Running with the hawks

All last year I ran less than in recent years. Initially it was simply because of all the walking to prepare for our big hike. A very long walk takes a very long time, so it was harder to fit in runs. Plus, I learned the hard way that after a very long walk I’m prone to injure myself if I try to run too soon.

I didn’t want to quit running. I enjoy running, and I want to be able to run, both of which seem like good reasons to run. So what I did was drop most of my short and medium runs in favor of walks, but keep the (ideally) weekly long run.

Over the winter I haven’t been getting my long runs in weekly. I’ve just been running when the weather made it seem like it would be fun, which has worked out to just a couple of times a month.

Yesterday was one of those times.

Fairly often I see wildlife when I’m out running in the woods and prairie near Winfield Village. Unless it’s a turtle, I don’t usually manage to get a picture, but yesterday there was a hawk on a branch directly over the trail, and he sat there long enough that I did mange to get a photo (at the top of the post).

Of course, it’s almost pointless to take a picture of a bird unless you have a very long lens, but here’s the photo anyway—zoomed in enough that you can tell that I actually did see a hawk.

zoomed hawk

Walking to Rivendell

I like to have something around which to organize my walking. Training for our big Kalamazoo to South Haven hike worked great, but having completed that I was looking for something new.

Via Nerd Fitness’s How to walk to Mordor page, I found this little page on Walking to Rivendell, and I think that just might be what I was looking for.

Way back in 2003, some clever people got the idea to go through The Fellowship of the Ring (and a handy Atlas of Middle Earth) and note down all the legs of Frodo’s journey from Hobbiton to Rivendell. Then, as they did their own daily walking, they tracked their progress, noting each milestone as they passed it. (Five miles along; crossed the Great Road from the Brandywine Bridge and entered Tookland.)

Jackie doesn’t seem to have the same strange urge I do to organize walks around some arbitrary or fantasy goal, but she has embraced the idea with some enthusiasm, and decided that we should begin at the beginning and follow the path of Bilbo’s journey to Rivendell. It begins with a hurried dash from Bag End to The Green Dragon in Bywater, then down the Great East Road to a camp site a couple of miles past the three farthing stone, for a total of 11 miles.

We won’t match Bilbo’s journey day by day, but we thought we’d at least start with an 11-mile walk to get into the spirit of the thing.

So yesterday we did.

To make the mileage come out right (and to avoid a boring bit of the walk that we do all the time), we took the bus to campus and started our walk there.

From the Research Park (just across the street from my old office) we walked through campus and on to the Urbana Library (where we returned a library book and checked out another), then went across the street to Lincoln Square Village where we had lunch in their little food court. We went back to the library where we split a brownie for desert and lingered over coffee. Then we headed west across the north end of campus, paused briefly in the Engineering Quad so I could play just a bit of Ingress, and proceeded to the water amenities at 2nd street.

We’d had lunch early, so it was at just about this point that the vitamin D window opened. It was preternaturally warm and sunny, so I took off my jacket and put it in my pack and we spent a half hour or so comprehensively walking the paths through both halves of the water amenities (with my arms exposed to the deadly ultraviolet light of the sun) before heading on to downtown Champaign. We walked through West Side Park, near our 2014 summer place, and then turned south and walked past our 2014–2015 winter palace.

Not far south of there, we passed a house where the grassy verge between the sidewalk and the road was filled with these tiny ceramic houses:

img_20160130_140716526_24689044956_o

Not exactly Rivendell’s last homely house, but I felt they were adequately in the spirit of elven houses anyway.

From there we proceeded to Hessel Park, and thence along familiar paths to home.

I neglected to run Endomondo, but Google Fit claims I walked 11.1 miles.

It was a great walk! Jackie had a sore shoulder and didn’t want to carry a pack, so I carried not only the library book, but also the first aid kit, our lunches, and water for two.

