A Modest Firearms Proposal

Since the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has worked very hard to counter gun control movements by advocating for a stronger gun presence throughout the land and its institutions, like schools. Among their brilliant ideas is that the way to fight gun violence is to bring gun-bearing guards to our public educational facilities. I suppose the idea is born of a flinty, Wild West, “fight gunfire with gunfire” attitude, which in my experience is not an atypical posture for zealous gun rights Americans and the NRA. But such a proposal coming from the premier gunslingers’ club to bring in more armed guards is pretty ridiculous and insensitive during what is now an era of national, local, and familial chronic crisis and mourning as the mass murder of so many school children and other citizens continues unchecked and unabated. Even with so many lives lost due to gun use, the NRA has been able to think only of itself and its rights. So I have grown to realize that I should never, ever expect a socially decent and morally sound response or action from the NRA. Its purpose, it seems, is to back, with no small amount of political power, violence in the United States—entirely unnecessary violence through firearms. The NRA works without apology to maintain the legality of as many different kinds of firearms as profit-seeking corporations are willing to produce so that its membership’s manly gun collections stay safe, warm, and street legal.

The NRA has been a central voice in the gun rights debate for some time. It is positioned as the main organizational representative of American citizens who truly believe in their right to bear arms—citizens who fancy themselves real American Patriots. Let us here call all such people Toters, short for Gun Toters. Citing Amendment 2 of the US Constitution, Toters and the NRA feel strongly that our federal government (and state and local governments for that matter) must not stand in the way of American citizens carrying, owning, and possessing firearms. Perhaps it would be worth a moment to cite Amendment 2 in full:

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Beyond Amendment 2, the Toters and NRA consistently reference Amendment 4 of the US Constitution and the right to self-protection. Here is the relevant first half of Amendment 4:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

And that really is it. Those two Amendments stand as the hallowed ground of the great American social contract through which Toters and the NRA justify their notoriously irrational positions on gun rights and gun control. In those constitutional words lies the basis of a profound antagonism that has gripped many people across the US and across many generations. Opposite the NRA and Toters is the sizable number of US citizens who support various levels of gun control; let us call them Controllers. Unfortunately, Controllers have thus far found little grounding in the vaunted Constitution.

As a result, the Controller side of the antagonism has generally provided relatively weak arguments for Controllers typically anchor their arguments and positions on statistics of violence with guns (statistics are regularly massaged and alternatively interpreted by opposing sides of any debate), through appeals to their own common sense (which is not everyone’s common sense, obviously), and through the use of case studies of murder and violence through guns—each argument dismissed by Toters through such profoundly ill-conceived, kindergarten-level observations like, “Its people using guns that kill others, not the guns themselves.” On occasion, appeals to the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence are made from this side, but alas, they do usually fall flat. This is because there is not a statement in the sacred documents of these United States that directly indicates that gun possession is not a right for each citizen. When compared to the Constitution-referring Toter argument, Controllers seem to occupy much less impactful and substantial ground—and thus, legislation that impacts firearms in the US stalls indefinitely.

The Toters and NRA have wrapped themselves up in the rhetoric of patriotic fervor, the American flag, and the Constitution while the Controllers present blurry, often emotionally and statistically charged, images of a violent society and nation overflowing with semi-automatic rifles. But this impasse in our volatile national discourse about firearms is actually unnecessary.

I suggest that there may be a way out of this polarizing and tempestuous debate, one that does not infringe on an individual citizen’s rights to bear arms but does eliminate nearly all firearms currently held among the citizenry in the US. Though what I propose in the following may describe what will seem a remarkably improbable American future, it is, in fact, achievable and will allow us to side-step this significant mess we have made of society. My proposal is grounded in two main points.

Point One: The citizenry of the US does not have the constitutional right to a free market in which mass-manufactured firearms are available for their purchase (or acquisition) and subsequent possession.

Toters seem to think that Amendment 2 grants citizens the right to possess and own firearms, which is in point of fact a dubious translation of the phrase “keep and bear arms.” For example, if the word “keep” is understood as meaning “to be in charge of” or “to house,” then that phrase in Amendment 2 could easily be interpreted as meaning that citizens can borrow firearms from the federal government when they are part of militias but that they cannot own and perpetually possess them as non–militia citizens. Nonetheless, despite its ambiguous nature, let us assume, for our purposes, that the Toter translation of Amendment 2 is an accurate one. In short, let us concede that each American citizen has the right to possess and own firearms.

