Supreme Court Rules that
“Bullets Are Speech”

“Guns don’t kill people. Guns inform people that they have been killed.”
National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre

In a long-awaited decision on the rights of gun owners, the U.S. Supreme Court announced today that ammunition is a legitimate vehicle for the expression of personal opinion and, as such, protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that there can be no restraint of personal communication in the form of cylindrical metal pellets able to travel at hundreds of miles per hour and induce a change of heart with persuasive finality. The author of the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts proclaimed, “It’s obvious that bullets are a particularly unambiguous and convincing form of shielded utterance.”

bullet-holes_CROPThe Supreme Court’s action was a resounding reversal of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ determination in Prose v. Clowns that the First Amendment applies only to facsimile pistols that produce a plastic flag or cartoon talk bubble displaying the word “BANG!”

Both sides in the judicial debate took immediate pains to defend their positions.

Representing the crucial swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy stressed the reasoning that led him to tip the scales in favor of overriding the lower court’s opinion. He affirmed that a portable tube capable of expelling purposeful content by means of the explosive force of a propellent is the functional equivalent of a windpipe capable of expelling linguistic symbols by means of the explosive force of breath.

holstered-gun_CROPProponents of unfettered access to firearms were quick to praise the Court’s decision. National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre was among the first to respond, saying, “The Supremes got it right. Bullets carry an unequivocal message, and as we all know, it is the height of tyranny to shoot the messenger, or in this case, forbid the shooting of, you know, the bearer of urgent lead-alloy tidings.”

After checking to see that his Colt .45 was fully loaded, the NRA head then brandished the handgun he calls “The MeetUrMaker” over his head while shouting the familiar adage that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with an argument is a good guy with bullet points.” As aides led him away, LaPierre concluded his heartfelt remarks with the observation that “guns don’t kill people. Guns inform people that they have been killed.”

At least one of the members of the majority felt that the official decision didn’t go far enough. In a written clarification, Justice Clarence Thomas expressed his disappointment that the ruling did not also explicitly encompass gun accessories known as suppressors, or silencers, comparing them to donor anonymity provisions under previously expanded campaign finance precedents. “We must not muzzle gun owners, whose right of private advocacy is unassailable in a society of any caliber,” he declared.

stop-bullet_CROPOpponents on the bench put up feeble resistance. A visibly jumpy Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Government has a fundamental interest is setting limits on excessively forceful speech. For example, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the State to say that you cannot open fire in a crowded theatre.”

“Clearly Justice Ginsburg has never suffered through the self-indulgent cinematic blather of Michael Moore or Whoopi Goldberg,” retorted Justice Antonin Scalia. Echoing LaPierre, Scalia asserted, “Sometimes the only response to the projectile emesis known as liberalism is the penetrating voice of Mr. SIG Sauer.”

Finally, speaking furtively to a dispersing group of journalists, Justice Sonia Sotomayor decried the Court majority’s enthusiastic endorsement of gun proliferation. In an impassioned but largely ignored dissent, she said, “I find it distressing that Congress and the states are unable to find an acceptable compromise on gun control. In their love affair with guns, owners seem to demand ever more public displays of affection. You would think by now that they had more than enough ways to say, ‘Te ammo.’ “

Yawn, Ouisconsin

Here’s an excerpt from my soon-to-be released unauthorized catalog of spurious knowledge about the Ouisconsin Territory. (The inspiration, W. T. Purdy’s 1909 “March-Song and Two-Step,” is better known as the University of Wisconsin fight song.)

YAWN, OUISCONSIN

Yawn, Ouisconsin, 
Yawn, Ouisconsin
Plunge onto that couch
Gorge on chips and cheesy dip
To exercise your jaws 
      (you-rah-rah)
Yawn, Ouisconsin, 
Yawn, Ouisconsin
Napping’s not a crime
Catch, fellows, forty winks
Before bed-time

Forgotten books: Big Red

Safe in an armchair, contemplating Nature, red in tooth and claw…

I was raised in a community that considered hunting for food to be as natural as driving a car or tractor. I didn’t hunt, but I knew the basics of gun ownership. As a kid I even once qualified for the National Rifle Association’s basic marksmanship certificate (way back when the NRA was primarily a gun safety organization).

Big Red cover Similarly I never owned a dog in my youth, but I knew what it was like to be around dogs, to have them underfoot, and making noise, and nosing in the grass for something to eat and then roll in.

I don’t remember how I discovered Jim Kjelgaard, or which of his nearly 50 juvenile books I read first. Big Red is the one that sticks in my mind, although when I re-opened it for the first time since the 1960s, I didn’t remember much plot or character detail. What did surprise me was how quickly the book drew me into the adventure of a seventeen-year-old Danny Pickett and his champion Irish setter. Surprising, mostly because Big Red features the kind of stirring, archaic prose that might’ve inspired a young Teddy Roosevelt:

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.

