Mass Shootings

The other day, I ran across this headline in The Onion: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Of course, the story is about a mass shooting. This story originally ran almost four years ago, but they repost it every time it’s appropriate. I feel like I see it at least once a week. Which means they don’t post it for every mass shooting that happens, only the big ones.

When I saw the headline, my first thought was, “Oh, crap, not another one.” It took me a minute to realize that there was no real feeling behind the thought. I feel terrible about that. What does that say about me that seventeen people can be killed at a Florida high school and my reaction is about the same as when my baseball team loses a regular season game? I think what it says is that mass shootings have become a normal part of life in America.

According to The Guardian, the Florida shooting was the eighth school shooting in the first seven weeks of this year. In other words, it’s a weekly occurrence. And according to Business Insider, there have been thirty mass shootings this year. That’s more than one every other day. That’s just crazy.

I think there are two reasons for my lack of feeling. One is that I just don’t have the emotional capacity to grieve a few times a week. I’m not sure anybody does. The other is a sense of hopelessness. While the solutions are really pretty easy and obvious (adopt the same sorts of gun laws as every civilized nation on Earth), with this administration and this congress and this judiciary, there is absolutely no chance that any solutions are implemented. I just don’t have the energy to get all worked up about something that will never happen.

As I said, I feel terrible about this. I really wish I could feel more. I really wish I weren’t so hopeless. I wish someone could give me a reason for optimism. Optimism feels a lot better than cynicism. But until someone can do that, I’m stuck thinking that The Onion’s article isn’t a joke. There really is nothing that can be done in the only nation where mass shootings have become an almost every day occurrence.

 

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Keep It 729

In the Republic, Plato sets out to answer the question, “What is justice?” Along the way, Socrates* and his interlocutors raise the question of who leads the more pleasant life, the just or the unjust. They bring it to extremes. They assume that the unjust person gets away with it, so to speak. People don’t recognize his lack of justice, he reaps great rewards and much praise. They also assume at points that the just person is unfairly punished. She’s** accused of crimes, poor and destitute. Socrates says that even in this extreme case, the just person leads a more pleasant life than the unjust person. He then lays out a proof to show how much more pleasant the life of the perfectly just person, aka the King, is than the life of the perfectly unjust person, aka the Tyrant. He determines that the King lives 729 times more pleasantly than the Tyrant and that the Tyrant is 729 times more wretched than the King (587 e).

To modern readers, this comes off as a bit strange. I recognize all the problems. What is a unit of pleasantness? How is it measured? Isn’t pleasure subjective? But this proof has stuck with me ever since I first read the Republic. I don’t know about the number 729, but it seems intuitively true, to me, that a just person leads a more pleasant life, a happier life, than an unjust person, regardless of the consequences. I don’t take this to mean that there is somehow joy in suffering and I’m not talking about rewards and punishments (Heaven and Hell). I mean that I believe that Gandhi was happier, even during his hunger strike, than his British oppressors. I guess I find Plato’s arguments convincing when he says that knowing The Good is more pleasurable than satisfying desires.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot while living through the current Trumpian dystopia. I find it comforting to know that I am leading a more pleasant life than Donald Trump. I don’t know if it’s 729 times more pleasant. I’m not perfectly just, I give in to my impulses and desires from time to time. And Trump isn’t a perfect Tyrant. More than half the country recognizes him as a sad, pathetic loser and didn’t vote for him. But I think it’s safe to say that most of us are much more just than Trump. Therefore, most of us are much happier than Trump.

I want to stress that this in no way excuses, mitigates or forgives Trump’s horribleness. He is simply a nightmare of a president and a nightmare of a human being. We need to stay focused on removing Trump and the Republicans from power and repairing the damage they’ve caused. I just hope that this small bit of comfort can help us get through the day. The constant march of bad news is more than a bit overwhelming, especially coming from such an inept media. We need to take comfort where we can find it. And Plato has shown me one small place to find it.

 


* This is Socrates, the character in Plato’s work, not the actual Socrates. It seems clear, to me at least, that this character is the mouthpiece for Plato’s own views. In discussing this work, it is easy to use Plato and Socrates interchangeably. I just want to make sure everyone knows that when I say Socrates, the character, I still attribute the ideas to Plato, the author.

** In Plato, they are talking about just and unjust men. He came from an amazingly sexist society. But, since the Republic gives a rather lengthy argument for why women should be equal, I think it’s OK to update the language and use she as well as he.