With the typical Toter interpretation granted, we must recognize that the hallowed Constitution does not grant a right regarding the means by which a citizen comes to possess and own firearms. Such means of acquisition and ownership are in absolutely no way granted by our Constitution. The central means by which US citizens come to possess and own firearms is through the so-called free market—that system through which Bushmaster, Winchester, and all the gun producers peddle their explosive and violent weapons of localized destruction to the consumer. That is, a weapon is mass manufactured, offered in the open market, and acquired by the US citizen usually through purchase (at least originally). Nearly all firearms in the US today originated through manufacturing concerns (e.g., corporations and companies). Such corporations were not compelled to produce guns through the desire to bask in Amendment 2 rights. Rather, they were compelled by profit motives. Their wealth comes from American consumers who desire to bask in Amendment 2 rights.

At this point, perhaps the reader can see here a rather prominent fault line running through the heart of the gun-rights argument. Indeed, as we have granted, the US citizen does have the right to possess and own firearms. But equally as obvious, the Constitution does not grant the US citizen the right of access, much less perpetual access, to a market through which they can come to possess and own those firearms. The difference between “right to individual possession” and the “right to a societal means to possession” are striking and fundamental.

Point Two: The products manufactured by corporations and companies are subject to federal control and oversight.

Profit-loving corporations cannot manufacture and sell just any old commodity that they want to on the open market. In fact, our government regularly forbids (or prevents) would-be manufacturers and retailers from producing, selling, and profiting from a variety of items on the open market that are determined to be unsafe for the commonwealth, such as nuclear weapons, many kinds of drugs, and many dangerous chemicals. The citizenry and US Supreme Court tend to see the constitutional basis for such government decisions to forbid, prevent, or drastically curtail production and market availability of many different kinds of socially and individually dangerous materials, products, and substances.

As a result of this simple observation, we can solidly say that manufacturers are at present allowed, but not granted a sovereign right by the federal government to produce such socially volatile artifacts as firearms for market exchange and profit—in case this is somehow in doubt, there is the  unambiguous language in Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution that succinctly states that the US Congress is in charge of regulating “commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” As the production and sale of goods are core aspects of commerce by any definition, and it is worth adding that purchase and acquisition is a key aspect of selling, it would seem that the federal government does in fact have a constitutional mandate to oversee and control the production of firearms and perhaps the purchase of the same.

Points 1 and 2 are unassailable. And taken at face value, they would provide the means for the US government to outlaw all for-profit and surplus production of firearm and ammunition—and thus prevent their acquisition by any US citizen. This would be entirely constitutional and would make it illegal for corporations to manufacture guns and for citizens to possess firearms acquired on the open market. But this would make the NRA and the Toters very unhappy—naturally. And I don’t think anyone in Congress wants to see them, of all constituencies in the US, unhappy. So I now turn to my proposal. It is a simple idea that I am very much surprised has not already come to pass because it should please the Toters, NRA, and the Controllers while also being entirely constitutional.

First, the federal government should absolutely, and without any ambiguity or loopholes, prohibit the mass production of firearms and ammunition for sale to the citizen through the free and legal market. It should be illegal for an individual or corporation to produce firearms and ammunition in order to make profit, in any form, from their sale to citizens. Were this first part of the proposal to happen, we would soon live in an America where there would be no mass production and profiting from the sale of firearms by corporations or companies.

Second, upon halting the production of firearms by corporations, the federal government should require all citizens to relinquish all mass-produced firearms that they have in their possession. Also, all corporations should have to relinquish to the federal government their surplus firearms and ammunition that await market distribution—i.e., empty the warehouses. Now, I can hear the Toters gnashing their teeth, beating their chests, and screaming “Traitor! Traitor!” While such a response may be predictable, it would be ultimately premature. Here’s why:

The elimination of mass production or manufacture of firearms and ammunition does not prevent private citizens from manufacturing their own firearms and ammunition for personal consumption and use.

So yes, the American Toter and NRA member could no longer go out and conveniently purchase a Smith and Wesson from Bass Pro or some such merchant. However, the right to bear arms is not in any way affected through this proposal, and this is not a proposal for prohibition of firearms as such. US citizens would still have every right to bear and possess firearms. They could defend themselves all they want from government and social tyrannies with their guns. They could enjoy the company of their firearms while they wander the woods, mountains, and prairies of America in their heroic (and camouflaged) search for some creature to murder so as to convene with nature and their primal selves while drinking a few cans of Bud. Heck, they could mount their guns on their living room wall and bask in the simple but well-earned glory of having the right to possess it. Toter bliss could still be very much achieved under this proposal. It’s just that in order to exercise their constitutional right to bear and possess arms, each Toter would have to manufacture, by their own hands and through their own labor, the weapon they possess. And it is a lovely thought that each gun they produce would be as explosive and violent as their knowledge of production would allow.

