to get home.

I am a Southerner through and through. I say "y'all" and "yonder" and often drop the "g" on the end of words like "huntin'" and "fishin'." Southern pride is a very real thing, even though it's hard for those of you without several generations of Southern DNA coursing through your veins to really understand. And surprisingly enough, it has nothing to do with white supremacy or racism, in spite of what the media might have you believe.

Over the past several days, we've witnessed a frenzied hysteria surrounding our Confederate symbols. Large "news" conglomerates like The New York Times have claimed that "Confederate monuments have always been symbols of white supremacy."

I understand some of the arguments for removing some of these symbols of the Confederacy. I can see the point often made about monuments to war criminals and conquered governments. Perhaps it is true that war monuments to Confederate generals are inappropriate additions to government spaces. Even if you attempt to rationalize the War Between the States being motivated by state's rights, it is hard to deny that the subject of slavery is intricately woven into the fabric of Southern motives for secession.

But these monuments and memorials that dot our Southern towns and cities aren't seen as symbols of hate by everyone. They haven't always or only been symbols of white supremacy. That is oversimplifying a complex issue.

Although the saying has been grossly overused, sometimes those symbols actually represent "heritage, not hate."

Stay with me. Hold your hate mail until the end.

Heritage, by definition, is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture. Southern heritage and culture is a rich tapestry of values and morals and way of life. It is far more than Confederate monuments, reenactments, and rebel flags. It is also courage, work ethic, family values, loyalty, and knowing your neighbor. It is honesty, front porch sitting, pecan pie, and sweet tea. And yes... it is Civil War battlegrounds and small town Confederate monuments. It is respect for our Confederate dead.

It is part of our Southern identity, and it is so entwined with the smell of jasmine and magnolias that you just can't pull one thread without the average Southerner being afraid the whole sweater will unravel.

And maybe the whole sweater will unravel. After the incident in Durham, the city of Baltimore removed their confederate statues under cover of darkness. And just this morning, we learned that a statue of Robert E. Lee was defaced in Duke University's beautiful chapel. Plus we are seeing petitions circulating all over social media feeds calling for the removal of memorials to fallen Confederate soldiers. There are threats that they will be removed by force if necessary.

In the small North Carolina town that I call home, we have our own Confederate memorial. It is a fountain that sits prominently on our lush green Town Common. The fountain is a symbol of Tarboro itself, and has adorned postcards, brochures, and magazines.

It was placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1910 in memory of Henry Lawson Wyatt, the first Confederate soldier killed in the War Between the States. He once called Tarboro home, too. I wonder if he looked over his shoulder at Tarboro when he marched off to war. Did he have any inkling that he would never see it again? Did his mother?

The Durham monument that was toppled on Monday wasn't dedicated to Southern glory or military prowess or even secessionist ideals. The inscription on the front read "In Memory of the Boys Who Wore the Gray."

Boys who mostly never owned slaves. Boys who left home and never came back. Boys who suffered unspeakable hardships on the field of war and faced horrific deaths. Boys who believed they were honorably defending their homes and families.

So if all you can see when you look at a Confederate monument is hate, racism, and oppression, maybe you aren't looking hard enough. Some of us see death and senseless loss of life. We see husbands, sons, and brothers who died senselessly and horrifically. We want to remember them. It is the main reason we hold to our Southern Pride.

Because those young boys, the 620,000 of them who senselessly lost their lives on both sides, were really just pawns in a war for political power. And not one of them deserved the fate they received.

Here is what a lot of us see in those memorials and monuments that are being vandalized, kicked, and toppled amid screams of racism and hate...








Thursday, July 27, 2017

The High Cost of Transgender Persons in the Military - And It Isn't What You Think

Yesterday, Trump announced via tweet that he was reinstating a ban on transgender people serving in the United States military. This is a reversal of an almost last minute policy President Obama made on his way out the Oval Office door.

“Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly,” then Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced, on June 30, 2016. “They can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender.”

He said that the Pentagon would cover the medical costs of those in uniform who wished to undergo gender transition, and that it would begin a yearlong training program for service members on the changes.

I can't help but wonder if that yearlong training program for service members was included in the Pentagon's predicted policy-change cost of $4.2 million dollars a year.