Jackie with our water bottles
Jackie with our water bottles

Speaking of water, last year Jackie bought one of these Camelbak water bottles, and was very pleased with it. I was happy enough using bicycle-style water bottles. But—by sheerest happenstance—the kindly admins at Wise Bread gave me (as a thank-you gift for being one of their writers) the exact same water bottle as Jackie’s—except that mine has the Wise Bread logo.

These bottles are a little bigger than the ones I carried last year. That together with the library book made my pack a little heavier—enough to be noticeable, but not too much for a walk to Rivendell.

I wore my minimalist boots, which seemed like a nice compromise between my regular hiking boots and going barefoot like a hobbit. In the summer I plan to get back to barefoot walking in a big way (although it may be a while before I’m taking my long walks barefoot).

More gamifying exercise—and life

Via an Art of Manliness podcast interview with Steve Kamb, I just learned about his new book Level Up Your Life. The book is just out, so it’s not so surprising that I hadn’t been aware of it before, but I’m a bit surprised that I hadn’t been more aware of the author’s website Nerd Fitness, which has been around for a while.

The site can’t be completely new to me: my browser remembers that I previously visited the definitive guide to parkour for beginners page, but I must have been totally focused on parkour that day, because I didn’t notice that the site is also full of other stuff that is very much my sort of thing: gamifying exercise (and life).

I haven’t read the book, but the interview laid out the case for how gamification can help you succeed, and not just at exercise. Kamb described how to use the motivational tricks of video games—that ones that keep you playing for one more minute, and then one more level, and then one more quest—and apply them to real life. Figure out what you want to do, and then divide those big goals into quests. Just like in a game, design a series of sub-quests, each one designed to give you the skills and experience to accomplish the next sub-quest, until finally you’re ready for the final level, where you face the biggest challenges, and overcome them.

It works great for fitness, where you can set a whole series of fitness goals, but the author was clear that it worked just as well for non-fitness goals. He talked in particular about international travel—that he wanted to do, but found intimidating, and that he approached by designing a series of trips that let him overcome one daunting aspect at a time (distance, foreign language, traveling alone, etc.). He also talked about learning to play a musical instrument, and then leveling up to where he could perform for an audience.

As someone who does just a little gamification of his own life, I got a bunch of useful ideas from the interview.

One I liked was a way to help you divide your attention among the inevitably many high-priority items in your life: the classic comic book trick of a secret identity. By day, a mild-mannered cubicle worker; by night, a secret agent honing his parkour skills for when he’ll need them to complete his mission (and survive the aftermath). Just like any superhero, you need to give both parts of your life the full attention they’re due.

Another was to use a trick nabbed from games for designing rewards for successfully leveling up: Instead of rewarding yourself with a taste of failure (such as rewarding yourself for losing weight with a supersized fast-food meal), do what video games do: give yourself a reward that improves your chance of success with the next quest. If your quest was to learn how to cook, reward yourself at level 5 by buying a really good chef’s knife, and then at level 20 by traveling to France for a workshop at a world-class cooking school. If you pay careful attention to this as you design your series of sub-quests—instead of just making it up as you go along—I can see you drastically increasing your chance of success at many of the harder sub-quests (because you have provided yourself with the right tool), while simultaneously saving a bunch of money.

Another is to gather allies for your quest. It is very hard to succeed in any area of your life unless the people around you are also successes in their lives. There is a certain temptation to be a big fish in a small pond—to gather people around you that you’re superior to—but then you don’t have people you can rely on when you face problems you can’t handle. There is also the temptation to let people who are better than you do for you what you can’t do yourself—but what would their motivation be? Just as in a multi-player video game, in real life you’re better off (and have more fun) if you have a team of people at about your level. If you’re a beginner, you certainly want a few higher-level players to help, and it’s always okay to have a few lower-level players that you can mentor. Ideally—and it often works out this way in practice—everyone will be better than you at some things and not as good at others. Then you can both help one another out; both learn from one another.

Those are just the things I remember from the interview, there’s more to it than that.

