Not having been brought up in the United States, I am grappling to understand and find the rational basis for the cultural imperative in American society to bear arms. From what I can see, the argument seems to divide itself into three main camps:

1. It is simply an inalienable right to bear arms, defined in the Second Amendment just as freedom of speech is enshrined in the First. The problem with accepting this argument as the sole explanation is that proponents of gun ownership do not allow for any fettering of that right in the public interest as they implicitly do for most, if not all, other rights, including free speech. That other great American possession, the automobile, kills an equivalent number of people every year as does the gun, and in a similar myriad of ways (although vehicular homicide is considerably less prevalent than gun homicide). The ownership and operation of an automobile is restrained by the very type of laws anathema to proponents of the right to bear arms - they must be registered with the Government, operators must be licensed by the Government, and there are restrictions on where and how they may be operated. Many people in favor of some form of gun control want nothing more than that, but even that much is opposed by the pro-gun lobby, or dies due to lack of support from the public. So, there has to be more to the cultural imperative to be armed than that.

2. An armed citizenry is required to ensure that the Government will not act malevolently against its citizens, as King George III did in the 1770s. This largely theoretical argument fails contemporary scrutiny on two points. The first is purely practical. An armed civilian population, even with the kinds of weapons that it is possible to obtain these days, is simply no match for the modern American military of which, ironically, proponents of this view of gun ownership are usually the most ardent supporters. If you believe that this is the purpose of the right to bear arms, then why vote for governments which increase spending on the very military it would use to oppress you if it wished to do so? Secondly, there does not seem to have been an example of a functioning democracy in the last 200 years that failed because its citizens were unarmed. So where does this notion come from other than from the Revolutionary War, which is so far from the American political situation of today as to be useless as a rationale? I can not see an armed citizenry being necessary in any other democracy in the world, nor being of having any practical effect in America, so this is unlikely to be a rational explanation either.

3. It is the right of citizens to defend themselves and their property, by lethal force if necessary. This has no basis in the Second Amendment (other than the right to bear arms at all, which I have already discussed) but has plenty of judicial case law behind it, including the Castle Doctrine, Stand Your Ground laws and more recently, the Make My Day principle. It is much easier to find compelling practical rationale for the this argument, especially when you read about home invasions and other violent crimes in the news, and of the successful use of guns to stop them. The common argument against it is that America is becoming a less violent place, but there is nothing to say that this isn't because people aren't arming themselves more. The real problem with this argument is that they aren't - gun ownership is in decline just as violent crime is but, inexplicably, as support for the right to bear arms is on the rise. So although this is the most compelling argument for gun ownership in America, it simply isn't being borne out by people's behavior. 

So, does this notion of an armed citizenry serve any practical use in American society at all? Is it merely a selfish exercise of a right without regard to its unfettered exercise on the public good? Is it a cultural hangover from the Revolutionary War that is past its time? Is it a case of people fighting harder for a principle that they are less interested in actually exercising?

Is there a compelling argument that I have missed? If there is, I would love to hear it, because something that causes over 30,000 deaths a year without even the practical utility of an SUV just doesn't make sense to me otherwise.
Unlike my kids, and much to their ill-disguised disappointment, I am not a gamer. I have to slow Mario Kart to its lowest speed setting just to finish a lap without driving off into the abyss. I never become any way skilled at most games because I am killed by the first thing I encounter that can do it. And frankly, computer games other than word puzzles, trivia games or the electronic versions of popular board games bore me quickly. The one afternoon in my life, almost two decades ago now, that I spent playing a first-person shooter (Doom, I think it was, or something similar) affected my mood in a way and for long enough that it left me wary and mistrustful of such games ever since.

In response to a posting I had put on the internal buy-and-sell website at work looking for kids' games for the XBox I got free with my TV and Internet service, a colleague gave me a copy of Halo3 that he was done with. This FPS game is rated M for Mature because of "Blood and gore, violence and mild language", and my first reaction was to give it away as being inappropriate for a kid Thing One's age (he will turn 11 this month). However, aware of my prejudices against games in general, and rather than make a snap judgment in ignorance, I decided to ask fellow parents on Twitter and Facebook whether a game like Halo3  would be appropriate for an 11 year-old raised on a diet of LEGO Star Wars and EA Sports titles.

