San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Muzzled by History

Since the days of Alexandria, that legendary city of cosmopolitan education and intellectual commerce, the great pendulum of world history has swung into and out of a Dark Age, climbed to its zenith in the Renaissance and is now barnstorming the backswing domain of our Age of Technology. If there is a poster child for opportunism, for carpe diem puppetry, it is the pendulum of history. It's got a full head of steam these days, as we can see by the rapdily changing artifacts of our present electronic heritage. So it moves now with an inexorable force and dutifully plunges history toward yet another Dark Age. As it must. What else can an echo do?

Bush seems to be the new Christian face of fear, the same fear that had Theophilus I heap the cultural scrolls of Alexandria on the cella of the library and touch them off with a torch. Faith, intolerance, zealotry, patriotism, superstition, the sanctity of blood and gods, jingoism and economic expansion are features of this fear, which is the mainspring behind the movement of the historical pendulum. And the latest flavor of fear, ancillary to a culture's position along the mirrored arcs of history, can be determined by conversations in the street.

Patriotism, along with the flowering of its rectangular fabrics above rooflines and town squares, is one of fear's favorite filibusters. It keeps the historical pastiche bubbling until the pendulum can reach its appointed position. Other barometer whistleblowers are libraries that rattle with empty spaces, bookstores struggling to pay rents, daytime operas called Oprah Winfrey or Jerry Springer, and cafe conversations that assiduously avoid philosophical or artistic topics. But nothing says 'Dark Age' quite so concisely as an obsession with firearms. And in this disposition the United States leads the world. To hell with Shakespeare and Keats, the single syllable eloquence of a gun muzzle is enough for them. And of course when everyone is packin', a wholesale lunacy of apprehension sweeps the country.

It's easy to see one's own death in this weatherchange of paranoia and neuroses. The prevailing images and celebration of American hoodlumology in theatres, television, books, rap and narco corrido lyrics, are easy prognosticators. And as these dehumanizing iocns are exported to the furthest outposts of the planet, worry and angst take root in other cultures, if only as a demonstrated horror for American violence and brutishness.

I've seen my own death. And it is intimate with the great North American aptitude for dislocation. Our culture, largely thanks to technology, can make a living from almost anywhere in the world. So despite our flags and heritage, we embrace an ambulant lifestyle. We are the new Huns, Mongols and Tartars. We conquer with laptops and cell phones. We carry a gene that continually changes its shape along the course of history's pendulum. The gene of the nomad. And it seems in these times there is no Passover in its heart. It infects the first born. The second and third too. We are as migratory as rumors.

I myself am about to make a move to a new neighborhood. I recently met my future neighbor, a big man with a furrow over his eyes and an accent that suggested a banjo somewhere in his family's DNA. He is an American. He is intolerant. And he loves guns.

One afternoon we talked among a summer crop of Mexican flies while his dog wetted my car tires.

"I'm getting the paperwork done for my guns," he informed me. "They'll all be legal."

"That's nice," I replied. What else can one say to something like that? He gauged me with a glance then leaned toward my shoulder, where he delivered the following casual survey.

"Do you like shooting dogs and cats?"


"Do you like shooting dogs and cats?"

I looked at him, decided he wasn't joking and said, "Well, no."

The man sat back in his chair. "Oh," he muttered, obviously disappointed he had not skillfully recognized a fellow naturalized citizen of flintlocklandia.

Some months later I was playfully relating this encounteer to another American, one I had similarly misread.

"Wait a minute," he interrupted. "He's getting permits for his guns?"

"That's right."

"But I thought you could only own a shotgun in Mexico."

"Apparently you can register other calibers," I reported. "The guy showed me a list of weapons he was legalizing."

The American's eyes glazed in private revery. "I'll have to look into that." he said quietly, more to himself than anyone else in the room. Then he turned to a fellow American at the gathering and the two of them had a long conversation about shooting doves and quail. I was suddenly orphaned by my distinctly unAmerican disinterest in hand-held weapons of mass destruction.

Yes, I have seen my own death. The mental image of my new neighbor skulking around the peripheries of his property with his legal firearm cradled in his hands. It's a dirge-like vision I can't seem to escape, a fate as inimitable as the arc of history's pendulum. Mexican gun laws might as well be a Do Not Walk on the Grass sign hung next to an exit door of a football stadium just moments before someone pulls the fire alarm.

Here's the way it's going to end, and it will have everything to do with a chronic back problem that can suddenly and unceremoniously drop me to my knees like a sidewalk placcard in a high wind.

I'll go outside one evening to look at the stars. My neighbor, in a fit of American bloodlust, will be hidden in the shadows, wearing a deerstalker and a Fennimore Cooper squint. There'll be visions of stray dogs and cats running past his mental crosshairs. And maybe a dove or two. As I tilt my neck back to get a better view of the Milky Way my back will short cirtuit and I'll drop to my hands and knees. My neighbor will hear the noise and angle toward it.

"Frank, it's me! My back's out!"

But it'll be too late. And I'll become just another Alexandrian scroll touched off by Christian zealotry when my neighbor grins and opens fire.