It sounds like a great book. I’ll have to get a copy, and I’ll also have to take a closer look at both Nerd Fitness and the book’s companion site Level Up Your Life.

Winter fitness goal: Building strength for parkour

A year or more ago, I came upon a pretty good article (linked at the bottom of this post) with some good, basic exercises intended to provide a base for parkour training. I’d had it in my head to do those exercises last winter and be ready to do some serious parkour training in the spring. I even did some. Then spring came, and I realized that I hadn’t done them consistently enough to have done myself much good. I felt like I’d wasted the winter.

I ended up not pursuing parkour the way I’d planned, mainly because I didn’t want to risk even minor injuries during the run-up to our big Kal-Haven Trail walk, but also because I really didn’t have the base to train seriously.

I want to avoid that this year, so I thought I’d sketch out a plan for building my base for parkour—and as long as I was doing that, I figured I might as well document it here for easy reference.

To help me focus, I’m holding the list to just four things (on top of my usual walking, running, taiji, etc.).

Squatting

My goal here is to get to where I can do a full, deep squat, and then hang out comfortably in that position. I can get down into a deep squat, but to do so I have to curl forward and stretch my arms forward, to get my center of balance over my feet and not topple over backwards. I’m pretty sure this is due to flexibility issues, rather than strength issues.

I came across a pretty good page on diagnosing and addressing squat flexibility issues, which would have me believe that tight calf muscles and tight hip-flexor muscles are likely culprits.

I’m already doing calf stretches, both straight-knee and bent-knee. I’ll try and be a bit more consistent about that.

The suggested exercise for hip flexors is a crescent lunge, which looks pretty good. Based on other stuff I’ve read, I suspect that I also want to work on releasing my psoas, so I’ll include that as well.

me squattingIn addition to all this prep work, I’ll also spend some time squatting with some sort of support or another. I know three ways to do this. First, elevate the heels, so that calf tightness doesn’t limit the squat. Second, just hang onto something (like a door frame or a tree trunk) so that I can avoid toppling backwards. Third, do goblet squats, where the weight of the dumbbell works to shift my center of gravity forward.

I might also try prisoner squats. I won’t be able to go all the way down, but it’ll give me a chance to keep my back nice and straight, and then see how low I can go with a straight back.

Success will be when I can get all the way down with a straight back, and then use my hands to manipulate things that are nearby.

Toe Stretches

Last summer, when I started doing some barefoot walking for the first time in years, I was surprised to discover how much a lack of toe flexibility was limiting me. It interfered with quadrupedal movement in particular, but also all sorts of transitions to and from a standing position while barefoot.

quadrupedI’ve started working on toe flexibility. My main exercise so far is assuming quadruped position, and then—keeping my weight back on the balls of my feet—sinking my knees toward the ground. When I find the spot where my weight shifts forward onto the toes themselves, I ease off.

Along with that, I’m doing other foot mobility exercises: Lifting my toes individually, spreading my toes, relaxing my foot enough that it can conform around objects, etc.

Last summer I did quite a bit of barefoot walking, and was surprised and kind of sad to find that a few decades of wearing shoes seemed to have fused my feet into solid lumps.

Success will be when I can keep my weight back on the balls of my feet and still get into position for things like planks, push-ups, and lunges.

Hanging

Hanging from a bar or a branch is one of the things I got started on last winter, and then got distracted and wasn’t consistent about.

hangingLonger term, I want to be able to do pull-ups, but hanging is the place to start. I had worked up to hanging for 30 seconds last summer, but I did a bit of hanging yesterday and found that about 15 seconds was as long as I could manage. I’m ahead of where I started—a few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to support my weight with my hands; I’d have been afraid to even try, for fear that I’d hurt something. Still, not being able to hang for even 30 seconds is discouraging. (Not to mention life-threatening, if I find myself in an action movie.)