Now, most good American patriots, like Toters, would agree that few things are more ideally American than making one’s own stuff—things like clothes, canned foods for the long cold winter, and cigarettes, when made by hand, are all really nifty examples of rugged individualism. Well, Toters have to believe, then, that making their own firearms and ammunition (and not having other poorly-paid and exploited people do it for them) is the apex of self-reliance. For Toters, their firearms are great symbols of American Freedom and their personal place under the Flag. Under this proposal, they would have the deep and stirring experience of laboring on their own to make that which they hold so dear! Who could ask for more? (In fact, I would think most Toters would have been feeling mighty guilty and pathetic knowing that their precious and cherished firearms were made by others and provided to them at the whims of companies more or less simply out to make a profit). Under this proposal, in short, the right to bear arms would stand, perhaps in its purist form to date, and be exercisable by anyone who, in fact, wishes to bear arms.

Should this transpire, most would-be gun-bearing citizens will have to undertake extensive and possibly expensive learning and training in order to manufacture effective weapons and ammunition. But a lifetime of buying guns and ammunition isn’t cheap either. Nonetheless, in order to exercise such a ballyhooed and vaunted right as the one to bear arms, Toters who are willing to truly back their principals with action will find the time and means to learn and labor to produce their own sacred weapons. In fact, rather than spend its time coercing and power handling all levels of government and imposing its minority will on all of America’s citizens, the NRA could more patriotically spend its time sponsoring fun and engaging weapons manufacturing workshops, supporting enlightening classes on ammunition production, and holding thrilling iron foundry demonstrations—an accredited NRA technical manufacturing college can even be imagined! It would seem that such a new system would be a little slice of heaven here on Earth for the Toter and the NRA—at least for the ones among them willing to go through the necessary steps to exercise their rights.

Of course, the proposal also recognizes that federal and state governments will be obligated to regulate the kinds and quantities of firearms and ammunition that could legally be produced by citizens for personal use (e.g., 2 pistols—yes, 20 AK-47s—no), enforce permitting, monitor proofs of owner production and use, and maintain a firearms registry. Also, corporations will not be allowed to provide citizens access to their firearms manufacturing equipment, and they would not be allowed to market gun parts (e.g., gun kits). Thus, Toters will have to learn how to build whatever equipment and machines they need to make their own personal firearms, and they will not be able to work around this by assembling prefabricated parts into a working firearm. Again, if one wants something bad enough, they will do it—isn’t that the American ideal? Finally—lest this proposal be dismissed outright by those thinking of military protection—federal and state governments would still manufacture their own firearms and ammunition for military and police use only.

Something tells me though that there would be some among the Toters and firearms manufacturers who would be displeased with this change of course in American life and marketplace. I have a hard time really imagining why this would be, but that is my gut instinct at the moment. But those Toters that would complain are simply citizens who will not want to spend the time and money to learn gun-manufacturing skills—i.e., a form of laziness. Also, weapons manufacturing companies might not wish to reorganize and reinvest capital to produce other profitable commodities—i.e., another form of laziness, we can be reasonably sure. But I think they could manage it, even if grudgingly. Other than these naysayers, it can be confidently predicted that the rest of the American citizenry, including Controllers, would be just fine with this change.

It is more than fair to ask at this point if there is any good reason not to accept this proposal as a means to circumvent the generations-old national debate on gun rights and gun control while also avoiding an America entirely devoid of legal firearms? The answer must be no.

So, were the NRA and Toters to resist this reasonable proposition, well that would be okay. But it must also be clear that such resistance to this proposal would betray the fact that the true basis of the gun rights argument is not the Constitution because the right to bear arms and to self-protection will still be exercisable through hard work and attention to self-education. Rather, such resistance will highlight a strange and silly belief among Toters in their right to simple market convenience—“I have the constitutional right to a marketplace through which I can come to possess firearms and ammunition made by other human hands and labor.” Again, to be certain, there is absolutely no constitutional basis for thinking we have a right to market convenience or anything we want through that market in unregulated fashion. And in essence, the NRA and Toter argument, whether they are aware of it or not, is based on their desire to be lazy—i.e., not be inconvenienced by actually having to work hard to create (not buy) what they love so dearly.

Probably most important is the following: this proposal demonstrates that because the NRA and Toters own, possess, use, and cherish firearms that were mass produced and acquired through the free market, those weapons represent privileged possessions and not at all constitutionally-granted possessions. Today’s federal and state governments, and the rest of the non-Toter citizenry, grant them the privilege of possessing, bearing, and using mass-manufactured and market-acquired firearms. The Constitution has nothing to do with it as Points 1 and 2 show with absolute clarity. If Toters persist in trying to argue for their right to possess mass-marketed firearms made by someone else’s labor, they will have to recognize that their argument is not founded on the Constitution. Such resistance would reveal their own personal unwillingness to do what is necessary to exercise their rights—make those firearms themselves. Such a debate position for the Toters represents significantly less hallowed and sanctified ground from which to argue than is the Constitution upon which they have long thought they stood. In fact, arguing the constitutional right to have others labor and make things for you is in no way a legitimate conclusion and position.

