Thursday, July 14, 2011

Congress, It's time to be Sensible about Gun Control! a Civic Soapbox Essay by Patty Pullen

In 1950, when I was twelve years old, my father decided it was time for me to learn how to shoot a gun. I was ecstatic and thought I would fire a gun that afternoon. It was days before I fired a shot.

First, I had to learn how to take apart the gun, clean it, and put it back together. Then Daddy taught me how to hand a gun to someone; how to crawl under or over a fence while holding a gun; and how to walk safely behind someone with a loaded rifle. These were long training sessions; experiences I still treasure.

At the beginning of every lesson, Daddy pointed to the rifle and said, “Patty, this is not a toy. This is a gun. And guns were made to kill.”

Times have changed. Guns are not just family bonding experiences anymore. Deaths due to misuse of guns have increased in America. Thirty-four people are murdered in United States every day with guns. Since the Tucson killing in January, more than 3,000 people have been killed with guns.

Please understand. I don’t want to ban guns. I believe people are entitled to own guns for target practice, hunting, or for their protection. But, because our current laws are weak and not strictly enforced, guns are accessible to felons, the mentally ill, and the troubled youth in our society, and as a result, innocent people get hurt.

Here’s one problem I see with our current system. Licensed gun dealers are currently required to do background checks to determine whether customers are mentally ill, or have served time in prison; and most licensed gun dealers accommodate this responsibility. But sales by private citizens at gun shows are not regulated. According to the Brady Foundation, 40% of the gun sales in the United States occur at these gun shows. I want the law changed to require everyone who purchases a gun at a gun show to have to undergo a background check.

I also want tighter regulation of large capacity ammunition magazines, which are designed to enable someone to shoot efficiently and quickly without reloading. In 15 seconds, the shooter in Tucson fired more than 30 shots from one magazine, wounding 19 people, one of whom was Gabrielle Giffords and killing 6 including a 9-year-old girl. According to the law enforcement in Tucson, “There’s absolutely no doubt the magazines increased the lethality and the body county of this attack.” (Isikoff, 2011) They should be banned.

I also want better communication in the enforcement of existing gun control laws. Four years ago, a Virginia judge designated a Virginia Tech student as mentally ill and a danger to himself. Unfortunately this important information never made it to the gun shops so he bought two semiautomatic pistols, which fired 174 rounds in twelve minutes. He killed 25 students, five teachers, and wounded seventeen people, before he killed himself.
Whenever I hear of a gun tragedy, I think about my father’s comments. “Patty, this is not a toy. This is a gun. And guns were made to kill.”

You’re right, Daddy.
--Patty Pullen lives in Charlottesville.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Lost Art of Letter Writing, a Civic Soapbox by Val Matthews

I recently handed over to my daughter four bulky old folders full of letters. These folders have over the years filled up as members of our family have moved to different parts of the globe for longer or shorter periods, and have sent back to other family members news of their lives. Often in my times of moving house or moving to another continent, I have pondered ditching the files, but in the end they would be packed up and moved with us.

I am not even sure exactly which family members are the authors of the letters or where they originated, but there is a special file for my father’s letters, because he didn’t write often, but when he did they were very detailed and often very funny. During the second World War he was stationed mainly in North Africa and the Middle East and his letters to my mother were very regular and full of intriguing facts about the countries he moved through.

Before handing the files to my daughter, I looked idly through one of the files and found a neatly handwritten letter from my late husband to his mother, written when he must have been not yet a teenager. His mother was on a visit to her native New Zealand leaving her husband in charge of the four sons, the youngest of whom was still quite a baby. The letter (to dear Mummy) was mainly a horrendous description of the four older males bathing the baby. Amazingly this was a letter I never remember seeing – my husband would be seventy nine now if he was still living.

People used to save letters. I think of all the letters of famous people through the ages whose letters are still on record. Now this form of communication is almost dead and sending letters through the mail is thought of as snailmail.

Somehow one slows down a bit, becomes a bit more thoughtful ( I think) when, pen in hand, one puts one’s words onto paper. We’re simply in a different mode when sending emails. And it is also so easy just to text someone.