The progression is straightforward: hanging, then negative pull-ups (where you use a step to get up to the top of pull-up position, then lower yourself), then pull-ups. From what I’ve read, once you can do a 10 or 12 negative pull-ups, you can probably do a pull-up. We’ll see.

I don’t have a perfect situation for this: The benches in the fitness room here are too low to get me up to the top of pull-up position. I can probably use one or another of the pieces of playground equipment. I looked yesterday, but the most likely playground had kids playing at it, so I didn’t try.

Being able to do a pull-up is a key capability for various parkour moves, such as wall climbs.

Success will be a single pull-up in good form from a dead hang.

Wall Dip

This is where you put your hands on top of a wall and use them to push yourself up—like a push-up, but with your feet unsupported. I can currently do about one rep of this.

The progression for working up to these is just doing a wall support, where you hold yourself up in the top position.

I don’t know of a good wall for doing this exercise anywhere in Savoy, which seems odd. I wonder if architecture and construction fashions have changed—campus is full of low walls that are prefect for this sort of thing.

wall supportHappily, the edge of the window seat in my study is an adequate support, so there’s a spot to do this that’s literally less than one step away from where I’m sitting as I type this. It’s not a perfect spot, because it’s kind of low, so I have to bend my knees to get my feet off the ground, which means that I can’t use my feet against the wall to help. That’s fine for practice wall supports and wall dips, but it means that I don’t have a good place to transition my practice to more specific parkour skills like wall climbs.

Success will be when I can do a dozen or so wall dips with good form.

So, that’s my winter parkour-prep program. With some consistency, I should come into the spring with enough strength and flexibility to jump right into serious training on parkour-specific moves.

Just for completeness, here’s the article I mentioned at the beginning, with a set of basic exercises for building strength for parkour training. I almost didn’t link to it because I don’t like the title, but it’s really pretty good.

Movement in 2015

This was the year that Jackie and I finally managed our long-planned  day-hike of the Kal-Haven Trail: 33.4 miles from Kalamazoo to South Haven. It took three years to make the fitness piece and the schedule piece come together close enough to the summer solstice that we could complete the hike in daylight.

That project dominated my movement practice for the year, especially because I was being so careful not to injure myself, out of fear that an otherwise-minor stubbed toe or turned ankle or bruised heel might make the hike impossible, meaning a delay of yet another year.

Another thing that happened is that my taiji teacher asked me to take over teaching his classes. I was already teaching some last year, and since September, I’ve been teaching all of them.

Now at the end of the year, I’ve had another little project: trying to get in 90 minutes of movement every day in December. That started off great: in the first three weeks I only missed 2 days. It rather tapered off in the week of Christmas itself (missed 5 days), but I got back with it this last week to finish the year strong.

I haven’t previously written annual review posts of my movement practice, and it would be pointless to try to create them retroactively. But I did want to trace the key turning points that brought me here. If you’d asked me 8 years ago if I’d be a taiji instructor I’d have dismissed the notion out of hand, and when I’ve tried in the past to remember how I got here, I had trouble remembering. However, I have written plenty of posts on those topics. I’ve used those posts to try to reconstruct my journey from trying to get fit through exercise to simply trying to get plenty of diverse movement.

I’m a bit unsure where to start. I always tried to “get enough exercise,” even before I started thinking through what “enough” would be (and long before I came to think that “exercise” wasn’t the best way to think about it). A few datapoints:

  • I have a running log from 1991, a year in which I lost a good bit of weight and ran enough to be able to complete a 5.5-mile trail race. I hurt my Achilles tendon, and by the time it healed (many months later) I was completely out of shape.
  • I have notes in my Clarion Journal about running in the summer of 2001, and I ran enough in 2003 that some of that fitness carried forward—in 2004 I came into the spring with enough fitness that I was able to complete a 7.1-mile trail race in June.
  • In that same period, I was bicycling a lot—it was something I could do with Jackie, who doesn’t care to run. I found that bicycling to work let me replace my 20-minute commute with a 25-minute bike ride, meaning that I got 50 minutes of aerobic exercise with just an extra 10 minutes per day. Bicycling home was also a great way to decompress at the end of a day at work. In the summer of 2005, Jackie and I spent a couple of months training for, and then rode together, a century ride.

