Tuesday, June 28, 2016


© The-open-mind.com

I like to think that I don't have an ego, or at least not a big one, but lately I find myself facing emotions and triggers that make me realize I might be wrong about that. It has also started me thinking about what an ego is, what it is connected to, and why it is largely considered a "man thing."

Pressed to define myself, I would have to say I am a writer who knows a lot about entomology, the study of insects. Many people would reverse the order, saying I am an entomologist who writes. That is flattering, and it is the reputation I have earned through countless hours of volunteering to answer online questions about "bugs," giving public presentations, and writing my other blog, Bug Eric. Oh, and I was principal author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Here in Colorado, that seems to matter little, and people frequently credit a retired state entomologist for everything they know and appreciate about insects.

This individual has remained a mystery to me. He has never introduced himself to either welcome me or express regret at my arrival here four years ago. That stings a little when colleagues don't acknowledge you. What hurts more is what I perceive as a fierce loyalty to this person that I will never receive from anyone who has met both of us. Whatever I do will never be as good as what he did.

I find I have a competitive tendency in situations like this, and I really don't like to be competitive. I would rather have a cooperative, equality-based relationship with most people. I don't consider myself superior, and in fact I now get an inferiority complex at the mention of this entomologist's name.

So, our ego wants to cultivate a sense of loyalty among others; and it will become fiercely competitive in order to achieve that. What else is the ego up to that we may or may not be conscious of? The first definition of ego in my handy The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, copyright 1973, is "The self as distinguished from all others." Ah-ha! We literally want to "be somebody." Our ego is a product of everything we have done to achieve our sense of identity, from being kind to strangers to earning a degree, to climbing the ladder of our career. This is where things might come undone. Men in particular often equate their entire identity with their occupation. Suddenly, you seem to slip down a notch in the hierarchy of your field and all emotional hell breaks loose. You are convinced that you are now a "nobody."

Why do we so easily forget that our identity is not just what we do for a living, but who we are as human beings? A good analogy, perhaps, is colleges and universities. The most graphic presentation of these academic institutions is their athletic teams. The football and/or men's basketball program are the public face of the whole school. Measuring the quality of education at a school by the performance of its sports teams is, of course, ludicrous, but we do it every single season. Likewise, our career status is what everyone sees in us, regardless of whether they truly know us. It can be argued persuasively that we put entirely too much effort into career success at the expense of family, friends, and community, maybe even our own physical and mental health.

The other thing about occupation is that it is something tangible, demonstrative, and that is really high on the men's priority list. Guys, try listing less visible qualities about yourself. Hard, isn't it? Somewhere I have filed away a list of my own positive attributes (strengths) and negative personality traits (weaknesses) in case I ever have another job interview. We, myself included, don't seem to devote nearly as much time and energy into becoming better human beings as we do to being better workers, supervisors, or CEOs. This is tragic and ironic when you consider the people you hold in high esteem. They are likely to be people who impacted you directly as friends, mentors, partners. We can admire public figures, but we love family, friends, and colleagues close to us.

I'm feeling better already for having reminded myself that I am not "just" a writer or an entomologist. I am a husband, a friend, a volunteer, and sometimes an activist. So who are you? Take a moment, I can wait. Think about this daily, make it a habit to praise yourself for the intangibles. That is where you earn what is most valuable and irreplaceable of all: true loyalty.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Why I Should Not Have a Gun

© sbnewspaper.com

Instead of pouring gas on the fire in the ever-incendiary debate over gun control (as in should we even have any), I thought it might be better, or at least more entertaining, to discuss why I, personally, should never be allowed anywhere near a firearm. After all, I cannot speak to the mental fitness and personal motivations of anyone but myself. Brace yourself.

First of all, as I have written before, I suffer from periodic bouts of depression. I don't handle setbacks well, be they personal or professional. Were I to have had a gun in my possession, up until now at least, I would be dead, disfigured, or disabled several times over. One of the aspects of my brand of depression is a tendency toward impulsive behavior. Thankfully, I rarely act out any more, but we should play it safe just in case.