I know all of it is on record somewhere in the ether, but will we ever be able to retrieve it and reread it with love and amazement sixty years on. Are we not losing something very important, as we let go of the art of letter writing? Are we not losing a magical bit of history?
--Val Matthews lives in Charlottesville

Thursday, June 30, 2011

My Kind of Vegan, a Civic Soapbox Essay by Mona Williams

I became a vegan after reading a leaflet about the suffering of animals raised under factory-like conditions. That day I decided to use up all the animal foods I had and not to buy any more. Eggs hadn’t suddenly become repulsive to me; I just didn’t want to contribute any longer to an industry that was packing laying hens into small cages just to increase their profits.

But I began to see that veganism was complicated. I had to read labels. Powdered whey in cookies was a reason not to buy them. But neither did I want to eat them if other people had bought them. The perfectionist aspects of veganism began to dawn on me.

I know that being a perfectionist isn’t healthy, but I am one anyway. In this respect, veganism suited me fine. I was a perfect vegan, for about a year. Then I got married to a wonderful vegetarian man, who wanted, on our honeymoon, to treat me to what he considered the world’s best cheese omelet. Never, in the preceding year, had I run up against a conflict like this one. And perfectionist that I am, I am also weak. I ate the omelet, and then began ten years of being a vegan except for when it was too hard to say no.

My wonderful vegetarian husband, who is now my ex-husband and best friend, became more of a vegan while I became less of one. We decided to be vegan in our respective homes, where we could control things, and vegetarians on the outside. I became a not-too-bad vegan cook, and introduced many guests to the wonders of tofu mayonnaise and mystery Parmesan.

But, to reveal yet another flaw in myself, I am easily bored. And I was getting bored with my culinary repertoire. Not that I wanted to cook meat again, or even seafood. That was definitely over. But I had once spent two years learning classical French cuisine and I missed, I don’t know, crème anglaise.

I thought about the reason I had originally become a vegan—to reduce, even in a small way, animal suffering. And then I thought about an organic farming conference I had attended one year out of curiosity. There I heard something I knew already—that there are plenty of farmers around who are good to their animals, who raise cage-free hens, happy goats and contented cows. You just have to find them and be willing to pay their price.

So I began to do that. I used the Internet and my formidable label-reading skills. I called 800 numbers. I asked people at the farmer’s market how they treated their animals and found that they were absolutely happy to tell me. And then I made a lemon tart for my friends that both I and the hens involved could feel good about.

Mark Bittman.
(Suzy Allman for The New York Times)
I just don’t know what to call myself these days. Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer, made up his own category when he decided to be a vegan all day and eat whatever he wanted for dinner. He calls himself a vegan till 6. Maybe I can just call myself a kind of vegan.The kind who isn't perfect.
-- Mona Williams lives and cooks in Bridgewater

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Best Present Graduates Can Give to Themselves, a Civic Soapbox Essay by Katrien Vance

Dear Graduates,

Right now, as you graduate, you probably feel like a set entity, a “you” fully formed. You are. For now.
Be ready for everything to change. And the most important, most exciting thing that will change as you grow—if you let it—is your mind.

You will change your mind about little things: what music is good, what food is good, what’s funny.

You will change your mind about big things: what you want to do, how you want to do it, and with whom.
You’ll realize your parents were wrong about things you thought they had right, and right about many things you thought they had way wrong.

You will change your mind about things that right now seem set in stone: your political views, your ideas about human nature, your sense of where you draw the line.

It can be frightening to discover that you think something different than you thought you did. History is littered with people who have hung on to what they thought in the face of evidence that those thoughts didn’t work for them any longer—and it’s littered with the remains of the people who tried to offer a new way of thinking.
You have the choice to let each experience in and let it shape you, or to shut out the experiences that don’t match the person you already think yourself to be. You have the choice to judge those whose opinions don’t match yours, or let those opinions in and learn from them. You have the choice to pre-screen your potential books, friends, and ideas by comparing them to what you already think and seeing how well they match. But I guarantee, at some point, there will be that book you thought you would hate, that you finish only out of obligation, that you find yourself weeping over at the end, wondering “Why on earth is this affecting me?” You will meet that person who is the antithesis of what you believe, and suddenly realize he is a thinking, caring, admirable person. You will have an idea that rocks everything you’ve staked your life on. And what you do in those moments, whether you shut down or open up, will make all the difference.