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As a White Person. . .

As a white person, I feel like any opinions I voice on race need to be heavily discounted.  As a white person, I’m not sure I have the right to say much of anything at all.  The thing is, because of the social circles I’m in and because one of my jobs is at Capital Community College in downtown Hartford, I find myself frequently involved in discussions about race.  At least I’m present for those discussions.  My level of involvement varies greatly depending on whom I’m with.  With just my writing partner, Jamil, I’m as verbal as I get.  (Although that’s not very verbal.)  I know that he knows that whatever I say, even if it’s wrong, is coming from a good place.  And I know that he won’t treat me in a “white people are so stupid” kind of way.  He will fill in my knowledge gaps, and there are plenty of those, but never in a condescending way.  With everyone else, there’s a sliding scale.  I’ll answer any direct question I’m asked.  I likely won’t volunteer anything else.  I always err on the side of keeping my mouth shut.

There are two things that I worry about.  One is that when I’m the only person not talking, I’ll come off as aloof or arrogant.  People sometimes mistake quiet for judgey, when I’m honestly just being quiet.  The other thing that worries me is that maybe I should be talking more.  We’re always hearing about open dialogue and exchanging ideas.  Am I doing something wrong by not sharing my thoughts?  Am I interrupting the open dialogue?  Am I inhibiting the free exchange of ideas?

My instinct is that I’m not interrupting or inhibiting anything.  I’ve heard white people talk about race.  I’ve read what white people have written about race.  The one conclusion I always draw is that white people are so, so, so, so, so stupid.  Even the well meaning allies come off as pretty darn stupid.  As a general rule, I like to avoid being stupid.

I think we’d be better off if more white people were like me.  Whenever possible (which is almost always), defer to the people with actual lived experience of the situation.  Remember that there’s no need for more opposing viewpoints.  There are more than enough already.  By keeping our mouths shut, we allow others to speak.  And by listening to those others, we may all learn something.

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How Do We Stop Hartford Residents From Dying in Car Accidents?

Image Courtesy of NBC 30

What were you doing when you were 22 years old? You may have been looking forward to graduating from college in a few short months, or you were working in a dead end job that you hated. Perhaps you were falling in love, or cursing your ex’s name. Whatever you were doing, if you’re reading this, you thankfully survived that youthful, reckless year in your life.

That unfortunately can’t be said for Hector Rios, who may have been the first person to die in Hartford in 2018. Just three hours after New Years, his car slammed into a brick pillar near Trinity College, killing him and seriously injuring his passenger, Natasha Cruz.

How about at 23 or 24? Had you finally found a good job? Were you in a better relationship? Was there a movie you were looking forward to, or an album you really liked? Some of those things might have been true for 23 year old Catalina Melendez and 24 year old Tina Fontanez, both of whom were killed by a hit and run driver on Vine Street two weeks ago. 

Imagine yourself at twelve years old, gangly armed, covered in pimples and dealing with your body going haywire as you begin to notice the other kids around you are developing too. Now imagine losing your mother during that time, in a violent instant, right before your eyes. That’s the reality for the child of Deidre Gray, who died in a four car collision on January 25th. Her child was a passenger in the car.

One month. Three accidents. Four deaths.

Hartford has a serious traffic problem. I’m a pedestrian; I don’t have a license, much less a car. But even as someone who walks around the city, I’m acutely aware of the lawless way some people drive in this city. I cross the intersection of Capen and Main Street almost every day, and cars run the red light there so frequently that I don’t wait for the walk signal to cross. Instead, I try to wait for there to be no traffic at all. I still make my ten year old son hold my hand when we cross streets. Not that it’ll make a difference when a speeding vehicle shoots through a stop sign, we’d just die together after getting hit, like Catalina and Tina did.

Or maybe not. After all, I was hit by a car late last year while riding my bike. It was just a tap, but the woman pulling off of Battle Street didn’t even look up until she felt her car bump me and heard me shouting obscenities at her. Death isn’t guaranteed in a car accident, but accidents are guaranteed with the dangerous way basic rules of the road are ignored.

It was ten years ago that Hartford made the national news for the hit-and-run accident that paralyzed, and eventually killed, Angel Arce Torres. The conversation that came out of that accident centered on Hartford resident’s supposed “toxic relationship with ourselves,” due in part to the bystanders who allegedly refused to help Mr. Torres. The city’s residents pushed back against that characterization, and rightfully so. Yet the argument about our toxicity prevented the discussion from going to the place it should have: what do we need to do to make Hartford’s roads safe? Everything needs to be on the table, including more enforcement. I know that isn’t a popular opinion, especially given the well deserved critiques of policing policies against people of color. Four people died this month though, all people of color. We need to talk seriously about whether more cameras and more patrol cars could have saved those lives, and whether they can help prevent the inevitable deaths that will follow if we don’t change something.

