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One of the few spits of pavement stretched out before my wife and I as we made our way through the swamp. Ever aware of the ground nearby, our footfalls allowed us slow, deliberate progress. Speed is not the name of the game when looking for snakes. The sun was beginning its descent into the early autumn sky and as the temperature dropped, snakes of all species can be found on the warm pavement—the asphalt retains its heat from the day’s sun far longer than the surrounding earth, providing a perfect place for ectothermic creatures like snakes to rest and finish digesting a recent meal or gather the energy required to begin hunting for the night.

It was in this waning daylight that a small, awkward movement caught my eye. About fifty meters ahead, where the grass met the pavement, a small black snake looked to be trying to make its way to the warmth of the asphalt. Thinking it to be a racer or a dark variant of the gray rat snakes commonly seen at this swamp, I broke into a run in hopes of catching the creature before it could get away. As I approached, I realized my sprint was hardly necessary. The snake was moving a lot but making no progress. In fact, it seemed to be writhing in place. I also realized that it was not any species I had seen before at this swamp—it was the common, but almost never seen mud snake.

Mud snakes are gorgeous snakes—they are a glossy black with small red triangles that creep up their sides—and grow to be larger than nearly all other North American snakes. They peruse the mud of swamps across the eastern United States, fattening up on salamanders, frogs, and fish. They very rarely come onto land, preferring to remain in the water and mud all day. At night, mud snakes can very occasionally be found resting on warmer areas of pavement. As soon as I realized that I had found a mud snake, I was elated and immediately bent down to pick it up.

Before I did, however, I noticed its movements were irregular. It was erratically rubbing its head on the ground, the way a snake does before it is about to shed. I carefully picked it up. At once, I knew what was causing this snake to behave this way. Every twentieth scale (or thereabouts) was swollen with puss that was causing the afflicted scales to protrude out in an awkward way. Every few inches of the two-foot snake had dry, brown patches that almost looked like caked mud. After looking closely, it became apparent that the patches were in fact drying, dead skin and scales. Most disturbingly, though, was the snake’s head. Nearly half of the snake’s head, including the upper jaw and an eye, was eaten away by the brown crust. Its mouth was forced agape, unable to close. Its tongue, probably a snake’s most important sensory organ, was unable to retract and just lay limp, hanging out of the mud snake’s mouth. The remaining eye seemed to be leaking the same puss that some of the infected body scales leaked.

What was the cphoto(3)ulprit, the creator of all of this destruction? The aptly, if not creatively named Snake Fungal Disease. The fungus, Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola ,has been found to be the perpetrator of a shockingly increasing number of snake deaths across the eastern United States, from as far north as New Hampshire, where it has decreased local populations of timber rattlesnakes by as much as fifty percent, and down into Florida. It seems to primarily affect the faces and heads of a number of snake species and causing the death by eventual starvation or dehydration as it renders the snakes unable to drink or hunt. This fungus appears to be an invasive species, not dissimilar to the fungus behind the white-nose syndrome that is wiping out bats all across the Americas, the nosema fungus that is likely behind bee colony collapses globally, or the fungus that is perpetuating the near-extinction of the Panamanian golden frog.

The story of the Panamanian golden frog is where Elizabeth Kolbert begins her deep analysis of the staggeringly deadly effects of human expansion and industrialization on the rest of the natural world. The book, rightly titled The Sixth Extinction, is a harrowing and often depressing look at the various ways humanity is carrying out a new wave of extinctions, the likes of which have only been seen five other times in the tumultuous history of life on our planet. The most recent extinction event, the Cretacious-Tertiary asteroid impact that eliminated most of the dinosaurs and killed nearly half of all marine animals, occurred 65 million years ago. The causes of the four extinction events before it range from global warming due to volcanic activity and glaciation due to times of intense global cooling. None of the extinction events have been caused by a single species—until now.

Humanity, as Kolbert says in the book, is the most successful invasive species of all. Agriculture, language, and social structure has allowed humanity to “escape evolution,” as Kolbert quotes British paleontologist Michael Benton. The three main reasons seem to be directly intertwined: pollution and emissions, globalization, and habitat destruction. (Kolbert also covers intentional hunting of animals until the species is lost forever, like in the case of the great auk. This seems obvious that this would lead to extinction, so I will not spend any more time analyzing it.)  Each one of these, in its own way, would potentially be enough to bring about a devastating amount of extinction on its own. However, as Kolbert eloquently illustrates, these things all seem to work in conjunction with each other to disrupt virtually every ecosystem on the planet with devastating results.

Emissions, specifically of CO2, seem to be the major culprit behind the undeniable change in climate that is happening globally. Global warming is happening at a rate that species cannot out-adapt. One of the scientists that Kolbert discusses in the book created a computer model showing that individual animals would need to move poleward—that is, continuously north or south—at a rate of thirty feet per day in order to outrun the current increase in global temperature. CO2 emissions are currently also being absorbed by our oceans, resulting in a rapidly acidifying marine environment. Most marine species are not adapted for the level of acidity that scientists project our oceans will reach within a century. The devastation will be quick and widespread. Most projections, according to Kolbert, show that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef will be entirely bleached—dying—by 2050. We have already witnessed, in our lifetimes, about ten percent of the reef turn white as a result of the lack of the symbiotic algae that the corals rely upon for nutrients. These bleached reefs are veritable ghost towns already, with many parts of the ocean soon to follow. The photosynthesizing algae that provide nutrients to the coral also provide earth’s atmosphere with oxygen—if these algae die off, what will come of the oxygen-breathing land animals, humans included?

Globalization and habitat destruction go hand-in-hand. As humanity grows—quadrupling its population in the last century on its way to seven billion—it spreads. This population boom (though to call it a “boom” is a vast understatement) is due more to the efficiency of agriculture than better medicine, according to environmental journalist Alan Weisman. According to Weisman, forty percent of the land on earth is now devoted to feeding one species—humans. The destruction of habitats and ecosystems is devastating.  Not only does it wipe out entire species, like in the rainforests of South America where highly unique species may exist in a very localized area, it also has the more indirect effect of creating genetic bottlenecks.