There is a reason people call this time “commencement.” Go out there and commence changing. You might try on 40 different opinions for some things. If you don’t let yourself try those on, you’re stuck with the one you have right now. And just as I hope you’re not wearing only the same clothes or listening to only the same music in 20 years as you are now, I hope you’re not thinking only the same thoughts 20 years from now as you are now.

You’ll probably get a lot of wonderful gifts for graduation. I hope you’ll give yourself this one amazing gift: the gift of a mind that can change. Open it up and enjoy it for a long time to come.

--Katrien Vance teaches 7th and 8th graders at North Branch School in Afton

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Beach Scenes, a Civic Soapbox essay by Ellen Adams

Biking three miles on the boardwalk in an early morning mist is a good beginning. Yesterday’s tracks in the sand have been swept away overnight, leaving a clean slate.

Leaning my bike against Neptune’s regal statue, I join the mythical king in looking out to sea. Rescue personnel are leaving the scene of an accident on the beach. A homeless person, sleeping in a sand chair, was overrun by a trash truck at dawn. His legacy will be a cordon of yellow ribbons and a ten second spot on the evening news.

As the sun moves across the sky, umbrellas offer circles of shade for a random mix of vacationers.
Wannabe athletes invite attention by throwing footballs. Under her grandmother’s careful eye, a youngster teases breakers splashing over her feet. The flesh colored prosthesis attached below her left knee is not as obvious as her fashionable green Crocs.

A toddler wearing a floppy pink sunhat does not clamor for anything. She nestles in her father’s lap and silently watches the others playing. He whispers in her ear, setting her down on a Barbie towel. Daddy’s little princess is a special needs child.
A threesome arrive carrying room towels. The slender teenager and portly middle-aged man frolic in the waves while the woman snaps pictures. If she viewed the scene through a wider lens, would she see his inappropriate touching of the girl?

A noisy bunch pulling coolers and overloaded wagons sets up camp. The surf is up and guys with boogie-boards run full speed ahead as mothers talk to other mothers. One lone boy idly kicks the sand, standing apart. He wears wearing a long sleeve shirt under a blue flannel hooded bathrobe printed with scenes of super heroes. A short time later, this autistic child stretches prone on the hot sand in the broiling noonday sun. The temperature has reached 98 degrees.

A young man rushes by shouting, “Have you seen my little boy with blond hair and plaid swim trunks? He’s five years old and his name is Caleb!” A terrified mother, holding a sleeping baby, scans the crowd. Strangers rise to their feet like sports fans doing the wave, and fan out, calling for Caleb. When a sniffling son is finally handed over to a jubilant dad, onlookers swallow lumps in their throats. The grateful parents pause to thank well-wishers, then turn for home.

Beach life moves on. Conversations pick up where they left off, and readers pick up their paperback novels. But, in the fading afterglow of finding Caleb, are there any among us who do not feel sense the wonder of human connectedness and its innate capacity for caring? Are there any among us who do not feel pleased in by playing a fleeting role in something larger than ourselves?

And, who among us does not love a happy ending?
-- Ellen Adams lives and writes in Gainesboro on the outskirts of Winchester.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Some Things Just Bug You, a Civic Soapbox Essay by Kim Johnson

Take the townhouses at the end of my street, for example: They bug me. Over the past nine years that we have lived in our house, the townhouses nearby have wilted a bit, a missing shutter here, an overgrown shrub there. I’m not fancy, but I do fancy a neat street, and these townhouses are not passing muster anymore.

But what really bugs me is some of the townhouse residents’ lack of regard for the bulk trash pickup policy. The good city of Harrisonburg picks up bulk trash in our neighborhood on the second Wednesday of each month. I appreciate this service, and I have merrily set out junk in the past on the second Tuesday of the month to be whisked away the following day. I find this therapeutic. Some of the occupants of the townhouses, however, throw bulk items to the curb whenever the spirit moves them, and the spirit does not recognize the 2nd Wednesday of the month policy. On many a morning as I drive to work, even, on occasion, the day AFTER bulk trash day, I go by the townhouses and see a Lazy-Boy carcass or a wounded sofa, spilling its stuffing, at the curb. Then I must look at these offending objects until the next bulk trash day, while thinking dark thoughts about my house value hemorrhaging further than it already has in this wretched market.

