Monday, January 24, 2011

Gun Control

The commentary on the shooting spree in Tucson earlier this month has naturally led to a debate about stricter gun control. My personal opinion is that I am far more afraid of some members of my own species than I am any of the venomous, predatory creatures I may encounter on a hike in an Arizona canyon, or on an African safari. That is not even counting weaponry that makes the exercise of lethal force even more possible for Homo sapiens. I think we need to remember that we are animals ourselves, but that we also have the capacity for foresight, personal responsibility, self-control, and honest communication.

I don’t see the abolishment of personal firearms coming any time soon, but I am also not understanding why people are so up in arms about the Second Amendment at this point in our nation’s history. We already have well-armed militias, they just happen to be mostly racist survivalists. Don’t you feel safer now?

Why do we feel the need to obtain a gun on a moment’s notice? We want a waiting period before a woman undergoes an abortion, but you should be able to get a gun instantaneously? Forgive me, but this is the scenario I see playing out too often:

Gun Shop Owner: “Ok, I see from the background check you haven’t committed any crimes…”
Customer (to himself): “No, this will be my first offense.”

We cannot assume that lack of a prior crime means the person is not preparing to commit one, be it suicide, homicide, or some other act of violence. Purchasing a weapon can be a highly impulsive action, and it should not be accommodated so readily when the consequences could literally be so grave.

Psychiatric evaluation should be mandatory for anyone wanting to purchase a firearm. The more time allowed for intervention, anger management, and prescribed medication, the better. Stress, real or imagined, is arguably at an all-time high, and the answer is not putting guns in the hands of the angry and frustrated.

But if everyone was able to defend themselves (with a gun), then crimes like the Tucson shooting would not take such a heavy toll. Someone would have shot the bad guy already. Sure, but a citizen “hero” could just as easily kill another innocent bystander. We have a trained constabulary to kill innocent Black people….I mean….apprehend criminals. Sorry, I spent eleven years in Cincinnati….

Further, the overwhelming impression I get from gun advocates is that they want guns to allow them to protect the rest of their “stuff.” You won’t hear that argument from the gun lobby, though, because it sounds too selfish. Well, we are selfish, for crying out loud. Every animal is selfish, we just go to great lengths to disguise our selfishness. This dishonesty, I believe, is at the root of most social issues in the world today. We want our way, but can’t bring ourselves to say so in the most honest, straightforward manner.

Do you remember the Y2K scare? It was going to be a manmade disaster with all the computers crashing and causing total chaos. Even some people I truly admire were talking about stocking up and arming themselves “just in case.” Why? We don’t react that way to a natural disaster like a tornado, hurricane, or earthquake. Heck, we put down our guns, and pick up shovels and sandbags instead. What is the difference? You lose “stuff” in any kind of catastrophe!

The bottom line as I see it is that we need mostly to admit our selfishness. I want fewer guns because I’m sick of good people getting murdered and maimed, and I really don’t see an upside to more weapons. I am also seeing less merit in the accumulation of material wealth all the time. We need to share more, possess less. Above all we need to re-establish trust in one another. Where do you stand? Please comment. The only thing I ask is that you be honest.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It Really is a Jungle in There

Note: I originally wrote this piece for the newsletter that goes to our volunteers in the Butterfly Magic exhibit at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

I tend to think of the tropical greenhouse at the Tucson Botanical Gardens as home to the tropical plants and butterflies we propagate and import here, but something happened a few weeks ago to remind me again that we don’t always determine what lives and grows inside that hothouse.

I noticed a butterfly sitting awkwardly on that artificial tree in the center of the room. At first I thought it was a female Postman longwing laying eggs. There was what appeared to be a cluster of pale objects beneath her. On closer inspection it became clear that a little jumping spider had caught the colorful butterfly. I had figured that given their size, jumping spiders (family Salticidae) were rather benign predators in the greenhouse, and were providing mobile pest control services by nabbing flies, small cockroaches, and other nuisance bugs. I should have known better.

