23 August 2014

A Chance Encounter

Today, I decided to run out to McKnight Road, where the majority of relevant stores are located here in the North Hills. I went out there so I could get a new hammock for Loki from Petco, so that we could cycle his, allowing him to always have one to snuggle in. As I was sitting at the light to leave the plaza Petco sits in, I watched as a young woman a few years younger than me walked into the grass by the road and sat her dog down, took out a sign, and began to stand and wait for someone to hand her some money. Her sign read that she was on the road and broke, and needed some help so she could keep traveling.
I didn't have any more than a dollar and some change on me, but instead of heading home, I pulled into the nearby 7-11, went inside, and bought a bottle of water and snagged a paper cup. I brought it out to her, and as I handed it to her, I told her that it was much too hot for her and her dog to sit outside without some water.
She thanked me for it, poured some into the cup, and gave it to her dog, who gratefully lapped it up. She ended up giving him the full bottle, remarking on how thirsty he was. The dog nuzzled me and with his great big eyes staring at me, I couldn't resist but to pet him.
That's when I got to talking with the girl. She told me her name was Courtney, and she was trying to get back home to Buffalo, NY. She said that she had moved down here to be with her boyfriend, who had an apartment with some friends here in the city. Later, those friends moved out, and were replaced by older roommates, men in their forties, who quickly brought the house down into unsanitary conditions. They were peeing in old milk jugs and leaving it outside of their bedrooms. They were leaving food everywhere, beer cans. They soon blamed Courtney and her boyfriend for making the house dirty, and kicked them out. The house, she said, was later condemned for how horrible the men made it.
She paused a moment to accept a twenty from a woman who, like me, had seen her and pulled into the 7-11. The woman said something quickly, handed the money off, and walked away as fast as she could. Courtney slipped the money into the back pocket of torn short shorts.
She continued her story, telling me that the money she had saved ended up being poured into her old car after an accident, and she lost her job shortly thereafter.
"So here I am," she said staring at the line of cars behind me. "My boyfriend, my dog, and I, we've been living out of my car for the last like, two weeks, and it's so disgusting in there now, but we don't have anything else."
She paused again to take some money from a man in a black truck.
Courtney went on to tell me that she hoped to get back home to Buffalo, that she hopes her father will let her live at home for a while until she gets back on her feet. She wants to go back to school to be an X-Ray technician. She was surprised that I was a chemist. "I never expected someone with so many tattoos to be a professional chemist," she remarked.
"These last few weeks, they've been hell," she said, petting the old dog. "It seems like everything is going wrong. But I have to keep hoping that things will change. And that's why I want to go back home. Start over. Try again. Maybe things will be different." She flashed a smile.
She's not even sure that her old car will make it to Buffalo. All she knows is that it took her about $100 to get here. She hopes to raise at least that much so she can head back.
"Most people," she said looking at the empty bottle of water. "They just pass by me or give me dirty looks or flip me off. I have a couple who give me a few bucks, but no one stops and talks to me. No one wants to know anything about me. But I've been here for about fifteen minutes, talking to you, and there was that woman who gave me that twenty and that other guy who gave me some money, and you brought me that water. It gives me hope. Makes me feel like I'm getting lucky again."
When I left her standing there, after twenty or so minutes of chatting and petting her dog, I felt so conflicted. I came home and resolved to try to do more for her: I cooked some pasta and some frozen vegetables and some hot dogs for her dog and packed it all up with some water and drove out to where I saw her, but she was gone. I drove up and down McKnight, hoping to find her, but she was nowhere to be seen.
I've put the bag of food and the water in the fridge. It will keep for a few days. I'll go out there every day and try to find her until the food is bad.
Meeting with Courtney was not something I anticipated happening. I never thought I would be stopping and getting out of my car to shake hands with a girl who came to this city with hopes in her eyes only to lose almost everything. It made me think about how close I came to that very same circumstance last year, after leaving grad school, when I spent five months unemployed. During that time, I was searching for work every day, I sold all of my gold and silver jewelry except the pieces that meant the most to me, so that I could help Rich out by buying some of our food. I tried everything I could think of, but I was too educated for low-wage jobs and not educated enough for jobs in my field. It was sheer luck I landed my five-month job at ModCloth, and there was certainly some luck involved in my getting employment at PPG. But before finally finding work, I debated doing what Courtney is doing now: standing at busy intersections, hoping someone will give me twenty bucks so I could contribute to the maintaining of the place I call home. I debated leaving, without saying anything, to live under a bridge or something, so that I could be less of a burden on the person I love most.
Courtney's story is something I think we can all learn from. She has fallen on hard times, something that is very easy to do in this country right now, but she still had hope. She still had so much love for her fifteen year old dog that she gave him every last ounce of the water I brought her without taking a sip for herself.
Someone once told me that, sometimes, we are a stranger's only friend, and we must do whatever is in our power to make even just one day better for someone, whether we know them or not.
Today, I sat down with a girl who needed help and talked to her. I saw her sign, and instead of ignoring her, I talked to her, I shook her hand, and I even high-fived her. I learned her story, and I will always remember it.
We should all strive, in a world so full of hate, so full of trolls, so full of complaining, to bring a little love to every day. Do something nice for someone, every single day. Listen to someone's story. You never know what you'll learn.

01 June 2013

The Twisted Sister: Living with Scoliosis

This little story is sort of a long time in coming. I've been looking for some sort of way to talk about my experience with scoliosis in a social way for a few years now. So few people actually understand what it means to live with your spine being crooked. Thinking about my history with it is distressing for me, so I've been holding off on it for a long time.
What I really hope for this story is that some little kid who learns she has scoliosis will find this page on the Internet and learn that there are certainly obstacles, but they are surmountable. And I hope that others will be able to learn what this condition is, and will be able to be knowledgable about it, should they ever encounter it.
Without further ado, this is my story about living with scoliosis.