This bugs me.

So, I’m driving home recently after a very long day, and I that see a big, ugly mattress has appeared on the curb. A mattress! I seethe as I drive by, and continue to seethe daily as I pass it, calculating the days until the next second Wednesday. On a beautiful afternoon, though, when the scarlet tulips and yellow daffodils are waving, I see that a group of children has gathered at the mattress. They shout. They giggle. They jump. Boy, do they jump, leaping, stretching, and reaching for the turquoise April sky. I can imagine the games they are playing amid the scent of the new grass: King of the mattress! Mattress Olympics! I remember a 6 year old me, and how she would have thought a mattress at the curb was the greatest thing ever. You could have a mattress club!

A mattress club: How cool is that?

What I saw as a sign of the imminent decline of civilization, they see as a gift from on high. Amazing.
Perspective is a lens that changes us, not our surroundings. Sometimes… often, in fact, perspective is the only aspect of our life that we do control in this bewildering world. Now, I still like order and I still prefer that people on our street follow the bulk trash policy; however, a group of joyous kids showed me that sometimes a mattress at the curb can be a thing of beauty that is a joy forever…or at least until the next bulk trash day.

And maybe, just maybe, I need to chill out a bit.
Kim Johnson puts her trash out in Harrisonburg.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rolling Thunder, a Civic Soapbox Essay by Jeff Ell

Two hundred and twenty-three. That’s the number of motorcycles I counted in an unbroken line heading north on I-81 last Friday morning.

A train of north bound bikes coupled together in the annual Memorial Day event held to honor the POW’s and MIA’s of the Vietnam War. The rally is called Rolling Thunder, because the sound of all those motorcycles reminds the veterans of the bombing campaign of that name waged between 1965-1968.

One by one, these bikers find their way along narrow roads and graveled dirt tracks to the interstates that flow toward Washington. They meet up with a handful friends, and together throttle up the on ramp to join in a two-wheeled migration in honor of their comrades.

Some come from places where they push automated garage door buttons and coast their shinny bikes down the drive way. Veterans who furtively leave their cul-de-sacs, trying not to disturb their neighbors slumber.

They wear body armor and full helmets with tinted visors. They protect their hearing and chat with their passenger on a wireless communication system.

Others come from places where they pull tarps off their choppers -- those bikes with elongated front ends and long low saddles; with handle bars so high the drivers have to hold their hands above their heads. These veterans rev their motors in the pre-dawn dim to wake up their neighbors in double wide down the road.

They wear embroidered leather vests, and helmets modeled after the ones worn by an enemy in another generation’s war. They and their tattooed passengers let the heavy metal roar ring their ears while their beer and Bar-B-Q handle bars hang over their blue jeans in unashamed exhibition.

As ever larger numbers of bikers link up, their voices turns from solitary thunder to the guttural rumble produced by hundreds of thousands who still remember things they wish they could forget.

Two Hundred and twenty-three of them roared by me a week ago today. That number rattled around in my skull until it pinged off a trivial storing neuron.

Two-hundred and twenty three, I recalled, is the numerical designation of the bullets used in the M-16 rifle; the infantryman’s weapon during the Vietnam war. I shook my head, and went into the house and googled the number.

Sure enough, in improbable numerical irony I had managed to count off not 224 or 222, but 223. The number given to that small high speed round that was fired millions of times during the decade or so that a generation of young men stumbled around in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Rolling Thunder, that’s what they call it, made in America engine exhaust; I stand and listen to the guttural groan that rises from the floor of our valley, up the Shenandoah and all the way to Washington. Where those gray headed veterans will quietly visit a black wall where 58, 267 silvery names are etched in stone.

Jeff Ell lives in Roanoke. He is the author of Ruth Uncensored: The Story You Thought You Knew.