In the United States, we have many protected areas of land that cannot be hunted, fished, farmed, or otherwise bothered. Sadly, this only seems to delay the inevitable for certain species—when certain small populations of organisms are protected while the rest are destroyed due to development and farming, it creates a situation where a species has a small amount of surviving members that are not as genetically diverse as the species was before. Thus, when a plague or infection spreads among the few populations left of an animal or plant, the chances of surviving members greatly diminishes. This effect has been blamed for the rash of white-nose syndrome in bats and nosema in global bee colony collapses—lack of genetic diversity among many species led to populations that could not adapt to the spreading fungal infection.

Kolbert’s book begins with the tale of a similar fungal infection in Panamanian golden frogs. The fungus prevented the frogs, who maintain hydration through their skin, to absorb water and killed them off in quick and ferocious fashion due to dehydration. The modus operandi of the fungus was twofold—humans introduced the fungus, unintentionally, as an invasive species. The local deforestation whittled the frogs’ numbers and created a situation wherein the amphibians were less resistant to the fungus.

As I read Kolbert’s account of the Panamanian golden frog, I thought of the mud snake. Humans introduced, unintentionally, a fungus that was particularly adept at harvesting on living snakes into the ecosystem of the southeastern United States. Human-induced climate change allowed this warm-weather fungus to thrive beyond its normal limitations, according to certain theories put forth by some herpetologists. Various local species of snakes, which have been winnowed down to only a few populations in many areas, may not have enough genetic diversity to withstand the spread of the fungus. 

The equation, of course, is this: when even one action would likely be enough to bring about the end of a species, many separate but interrelated actions actually work in conjunction to bring about an even more rapid demise of thousands of species the world over. Humanity, sadly, is an unknowing but efficient killer.

In the case of the mud snake, I set it back down after snapping some quick photos. It was too late to save it—sadly, the snake would likely die within a few days due to dehydration or starvation. About two months after I found that animal, the first reported case of Snake Fungal Disease in the state of South Carolina was announced—a copperhead. Had I reported the mud snake, it would have been the first. Sadly, for many vital parts of our local ecosystems—bats, bees, frogs—it may be too late as well. Humanity may have begun an extinction event that it cannot undo.

A Hug From My Mama

At my mom’s memorial service, four days after she passed, I spoke about a few things but failed to write any of it down. The following is my attempt to do that (with a few additional thoughts).

Throughout my mom’s final two years, it seemed like her life (and thus our lives) consisted of phases. Somehow, the situation would take a turn and whether we liked it or not, we would be forced into a new phase. Toward the end, the phases grew increasingly dire. It seemed they were spaced together much more closely. I remember when we (she) decided that, based on the lack of progress with all of the treatments; the next phase was going to be one of pain management. Nothing more—it was a decision to submit to the inevitable and make her as comfortable as possible in the process.

Every phase that followed seems like a blur. The doctors implanted an internal pump that would send painkillers directly to her spinal cord. This was to accompany the external pump that was providing her medication. Her painkillers were consistently increased—every increase led to (what felt like) a new phase, but it was more cyclical than anything. The painkillers would work, then she’d build a tolerance, the pain would become unbearable and she’d get an increase in dosage. Repeat.

Throughout this, her leg became more and more swollen (and more unusable) due to the lymphedema. This created phases—she was somewhat mobile, sitting or lying for most of the day and able to walk for short bits with a cane. She was able to go to the restroom herself with almost no help from us. The cane turned into a walker. A motorized lift chair was purchased to assist her in getting up and down. Then she needed a wheelchair full-time as the leg became impossible to walk on. She could still get up out of the wheelchair to go to the restroom, but with more help.  Next, a hospital bed was rented that would angle and lift in the right way. The next phase was a portable toilet that stayed right next to the bed. Not long after, the leg became almost useless and diapers (we called them panties in front of her so that she wouldn’t be embarrassed) were necessary. The diaper phase was a difficult one—not for us as much as her. The whole process caused her a lot of pain—and with her confusion from the painkillers that were at near-lethal doses, she couldn’t understand why we would have to roll her on her side, which was very painful.

In the midst of these last few phases, she saw a pain specialist who recommended a concoction of medication that proved to be the painkilling answer we were looking for. The downside—she became nearly entirely sedated. She slept for twenty-three hours most days, with short wake-ups for pills and water and some attempt at sustenance.

About two weeks before she passed, in the middle of this phase, my dad asked me to write her obituary.

When he first mentioned it, I shut it down in my head. I thought I would have another month or two to figure it out. Several more weeks, at least. She had so much fight in her the last two years, I had no idea we had a week or so left.

I told him I would. But I was petrified to even begin thinking about it.

Throughout the last months of her life, whenever we’d talk about her death, I had an emotional ritual. She was still alive, we could still talk to her and see her and hug her. So when things came up about her dying, I would think about it for a little and then retreat back to the reality in which she was still very much alive. Her death was a future thing that I couldn’t spend too much time dwelling on. The thought was a radiation that I couldn’t expose myself to for very long before returning to the safe zone where she was alive and we were taking care of her.

When my dad asked me to write the obit, I got over my fear and said yes.

And then I retreated, like a tortoise tucking itself into the safety of its shell, back to the reality where she was alive and her death was very, very far off.

I stayed in my protective shell for a week before I ventured out again. Four days before she died, I sat down at my computer and tried to write. I stewed in the world outside my shell, where her death was an inevitable reality, and sobbed. A few hours later, with nothing on the page, only one thing came to mind to describe my beautiful mother.

Growing up, I was hardly a “mama’s boy.” I’ve always been foolishly independent, never wanting to appear overtly sentimental or childish, even at a young age. But she always wanted us to call her “mama.” She called her own mother that and it was something we did when we were younger. It reminded her of when we were young enough to let her tuck us in. Jerod and I, as teenagers, thought it sounded childish and just stuck with “mom.”

She was always incredibly affectionate. I remember when I was twelve or thirteen and, up until that point, my parents would come tell me goodnight, tuck me in, and pray with me. My mom in particular would give me a hug and a kiss every night. One particular night in my budding adolescence, as she was leaning in to give me my kiss on the cheek, I turned away and told her that I was too old for that. I told her that I would no longer need her to tuck me in, kiss me, or hug me before bedtime.