I first found out that I had scoliosis when I was eight years old. During a routine physical exam just before school started, my primary physician did the normal test: palms together, touch your toes. But on that day, he found something unusual. My spine didn't look quite right. He wrote a referral for Dr. Allen Carl, the best orthopedist in the area. He worked in a centre in Albany, NY, nearly an hour's drive from my parents' house. He was the best in the business, according to my physician; he even treated sports players.
My father took the day off of work to bring us, basically a rarity back in those days.
When we arrived for my first appointment, it was apparent how desired Dr. Carl was among orthopedic patients. We waited for three hours to see him, with my mom and I both reading, my father getting impatient, and my younger brother, then five years old, also getting impatient.
When I was finally called in, they took X-rays. A lot of them. From a lot of angles. Hold your breath. Okay don't. Okay hold. Okay breathe. Turn towards the door. Hold. And so on.
Seeing Dr. Carl for the first time was almost surreal. I hadn't really seen a "specialist" before, and to me, that meant he was smarter than my regular doctor. He could fix my scoliosis, whatever that was. See, no one really explained it to me before that day. They didn't tell me there wasn't really a "cure."
The man named Allen Carl was terrifying to look at. He towered over me, his hair was greying, his big glasses sheltered his eyes, which didn't really look at me anyway. He threw up my X-rays, these alien skeletal pictures of me, almost as tall as me. He took a ruler and pencil, made some markings on my bones, and turned to my mother.
"Patient Andrea Veliz, age 8, has presented with a skeletal curve of angle 13 degrees, rotation 10 degrees. S-shaped curve between---"
The rest was medical terminology. I still don't know which of my vertebrae are involved in my curve. It was always some jumble of T's and L's and numbers. What I did understand from my X-rays is what scoliosis is; my spine wasn't straight. It was shaped like a tiny "s" in my back.
He never talked to us, though. He talked to his tape recorder, his personal record keeper to be transcribed by his secretary because he couldn't be bothered to write his own notes. He may have been the best in the business, but his demeanor was colder than his hands.
At the end of the conversation, he asked for any questions. My mom asked some normal mom stuff; treatment recommendations, physical restrictions, et cetera. I stared at my shoes.
"Mrs. Veliz has asked if anything needs to be done now in terms of her daughter's treatment. At this point, nothing needs to be done, " he assured the tape recorder, "as many children develop low-grade scoliosis that never worsens. But we will keep a close eye on her curve since she is still growing, and recommend a visit for X-rays six months from now."
And that was the first visit. He never asked how I was doing. He never shook my hand. He never looked me in the eyes. Dr. Allen Carl was the best in the business.

Some time after, I was talking with friends at school. I told them about the visit, about the scoliosis. Later that week, every student in my class stayed away from me. They told me they didn't want to catch my disease. I tried to explain that it wasn't contagious, that not even my doctors knew where it came from -- no one in my family had it.
It didn't work.

Although Dr. Carl kept a close eye on my curve with regular X-rays, his initial prediction was dead wrong. Somewhere around age twelve or thirteen, in a six-month time frame, my curve skyrocketed from the 13 degrees it had hovered around for the last four to five years to 27 degrees, rotation 16 degrees.
That day, driving up I-90 to get my X-rays, I knew something was wrong. I had known since I woke up. That day, I brought my Pikachu plush toy to Albany with me.
When Dr. Carl put my X-rays up on the light board, I saw it in an instant. I sank to the floor, pushing into the corner.
"Patient Andrea Veliz, X-ray shows..." pencil markings... "27 degree curvature with... 16 degree rotation."
I read all the stupid pamphlets my mom had gotten as soon as I was diagnosed. I knew what he was going to say next:
"At this point, I recommend that we put Andrea in a brace."
That's when I lost it. I was already teased at school for so many things. Now, I was going to have to wear some monstrosity. As soon as everyone found out, I would be called a slew of new names. I cried into Pikachu's head, his long, pointy ears cradling me at the cheeks.
"I also want to recommend that Andrea refrain from carrying anything heavy, including her backpack. This could result in further advancing her curve, which could require corrective surgery."
My mother nodded and just watched me cry.
"At this point, it needs to be decided which brace Andrea will wear. There are three choices: the Milwaukee brace, which is worn for twenty-three hours a day, the Charleston bending brace, which is worn for eight to twelve hours per night, or a newly-developed brace made of fabric, worn twenty-three hours per day."
"This is Andrea's decision," my mom whispered.
Dr. Carl shut off his tape recorder, and they both stared at me, this crumpled up piece of person in the corner. I didn't want to make the decision. But I did, after my mom said, "Come on, Andrea. You have to choose."
"I'll wear the one for sleeping," I told Pikachu. The adults nodded.
Dr. Carl turned his recorder back on. "Andrea has chosen to wear the Charleston bending brace. She can go upstairs to the fourth floor to be fitted right away. We will keep close track of her curve from this point on, with her next visit in four months."
When we left the office, I ran to my dad in the waiting room and jumped into his lap. I half sobbed, half screamed at him, "I'm a freak, dad!" Everyone just looked at me.
My mom explained everything to my dad, and they brought me to the elevator, and up to the fourth floor. When we arrived, my mom handed a slip from Dr. Carl to the secretary, and she and I were brought into a room were I was to be fitted. I was handed a double-layered tube of nude-coloured cloth with armholes cut. The man who handed it to me said, with a smile:
"Here you are, Andrea. To protect your clothes, we're going to have you put this on. Take off everything but your underwear, and crack the door when you're ready."
I stared at the cloth tube for a long time. It was anonymous. They must hand these things to people like me every day, I thought. I followed instructions, folding my clothes gently into a chair. As I slipped the tube over my head, I began to wonder why is was double-layered. I wondered why I needed to protect my clothes. From what?
When the man arrived again, he had rolls of plaster bandages, a bucket of hot water, a large floor pad, a plastic tube, and a pencil. He placed the floor pad down and asked me to stand on it normally. He then made markings along my back, and taped the tube to follow my spine, curve-for-curve.
"Now, stand with hands out against the wall, and we'll start the casting," he said, dropping the bandages into the water.
Once softened, he began wrapping the bandages around me. They were hot, and the water seeped through to my skin. I winced, but tried to remain compliant with my instructions. He talked easily about the casting, that we would go from under my arms to down past my hips. This gave the makers of the brace an exact set of measurements, and they could tailor the brace to my needs.
"Each brace is a custom job," he said proudly.
He also explained that I'll get fitted for more in the future, as my body changed with puberty and growing. Using the brace would essentially "correct" my curve overnight, preventing it from getting worse.
When he had finished wrapping the bandages, he stepped up, washed his hands, and opened the door.
"I'll be back in ten minutes. In that time, it will harden, and we'll get it off of you. Just make sure to stay as still as possible."
And he was gone.
My mom had been pretty quiet during the fitting. I imagined then that she was horrified at the plaster-flesh monster I had become.
"How are you feeling, honey?" she asked at last.
"Horrible." I kept my voice quiet. Any louder, and I thought I would cry again.
Ten minutes passes so slowly sometimes. As I waited, hands flat against the wall like a criminal being searched, the plaster got hard. As it solidified, it released all its heat into my body, and suddenly, I was burning up. What's worse, it hardened so thoroughly that I couldn't fully expand my lungs. I panicked, starting to take short breaths, only half-full of air. I've never been claustrophobic, but actually being encased in something makes it easy to feel like the world is closing in.
"Get me out," I whispered. "It's hot. I can't breathe. It's too hard. It's breaking my lungs. Get me out."
"What are you saying, honey?" My mom walked to me to hear better.
"Get me out! I'm suffocating. Help me, Mom! Help me! I can't breathe!"
She didn't help me out of that thing. She put a hand on my shoulder and told me to calm down. How can you calm down when every part of your body is screaming for air? For glacial waters? I struggled not to scream. I couldn't anyway -- I didn't have enough air to.
Finally, the man came back, carrying a small circular saw.
He's going to kill me, I thought. At the same time, I didn't care if he did. Anything was better than the hell I was in at that moment.
He saw my eyes widen at the saw and laughed, "Don't worry. It's for the cast. It only cuts plaster -- it can't cut skin!"
"I'm not stupid," I said quietly, gasping. "Anything that cuts this rock cuts skin. Just get it off me, please."
And he did. And that's why the tube was double-layered. The layer attached to the plaster went with it, tube-spine along for the ride. Never had air felt so good.
He took measurements. Asking me to hold up my arms, leave them down, bending and twisting and writing everything on a sheet for the manufacturer. He asked me to pick a colour: pale pink, pale blue, or white? When he was done, he smiled again.
"It will be ready in about ten days to two weeks. We'll call you. She'll need to come up for a proper fitting, and we'll make adjustments as necessary. See you soon!"
And he left.
On the way home, I stared out the window. I felt violated. By everything that touched me. Every piece of the world seemed as crooked as me. That was the first day my dad brought us to McDonald's on the way home. It became tradition after that day.