The responses I got ran the gamut from someone whose son played the game from 5 years old and isn't a serial killer yet, to another who thinks that such games are a cause of mental illness in children, with some responses from people I know well that were not what I would have expected (in both directions). One of the more interesting comments was from someone who thought that the leap from LEGO Star Wars to Halo3 might be too much at once. Does this mean that I am failing to introduce my kids to blood and gore at the appropriate pace? I am being flippant of course, but it does raise an interesting point: we take pains to introduce our children to alcohol, relationships, movies, sex, driving and a host of other adult things in ways that won't overwhelm them or get them hurt - why not video games? As in so many things, total abstinence may do more harm than good.

On the advice in another comment, I also looked at some YouTube videos of live game action, and apart from recognizably humanoid bodies crumpling to the ground with repetitively robotic cries of anguish, and the rather off-putting references to "killing sprees", I didn't see any of the blood and gore the rating label promised. Doom was way worse in that regard. Interestingly, many of the people who responded to my question pointed out that the bodies where aliens, and the blood was green and purple, as if that made it better.

The whole issue got me thinking about my attitude to violence in my children's games. Games involving crime or violence against police are a no-brainer. So are games with "real" people in them. However, how is shooting aliens in Halo3 not OK, but smashing little LEGO men to pieces is? Toy guns, indeed replica weapons of any kind, are verboten in my house (as they were in my parents'), but not toy soldiers, or models of military aircraft. With some disgust, I removed an all too realistic deer-hunting game from Thing One's iTouch a while ago, but I cannot wait to take him to play laser tag again. Where is the line between bits of LEGO and purple blood?

I guess all I can do as a parent is trust my instinct. Much like the Supreme Court's interpretation of pornography, "we know it when we see it" and, if an FPS game makes me uncomfortable, then there is probably good reason for it. But there is always the risk that I allow my prejudice, ignorance and disinterest to make for an overly rigid regime in this area (and many others, if Thing One's grumbling about bedtimes, TV viewing times and so on is anything to go by!). As a parent, I have a duty to educate and inform myself so I am equipped to deal with issues that hadn't even been invented when I was the age my kids are now, but also so that I'm not overly strict where it is not warranted.

At the end of the day, however, my job is to parent. Kids will always say that "everyone else is doing it" (didn't we do just the same!), and unless I teach my children that a) they probably aren't and b) those that are probably shouldn't be, I equip them poorly for when the thing "everyone" is doing is genuinely harmful, and they have to make that judgment call for themselves.

Oh, by the way, does anyone want a copy of Halo3?
I have come to the realization that I don't want to be a fiction
writer. I have long entertained this notion of being suddenly inspired to write this magnificent novel, getting published and being able to retire to look over the sea while the royalties roll in. Quite aside from the obvious misconception that all good authors make retiring kind of money with their first book, most people who are going to create something great (novelists, songwriters, artists) usually start doing so fairly early on in their lives. Something burns inside them that compels them to write, compose or draw in every moment of spare time they have and they realize that is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. I look at someone like Chris Martin (of my beloved Coldplay) and marvel at his talent, am moved by his music, but have no sense of what compels him to write it. By contrast, he has probably been writing snippets of lyric and melody since he was a child.

I have written precisely two works of fiction in my life. The first, "The Industrial Mother Pig", was a short story written as a six year-old on a record card from my father's study. It was received well enough by its rather limited audience, but was destined never to be a best-seller. The second was my entry, a few years later, into a play-writing contest in the magazine of the Puffin Club, a reading club for children run by the Penguin Press, who published their children's titles under the Puffin Books label. It was good enough to win me a copy of the play adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and publication in the magazine, but the phone stayed strangely silent.

I took Economics and Geography at university, and in my Junior Sophister year chose "The Geography of the United States of America" as one of my electives. Given by a wonderfully enthusiastic lecturer, Dr. James Killen, this course, and particularly, its year-end assignment, was to instill in me a fascination with and love for US history and geography that continues to this day.

