Gun control arguments have gotten un-bear-able

This is another totally true story. I’m a journalist; you should never question what I tell you:

The other day, I was on the terrace of my palace on the moon with a friend of mine who’s a magical talking bear, when the conversation turned to the ongoing gun control debate.

It started innocently enough. We were trading bear puns, a favorite hobby of ours.

“I find you unbearable today,” he told me, cackling from around the stem of his pipe.

I frowned and shoved my foot in his face.

“Looks like I’m bear-footed today,” I told him.

He pushed my foot away with his paw.

“Was that a joke? I bearly noticed.”

“Just bear with me. I’ll think of something better.”

“You mean bear-tter, right?”

And we both started laughing so hard I thought the airtight dome that surrounds the moon palace and allows us to breathe might collapse.

After calming down, Aloysius … that’s the bear’s name, Aloysius McUrsine … Aloysius took a couple of contemplative puffs on his pipe and returned to reading the day’s copy of Human News Today, his preferred daily rag. The front of the paper had a story about U.S. leaders arguing the merits and demerits of stricter gun control laws, the sight of which set my mind to wandering away from the moon to more earthly concerns. Like many people, it’s an issue that had been plaguing my thoughts since the June 12 shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida; and the Dec. 2, 2015 shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California; and the Nov. 29, 2015 shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and the Oct. 1, 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon; and the July 16, 2015 shooting at those two military centers in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and the June 18, 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; and the May 23, 2014 shooting in Isla Vista, California; and the April 2, 2014 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas; and the Sept. 16, 2013 shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. and so on and so forth.

I knew Aloysius was feeling political that day because he was wearing his #BlackBearLivesMatter T-shirt, so I decided to get his take on the matter.

“Well, Adam,” he said after giving his top hat a contemplative readjustment, “from what I gathered, there are basically two options when it comes to gun control.

“First, there’s the Everything Option,” he said, holding out one empty paw. “Basically, this means every single person in the country is armed at all times with whatever weapon they see fit. Handguns, high-powered rifles, automatic weapons, falconets, broadswords, lightsabers … once those are invented … medieval flails and impromptu bludgeoning weapons like nunchucks made from two staplers connected with fishing line will all be fair game.”

“And how exactly will that make us safer?”

“Well,” my bear friend said, puffing on his pipe, “the theory goes, if everyone is armed to the teeth, the threat of possible violence will prevent actual violence. Most people don’t want to start fights with someone who could potentially reduce their bodies into tiny puddles of goo with a pocket Death Star or something.”

I nodded. “Makes sense, I suppose. What’s option two?”

Aloysius held out his other empty paw.

“That’s the Nothing Option. With it, nobody has any weapons at all. The government outlaws anything more dangerous than a bouquet of peacock feathers and forcefully removes any and all firearms from people’s homes and … if all those threats don’t turn out to be empty … cold dead heads.”

“That sounds like the safer of the two,” I said. He shook his head.

“From what I understand, the only people left with access to weapons will be the criminals,” he said. “Everything from psychopaths to prostitutes to jaywalkers will roam our streets armed with katana blades, AK-47s, bazookas, high-powered laser pointers and fistfuls of Roman candles rigged together with duct tape. It will be like open season on innocent people, if those who oppose the Nothing Option are to be believed.”
The bear leaned back in his chair, hooked both paws into the arm holes of his stylish vest and sighed.

“And that’s basically it,” he said. “Those are the two options when it comes to gun control.”

I scowled and said, “Neither sounds great. Couldn’t there be some kind of, I don’t know, compromise? Like, a third option that isn’t so extreme?”

Aloysius threw his head back and released a booming laugh. It echoed across the dome.

“Oh, Adam,” he said, using a claw to wipe a tear from one eye. “You’re so naive. That’ll never happen. You humans are too territorial to share middle ground with each other. And because neither side is willing to budge, this argument will never be settled. I’m just glad I hibernate through much of the 20 years or so I’m alive so I don’t have to listen to the endless quibbling.”

It wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, but it was likely accurate.

“So what should we do while our leaders debate this until the next inevitable mass shooting?”

After a few more puffs on his pipe, Aloysius said, “Just grin and bear it, I guess.”

It was a decent bear pun, but at that moment, neither of us much felt like laughing.