Two weeks later, we got the call and drove up again. When I saw the brace, a veritable torture device (custom!) constructed of plastic and Styrofoam, I wanted to scream. The man who had cast me showed my mom how to put it on me. It pressed against my (very) slowly developing breasts and, since my curve pushed me to the right, the upper cuff -- the part that bent me -- dug up into my right armpit, pushing me to the left.
How am I supposed to sleep in this? I thought.
My mom looked at me sadly. I imagined her thinking to herself that I had become a new monster, the plaster cocoon having burst to give this new beast she had to call her daughter. I was so ashamed, and I wondered if she was embarrassed that this was the result of the little baby girl she had given birth to.
That first night, I slept on the couch in the living room, which is where my parents' bed was in our apartment. It was a Saturday night, so my mom, my brother, and I stayed up watching The Outer Limits and late-night Toonami whilst my dad went to bed my bedroom for his extra-early Sunday shift.
Before the lights went out, my mom put me in the brace, pulling the velcro straps tight, and bid me goodnight. I was trapped.
I stared at the ceiling. My brother was asleep already. I knew my mom was watching me. I couldn't move. I could only lie on my back. The rivets dug into my skin. My top half was smooshed into the pillows of the couch, conveniently on my left side. How was I supposed to sleep in this thing for the next few years, as Dr. Carl predicted?
I cried as quietly as I could so that no one would be disturbed. After a few minutes, my mom, sighed loudly, came over, and took it off.
"How are we going to expect you to wear this for something like three years if you can't even keep it on for ten minutes?" she scolded in a whisper.
She laid back down, and I cried into my pillow until I fell asleep.
Shortly after, my mom got me some novels about girls who had to wear a brace, most notably "Deenie" by Judy Blume. She said she thought it would help me deal with my situation better. They didn't. Because I didn't read them. Because I didn't want to know how imaginary teenagers got strength from family, friends, and most importantly, from within to conquer the adversity of the Scoliosis Brace. Real life doesn't happen like that.

With the start of the new school year coming up, we went shopping for school supplies. That year, we were due for new backpacks. My brother got a boring one, straight from the boy's section of Walmart. I got a rolling suitcase.
"Dr. Carl said no carrying heavy backpacks," my mom reminded when I complained. "So you're going to have to use this. That way, you won't hurt yourself."
I stared at the "backpack" as we walked through the store, and thought of ways to get out of using it. Maybe I could pack my old bag for a few days, under the guise that I forgot about the change. But I knew my mom wouldn't let me "forget." She helped me to pack the bag, all ready for the first day. But the Wrath of the Suitcase was only just beginning.
Two days before seventh grade started, my mom informed me that she had called the school and explained my situation. In order to allow me to store my backpack and my books in a locker, they gave me two; one just for the bag.
On the first day of school, just as I was boarding the bus, the driver, an angry red-haired woman who didn't like children much, stopped me at the steps.
"You can't bring that onto the bus!" she shouted. She got everyone's attention.
"Doctor's note," I whispered, producing a note, giving me permission to carry the suitcase to anyone who objected to it. My mom had gotten several copies.
The driver read it, examined me and the suitcase, and scoffed. "You are still required to sit in your assigned seat, and to share the seat with the other person assigned there. You don't get special privileges for pretending to be crippled!"
Giggles and teases walked back to my seat with me.
After arriving to first period, as the teachers brought us to our lockers to "try them out" (because they have to teach students how to use them, apparently), everyone in the hallway giggled at the suitcase, and even more when I tried desperately to stuff the thing into the bottom locker. It didn't fit. I tried every angle, to no avail. My first period teacher, math instructor April Bergmann, leaned over and said I could put it in her classroom closet from then on. That meant elevator use, reserved for janitors, teachers, and students with doctor's notes to accompany their crutches and wheelchairs. I got in trouble at least once a month for using the elevator that year, requiring a flash of the Doctor's Note.
After a while, people stopped teasing me for the backpack, but it still showed me its wrath occasionally. Sometimes, April Bergmann had an appointment or something that required her to leave school before the last bell rang. Since she locked her classroom door upon leaving, that meant finding a janitor who would let me in. It also meant that I missed the bus on those days. At the time, I was not "allowed" to stay after school, so when I called home to tell my mom I had missed the bus and would be home late, I was scolded.