Years later, mom told me that she went downstairs that night and cried and cried.

When I was sitting down to write the obituary, a single phrase continued to permeate my thoughts. In thinking about her, and what she made our family to be, I could not stop thinking about how she was the “best of us.” I kept thinking it over and over.

The next day, three days before she passed, I had the last conversation with her where she was lucid and responsive. It was my scheduled day to be at the house, at her bedside, while dad was at work. I had a closing shift that evening so I spent all day at the house. For a brief few, precious moments, she woke up from her intense sedation. In that time, she barely moved her mouth when she spoke. And after I gave her the medication, which was a process in itself, I held her chapped hand and she looked at me, saying nothing. Her lids were half opened and I said, with the phrase still lodged into my brain, “Mom, you’re the best of us.”

She just looked at me, not saying anything. She was often quiet during these short periods of lucidity. Occasionally, she would repeat a phrase that we said to her, parroting it back over and over as the words sifted their way through the sedatives and into her brain.

I repeated it: “Mom, you’re the best of us.” She just looked at me and squeezed a bit with her hand as she parroted back, “You’re the best.”

Tears formed in my eyes as she spoke, and I just repeated, “You’re the best of us. You don’t deserve this.”

She responded, “You’re the best.”

Back and forth we went for several moments, just repeating each other, her eyes somehow locked into mine.

“I love you, mom. I love you so much.”

She responded, quietly, “I love you.”

Back and forth we went.

“I love you, mom. You don’t deserve this. I love you.”

She repeated back, “I love you.”

“I love you mom. None of this is fair. You don’t deserve this.”

“I love you.” I was trying not to cry, but tears streamed down my face uncontrollably.

And then, out of nowhere, she repeated our line from before, “You’re the best.” And then she closed her already-half-shut eyes and went back to sleep, still holding my hand, as I sobbed.

Over the course of the next three days, she was asleep every time I saw her.

I remember how pale she looked when I walked into the room that early morning of March 1st. I remember walking up to her, sobbing, and grabbing her hand.

I’ve always seen, in deaths on TV shows and movies, where the family hugs and embraces the body of their loved one. They kiss them and hold them and cry—and every time, I’ve thought to myself, “That’s disgusting. That’s a dead body. They’re kissing a dead body.”

But when I saw her lying in that bed, pale and still a little warm, I remember wanting nothing more than to hug her and hold her and kiss her cheek and feel the small bit of warmth she had left. I asked everyone for some time alone in the room with her and when the door shut, I cried as I hugged her and kissed her and told her that I was sorry for not wanting her to hug me goodnight when I was thirteen. I grabbed her hand and held it and kissed her cheek and prayed that it wasn’t actually happening. That she would wake up to give me one more hug.

Since she passed, I can’t stop looking at pictures of us, as a family, when we were younger—before I was too cool to turn down her hugs, before I was too cool to call her “mama.”

It’s been two full months since she passed. Two months that, before I know it, will multiply themselves enough times to become a year.

And then two years. And then ten.

But every day that she has been gone, I haven’t felt like I’m twenty-four. I haven’t even felt like I’m thirteen again, and too cool for her goodnight hugs. I think I keep looking at those pictures because every time I think about her, I feel like I’m a little kid again.

I feel like I’m a little boy—and all I want is a hug from my mama.Image

Disclaimer: The following stories were told to me by a coworker, who is gay and has lived her entire life in an area of the country where religion rules and equality for gays falls by the wayside. Names have been changed.

Kerry and Susan, recently married in Ontario, Canada, returned to their home in Georgia. In their town, jobs are hard to come by—especially jobs that correspond to their education and interests. As a newlywed couple, they found the first jobs available and moved into a small apartment. They couldn’t afford much–but its coziness couldn’t be matched. Susan found a wonderful little bedroom set on Craigslist for a little over a hundred dollars; Kerry bought a small television at Goodwill. Happiness, for them, came from the love that they share. Their apartment may not have ceiling fans or a dishwasher, but they didn’t care. Susan goes to the library to use the computers. She checks do-it-yourself sites for cheap homemade furnishings and decorating ideas and writes them down. Occasionally, when she gets a few extra coins in the tip jar at work, she prints off some of the pictures—in black-and-white, of course. The color pages at the library cost an extra ten cents to print. Kerry’s position at the local supermarket is less lucrative, but somehow they make ends meet.

Their life together would be much easier, of course, if they didn’t have the legal fees. You see, Susan was married before and has a young son, Samuel. Susan’s ex-husband, Mike, is a car mechanic and a drunk—and is fighting Susan for custody of two-year old Samuel. The custody battle has been vicious and ugly—and Susan and Kerry aren’t sure if they can continue fighting for custody with their limited income. The newlyweds have a home, but without Sam, their home seemed incomplete.

 ****************

Across town, Billie and Jordan have been together for several years and are enjoying financial stability for the first time in their relationship. Billie has been working at the local discount store for several years as a part time employee—it was the only place that hired her after her injury, and even though the pay is low, she remains loyal to the company for hiring her. The source of their financial stability, however, comes from Jordan’s new job as a custodian in the local prison. Benefits, full-time hours: it’s everything they needed in this difficult economy. That is, until Billie fell again.

 ****************

James still remembered the first time he saw his daughter.

She took her first breath and unlike other newborns, she didn’t cry. She looked up at the doctor, wide-eyed, and then squinted to shield her eyes from the light that she was seeing for the first time.

The doctor looked at James, “It’s a beautiful girl. Would you like to hold her, dad?”

James, with tears leaking from his eyes, couldn’t muster a response. He nodded as the doctor gently handed over his daughter. They had waited so long for this baby—so many treatments, so many years—and he was finally holding his daughter in his arms.

James thought about that moment as he drove home. Louise, his beautiful daughter, was now finishing her last year of high school. He wiped away tears as he drove. How is he going to explain to her that her mother left? How is he going to explain why she did? He could never show Louise the note that her mother left behind.

James,

By the time you read this, I’ll be gone. You will never see me again, and Louise won’t either. I can’t take it. I can’t raise a daughter that will never have children. That will never have a boyfriend. Where did we go wrong? Where did I go wrong? How could our daughter be gay? Good luck Jim. I guess you can handle her sin, but I can’t and neither can God.