Even though I am the mother of an army soldier, which gives me a specific perspective on military current events, I am no military expert. Claiming to be an expert on the grounds that my son is active duty military would be like giving advice to brain surgeons because my uncle is a brain surgeon. That would be stupid. (Although I did read American Sniper and even saw Lone Survivor in the movie theater, so I am obviously more qualified than most, right?)

Anyway, please be advised to take my opinions with a grain of salt. Certainly not more than several grains of salt. And maybe some tequila and lime. It will be more interesting that way.

It didn't take long for lines to be drawn and sides taken over this policy announcement. As news of Trump's transgender ban hit the internet's social media shit fan, people either joined in a virtual standing ovation or started screaming fits about taking away transgender rights.

First, I would like to remind everyone that the avatars you are insulting are actual human beings. Sure they may not think like you, and maybe they didn't vote like you, but they are in fact people. Most of them get up each morning, drink a cup of coffee, drop their kids off at school, and worry about how they are going to pay the bills.

Even people who are different than you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Isn't that the whole concept behind LGBTQ rights? I'm talking to you here, Liberal Left. You shouldn't have to belong to some trumped up marginalized group in order to be treated with at least basic common courtesy.

And to the Right... this isn't a sporting event. And even if it were, taunting the opposition when you score is really, REALLY poor form.

But here's the deal:

No one has taken away anyone else's rights.

Military service isn't a "right".

Nowhere in the Constitution is "military service" listed as an inalienable human right.

You see, you don't get to join the military just because you want to. It isn't some summer recreational activity you just waltz into the local YMCA and sign up for. It isn't a summer soccer league or swim class. The United States military is one of the most selective organizations on the face of the planet.

Everyday, Uncle Sam discriminates on the basis of age, intelligence, education, fitness level, body composition, drug use, medical history, and mental health. The United States military can deny your enlistment for anything from ingrown toenails to low scores on the ASVAB ( Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery).

According to the Pentagon, approximately 71% of the 34 million 17-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. do not qualify for military service.

The vast majority of those who want to serve are denied. Currently, the U.S. military only takes about 20% of the eager applicants who walk through the door of their local recruiting office.

The number of citizens serving in the military is a very small slice of the American pie. Military personnel make up LESS THAN ONE PERCENT of the total U.S. population.

That's not very fair, is it? Well, war isn't exactly fair, either.

Uncle Sam is not an Equal Opportunity Employer, and military service isn't a right. It's a privilege.

A privilege is something enjoyed by a group of individuals beyond what is available to others. It is something often regarded as an honor, although in today's culture the word "privilege" is almost a dirty word. In spite of that, not everyone who wants to serve in the armed forces actually makes it past the aptitude tests, physical assessments, and psychological screenings required for service.

It's like this: You may have a right to use the bathroom, but you don't have permission to use this particular bathroom. Individuals may have the right to employment, but that doesn't mean he/she/they have to be employed by the U.S military. (And yes, I'm using the bathroom analogy on purpose.)

When the United States military claims to have an elite fighting force, they really mean it.

The reason there are so many screenings and tests and evaluations and hoops to jump through is important. Military service is a privilege only given to those best equipped to defend us against those who wish to do us harm.

There are barbarian and savage forces knocking at our door, bent on our destruction. Even if it may be true that we're worthy of their ire. They don't want to hug it out. We can't keep them at bay with good intentions, inclusiveness, political correctness, or fluttering rainbow flags.

No, what keeps those forces from busting down our door is an elite fighting force. And it needs to remain elite to be effective. The card-carrying members of our armed forces should be mentally and physically capable of beating back the wolves at our doorstep. The more selective, the better in my book, because I enjoy sleeping soundly at night.

But before you send me hate mail bitching about how bigoted I am or call me awful names because I'm condoning the dehumanization of a subset of the population, let me clarify something.

I don't care if you claim gender dysphoria. I don't care what you do to your body. I don't care if you play with your own hormone levels, or undergo gender reassignment surgery. I don't care whether you float from identifying as a boy to a girl to a frickin' toaster on a day-to-day basis. I just don't care. I won't think you are less of a person because you may slap a "Transgender" label on yourself. I will treat you with all of the respect and dignity I can muster. I am Southern, after all. I'll hold the door for you, smile and comment about the weather, and even "bless your heart." That's just common human decency.

However, I don't think thrusting individuals with gender dysphoria into the military is a wise idea, and it has nothing to do with treatment costs, social stigma, or backwards bigotry.

