November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Category — Nonfiction

Gun Nation, Under God



© 2014 by Larry Vienneau

 Gun National Art


Gun Nation, Under God

America’s Changing Gun Culture

By John Smelcer
Contributing Editor

I’ll preface this memoir with a few declarations. I’m a teacher, and I’ve been shot. I’m also a coward. In the current political climate, it’s too dangerous to be on either side of the fence when it comes to gun control issues. I’m no martyr. I don’t intend to be buried alive in an avalanche of hate mail. I plan to sit on the fence where it’s safe. What I want to do is to tell you about what I’ve witnessed in my own life in an attempt to discover how and when America’s gun fanaticism began.

This is no call to arms (pun intended).

You can’t turn on the television or radio without hearing about a mass shooting at a school, college, or workplace. It is a sad truth that there have been 75 school shootings since Sandy Hook (yet, amazingly, most gun shows are still held in public school gymnasiums). In response to increasingly frequent news, we have added new words like “active shooter” to our lexicon. Most classrooms now have an emergency plan posted for how to respond to an active shooter on campus.

Television, cinema, rap music, and video games have been scapegoats for America’s increased gun violence.

But I’m not convinced that’s where the blame should fall.

I was born half a century ago during the hot summer of 1963. The Cold War was at its height. President John F. Kennedy wouldn’t be assassinated for half a year. Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn’t deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. for another month and a half. And John Wayne still swaggered across the silver screen shooting bad guys by the dozen. It seemed as if every other television show or motion picture was a western or a war movie. Looking back, I’m surprised at how much gun violence I was exposed to in my childhood.

I remember playing Cowboys and Indians or War with neighborhood boys, each of us armed with realistic-looking plastic machine guns and pistols, not like the green, yellow, and orange play guns today. Each came with a limitless supply of ammunition. No need for extra clips or reloading. Up and down our street until supper time could be heard our juvenile skirmishes.

“Bang! Bang! I got you! You’re dead! Here comes the Germans!” (or Japs or Russians; it was, after all, the Cold War) Blast ‘em to hell, Boys!”

Those of us lucky enough even had plastic bazookas and hand grenades.

“Ka-blam! Your legs just got blown off, Jimmy! You can’t run away! Come back here!”

In the absence of plastic grenades, dirt clods served perfectly well. In some ways they were better, especially the way they exploded shrapnel everywhere when they hit the ground.

I fondly recall that I once held back an entire battalion of Nazis all by myself.

Clearly, America in the ’60s and early ’70s was already a gun nation, indivisible from its firearms. And yet there were no mass school shootings or workplace massacres like there are today.

It should be stated from the start that I grew up in Alaska and that I was educated from elementary school through college in that Last Frontier. I’m also a master teacher with twenty-five years of experience in the classroom. In junior high, my brother and I were on the rifle team. Twice a week after school we lugged our .22 caliber target rifles through the school halls to the indoor shooting range for practice (do public schools still have rifle teams?). As far as I recall, no one ever shot anyone else, not even Billy Ackerman who stole my girlfriend, Clancy Monaghan.

In my senior year of high school, during the Reagan years, our school principal knew that I was a marksman and an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting and fishing. In Alaska, many fishermen carry handguns in the event of unexpected, yet not infrequent, close encounters with bears. One day, the principal called me into his office over the school intercom. I wasn’t in any trouble that I knew of — it was my younger brother who usually got called into the principal’s office for fighting or some other infraction — so I entered his office curious to know why I was there.

Mr. Anderson — we’ll call him that because I don’t remember his real name, and I don’t want to get him into trouble (though he’d have to be in his mid-80s by now and long since put out to pasture) — shut the door and closed the blinds that allowed the secretary to see into his office. Our ensuing conversation went something like this:

Principal:        You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you into my office?

Teen Me:        Well . . . I was wondering. Does it have anything to do with the Playboy Magazine stuffed in the library bookshelves between Plato and Plutarch?

Principal:        The wha . . .  where?

Teen Me:        Nothing. Forget I mentioned it. So, what can I do you for?

Principal:        I understand that you are a hunter, that you have guns. Do you have any handguns?

Teen me:         Um . . . um (shifting uncomfortably on the chair). You know it’s against the law to buy or own a handgun until you’re twenty-one, right? I mean . . . I’m still in high school.

Principal:        Of course I know you’re in high school. I’m the principal. But you see, Mr. Smelcer, I plan to go fishing this weekend, and, well, I need a handgun for bear protection. I was wondering if you had a pistol powerful enough to stop a bear.

Teen Me:        I’ll be honest, Mr. Anderson, no pistol is really powerful enough to stop a bear in its tracks.

Principal:        Yes, yes. I’ve heard that before. But a handgun is certainly better than throwing rocks or sticks at the bear.

Teen Me:        I guess. But before you go out into bear country armed with only a handgun, you should first file down the front site.

Principal:        (Perplexed look). Why on earth would I do that?

Teen Me:        So it won’t hurt so much when the bear shoves the barrel up your a . . .

Principal:        Mr. Smelcer! May I remind you that we are in a school? So, do you or don’t you have a gun I could purchase for such a purpose?

Teen Me:        It just so happens that I have a .44 special I picked up somewhere. Now, it’s not a .44 magnum like the one Dirty Harry carried, but it sure beats the hell out of throwing rocks.

Principal:        How much would you be asking for such an item?

Teen Me:        Hmm. How about $225? I got half a box of shells, which I’ll throw in for free.