Meanwhile, Controllers will be comforted by two main results of this proposed transformation. First, all presently existing, marketed and traded mass-produced guns and ammunition would be off the streets and out of schools, planes, offices, and homes. Second, more surprisingly, it may eventuate that most NRA members and Toter Americans will not actually go through the trouble of learning how to make their own guns, ammunition, and manufacturing equipment. But even if they all did begin to make their own weapons and such, this proposal eliminates the millions upon millions of surplus firearms currently coursing through the towns, cities, shops, schools, woods, and prairies of the US. This would drastically decrease the levels and kinds of violence across the American landscape.

The United States is a nation of at least 325 million people. If anyone doubted the power of the Toters in the US, events in recent years—such as those surrounding the initiatives of President Obama and Vice President Biden to change national gun laws after Newtown—should eliminate those doubts. Some of our highest-elected officials who try to make the nation safer, in the wake of Newtown and the many subsequent gun-centered episodes, are compelled to meet with the NRA to discuss gun control. And the NRA, as high horsed as ever, emerges time and time again from such meetings showing no humility whatsoever about the fact that it was provided a hearing with the highest political leaders, such as the President and Vice President of their own country. The NRA represents a mere 5 million people, or far less than 1% of all census-recorded US citizens and it has such ill-gained power. It continues to trot out the usual rhetoric about Amendment 2 as it champions the armed-guard approach to resolving school gun violence and other preposterosities (I’m coining a word here because any discussion of the NRA’s warped sense of social ethics compels it).

That the NRA and Toters have amassed such political power is apparently perfectly normal to most Americans. Who really thought twice about the fact that the NRA met with President Obama and others during a time of much-needed governance and change in national firearms laws after Newtown? Or that the NRA would actually be approached by the media to offer opinions on whether the measures the Executive Office had prepared to combat out-of-control gun violence would pass through Congress? The reality is that NRA’s constant presence and published rantings in this era of national trauma is actually quite bizarre—it is a pretty fringe organization, ultimately.

The NRA and the gun manufacturers for whom it lobbies, has long claimed that it stands for citizen rights as laid out in Amendment 2 of the Constitution. But it is wrong, as this proposal has shown.

Rather, the NRA stands for lazy firearms manufacturing, marketing, possession, and ownership—that is all it represents. The NRA and Toters should be thankful that we, the rest in the US, are not illegalizing all mass-manufactured firearms—because it could be done, and it would be entirely within the scope of the Constitution to do so. But when the nation does decide to eliminate market access to specific kinds of firearms, the Toters should take a breath and remember that We the People are allowing them, despite our best judgment, to own any mass-produced firearms at all. We the People could decide one day to ask those 5 million or so people to just make their own guns or go without. The Constitution would have our backs on that.

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How to Perform Heart Surgery for Dummies

The Man with Diminished Humor.

My marriage—our eighteen-years of for better, for worse—was, on its surface, a castle with exquisite gardens and the most elegant façade. A walk-through of the interior exposed the true state of our union: spider-vein cracks, chipped paint, and mold. Our house clung to its secrets, infidelities, and unforgiveness. This was my second marriage, and after my first, there was one thing I swore—I would rather die than go through another divorce.

Eighteen years later I filled in the blanks of ‘simple’ court forms. No endeavor is more deceptive than simple court documents. I called the divorce attorney from my first marriage. I asked if there was a two-for-one discount. I entertained a leap from his office window, but he moved to a much larger space in a strip mall. I asked myself, why should I be the jumper and not her? Could I get away with Uxoricide? (The Latin Uxor is wife plus the suffix cide is to kill.) In the screenplay Double Indemnity, Edward G. Robinson plays the unrelenting insurance investigator: “You’ve never read an actuarial table in your life. I’ve got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by poisons, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide subdivided by types of poisons, corrosive, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth.”* Suicide by firearm can leave the shooter a vegetable, or paraplegic, instead of dead. Many have survived suicidal leaps from the Golden Gate Bridge. Suicide by cop, by hanging, or by overdose may result with a traumatic brain injury. (Search: “When Attempted Suicide is the Cause of Brain Injury.”)

Clearly, I preferred thoughts of suicide and homicide over a second visit to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse Family Law Division. Yes, it is possible to have your masculinity legally removed. Twice. (I wasn’t overflowing with machismo at the outset.) My two-bit, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ tip: Never surrender your rights or purpose in family court and trust your wise and fair advocate-friend. Like my father I stayed married until my girls left for college. This may sound familiar to the few who also thought it best to stay married for their kids—and to the three of us I say, “Bravo!”

The Path to Less Enlightenment.