 

CORRECTION: There was a fifth car crash this month which claimed the life of 61 year old Miriam Garcia.

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A Football Conundrum

When two unlikable teams are playing each other in the championship, how do you decide which to root for?  That’s the problem we’re facing with the 2018 NFL championship game.  It’s the Eagles against the Patriots, which means that nobody wins.  There was so much potential.  We were so close to the Jaguars playing the Vikings.  Then everyone would have won.  Alas, we’re stuck these two teams.

I know, the easy answer is to not watch the game.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  But I’ve watched more football this year than I have in ages.  I don’t know why exactly.  At the beginning of the season, I didn’t think I would watch while Colin Kaepernick was unemployed.  But, then Trump told me not to watch the NFL while there were players protesting and I changed my mind.  I’m still unhappy about Kaepernick, but at least I can support the players who are still protesting.  So, if I don’t watch the championship, the season will feel incomplete.  Also, the game is one of the few big cultural events that I partake in, so I feel bad when I miss it.

But we have these two teams.  The Patriots are just impossible to root for.  They are like football’s version of the Yankees.  They win all the time and they’re incredibly smug about it.  Their fans are insufferable.  Their owner is the worst.  And Tom Brady is the face of their franchise.  How can you root for a team led by a robot?  Especially a robot that appears to be so stupid.  A bag of flour has more personality.

The Eagles are a bit harder to pin down why they’re unlikable.  I think it mostly comes from their fans.  This is a group of people who throw batteries at people and famously booed Santa Claus.  I’ve never been to an Eagles game, but I’ve been to a Phillies game, and I believe all the stories.  It’s not just that they aren’t friendly.  They’re openly antagonistic towards fans of any other team.

Ultimately, it seems that the Eagles are the right answer to this question.  At least they’re underdogs.  When in doubt, always root for the underdogs, right?  That’s the best I can come up with.  Hopefully we can all forget about the game shortly after it’s over.

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Go Johnny, Go!

It’s rare to be able to point to someone as definitively the best at anything.  Chuck Berry is the greatest of all time when it comes to Rock and Roll.  When you look at his body of work, it’s staggering.  It’s not just that he had a lot of good songs.  He had a lot of great songs and a handful of perfect songs.  He created the template.  Everyone from The Beatles to Rush to U2 to The Black Keys to anyone else who falls in the category of Rock Music is just playing variations on a theme.  And that theme was created by Chuck Berry.

Even if the only thing he had ever done was Johnny B. Goode, he might still be the greatest.  Talk about a perfect song.  It’s been sixty years since it was recorded and it absolutely jumps out of the speakers.  It’s a B-flat blues with breaks and no turnaround, but it is so much more.

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens/There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood/Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode/Who never ever learned to read or write so well/But he could play a guitar just like a ringing a bell.  These may not be the type of lyrics that win a Nobel Prize, but they are really great.  They practically sing themselves.  The rhymes are effortless.  The story is natural.  And the details bring it to life.

The song is fast, but doesn’t feel rushed.  I count it at about 170 beats per minute.  In the Rock world, 120-130 beats per minute is pretty standard.  Most rockers just can’t keep up with Chuck and his band.  There’s Fred Below on drums.  The backbeat is so strong no one is white enough to miss the two and four.  Willie Dixon’s walking bass line is the heartbeat.  It’s simple and understated, but exactly what serves the song best.  Lafayette Leake’s piano fills provide the counterpoint.  They keeps things fresh and exciting no matter how many times the song gets played.  And Chuck’s rhythm guitar, power chords, of course, makes the feet tap and the body shake.

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack/And sit beneath the trees by the railroad track/Engineers would see him sitting in the shade/Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made/People passing by they would stop and say/Oh my well that little country boy can play.  The lyrics are so visual.  Anyone listening to the song can see the action unfolding.  They show rather than tell in a way that should make any writing teacher happy.

The vocal is understatedly brilliant.  Chuck doesn’t oversing or undersing.  He hits that sweet spot in the middle.  You can understand every word.  He’s telling a story like a folk singer.  There’s hope and joy and optimism in his voice.  As I said, it’s brilliant.