Principal:        Have.

Teen Me:        Huh?

Principal:        You have half a box of shells, not got. Got is not a word, Mr. Smelcer. Here’s what we’ll do. Bring the gun and ammunition to school tomorrow. Keep it hidden in your locker until I call for you during second period. Stop at your locker on the way to retrieve the, hurumph . . . item. If it’s in good condition, I think we can make a transaction.

Teen Me:        I only take cash. No checks. Nothing personal. 

Principal:        Cash will suffice.

The next day went precisely as planned. Mr. Anderson called me on the school intercom to come to his office. Classmates taunted me thinking I was in trouble again (twice in two days). I enjoyed my new bad boy reputation. I stopped at my locker to collect the item to transact as arranged. After entering his office, Mr. Anderson hastily shut the door and closed the blinds. After some chit-chat and examination of the item, he forked over the cash. There was no bill of sale. This story and the accompanying vivid memories are all I have as proof of the veracity of the event.

But that’s not my only guns-in-schools story.

As often as public schools are involved in shootings nowadays, so too are college campuses. Fast forward to my college years only a few years later. Knowing that I worked part-time in a gun store — the very same gun store that sold a rifle to Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame — a friend who was a mechanical engineering major asked me to speak to the engineering club on campus about the history and technological evolution of firearms. Several days later, I lugged a pile of revolvers, automatic pistols, and rifles, including several assault rifles, across campus to the classroom where the club met. What a sight I must have seemed! Yet, amazingly, no one called 9-1-1 (In contrast, just the other day a student in my public speaking class at a Midwest university asked me if he could bring a rifle to class for his informative speech. I told him that given the current climate on college campuses, I didn’t think it was a good idea. How times have changed). Nowadays, I’d likely be shot on sight by campus police.

Better to shoot first and ask questions later.

In researching for this article, I asked over a hundred people about their position on gun rights. Aside from the expected reply of “It’s our constitutional right,” a resounding and surprising number said it was our God-given right. Their argument went something like this: God made America, and America made the Constitution; therefore, it’s our God-given right to have guns.

To such remarks, I responded that the Founding Fathers, George Washington included, stated explicitly in handwritten papers that our nation was not born from religious principles whatsoever, to which I’d get perplexed looks as if I had just said that the sky is down. Among those polled, there was a great deal of resistance to the notion of regulating the number of firearms an individual can own at one time. The standard reply was that would be an infringement of our God-given right to pursue our happiness. I pointed out that even Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett probably only had one or two rifles, and single-shots at that.

Where in Bible does it say, “Thou shalt possess guns in plenitude”?

Case in point, a state resoundingly rejected legislation to simply limit gun purchasing to one gun a month —twelve guns a year. I don’t know anyone who buys a pair of shoes every month, and yet voters of that state couldn’t live with the notion that they couldn’t buy more than one gun a month. As Americans, we have the right to own a car and to drive it pretty much anywhere we want. No one really complains when states change speed limits or establish seatbelt laws or laws regarding cell phone use while driving. But try to make the slightest change to gun laws… When did America become so resistant to limitations when it comes to guns?

Every man of conscience declares he would give his life to save a child, whether by jumping in front of a moving vehicle or rescuing a child from a burning building. And yet, unbelievably, these same individuals won’t give an inch to limit guns. I’m a father. I’d give up owning a gun for the rest of my life if it saved a single child, mine or yours. To give a child the chance to live a full life, to experience the world, to marvel, to dream, to love, to have a family…

According to recent data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, over 31,000 Americans died in 2010 by firearms, 11,078 of them by gun homicide. That translates to 3.6 people per every 100,000 citizens. In contrast, Canada, which has a gun ownership rate approximately the same as other developed nations, reported a firearm-related-death rate of only 0.5 people per 100,000.

Clearly there’s something happening in America.

I didn’t do a very good job staying centered on the fence. I leaned too far in one direction, tipping my hat, so to speak. But I care about this country. I’m a little worried about us and our future. As Americans, can’t we examine our collective psyche and ask ourselves when and how we became so fanatical about guns. Can’t we even entertain the conversation without people going ballistic? What happened to us? How did we end up where we are? And, most importantly, where do we go from here?


About the author:

John Smelcer is the author of over 45 books, including The Trap, The Great Death, Lone Wolves, and Edge of Nowhere. His writing appears in over 400 magazines, including The Atlantic. You can read more about him in About Us, and at

About the illustrator:

Artist Larry Vienneau is Professor of Art and Seminole State University. He has collaborated with John Smelcer on numerous projects over the past twenty-five years.

October 31, 2014   Comments Off on Gun Nation, Under God

4 Good Books


This Is for Life:

Kathryn Levy’s Disquieting Reports

Review by Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles

Book Title: Reports; Type: Poetry
New Rivers Press, 2013
ISBN #: 978-0-89823-286-8 9  ($14.95)
83 pages; 6″ x 9″
Color: Tan/Cream 

The semi-divine, for some of us, alchemist of language and sentiment, Rainer Maria Rilke, once advised 19-year-old fledgling poet, Franz Kappus, that “nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism.” I take his memorable exhortation to mind as I pick up Kathryn Levy’s newly published second book of poems Reports (New Rivers Press, 2013) and reflect on some of the strange pleasures I found in “art” as showcased in it.