The impulsive tendencies thing brings me to my second and more important issue: potential for homicidal actions. That guy that turned left on a red light and almost hit pedestrian me today? Oh, he'd be toast in a heartbeat. The person who hurt a loved one physically or emotionally? I would hunt. you. down. The next corporate big-wig who does something heinous in the name of profits? Ka-boom! The politician who caves to special interests while their constituents suffer? Do you feel lucky, punk?

Need I even mention the many inanimate objects that would be full of holes if not destroyed were I to have access to firearms? Another pro-fracking advertisement on television? Blam! The washing machine acting up yet again? Bang-bang-bang. Bang.....Bang. The mirror is making me look bad again? Ok, you get the picture. Many of you may have similar fantasies of justice by "execution," but I am inclined to have doubts about my sustained sanity and it is no doubt better to not have lethal weapons at hand.

How about you? Do you have better self-restraint? Do you practice not only your marksmanship on the firing range, but stress-reduction techniques? Are you impulsive, in a way that might jeopardize your own life or the lives of others? I trust my readers to make an honest assessment of themselves, I truly do.

What makes me fearful of the continuing proliferation of guns and gun owners is that I don't trust everyone who owns or purchases a firearm. I firmly believe that, ironically, it is a fundamental distrust of others in our society that has put us in this predicament. It started long before mass shootings. It started with the revelations of child molestation in the church, and the fall of others in positions of authority whom we used to trust implicitly, from cops to doctors to lawyers. Alright, maybe not lawyers.

Today, if we don't shoot first and ask questions later, we at least fire accusations like bullets before we have all the pertinent information. Impatience with our justice system, the explosion of opinion through mass media and social media, and dwindling empathy for others have all conspired to fuel a paranoia like we have never seen before. What does paranoia lead to? Impulsive behavior.

Those who argue that gun control would do nothing to stem the flow of blood in the streets may have a point. It would not cure what truly ails us. Rebuilding personal trust, a sense of community, and cultivating a culture of respect and empathy are what we need to do. I am not sure where to begin myself, other than trying to be a good example for others to follow. Right. Well, I can at least pledge not to murder the mirror of the television set.

Meanwhile, I do hope that should you decide to acquire a gun, you do so with a clear head and heart, and a keen sense of the responsibility involved with a decision of such gravity. I will try and trust your judgment, try not to fear you, and reserve my judgment based on your behavior, armed or not. I ask for your respect and understanding in return. Thank you. Hm-m-m, I wonder if they will print this essay. Oh, wait, it is on my own personal blog. Whew. We will probably have one less dead editor.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Hardest Holiday

Dad and me, circa 1997

Ok, so technically Father's Day is not a holiday, but it is one of those occasions that elicits deep emotion regardless. It may engender positive feelings, or negative ones. Personally, I envy those who have, or had, a father deeply engaged with their family, but I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose someone so beloved. There are others who have never known their father at all, due to abandonment, death, divorce, or some other catastrophe. I do not have an inkling as to the depth of that bitterness, either.

My parents separated when I was about nine years old, and divorced officially when I was eleven. I have no siblings. On the one hand, I would not have wished my parents' tumultuous family life on anyone else, but on the other hand I had no one to validate my own experiences or perceptions of family reality. What I hoped for was that the divorce would bring a "cease fire" but instead it merely changed the focus of arguments to money. Dad apparently wanted to pay less child support than the court ordered, and he may have appealed to that end. I can only rely on hearsay from what my mother had told me, and I have learned to expect both parents to stretch the truth.

What I do recall was the court-mandated visitations with my father every other weekend, and splitting Christmas Eve and Christmas Day between the two households. My mother would always interrogate me upon my return from my father's place, and I felt guilty if I had a good time. Dad would sense this and become angry, and so the wheel of guilt and fear went round and round. I was damned if I did, damned if I didn't. I was a "momma's boy" to my dad, and "just like your father" to my mom. Neither were compliments.

What I apparently inherited from my father is what I appreciate most. He has aged well, and has always been a good-looking man. He is incredibly artistic, creative, and talented in a variety of media, from wood to wax to metal. His chosen career and business was as a jewelry designer and he did fabulous custom works for his clients. I am not half bad in the creative departments of illustration and writing if I may be so bold as to assert that. Dad also had a great work ethic which I have slowly lost.