Mary Beth

 ****************

When Billie fell, Jordan panicked. She had to get to work, but Billie could be injured badly and needed to get to a hospital. Billie had a medical condition—every once in a while, she would simply faint. But this time was different. When Billie fainted, she collapsed and her head hit the corner of the coffee table.  There was a lot of blood on the carpet, but Jordan knew that she had to get Billie to the emergency room—she was still unconscious. Billie’s insurance didn’t cover ambulance rides. Jordan would just have to explain to her boss, the head custodian of the prison, that it was an emergency.  She wrapped Billie’s head in a towel to stop the bleeding and lifted her into the backseat of her beat-up Corolla and sped to the hospital.

 ****************

Kerry and Susan have come to a crossroads. The judge presiding over the custody case for little Sam has a strict ideology about situations like theirs. Judge Phillips, Susan’s lawyer explains, does not believe that a household led by two women can adequately raise a young boy. The prospects do not look good. Their legal marriage from Canada does them no good in Georgia .There is a likely chance that Susan’s ex-husband will be rewarded full custody of little Samuel, despite the evidence of his drinking. Judge Phillips might also decide to award custody to the State and send Samuel into the foster system. The lawyer has one last idea: if Kerry and Susan live separately, the judge might change his mind. He has some precedent of awarding custody in such situations to single mothers.

Kerry and Susan, despite their finances, find an apartment for Kerry nearby, and tearfully they move her out into a separate home, despite the fact that they can barely make ends meet as it is.

 ****************

James wants to send Louise to college but can barely afford it, now that he is a single parent. He still hasn’t told Louise the reason her mother left—and doesn’t plan to. He can’t bear the thought of her feeling guilt over her mother’s absence.

James takes on a second job that takes him away from home almost every night. When his wife left, she took their second income with her.

Louise, having been abandoned by her mother, now rarely sees her father. She cries herself to sleep almost every night, wishing things could go back to how they were.

 ****************

Kerry and Susan can’t afford to live apart. Their two incomes simply don’t support their two apartment payments. Kerry’s parents live in Pennsylvania and they offer to take her back in during the custody battle.

The once-happy newlyweds who dreamed of their life together on their long drive back from their wedding weekend in Ontario now live separately in Georgia and Pennsylvania.

Susan cries herself to sleep every night, all alone in their apartment, as she wishes she could see her son and her wife. She wonders if life will ever be like the dreams that they once shared.

 ****************

Jordan races to the hospital and admits Billie into the Emergency Room. After Billie is taken into an examination room, Jordan calls her boss at the prison to explain that she had to rush her partner to the hospital. He asks her to meet with him early the next morning—and adds that she shouldn’t bother to dress in her normal custodial uniform.

Billie, thankfully, only has a mild concussion and gets twenty-seven stitches. As they drive home, they worry about Jordan’s meeting with her boss the following morning, aware that it will probably be her last day in her new job that allowed them their first taste of financial security.

 ****************

Susan and Kerry have now lived apart for nearly a year and have grown apart. They cannot afford plane tickets and cannot afford the time off work to make the long drive from Georgia to Pennsylvania. They haven’t seen each other since the separation.

After several months of depression about their situation, Kerry and Susan find that the tears don’t flow as easily anymore. They cry less at sappy movies. Their conflicting hours at their jobs don’t allow them to talk on the phone very often, and six months into their separation, the custody battle is still unfinished.

 ****************

In most states, an employee cannot be terminated for missing work due to a spouse-related medical emergency. In most states, a gay couple cannot legally become spouses.

Jordan was fired from her job for missing her shift to drive Billie to the hospital.

 ****************

Louise never saw her father after he picked up the second job. She began spending time with people who led her into some bad situations—and even though her father picked up the second job to be able to afford her college tuition, Louise ended up in jail for drug possession after high school instead of a college dorm.

James used some of the money he had been saving to post his daughter’s bail on the night she got booked.

He had been working particularly long hours recently. When he picked her up at the jail, it was the first time he had seen Louise in over three weeks. Neither of them had seen Louise’s mother since she left.

 ****************

Kerry and Susan, after more than a year apart, decided to end their relationship. Living apart, not being able to see each other, and the stress of the custody battle proved to be too much for their young marriage to bear. Not long after, custody of three-year-old Samuel gets awarded to the state, as Judge Phillips deemed Susan an unfit mother due to the fact that she will never have a man in her life to be a father to the little boy.

She still lives by herself in Georgia.

 ****************

Epilogue: If you thought these stories were going to have happy endings, then I am sorry for letting you down. But this is the environment for too many people in this country, a country that claims it is the land of the free. Inequality can be tangibly measured, in things like custody battles and terminations from jobs. It can also be an immeasurable force—such as the devastation a family feels after a mother leaves because she can’t stomach the idea of her daughter being gay.

The state of Washington has a unique opportunity to be on the cutting edge of equality this Tuesday. Legal marriage is just a step to erase the stigma that LGBT people feel every day in this country, but most certainly a step in the right direction.

In speaking with just a few LGBT people here in Georgia and South Carolina, I realize even more fully that the people of Washington state have a huge opportunity. Referendum 74 is a step forward on an issue that LGBT folks here in the South could only dream of.

Image

Author’s Note: I wrote this piece originally on July 21st, 2012 in response to the Aurora, Colorado shooting at the screening on The Dark Knight Rises. It has since been updated to reflect the horrific actions in Newtown, Connecticut.

I feel an innate responsibility to comment on the shooting yesterday. Some people are going to say that now is not the time to talk about gun control. But when would be a good time? People are shot and killed every day in this country. To say that “now is not the time” is just as “political” as to begin talking about gun control–only, as Ezra Klein put it in his blog yesterday, it is to argue for the politics of the status quo. So let’s start talking. As this year (2012) comes to a close, it marks the worst year in mass shootings in modern United States history.

There were actually two horrific acts of violence at two different schools on December 14th, 2012. In one, a crazed gunman in Connecticut opened fire at an elementary school, killing twenty children and six adults before turning the weapon on himself. In the other, a man wielding a knife in a school in China stabbed 22 children.