First of all, the volume is slim enough to seem non-threatening when you first see or pick it up. It is also a brief eighty pages of similarly slim, down-the-left-margin-running poems. Its cover is as evocative a cover for a book of poems as I believe any could and should be. And how apropos these initial, superficial observations seem! for in its four-part span, various themes will be tried after: here loneliness, there rage; here love, there the indiscriminate, indistinct sweepings in and out of random indecision or death—or, which is worse (a poem in Reports assures us), even paralysis, a state that takes many forms. The book works as lure. It invites, then beautifully unsettles.

Indeed, Levy’s poems in Reports seem to provide a need as well as create a demand for the book’s well-chosen title, for what is experienced in these poems is the result of intense witnessing, of personal or shared elations, of personal or shared shocks. Many of the poems take hold of a reader and run him/her through a sort of psychic gauntlet, one that is as strangely ravishing as it is intensely frightening.

Four poems from Reports that illustrate what I have tried to phrase adequately are: “In the Place in the Woods”, “Wedding”, “A Wonderful Life” and “Exposed to the Winds.” Each of these briskly paced pieces called out for specific attention, shocking me awake (with harrowing surprise) as did a few other pieces in this disquieting second collection I will not be able to get to at present.

Disquieting is no hyperbole. Levy’s “In the Place in the Woods” proves this from beginning to end. Here is a narrative dilemma, lyrically elided, presenting a child, a woman, a blind man, a not clarified “they” in a sort of “selva oscura” where “the shooting continues.” As if Levy had ripped this poem’s situation right out of our now too-routine for this type of crime headlines, a child “clutches/ rage in his fists” and:

… points
his gun at the sky and
the trees those leaves
the birds who keep flying
for he believes “they/ have to be taught”:
I can’t see
anymore – so I have to hang
onto this gun…

Words like shooting, begs, blind, closet, bends, pounding, clutches, tumbles, explosion, murder, rage, sacrificed, refusing, pokes, hang, gun possess us in unremitting sequence from the first line to the last until we have become every character in the tragic “In the Place in the Woods.” We become the enraged child, the woman who tries to stop and comfort him, the blind man who hides, even the trees, leaves and birds at one remove from their exit. We become, too, the undisclosed “they” − those who witness, those who move on as if “uncaring,” those who must “be taught.” This poem’s great strength, if brevity and pacing are put after, is its inconclusive finger-pointing. Who is at fault for setting innocence to rage? Who is its victim?

Levy’s “Wedding,” a second poem from Reports, moves us from blind rage to a marital celebration. In this also lyrically elided poem, the poet conjures up a common scene – a wedding. Here there is song and dance and ritual “patterns”—here, too, these give way to “the ground/ slipping beneath us” as we are whisked by emotion and metaphor to this startling comparison:

….like watching your wake
as the boat presses

into the wind the sails
swell the hand grasps
the powerful tiller − this
could lead us to death −

for a marriage contract is, in faith and legality, a risk – a departure into deeper, unpredictable waters. And here again the poet “grasps” for grounding and possibly control by locking in on the minister who witnesses, but who also places “hands upon hands” and declares, “…This/ is for life -” Are we at a celebration or arrived at another kind of “wake”? The reader is given no easy or conclusive answer. A marital vow, after all, promises no sureties. By this point readers of Reports can be left feeling as if they had begun a poem by George Oppen or Louise Gluck and arrived somewhere else entirely. Its four times depicted “flowers” seem to conceal more than they decorate.

Who reads to be startled? Who takes his/her time to enact and/or join a poet in such inconclusive witnessing? Perhaps readers who demand, like Levy, that poetry take them to the breath-taking edge, daringly – with nothing freely given or mapped out before or after. Thus “A Wonderful Life,” also in Reports, flashes on and off, and, like a bolt of lightning, dazzles and singes. It begins innocently enough with laughing and “a party at/ Christmas time.” The speaker in the poem ventures to a store and is unable to decide on what to purchase. Why the confusion? Is there nothing left? Is the money at hand too little? Why the anxiety that leads to “Tearing/ the dollars to pieces”? Levy changes voice for pictorial dilemma as economic collapse is considered and distant, Scrooge-like “men with the gold/ bars in their pockets” are judged, even as they are shown:

laughing at a dinner, mumbling at the bedside
of another friend who is dying – and
gripping the bars as tightly as they can…

A line further we read: “In/ this world you have to survive.” Clear accusation also does not assuage in Reports. Instead readers are made to ask, “For What?…For/  what?”

Kathryn Levy’s Reports is a collection of truly risky psychical dilemmas survived; the strange power of the whole, as in its parts, is its brave gleaning into the multifaceted nature of what is ultimately, in our moral-hungry world, termed beautiful or meaningful. Like “Exposed to the Winds,” one of its final poems, asks, “will the storms ever stop?…./….did you think the storms were the worst of night?” The paralyzing answer is “rush through these halls/ to find/ even one sound// they are all gone.” So are clever or tender words to appraise this book of poems. Whoever reads it can either hide in an actual or metaphorical closet like the blind man mentioned earlier or else rise to witness, report.

About Kathryn Levy:

Kathryn Levy is the author of the poetry collections, Reports (New Rivers Press, 2013) and Losing the Moon (Canio’s Editions, 2006), as well as The Nutcracker Teacher Resource Guide (NYC Ballet Education Department, 1996), a guide to poetry instruction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications including Slate, Cimarron Review, Hanging Loose, Provincetown Arts, The Seattle Review, The Minnesota Review, The Southampton Review, and the Manhattan Poetry Review, among others, as well as the anthologies The Light of City and Sea, We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, and Adventures in the Spirit. She has received numerous writing fellowships, including awards from Yaddo, the Blue Mountain Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ragdale Foundation. Levy was founding director of The Poetry Exchange and the New York City Ballet Poetry Project, two poetry-in-the-schools organizations. She divides her time between Sag Harbor and New York City. 