At each of those peaks, I averaged about 100 minutes of exercise per day, which was what I could fit into a week when I had a regular job. (During most of that period, I didn’t tend to count walking as exercise unless I went out for a long hike on trails, an error that I gradually corrected over the next few years.)

I have a rather sad post from April of 2008 in which I lament my failure to take advantage of the extra time I should have had, once I quit working a regular job, because I was spending so much time writing. (I was writing about 5 posts a week for Wise Bread in that period, and also working on a novel.) I resolved to “make exercise–that is, fitness–my number 1 priority.”

In drafting this post, I wrote a long history of my movement practice as documented in my blog here, but I can’t imagine it’s of any interest to anyone but me, so I stuck it off in a text file. Instead, here are the key turning points:

And that brings us up to 2015.

In March I had a practice session with the parkour club at the University. I intended to go back (and still mean to), but haven’t made it yet. This was also around when I first heard about MovNat and natural movement as a thing.

In May I wrote the post that I guess I’ve been groping towards here: Human movement capabilities, talking about my journey from “getting enough exercise” to moving like a wild human.

I expect next year will be a lot like this year. We won’t have a 33.5 mile hike, but I’m sure we’ll have several in the 15–20 mile range. I’ll run. We’ll probably get our bikes out again. I’d like to get back to train with the parkour club again.

Over the winter, I’m planning to work on a few basics.

For the lower body, I want to get to the point where I can comfortably squat—where I can hang out in a squat and do stuff. I want to develop some extra toe flexibility, so I can do the quadrupedal movement thing barefoot.

For the upper body, besides the quadrupedal movement (which turns out to be a really excellent whole-body exercise, as well as being useful), I want to do more hanging. I have no idea how long it will take to get from hanging to pullups, but I’m planning to get it done.

It was interesting to see that my exercise regimen from 2012—the one that prompted me to declare victory—is not actually too different from what I do now. I do five hours of taiji each week, rather than just three. I try to walk 90 minutes every day, rather than 60 minutes just four days a week. I’ve shifted to body-weight exercises instead of weights or machines. (I’ve also gotten a bit lazy about the weights. This winter I’ll step that up.)

Writing in 2015

For various reasons, my fiction output has been small.

I didn’t finish the novel, which a year ago I thought was nearly done. What happened was that, as my rewrite approached the end, I realized that the end I had was totally wrong for a novel.

The ending in the zeroth draft was full of implications, which can work great in a short story—the reader ends up knowing that things are going to go a certain way, without the story actually walking them through all the scenes to get there.

A novel is different. Those scenes should be there. As as I started to write them, I realized that things would not go as I’d implied they would. So I would have to figure out the new ending, and write it, and then go back and change a whole bunch of stuff that had set up for the ending I’d previously implied so that it instead would set up for the ending I ended up with.

I haven’t given up on any of that stuff, but I haven’t done it yet either.

I’ve played around with several short stories, but only finished one. It got some pretty good comments from the Incognitos, but I didn’t come away with a good plan for finishing it and submitting it to editors.

I should finish it and submit it. It’s clear in my own mind that no simple rewrite would make it a much better story, so I should just fix the few minor things that readers spotted and get it out to markets—they’ll either buy it or they won’t. But I haven’t yet.

I’ve written quite a bit here on my blog. Since the posts are all right here, I won’t bother linking to them, except to say that my story structure article continues to get the most visits by more than an order of magnitude, and that my post Katy Bowman: The Michael Pollan of movement was by far the most visited this year (because Katy shared it on her Facebook page).

I published three articles at Wise Bread:

Only one of  these articles is a flat-out listicle (which almost everything that Wise Bread publishes these days is), so I consider that a win.