Whilst the suitcase became only an occasional nuisance, the Charleston bending brace became my constant enemy. I could only sleep on my back; attempting to lay on my stomach resulted in near suffocation, the sides in piercing pains that lasted through the next day. I often slept at an angle so that I felt some sense of normality, but it constantly made it difficult to fall asleep. Eventually, my mom and I reached an agreement. If I could not fall asleep for an hour, I was permitted to take it off, signalled by a knock on the wall. I often stayed awake on purpose just to get the stupid thing off.
Since I was supposed to wear it as often as possible, my parents tried to discourage me spending the night at friends' houses (and that they were a bit on the paranoid side when I was that age), and insisted on my friends staying with us. They always asked about the brace, and I had dreaded explaining why I had to wear it. They also stared at me for a long time after the lights went out. I hated having friends over, and I pulled away from them.

One day, my mom came in with Sharpie markers and put the brace on my bed.
"I thought you might feel better about wearing it if you could make it your own," she said.
She encouraged me to write and draw on it, and she wrote phrases she heard me say often with friends. Soon, the front and velcro straps were covered in black Sharpie, with words like "Cool!" and "Dude."
I never told her how much I hated writing on it. How I never wanted to make it my own, because mentally, it merged with my body a little more with each pen stroke. I let her lead me into doing it with each new brace I got.

In total, I was cast for and wore four braces. With each visit to Dr. Carl, we brought the brace, and took X-rays with it on and off. Was the curve progressing? Was the brace working, keeping me "straight" throughout the night?
Everything about wearing the brace became a stupid routine that I grew to hate. When I was fourteen, and wearing the brace for something like a year and a half, that changed.

We went up for X-rays and a visit, like always. I sat in the radiology waiting room with my mom, the brace in a separate chair next to me, when a woman walked up to us, with her daughter on her arm like a handbag. She struck up a conversation with my mother.
During the conversation, the girl didn't say anything. I didn't either. I just stared at her. She was thin, with long blonde hair, and the faintest hint of freckles. She had this sad, distant smile on her lips. Like she wanted to cry, but her mom wouldn't let her. I caught bits of the conversation and pieced together a story for the girl:
Her name was Xena, and she was twelve. She had been in the brace, too, but she didn't wear it like she was supposed to, so she had to get The Surgery. She had gone through the process of reserving five pints of her own blood for it. She was getting one more X-ray before the procedure in just another few weeks.
Suddenly, I knew what she wanted to cry about. Back then, getting The Surgery meant that she would be unable to run, or ride bicycles, or swim, or roller blade or anything. She could only walk, sit, and watch the world pass her by. I stared at her, wide-eyed. She should be crying, I thought. Like me, but more than me, her life was devastated by her deformity. But she just smiled.
Just before her mother carried her off, she whispered two sentences to me.
"Just wear it. It's better that way."
I never saw her again.

Meeting Xena for those five or so minutes changed everything. She was two years younger than me, had already dealt with and was dealing with so much more than me. I took her only spoken words to heart, and made her a promise that I would wear the brace to the end.

The end was when I hit what is known as Risser 5, measured by a bone cap that grows on top of the hip bones, indicating that I had quite nearly reached the end of bone growth, and that my curve was unlikely to progress any further. It was then, at around age sixteen, that I was allowed to stop wearing the brace. By then, I had long rejected the suitcase, using a messenger bag and keeping my textbooks at home. We had also stopped seeing Dr. Carl. My dad complained about how long we had to wait to see him, and we saw his protege, Dr. Zmuerko. As cliché as it sounds, I literally jumped for joy. I was ecstatic. The nightly torture was finally over. My mom promised me a seven layer chocolate cake as a reward. I never got the cake.
About a year later, at age seventeen, having switched to a Mr. Dr. Michael, my X-rays showed no progression, and I was told I would no longer have to see an orthopedist unless I began to experience issues. I considered that day to be a day of freedom, but most of all, that was the day where the promise I made to Xena was completely realized; I had finished my saga with the brace and made it out without getting The Surgery.

Since then, my experience with scoliosis has been of what are known as "longterm effects."
I am still not able (or more accurately, "allowed") to lift heavy things. I am lucky enough to know people who are willing to help me with those tasks.
The most bothersome effect is the pain. Because my curve sits at the lower end of my back, I am extremely prone to lower back pain. As a result, I cannot sit, lay, or stand in one position for any prolonged period of time. I have to constantly shift around to find relief, which often leads people to think I'm nervous when in conversation (this is usually true, but my anxiety doesn't present as that type of fidgeting).
I used to get massages when I was still in college, curtesy of my parents, and they helped, but only for a few days. Average pain relievers don't touch it. As a result, I unfortunately feel older than I am, and I've been in pain every day for something like five years. I sort of just learned to live with it.
The most recent effect has been a difficulty in breathing. As a result of my rotation, my rib cage is twisted, causing the left side to stick out nearly an inch farther than the right. When I discovered this around the age of eighteen, I became extremely embarrassed by it, and refused to wear form-fitting shirts, for fear that someone would notice what became glaringly obvious to me. In the last year, it has caused some issues in breathing, compounding with my long-existant asthma. It was only recently that I read a study that found that spinal (and therefore rib cage) rotation can cause this problem (specifically written as "decreased lung capacity"), confirming what I had feared is happening. It can also cause heart issues that I hope will never happen.

Scoliosis is something I have to live with every single day, and it's always reminding me that it's there. I've thought about asking a physician for advice on management or pain medication, but my last doctor insisted scoliosis is harmless and it was my weight causing my back problems. I've not gone back to see him.
Further, I have to deal with the people aspect of it. Whether it's the people I have to let lift the heavy stuff for me, or the clinic doctor who freaked out and had me do an "emergency bending test," when she saw that my shoulders were not level when I was just in for a case of tonsillitis (I had to explain that I knew, and I had taken care of it), my scoliosis has a way of becoming known to people, whether I want it to or not.
Still, I consider myself lucky. Lucky that I met Xena, that I had the opportunity and ability to make that promise, that I ever had to get The Surgery. Although I have some limitations, I am still able to do the things she no longer can. I don't know if she remembers me. I don't know if her doctors found a better solution for her. But I am thankful to have met her.

