beyond all recognition

You know what bothers me? For six years Republicans in Congress have blocked the appointment of a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms–an agency which they’ve also woefully under-funded. Republicans in Congress have also opposed any legislation that would make firearms trafficking a federal crime. In fact, Republicans have opposed anything even remotely resembling reasonable restrictions on the sale or ownership of firearms. Those things bother me.

You know what else bothers me? In Arizona if you’re 18 and can pass an instant criminal background check, you can buy as many guns as you want. Five, ten, twenty guns–no problem. No permit required, no waiting period–lay down the cash and you can walk out of a gun shop with a couple dozen firearms for your own personal use. You can then, ten minutes later, change your mind. You can decide you don’t really need twenty firearms, and you can walk down the street and sell those guns to a stranger. Unless the government can prove that at the moment you made the purchase you intended to sell those guns to a person who couldn’t legally buy one for himself, it’s all perfectly legal.

You know what else bothers me? Any attempt to tighten those Arizona laws have been blocked by Republicans.

And this bothers me: Republicans in Congress are accusing the Obama administration of deliberately allowing firearms purchased in Arizona to be ‘walked’ over the Mexican border and sold to drug cartels in order to create a crisis that would allow them to enact stricter gun control laws. In other words, Republicans have created the conditions that make it almost impossible to prevent guns from being sold to Mexican drug cartels and are now claiming there’s something sinister in the inability of the Obama administration to prevent guns from being sold to Mexican drug cartels.

Here’s something else that bothers me. Darrell Issa–the Republican Senator who is leading the so-called Fast and Furious investigation–was himself arrested once for possessing a concealed, loaded, unregistered handgun.

And you know what bothers me most of all? The news media refuse to take the time to actually learn the facts of the situation. They simply repeat the accusations, the half-truths and the outright lies made by Issa and other opponents of the Obama administration, and call it reporting.

This is just fucked up. Completely, totally, beyond all recognition.

you can’t make this shit up

Okay, imagine this: in the mid-1980s a woman named Cheryl Sullenger, an abortion opponent, attempted to blow up a Womens Health Clinic in San Diego. She was caught, and in 1988 she and five other co-conspirators were convicted in a federal court of conspiracy. She served time in prison. On her release, Sullenger was hired as a senior policy advisor by Operation Rescue–which leaves one to wonder what sort of policy advice the group was seeking.

In 2006 Sullenger filed a complaint with the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts against Ann Neuhaus, a doctor who offered a second opinion on a few late-term abortion cases. The law in Kansas requires a woman seeking a later-term abortion to obtain a second physician’s opinion. In eleven cases, Dr. Neuhaus found the patients had serious mental health issues and an abortion was advisable. Sullenger’s complaint claimed Dr. Neuhaus’ examinations weren’t thorough enough to merit that advice (though, of course, Sullenger believes a thorough examination would necessarily result in a decision against abortion). That complaint sat without a hearing until last week.

In the intervening years, though, Sullenger provided a guy named Scott Roeder with information regarding Dr. George Tiller, the doctor who provided the abortion services on which Dr. Neuhaus offered her second opinion. Roeder later murdered Dr. Tiller as he attended church. In Roeder’s car, the police found Sullenger’s Operation Rescue telephone number. He told authorities he’d spoken to Sullenger on several occasions about ‘justifiable homicide’ in regard to protecting the life of the unborn. Sullenger said she provided Roeder with the information about Dr. Tiller ‘to be polite.’ She wasn’t charged with any crime.

Several months ago the governor of Kansas–Sam Brownback, an abortion opponent–appointed a lawyer named Rick Macias to the State Board of Healing Arts. Macias had, at one time, represented Operation Rescue. And suddenly that complaint filed by Sullenger way back in 2006 got a hearing.

Can you guess what happened? Of course you can. On Friday the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts revoked the medical license of Dr. Ann Neuhaus.

Dr. Ann Neuhaus having her medical license revoked

Just to be clear, let me repeat this. A complaint filed six years ago by a woman convicted of attempting to bomb a medical clinic and who is an associate of a man convicted of assassinating a doctor who performed a legal medical procedure is heard by a committee appointed by a governor who is opposed to that legal medical procedure–a committee on which sits a lawyer who represented a group opposed to that legal medical procedure, and that committee decides to revoke the medical license of a doctor for the offense of offering a second opinion on eleven cases involving that same legal medical procedure.

That’s fucked up.

For the record, let me say I dislike the need for abortions. I wish nobody ever had to make that decision. But it’s a decision that belongs to a woman in consultation with her doctor. Let me also remind folks once again that this is a legal medical procedure. For now.