It is common knowledge that people with gender dysphoria have higher rates of mental health conditions. Some estimates say that at least 71% of people with gender dysphoria will have a mental health diagnosis in their lifetime. That includes mood disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicidal tendencies.

Whatever the causes of these often traumatic mental issues is immaterial. Will acceptance cure these mental issues? Maybe. But we shouldn't be gambling on it by tossing these individuals into an environment riddled with its own epidemic of mental health issues.

According to a 2014 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, nearly one in four active duty military members show signs of a mental health condition. With rates of depression five times higher than non-military populations, and suicide rates almost three times those in the civilian world, military life is obviously mentally stressful.

Why would we want to thrust someone with a potential predisposition for depression and suicide into a situation that breeds depression and suicide? That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster. For everyone involved.

This isn't just about what is politically correct. It isn't just about military morale, either. Perhaps the military isn't the safest place for transgender individuals.

I suppose if that makes me a bigot, I'll just have to wear the label. I'd rather be a logic-driven bigot than a blind idealist if it saves the life of even one fragile person.

And there's way more on the line here than the lives of these "marginalized"people. Because in comparison to the barbarians lurking at the door, we're all pretty fragile.






Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Just a Girl

On Monday and Wednesday afternoons, just before dinner, I teach a karate class. It is a small class of rambunctious 4 and 5 year-olds that keeps me on my toes and often stretches my patience. But it is usually the highlight of my week.

I've been teaching this class of small children for two years, and it has been overwhelmingly populated by boys. I don't know if it is because more boys want to learn to punch and kick with skill and authority, while maybe their female peers are wanting to dress in pink tutus and learn to pirouette. Maybe it's because the mothers of boys desperately want an activity that will burn off some of the excess energy that drives their sons to climb walls, knock over furniture, and ride the cat.

I don't know. But for whatever reason, until very recently, my class has been almost entirely boys.

And then in walked one little girl and like a dropped domino two more followed her. Now there are three girls forming a minority at the end of the class line-up.

I don't treat them any differently than I do the boys. They get high fives when they succeed, are encouraged when they don't, and told to "suck it up" when they get hurt. As far as I'm concerned, there is no gender on the training mat.

Last week, we were working on forward rolls, a skill that the little boys who've been around a while can mostly execute with an amount of clumsy confidence. But one of the little boys seemed concerned when it was the newest girl's turn.

"But she doesn't know how to do it," he said. Whether to me, or himself, or the boy next to him, I'm not sure. Then he added...

"Well...she's just a girl."

Just. A. Girl.

As if to dismiss her or excuse her potential failure. Do even small boys expect less of their female peers?

Three little words from a boy who has yet to reach 3 and 1/2 feet tall. And yet the weight of them fell heavy on my soul.

I reminded him that I was "just a girl." And that my younger daughter who helps with the class (and regularly mops the dojo floor with grown men when she spars) is also "just a girl." And then I told him that he was, in fact, "just a boy."

And then that new little girl executed an almost perfect forward roll in front of the entire class.

Thank you, Universe for your well-timed poetic justice.

She got a high five.

I know that little boy didn't have any feelings of ill will toward his female classmate. He didn't say those words to insult or demean or ridicule, at least not intentionally. It was likely an innocent observation. But his choice of words has hummed around like a swarm of angry irritated bees in my brain for days.

Because this sweet little baby-faced boy is only five. He has yet to be subjected to the mind scrub that is public school. Too young to understand sexist programming, or gender stereotypes, or to see women as mindless objects. He must still think his mother is a super hero.

And yet somehow, it seems to have already crept like some dark scourge into his young and impressionable mind. To so easily dismiss someone's ability to succeed because they are female seems like it could have long-reaching effects, like the creeping tendrils of a pesky choking weed. Who is to blame? Parents? The media? Other children? The evil marketers of children's toys? How is sexism passed on into the subconscious of nursery school children?

There is a good possibility that I am over-reacting. Preschool children are just beginning to understand their own gender identities. And since small children tend to think in rigid terms of black and white, it makes sense in their developing brains to compartmentalize males and females and what they are capable of doing.

As they mature, children's thinking tends to become more flexible. Chances are good that he will grow out of the strict stereotypical views that he now holds in an innocent attempt to make sense of a confusing world.