Jumping spiders have perhaps the keenest vision of all land invertebrates, and strength to match. I have seen them literally tackle flies that were larger than they were. Jumpers hunt “on foot” instead of spinning webs, actively stalking potential prey then pouncing. That jumper with the butterfly would be about equal to you hanging by your heels while holding a sofa.

Jumping spiders are not the only uninvited guests in our butterfly exhibit. I have seen these other organisms as well:

  • Acrobat Ants, genus Crematogaster
  • American Cockroach, Periplaneta Americana (boo!)
  • Cockroach Egg Parasitoid Wasp, Evania appendigaster (yay!)
  • Greenhouse Millipede, Oxidus gracilis
  • Marbled Cellar Spider, Holocnemus pluchei
  • Cobweb weaver spider, Theridion sp. (“sp.” means “species” when the species is unknown)
  • Feather-legged spider, Uloborus diversus (or a close kin, top picture above)
  • Woodlouse, Armadillidium vulgare (aka “Roly-poly” or “Pillbug”)
  • Yellow Fever Mosquito, Aedes aegypti (for an authentic jungle experience!)
  • Tropical House Cricket, Gryllodes sigillatus (pictured below)
  • Long-tailed Mealybug, Pseudococcus longispinus (most likely species anyway)
  • Pomace Fly, Drosophila melanogaster (aka “Laboratory Fruit Fly”)
  • Brown Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum
  • Webspinner, Oligotoma nigra

There are some creatures we still haven’t seen, but that we know inhabit the place. Take for example the “mystery creature” that for awhile was taking bites out of the giant hibiscus buds just prior to their blooming. Now it would appear the little rascal has switched to lapping up the honey water out of the butterfly feeders (and leaving its poop behind. How thoughtful).

All of this illustrates several principles we should take home with us: We can’t control or even “manage” nature, much as we would like to think we can. All creatures have their place, and while we might not like all of them we need to acknowledge their presence and accept their role as predator, herbivore, or decomposer. Life is abundant and diverse, and the more we practice patience, and hone our powers of observation, the more of it we can see.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What's your sign (now)?

Ironically, I learned of the new zodiac sign (Ophiuchus) on my birthday last week. Suddenly, I was no longer a Capricorn, but a Sagittarius. It was pretty much the icing on the cake of an awful day. Subsequently, it was interesting to follow the threads of conversation on the “status posts” of my Facebook friends concerning this new bit of trivial information.

Some people are very indignant, or even downright angry, at the change in the zodiac calendar. Others wonder aloud what all the fuss is about, communicating their opinion in a rather condescending manner that suggests anyone who follows astrology is beneath them. I strongly suspect most of the people I know fall squarely in the middle: astrology is a pleasant and occasional diversion not to be taken too seriously, but that helps remind one to take stock of their life now and then.

Belief in astrology is almost beside the point as I see it. The zodiac is, or was, like death and taxes: something predictable and common to all people. It is part of our social fabric, dependable even in its frivolity. It can stimulate a conversation, much like “What weather we’re having!” or “How ‘bout them (insert sports team here)?” The zodiac calendar has boundaries, rules, and suddenly all of that has been thrown out of whack.

I will readily admit reading my horoscope, usually when I blunder into it while reading a newspaper like our local alternative paper, the Tucson Weekly. I find the “Free Will Astrology” column by Rob Brezsny to be entertaining but also thought-provoking on a personal level. I may rarely take any action recommended in his horoscopes, but I feel at least a little more self-aware and introspective as a result of reading them.

Interestingly, Brezsny calls the recent announcement of the new sign a “scam” that resurfaces almost annually based on the assumption that astrology is associated with the constantly changing positions of stars in distant constellations. Not so, says Brezsny, who points out that (here on planet Earth, at least) astrology revolves around the position of the sun and planets in our own solar system. The zodiac signs were named for constellations, but are no longer tied to them.