People who defend unfettered gun rights in this country will talk about how violent people will use violence, regardless of the weapon. They will talk of how a man with no access to guns will still find weapons–in the case of the Chinese man, a knife–to commit their sick acts of violence.

To put it bluntly, this is sheer idiocy. The death toll in the Connecticut shooting? Twenty-eight. The death toll in the Chinese knifing? Between zero and three, as reports are conflicting. People who say that guns don’t kill people need to pull their heads out of the sand. People kill people when they use guns. People mostly injure people when they use alternative weapons. There is data to back this up, too: According to a study that was featured in the Journal of the American College of Surgery on “penetrating cardiac injuries,” someone who is shot in the heart has a 16% chance of surviving. If someone is stabbed in the heart, they have a 70% chance of living. If every person who used a gun to kill someone traded their weapon for a knife, the survival rates would quadruple immediately. As a side note: knives, ironically, are regulated. Switchblades remain illegal, while extended clips, armor piercing rounds, and semi-automatic and automatic firearms all remain legal.

Now on to the Aurora shooting, which had fewer deaths but far more injuries than the Newtown massacre. With over 70 people shot and twelve dead in the community of Aurora, Colorado, it marks one of the more violent attacks by a lone shooter in recent memory. Among the casualties: a pregnant mother and a six-month old child.

The gunman reportedly used extended clips—more bullets, more death, before he had to reload. Among the weapons he used: an assault style rifle with high-capacity magazines.

Imagine being in the theater, wondering when the shooting was going to stop, wondering when he’d run out of ammunition, only to hear him continue to pepper the crowd with death and pain.

The fact that he used the guns is due to some problem within his twisted mind. The fact that he bought the guns legally? Well that’s due to a different problem entirely—one that’s ours—and it’s one that needs to be reexamined before something like this can happen again.

According to a United Nations Report in the early 2000s, gun related deaths are EIGHT times higher in the United States than in countries that are economically and politically similar.

I understand the arguments that are bubbling up within some of you: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s the age-old argument from the NRA and gun-toters everywhere. In some ways, I agree with the argument. There needs to be stricter background checks, monitors, and safeguards to make sure that guns don’t get into the hands of the wrong person. But in a lot of ways, the argument is a load of crap. Here’s why:

The gunman easily passed any background test to get his weapons. His only run-in with the law was a speeding ticket. He had no criminal history and was a very smart med studenImaget. The gunman in Norway from Norway a while back, who murdered 77 people and injured another 319? He passed every background check and obtained his weapons legally even though he had been planning the attack for nearly a decade. Lesson? Background checks are hardly enough.

The second reason it’s a load of crap: Guns DO kill people. I agree that people kill people. It happens every day in this country. But people with guns kill others way more efficiently than people with other handheld weapons. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that guns can be used from great distances and that no one can stab or otherwise physically harm as quickly as certain legal semi-automatic weapons.

To turn defend semi-automatic weapons, extended clips, and even handguns using the Second Amendment is absurd. It was written by a group of people who used muskets and muzzle-loaders. The same people who wrote that into our constitution had no knowledge of the level of devastation that could be caused in a crowd by a single person and a single weapon. They did, however, create a system by which we could change the Constitution as times changed—they had the foresight to acknowledge that problems would arise that they had no ability to account for—and they saw that the Constitution was not timeless. Nor is it Gospel.

And if this is about “freedom,” please tell me how someone’s freedom to own a weapon is more important than the freedom of a six-month-old to not get shot. Please explain to the loved ones of the dead in this most recent tragedy how their fallen family members’ freedom to live is not worth more than a freedom to purchase a semi-automatic weapon.

Some argue that people who are hell-bent on creating disaster will do so anyway—ban guns and they will still find ways to get them.

But, the UK did just that—as a nation, they have some of the most restrictive gun policies on the planet. They have even banned handguns entirely. In the United States in 2009, the United Nations statistics record 3 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The figure for the United Kingdom was 0.07—about 40 times lower.

I know that there are other factors to gun violence. I understand that murders would still occur, that people would still somehow get their hands on guns, and that people would still die. But it is entirely unacceptable that the United States would have a gun death rate as high as it is. In every major UN study since the 80s, The United States has had the highest amount of gun-related injuries than any industrialized nation. This will never be okay.

David Hemenway is the Health Policy Director at the Harvard School of Public Health and has studied violence prevention for over forty years. He writes that every nation that has stricter gun laws than the United States ultimately has lower homicide rates and lower gun deaths overall. In fact, “as a benchmark, in 2003, the United States homicide rate was seven times higher than that of these countries, largely because our firearm homicide rate was 20 times higher.”

He writes of a beautiful example in Australia: “Following the 1996 Port Arthur, Tasmania, massacre of 35 people, Australia acted quickly to effectively ban assault weapons. A mandatory buyback obtained more than 650,000 of these guns from existing owners. Australia also tightened requirements for licensing, registration, and safe gun storage of firearms. The result? In the 18 years before the intervention, Australia had 13 mass shootings. In the dozen years since, there has not been a single one. The laws also helped reduce firearm suicide and non-mass shooting firearm homicide.” (emphasis mine)

David Hemenway wrote about this in an Op-Ed piece for the Arizona Daily Star in 2011 following the shopping center shooting that killed six people and injured former U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others.

And here we are, a year and a half later, with more mass shootings. How many times will we, as a nation, need to learn these lessons?

Enacting stricter laws would undoubtedly lower the death rates dramatically, just as it has in every other country that has stricter gun laws than the US. But even if we lowered the statistics a tiny bit, wouldn’t it be worth it to save a few lives?

Isn’t it worth it to even save one life? If you answer with a “no,” try explaining your reasoning to the crying parents and families of the victims of gun violence.

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Homosexuality is one of the most hotly contested issues in America today. Between marriage rights to theological debates to scientific analysis, this issue doesn’t look to resolve itself anytime soon. And typically, when there are these types of issues that find a familiar set of (different) demographics on each side of the issue, there are going to be factions that form outside of the realm of debate. One of the most obvious examples is the role of mainstream Christianity in the debate.