In the mean time, a karate class led by strong and capable female instructors is right where he needs to be Hopefully, it will also help those three little girls believe that they are capable, strong, and able. And when those capable, strong, able little girls in class start pushing his small 5 year-old body around the mat, well that's only going to bring home the message that women aren't weak and frail, that they aren't something to be dismissed, that they can command their own respect.

And just to be on the safe side, I think I'll kick the bag extra hard before class. Because that's how I plan to fight sexism. One powerful roundhouse kick at a time. Powerful role models are the only thing strong enough to combat both the subliminal and the overt messages our children are pummeled with relentlessly.

I'll do my best to be a good one.




Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Remembering the Pulse Nightclub Shooting One Year Later

My family had the recent privilege of spending two days and three nights in sunny Orlando, Florida. While Florida is often painted as some sort of tropical paradise, I'm afraid we often fail to place enough emphasis on "tropical". Especially in June. I didn't realize how being 650 miles closer to the equator would magnify the heat of the sun. I have never been more thankful for sun screen and air conditioning

I was there for the BlogHer 2017 conference and thought it would be a blast to drag along the family. There's nothing quite like spending 10 hours in a vehicle, cruising 75 mph down I-95, for family bonding. Despite his best efforts, my husband has yet to convince the offspring of the real artistic value of music from his 1980s techno phase. Sorry, Hon. Maybe next trip.

When friends and family and total strangers learned we would be visiting Orlando, there was an automatic assumption that we were going to visit at least one of the many overpriced mouse-themed amusement parks.  But we didn't. Mostly because I am "The Meanest Mom Ever", but also because I don't enjoy the prospect of supporting expensive capitalistic tourist traps. (You can read that as: "We can't afford the admission tickets." Those two things are basically synonymous.)

Instead, the kids and their dear ol' Dad hung out at the resort swimming pool, played video games in the resort arcade, and generally enjoyed the resort's fantastic air conditioning while I rubbed elbows with bloggers from all over the country.


A picture from our brief visit to Pulse Nightclub
But don't think I didn't take the kids to see any of the Orlando sights. On the contrary.

We made a trip by Orlando's Pulse Nightclub, the site of the worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history.

Don't let anyone tell you that I don't know how to show my kids a good time.

We were in Orlando just a few days after the one-year anniversary of Omar Mateen's violent rampage that killed 49 people and wounded another 58. The entire country was turned upside down. It left us all questioning our safety in public places and sparked a national debate that blamed everything from gun culture to men kissing for Mateen's heinous act.

We even blamed masculinity, forgetting that it was mostly men who rushed in to eliminate the threat, secure the area, and treat the wounded. (Shameless plug: I wrote about it here.)

I'm not sure why we felt the need to go there, but I can tell you it moved us. I don't know if it was the murals painted with words and images of mourning and loss or just the mundane surroundings. Maybe it is because occupying space where so much chaos and hate erupted and rippled through our culture is a humbling thing.

I was most struck by the size of the place. Pulse Nightclub isn't particularly large. I think I expected more from Orlando with its giant theme parks and reputation for the grandiose. But there are much larger clubs back in Greenville, NC where I went to college.

There is nothing particularly impressive or fancy about Pulse, or the business that surround it, or the bustling street that it occupies. It is difficult for me to understand how something so utterly commonplace and unremarkable could stir up such hate and disgust in one human being.

Seeing the size made me realize just how packed it must have been. Dancing with throbbing music and pulsing lights with more than 300 of your closest friends must have made those first shots so very disorienting.

For Omar Mateen, it must have been like shooting fish in a barrel.

I figure somewhere in their adult lives, my children will probably recline in some therapist's office and tell the story of how their family went on vacation to Florida. Their therapist will look baffled as he or she scribbles notes about how their mother wouldn't even let them go to Disney World. Instead she took them to the scene of recent history's worst mass shooting.

But empathy is a difficult thing to teach, especially to teenagers. For them, too much of life is viewed filtered through a screen. Constantly connected to phones and tablets and laptops, it sometimes becomes difficult to distinguish news stories from video games and the latest season of their favorite Netflix series.

It is one thing to watch the aftermath of violence and death played out on cable news and quite another to stand in the spot it happened. To see the people still milling about the fenced-off parking lot in somber reflection. To see the teddy bears and candles and flowers piled at the base of a wall scrawled with messages of good-bye, messages of love and loss and pain,. That makes it more real than watching news footage of crime scenes and flashing lights or people running frantically down Orlando streets in the middle of the night.