04 February 2013

On Gun Control and American Violence

In the wake of President Obama's announcement that he has several proposals for Congress relating to gun control, I feel that this article is finally necessary. Please keep in mind that I have been avoiding it for some time, because I know that no amount of argument will change any minds on either side. However, I will take on the task of presenting both sides as I have heard the arguments.
As always, if you are offended by this article in any way, I apologize that you are upset, but I will not apologize for anything said in the article.

On Gun Control and American Violence

First, it is important to note that this recent spur of gun control talks was instigated by the horrific mass murder that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14. 2012. I recall hearing of the incident on my way home with a friend, when my Twitter feed exploded with condolences, sadness, and outrage. As I read the story to my friend, she became so moved with anguish that she bumped her car against the raised pavement on my road, punching a small hole in her bumper.
The next few days, as the world tried to understand what had no rationality, no reason, no true capacity to be outlined on paper, I saw some terrible things on my Facebook feed. So many had jumped to using this tragedy to say, "Oh, that communist d-bag Obama is going to take away my guns now, not on MY Second Amendment he won't!" For anyone who thought that immediately after the tragedy, forgive my firmness, but SHAME ON YOU. This tragedy called for us to mourn, to send our hearts (and for some, our prayers) to the families and friends, and to realize why we should cherish the people we love. To use this as an immediate call to an imaginary arms is preposterous and cruel.
That brief opinionated outburst aside, the posts have continued. The American people have cried that their Second Amendment rights are about to be violated under the Obama administration, using it as just another reason to say, "He is ruining the country because [blah blah blah]." The rights and wrongs of the administration being saved for discussion for another day, let's examine the important issue here; gun control, and whether it really does attack our Second Amendment rights.
The Second Amendment reads, verbatim, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Where the argument tends to lie in this is, of course, in the interpretation of the language. Cornell University's Law School Legal Information Institute provides the following analysis:
 "On the one hand, some believe that the Amendment's phrase "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms" creates an individual constitutional right for citizens of the United States. Under this "individual right theory," the United States Constitution restricts legislative bodies from prohibiting firearm possession, or at the very least, the Amendment renders prohibitory and restrictive regulation presumptively unconstitutional. On the other hand, some scholars point to the prefatory language "a well regulated Militia" to argue that the Framers intended only to restrict Congress from legislating away a state's right to self-defense. Scholars have come to call this theory "the collective rights theory." A collective rights theory of the Second Amendment asserts that citizens do not have an individual right to possess guns and that local, state, and federal legislative bodies therefore possess the authority to regulate firearms without implicating a constitutional right." (Source: Cornell University's Law School Legal Information Institute)
Given this information, we then have a heavy task ahead of us: which interpretation is the right one? It is apparent that the majority of the American population believes the "individual right theory" is the correct one. In order to understand this mentality, we have to understand the reason people do or don't want the general public to have access to guns.
So first, the "Right to Defend" side, or those who favour the individuals' right to own guns. According to people who believe that we, as American citizens, should have the inalienable right to purchase and keep a firearm if we choose to do so often believe that we need guns to defend ourselves against other people who intend to harm us. Many of these people are already gun owners, and claim to respect their weapons, and that only those who do not respect the power of a firearm are bound to misuse it (i.e. for unnecessary violence). 
Shortly after the horrible tragedy in Newtown, CT, I began to hear the stories of those who had respected the weapons in their reach by defending themselves or their loved ones from violent attackers. There's a story on the Internet of a boy from Phoenix, AZ, who defended himself from home intruders with his parents' gun. In fact, you can type in "boy defends against intruder" and get a couple of similar stories. People point to this story and say, "See? His parents taught him the right way to approach guns; as a weapon for defense, and nothing more." And they're right. When adults choose to own guns, they have a responsibility to teach their children the proper way to be around them; they are not toys, they are devices that have the power to end a life, and we must respect that power. 
So now for the opposition. Those who oppose the ownership of firearms point to the fact that the United States has the highest number of gun-related deaths in the First World. Many of the people who buy a gun, they say, will use it for violence, and if we limit or criminalize the ownership of guns, we will be able to drastically reduce the amount of violence in the country. As the argument goes, if guns are banned, we won't need guns to defend ourselves. 
To a certain degree, this is right. However, as many arguments point out, banning guns won't necessarily get them out of the hands of criminals. The argument continues to say that, if we ban firearms, then those who will shoot (or threaten to shoot) people will continue to do so, and those who would have defended themselves by responding similarly will no longer be able to (There are many political cartoons available which display this sentiment if you type "gun ban cartoon" into Google's image search). 
Still, there are some significant statistics out there that point to how much violence we are forced to endure simply by allowing the common citizen to own a firearm. For example, the number of gun-related deaths in the United States is the highest amongst advanced countries, but even the statistics provided by NationMaster.com do not provide the full story, where the US comes in fourth place (Worldwide) as of the cited 2002 data. 
As FactCheck.org points out, no one statistic can tell the whole story:

Gun-related murder is decreasing, according to the site, but it's still somewhere between 24 and 30 people murdered each day by someone wielding a firearm. Many use these numbers to point to the need for a gun ban, to protect ourselves from all these would-be murderers. Still others refer to the statistics in Europe (where many countries do not allow gun ownership): Violent crime seems to be considerably higher overseas, but still endure fewer gun-related deaths.
Considering these statistics, it's difficult to say whether a gun ban would provide us with any relief. It would definitely seem that gun-related deaths (which includes murders, accidental deaths, and suicides), would decrease, but can we rationally say it would reduce the amount of crime in the United States? Looking at Europe's numbers, the answer seems to be no. Instead of looking to reduce numbers, then, it seems we have to consider the circumstances we might find ourselves in: Should we feel safer and better able to defend ourselves if guns are banned and our attackers primarily use blunt or sharp objects, or should we rely on the hope of being faster on the draw than they are?
Regardless of how U.S. citizens feel about gun ownership, it has become apparent to the government that something should be done. According to the White House website, the following are components of the plan set out by President Obama:

  1. Require background checks for all gun sales
  2. Strengthen the background check system for gun sales
  3. Pass a new, stronger ban on assault weapons
  4. Limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds
  5. Finish the job of getting armor-piercing bullets off the streets
  6. Give law enforcement additional tools to prevent and prosecute gun crime
  7. End the freeze on gun violence research
  8. Make our schools safer with new resource officiers and counselors, better emergency response plans, and more nurturing school climates
  9. Ensure quality coverage of mental health treatment, particularly for young people
    (source: The White House Website)
As the site also acknowledges, no one law or group of laws will solve the problem of violence in this country, but inaction is no longer tolerable. Although I don't believe that all of these measures will work, or even make it into law, I do believe that we have to try, for the sake of our citizens.
In response to this proposal, what many have just deemed a "gun ban," I have seen mostly outrage, with people crying that the President is turning into a new-age Hitler, or that they will never give up their handguns, because the Second Amendment protects their right to own one. And sure, maybe the Second Amendment does, at least according to how it is currently interpreted. But if you read the proposal carefully, there is nothing mentioned about handguns, or hunting rifles; just assault weapons. As one conversation I've read noted, "What is the practical use for an assault rifle? Clearly you're not going to be carrying that in your shoulderbag or hunting deer with it."
Still, there are collectors -- people who are mesmerized by the power of assault rifles, those who buy one just to show off to their friends, spout statistics, and admire. Most of these people won't do anything wrong with them, but for those that do, they cause devastating trauma that family and friends may never get over. But for many, they aren't really useful, and therefore, are beyond necessary. Many point out that banning assault rifles will neither solve our crime/gun-murder problems, nor encourage many to hand them over (most use the "banning drugs didn't get them off the streets" argument). It's probably true, but others note that it might make a difference.
So here, finally, is what I think:
  1. Because of this country's history of interpreting the Second Amendment as the right of the individual to bear arms, I don't believe that we will ever succeed in effecting a ban on all firearms. People who own them will fight hard to keep them, and those who don't but support ownership feel empowered by those who do.
  2. A ban on assault rifles will never work, namely because of collectors. Although the limit to ten rounds will be a lot easier to pass, it still will not solve the issue. I've heard interesting alternative ideas, such as taxing assault rifle owners with more than one weapon, requiring all assault rifles to be disabled, so that citizens may still purchase them, but will not be able to fire them, and providing tax incentives for turning over weapons. Although no one (or even perhaps any) of these alternative ideas might work, it is nice to see people thinking out of the box.
  3. I would personally like to see assault rifles leave households, whilst allowing citizens to keep their handguns and hunting rifles. In terms of utility, assault rifles really don't seem necessary, and only serve to put people in danger more than should be the case.
  4. I think that addressing the ownership of weapons is really only the tip of the iceberg. As the President's plan mentions, more attention needs to be paid to the mental health of individuals -- not just gun owners, or potentially violent people, but everyone who shows signs of illness. So many simply get pushed into a pill-popping system that their real problems never get addressed, or even mentioned. As one article I read noted, pharmaceutical psychology treats the symptoms, but not the disease, which can allow the illness to fester until it culminates in something everyone involved will regret. Without a comprehensive method of treating mental illness, we will continue to have incidents perpetrated by people like Adam Lanza.
  5. I think that people who are crying that their Second Amendment rights are being infringed as we speak need to read all the available information carefully and realize that they are only getting upset for the sake of being upset.
  6. I think those who learned of the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary and immediately worried about the government taking their guns instead of reflecting on the tragedy and cherishing their loved ones should be ashamed of themselves and need to consider their priorities a little more carefully.
  7. I don't think that the President's proposal will solve our problems with gun-related crime, but I do believe that we have to try something, because not doing much, if anything, as we have, is not helping us at all.
That's all I have to say about this for now. Thank you for reading, and I hope this article was able to give you a wider perspective of the argument, and has enabled you to come to a thoughtful conclusion. As always, please feel free to comment below. I welcome all discussion on this matter. For the full proposal presented by President Obama, click here.

21 September 2012

On Happiness and Hatred: A short essay

Here's another article in response to something that happened today. Again, I feel I unfortunately need a disclaimer. It goes as follows: please keep in mind that this is simply my opinion in relation to this issue; I do not expect anyone to agree or to disagree, and I am not trying to change anyone's mind about the issue in this short essay. Even if your stance on this issue puzzles, confuses, saddens, or angers me, I fully respect your opinion to have it. Please don't stop being my friend over an opinion; they happen, okay? I will be happy to engage in meaningful discussion or answer questions regarding this article.