I pitched several other pieces that I think would have made great Wise Bread posts. A couple got turned down by the editors, and a couple got send back with the suggestion that I somehow turn it into a listicle, and I declined to write the article along those lines.

It’s my smallest output at Wise Bread since I started writing for them, but that’s okay. I’ve said most of what I have to say on frugality and personal finance.

My income from writing for Wise Bread is down a lot, but has—much to my surprise—been replaced to a considerable extent with money for teaching taiji.

Taiji (and movement in general) have become more important these past few years, to the point that this year I almost changed the title of my annual review post to “Writing and movement in 2015.” Instead, though, I think I should write a “Movement in 2015” post, which might become an annual tradition of its own.

The myth of age-related illnesses of middle age

You know this, right? Age-related diseases—at least, those of middle age—mostly aren’t. Rather, they’re lifestyle diseases that seem age-related because it takes years or decades for the harm done by the lifestyle to start showing up as symptoms.

I’m prompted to write this by something Charles Stross wrote over a year ago, where he talks about the symptoms of aging. I almost didn’t link to that post, because he’s really talking about something else—his post is about the political effects of reasonably foreseeable improvements in medicine—but along the way, he describes his current circumstance:

. . . chronic low-grade pain of the middle-aged body: joints that creak and pop, muscles that need an extra stretch, sore feet.

And goes on to compare it to his hypothetical world with science-fictional medicine:

Unlike today’s senior citizens, you don’t ache whenever you get out of bed, you’re physically fit, you don’t have cancer or heart disease or diabetes or Alzheimer’s, you aren’t deaf or blind or suffering from anosmia or peripheral neuropathy or other sensory impairments, and you’re physically able to enjoy your sex life.

Of course there are age-related diseases—Alzheimer’s and anosmia probably are. But especially the ones in the first quote—the age-related difficulties of the middle-aged body—aren’t age-related at all. To imagine that they are is to make a category mistake—and a serious one, because the error makes it much more difficult to recover your health.

I’ve hesitated to write this post, because I realize that I’m speaking from a position of privilege—I’m healthy. This is partially a matter of luck, partially a matter of good genes, partially a matter of a lifetime history of good health care, access to adequate nutrition, and so on.

Even so, I’ve got real first-hand experience with exactly the list of middle-aged body problems that Stross lists.

Eight or ten years ago, I was feeling old. Tasks that required strength were more daunting than they had been—especially ones, such as carrying things up or down steps, that added additional weight to my already excessive body weight. My balance wasn’t as good, making slippery tubs and icy sidewalks seem like serious threats. My plantar fasciitis was kept at bay only by being scrupulous about wearing supportive shoes and by limiting the amount of standing I did. I could still get down on the floor and get up again, but it was hard enough that I didn’t do it when I didn’t have to. I had trouble getting a good night’s sleep, because my back would ache when I lay still too long, and when I did sleep through the night I’d need considerable stretching before I could move normally the next morning.

I viewed all this as normal aging. Partially, I think that was because I was actually in pretty good shape. I could walk 5 or 6 miles. I routinely bicycled to work when the weather was nice. I went to the fitness center two or three times a week to use the weight machines and do some stretching. Despite all that, my physical capabilities were declining, and I didn’t see anything I could do about it, except perhaps spend even more time exercising, which didn’t seem practical for someone with a day job.

It wasn’t true, though. Over the past six or seven years, I have felt better each year. It is not a strain to carry things of ordinary weight, even going up and down stairs. My static balance is excellent—I no longer fear slippery tubs, although I do still try to be careful on ice. My feet don’t hurt when I stand a lot, even when I’m barefoot. I make a point of sitting on the floor, just to add some variety to the day. I sleep well, and I wake up able to move.

What did I do? Nothing extraordinary.