Christians have traditionally held the view that homosexuality goes against God’s intention for humanity. I say this not to validate the viewpoint—rather, it’s an important acknowledgement to understand the historical context. I also would hesitate to use the fact that it’s “always been this way” as a validation in itself. Christianity has a history marred with historical precedent that eventually gives way to progressive societal norms. Incest (Abraham), polygamy (too many biblical characters to name here), slavery (an overwhelming majority of pro-slavery arguments made during the Civil War era used Scripture as a divinely-inspired defense), Holy wars (too many instances to name here, from the Old Testament to Bible verses engraved on guns during the United States involvement in Iraq)—all of these prove that historical precedent of mainstream JudeoChristian thought/practice is hardly a reason to continue other antiquated practices.

However, what if there is an angle to the whole debate that both sides seem to be missing?

There are 5-6 passages in Scripture that seem to address homosexuality (or, at least, some realm of homosexual behavior). The interpretation of these verses is under debate, with most Christian Biblical scholars falling on one side and most secular Biblical scholars falling on the other.

But what if, in this modern era, the interpretation doesn’t matter? (Disclaimer: I think it does matter, not necessarily for the cause of homosexuality but for the overarching theme of Scripture misuse/mis-scholarship.)

What if everyone is getting the foundation of this debate entirely wrong?

Anti-homosexuality advocates frame the debate utilizing specific gender assignments. For them, men are to be with women and women are to be with men. By this uniformly understood view, everyone on our planet—and everyone ever created—is either a man or a woman. Every human ever created falls into either the category of “man” or “woman.” It has to be this way, right? Because “male and female (God) created them.”

The whole premise rests on this—philosophically, it has to. For a philosophical idea to maintain its soundness, it has to be followed to the infinite implications. And to define marriage, or love, as something that can only exist between a man and a woman, we have to have clear, unequivocal definitions of what “male” and “female” are that applies to every human being. If the definitions break down at all, then the argument is not sound. The totality of the anti-homosexual stance rides on the unequivocal belief that there is a clear distinction between the two genders. Gender itself has to be defined by two clear, separate groups. A human being is either one or the other.

However, this is most definitely not the reality.

 Gender, despite the primitive definition of the word, is not a dualistic lens through which every human being can be clearly designated. In fact, as we are learning more and more about the intricacy of the human body and its development, there is becoming an increasing understanding amongst the medical world that gender, instead of being a situation of being “one or the other,” is actually a scale of extremes. In this scale of extremes, “male” is a designation of one side and “female” is a designation of the other. Humanity, however, cannot be so neatly categorized—every individual falls somewhere on the scale between male and female. A growing number of studies have identified a human biology that doesn’t follow the precedent of the male/female dichotomy. The term for this gray area is “intersex,” and it is being widely recognized as a key factor in the gender stereotype debate. In short, intersex is the area on the scale between “male” and “female” that doesn’t neatly fit either category—and a significant portion of the human population is born in this gender gray area, where phenotypically understood definitions do not apply.

Intersex can occur in a number of different ways that are typically classified as disorders. These disorders occur in a number of ways and can be a result of genetics, hormones, and others. Allow me to give a rundown of the biology.

Humans are given a chromosomal designation. Women are (typically) created from two ‘X’ chromosomes, while men are (typically) created from and ‘X’ and a ‘Y’ chromosome. The mother always provides the first ‘X,’ while each of the father’s sperm carries either an ‘X’ or a ‘Y.’ The embryo, after the fertilization of the egg creates a zygote, is phenotypically asexual until roughly seven weeks after fertilization. Hormones begin taking over, and in typical biological processes, the physical distinction between male and female becomes more divergent up until birth.

Essentially, there are two basic ways to determine the gender of a human. You can look at the chromosomal nature: is the person XX or XY? You can also look at the physical evidence (genitalia, gonads) and phenotypically determine if the person is male or female.

However, this is not always the case—and the combinations of biological variance are all important. There are cases where human can be born with an incorrect designation of chromosomes—instead of XX or XY, the individual may be born XXY—or a person can be born with physical evidence of both male and female gonads/genitalia. There are many combinations thereof and I won’t go into all of them.

Anne Fausto-Sterling is one of the premier chroniclers of gender ambiguity today. In her book Sexing the Body, she writes that “While male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum, there are many bodies […] that evidently mix together anatomical components conventionally attributed to both males and females. The implications of my argument for a sexual continuum are profound. If nature really offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits. […] Modern surgical techniques help maintain the two-sex system. Today children who are born ‘either/or-neither/both’ — a fairly common phenomenon — usually disappear from view because doctors ‘correct’ them right away with surgery.”

This is the kicker though—according to the Intersex Society of North America, between 1% and 1.7% of live births exhibits some degree of sexual (gender) ambiguity. Between 0.1% and 0.2% exhibit enough ambiguity to become the subject of specialist medical attention.

So what does all this mean? What does intersex and sexual ambiguity have to do with the homosexuality debate that is currently going on in Christianity?

The entire framework of the debate rests on a clear distinction between male and female. The whole framework for calling homosexuality “sinful” means that a line has to be drawn, somewhere, between males and females. And yet, for up to 6.8 million Americans who are born with some level of gender ambiguity, there is no line. For the 400,000-800,000 people in America who were born with enough ambiguity that required surgery or gender assignment, it means that the line was drawn by doctors or parents, not God.

So, for an argument to be philosophically sound, it must follow its own implications infinitely. It must always be true or it is not considered sound. If a definitive distinction cannot be made between “male” and “female” that holds true for every human, then how can it hold true for anyone? Is someone male if they are genetically male, yet have female gonads and genitalia? If someone born this way is attracted to men, is it considered heterosexual or homosexual?

What about the small population who are born in a way that essentially makes the doctors and parents the determiners of the gender? If the parents determine to raise their child as a girl because she has female genitalia, yet is chromosomally XY (male), who should the child, according to Christianity, marry? Which option would be sinful, according to anti-homosexuality advocates? Or does the individual have the option?

The problem with the homosexuality debate is clear. It assumes that all people are created as either male or female. The Bible doesn’t really seem to address intersex humans. Yet, even as God created Adam and Eve male and female, doesn’t He also create intersex humans as both male and female? Or part male, part female? Isn’t it true that God doesn’t create mistakes?