Kathryn Levy’s website for more information:

Kathryn Levy’s email:

About the reviewer: 

Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles is currently a high school teacher and former adjunct professor of writing and literature at Miami-Dade College and St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. He is also an MFA in Creative Writing graduate of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles is a poet, literary critic, translator, plus enthusiastic advocate for peace-making via ecological and spiritual renewal.


 * * *


Whale of Desire, a Jacob’s Wrestle

Review by Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles


Whale of Desire, by Micah Towery; Cat In the Sun Press, 2013
ISBN/EAN13: 099115231X (9780991152315) ($12.00)
76 pages; US Trade Paper, 5.5″ x 8.5″, English, B&W

….What unlike things must meet and mate;
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.

-Herman Melville, from “Art”


I recently read Micah Towery’s first book of poems Whale of Desire (Cat in the Sun Press 2014) and came away from the experience thinking of two key figures: Jacob and Herman Melville. Jacob, of biblical renown, came easily to mind due to the uneasy wrestle between the personal and spiritual observed in the poems of Whale of Desire, moreover, Towerybecause of how Towery attempts to keep these many times dual strains immediate, arresting, fortifying, even while establishing a name for himself. I thought also of Herman Melville, not only because he and his work are alluded to directly and indirectly in the volume, but because Melville’s lines above, taken from his poem/credo “Art,” neatly summarize, for me, the best of what is to be found in Micah Towery’s Whale of Desire, that is, a poet’s wrestle to have the material and transcendental fuse.

That many of the poems in Whale of Desire conjure up a poet/Jacob can be quickly seen in the personal and spiritual “wrestlings with the angel” that turn into poems like “Hunter (Seraph)” and “Moth (Psalm 39).”  In “Hunter (Seraph)” readers come across a man (the poet?) who:

“…enrapts him-
self to staunch the lode
that leaks
out in a cold brume and sags
around him, high in the tree,
where he and his body hang,
in hopes that once today

he’ll spear a searching ray
into some chest –
after which he’ll lay his able back
down and rest…”

Readers are further told that the end of this “staunch” effort, which also mirrors the Passion of Christ and perhaps even the subsequent piercing of his side, is that “searching ray”, which is among “the first/ fruits of them that sleep.” But a “searching ray” to understand himself, others, the divine? For sure all three, but mostly the divine one being addressed as both giver and destroyer of beauty in “Moth (Psalm 39)” where a reader overhears how the divine one snatches:

… away another’s beauty

in gloating silence, leaves us bleached,
belly-up whales on the sand’s ecru…

while a few lines later the same man/moth complains, “Not even a bone to gnaw at when I’m hungry?”, which question leads to the bitter-sweet:

… your beauty
is a bitter sponge of lye you lift up daily
to my mouth, while you consume
me with the blows of your hand – my beauty,
a moth, feeding, still hungry.”

The fusion of actions described above become a startling transformation or revelation, like many others in this book, that brings to mind the Suffering Servant Christ, St. John of the Cross’s moth in “Super Flumina Babylonis” or from Book One (Desire and Detachment) from his Dark Night of the Soul, John Donne’s hammer and anvil in “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God,” several meditations in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and Leda of William Butler Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” a startling revelation or transformation which is uneasily arrived at suddenly, finally, which is “the point” of such a redeeming, though we are not told this directly, struggle.

Two other Jacob’s wrestle lyrics of power and refreshed, even fortifying imagery are “Prologue” and “On The Refrain Taken From An Old Hymn.” In “Prologue”  readers are told quite literally that a “hammer was the face of God” and several lines later “But man tired/ seeing his own face in the face of the hammer, when he met/ the hammer in the cool of the morning,/ every morning,” lines which lead to a wholly original and surprising conclusion. “On The Refrain Taken From An Old Hymn,” the poem that closes this book, the poet tells his soul “Be still” no less than ten times in a poem of twenty three lines and he tells it to be so with deeply sensed and down-to-earth catalogued images like the “condensation on a beer glass,” “my father deep in reading contemplation/ or when napping/ or thick stained glass” or the “way my mother draws blood from her patients.” Whale of Desire closes with ten be stills, but, of course, we come to sense this cannot and will not be so, hence an ongoing wrestling and its tripartite consolation: transformation, revelation, poetry.

Indeed among the highest felicities of Towery’s first book is the rarity of coming across an American writer of any age, male or female, especially one with Christian leanings, who can wrest and share such spiritual grandeur in mostly formal poetry without turning it into the one-scent pleases all potpourri of prevalent consumerist pseudo-mysticism or without rapping one over the head with hand-me-down, splintery ruler platitudes. While Micah Towery’s Whale of Desire also brilliantly engages more day-to-day coming-of-age themes, among them growing up, work, the experiential souvenirs of travel, falling in love, plus a young man’s trying to make sense of things, which more directly honor material pursuits, I revel in the fact that I am left “feeding, still hungry” by the spiritual honesty and mystical questing of this first book. I am tempted to refer loosely to two more figures Whale of Desire made me recall as I close, figures who could lead to another topic completely, Jonah and Jack Kerouac. Those who know these two prophetic figures and who go on to read Whale of Desire will know how, so far, Micah Towery’s trajectory seems to mirror and simultaneously deviate from these figures and their studied, much talked about paths.

