Sunday, December 16, 2012

SPE: Empty Chairs At Empty Tables

{For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Tara Roberts gave me this prompt: "(Character name)'s contribution to the holiday cookie exchange shocked all of us." I gave Julia Mae this prompt: " 'Critics can say horrible things. It only hurts when I agree with them.' -Jon Cryer" }

[The following post is written about the fact I can't write a post about this. Besides being meta, this is a little bit unfair, because the SPE game involves composing prompts on Thursday and early Friday morning to be distributed on Saturday. Obviously, the events on Friday have changed my point of view. I don't mean to imply anything is wrong with Tara, whom I respect to the point of abject worship, or the quality of her prompt. Her prompt was written and intended for a different headspace than the one I occupy at the moment. This is not her fault.]

(To steal an idea from Charlie Pierce, optional soundtrack for this post is available here.)

I can't write about Christmas cookies today.

I learned about the events in Connecticut on Friday through a text message from a friend, which seems to be a very au courant way to get news. Perhaps it isn't. I don't know. I went onto Twitter, which was, of course, full of bulletins and news stories and rumors, name calling and accusations and jokes in poor taste. Calls for fewer guns, calls for more guns, calls for mental health care, calls for more God in schools, calls for bans on video games or television or movies- nearly everyone knows the answer and feels compelled to share. This is as it usually is. You don't expect table manners in a saloon, and you don't expect reasoned discussion on Twitter. Among the cacophany, my friend Erik Fisher advised that he was dropping off the grid for a while- he couldn't take it. I didn't listen. I didn't follow his example. I should have.

I have tried not to watch any television coverage, or read much about it, although in the way things do in the modern age, phrases and images and facts find their way to me, from the TV in the next room, or on the car radio before I shut it off in favor of music from my iPhone. My pal Leah Peterson pointed out that one of the most chilling sentences she encountered was "An entire kindergarten class is unaccounted for." I quickly found partners for that, overhearing "the state does not have enough medical examiners for all the dead" and "one of our nation's leading authorities on mass murder". (We have authorities on mass murder? And there is more than one of them?) Like everyone, I am hurt, shocked, saddened, and furiously angry. It's one of those odd angers, the kind where you know you're angry, but you can't find anything adequate to the rage. (If you haven't seen it before, please watch this, the scene where Martin Sheen on the "West Wing", playing the President, tries to voice this sort of inchoate rage against senseless loss.) Among the many thoughts I have entertained, I wonder why it is this slaughter that stirs my blood, as opposed to so many others?

As my wife correctly points out, more people died in Philadelphia, the city closest to me, this year due to gun violence, only they did it one or two at a time. There have been slaughters since Cain and Abel, and probably way before that. Even slaughters in school are nothing new, sadly. Gun slaughter itself predates me by centuries, and even mass slaughter can be traced back to the University of Texas shootings in the 1960s, if not farther than that. Fort Pillow. Cold Harbor. Borodino. Lynching and race riots. World War I. World War II. Vietnam. Korea. Iraq and Afghanistan. As soon as we had guns, we started using them to kill each other, and as the guns got better, so did the killing. (It would be unfair, but not totally wrong, to note that a slaughter in a so called "white" community evokes my rage, but not the slower genocide against poor children that happens worldwide every single day. I don't have anything to say to that except that I am human, and I can't control what provokes me.)

I don't have any particular connection to this event. The most convenient way to get from my in law's house to my mother's house is Route 84, which essentially cuts the state into two triangles, giving me a knowledge of the state's rest stops, if nothing else. My brother lives there. I raised a kindergartener once, long ago. (My son was in kindergarten on 9/11, the last event that I can compare to this, at least in terms of my own emotional response to it.) I have friends with kindergarteners, and my dear nephew is a kindergartener, and his little brother soon will be. I also have a niece who was in kindergarten not too long ago, and two more nieces who will be.

When my son was a kindergartener, I used to advise him, when a video game or school assignment or some other complex task was frustrating him, to try and channel his anger into something useful. Instead of getting mad, try to step back and think. Ask for advice. Attack the problem another way. Or even stop and get a glass of water and let your brain rest for a moment. Just getting mad doesn't help. This advice doesn't apply here. No advice does. There isn't anything to be done. Or, more properly, there are a dozen things to be done, all advocated loudly and vigorously, on and on, from all angles. And if previous slaughters are any guide, we, as a society, won't do any of them, or the ones we do won't work, and this will happen again. There's no place to put this rage against an uncaring universe that created all this sorrow. (With all due respect, if God is your thing, I won't belittle that. It just doesn't work for me. Not right now, anyway.)

I have opinions about what could and should be done. So do a lot of people. If you want to know them, and I can't imagine why you would, you can email me or follow me on Twitter- just look at the boxes on the right. But I feel like this isn't a place for it, exactly, and I don't feel up to it, frankly. I'm just tired of all the talking, and I don't have the energy to engage in debate right now. A blog, you might say, is exactly the place for that- it is one's own personal web space, to be filled with whatever one desires. And that is true. When this blog began, it was much more of a personal blog. It got very political for a while, and then it talked about sports, and right now it is a host for my short fiction. I don't know if I don't want to interrupt the flow, or confuse my readers (either one of you), or what, but I don't feel like I can go off on a rant about guns or mental health or anything like that. Not now. I can't write. I can only ache.

I understand the argument that art, at best, may be the only possible response to heartbreak and madness. "Guernica." Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's "Ohio". Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising". "A Farewell to Arms". I keep thinking about wrapped presents in closets or attics or car trunks that 20 little kids are never going to open, and everything tastes like ashes, and I can't tell made up stories about people who don't exist. Not today.

An author named Thomas Larson calls this the saddest piece of music ever written, and I'm inclined to believe him. I'm going to go visit my nephews tomorrow, listening to sad music as I drive, and I'm going to hug them both, which is not a bit out of the ordinary. I may tear up some, which is quite unusual. They won't know why, and I'm not going to tell them.

I will work, and sleep, and then drive, and hug, and pray that the world they grow up in will not know this particular kind of heartbreak.

But right now, I can't create anything.

I can't write about Christmas cookies today.


  1. love to you, Mike. hugs across space. xo

  2. Eloquently phrased, my friend. I found myself almost paralyzed at the news. Too easily I could feel the pain and had no way of coping with it. Like you, I have hugged my children extra times. I have wondered, and thought, and wished, and prayed in a totally secular way, for the families. All I feel I can do, ALL I CAN DO, is raise children who are happy, healthy, and strong and hope they can, in turn, raise their own. Slowly, we can make the world a better place. That's my Christmas wish at least.

  3. I think this was a perfect response... Christmas cookies were the last thing on my mind this weekend too. I did go off grid. It was just too much. Peace.

  4. well done for being able to write about it at all, I'm desperately trying to find words still. God bless

  5. Well written, it's still hard to digest what happened.

  6. I agree, you wrote this well! It is hard to process, this tragedy~


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