We saw the exit doors that the revelers attempted to open in panic only to find them locked or barred. It was easy to imagine frightened people piled against them as each one realized there was no way out, hearing the gunshots that were systematically killing the people piled up behind them.

Being in that space made the fear more palpable. It was easier to imagine it being you or someone you love lying frightened and bleeding inside of those unassuming walls.

The children were absolutely silent while we were there.

Later, I asked them what they had thought about seeing the Pulse Nightclub.

"I don't know," they told me, shrugging their shoulders with typical teen dullness.

I counted it a success that they didn't roll their eyes.

"How did it make you feel?" I asked, pushing a little more.

All of them were quiet for a long stretched-out moment. I felt almost defeated, which is often how mothers of teenagers must feel.

Then the youngest said in a small sighing voice, "Just really sad."

It wasn't apathy at all that made them silent. It was heaviness. A heaviness born out of sympathy and feeling... and empathy.

I'm not high-fiving myself on this one, though, because it doesn't really feel like a parenting success While I think I succeeded in orchestrating a teachable moment about empathy and respect toward our fellow humans, I'm just really sad, too. I'm just really sad to have to prepare my children for a world that can be so cruel.

And while empathy is one of the most important characteristics we can cultivate in the next generation, I'm also cultivating other things, too. Because empathy, while powerful, won't save them if they ever find themselves jammed against an exit door as gunshots ring out behind them.

Call me paranoid if you'd like, but my children also know how to be cautious and aware. To always have an escape plan whenever they are in public. To know how to disarm an attacker or go down trying.

Because even the most empathetic fish is still just a fish swimming laps in a barrel.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Fitting Farewell for an Old Salty Fisherman

This past weekend we spread my father's ashes.

Only half of them actually. His wish was for half to be spread over his favorite fishing spot and the other half spread in his favorite deer hunting spot. That means he'll be split between the Chesapeake Bay and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's completely appropriate since that is how he spent his life -  split between two loves, separated by the seasons.

So, on the first Saturday of the Virginia cobia season, I boarded my dad's boat, the Alice Grace, for the last time. We sat the little black box containing what is left of my father's body in the Captain's chair while my uncle drove along Buckroe Beach standing behind the wheel and leaving my Dad to sit in his favorite seat. It was a beautiful day for fishing, with the wind turning mid-day to blow from the South West.

The old Buckroe Pier
When I was a kid on summer break, back before we had instant access to weather apps, I would religiously watch the afternoon news. Not because I was particularly interested in current events, but because I needed to check tides and wind direction.

When Daddy's truck came pulling up the gravel road in the late afternoon, I would meet him in the yard.

"South West at five miles an hour."

That was all I had to say. We'd throw the heavers and a bait bucket in the back of the truck and head for Buckroe Pier.

I can't tell you how many hours my dad spent on that pier. Some of the earliest memories I have are of me riding his shoulders out to the end or of my tiny body wrapped around his leg like a vise because I was afraid I would fall through the cracks in the boards.

I know he fished long before I came along. There are old black and white pictures of him with large cobia and the red drum that held the pier record for decades. But I know that half my childhood (the summer months of cobia season and the early bluefish run) was spent on that pier with him, watching storms brew up over the Bay, catching fish, getting sunburn, laughing at stupid jokes.

Most of the time we spent there wasn't spent catching fish at all. Fishing for big fish is a bit of a waiting game. You bait the hook, toss it out, and wait. We would go weeks without catching anything. But when a big cobia grabbed your line and headed for deeper water, the sound of a screaming drag would make your heart race as you rushed to grab your pole. You have to let them run just long enough to get a good hold before setting the hook and starting the fight.

Waiting for the cobia run
Photo Credit: Buckroe Fishing Pier
So, we scattered half his ashes, the half that loved to fish, just off of Buckroe Pier. It seems like a place he would want to be. It's a spot that must feel like home.

My father's sister has a bad back. For her, climbing into a boat was out of the question. Instead, she took her walker all the way out to the end of Buckroe Pier. She planned to watch from there as we spread his ashes from the boat. It takes time to launch a boat from a public marina on the first Saturday of the cobia season, so she got there long before we did. Which gave her plenty of time to chat with the cobia fishermen parked on the end of the pier hoping for a big one. Some of the older guys remembered my dad. There are still pictures of him up under the shack where you pay to fish.