On Happiness and Hatred: A Short Essay

Recently, I read a story posted to my Facebook feed about a woman who got pregnant under unpublished circumstances, and realized throughout her pregnancy that she didn't have control of her own person, and would not be able to provide adequate care for the child. As a result, she decided to carry the child to term and offer him for adoption. She was able to choose who adopted the baby boy, and chose a male gay couple, 2000 miles away from her home. She confirmed this decision even after staying in hospital for his initial care (he was premature), and wrestling with herself. She stated that she loved this child; he was a physical part of her for many months. Still, she knew she could not provide him everything he would need, and went through with the adoption process. She currently receives photo, video, and email updates, and visits whenever she gets the chance.
The comments for this story (which number upwards of thirty THOUSAND at time of writing), are split unevenly, with more support than not for the mother and the couple who adopted the baby boy. Much of the disapproval came in the form of just a simple "dislike," statement, but a lot of hate fell into the conversation. One person in particular pointed out an old fear that comes with this argument, "A child raised in a gay relationship will be confused about the world, and/or will become gay themselves."
Growing up in a world where this idea of "gay" was only really starting to blossom into what it is today, I've heard this concern stated many times. The argument is usually followed with the idea that children need both a mother figure and a father figure to create a balance in the family; a relationship of love and fear, trust and punishment, with the mother being associated with the former and the father with the latter. Many still argue that the necessity for a mother and father is to ensure that someone will be the breadwinner and the other will be the caregiver.
This argument may have held true in the earlier part of the twentieth century, when most women stayed home to care for children. But the family structure has evolved beyond what it used to be. Women now hire babysitters and nannies and work the same hours as their husbands or boyfriends. The idea of a dinner table is being lost to televisions in every room. Punishments have gone from the confinement to a room and removal of all entertainment to removal of computer and cell phone privileges. Yet, the idea of a family does not seem to change. Many women still feel bound by the "obligation" to be the only one to raise the children, to do the housework. Many still think even just being gay -- regardless of whether you're in a relationship or not -- automatically condemns you, makes you foreign.
Having experienced religion in an unfavourable way, I have never followed a named religion. I have my own spiritual beliefs which are not relevant here, but I realize that my opinion is not supported by the religious fervor with which many approach this issue. That said, I don't think anyone in a homosexual relationship is wrong -- everyone should be able to love who they love. In many ways, though, love itself is not the issue that comes up in these discussions; it is whether these couples should be "allowed" to marry or adopt children.
I personally do not believe in the conventional sense of marriage, having seen that this idea has too-often become a front for violence, betrayal, and other troubles. I have seen it be used as a mask for something far deeper and more troubling than the surface, and many will stay in a "marriage" for the "sake of their children," blindly believing that their children are ignorant to the often-horrible truth: that their parents hate each other.
Contrarily, I know full well that their are many marriages that go very well. There are couples who stay together for upwards of fifty years, staying close and loving the whole time. What I simply imply here is that my personal experience has led me to feel that marriage is not something that I personally am eager to participate in.
Given my view on marriage itself, I feel that everyone has the right to be "married," regardless if they are marrying someone of the same gender or the opposite one. Those who take the religious side claim that a marriage between individuals of the same sex is a sin, an affront to their deity. Some argue that it's offensive to their beliefs and that government law allowing same sex marriage attacks their right to conserve a true "marriage" as something under their god. Those for same sex marriage argue that denying marriage to same-sex couples is denying them their rights as people.
The question here, then, is whose rights is it more okay to violate?
I think that, since the actual institution of marriage is evolving naturally under the social, economic, and technological circumstances, that we perhaps just need to redefine what a "marriage" is, or perhaps come up with a better word. Are those who get married just by going to a judge to sign papers considered married, or not, because they didn't go to a church? Those against gay MARRIAGE suggest that same-sex couples be permitted to engage in a "civil union." Perhaps "Union" is the word that we're all looking for here. Maybe we all just need to think of marriage just as a union, but with a potential for different classes of union: A Union Under God, A Civil Union, all encompassed under the title "marriage."
The last point I guess I would like to make is that the level of care given to opposing homosexuality is astonishing to me. Why do so many people care? If it doesn't directly involve them, why should a person try to say who someone can and cannot love, or marry, or raise a child with? Next time you go to work with these ideas of hatred and disdain, ask yourself: how many people did you encounter today? How many of them are gay? Can you even tell?

We all deserve to be happy.

30 August 2012

On the Fear and Gullibility of the Human Race in the Age of Information: Making Enemies With the Truth

Before I present this article, I (unfortunately) feel I should provide a disclaimer to at least try to avoid being intensely misunderstood. So here it is:
This article is about no one in particular. If I use an example that relates to you, I'm not trying to point you out as an offender, but I am using the example as evidence for my article.
Further, know that no one event has caused me to write this, but a series of conversations and experiences collected over many months.
If anyone is offended by the following article, I sympathize, but I will not apologize for the article itself. Know that this is just a report of events and how I feel about them.
Right then...

On Fear and the Gullibility of the Human Race in the Age of Information: Making Enemies With the Truth

We now live in an age where information can be accessed from literally everywhere with enough signal. Many people have smartphones, allowing them to look up everything from recipes to actors to the news, no matter where they are. We can follow our friends' days on Facebook and Twitter, regardless of whether they live next door or across an ocean. The word "Google" has transformed from just being a company into being a popular verb. Indeed, a site called, "Let me Google that for you" is used by people who voice questions on the Internet which can be easily answered by the search engine. But access to nearly unlimited information doesn't necessarily mean people used it.

With Facebook as popular as it is (its own page has nearly three quarters of a hundred million "likes" alone), a significant portion of the world's population uses it to keep in contact with friends and family, abandoning even email as a means of connection. "Facebook me," is now a popular phrase, people have arguments over posts, and relationships aren't confirmed until they are, "Facebook Official." Although this has become an extremely useful tool for many, it has also proven just how gullible, or perhaps just ready to accept anything as the truth, people have become.

The first example I will point to is a post I found on my Facebook wall at least three or four times in the last three months. It goes as follows:
ALL PARENTS PLEASE BE AWARE!! ...There is a drug going around the schools ..Its known as Strawberry Quick ...or strawberry meth ...it looks like pop rocks kids eat & also smells like strawberries & also comes in other flavors like chocolate, etc. ... Please tell your children not to take candy from ANYONE- even a class mate- because this drug that looks like pop rocks is actually crystal meth rocked up with strawberry flavor & can KILLl them :'( ...PLEASE REPOST!!! so all parents are aware of this ..Thank You! This is happening all over the country..
(Source:  http://www.snopes.com/medical/drugs/candymeth.asp#ihRkHxmWt0ik2KGS.99 )

Of course, all parents and friends of parents will become concerned with a post like this, since it poses a danger to our most fragile and innocent citizens: children. Out of fear, they will share this message (Often, messages like these will have the tag, "Please take one minute to copy paste, what's one minute when you can save a life?"), and they hope that by sharing it, the people they know will protect their loved ones by sharing it as well. By doing so, they play into exactly what the story's writer was hoping for: for their post to be shared around the world. It's a sort of anonymous fame that makes people feel important when the story comes back to them. But it's biggest impact is fear.

As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," and I think that this is statement puts this issue into focus. In an age of information, we should be able to look at a story like this and question its validity, first and foremost. And since we have the Internet at our fingertips, checking if it's real should take about as much time as it takes to copy and paste said story. Fear, however, tends to override our curiosity and skepticism, and so we spread the fear, adding fuel to the fire instead of quenching it.

But fear is the issue. Why are we so afraid in the first place? 