The truth is, it is not a cut-and-dry situation. If homosexuality was so sinful, why would God create people who do not even know what gender they are? Are they simply supposed to guess which group they are supposed to be attracted to? If God’s law for love is based on classic gender definitions, then why would He allow people to be born who could potentially not fall into the classic definitions? Is God really that petty and confusing?

It hardly matters what is “normal” or “typical” when it comes to this debate—if God were to have only created ONE person that didn’t fit inside of classic gender definitions, then the entire debate would be rendered meaningless. And yet He has created millions.

Perhaps we can lose this talk of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” altogether. Wouldn’t the terms “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” be somewhat obsolete, based on their linguistic limitations to accurately describe humanity?

 If all people, genetically and physically, actually fall on a gender scale that includes various shades of gray, can’t we just let love be love, no matter who is involved?

If God is the author of Love, even defined and described as Love, can we stop determining who gets to love and who doesn’t?

Our dashing hero, Austin, was painfully ponderous of his peasant past. As he slept, his subconscious plagued his head with doubt. How can they make it to the Cupcake Castle with the devious Dairy Dragon attempting to steal the Golden Spoon at any cost? Austin was only a peasant, after all, not a Candy Knight or Waffle-Cone Warrior. What if they make it, only to find that the Princess will not see them? How can they achieve their goal? He slept fitfully.
Meanwhile, miles away, the Dairy Dragon had lost the scent of Austin and his Pegasus companion, Jerod. Fantastically frustrated, he furiously flapped his ferocious wings as he flew back to Old Man Alex’s humble abode in the Mudslide Hills.
“If anyone knows where they’re headed, it’s that stupid old man,” the dastardly dragon thought to himself.
Filled with a newfound sense of rage at losing our daring hero’s trail, the dragon arrived at Old Man Alex’s house with a heavy thump. He grabbed the front door and ripped away the door and part of the wall as he lumbered in. His tail swung back and forth, sending furniture through walls.
“Alex! Come out before I turn your house into graham cracker crumbs!” screamed the dragon.
Alex calmly walked into the scene of destruction, looking at the rotten dragon in the eye. The dragon stared back—and the staring contest began.
Seconds passed, and both of them began to feel the pain. Alex squinted, trying to provide moisture to his eyeballs. The dragons’s eyelids quivered and shook. Tears began streaming down each of their faces. Alex’s tears left clear streams down his face. The dragon’s dairy tears created chunky, cottage cheese clumps down his scaly face. Finally, the impasse broke as Alex’s eyes couldn’t take the pain and shut, providing instant relief to his dehydrated eyes.
“Ha!” blurted the dragon. “I win. Now tell me where that paltry peasant and his poopy Pegasus are headed!” (We can all recognize that the use of “poopy” as an adjective is, at best, a weak attempt on the part of the writer as an alliterative word. However, the writer would counter that the dragon has an uneven, if not entirely limited vocabulary due to the nature of dragon education. We all know that the level of dragon education in the land of ICK is in need of a major upheaval. Lack of funding and limited resources have created an unfortunate situation in which dragons lack the basic education pillars of math, reading, and writing. The previous king’s initiative, dubbed “No Dragon Left Behind,” flopped because dragon teachers began artificially inflating the grades of their students. For more information on this subject and many others, check out the site www.dragoneducation.com. Now, back to our story. )
Alex opened his eyes and looked at the dragon.
“I wouldn’t tell you, even if you won a thousand staring contests!!” Alex shouted. It is difficult to know if Alex was really mad, however, because he often shouted things for no reason as a way of pretending he was mad. Some would call this type of exaggeration a type of “shock value” humor. Others find it simply “annoying.”
The dragon, in a single leap, screamed and lunged at Alex.
“Clearly I have wasted my time!!” he shouted as he landed on Alex’s head, instantly killing the old man. And with that, Alex’s appearance in this story came to an end.
The dragon then began investigating the rest of the house for clues—and it didn’t take him long to find something useful. In fact, in mere seconds, he found a notebook on (the now deceased) Alex’s table that was labeled, “Journal.” In the journal, he had detailed, repetitive thoughts concerning the adventure that Austin was on. It included possible routes and reasons for each route—but all of them had a single destination: the Cupcake Castle!
“I have it, at last!” thought the dragon. “I am going to fly to the Cupcake Castle and hide in wait for the stupid peasant and his rapping, flying horse! That way, I can remove myself from this story until they make it to the castle!”
He took flight, taking the shortest, quickest route to the castle, just as the Starburst sun was rising in the land of ICK.
The sun rose on Austin as he woke up from his fitful sleep. He was nervous for the adventure that he had placed himself in. He looked over at Jerod, who was munching some gumdrop grass.
“Can we really accomplish this?” he asked, his eyes tired and his voice strained.
“I dunno, man, but listen here. If we don’t do this, who else will, ya dig?” replied the Pegasus in his odd vernacular that sounded like a young middle class kid who listened to too much rap.
“You know what, you’re right! If we don’t return this spoon to the princess, then no one will and the balance of power in ICK will be…well…um…imbalanced.”
After cooking a small breakfast of marshmallow peep eggs and some wild chocolate rabbit, he strapped his gear onto his back and climbed onto Jerod’s back, eager to begin the day’s journey toward the Cupcake Castle.
Neither was aware of the trouble that was brewing at the castle, for dragons can fly much faster than Pegasusses (I mean..Pegasus’..um, I mean, Pegasi. What is the plural of Pegasus again?) and the Rotten Dairy Dragon had almost arrived. As he was flying, a new plot was marinating in his milky brain: to kidnap the princess upon arriving at the castle! Our hero’s hellish, hurtful hike just horrifically became heinously more harrowing!

When we left our handsome hero, he was preparing for the long journey to the Cupcake Castle. He hastily hurried through his humble hut, hoping to hand the heroine (Andrea) the hugely important Golden Spoon. Little did he know, the Rotten Dairy Dragon was watching his every move.

Austin gathered up what he needed: provisions for the long journey; a Butter knife (a Butter was a small, rabbit-like creature that hopped through the woods in the land of ICK. Butter knives were particularly adept at killing the swift animals); a bow whose string was made from the finest spun cotton candy; and a sheath of arrows made from sharpened peppermint candy. He was almost ready!