The assignment was to write a 5,000-word paper on topic given to us by Dr. Killen. Mine was to be the political and religious geography of the US. I was to explain how the distribution of religious and political affiliation that we see in today's America came to pass. Why, for example, the southern states are predominantly Baptist, or why northern inner cities have a large proportion of Democratic voters.

I don't know about you, but much of my assignment writing in university was pretty much an exercise in getting enough of what the lecturer wanted to see onto the page in order to get a reasonably decent grade. Not so in this case. The topic piqued my interest from the start and is an onion of many, many layers. Each book I delved into in search of answers as part of my research peeled away one layer of the onion only to reveal another. A stranger to the US system of government and to many of its major religious denominations, I had to learn about them, and then to trace the history and settlement of the United States back to the Pilgrim Fathers, to read the Constitution and the sermons of John Wesley in order to piece the story together.

For two solid weeks, it was all I did, rising early in the morning so as to be at the library as it opened, there to continue my research into the evening, surrounded by a horseshoe of stacked books, each open to the page that had caused me to get the next one from the shelves. And I loved every minute of it.

I think the resulting paper is probably the best thing I have yet written. The mark it got means less to me than the all-consuming pleasure I got from researching and writing it.

In recent weeks, as I have rekindled my desire to write, I have been wondering what sort of writer I want to be, and why I feel I want to write at all. I love to write, but without that creative fire burning within, compelling me to create that Great Novel, what would I actually write about? I thought about the way that creators spend their waking hours jotting down story ideas, or melodies, or sketches and, sitting at my computer recently, I asked myself if I did anything that emulated that. What is it that I am compelled to do whenever I have a spare moment?

As I contemplated this, my attention drifted to my web browser, groaning under the weight of the numerous tabs I had opened in response to reading an article someone had posted to Twitter an hour before.

Like those those stacked books in the university library two decades ago, the series of open tabs were the result of what I compulsively do whenever I have time on my hands. As a child, I was an avid reader of fiction, but rarely encountered something new in a story without having to go learn about it in a reference book, often having novel in one hand, and the reference book in the other.

Regrettably, my masterpiece term paper is lost to posterity, the victim of an era when a 20MB hard drive was an optional extra, but the the memory of those happy hours researching and writing it lives on. And now I know what compels me to write, I will watch for signs that a subject or story is piquing my interest just as the topic of that paper did all those years ago.

Retirement may have to wait, though.
In his book "Tug of War: A Judge's Verdict on Separation, Custody Battles, and the Bitter Realities of Family Court", Mr. Justice Harvey Brownstone offers the following advice:

"Parents must love their children more than they dislike each other. Children need peace more than their parents need to win."

I bought this book shortly after Justice Brownstone's TV show, "Family Matters", debuted on CHEK-TV this Fall after a popular online series last year. What makes his show unique is that it is the first time that an active sitting Family Court judge has appeared on television to explain in very candid terms how the family justice system works, how it doesn't, and how it differs from what is depicted on Court TV. No Judge Judy, he. I read the book from cover to cover, resolved to follow the sage advice contained in it, and then, like so many other good books stuffed with great advice, put it back on the shelf and carried on much as before.

Until last week. Thing One has always been a highly intelligent, sensitive and emotional child, prone to outbursts of temper, and has developed traits of oppositional defiance in the last year or two. He has struggled with the differing parenting styles of myself and his mother, often playing us off against each other as we battled over how to deal with his behavior and parenting in general. This has been particularly true since the separation, and his anger and frustration began to manifest itself both on and off the ice at his hockey games, culminating in my deciding to sit him for the last five minutes of not the first game in which his behavior was causing problems. My ex and I, in a rare moment of agreement, decided that he needed a break from his beloved hockey to regroup and so we could figure out what we could do about it.

Then came the Christmas break, when both The Things spent a week with each of us, first with their mother and then with me. When the Things came to stay with me, I was able to have a really good conversation with Thing One in the calm that comes after one of his rages, when he said a couple of things that showed that he was gaining some insight into his emotions, their causes and effects. He said he wanted to go back to hockey, so I set out two conditions under which I thought that could happen: that he participate in some form of anger management therapy and that, if there was a repeat of the behavior that led to his break from playing, he would be done for the rest of the season. He thought about that for a moment and then came the first moment of insight. He said, "Dad, I don't think I can get through the season without another outburst right now." We talked about it some more, and he agreed that it would be better to focus on learning to deal with managing his emotions with a view to being able to return to the ice, with a concerted effort from him, before the end of the season.