Seven years after vowing to have and to hold, my job had allowed us to accumulate many things: a house in Studio City, two cars, and fifty-five-dollar drawer knobs from Restoration Hardware. My wife collected shoes, cashmere sweaters, and poetry that overflowed into my space on our antique bookshelves. We both feigned happiness but moved covertly toward our separate desires, as moths to flame. We did share an attachment for pizza and our local bookstore. The girls read their books in the most comfortable children’s section, my wife rarely strayed from the poetry section, and I found Zen in religion. It was The Art Of Mindful Living by Thich Nhat Hanh. I was fascinated with his Flower Fresh meditation. Breathing in, I am a flower. Breathing out, I am fresh.

The less passion in my marriage, the more I sat in meditation, detaching myself from my unhappiness. After several months, I was all consumed, meditating for an hour in the morning and an hour after dinner. I was aware of my obsession, like the man or woman who exercises to the impossible perfection of their body. My obsession was spiritual: therefore, healthy. After eleven months, I expected transcendence, nirvana, something tangible like a reward. My reward was loss of concentration along with raging self-criticism. I was so miserable even my golden retriever held me in contempt. I needed a break from meditation.

I bought a Precor elliptical for my home-studio. I loved that machine; it produced buckets of sweat-happiness and endorphins. I wanted to feel that same elliptical-exercise high after meditating but needed to learn from a teacher-master. I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s U.S. tour schedule on the Plum Village website. August 27, 2001, to September 2, 2001: he was coming to San Diego for a seven-day retreat.

I asked my wife if she wanted to go on a little Buddhist holiday. She liked Hanh’s published poetry, was neutral toward Buddhism, and she knew how to ‘Namaste’ from the few Yoga classes she attended. I hoped that by spending time away from our young girls, and as equal partners, we might heal some of our deeper wounds. My notions of reconciliation were like a wino with a used lottery ticket. To be fair, a silent retreat doesn’t seem like the best atmosphere to talk about your troubles.

Tuesday. August 28, 2001.

Monday, August 27 was a travel day. I begin writing on Day Two. It’s 5:15 a.m. I wake to three merciless bells just outside our dorm. I sit on the edge of the bed pulling at the small window curtain. One adamant star melts into the corona of blue and yellow dawn. I watch the bell-ringer monk float to the next dorm. He strikes his thunder-clapping bells. I’m no lover of Buddhist mornings. In the darkness I glance at my wife who appears to sleep. I remember to be mindful, which is a Buddhist oxymoron. Mindfulness is an awareness of oneself while in the present moment. This is my mindfulness of the mundane: Arise. Dress. Wash face. Brush teeth. Leave dorm. Use toilet.

5:35 a.m. I don’t like communal toilets, army latrines, and, especially, porta-potties. I contemplate our home bathroom, 135 miles away. Someone pulls on the flimsy bathroom door. Its plastic latch keeps the door locked, but this person rattles the door again. After the next OCD attempt at rattling the door, I feel like yelling, “It’s occupied!” It is a silent retreat, so I say nothing. I am relieved when I hear the vanishing footsteps. I wait another half-minute and then flush the toilet. One of my public bathroom phobias is letting anyone hear me flush.

I step into the half-light of the fall chill, peer pressured into walking meditation. Good Buddhists never hurry. Walking meditation is so gradual a cop would mistake it for loitering. My first choice? A large cup of coffee at Starbucks with a corner seat—not walking meditation. I follow about two hundred head of sheep, or an organically diverse group of followers. There are the amateurs (me), advanced learners, goofballs (me again), and a handful of professional Buddhologists. We all follow a high-ranking monk who moves at the enthusiastic pace of a dying snail. Of walking meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When we walk like this, with our breath, we bring our body and mind back together.”

I resist the walking exercise. I want to cut through the enormous line and enter the dining hall for a cup of joe. Inhale, want coffee. Exhale, want coffee. Inch by inch we move like gridlocked traffic on the 405. A second line appears from the opposite direction; everyone (not me) is Buddha-polite at the entrance to the dining hall. I see those people on the opposite side not as Buddhists, but enemy soldiers. A double latte of frustration rises to the top of my brain. Observing the rise of that emotion within my brain is mindfulness.

“Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we have sovereignty over ourselves, that we are not drowned into forgetfulness,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Being Peace. I stand just outside the door to the dining hall, examining the flower-fresh faces like my job is TSA airport security guard. I would like to slap the fake smiles, but somehow I calm myself. Whether their smiles are sincere doesn’t matter; I am hypercritical. I can’t do a pretend smile. I’ve stood awkwardly in front of a mirror contorting my face into something that appears happy. I am least fond of posing for photos. The line inches forward, but I am so close to gaining entrance I can actually smell the coffee.