Any mongrel with four legs and the ability to run could hunt varmints. Danny looked fondly at the big setter. The first man who had dreamed had dreamed of a dog to hunt birds, and to make Red a varmint dog would almost be betrayal of that man and all the others who had striven to make the breed what it was.

What makes this potential fustiness go down so well is the homely speech of the outdoorsmen who live harmoniously in Kjelgaard’s imaginary wilderness:

Ross [Danny's father] gulped, and then grinned. “Don’t even trouble your head about me. I’m no tenderfoot deer hunter, as has to git his game the first day or he don’t git it.”

The result is an adventure on the scale of Treasure Island or Captains Courageous.

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.Like them, Big Red is firmly a chronicle of its time–earnest and epic.

Tellingly, the animals in Danny’s world are heavily anthropomorphized. Danny lives in a world were “monster bears” exhibit “customary cunning”:

The savage, silent, head-swinging bear still roamed the Wintapi, an implacable, hating enemy of all the humans who trod there.

Kjelgaard’s vivid images can stop a reader in his tracks with their precision: “A couple of crows cawed raucously from the top of a beech, and flew on the devil’s business that their kind are always about.”

Crows have their place, however, as does all life. The book presents class hierarchy as an unquestionable given. Danny calls the wolverine that raids his trapline an “Injun devil” with provincial thoughtlessness. And Danny and his father live “by the grace of Mr. Haggin” on the wild edge of their wealthy patron’s “carefully nurtured” estate.

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.The book is unabashedly masculine. Its only female character is one of Mr. Haggin’s managers, a “quality woman” visiting from Philadelphia who commits the cardinal sin of valuing Red only as a decorative possession. The bulk of the remaining 200-plus pages focusses on the important manly concerns of trackin’, trappin’, skinnin’, shootin’, fightin’, and rustlin’ up some hearty grub.

Yet for all the shortcomings of its age, Big Red is still worth reading.

Big Red is a detailed catalog of outdoor craft. Danny is an excellent woodsman, whether bleeding a dead bull (one of the bear’s victims) to preserve its meat for the landowner, or outwitting a bear on the run. Even the book’s exaggerated anthropomorphism is grounded in a detailed knowledge of animal behavior that makes its many descriptions pulse with life.

And a young reader could do a lot worse for a role model. Red’s journey from raw potential to disciplined perfection is the result of Danny’s fundamental kindness and unwavering vision.

Ross scoffed at the notion that a whipping would hurt him, but Danny knew better. Red had depths of feeling a sensitivity that he had seen in no other dog, and he was proud, He wouldn’t bear the lash any more than would a proud man.

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.Danny’s trust pays off. In maturing, Red’s good nature blooms, as does his selfless courage in defending his beloved Danny from the mortal threats that lurk in the wilderness. Their united battle to defeat the marauding bear provides the ultimate measure of their partnership.

The best way to appreciate Danny Pickett as a protagonist it to compare him to his fictional contemporary, the far more well known Holden Caulfield. That famously cynical, rude, superficial, selfish, narcissistic twit is Danny’s antithesis.

In contrast, Danny embodies the highest traits of his species–smart, hard-working, uncomplaining, generous, and brave. The kind of honorable young man who deserves the hero worship of the noblest of dogs and the most jaded of contemporary readers.

Why I read the daily newspaper comics

When I was a kid, we called them “the funny pages” whether they were or not. I still read them daily, although I’m starting to skip some, especially when my grandson and I curl up with “the funnies” together. You try explaining Dr. Morgan to a three-year-old–it’s beyond my abilities.

Why bother with the daily comics any more? I know they’re a ridiculous waste of time, but sublime moments like the one below make it all worthwhile. Too bad that Roy Lichtenstein couldn’t see this panel.

Dr-Morgan

Background: This is part of the current storyline about spousal abuse, the less common kind. Despite being a year older than I am, Rex Morgan is still pushing the envelope.

Her and me are on the way

Recently a friend and I were discussing what’s known in some circles as “substandard English.”

To be specific: Her and me were having a little conversation about “her and me.”

My friend confessed to thinking poorly of native speakers who habitually violate rules of grammar. One of the most grating errors for her was the use objective pronouns as the subjects of a sentence (For example, “Him and me are having an argument.”) My friend felt badly about her reaction, but said that she couldn’t control it, even with transgressors she thought well of otherwise.