Starting to do tai chi was probably the key shift, because it changed so many things at once about my movement practice. Somewhere along the line I ran across parkour, and then even before I had done more than play with that I discovered natural movement as a thing—and that was what gave me a framework for thinking about movement the same way I’d come to think about food.

Trying to figure out the best diet is a waste of time. It’s computationally infeasible, and anyway unnecessary—just eat a wide variety of foods (and limit your consumption of industrially produced food-like substances) and your body takes care of the rest. (See Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food for details.)

Similarly, trying to figure out the best exercise regime is a waste of time. You are far better off to get a wide variety of movement (and limit the time spent doing things like sitting in chairs and wearing shoes). Once again, your body will take care of the rest.

What struck me—what prompted me to write this post—was that Stross’s description of what his science-fictional medicine feels like is what I’ve felt like. It’s not exactly aging backwards, but it is a recovery of a feeling of ease and comfort that had slipped away under cover of “normal” aging.

My life feels kind of like a science fiction story, with the science-fictional medicine being just recovering normal patterns of movement.

It makes me want to advocate these lifestyle changes, perhaps more strongly than is advisable. As I say, I recognize that I’m writing from a position of health that isn’t available to just everyone. I can’t say that if you’ll just start walking and running and bicycling and lifting weights and doing taiji and experimenting with parkour and natural movement, you will reverse the aging process and feel young again. There are kinds of impairments that cannot be completely recovered from, and perhaps some that cannot even be improved.

And yet, I do advocate these lifestyle changes. Move better. Move more. Eat food. I bet you’ll feel better—especially if you’re starting to suffer from the symptoms of “normal” aging.

Coming around on gun control

I have long opposed most sorts of gun control. The main reason is the same reason I oppose drug prohibition: There is no way to enforce a ban on a thing, except through police-state tactics (and I don’t like living in a police state).

How do you ban a thing? You can pass a law against possession, but that law is unenforceable except by house-to-house searches. You can’t even enforce a ban on carrying concealed weapons except by stopping and frisking everyone out on the street. (Please don’t suggest only stopping and frisking “suspicious” people, unless you have first-hand experience with looking like one.) Since there’s no victim to report the crime (“I was illegally possessed at!”), you only find the criminals by chance, unless you’re willing to go full war-on-drugs with undercover agents, coerced informants, wiretaps, search warrants executed by SWAT teams and so on.

You could impose a high penalty on possession of a gun, and then only enforce the law when a gun came to the attention of the police. That would probably get the guns off the street—a gun hidden under the floorboards isn’t much of a threat—except of course for the “only criminals will have guns” issue: High penalties don’t much deter people who are already committing crimes with high penalties. Plus, it leads to all the classic slippery-slope arguments. Selective enforcement (searches used to harass disfavored people) and unfair results (unlucky people spending 20 years in prison for a gun they didn’t know was in the boxes of grandfather’s personal effects) being just two of the downsides.

Besides, guns are useful tools. If we have a ban that applies as well to the police and the military, then we’ve denied them tools that they may need to do their jobs. But if the ban doesn’t apply to them, then we have to draw the line in a specific place—or a series of specific places. If police qualify, how about campus police? Transit police? Park rangers? Do bodyguards qualify? How about armored-truck guards? Stalking victims? The result is once again selective enforcement and unfair results, this time with a side order of political shenanigans.  Some people who need the tool will be denied it. Other people who thought they were allowed the tool will have their lives destroyed when a court rules that they were not.

Much more sound than laws against things is laws against behavior. It’s illegal everywhere to shoot someone or to threaten someone with a gun or even to discharge a gun in a populated area. These are the sorts of laws that gun-control opponents always point to as the right way to control guns. But they self-evidently don’t work. Even if you discount suicides and accidents, there are 12,000 homicides a year in the United States—with about 90% committed with a firearm.