Let me also say there is something deeply un-American about people who are so intent on imposing their religious and moral values on everybody else.

memory, imagination, and a pretty little creek

See those trees? Not just the ones along the bike path–the ones in the distance. They’re new. Relatively new. New since 1877, anyway.

In 1877 this whole area was flat. Really flat. Nothing but field–field and a small creek called Little Four Mile Creek. It may only be a small tributary of the larger Four Mile Creek–which, by the way, is significantly longer than four miles–but the Little Four Mile is big enough to seriously fuck up a train. Which is exactly what happened to a small Chicago & Rock Island express train at around 2:30 in the morning of the 28th day of August, 1877.

It was raining that morning. Had been for a while. Raining hard and at two-thirty in the morning it had to be so very dark. I can sort of picture it in my mind–the train running along at speed, the metronomic clatter of the engine, nothing for the engineer to see, hurtling through that dark laminar landscape. He couldn’t possibly have seen that the heavy rain had flooded the tiny creek and undermined a culvert, collapsing the small bridge.

The engine was pulling a baggage car, three coaches, a Barnum & Bailey advertising car (along with a 13-man paste brigade–the people who spread out through the town pasting up posters advertising the coming of the circus), and at the very end–a sleeper car.

Everything but the sleeper went into the flooded creek.

Eighteen bodies were recovered that day. Two more were recovered later, having been carried downstream in the flood. Most of the passengers, fortunately, were in the sleeper car, which remained almost magically on the tracks. In a way, this disaster very likely prevented an even larger disaster. The next bridge–a little over a mile away, crossing the larger Four Mile Creek–had also washed out.

They built a temporary bridge the following day and the day after that the trains were back on schedule. A few days after that, they built a new permanent bridge over a reinforced culvert. The trains still run along those tracks, they still cross that bridge. The photograph above (shot from the bicycle bridge over the creek where the train wreck occurred) shows the ‘new’ bridge, though you can’t really see the creek below.

The next photograph, also taken from the bike bridge, shows the creek in the direction in which the bodies were carried away. It’s a pretty little creek, isn’t it. Frogs, minnows, lots of red-winged blackbirds. All very quiet, aside from the birds, all very still.

There’s a small plaque beside the bike path, and a bench where you can sit and rest and listen to the birds. You could probably scramble down to the creek itself and walk in it, if you didn’t mind first passing through a gauntlet of thorny bushes and stinging nettles. If you were diligent and determined, you could probably still find bits of wreckage.

I stayed there for maybe fifteen minutes, resting, drinking water, listening to the water in the creek, and to the squirrels bickering with the blackbirds, thinking about the twenty people who died that night 135 years ago, not more than fifteen yards from where I sat. I tried to imagine the last thing the engineer saw, the last thing he might have been thinking, barreling through the rain in the black Iowa night.

This is what writers do–construct a narrative out of the merest wisps of fact. In truth, the engineer almost certainly couldn’t see much of anything at all, and he likely wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. One moment he was just keeping the throttle company–all by himself in a rainy, horizonless darkness–and the next moment he was dead.

I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits. I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. But I believe in the power of memory and imagination. And there’s something wonderful in the fact that after one hundred and thirty-five years, that engineer and his nineteen dead passengers and crew continue to exist in memory and imagination.

dueling definitions of pornography

There is something profoundly wrong with the modern Republican party.

Last week the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing on the process of mountain-top removal (MTR) coal mining. If you’re not familiar with that practice, it’s been used for a couple decades now, all over Appalachia–Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. The name is incredibly self-descriptive; MTR involves clearing timber from a mountaintop and then dynamiting the peak. The mountaintop is literally removed. The coal is excavated and all the waste gets dumped into into the nearby valleys. The valleys, of course, are where the streams and creeks and brooks are located.

Not surprisingly, depositing massive amounts of coal debris into streams turned out to be in violation of the Clean Water Act. However, in 2002 coal company lobbyists managed to get the Bush administration to ‘clarify’ the Clean Water Act so that MTR debris wasn’t considered ‘waste.’

Problem solved! Clean water was restored to the areas at the stroke of a pen. Everybody wins!

MTR is horrible, of course. The Republican support for the practice is appalling. But that’s old news. It’s hardly a surprise that they’ll shift laws to benefit corporations over people. What IS surprising, though, is how incredibly skewed their priorities are. At the hearing last week an opponent to MTR (Maria Gunnoe) was scheduled to testify about the devastating effects the practice has on the people who have to live with the consequences of filthy water. Part of her testimony–which was made available to committee members beforehand–involved a slideshow of photographs by photojournalist Katie Falkenberg, who documented the lives of some of the people living in the affected areas.