Let’s go hunting with the ‘House Hunters’

If it’s possible to do something both avidly and intermittently, that’s the way Mandy and I watch the show “House Hunters.”

We’ve watched it for years, just off and on, throughout our courtship and now marriage. It’s pretty special to us. We’ll watch it in spurts, a bunch of episodes at a time, until we get sick of the houses and sick of the people and especially sick of the banter and take a break for several months or years, then return to it with renewed vigor. I don’t know if we watch any other show this way. “The Simpsons,” maybe.

Netflix has only fueled our consistent inconsistency. These days, binging is the norm. Mandy and I go through spells of watching one show from top to bottom, then finding another and repeating.

Recently, we made our way through Netflix’s collection of “House Hunters” episodes, and I was reminded why I both love and hate the show. I’m at least halfway convinced it’s some sort of mass social experiment HGTV is conducting to test the limits of human tolerance.

For those unfamiliar, the basic premise of the show involves an individual or couple in search of a new home. An agent will show off three homes, all of which will be nitpicked to death. At the end of the program, the buyer will announce which home he or she hates least.

What’s most fascinating about “House Hunters” is the way the people featured on the show have the preternatural ability to find fault in a house I would like to think most people would have to pour several lifetime’s worth of labor into owning. We’re talking veritable mansions towering a half-dozen stories above manicured fields so green, the word “green” is woefully inadequate. It’s like calling Donald Trump’s campaigning style “abrasive.”

Using a completely fabricated scenario, allow me to use my extensive familiarity with “House Hunters” to paint for you a mental picture of any given episode:

A young couple greets their real estate agent at the door of a large colonial that’s so beautiful, it would draw tears from all but the most grizzled of boulders. Although they are both freshly graduated from college, the couple have already acquired their dream jobs. She writes the clever things you read inside greeting cards; he taste-tests chocolate for Hershey’s. Their budget is $3.5 million, but that’s the upper limits. They’d prefer to keep it closer to $3 million if possible. Their agent makes this seem like an impossible task.

They have a list of demands. The husband would like a personal space — a “man cave,” he insists on calling it — to house his home theater, display his collection of vintage guitars, and still have enough room to build LEGO models of Star Wars vehicles. She’d like a heated pool, a big backyard to host parties and a large, open kitchen for all the cooking she claims to enjoy. Both insist on a fireplace and at least seven bedrooms, in case of guests, and would like a home with a lot of history and character, but fully upgraded with modern conveniences.

The agent claims to have found a home she thinks they’ll love. She is wrong.

The trio step into a living room that could swallow my entire house three times over and still have room. The agent consults her notes.

“So, it says here that Renaissance artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci once traveled through time to tour this home. Upon seeing this room, he openly wept and claimed, ‘Nothing born from my head or hand could ever touch the majesty of this creation.’ Oh, and here’s a fun fact, despite what is widely believed, Abraham Lincoln was actually assassinated here, not Ford’s Theater. Neat.”

The couple looks around. They are overtly disappointed.

“It feels a little cramped,” the husband says, his voice echoing through the cavernous space.

His wife nods her head in agreement.

“We may want kids some day,” she says, suggesting the two them are planning to found their own variation of the Duggar cult.

The tour continues.

“No granite counter tops,” the husband says immediately upon stepping into a kitchen that’s so up-to-date it’s actually beyond modern, as if some time-traveler plucked it from the year 2525 and dropped smack into the middle of present day suburban America. She stares disapprovingly at the six-burner gas stove.

“And white appliances,” she says in the same tone of voice we now use when discussing Bill Cosby.

The three of them wander casually from room-to-room, nitpicking each apart. Eventually, they stand inside a space large enough the Margratheans could build planets inside it. The real estate agent describes this as the “third guest bedroom’s second closet.”

“This can be your closet,” the wife says to her husband, her voice echoing for an eternity. He mugs at the camera and shrugs in a sitcomy way.

“Thought so,” he says. “You could never fit all your shoes in here.”

The three of them laugh.

Repeat with two more homes.

Eventually, the two of them settle on the first home they hated. We are treated to a brief synopsis of their lives several months into home ownership. Although it took some getting used to, and they had to make some sacrifices, this pinnacle of architecture is finally beginning to feel like a home. They are both happy. So very, very happy. The credits roll.

My heart fumes with hatred. I click play on the next episode.