They appear from nowhere, lacking the brown robes worn by our Plum Village hosts, these interlopers wear freshly shaved entitlement with their flexible Yoga bodies. They have cut into the line, ignoring everyone else. I feel the sudden urge to roundhouse their Namaste grins. Five-hundred dollars says at least one of them drives a Mercedes-AMG with handicap placards. I want to whack them like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo—and watch them forage for their heads, exactly like beheaded chickens. The first Thich Nhat Hanh dharma talk is, wait for it, about Non-Judgement.

Wednesday. August 29, 2001.

Day Three. I set my alarm to 4:30 a.m. Arise. Dress. Wash face. Brush teeth. The wife sleeps in. I skip the bathroom and move a little too fast for walking-meditation. I slow down outside the dining hall entrance. There is no line. I criticize myself for my hypocrisy. The vegetarian breakfast food is good; the coffee is great. We eat in silence. I watch a woman hold the handle of the toaster to avoid the spring-popping noise of her toasted-toast. I suppress an urge to laugh. People eat so delicately in a chorus of fork to dish the only thing missing is Nurse Ratchet and her Mantovani recording of Charmaine.

After breakfast we enter the auditorium with its seats removed for sitting meditation. I sit with the Sanga, a group of six hundred. Thich Nhat Hanh sits in the center of the auditorium with his eyes closed. In 1967, Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Prize. He is a prolific writer of books and poetry. He is beloved around the world. In 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam and moved his monastery home to France.

Dressed in a brown monastic robe, Thich Nhat Hanh, or ‘Thay,’ speaks slowly in his Vietnamese accent of perfect English. Never in search for a word that even his pauses are musical silences. In 1963, Thay watched his seventy-year-old friend self-immolate in a busy Saigon intersection. Cars drove around Thích Quang Duc who sat perfectly still while two novice monks poured gasoline over his head. Thích Quang Duc lit the match that engulfed him in flames. The monk was protesting war, in a torch of compassion. He remained in his lotus position as flames besieged him. The disturbing image won a Pulitzer for photographer Malcom Brown.

I can no longer follow the dharma talk; it’s like reading the same paragraph, over and over. I scan the faces in the crowd. I stare at a Plum Village Nun. Her face is the radiant incarnation of Michelangelo’s Delphica. I remind myself that I’m unhappily married, and I have two beautiful girls who might ask why their father moved to France to be with a supermodel nun. Thay dissects the Eight Realizations: “More desire brings more suffering.” His words propel me from my absent mindfulness. I turn my attention back to the center. The Third Realization: “The awareness that the human mind is always searching outside itself and never feels fulfilled.” Is the Zen master looking directly at me or just in my direction? I absolutely feel the guilt of desire. I feel a large knot in my stomach. At lunch I find a monk and write him an absurdly long question about Guilt. As he reads the note, I want to tell him I feel guilty for taking up so much of his time. He smiles and writes, “All wrongdoings arise in the mind. It is through the mind that guilt can disappear.”

Thursday. August 30, 2001.

Day Four. I play hooky until an hour before lunch. Thay gives a mini dharma talk about food and how the very act of eating is a form of meditation. We go to our small groups led by senior monks and nuns. I choose to practice slow-motion Yoga, which happens to be led by the nun whose likeness lives on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Our class is a kind of tai chi-Yoga-pilates meditation. I take a position in the back row; otherwise I will be caught staring at the supermodel nun again. The class reminds me of a time between my two marriages when I took private Yoga classes just to ask the instructor to go on a date. The movement class is dismissed by the lunch bell. I feel energized.

It is the late afternoon free period. I wander aimlessly staring at the ground. My mind drifts to the too-pretty nun. I feel compassion or perhaps a hint of understanding that striking beauty must prove itself in every circumstance because the mere mortals are always watching for a fall. I find a hand-sewn finger puppet embedded in dried mud. Mindfully, I excavate my treasure like a terracotta army of one buried with the first Emperor of China. Held to the light, this child’s toy reminds me of my girls. The paradox of seeking Zen’s inner peace while forgetting my girls strikes me with a downcast blow. I haven’t seen my wife, except for her sleeping. The finger puppet mocks me. The distant ringing pierces my absent-minded mindfulness. I emerge to the better presence of the dinner bell.

At dinner I poke fun with a Tour D’horizon (brief review) of Thay’s afternoon dharma talk. It’s about staying present (mindful) while eating. It’s about vegetarians requiring less water, and less violence for the food they eat. It’s an awareness of climate change. The teachings encourage mindfulness in everything we do. I choose to poke silent fun at our Zen Master. He chews each bite thirty times until each bite is liquefied; he sees the sun, clouds, blue sky, the earth, rain, the farmer, potato pickers, and everyone who brings this potato to market. I imagine it takes a couple of hours just to finish his mashed potatoes. When I was five, my mother wouldn’t excuse me until I finished dinner. I’d sit stubbornly pushing food around my plate until my mother couldn’t take it any longer. Perhaps it was early training for eating meditation. I wonder if Thay has ever been to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Unenlightened, I see the farmer and his lovely never-been-married, forty-two-year-old daughter. In a rebellious mood I chew half as many times and sneak bigger bites.