He needed to acquire one more thing for the journey—ever since the Rotten Dairy Dragon killed his trusty steed, Eric, he was in desperate need of a horse. His first stop was going to be Old Man Alex’s ranch. Taking a chocolate-covered pretzel walking stick, Austin began the march to the ranch.

Old Man Alex lived on a beautiful ranch that was tucked into the farthest corner of the Mudslide Hills. It was incredibly dangerous to get to—one never knew when the hills would begin sliding down onto the path to drown any traveler in an avalanche of death by chocolate—so Austin had to keep his wits about him. No one knew how Old Man Alex was able to get in and out of the Mudslide Hills in order to get to his ranch.

Austin entered into the Mudslide Hills carefully. Giant piles of chocolate rose on either side of him, and he kept to the narrow path. Warily, he looked around for any sign of movement.

All the while, the Rotten Dairy Dragon kept watch. He knew that if he was patient, he’d have a chance to trap Austin in the mudslides and steal the Golden Spoon.

After an hour of careful hiking, Austin made it to the entrance of Old Man Alex’s ranch. As he walked up the path to the gate, the wizened old man opened the door to his graham cracker ranch house and met Austin outside. He was dressed in the garb of the hill people: an old sweatshirt on top of a flannel button-down with pants that had holes in them.
“It’s been too long, old friend,” exclaimed Austin as they gave each other a firm hug.
“Say that,” replied Alex, in an odd expression of agreement. “What can I do for you, young man?”
“I need a horse. Tragically, mine was killed by the Rotten Dairy Dragon.” Austin began to tell Old Man Alex about the discovery of the Golden Spoon, and immediately Alex’s face lit up.
“You must return that to Princess Andrea! I will help in any way that I can! Come with me.”
Alex led Austin out the back door of the ranch house and to a giant stable out back.
“Austin, I have something important to show you. You must tell no one about this.”
Austin agreed to keep the secret.
Alex continued, “Have you ever wondered how I am able to get through the Mudslide Hills to leave and enter my ranch?”
“Of course!” Austin replied. “Everyone wonders how you are able to safely navigate this treacherous land!”
“Let me show you,” said Alex, as he opened the door to the stable. As the door opened, Austin gasped.
“It’s…it’s a Pegasus,” he said softly.
The creature stood magnificently, strong and confident. It was completely white, with a splash of black fur over its heart. Upon seeing Austin, it immediately spread its wings and began to paw at the ground, excited by the presence of the newcomer.
“I have been getting too old to ride him recently,” explained Alex. “I think you should have him. He will allow you to reach the Cupcake Castle. His name is Jerod, though he responds to ‘Feez’ for some reason.”
“You mean, I can keep him?” asked Austin.
“He will be of tremendous help on your journey. And I am getting too old. Take him, he’s yours now.”

Austin was overwhelmed. He looked at the animal, and then in one swift motion, he jumped on Jerod’s back. Jerod became restless at first, uneasy with the new rider. However, it didn’t take long for animal and man to get used to each other. With his wings folded back, Jerod trotted out of the stable with Austin on his back. Alex walked up and, with a twinkle in his eye, slapped the Pegasus on the rump.

Jerod immediately took flight. With a sudden leap, his wings spread and he was climbing high into the sky. Austin clung for dear life, his arms wrapped around the creature’s neck as they climbed higher and higher in elevation. It was exhilarating, and Austin knew that Jerod was testing his ability as a rider. Austin immediately straightened up and grabbed the mane with both hands.

“Easy,” he whispered, calmly. “Easy, boy. Easy.”
Jerod slowed his ascent and began flying at an easy pace. They began flying away from the outskirts of ICK and toward the other side where the Cupcake Castle stood tall.

The Rotten Dairy Dragon couldn’t believe his eyes. He had been watching from the far hill, waiting to create a mudslide as Austin left the Mudslide Hills. But Austin didn’t walk back on the path—he took flight on the back of a Pegasus!

The dragon had to think fast…and then he remembered the scones. The dragon quickly began flying after them, faster and faster. As he approached the Pegasus, he opened his mouth wide…

Austin turned just in time to see the dark shape coming toward them. He saw the mouth of the dragon open, aimed straight at them. The dragon remembered that it had eaten some stale scones that morning. (It is a little known fact that, on top of the ability to breathe fire, most dragons can also projectile-vomit a fiery concoction of the food that they have consumed that day.)

The dragon, mouth agape, began shooting vomit-covered, flaming scones at Austin and Jerod. The stinky, slimy, sticky scones speedily shot with a sour, sick stench through the summer air.

Austin dodged out of the way just in time as a stale, flaming scone shot past his head.
“Jerod, dive!!” he shouted.
They dropped; maneuvering and using every ounce of agility they could muster, they narrowly escaped the dastardly dragon’s barrage of bile. But he was persistent and fueled by anger. He sped after them, still shooting flaming scones from his terrible jaws.

“Shoot, how many scones did he eat?!” yelled Jerod.
“Wait, you can talk?” Austin yelled back, incredulous.
“Of course! I am a freaking mythological creature!”
“Okay, well get us out of here!”

Jerod swooped downward again, enough to make Austin’s stomach churn. They flew faster and faster, away from the dragon. Suddenly, Austin had an idea. He pulled out some of his Oreos that he had gathered from his field and packed for the trip. The Dairy Dragon couldn’t resist feasting on chocolate sandwich cookies. Austin began throwing Oreos toward the dragon.

Immediately, the dragon wasn’t sure what to do next. He wanted to continue chasing after Austin and the Golden Spoon, but he also wanted to eat Oreos. To eat the cookies, though, he’d have to stop vomiting the stale scones!

The dragon, paralyzed by indecision, stopped shooting scones from his mouth and began distractedly searching for the Oreos that had been thrown. He dove toward the ground, combing the landscape for the cookies.

Meanwhile, Austin and Jerod had narrowly escaped. Ready for some much-needed rest, they found a place to make camp and slept, dreaming about what the next day of their adventure would bring.

Little did they know that the Dairy Dragon was not far behind.

To be continued…