What I learned from my father has been the source of much personal humiliation, professional setbacks, and social awkwardness. My father gets his way by being demonstrably angry. His temper is something I fear to this day. He is opinionated to the point of being a bigot and a racist, or nearly so. He does not play well with others, especially in the workplace. He was selling insurance during my infancy and toddler years, and he made no bones about hating that. He moonlighted as a jeweler, repairing watches and creating the odd ring or pendant for someone.

Dad wanted me to follow in his footsteps, to take over his jewelry business when he could no longer produce. I am not entirely sure he has forgiven me for following a different path. Now that his second wife has passed, several years ago now, and my mother passed away in December of 2014, he wants me and my wife to move back to the Portland, Oregon area to spend more time with him, if not take care of him, and save him the headache of selling his home. He wants his way, as usual.

I cannot fathom the circumstances of abuse and neglect, and/or the foster care system that others endure or have endured. My mother could. She was in the foster care system before we even had the standards of care we have today. What you learn about parenting during your childhood you also tend to apply when you become a parent. This negative cycle can be turned around, but it takes either immense personal effort at not repeating mistakes, or the proverbial "village," or both. Today we no longer trust the village. We even home school our children for fear they might be exposed to concepts like evolution, or be surrounded by "others" who we ourselves fear and loathe.

My father has never really earned my respect, but now here I am faced with growing responsibility for decisions that he soon may not be able to make for himself. How ironic. I will at some point likely be the parent to my parent. I do hope I can act with compassion and sensitivity, even in the face of his anger that stems from who-knows-what or where.

Boys, enjoy your good father if you have one, today and every day. Rise above your bad father. Seek mentors not only for your potential career, but for examples of what it means to be a man, a husband, a father. Girls, take joy and pride in your good father. Look for mentors yourselves to help you find a good husband if your father is not a good man. Today, take stock. Be honest. Be your father's champion, or be your own.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

We Need A Love Gun

I was still in bed when my wife told me that maybe I shouldn't bother getting up. That's when she informed me of yet another mass shooting, this one at a gay nightclub in Orlando the night before. I felt my heart and stomach drop, even though I was already lying down. I moaned and rolled over. It was an all-too familiar pain for anybody with a heart. You cannot ever steel yourself against these tragedies if you have an ounce of love for humanity.

My first thought was a memory. I was living at home when my mom opened my bedroom door and told me through tears that the Challenger space shuttle had exploded shortly after launch. That was the one that the school teacher was riding, and it was really the first mission I had paid much attention to. I seem to recall I was already depressed about my own life, and that disaster didn't help any. I am frightened as to whether this shooting will push somebody to suicide in the face of a world that shows so much hate and violence that it is not worth living in, especially if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered.

Ironically, and perhaps naively or comically, the very next phrase that entered my mind was "we need a love gun." I could literally hear that inside my head, like someone else whispered the idea. Surely, it was meant figuratively, but my imagination suddenly painted a picture from a bad 1970s or 1980s movie where a cartoonish weapon wielded by a colorful character shot rainbows and glitter at the villains. That actually sounds appropriate given that Orlando is home to Disney's Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, and other theme parks where we flock to get away from the horrible realities of....well, reality.

Maybe we need to get right on this new invention. I cannot think of any group of humans better suited to creating something powerfully good than the LGBT community. There is a reason that the word "gay" also means "light-hearted, lively [and] given to social pleasures" according to my pocket-sized The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, copyright 1973. Funny, back then the word did not even apply to homosexuals.

Isn't that how we stereotype that population, though? Flamboyant, colorful, mischievous, dancing through life footloose and fancy-free. Somewhere, our envy turned to jealousy, to ridicule, to hate. It should have turned the other way, to joy, and to embracing the positivity of a movement that celebrates itself in pride parades. Instead we are offended? I'll save my fingers from pointing at the enemies of positive possibilities, but you know who you are.

Some people already have love guns, or, more to the point are love guns. They may not passionately advocate for entire populations of different lifestyles, but they fiercely defend the individuals they know. Love guns fire words of praise and support to those struggling with gender identity crises and hurtful personal and social experiences. Love guns are a symbol of solidarity because, you know, there but for the grace of God and genetics, go I. They have empathy, not pity. They have true love, not condescension.