It was pretty quiet fishing, not much going on in spite of the beautiful weather and favorable winds.

On the boat, I pried open the black box with a filet knife and sliced open the plastic bag inside. I had a moment of panic as I held the bag poised over the port side remembering that Daddy couldn't swim. But I dumped him anyway, figuring it was time, and his ashes floated on top like a good chum slick across the end of Buckroe Pier. Then he slowly dropped through the water and out of sight as we rode off down the beach.

Meanwhile, on Buckroe Pier, my Aunt watched from the railing. As the ashes hit the water, the lazy quiet of afternoon fishing erupted into excitement as people dashed for their poles. Because the reels that had been still and quiet all day were suddenly screaming with the first good cobia runs of the season.

And while you can chalk it up to coincidence if you'd like, I think it was probably something else entirely.  It was like a farewell 21-rod salute for an old salty fisherman. A fitting exit, don't you think?

Rest easy, Daddy. See you when I see you.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Problem with Women Infantrymen

On Friday, the United States Army graduated 18 women from the very first gender-integrated infantry basic training. This comes a full year after the Army lifted the ban on women serving in the armor and infantry branches, what many would consider the primary fighting arms of the US Army.

These 18 women are the first to earn blue cords and become junior enlisted female infantrymen.

Army photograph by Patrick A. Albright

I have mixed feelings about this.

I'm fairly certain that there are going to be people who come out of the woodwork like swarming cockroaches to tell me how behind the times I am. I'll be called a misogynist and a sexist and probably closed-minded. Internet bullies will shout about me being old fashioned and a product of the patriarchy.

I'm okay with that.

But before we go any further, let me just point out that I've always been one to bust through gender stereotypes. I can accurately shoot high-powered weapons without flinching. I've field dressed my own game and dragged my own deer over mountainous terrain. I can bait a hook, clean a fish, build a campfire, and skin a squirrel.

I'm also no stranger to combat sports. I hold the rank of second degree black belt, and I'm not afraid to scrap with the guys, even the ones who outweigh me and can out-muscle me. I can take a punch as well as deliver one, and I've currently got some badass bruises to prove it.

So there is a part of me that is cheering on these eighteen women, because they've completed some amazingly difficult training in an area that isn't exactly welcoming to anything feminine. I kinda want to fist bump them and acknowledge their strength, bravery, and general badassery.

But...

I have a son in the infantry.

And everyday I pray that all 6 foot 2 inches and 220 pounds of him stays safe.

While all 18 of those female infantrymen have passed stringent qualifying tests of marksmanship and skill. They are physically women. Most of them are under 5'4" and weigh somewhere in the 100 to 120 pound range.

The Army has already lowered it's minimum requirements for Basic Training PFT in order to even the playing field and ensure women can actually make it into the Army.  As it stands, women are required to perform less than half the push-ups expected of their male peers and are given more than an extra three minutes to finish their two-mile run.

That's fine.  There are plenty of military positions for females where their weaker physical prowess is NOT an issue.  Shoot.  There are even combat positions where a woman's inferior physical strength might not be an issue. Flying planes and helicopters or operating other equipment, even serving as snipers leaves their typically weaker build out of the equation.

But this is the infantry. Some of these women, after they've completed Airborne training at Fort Benning, will be off to Fort Bragg where they will serve alongside my son. These women will be serving alongside men, potentially in fire fights and hand-to-hand situations, because in a fit of blind feminism and political correctness, we've turned our military fighting force into a freakin' social experiment. And it isn't the brand new physically fit, stereotype-breaking women infantrymen that will pay for it, either. It's the men whose ranks they are about to enter.

It isn't a matter of whether these women can handle the emotional stress of combat. It isn't about their skills with weaponry or warfare. It isn't about whether they are capable of earning the respect of male soldiers. It isn't even about how they will mange peeing in the field or dealing with Aunt Flo.

Under most circumstances, their gender means absolutely nothing.

But...

As a mother, the thought of my son being injured in a fire fight with his only chance of survival being that one of his fellow soldiers carry his injured 6'2" 220 pound body, dressed in heavy combat gear, out of harm's way... that the only soldier available to perform that duty might be a 5'4" 120 pound female who made it through OSUT because the physical requirements were lowered for her gender to make things more progressive and politically correct...  that is something I cannot emotionally handle.