We talked some more about his anger and where it might come from and then came the second insightful comment from him. He told me that one of the things that made him angry was coming to the apartment. It reminds him in very real terms that things are no longer the way they were, and he finds the constant packing to move back and forth causes anxiety. He said that he would like a break from it, so I said I would speak to his Mom and we would see what we wanted to do about it.

That evening, I emailed my ex about this conversation. The next day, Thing One told me that he had been told not to worry about my conditions and that he could go back to playing hockey right away. Worse still, he later told me that my message about the break from visits had been relayed to him by his mother as if I had said I didn't want to have them at the apartment any more.

I struggled with what to say about this to the kids. How can you explain it, maintain the integrity of your opinion, without committing the dual sins of speaking negatively about your ex to the children, and openly contradicting her to them? And then I remembered Justice Brownstone's advice, "Children need peace more than their parents need to win." I realized that in order for my children to experience some peace, I needed to allow them to hear only one voice instead of one in each ear, even if that voice wasn't the one I wanted it to be. What has been causing anxiety for the kids is not necessarily what either my ex or I have been saying to them, but the dichotomy that is created when we are both attempting to do what we think is best for them, but when that is hardly ever the same thing.

And so, I will drop my end of the rope in our tug of war. I will allow our children to experience the peace of hearing one voice when it comes to decisions that affect their lives. Does this mean they will not hear my voice at all? Of course not, but it will be the voice that asks how their day went, that tells them I love them, that reads them bedtime stories. 

I need this, they need this, more than I need to win.
Christmas is going to be different this year. I became separated in February and, in the ensuing tussle over who gets the kids when at Christmas, my ex-wife eventually agreed that they could be with me from noon on Boxing Day, meaning that I would be by myself for Christmas Day for the first time in my life.

I put off dealing with what I would do that day for a while, until a couple of the amazing circle of friends and acquaintances I have been blessed with since moving to Vancouver learned that I would be on my own and invited me to spend Christmas dinner with them.

Don't get me wrong, but spending Christmas Day with someone with whom you don't normally have a social relationship is sadder than being alone. I really appreciated the thought (it really is quite a commitment to welcome a relative stranger to your table on what is already a busy day), but nothing makes you feel alone more than being with people for no other reason than to avoid just that.

So I thanked them for their kindness, said that that I had plenty of other things on both before and after, which I do, and that I would be fine on my own for the day itself.

And then, of course, I was faced with having to decide what I would do that day. I did briefly consider volunteering at one of the many worthy causes in the area but, being perfectly honest with myself, it would have been a hollow gesture, one designed to make me feel good but which would again have accentuated how different everything was now. If I really felt strongly about doing something like that on Christmas Day, I already would have been, regardless of whether I was on my own or not.

I am a person who places a lot of emphasis on ritual and symbolism, and Christmas Day, at least my kind of Christmas Day, is full of these. I thought of what it would be like to have a Christmas Day without them, sitting in my apartment by myself, and then asked myself why I couldn't have a Christmas Day anyway?

Gradually, the notion of blending old traditions with my new reality began to take shape in my mind. I found a recipe for turkey breast that I could do in the slow cooker while I was at church, I could make my favorite carrot side dish, get a Christmas pudding and a cake and all the other trappings, put on my favorite carols and have myself a very merry Christmas while enjoying what will probably turn out to be one of the few quiet days I will have during the holidays. To crown it all, my beloved Green Bay Packers take on the Chicago Bears in the evening to round off a perfect day.

So that's exactly what I will do. Some of the traditions from Christmases past I have had to let go of, but I will keep what I can and make this year's Christmas Day a day for myself, to enjoy and to reflect both on the events of the past year and on my new life to come. I will attend church, eat my dinner, call my scattered family, old and new, and open a beer or two and watch the game, happy and content in my new home.
Advent is my favorite season in the Christian calendar (yes, like most of the world's religions, Christianity has its own calendar - you can get one to hang on the wall here). I particularly like the music and symbolism of the season, and the build up to Christmas itself.