The most Herculean of all tasks

One day long, long again in ancient Greece, Zeus dropped by to visit his son, Heracles. He took the form of a bear or a wombat or a rock or something. Mythologists aren’t quite certain. It was probably a bird, though, so let’s just go with a goose.

“You do far too much sitting around,” honked the Zeus goose. “You need something to do.”

Heracles, a sassy teen at the time, answered with a sigh.

“I’ve got stuff to do,” he said, thumbing down through his Twitter feed on his phone.

“Not enough, apparently.”

“How would you even know. You’re, like, barely even here.”

That really ruffled Zeus’ feathers. Literally, in this case.

“Now see here,” he said, taking a second to preen his feathers before continuing. “Whether you like it or not, I am your father. And when I speak, you will listen.”

Heracles sighed again and looked up from his phone.

“I have created for you thirteen tasks,” Zeus said. He motioned with his wing, and a series of scrolls, each rolled and sealed with a dab of wax, appeared before Heracles. “Each scroll contains one objective you must complete. When you have done so for all of them, you will have become a man in my eyes and may join me in the pantheon of gods.”

The young man scoffed.

“Really, Dad? Scrolls? Can’t you just DM me the list?”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“You wouldn’t,” Heracles said and returned to his phone.

Mythologists say a lengthy argument continued from here. In the end, this battle of stubborn insistence versus stubborn indifference ended with Heracles reluctantly agreeing to complete the tasks, but only if Zeus promised to delay his curfew to 1 a.m. on weekends and stop randomly checking his Internet browser history.

So, one by one, Heracles tackled the 13 tasks, each more annoying than the last. He had to kill the Nemean Lion, Stymphalian Birds and the hyrda; he had to shovel mountains of dung from Augeas’ nasty stables; and he had to fetch Cerberus back from Uncle Hades, who stole the multi-headed pooch when he and Zeus were heavily embroiled in some kind of disagreement over property.

One after the other, Heracles begrudgingly completed his tasks, only breaking to periodically share his misery with his Instagram followers.

But then he hit No. 13. He unrolled the parchment and read it with disdain.

“Choose an appropriate name for your unborn daughter,” he read. “Ugh.”

Now, Heracles had never even considered having kids, let alone naming one. He first consulted several popular baby-naming sites, but couldn’t find a combination of first and middle names that sounded satisfactory to his ears. For days, he marched around Greece mumbling names to himself. None felt comfortable.

Heracles turned to the gods to aid in his quest, but found their opinions of what constituted a respectable name for a child to be far too varied. All of Apollo’s suggestions seemed pretentious, and Ares’ were all too blunt. Aphrodite’s were a little too … how to put this delicately … risque for Heracles’ liking, and all Hermes offered were ridiculous gag names like Apple Blythe or Pilot Inspector or Blanket. Those who didn’t offer their own awful suggestions turned their noses up at the ones Heracles had been considering. Although he possessed strength to capture the Erymanthian Boar and wits enough to remove the Amazon queen Hippolyta’s girdle, Heracles was incapable of counting the number of times someone answered his suggestions with, “You don’t want to name a child that.”

Heracles was stuck. After whipping through the first twelve tasks like Cetus through a Trireme, it seemed the last would best him. He returned to his father humbled and ashamed.

Zeus, lounging around Mount Olympus in the form of a giraffe, nodded his long neck knowingly.

“I figured that last one might trip you up, son,” he said. “Names can be tough.”

“So what do you suggest?” Heracles asked his father.

Zeus shrugged.

“I don’t,” he said. “I think you just have to go with your heart, regardless of what others think. Besides, in the end, it doesn’t even matter. Regardless of her name, people are going to call the kid whatever the heck they want.”

“Is that why everybody calls me Hercules, Dad?”

Zeus flashed two rows of gigantic teeth and patted his son on the shoulder with his hoof.

“No, son. That’s just ignorance.”

For the first time in forever, father and son laughed together.

Broken resolutions and promising new beginnings

One day last week, I awoke to find Old Lady 2015 sitting in my living room.

She was sitting in my regular chair, practically swallowed by the cushions, and breathing deeply into an oxygen mask so large it could have been its own “Star Wars” villain. She was propping her slippered feet on the tank. Her trademark top hat was placed haphazardly on the edge of the coffee table; her sash was slung over the back of one of the adjacent dining room chairs. Its edges were fraying, and it was missing some of the plastic, stick-on gems that shaped the “2015” that ran down its length.