At the end of the day, does it really matter if she can shoot, or clear a room, or march in formation, or recite the Infantryman's Creed? Does any of that matter if she would have to abandon an injured soldier on the battlefield because she is physically incapable of getting him to safety?

It's not about being fair.  It's not about how hard women work or train. It's not even about whether women can handle the emotional or mental strain of intense combat situations. 

Because a woman, even a woman in top physical form, is still a woman. And a small 5-foot tall woman may not be capable of supporting her comrades-in-arms in necessary, life-saving ways.  We can't afford to sacrifice the safety of our sons for the sake of some feminist social agenda. Maybe the US military isn't the place for complete gender integration. At least not until we make the physical standards. at least for every combat MOS, the same for both men and women.

Because that's just not "fair" to the men who have to count on those women infantrymen, sometimes for their very lives.

Perhaps there is a reason the term is "infantrymen" and not "infantrypersons." Or maybe I really am just a product of the patriarchy. But just because we all have equal rights doesn't mean we are all created with equal abilities.



Thursday, May 11, 2017

What This Mother Thinks of the "Mother of All Bombs"

Last year on Mother's Day, my oldest child was several hundred miles away. I got a lovely letter from Fort Benning, Georgia the day before Mother's Day. On the back, he had traced an outline of his hand.

His hands are huge now. Man-sized hands. My entire hand fit inside the outline of his. But I have his toddler hand prints, stamped in bright-blue acrylic paint inside of an old Mother's Day card, that prove they once fit entirely inside of mine.

This Mother's Day I'm lucky. He's stationed just 2 hours away at Fort Bragg, where he is a proud member of the 82nd Airborne Division, the primary fighting arm of the XVIII Airborne Corps. Chances are good that he will find his way home this weekend and, if I can tear him away from his girlfriend long enough, I might just get to eat lunch with him. 

I realize that I am blessed. There are plenty of military mothers who may only get a hurried phone call from their sons and daughters who are stationed thousands of miles away.

I still have a hard time reconciling the 6'2" man in combat boots, who walks toward me with purpose and an infantry swagger ,with the memory images of my son in a Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirt, strapped inside of his booster seat, happily tossing pieces of his cheese toast to the family dog. That dog loved him almost as much as I do. 

We buried that dog in my grandmother's flower bed almost 10 years ago.

This week, the American people are all kinds of pissed and upset and preoccupied with Trump's firing of FBI director, James Comey. Meanwhile, the fact that Trump is most likely planning to send another 5,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan is mostly being ignored. 

My son was five years old when the war in Afghanistan began.

He was busy tossing cheese toast to the family dog.



Since then, more than 2,200 Americans have been killed and another 20,000 injured fighting in Afghanistan. It has been the costliest and longest war the United States has ever been involved in. And yet, we really haven't accomplished much. So it seems logical to send more troops, right?

While large portions of the population have conveniently forgotten about the conflict in Afghanistan because it is old news, I am painfully aware. I suspect a lot of military mothers keep one finger on the pulse of the Middle East. Because our precious sons and daughters aren't tossing cheese toast anymore.


Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. military tossed "The Mother of All Bombs" on Afghanistan. MOAB actually stands for "Massive Ordinance Air Blast." But hey... Mother's Day is right around the corner and we need to be festive.

Critics of the move have asked the rhetorical question, "Would a mother ever conduct such an act of violence?" 

Yes. 

Yes, she would.

Let me explain. 

MOAB is a very destructive weapon, but it is precise. The 22,000-pound bomb leaves a large footprint of destruction, but that destruction isn't random. It is capable of hitting very distinct targets. The MOAB that was tossed on Afghanistan targeted a system of tunnels and caves that ISIS fighters used to move around freely, making it easier for them to target U.S. military advisers and Afghan forces in the area. 

Just a week before the "Mother of All Bombs" was unleashed, Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar, a Green Beret and a father of five, was killed in the same area. 

The MOAB struck the epicenter of ISIS operations and cleared the imminent threat so that Special Forces could go in with lower risk. The use of a MOAB meant Afghan and U.S. troops, which launched a mission in that region in March, did not have to fight in the areas where they were at a distinct disadvantage.