I have several European friends that I work with here in Pittsburgh who were astonished that I carry pocket knife with me on a daily basis.
"Why would you ever need that?" they have asked.
I always respond the same way: to defend myself if I have to, if I am attacked. 
"Have you ever been attacked?" they ask.
Of course not, but it's just in case. I've only ever used my knife to open boxes and stubborn containers. But I am afraid of being attacked. I have walked home at eleven at night, up the hill to my apartment building, with my knife unfolded and stuck up my sleeve, ready to whip out and cut someone at the slightest touch on my shoulder. But the truth of it is that I was taught to be afraid of every single person around me.

Recently, I was involved in a conversation discussing gun laws with one of my European friends and a friend of mine who was raised in the south.
"What is the point of having guns?"my European friend asked. "In Europe, no one has guns. Only the police. We don't have so many murders and shootings like this."
"But think about the bad guys," my southern friend replied. "They don't listen to the laws. They will have guns anyway. And if you're not allowed to have them, how will you fight?"
"We have the police for that reason," my European friend responded.
The argument is endless. Everyone has a reason for wanting to carry a weapon and not wanting to. In Europe, my friend is not so afraid to walk outside at night alone. She's not so afraid to have her car stolen or broken into. But we are. We are raised on fear. But I don't think we need to be. I think we have to assess our relationships to our family, our friends, and to our community. I think that fear,  most of all, is destroying us, as people and as a nation.

That's all I have on the issue right now. Or rather, all I wish to contribute at this time. You may feel free to respond, or you may quietly get angry with me. Issues like this should be a discussion. I will be happy to answer any questions posed to me.

Thank you for reading.

03 April 2012

Crying Wolf. Or Are They?

Anyone who has been following my Twitter account in the last two weeks will know that the University of Pittsburgh has been turned on its head with a slew of bomb threats. I will try to relate the information as best as I can, as I know it at the present time.
The first threat, on February 13 of this year (not within this two week time frame, but believed at the moment to be the spark that started it all), was written on a stall in the girl's bathroom on the second floor of the Chevron Science building, where I work and have my classes. It said, "There is a bomb in the building. It will go off 8:29pm February 13, 2012. BE READY." Upon finding the message, Pitt Police evacuated the building for roughly four or so hours. The alarm, when it sounded, was the kind that made you want to run faster, every time it started over. It was not the monotone BEEP BEEP BEEP of high school fire drills. It was a siren. I had to run down nine flights of stairs to evacuate the building. Each time the alarm began to sound again, I picked up the pace, flying down steps.
As of two weeks ago, similar messages have been scrawled on the walls of the Cathedral of Learning, David Lawrence Hall, and Chevron's bathrooms, and one being sent via text message. Additionally, last night, the Litchfield Towers dormitories were evacuated at four in the morning, after two emails were sent to Post-Gazette journalists, describing the presence of the bomb, "in the Towers, not too far from Panther Central." Students were not allowed back in their dorms until after six in the morning.
This morning, at about 10:30, the lab I was teaching was interrupted by the alarm going off for another bomb threat, and my students had to cease their experiments in order to evacuate. Barely three hours after Chevron was cleared, the Cathedral was once again evacuated. We are now up to twelve bomb threats in the last two weeks alone. Students are missing labs, classes, exams, and now, sleep. More importantly, some are losing their sense of security.
In an email from one of my students, who will remain anonymous, I was informed that she would not be handing in her prelab as she, "along with many others, no longer feel very safe on campus," and did not feel comfortable entering a building that had just been threatened. Other students have reported that their parents have considered removing them from the school, at least temporarily, for fear of the safety of their children. For those that are visiting this week as part of Pitt's accepted student tours, as well as those for other prospective students, the almost daily threats are becoming a deterrent.
Currently, there are many theories surrounding the "reasoning" behind these threats. Some believe students are involved, and are pushing these threats because they did not study for an exam, or have fallen too far behind in a class. Others think that it is a too-long-drawn-out prank that passed any notion of being funny long long ago. More terrifyingly, some speculate that the threats will turn out to be the real deal some day, in a "Boy Who Cried Wolf" fashion. For now, everyone is taking the threats seriously, and leaving the building as soon as the alarm is sounded, but we can't help but wonder if the day will come when people are not so eager to leave, grown jaded by constantly interrupted classes. Will we, then, be right where the so-called "Bomb-Threat Guy" wants us? The implications of this theory are incredibly dangerous and terrifying, but one cannot help but consider the possibility, especially given the shooting that happened during spring break at UPMC's Western Psychiatric building.
In the meantime, Pitt Police, State Police, the F.B.I., and other agencies are investigating the threats in an effort to find the culprit(s). Pitt Police has even offered a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any and all persons involved, a reward that was announced as $10,000 on Friday, and has shot up to $50,000 as of yesterday, as a result of the two additional threats received to the Cathedral and David Lawrence Hall. With the three that have happened since that increase, I've heard some students speculate that the reward will follow suit.

12 February 2012

Goodnight, Sweet Princess

Cinder, one of my older rats, died Friday evening, at about 1145pm. She was going to be three years old in June.
About a month after I moved here to Pittsburgh, she developed Hind Leg Paralysis, and over the last six months, her movement and body had deteriorated. She was unable to maintain muscle mass, no matter how much she ate or how fatty it was. Until last Sunday, she had been able to get around by scooting across the floor, pulling herself along by her front paws. And she seemed happy. She loved getting cuddled, eating treats, exploring the bedroom, and spent a lot of time bruxing and boggling her eyes. Even as she got thinner and thinner, she continued to show affection.
That changed when, last Sunday afternoon, i noticed that she couldn't hold herself up anymore. The disease had begun to spread to her upper body, and her arms were no longer strong enough to prop her up. She had to eat whilst laying sideways, although I often laid her on her back, in a sitting position, to eat. Still, she pushed to move herself across the room.
At that point, I knew a decision had to be made, but I also had exams to study for this week, so I put it off. On Friday, I saw that she hadn't moved since I left for school that morning, and that her breathing was slower. I took her out of the cage, and held her as Ricky and I watched movies. In the middle of the second movie of the night, she began to have seizures. She died shortly after.
She has since been buried in the back yard, next to the patio. I wrapped her in a small blanket I had crocheted, and marked her grave with a NERF gun dart.
I miss my baby girl, and I'm sure Possum does, too. She threw stuff all around the cage last night after we cleaned it.
May she rest in peace.

Cinder: June 19, 2009-February 10, 2012