About the author:

Micah Towery helps run and teaches at Indiana University – South Bend.

About the Reviewer:

Jorge L. Rodriguez-Miralles is currently a high school teacher and former adjunct professor of writing and literature at Miami-Dade College and St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. He is also an MFA in Creative Writing graduate of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles is a poet, literary critic, translator, plus enthusiastic advocate for peace-making via ecological and spiritual renewal.

 * * *


* * *

The Kidney Sellers:

A Journey of Discovery in Iran

* **

Review by Matthew Ray

The Kidney Sellers: A Journey of Discovery in Iran
by Sigrid Fry-Revere, Carolina Academic Press, 2014

ISBN 978-1-55507-635-4  Hardback $35, 254 pages

A post from Bioethics International on the blog[i] from October 2013 acknowledged, “Paying living donors for their kidneys would reduce the number of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) patients on dialysis and transplant wait lists, and save the healthcare system money.”  What this post does not state is that doing so also has the potential to vastly improve the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people.  With this idea at the fore, Drs. Fry-Revere and Bastani recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with donees, donors, administrators, and overseers of the Iranian system from throughout the country.  Upon their return to the United States, Dr. Fry-Revere’s interns at the Center for Ethical Solutions[ii] began translating the many hours of footage and compiling this information into usable data to garner insight about the Iranian system.

Whereas Dr. Fry-Revere admits that she initially intended to publish this information as a manuscript, the nature of her findings changed that portrayal into one of discourse.  She gives an honest reflection about her pre-conceived notions before and during her trip, and lays out those preconceptions throughout the book as they become applicable.  This presentation lends itself well to gaining an understanding of how the country’s religious and social dogmas direct the mechanism of transplantation, as well as how we as a predominantly Western audience may check our preconceptions while grappling with understanding the book.  Many of the facets of a system espoused as “altruistic” must necessarily discuss socio-political mores of the system in question.  Since Iran is a predominantly Muslim country and seemingly devoid of much “Western” influence[1], the format as a book telling the story intertwined with an expose of the system aids in understanding how Drs. Fry-Revere and Bastani came to their conclusions about the nature and scope of the Iranian system, in addition to its benefits and shortcomings.

The author provide continuous discourse with strong, yet hopeful, condemnation for the US system of organ transplantation.  To quote,

“The United States should be ashamed to be outdone by a country like Iran. This is not to suggest that what Iranian has done is flawless. The Iranians should be more proactive about informed consent and provide life-long health insurance for donors, and [since the systems are regionally governed] some are lacking in the financial and medical resources necessary to make any form of organ-procurement system work. It also would improve the Iranian system if they could find a way to take the bargaining out of living-kidney donation, perhaps by raising the government contribution to the going rate of four or five million tomans [approximately US $50,000, when adjusted for purchasing power parity and the benefits received by donors] so fewer donors will haggle for more, and fewer will feel cheated or undervalued. The United States, on the other hand, could introduce compensated living-kidney donation without facing most of the problems Iran has faced. Unlike Iran, informed consent is already part of the U.S. medical and social ethos, and administratively, paying donors instead of paying for dialysis would be an easy transition.[iii]”

While arguing that neither the American nor Iranian systems are perfect, the author makes powerful, and compelling, recommendations to aid in our plight facing the shortage of adequate transplantable organs.   Given the gravity both in lost quality of life and in financial mismanagement, it seems that our system could greatly benefit from some of their insight.  If we can learn from mistakes made, and adapt our policies to allow for the possibility of compensated donation, then the understanding Dr. Fry-Revere has brought back from Iran could be used to greatly change the way we approach transplantation, and for the better.

End Stage Renal Disease presents an immensely problematic issue in modern medicine.  If we can alleviate some of the bottleneck to advancing our stance on the issue of compensated altruistic living-donor organ transplantation, we can begin to reshape the system of management of these complicated patients.  The Kidney Sellers details a compelling account of not only how we can benefit from the lessons learned in Iran, it also gives us the opportunity to use this information to benefit many, many people in the process.


[1] I say this as a Westerner who has been to the Middle-east on vacation, but never to Iran, and never having lived in a totalitarian state.  I do not have any firsthand experience with the country, and much of my understanding comes from the published news-media and in discussion with acquaintances about the area.

[1] See discussions about the possibility of adapting a compensated living-donor organ transplantation program in the United States for more insight into the debate.

[1] I say this as a Westerner who has been to the Middle-east on vacation, but never to Iran, and never having lived in a totalitarian state.  I do not have any firsthand experience with the country, and much of my understanding comes from the published news-media and in discussion with acquaintances about the area.

[i] 2013/10/paying-kidney-donors-can-save-help-patients/)


[iii] Kidney Sellers, pp. 291

i Kidney Sellers, pp.7

ii Kidney Sellers, pp.8


About the reviewer:

Mat Ray has an MA in Bioethics from NYU, and is in his last year of medical school at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.  He plans to become a full-spectrum family physician and work with the National Health Services Corps to provide medical services to people in  medically under-served communities in the Northwestern regions of the US.  He has worked with the Center for Ethical Solutions since 2009 as an intern, and was promoted to scholar in 2010.  His  interests include understanding how decisions affect quality of life outcomes, and how those surrounding the medical course for death and dying can be better implemented to ensure a peaceful and fulfilling end to life.