Before she could testify, however, Gunnoe was approached by staffers working for Representative Doug Lamborn–a Republican who sits on the committee and, by coincidence, has close ties to the American Coal Council (Lamborn gave the keynote speech at last year’s ACC conference, in which he accused President Obama of fighting ‘a war against coal’). Lamborn’s staffers informed Gunnoe she wouldn’t be allowed to use one of Falkenberg’s photographs. This photograph:

Why did she have to remove that photograph? Because Lamborn thought it was child pornography. And indeed, after she delivered her testimony (which was given without the photograph) Gunnoe was detained for an hour by Capitol Police and questioned about the alleged ‘child pornography’..

Lamborn and other Republicans see nothing at all wrong with blowing up mountaintops and dumping waste in the groundwater used by poor people–but when looking at this photograph they don’t see a child forced to live in heartbreaking conditions; they see something sexual.

Anybody who sees anything sexual in this photograph is twisted. Anybody who looks at this photograph and thinks in terms of sexuality instead of basic human rights and living conditions is depraved and morally corrupt.

So let me say it again. There is something profoundly wrong with the modern Republican party.

how not to write a lecture

There’s a great deal to dislike about the American Midwest in general and Iowa in specific. But I have to admit I love Iowa’s dedication to bicycling. The city, the county and the state are all investing money in building, maintaining, and expanding a statewide network of interlinked bike trails. There’s nearly 2000 miles of bike trails in Iowa–some are paved, some are dirt, some are crushed limestone–and many of them connect with each other in some way.

So I was only mildly surprised yesterday morning. I set out to do a quick three or four mile ride–just enough to stretch out the aging muscles and clear my mind for the day. I had a lecture to write, after all, and homework to do, and chores to perform. So…a quick morning ride. Twenty minutes, tops.

I took a slightly different path than my usual ride–a trail I hadn’t ridden since last year. This particular trail leads through a suburban area with condos beside a small man-made lake around which young mothers push babies in strollers, or young women jog or walk their tiny dogs, or old folks in loopy hats engage in their daily constitutional.

I don’t mind riding slowly and dodging the women and their strollers and their dogs, but I rarely ride this trail because it also passes through a couple of strip malls–and is there anything less visually interesting than a strip mall?

Once you get through the malls, though, the trail splits. The longer part travels through open rolling fields; the shorter part, through a wooded area. Because I’d already done a couple of miles, I planned to just circle the lake and head back. So instead of a three or four mile ride, it would be a five or six mile ride–hardly any difference at all, right?

And if I’m going to do five or six miles, I may as well cruise through the short wooded area, because that’s just another mile or so. Not even worth mentioning, really. However, where the bike trail ended last year, I saw this:

The trail had been expanded. And it was awfully inviting. But I had a lecture to write and homework to do and fuck all that–who am I to refuse such an invitation?

So I kept riding. The trail eventually ended at a point where a couple of old disused railroad bridges crossed the creek (the bike trail generally follows the creek path). A passenger aircraft was passing overhead, so I waved just in case one of the passengers happened to be looking down and wondering if anybody was on the bike path.

So, end of the trail. Time to turn around and head back to that lecture and those household chores and fuck all that. I mean, look–there’s a creek and bridges and what sort of person wouldn’t want to walk around a bit and see what there is to see? It’s almost a duty. I’m not one to shirk my duty (and honest, I’d get the lecture written at some point).

Through close observation I was able to determine that somebody named Candi rules. I deduced that the area was likely used by young folks to engage in mind-altering experiments. I further discerned hints that these things were a source of regional vanity.

Among my discoveries, I encountered an astonishing variety of plants with thorns, and a species of small but violently insane insect that is attracted to bloody scratches caused by exposing bare legs to thorny plants. Swarms of the little bastards dogged me, and the quicker I moved to escape them the more thorny plants I encountered, creating still more bloody scratches, which drove the insects into an absolute frenzy.

I would have explored more, but I had a lecture to write, don’t you know, and chores to perform. Granted, it took slightly longer than expected to get back to the lecture, on account of as I was circling the condo-encircled lake I had to slow down for a couple of old ladies who were discussing the barn swallows that were hawking for insects beneath a nearby bridge.

I am as fond of a swallow as the next person, and I was in the mood to see insects eaten. So I made a slight detour.

You can’t tell from the photograph, but there were roughly a gazillion hungry barn and cliff swallows, all darting and circling and doing spectacular things in the air. A gazillion, and all of them busily eating what I like to believe were the same sort of miniscule sadistic villains that sucked a full pint of blood from my thorn-gashed legs.

After watching them inflict mass casualties on the insect population, I mounted my bike and continued lectureward, a happy and contented and mildly bloodied man.

When it’s completed, that trail will be about 35 miles in length. When it’s linked to the next trail system, it will total about 110 miles–and that’s before it links to the other 2000 miles of Iowa bike trails.

When that happens, it seems likely I’ll never finish another lecture.