So, what other behaviors could we regulate? There is often talk of regulating the sale of firearms. Being in the business of selling firearms is already extensively regulated, but currently it’s legal to sell (or give away) a firearm without being in the business—sales between friends and gifts between relatives are legal, and don’t require that you be a licensed firearms dealer. That could be changed. You could make selling firearms be like selling prescription drugs, which only a licensed pharmacist can do. Many currently legal, perfectly ordinary behaviors would be illegal, or else the laws would have to be very carefully drafted. Could a father buy his son his first .22 rifle? Could an Olympic-champion riflewoman let her aspiring-sharpshooter daughter take mom’s match-grade pistol to the shooting range to practice with? If a down-on-his luck man pawned a family heirloom firearm, would he be committing a crime if the pawn shop owner’s firearms license were not in order? What if the pawn shop clerk were a felon?

Registering guns is often proposed, although I don’t see how doing so would reduce violence. Further, I think gun-owner fears of gun registries being useful primarily as a tool for eventual confiscation is well-founded: What other use would a registry have? The parallel is less with registering cars (which are big and operate in public where people can see them) and more with registering typewriters (which are small and are generally used in private).

Illinois has long had a registry of “allowed gun buyers,” which is somewhat less pernicious than a list of guns: It would still provide a list of places to search, if things trended even further toward a police state, but it would do so without providing what amounts to a master of list of guns to be seized. In fact, I would fully support such a scheme, if it were automatic: Every adult who has not been convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor, nor adjudicated as dangerous or incompetent in some other fashion, should be on the list of those allowed to buy guns. The government could automatically strike people from the list upon conviction or commitment to a mental institution (with an appropriate appeals process to correct errors). Or people could file a simple form to ask to be taken off the list, if they had some personal objection. It’s basically the instant background check from the opposite direction.

I will say this, though—gun control advocates are finally on the right track, in attempting to mobilize public opinion. For the past thirty years, members of a small, mostly liberal elite have been trying to use their influence over government officials to pass gun control. But with public opinion so divided, legislative sausage-making has produced laws that are pointless and ineffective, full of easily ridiculed loopholes, but still with traps for the unwary gun-owner to commit a technical violation that leads to harsh sentences, without reducing the number of guns or making them less dangerous. (I am thinking in particular of the so-called assault rifle ban that ended up merely banning a handful of cosmetic details.)

And yet, I am nearly brought around. I am ready to support gun control legislation, if something can be found that would actually reduce violence (or at least its severity), doesn’t require police-state tactics to enforce, and doesn’t send people to prison simply because their papers are not in order.

That last is non-negotiable for me, an attitude puts closer than I’d like to be to unsavory company on other issues, such as immigration, where I agree with many Republicans that I think we should control our borders better. It’s because the other tactics of keeping our population density low are ineffective, unless we empower the police to check people’s papers. If we want the higher standard of living that comes from living well below carrying capacity—and I do—we can’t let just everybody live here. But having a category of “illegal” people forces immigrants to live outside the rules that promote the health, safety and prosperity of everybody, for fear of deportation. That risks the health, safety, and prosperity of all of us.

I’m no happier with letting police demand my firearm paperwork, and send me to prison if it’s not in order, than I am with letting police demand my citizenship papers against similar consequences.

I also think playing with guns is fun, and would be sad if they were banned. But I would give up playing with guns, if I thought it would prevent a large fraction of 11,000 murders a year. I don’t see a clear path from here to there, but I have joined the mass of people trying to find one.

Rejoice: The sun returns!

The solstice snuck up on me this year. The calendar shows it as being today, which it is if you live east of the United States. But it was actually a few minutes before midnight on the east coast and more than an hour before midnight here.

Happily, Geoff Landis (one of my Clarion instructors) posted a “happy solstice” message on Facebook (with a link to an astronomy site with the details) a few hours before the event, so I was able to appreciate it prospectively.

The longest night of the year has come and gone. I’m glad that’s over.

Why, in just six weeks, it’ll be Groundhog’s Day! And once that happens, it’ll be time start looking for our early spring!