Saturday, September 1. 2001.

I skip Friday’s diary. Saturday morning I review my six days of silent self-mockery, forgetfulness, hypercriticism, and generally bad Buddhism. But I am aware of one heightened reality—a miniscule and highly unworthy taste of enlightenment. I can hear very low-decibel sounds of whispers, distant trucks, birds, and ants digging their underground colonies. I greatly exaggerate about the ants, but this hearing ability makes me feel like a Marvel super hero. My cheap yet irresistible joke is that the retreat left my wife wordless for an entire week.

Day Seven. The Folded Note of Hypocrisy and Forgiveness.

Sunday, September 2, 2001. We spend the morning in free time. We pack our bags and lock them in the car. We keep a comfortable silence as we stand in the lunch line. I am sometimes more aware of my lack of awareness. I observe joyful faces and those hardened by suffering. I’ve heard the whisperers break their silence. All week, I’ve watched the regulars cut into the breakfast line with clockwork predictability. I am undisturbed by everything else, except those selfish queue-jumpers. I jot a note to a monk who dines at a nearby table. “Dear brother-monk. How do you deal with hypocrisy?” He glances, gestures for my pen, and writes, “First I forgive myself, and then I forgive my brother.” I carefully fold his note into my wallet.

When you leave a silent retreat, you don’t say goodbye. Thay says, “To join our hands in a lotus bud is to offer the person standing before us a fresh flower. But we have to remember not to join our palms mechanically. We must be aware of the person we are greeting.” The world’s most powerful search engine returns nothing but adoration and respect for this Zen Master.

We come home in the late afternoon to a glorious reunion, hugging the girls while sharing tail-wagging smooches from our golden retriever. Yet in nine days, at 8:46 a.m. EDT, our seven-day retreat evaporated into near nonexistence as if airbrushed from memory. The airspaces of the United States and Canada closed. The surreal air silence lasted three days and was strangely reminiscent of the peaceful silence that now felt like a dream. The new world embedded itself in the violent televised images for years to come. Perhaps the most iconic photograph by National Geographic’s Robert Clark was the wide shot of lower Manhattan with the north tower of the World Trade Center framed to the right as it spewed black smoke from the 93rd floor. In the far left of the frame sits Deutsche Bank. The Brooklyn Bridge is in the foreground. And United Flight 175 is frozen, a split-second from exploding into the 77th floor of the south tower.

One Year Later. Winter 2002.

I think she wanted me to find her emails, those charming letters full of poetry to a man so beneath her affections. Hurt and angry, of course I felt those emotions, but I knew this shadow of a man, this pseudo-intelligent coward, would never leave his wife. I wouldn’t have felt so lost if she had fallen for a good man. I knew this empirically: My first wife fell for a better man than me. They married and remain the happy couple to this day. My hardheaded decision to stay for the children would haunt me in eleven years. We attempted to move on. I know she tried, and this will sound like a country song, but she just never loved me. Even if she had, I couldn’t forgive her.

July 2013. The Stanley Mosk Courthouse.

According to the Holmes and Rahe’s stress scale, divorce is the second most stressful life event. (I could have told you that.) I remember one argument that started in the kitchen and ended in the front yard as both of us yelled in a simultaneous rage of hatred. I was mortified, especially when our youngest daughter had to tell us to “go outside.” The only way to create neutral territory was to leave the room. I took the dog out for very, very long walks.

My wife asked that we try “divorce-therapy,” which stipulates that its participants (patients) agree in advance that divorce is preordained. The psychologist then acts as our navigator who impartially guides us through our anger. Only in Los Angeles can you find such twaddle. I went twice, lost my temper and never returned. I told my friend about divorce-therapy. He’s from Kashmir, and he is a man who knows more than he lets on. He’s hinted about earlier days as a criminal; he’s a scholar of world religion, drives for Uber, makes custom jewelry, and once made Kashmiri Gosht, which he stirred for five hours. “Do you think she ever loved me?” I asked. He told me, “If you must ask, haven’t you always known?” I stare at him, wishing I wasn’t such a half-wit. “One day you will untangle the tangled and discover your true intentions for what they were—the small accumulated acts of love. It doesn’t matter whether she ever loved you back.”

I carried that monk’s note on forgiveness until my wife washed my wallet and pants. “First I forgive myself, and then I forgive my brother.” I’ve been practicing the first part—forgiving myself. It sounds
deceptively easy, and maybe it is for others, but not for me. When it’s working, this forgiving myself, I have written, “There are days I can see the beautiful poet, the mother of our children and my sincere hope for her to succeed. Many good days pass where I see nothing, but she still has the foregone ability to push my buttons like a jukebox. And I, once again, like the notion of uxoricide.”