* * *



In the Pink

by William Taylor, Jr.

In the Pink, by A. D. Winans
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (January 8, 2014)
ISBN-10: 149475455X ; ISBN-13: 978-1494754556
English, 156 pages, 6″ x 9″ 

Fittingly enough, I read most of In the Pink, A.D. Winans’ first collection of short stories,  in the heart of the San Francisco’s Financial District while on my lunch break.  I sat on a stone bench on Market Street in the midst of a busy afternoon.  I ate my sandwich and watched the people bustling past, imagining any number of them as characters from Winans’ colorful stories.  Today’s  San Francisco has gone through some changes since the incarnation captured in Winans’ tales, but if you dig beneath the surface a bit, you realize most of the difference is superficial.  A city is always in flux, but the people on the streets are its heart, and they tend not to change overmuch. The drunks, the junkies and the crazies crash and rush about me as I eat my lunch, their curses and laughter ringing in my ears.

The majority of In the Pink’s stories take place in San Francisco during the 1960s and 70s and appear in roughly chronological order.  In the first few stories the protagonist appears as a young boy just experiencing puberty and all that goes along with it.  Later we follow him through his young adulthood while serving overseas in Panama, then back to San Francisco as he eases into middle age.

As the title suggests, the common theme in the collection, other than the city of San Francisco itself,  is sexual experience, in all its glory and horror.  In the first story, the narrator is a young man on the edge of puberty, experiencing the wonders of sexual awakening through spending some quality time with his boyhood friend’s stepsister in the backyard tree house.  The experience is humorously awkward though ultimately educational for the narrator, who eventually walks home with the understanding that everything, somehow, had changed.

During the stories set in Panama and eventually back in San Francisco, the sexual encounters remain less than blissful, and have the ring of hard-won truth about them. Winans doesn’t flinch from the messiness of human relations.  Throughout the book we encounter a variety of people, many of them seeking some kind of answer in sex and generally finding only more confusion.  After detailing his first true sexual experience (with a two dollar street whore) the narrator concludes “The whole thing took less than thirty seconds and left me feeling as badly as I have ever felt in my life.”  But the seeker remains undaunted, and moves on to the next bar room, the next bedroom.  By the end of the collection, we’ve encountered enough prostitutes, drunks and just plain crazy folk to populate a Bukowski novel.

And there is certainly a Bukowski influence in these stories.  Winans and Bukowski were friends who corresponded for years, and during the 1970s, Winans published Bukowski’s work extensively through his Second Coming Press.  In the two men’s work you can feel a similar take on the absurdity of the lives of the down and out.  While Bukowski chronicled it in the streets, bars and skid row rooms of Los Angeles, Winans did the same in the City by the Bay.  The specter of Bukowski even makes a brief appearance in one of the more fantastical stories in the collection:  The narrator is spending a harrowing evening with a woman who may or may not be a witch who may or may not possess the power to turn men into living dildos.   As he attempts a hasty retreat, the woman tells him, “You know, I once had a poet named Bukowski, but he escaped.”

The other writer that immediately comes to mind when reading Winans’ work is Jack Micheline, whose writing Winans has longtime championed.  Fittingly enough, and quite by accident, the last book I read before Winans’ was a collection of stories by Micheline, published by Second Coming Press.  Like Winans’, Micheline’s book chronicles the horror and the joy of the lives of artists, bohemians and other outcasts on the fringe of society as they live their chaotic lives in San Francisco.  Micheline’s work shone with an empathy for the mad, the poets, the dreamers and the outcasts.  Winans’ stories come at you from a similar place.  Like Winans, Micheline revealed the soul of San Francisco through the eyes of the downtrodden and lost in his poetry and stories, and through them you can experience the city one again as it was when it was a more hospitable place for poets, artists and others not particularly adept at making the rent.  As well as being entertaining tales in their own right, the stories in In the Pink also make good reading for students of the cultural history of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

While upon the surface some of the stories in the collection might appear samey (narrator drinks in a bar and ends up having an unsettling sexual encounter with someone he meets there), the characters and situations encountered are diverse enough to make each story a unique experience.     The book is branded fiction, but it’s a pretty safe bet to assume that the majority of the pieces are largely autobiographical.  In Roses Trapped in Cubes of Ice, one of the early stories made up of a powerful collage of images from various moments of a life, the narrator incriminates his grandmother for the fact of his becoming a writer: “She bought me my first typewriter, and told me to become a writer.  I don’t know whether to thank or curse her.  All I ever wanted to do was retire.”  In my mind, I hear these words coming, in perfect dead-pan fashion, from Winans’ own mouth while sipping a beer somewhere in the Mission neighborhood which, along with North Beach, provides the settings for many of the stories in the collection.

Like much of Bukowski’s work, Winans’ stories are crafted with simple and effective unadorned prose.  The unmistakeable music of spoken language flows through these stories.  From beginning to end, In the Pink is a solid, entertaining read that manages, with a unique voice, to capture the spirit and the people of a San Francisco that doesn’t quite exist anymore.  Or maybe does, if you know the right neighborhoods.



About the Reviewer:

William Taylor Jr. is a Pushcart Prize nominated poet. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and a cat named Trouble. His work has been widely published in the small press and across the internet in such publications as Poesy, Anthills and The Chiron Review. He is the author of several chapbooks and his latest books are So Much Is Burning (sunnyoutside, 2006) and Words For Songs Never Written, (Centennial Press, 2007).    