Advent also marks the time of the year when the "religious" and "secular" communities seem to have the most to say to each other. Unfortunately, most of what they have to say to each other is not very nice.

If I was to put my religious persuasion on my Facebook page, it would probably say "It's complicated". I was born in Dublin, Ireland, and baptized in the Roman Catholic church, the son of a Roman Catholic from the Falls Road area of Belfast and the Anglican daughter of a Royal Navy sailor who died in a Japanese PoW camp during the Second World War.

A house move at the age of five to a conservative RC parish, accompanied a while later by the retirement of the more moderate parish priest from our old parish left us trying a variety of RC churches, including Latin Mass at the Pro-Cathedral, no less, in a vain attempt to find one my father liked. Eventually, he approached the local Church of Ireland (the name of the Anglican church in Ireland) rector, who welcomed us all to attend that church.

So, born and baptized a Roman Catholic, I was confirmed in the Anglican church. Thus began a more than 20-year relationship with the Church of Ireland that turned my life around (a whole other story) and fomented a love of the Anglican liturgy, especially the now little-used Common Book of Prayer, and its music: the canticles, psalms and hymns. And, of course, the carols. If you visit my home (and often my desk) at any time between Advent Sunday and Epiphany, you will be treated to the voices of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, singing my particular favorites. I sang all of them in the choir of that Church of Ireland church, albeit in a style more akin to can belto than anything else.

I was married in that church to my now ex-wife, herself a Roman Catholic, and we moved to Canada a couple years later, having visited family here while on honeymoon.

The Anglican Church in Canada is a peculiar animal. Unlike the austerely homogeneous Church of Ireland, united in its efforts to be as unlike the Roman Catholic church as possible despite having a lot in common with it, the Anglican Church in Canada, as in much of the rest of the world, consists of members with a wide range of liturgical views. These are held strongly enough by the various factions to have caused some parishes in this diocese to leave it and affiliate with another over the issue of the ordination of gay clergy, resulting in all sorts of legal and financial battles.

I tried a couple of the Anglican churches in the area for a while, but getting out of bed on Sunday mornings to attend services concerned more with liturgical schism than the worship of God lost its appeal fairly quickly and I fell out of the habit.

Then last Christmas, a family that we had come to know well through hockey and school invited us to attend their church, Broadmoor Baptist Church. We went along on Christmas Eve to encounter everything that my previous church experience as one of God's Frozen People had conditioned me to find uncomfortable. There was no stately pipe organ, but a drum kit, electric guitars, a tambourine. It was warm, the benches were soft. People were demonstratively enthusiastic about their faith, held their arms in the air as they sang songs, laid hands on each other as they prayed.

Our kids loved it. They begged to go back the next Sunday, and the next, and now we are regular attendees there. One of the children's favorite bedtime story books is David Kossoff's "Bible Stories Retold", useful as we play catch-up with their peers' Biblical knowledge. Over time, I have learned to lower my defenses against the unfamiliar, and I have been rewarded with the love and support of a community which expresses its faith, worship, prayer and charity in a genuine, heartfelt way that I had never experienced anywhere else.

In Ireland, regular attendance at church is a societal norm, and an often robotic and generally unquestioning one at that. When I lived there, many Roman Catholic churches had moved their main weekend service from Sunday morning to Saturday night in the hopes of getting people to attend on their way to the pub, instead of having to drag them from their hungover beds on Sunday morning. A sizable portion of the congregation would stand outside the open doors of the church so they could smoke and chat and still tell their mothers that they had been to Mass.

By contrast, church attendance in North America is not the norm. The decision to attend is a conscious commitment that sets you apart from the mainstream as "religious", a "person of faith", a "Christian". These terms are fast becoming the casualties of a growing intolerance of religion in secular society fueled both by the abject failure of some churches to deal with the sexual exploitation of children by their clergy, and by the antics of a new breed of ultra-conservative politician who is unabashedly religious and who wears their lack of intellect like a badge of honor. To label someone a Christian or religious is, within this anti-faith context, pejorative. But isn't it possible to be both intellectually rigorous and have a deep religious faith, to be a thinking Christian?