One of my favorite films is Dodsworth, starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor. Made in 1936, the movie is based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, adapted by Sidney Howard and directed by William Wyler. The story is about a long disaffection of a seemingly healthy marriage. The last line of dialogue is the sweet, fictional victory of my dreams, “Love has got to stop somewhere short of suicide.”

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* Screenplay by Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain.

 

All in Good Fun

When my husband gets home from work, he shakes. It’s usually from the four-mile bike ride and the trek up three flights of stairs—he’s a tiny thing, takes weight gainer shakes in the morning and at night to try to bulk up.

Tonight it was different. Tonight, he says, they taped me up to the wall.

It’s for a charity event. Last week, they paid to pie the managers. My husband chose the one who we joke has a crush on him. I saw the picture: cream pie all over, a crowd of people in green smocks and farmer’s tans laughing into the lens. This week, customers got in on it: one buck for one strip of tape. The more money, the more an employee gets stuck to the wall. All in good fun.

I’d heard this being done before. In high school, my physics teacher bet us that he could fly. He was one of those whiz-bang kinds of teachers, wearing safety goggles twice the size of his eyes, and always with the sneaky half-grin that meant he knew something elemental that we didn’t, but would. True to form, at the pep rally that Friday, there he was, duct taped just above eye level onto the gymnasium wall. When a cheerleader put the mike in his face, he said this was for his AP Physics class who’d said he couldn’t do it. That you could do anything if you just knew what the rules were. The cheerleader took away the mike as we cheered. And then they pied him.

My husband explained it like a business exchange: he’d pied the manager last week, so this week his manager was looking for any opportunity to get back at him. They needed to put someone up there and my husband was the lightest one. Blink twice and he’s a girl. The unspoken rule: if the manager asks if you want to volunteer, there’s no choice but to say yes.

The rules were simple: my husband got up on a stool and stood against the wall. They had made signs on poster board like cheerleaders advertising a car wash: $1, 1 STRIP OF TAPE—HELP US NAIL CANCER TO THE WALL! Once they had enough tape to keep him suspended, they’d take away the stool and leave him hanging. It was only a few feet off the ground. Nothing big. All in good fun.

There was supposed to be someone there at all times, making sure the customers played by the rule they couldn’t fit on the signs: no taping down his skin. I would think this would go without saying. If a band-aid hurts to take off, imagine how duct tape feels.

I had seen this before: I had seen him shaking, his eyes shiny. Some critter hearing a predator. He went out for country night at the only gay club in town. After an hour, he got bored and called me to pick him up and take him to the bar all my writer friends swore by. Some even d-jayed dance parties. I’d seen the pictures: bearded boys in plaid and skirted girls in polka dots, all seeming to sway together to some fine song.

I waited around the block with a book, but he was back in five minutes. He couldn’t get the car door open. I had to come around to him. They took my ID, he said. They took it and said this can’t be real. It’s too bendy, they said. They came right up to him and put their hands down his crotch and they said maybe if you ask real nice we’ll let you in. Maybe if you come behind the bar for a few and give us some cream pie. You know what that is, right boy? Take off that cowboy hat and blue jeans and maybe we’ll let you in. Those are the rules when there’s nobody looking.

Tonight, one lady tried to put the tape on his mouth. He told her no. She tried again. He yelled it. She tried again. Nobody else tried to stop her. Nobody was looking in that way that everybody was looking. He wriggled a barely free foot. That threat of violence made her put it on his sleeve instead.

When I told my writer friends what had happened, they said we must have been mistaken. Who was working at the door that night? What did he look like? That couldn’t have been our bouncer, they said. That must’ve been just some guy. He probably didn’t mean it. All in good fun.

Another guy ran his hand over my husband’s crotch three times before finally putting the tape over his stomach. My husband said the guy was trying to look enticing.

When we discussed rape culture in class a week after, they said women shouldn’t be treated like it’s an inquisition. They swore up and down about how terrible that was. I couldn’t say anything to them. The unspoken rule: when it’s a man, it’s not as important. Rape is always man on woman. It’s never any other way, and if it is, nobody’s looking.

I could’ve said something. I could’ve seen in his eyes that night the same look he had when the priest took him into the bedroom, when the stepfather leered over him; the same look he had tonight. I could’ve marched in there and screamed bloody murder. I could’ve done anything. I could’ve I could’ve I could’ve. But this isn’t about me.

When we go to bed tonight, exhausted with ourselves, his rule is always that I hold him. Tonight, I will reach for his hand first. He will find it and draw it over his skin and hold it there like a salve and I will let him do whatever he wants with me. Whatever he wants.

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