I'm guessing that Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar's mother probably wishes we'd tossed that MOAB a week earlier.

That sounds exactly like what a mother would do - set forth all the power of Heaven and Hell to keep her child from harm.

We fly an American flag in our front yard. Not because we are proud of our government, but because we are proud of our son. While we try to paint our troops with all kinds of patriotic labels,  the truth is, the powers-that-be treat our troops like expendable faceless pawns in a game of political posturing. 

To them they aren't patriots. They are pawns in political games of power.

I watch the chess game with trepidation, holding my breath as our sons get moved around the chess board by egomaniacal world leaders. Some promised to send them all home and then yelled "Sike!" (Cough, cough... Obama), and others frighten and frustrate me in entirely different ways (I really have to question the decision making abilities of anyone with such a horrible combover).

While I question whether our troops belong in Afghanistan at all, if they have to be there... send in the mothers first, whether in bomb form or otherwise. Drop the "Mother of All Bombs" like so many tiny pieces of cheese toast all over the kitchen floor. Clear the way for our sons and daughters to go in so all that's left in their way is empty sand.

Because while I would love to see peace in our time, if it comes down to my child or yours... I would tear yours apart with my own two hands.

Happy Mother's Day.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Why the Yale Hunger Strike Makes Me Feel Old

I was beginning to think I was getting old. I figured I was turning into an old lady partially because I can no longer make out the letters on a restaurant menu without my reading glasses. There's also the embarrassing fact that I constantly have to ask the kids how to work the darned TV remote.

But mostly, I was feeling rather old because I just don't understand young people anymore.

You see, just a little over a week ago, eight Yale graduate students went on a hunger strike. They've parked themselves in front of the home of the university president in mild 65 degree weather to suffer for a cause. It sounds noble. Surely these eight brave students will go down in history right alongside other noble heroes of the hunger strike like Ghandi against caste system, Alice Paul for women's suffrage, and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

This has got to be serious stuff right?

But do you know what human injustice they are protesting? Their sweet $30,000 a year teaching stipend (for teaching about 14 hours a week), free health care, and a tuition-free ride to one of the world's most prestigious universities. The onerous conditions under which these poor privileged graduate students live makes me shudder in horror.

Back in my day, we had to work our way through college...five miles through the snow. Uphill both ways.

But then their handy little protest pamphlet hit the internet airwaves. It isn't a REAL hunger strike. It's only a symbolic one. If they get too deliriously hungry, they can just leave to grab a burger (although they would probably prefer some tofu, but I might be jumping to grand conclusions). Someone else will just hop in and take their place. It's like a tag team hunger strike. That way no one has to be too uncomfortable.

And that is why I was almost convinced that I am old. I read this news story and I just couldn't relate. And when you can't relate to people in their youth, when they annoy you, when they mostly bother and irritate you, you've become a crotchety old curmudgeon.

 I must be old because all I really want to do is smack those coddled, entitled, idiotic whippersnappers upside the head. Maybe it would knock some sense into them.

What is wrong with young people these days?

Older generations have traditionally scorned the ideas and attitudes of the young. Look at how our grandparents treated our hippie parents. It's tradition that the mature generation misunderstand and even scorn the simplistic idealism of the younger. It's the way the wheel turns.

Is it because young people are immature? Or that they just have a radical utopian vision? Or is it because the older generation understands life in a way that the young can't for lack of experience?

Or maybe those are all the same thing.

See? I'm becoming overly cynical, too. Another sign that I'll soon be taking up knitting and needing a walker. When I can no longer empathize or connect with today's youth, I figure I've just become an old crab... especially when I start using the word "whippersnapper".

But then I discovered that some of the protestors' fellow college students hosted a barbecue, complete with delicious-smelling beef ribs, baked beans, and corn on the cob. And they parked their barbecue directly downwind from the symbolic hunger strike so the hungry protestors could enjoy the smell of grilling meat.

And I thought, "Now that is a beautiful gesture."

That's when I realized I was okay. My kids are going to have to wait on getting me that room at the nursing home.Maybe I'm not getting old at all. There might still be a little spring left in my step after all.

Because this is young student action that I can totally relate to, maybe even support. Passive aggressive trolling.

I'm full of all kinds of warm fuzzy empathy for these young Yale barbecuers.

Ah, youth. Somebody pass me some barbecue.

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