It is probably only human nature to cling to things we feel are constant because so much of the world around us changes continually, ever faster. We seek philosophies, religions, and other institutions to ground us in these times of uncertainty. I generally find my horoscope neither positive nor negative, but empowering. It reminds me I always have the opportunity to change, to adapt, to ground myself in….myself.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tragedy in Tucson

I feel somewhat obligated to comment on the recent mass shooting incident in Tucson being that I am a current resident, and have briefly met Representative Giffords. My local friends and I are shocked, saddened, and outraged by this event, but I’ll stick largely with the facts here.

First, let us not minimize the fact that six people have already perished. Among them were a federal judge, John M. Roll, and a nine-year-old girl, Christina-Taylor Green. Congresswoman Giffords was staging one of her routine “Congress on Your Corner” events at a local strip mall, and Judge Roll had merely swung by on his way home to pay his friend a brief visit. The young girl, in irony of all ironies, had gained fame as one of the Faces of Hope, featured in the book of that title about babies born on September 11, 2001.

Additional fatalities included Giffords’ Constituent Services Director, Gabe Zimmerman, retirees Dorwan Stoddard, Dorthy Murray, and Phyllis Schneck. Twenty individuals in all were wounded. The good news is that four out of the five people on the critical list last night have now been upgraded to “serious.”

Gabrielle Giffords herself remains in critical condition, but a Sunday morning press conference held by the doctors and surgeons who are treating her was filled with optimism. Miraculously, her injuries involved only one hemisphere of her brain. Before and after surgery she was able to respond to simple commands (squeeze my hand, show two fingers, etc), which considering the gravity of her condition is nothing short of amazing.

I was giving a presentation at the Medical Entomology Today conference here in Tucson when this calamity happened. My topic was “Social Media and Self-Diagnosis: How the Internet has Made Medical Entomology Better and Worse.” While I was describing how electronic technologies are changing how the public gets information, members of my audience were receiving text messages about the tragedy. Politely, no one interrupted my talk.

When I was informed of the event my heart was in my throat. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Representative Giffords when she attended the “Butterfly Affaire” fundraiser at the Tucson Botanical Gardens back in October. She was her usual smiling self, and I helped her find butterflies which she eagerly shared with her family and other members of her entourage. This woman goes out of her way to find opportunities to mingle with her constituents, and never gives the impression that anyone is beneath her. She could care less about your political affiliation, but cares deeply about your physical (read healthcare) and economic well-being.

I’m not going to devote one word to the gunman, you can find that out for yourself if you wish.

What continues to disturb me is the direction our American society is taking. One could make the argument that we are a devolving species, going backwards in our cultural evolution at the least. We are literally our own worst enemies, filling the roles of competitors, parasites, and predators once occupied by other organisms during the course of our divergence from the rest of the great apes. Clearly, we have the capacity to hold in check our destructive instincts and tendencies and behave instead in an altruistic manner that ultimately benefits us as individuals. We are increasingly choosing not to do that. We no longer have patience. We must have things “our” way, right now.

We also have more weapons at our disposal for forcing others to comply with our whims, or to destroy our (perceived) adversaries. We need to scale down our definition of “weapons of mass destruction.” Obviously, an automatic handgun qualifies.

There was a blood drive today at the two Red Cross donation centers, in honor of the fallen from yesterday’s tragedy. I didn’t go, figuring the facilities would be swamped (and buses run infrequently on Sundays, affecting my ability to get to and from the nearest location). I am overdue for donating, though, and will likely do so later in the coming week. It is a nice, tangible gesture to affirm life in general. Self-sacrifice, whether it takes the form of sharing one’s blood voluntarily, parting with money for a good cause, or some other act, is just the remedy for what ails us as a society so self-obsessed. Find a way to sacrifice, and do it regularly. Watch the positive chain reaction.