I didn’t even have time to register my surprise before she lit into me.

“It’s about time you got up,” she said, the high-pitched squeal of her voice made slightly more tolerable under the muffle of her oxygen mask. She spoke slowly, each word followed by a labored breath. Her body was skeletal — skin and bones, but mostly just bones. What little hair remained atop her hair was in the process of calling it quits, and she could barely keep her eyes open as she lectured me. Saying she looked like “death warmed over” would probably be underselling it; she looked like death warmed over, put back into the fridge for a week or two, pulled out, left on the counter for a while, put back into the fridge and then rediscovered behind the leftover mashed potatoes and three partially-emptied jars of spaghetti sauce several weeks later.

“Where the [bleep] have you been?” she asked, but instead of “bleep,” she said something else. Use your imagination.

This was a lot of process for someone who just stumbled out of bed. I answered the only way I could think of at that moment.

“I don’t know. Here.”

She gave me a look that could penetrate lead and took a big drag on her mask.

“You know what I mean,” she told me.

“I really don’t.”

“Oh for Pete’s … Yes, you do,” she said, aggressively certain of herself. “Don’t matter, though. I’ll tell you where you ain’t been: You ain’t been writing down any resolutions for my successor, here.”

With a hand that looked like tissue paper wrapped around a small bundle of twigs, she motioned to the other side of the room. Nesting in a chair normally occupied by a dozen or so cats was an infant, naked as … well, a newborn … save for a tiny top hat and sash. It read “2016” and was immaculate. Straight out of the sweat shop.

Instead of a bottle, the baby was sucking on a silver flask.

“Isn’t he a little young to be drinking?” I asked.

Old Lady 2015 scoffed and waved my concerns away as pure drivel.

“Kid’s gonna age like a slice of cantaloupe in the sun,” she said. “Let him have his fun. Besides, a year needs something to warm his system with no-good promise breakers like you around.”

I was taken aback by this.

“Wait, what do you mean?”

She turned her nose to the sky and grimaced in disgust.

“You know very well what I’m talkin’ about,” she said, her voice suddenly gaining a surge of strength. “Here I sit, wasting away in my final moments, each breath likely to be my last …”

“Pretty sure you’ve got at least a few more days …”

She ignored my interjection.

“… and you ain’t kept nary a one of your promises to me.”

“I don’t think …”

She began ticking off a list with her fingers.

“Finish another book,” she said, then shook her head. “Nawp. Read more. Don’t think so. Learn a new skill. I don’t think figuring out how to use the Twitter counts. Lose weight …” She jabbed her finger into my squishy gut. “Son, you done got fatter. Every [bleeping] thing you promised me back when I was just the prettiest, most promising baby you ever laid eyes on has been flushed down the john. You ain’t done a one of them yet, and unless you plan on putting them five slices of pizza you crammed down your gullet at ten o’clock last night back in the box, I reckon you ain’t gonna.”

Guilt, heavy as a boulder, landed in my stomach. As is my habit when faced with my failings, I tried to make excuses.

“It’s just been … What I mean is … I’ve been … Well, it’s been a busy year. What with the economy … and the newspaper business is stressful … and then there’s the …”

She scrunched her face and shook her head aggressively.

“I don’t care for your excuses,” she said. I noticed she didn’t seem to need the mask anymore. “It’s too late for me. I got one foot in the grave and the other foot in another grave just in case the first one don’t work out.

“But it ain’t too late for him,” she said, motioning toward the little naked boy squirming in the chair on the other side of the room. It paused its flask-suckling long enough to hiccup, then got back to business. “That’s the good thing about us years when we’re shiny and new. Each one of us is a fresh start, a chance to make good on all the stuff you done screwed up the year before. It’s your chance to make it right. I suggest you start now.

“But …”

She jabbed a finger in the baby’s direction.

Head bowed and feeling a bit embarrassed, I stepped across the room. I knelt at the foot of the chair and stared into Baby New Year’s big blue eyes. Like every year’s, they were beautiful, shimmering with hope. From around the lip of the flask, he smiled at me, cooing gleefully. I smiled back.

“I’ll do right by you, 2016,” I said. “I promise.”

I think they both bought it.

Screams from an Italian Restaurant

As soon as the patron at the table adjacent to ours opened her mouth, I knew dinner was ruined.