August 29, 2014   Comments Off on 4 Good Books

Christopher Panzner / Nonfiction

Georges Seurat/Google Images


“A Tati Moment”

by Christopher Panzner

We walked down to the lake to have a picnic on an isolated, rare-for-France empty bench. It was so close to the edge of the water we could almost dangle our feet in with a stretch. We settled in, ripped into the baguette and faked it with some ham tranches and a flat brick of fresh Gruyère from the riverside market in the “Venice of Haute Savoie,” Annecy. Off to the left, a small efficiently-built municipal dock with four or five tiny or two-man skiffs tied up. Before us, the placid expanse of mountain lake on a gorgeous day, a few Sunday boaters here and there – the women rowing, this is France – far enough out to be a part of the lakescape, objects. And those even rarer Latin commodities of peace, quiet and space.

La la la… puffy cotton clouds, iris-blue sky, my girl, my sandwich, hours to kill.

From the periphery, under the temple of my sunglasses, the bow of a row boat slid into view from beneath the overhanging limbs of the sparse but leafy trees. Gradually, the shiny white hull of a brand spanking new, canoe-sized, flat-bottomed wooden toy slipped into full view, the bony figure of a middle-aged man rowing, his blanched napkin-white back to us. With amateur, elliptical strokes, the French fry arms dipped, splished and struggled with the tubular metal oars (tipped with white plastic paddles) in the locks, the crunch of bread crust and jawing of cheese providing the ambient soundtrack in my sun-dulled skull.

The first fissure in the tableau of apparent normalcy was… the captain’s hat. Even though habituated after twenty-something years in-country to the French penchant for buying the entire panoply of catalogue outfit, equipment and sundry frivolous accoutrements for any sporty outing, the accessory caught my now policing eye. A cursory inventory of his ensemble and the bristol vessel revealed what’s known in Yankee predatory retailing as a “sales job.” The hat, semiotically-speaking, indicating not only the unfortunate meeting of too big a budget with monstrous self-indulgent naiveté, but a rare bird, a wild hair, a Lilliputian Narcissus. In one fluid movement, the muscles of my face twisted into a bemused question mark, I bowed my head and peeped over my sunglasses sideways at my young French wife. Behind dark plastic lenses, onomatopoeia: crunch, chew, chew, chew, chew, swallow (pause, repeat.) “Nothing unusual here” answered the only slightly-lifted eyebrows.

Our protagonist, methodically awkward, clumsily paddled his way backwards through things that go bump in the day as we watched from balcony seats. Oblivious to our presence – our existence, even (characteristic of the self-consumed) – the dapper Argonaut made his triumphant return to terra firma, met at the quai with the deafening applause of… cicadas.

Tying up – or, at least, thought he was tying up – to a small, conical, anchored plastic red and white buoy nearby, he maneuvered parallel to the dock to disembark (etymological precision notwithstanding, only partially accurate in fact.) Starting with the oars, he then set down a tackle box, a duffle bag, and various other sparkling, anal-retentive kit with the precision of the Swiss. Then stood. Yes, stood, bolt upright in the middle of the small craft, miraculously defying the laws of equilibrium, the entirety of my own nautical experience (having grown up on the water), and brute common sense. I dabbed at my smile after finishing my sandwich, cracked open the Evian, took a swig and passed it, then settled in for what was certain to be a classic Slapstick highlight of my afternoon.

Our hero – our Osgood Fielding, our Harold Lloyd, our very own Monsieur Hulot – had other, grander ideas, however. Moments are the domain of the unwitting, victims of circumstance, accident; cameos on the stage of life, child’s play. No, what happened next was Comedy, Tragedy’s twin, the stuff of true plebeians (the Greeks, Shakespeare, Molière, Jerry Lewis) and possibly the most challenging theatrical art form there is. What followed was the work of a true artiste, an anonymous genius, a maestro; a nimble funambulist’s slippered foot on the slack rope between success and utter failure.

Know what the key to great – timing! – comedy is?


At close to 2 meters, the captain was approximately as tall as the small boat was long. Mathematically, the chances of not falling in the water fully-clothed were slim to naught. Physics having its own peculiar relation to risk, as luck would have it the sailor “fell” with a step to the dock. (Nervous giggling and reverse whistling together, rare even for the circus, is especially rare for an audience of two.) The tease of anticipation had temporarily blinded me to the other, deeper mysteries of human foible, however… but my disappointment was fleeting. As myriad other occult but punishingly real laws of Newtonian physics came into play, the true essence of Comedy began to emerge: it has a “logical” basis. Meaning, if your assumption is erroneous but you dogmatically apply the ironclad logic of the mathematician and the empiricism of the scientist, no matter what your conclusion, it will be absurd.

But Nature will not suffer fools.

Nadja Asghar IllustrationStraddling the ever-increasing gap between the boat and the dock, the skipper became aware of the alarming logical consequences of the growing distance beneath him and the pain in his stretching gracili, the inner thigh muscles normally used for squeezing the legs together and now useless for their intended purpose. Looking down as his mind raced with solutions, the hat slid off the balding crown of his head and hit the water – blop! – “butter side up.” Giggles turned into chuckles and head-shaking. Helpless to pick it up without falling into the water – only narrowly averted mere seconds before but now with the prospect of falling ass over tea kettle – the handsomely crafted white-with- black-patent-leather-brim-and-stitched-anchor-emblem chapeau drifted on its top between split legs and behind him, eased out by the wavelets produced by the rocking of the boat onto the lake. Abandoning it temporarily to deal with more pressing matters, lightning mental calculation now meant choosing between the dock and the boat, with the caveat being that if he chose the dock, the boat would drift away (ergo, somehow getting wet to retrieve it); and if he chose the boat… unfortunately, circumstances would not permit going to the end of the reflection. He chose the boat, landing with a thud in a squat after a deft two-step, hands on the rolling gunwales.