Her-and-meI commiserated. A sentence such as “Him and me went to the mall” has a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard quality to my ear. But while I agreed that this particular usage was lamentable, I predicted that it would become acceptable English within our lifetimes.

If a language is alive and well, changes are inevitable. (Latin’s not evolving much these days.) But that doesn’t mean that all changes come easily.

On the one hand, changes that are useful, such as words to describe technological developments, will be quickly absorbed. They don’t sound wrong, they just sound new.

But changes that aren’t useful, such as the use of “her and me” as paired sentence subjects, will meet resistance from everyone for whom they sound incorrect.

Curiously, speakers who would say “him and me ate breakfast” would never say “me ate breakfast” or “him ate breakfast.” Apparently using a single objective pronoun as a subject still sounds improper even to the language barbarians among us.

That’s why, on October 7, while scanning a brief item in the “On Campus” section of the Wisconsin State Journal, I was stunned to encounter the following passage:

Her and others in the Hmong community criticized the university…

and worse, because it seemed a further degradation:

Her is a Madison-based advocate…

I choked on my coffee. If this was acceptable to my local newspaper, then my prediction was fulfilled and my lifetime was going to be a lot shorter than I’d thought.

Then, on my way to the depths of despair, I noticed that the offending sentence referred to a man named Peng Her. Relief was immediate. Not yet, I thought. Not yet.

Still, it’s only a matter of time.

31 plays in 31 days

I’ve completed the 31 Plays in 31 Days project, which committed me to daily playwriting throughout the month of August, 2013. (Titles marked with an asterisk have been edited or rewritten since their original posting. For production inquiries, Contact Me).

Day 31: I’LL SEAT
Day 30: I KNOW *
Day 29: ALL ABOARD
Day 28: REHEARSING THE FOUR-THIRTY-THREE
Day 27: CLEAN-UP IN AISLE 8 *
Day 26: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE UNKIND
Day 25: DEEP SUBJECT
Day 24: TWO THUMBS UP, WAY UP
Day 23: WHAT HAPPENS HERE *
Day 22: DOUBLE-BLIND TASTE TEST
Day 21: FOR CRYING OUT LOUD IN SOUTH BELOIT *
Day 20: CASA BOW-WOW
Day 19: THE AIRBAG OF YOUR RESILIENCE
Day 18: CONJUGULAR VISIT
Day 17: ARROZ ES ARROZ ES ARROZ *
Day 16: WAITING ROOM
Day 15: TWO NICKS
Day 14: TO & FRO
Day 13: DELUXE CAB
Day 12: GANZFELD WALKS INTO A BAR
Day 11: ZUGZWANG
Day 10: A PIG’S LIFE
Day 9:   SECRETARY-OF-STATE BARBIE *
Day 8:   L’AFFAIRE EXOTIQUE *
Day 7:   KHRONICLES
Day 6:   COUNTING COUP
Day 5:   TAIL BETWEEN HIS LEGS *
Day 4:   CHIN MUSIC
Day 3:   FELLOW TRAVELERS
Day 2:   CHEF’S SPECIALS
Day 1:   BLASTER *

Is this seat taken

I’ve signed up for the 31 Plays in 31 Days project, committing myself to daily playwriting throughout the month of August. The project includes a pre-challenge warmup of 256-(alpha-numeric)-character plays. Here’s today’s play:

    MAN: Is this seat taken?
    WOMAN 1: (Looks him over, frowns) Yes.
    (Man leaves)
    WOMAN 2: No one’s sitting there. Why’d you send him away?
    W 1: These latecomers need to learn that we who came earlier get to decide.
    (Curtain rises on “Damned Yankees”)

What’ll it be

I’ve signed up for the 31 Plays in 31 Days project, committing myself to daily playwriting throughout the month of August. The project includes a pre-challenge warmup of 256-(alpha-numeric)-character plays. Here’s my play for July 30:

    BARKEEP: What’ll it be?
    PATRON 1: Wry. Make it a double.
    B: (Smirking) “Love makes the world go wrong.” “Jesus saves; Madoff promises triple-digit returns.”
    PATRON 2: I’ll have a white whine.
    B: (Querulous) “Why do I have to be in the minority?”

Up in smoke

I’ve signed up for the 31 Plays in 31 Days project, committing myself to daily playwriting throughout the month of August. The project includes a pre-challenge warmup of 256-(alpha-numeric)-character plays. Here’s today’s play:

    CLERK: What can I get you?
    GUY: Cigarettes. Carton of Marlboros. And a lottery ticket.
    C: Sure. You must be feeling lucky. The odds certainly aren’t in your favor.
    G: It’s a 40-million-dollar jackpot. Why not?
    C: I was referring to the smokes.