“It’s so good to see you,”she said.

Sure, reading those six words might not tag them as the kind to destroy a pleasant meal out during an equally pleasant vacation in central Florida, center of the tourism universe. After all, she wasn’t describing an episode of one of those surgery-gone-wrong shows or something horrible she discovered in a public restroom. But she squealed the greeting at the top of her lungs, as if her approaching friend were nearly but not quiet totally deaf, and she was trying to finish the job. Her friend probably offered some greeting in return, but I couldn’t be sure because she said it at a normal volume, and it just kind of blended in with the rest of the din of the busy restaurant.

But the speaker — and I’ll just call her The Lady Loudmouth of Castle Noisenstein, or LLCN, from here on out — was having none of that. No, her words were important, the stories they held too great to meld with the masses. She would be heard.

“How have you been? What was the traffic like? Was the traffic bad? The traffic on I-4 can get so crazy? Was it so crazy? It’s crazy! How have you been? I’ve been great! Happy birthday! Oh my God, it’s so good to see you! Happy birthday! I got you this present! I haven’t seen you in, like, forever! No. No. No. I wanted you to have it. I wanted to. I wanted to! How have you been? Things have been crazy for me. So crazy. Blah blah blah, me me me, yell yell yell, gabbidy gabbidy gabbidy, yammer yammer yammerdy do.”

I may have sort of made up that last part, but it pretty much sounded exactly like that.

If Mandy and I weren’t such social weirdos, I suppose we could have asked our waiter for a change of tables. But the place was packed, and making a fuss about where we were seated to a friendly waiter who was clearly working hard just isn’t our style. Sitting and stewing: That’s more our bag.

The table was to my back, so I couldn’t see the speaker’s face. I could, however, see my wife’s. Mandy’s eyes grew wide with a combination of amazement and fear. We’ve been married long enough (ten years this week; you can give me a high five in spirit), so I’ve learned to sort of read her mind:

“Adam is so awesome,” I’m almost positive she was thinking. “There are not enough good deeds in the heart of man to accumulate the amount of karma needed to match someone as glorious as he with anyone in the history of time, let alone me. Also, why is this woman talking so loudly? I can barely hear myself think about how great Adam is.”

The arrival of the food didn’t dam the river. Either through birth or training, LLCN had mastered the dexterous trick of shoveling food down her gullet in the nanoseconds between words.

If her friend was involved in their conversation at all, I couldn’t tell. Unless she was able to manipulate time and space and somehow slip her words between the LLCN’s, I don’t think she possibly could have been. The LLCN was clearly a rare breed of human who had mastered the ability to inhale as she spoke, negating the need to ever pause. Which, I suppose, is a useful skill for one who has not a single moment in her life too mundane to skip detailing at length. Mandy and I were treated to what seemed like the LLCN’s entire history, from birth to sitting down at the restaurant. (No, seriously; she told her friend she thought our friendly waiter was a weirdo because, when she told him she was meeting someone, he had the gall to sit in her in the back where they could enjoy their conversation with a bit more privacy. How rude.) She told of family struggles and life in the city and the layout of her apartment and what she had for breakfast and about how traffic is awful and, most prominently, about how she was superior to every person with whom she ever worked or quite possibly in the world:

”They’re all a bunch of robots. Absolute robots,” she yelled in her poor friend’s face, speaking of her coworkers at the real estate office that afforded her the means to be yelling at her friend’s face inside a Mellow Mushroom. “They’re just going through the motions. They don’t ever think for themselves. I’m the only one up there who thinks for herself. I’m the smartest person there. And I told them if I didn’t get my way, I was just going to leave because I’m a big baby who has to get her way and I’m going to let everybody know it because I’m the most important person in this restaurant, and hey that guy at the next table’s head just exploded. Gross. Now, back to me…”

The longer we sat there, inadvertently eavesdropping on this conversation, the more the two of us came to realize we were becoming incapable of doing anything but. Our own thoughts were bullied away, leaving us horsing down our food in joyless silence.

When waiter dropped by to ask if everything was good (I guess: To be honest, although I could see his lips moving, I had no idea what he was saying), we asked for the check and a carryout box. The poor guy seemed confused as to why we were leaving with most of our food in hand instead of in stomach. I would have explained, but don’t think he would have caught a word of it.