When you grow up in Ireland, regardless of your faith or lack of it, it is almost impossible to avoid attending a religious school of some kind. At elementary level, the publicly funded so-called "National" schools are almost exclusively operated by Roman Catholic religious orders or by the Church of Ireland. In order to avoid an overly religious and Irish nationalist education, I was enrolled in a small, private Quaker school at what I have to imagine was considerable financial cost to my parents.

It was an excellent school and prepared me well enough for the scholarship exam for my high school that I came second. Secondary schools in Ireland are all fee-paying, and almost all are run by religious orders or from endowments by those with religious persuasions of one hue or another. I went to a predominantly Anglican high school whose headmaster was a member of the Plymouth Brethren. We sang a hymn and had a Bible reading and a Collect at a mass assembly every morning, and there was a church service (in my then Anglican parish church as it happens) each Christmas. But the focus was on academics, not polemics, and I emerged with a grade good enough to go to university.

Both my parents are retired university academics. My mother lectured in the Classics, and my father in Spanish. They met at what was to be my alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, at a time when my father had to deal with a ban by the Roman Catholic Church on its members attending there, and when my mother was one of the first female faculty allowed to stay in residence on campus.

Some 25 years later, after a short-lived foray into Engineering on the kindly but misguided advice of a career guidance teacher, I ended up with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and Geography. Both that education and the guidance of my parents instilled a discipline of critical thinking which I carry with me to this day.

There are those who believe that it simply isn't possible to both have a strong religious faith and be a critical thinker with a degree in the the very science that shows the rocks of the Earth to be millions of years old. These people would have a world without faith or religion of any kind, believing that religion and churches are responsible for all the world's ills, that faith is anathema to logic and reason, and that science is the sole explanation for everything in the world around us. These are the soldiers of a new, militant atheism, one that rather than tolerating faith while ensuring the separation of church and state, is actively dedicated to countering it, defeating it with an ironically religious fervor.

What interests me is that there is hardly a culture on Earth that does not observe some form of religious practice. Religions have survived for thousands of years on faith alone, and their millions of people have kept that faith through personal despair and loss, discrimination, persecution, exile and holocaust. Letters written by my grandfather from the Japanese PoW camp where he would die just three months before liberation show how his religious faith was a source of strength for himself and for others during their unimaginable ordeal. Clearly, religious belief and faith fulfill some fundamental need of the human psyche.

That need is simply to be human. We need to love and be loved, to know that there is hope, to feel good about ourselves, to do good things for others. While in church a few Sundays ago, one of the people there noticed that I was upset (about my ongoing divorce) to the point that I was unable to sing along with the worship songs (when I am sad, I find it impossible to sing songs I like without blubbing - I have no idea why). He sat beside me, laid a hand on my shoulder and prayed with me and I walked out of there strengthened by his care and Christian love for me. Better than the Prozac science could offer me.

I am blessed to be in love with a beautiful woman who lives 1,800 miles away in another country. Our physical, intellectual and emotional attraction to one another can all be rationally and logically explained by the natural and social sciences. However, our deep faith that we will one day be together against all practical odds is neither scientific or pragmatic. But life without that faith would be very dark indeed.
And such is religious faith - it strengthens us, guides us, cheers us, motivates us to do good things in the Lord's name, to strive to be a light in the world, to use science for the good of mankind rather than for evil.

So as we approach Christmas, think about this: the implausible story of the virgin birth of a baby boy in a stable two thousand and ten years ago, the life lived by Him and His eventual death on the Cross has spread throughout the world and survives to this day in all corners of it based, not on science, but on faith.

Incidentally, in church last Sunday we watched this video. I tweeted shortly afterwards that it takes science to explain the world around us, but faith to be moved by it, to marvel at it. Enjoy!
This is Gail. She is a passionate teacher, an amazing mother, daughter, friend and companion and the most beautiful, smart, strong, capable woman I have ever met.

She is also responsible for encouraging me (read: kicking me in the butt hard enough and for long enough) to start this blog.

I'll try not to make her regret it.

    About Me

    Recently separated, forty-something father of two. Navy, Green Bay Packers and Jeopardy! fan. Motorcycle rider and Information Technology refugee.

    People always ask, so here is the answer.

    Blog Roll


    July 2012
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    December 2011