The Safety of Sharp Objects
My grandfather used to impress upon me the importance of a sharp knife.
“You see Travis,” he would say, “it’s a dull knife that will slip off of whatever you’re cutting and slice your hand.”
He took pride in a well-maintained blade and this, amongst many other things, is a trait I inherited from him: as soon as I could afford one, I got one of those posh electric sharpeners to ensure the edges of our family knives remained perpetually honed. And they are — the weight of the knife alone is more than enough to pierce the stubborn skin of a vine-ripened tomato without any bruising at all to the tender fruit beneath. Perfectly thin slices, arranged on white porcelain, drizzled with a little olive oil and reduced balsamic, flake salt sprinkled over the top, adorned with fresh basil. Thing of beauty.
Grandpa Ken has always been tough as nails. He grew up on a farm in Kansas, getting up in the blue-black cold to tend the animals and help with the farm chores. From an early age he resolved that life on the farm wasn’t for him. After graduating he joined the military, got stationed in Germany after the war, and used the education that serving his country offered to become an anesthesiologist.
As a child, he took me fly-fishing. We hiked up to the headwaters of the Platte where the fish are wild and naïve, and when my clumsiness embedded the hook into the soft flesh of my palm, he showed me how to use the tiny pliers he had placed in the vest he gifted me to push the barb through to the other side, tears welling up my eyes as I stayed brave in front of this titan of a man, and nip the end off so it didn’t shred my palm on its way out.
He knew the power of sharp tools, and he had the wisdom to respect them and use them with dignity.
In time Grandpa Ken got old, as all great men do. He lifted weights well into his early 80s, honing his mortal coil with the same dogged persistence that he approached the rest of his kit, but late-onset dementia has forever stalked our family line. Despite his best efforts the phantasm found him and began to whisper its forbidden madness, caressing the edges of his mind with venomous tendrils.
For as long as I remember, Grandpa had been a card-carrying NRA member — the man was more likely to be walking around strapped, at any given moment, than not. It was a whole ethos for him, that a man had a duty to his family to be tough to kill. It’s an ethos I can feel deep down in my bones. Our ancestors were slaughtered on the fields of Culloden when they chose to charge British rifles with little more than their swords and kilts rather than bend the knee. That lineage breeds a certain steely-eyed worldview that echoes through time.
Stay alert. Be careful who you trust. Keep your weapon loaded.
And when it came time to move my grandfather to assisted living, that’s what we found: a loaded pistol in his bathrobe. There was a moment then, for many of us — a sort of shocked horror at a thing that hadn’t happened, but could well have. By now Grandpa Ken would have moments where he wasn’t quite sure who he was talking to, and that’s a precarious state of mind to couple with live rounds.
I think we all felt we should have known better and done something sooner, but… none of us had a framework for it. My entire gestalt of the man is that of an unassailably accomplished patriarch — he had four children and worked hard to ensure they all thrived, and those children had a dozen grandchildren, and did the same in turn for them. He and my Grandma Nancy (also wildly accomplished as a nurse, award winning seamstress, peerless mother, and philanthropist) are the keystone humans in what can only be seen as a fairly successful worldview and approach to life. And the view that we should be fierce and unconquerable and forever ready to meet the world is a core tenet.
How can a leaf critique the tree?
And yet I still know with absolute certainty that we failed here. At some point along the gradient of my grandfather’s wizening we should have intervened, but we simply didn’t know how. For all our focus on readiness we found ourselves lacking some strategy here, and unprepared to meet the moment.
There’s a heavy sadness to that knowledge. And I see our family’s experience here as a microcosm that mirrors many of the things America struggles with today. As a society, America also values the safety of a sharp blade and the view that the empowered individual is the path to greatness. And as a society, we still struggle to find answers that we can accept to balance that deeply-held belief with appropriate restraint.
We see it with actual weapons, sure, but it runs deeper than that — we see it in our attitude toward laws, in our approach to geopolitics, in the debate about content moderation online, in the way we struggle to balance the traditions that made us great with the realities of a modernity accelerating with a speed the founders of those traditions could not possibly have imagined.
I feel this tension too — the tension between the empowered individual, which I believe in deeply, and a duty of care toward others, which I also believe in. It seems to me we’re missing some frameworks here as a country, too: we find ourselves discovering a lot of bathrobe pistols while also not wanting to temper the beliefs that put them there. And like an awkward grandson humbled and frozen in the presence of the patriarch, we’re simply not sure what to do about any of it yet.
I love you grandpa.
I’m gonna try and do you proud.