Three minds, suddenly thinking as one, became simultaneously aware of a rift, a tear in the cosmic curtain, a tragic oversight in the chronological re-ordering of the universe: the oars had been the first to go ashore. Now sitting squarely beyond reach, the captain assessed the damage, disparagingly alone in his lifeboat. Smirks were exchanged by two of the three minds, the third forced to deal with yet another drama slowly unfolding: in order to secure a ring to the buoy, little known to the uninitiated,  the hinged bolt on the “C”-shaped ring had to be screwed tight (to complete the reverse “D”) or it would not hold. Although our novice seaman had surely secured his line with one of the complex knots he had no doubt seen neatly affixed to a varnished oak plaque in some harbor curio shop and had no doubt practiced unceasingly (to avoid ridicule from seasoned fellow seadogs), the hardware had not come with instructions. This unfortunate contingency meant that the now oar-less boatswain was soon to be truly adrift, the knotted bolen on the end of the bow line, with a dip of the buoy and a discreetly audible cling, slipping from the ring and into the water. With deadpan, mime-like gestures, he pulled the rope back into the boat, stowed it and pondered.

The pause and deafening silence almost betrayed us as we struggled to remain anonymous, voyeurs, having simultaneously concluded that the only way to avoid detection was to stifle our laughter in each other’s arms. Bursts of muffled guffaws were interrupted only to eye-check the progress, his mental processing of the scope of the calamity. Undaunted and, apparently, still unaware of his appreciative audience, Capitaine Haddock drifted some distance from the dock, swept along by a meek but determined current.

Our laughter, now tinged with pathos, somewhat subsided. Alas, the intermission was soon to end.

Imperturbable, the seaman – having been defrocked from captain to simple deckhand–pushed up the sleeves of his double-breasted, brass-buttoned, epauletted waistcoat and went to work with a will. Unable to reach both sides at the same time, he paddled on one and then the other with his hands, getting soaked and, on his knees, dirty in the bargain, succeeding only in zigzagging further from his destination. Humiliated at the indignity of the task his cruel mistress, the Sea, was imposing on him – or Vanity finally getting the best of him since someone, somewhere, on his way home or, heaven forbid, at home, would have to see him filthy and soggy (no one dressed as he was would have thought to bring a change of clothes) – he paused to collect his tortured thoughts and consider the options.

What I learned about Slapstick from this man’s gift, up to this point, was extraordinarily simple: set up an ordinary situation with an extraordinary accent (i.e., a peacock in a hen house); have a theme (“The Colossal Vanity of Man”) and sub-theme (“Ineptitude”); keep it simple, but elaborate (“e-la-BOR-ate,” not “e-labrit”); and pile on just enough consequences to prolong the action not stop it.

But the key, finally, is to take your time… because the payoff is all in the rhythm.

And to that cue, our obliging leading man grabbed his shiny new “snag” (a short aluminum pole with a hook on the end to catch up lines) and started furiously raking, windmilling his way back to the dock; punting, as it were, without the advantage of touching bottom… allegrissimo. Finally, with the head of steam you could muster with a pool cue for an oar, he made it. Fortunately for us, too, since we were out of breath, having clapped and thumped one another on the back in repressed, convulsive laughter for the duration of the cruelly comical final act.

Once safely back at the mooring, our intrepid adventurer tended to unloading the remaining gear from the boat and set about fixing the buoy. He tightened the bolt on the C-ring and, when satisfied that it would hold, set the wrench back on the dock. The seamanship learning curve being what it is, he was soon aware of yet another academic but unwritten rule of thumb: always place things down perpendicular to the dock since there are spaces between the boards (in this case, just wide enough to accommodate the thickness of the wrench if set down, by some casino odds, on its side, exactly parallel to the boards and dead center in that space.) Ba-loop! It was more than we could take but we bit our lips and held on for dear life. After some prolonged and careful consideration, our mariner left the only-once-used wrench where it lay (and where it probably lies to this day), packed up and, his arms overflowing with gear, limped off inland.

As the sun began to duck behind the mountains, bringing dusk hours early, the curtain fell on a lone, white captain’s hat bobbing in the middle of the lake… a gift, a lesson and a warning.


Illustration by Nadja Asghar

About the author:

Christopher Panzner is an American writer, illustrator and  fine artist who lives and works in Paris. For many years he worked in the film and television industry, essentially in European animation. Three animated features he contributed to, double Oscar-nominated The Triplets of Belleville, Venice Film Festival selection The Dog, the General and the Pigeons,and Blackmor’s Treasure (as Associate Producer), were part of an eight-film retrospective of contemporary French animation at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006 called “Grand Illusions: The Best of Recent French Animation.” He currently illustrates books of contemporary poetry, classics, and is the creator and Editor-in-Chief of LHOOQ magazine. 

“A Tati Moment” is the first in a collection of short stories by the author called SLOW.


September 25, 2012   Comments Off on Christopher Panzner / Nonfiction