I have not even turned on the television, or gone online yet, as I write this. I didn't want the storm being unleashed to cloud my vision, to make my eyes rain any more tears, to send bolts of anger and hostility through my intellect. That is not what being a love gun is about. No, it is not all rainbows and roses, either. Love guns can separate fantasy from reality.

Go, architect a new reality, design ways to change the world for the better. Start with the man or woman in the mirror. Strive. Reach out, there are so many people in need that you won't have to look far. Stop endorsing or accepting hate, including the passive, implied, institutional kind. Share your ammunition of hope, compassion, empathy, and affection. Be a love gun.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Zoo Hate and Human Hate

The social media fallout from the recent tragedy involving the euthanizing of a male Lowland Gorilla after a child entered its enclosure has surprised and shocked me, and that is just my reaction to my friends, some of whom I know personally outside of Facebook. The emotionally-charged reactions run the gamut from those who think zoos themselves are an atrocity to the other end of the spectrum claiming that the planet would be better off without people.

© Heidi Eaton

I found myself outraged and disgusted for a number of reasons. I used to work at the Cincinnati Zoo. Several of my former colleagues still work there. My spouse works with gorillas here in Colorado Springs. There but for the grace of God and responsible zoo-goers goes her.

I have attended regional and international gorilla-keeper conferences with her and can attest to the fact that these people pour their heart and soul into their work. Every zoo's gorilla population is closely monitored, every male and female pairing scrupulously evaluated before the animals are ever introduced. The loss of a single captive gorilla has to the potential to throw the whole world zoo community into chaos. Keepers witness things you would never want to see, and then learn how to prevent future episodes like them. They share every experience, from exhilarating and positive, to tragic and devastating, because it is vitally important to do so.

Some people without experience in zoos have been quick to attribute blame for this incident to the zoo. Zoos are inherently risky places for both employees and visitors, but every effort is made to protect guests while furnishing increasingly innovative immersion exhibits. Some animals are, obviously, too dangerous for direct contact, even by keepers, and gorillas are among them. The bottom line, however, is that it is not a zoo's responsibility to protect you from your own reckless behavior, no matter what age you are.

Meanwhile, zoos are critical to efforts aimed at conserving endangered species, especially in the sense of genetic diversity, and raising not only infant animals but also raising the awareness and appreciation of zoo visitors to the plight of the captive's wild brethren. To suggest that (formally accredited) zoos have no place in our world, or are inhumane and cruel, is simply ludicrous. Remember those gorilla keeper conferences? One topic always held in high priority is "enrichment," to insure that captive animals are constantly stimulated physically and emotionally.

My one failing in this discussion is that I am not a parent. It is telling that the people most incensed at the accusations suggesting the mother (and father?) are to blame in this tragedy, are themselves mothers or fathers. The argument invariably goes something like "I can see someone losing sight of their child in an instant, it has happened to me." Perhaps. What do I know, I'm an only child, raised mostly by an overprotective mother in an age that lacked electronic distractions. For better or worse, we are a society that demands accountability; because we so often don't get it, from our government officials to our next door neighbor, we explode with even greater hostility over the next time.

The whole concept of a human life being more important than the life of another organism I find troubling. Religion is largely responsible for conditioning us to believe our species is somehow "above" others, but the fact is that we, too, are animals. We act selfishly, as any other animal does, but we have gone to extremes to disguise that selfishness as, say, "what's in the best interest of the child" in divorce cases. Every other species would love to be in our bipedal shoes, able to limit mortality factors like predators, parasites, and diseases, while eliminating competition for resources and distributing itself widely over an infinite variety of habitats.

So, while it is certainly an extremist notion to suggest that the planet Earth would be better off without Homo sapiens, it is at least somewhat encouraging to see that we might be approaching a consciousness of "species equality." Even if this does not mean granting "rights" to other species, we are guaranteed in the U.S. the right to the "pursuit of happiness." Those of us whose happiness is found in nature are now deprived on one more gorilla.

The fact is that whatever our opinion of this tragic episode, we are going to have personal blank spots. Not everyone knows what it is like to be a zookeeper. Not everyone is a parent. Nobody knows what it is like to be a gorilla in captivity.