His mother told him, “Someday you will be a man/And you will be the leader of a big ol’ band./Many people comin’ from miles around/To hear you play your music when the sun goes down./Maybe someday your name will be in lights/Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight.”  The lyrics are somehow very specific while being universal.  Anyone can see themselves in Johnny’s place in terms of feeling, but the story is his own.

The lead guitar is so good that there’s almost nothing to say about it.  It sounds like the past, the present and the future all at the same time.  Chuck manages to evoke Louis Jordan and T-bone Walker.  There’s Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore.  There’s even Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen.  But it all combines into Chuck Berry.  It’s so original and so familiar.  It’s literally amazing.

When you take great lyrics, a killer rhythm section, a wonderful vocal and an amazing guitar and put them together you wind up with perfection.  Johnny B. Goode is a song we’ve all heard a million times.  It’s about time we stop to really appreciate it.

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Buffy The Vampire Slayer – Initial Thoughts

Back in 1997, I didn’t have cable television.  I had a hand-me-down TV with an antenna.  I got ABC (sort of), CBS, CPTV, NBC and Fox.  There were two new networks that I didn’t get, the WB and UPN.  I was really bummed that I didn’t get UPN.  Star Trek Voyager was on that channel and I’m a big Trek fan.  I was able to catch episodes here and there, but I missed a bunch.  All I knew about the WB network was that it had a weird singing frog.  I didn’t care that I didn’t get it.

In just a little while, though, my friends started talking about this show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  They loved it.  Several friends that I trust on these sorts of things said it was their all time favorite show.  I was curious, but I didn’t get the station it was on, so I never watched it.

Now, through the magic of Hulu, I am able to watch it, so I decided to give it a shot.  I knew almost nothing about it going in.  I assumed it was about a girl named Buffy who slays vampires.  I also knew that Alyson Hannigan, who I really liked in How I Met Your Mother, was in it.  Way back when the show was at its peak popularity, Anthony Stewart Head did an appearance in the bookstore I worked at.  I didn’t really know who he was, but I found out from that experience that he was on Buffy and apparently did some famous coffee commercials.  And I had heard that feminists really like the show.  That’s all I knew.

I don’t really know what I was expecting, but the show definitely is not what I was expecting.  It’s like some weird combination of the original Star Trek, Friends and The X Files.  The Friends comparison is really just Xander.  It’s like the director asked him to do a Chandler Bing impersonation with all of his lines.  But like Star Trek, it’s got a solid combination of earnestness and camp.  And like The X Files, it’s a mix of serialization and stand alone episodes and it’s downright bonkers half the time.

I do have a few complaints.  I hate the theme song.  It sounds like what I would do if someone asked me to parody a punk song.  The body count is wicked high.  It’s hard to maintain my willing suspension of disbelief that any parent would allow their kids to attend Sunnydale High.  I’m a bit disappointed in the feminism that I was expecting.  Maybe my expectations were set too high, but I feel like Buffy winds up being a damsel in distress needing to be rescued by one of the male characters just a bit too often.  And pairing Buffy and Angel romantically is just creepy.  Not in the good, I’m watching a horror movie kind of way.  It’s just plain creepy.  In the show he’s 241 years old and she’s 16.  But even if you assume he stopped aging when he became a vampire, that puts him about 30.  Anyway, seeing them together in that way creeps me out.

Otherwise, I’m enjoying the show.  I think I’ll keep watching.  I don’t get why it would be anyone’s favorite show, but it’s solid enough.  And I have a ways to go.  Maybe it will improve with time.  I’m only twenty years too late, but I’m finally going to see what all my friends were talking about.

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A Failure Of Sorts

I’ve failed at one of my life goals.  I’ve always wanted to die with a full complement of body parts.  Of course I’m not counting baby teeth or hair.  I would have failed years ago if those counted.  I mean I wanted to keep everything I’m supposed to have.  No amputations, no ectomies, nothing of that sort.  Unfortunately, I had a tooth extracted and all my efforts are for naught.

I think I settled on this goal because I’m utterly terrified of everything medical.  I have to white-knuckle my way through teeth cleanings.  Routine physicals are extremely stressful.  And the funny thing is, I have absolutely no reason to be afraid.  I’ve been remarkably healthy.  (I’m knocking on every piece of wood available as I type this.)  I’ve never broken a bone, never needed stitches, never really needed anything.  Sure, I’ve been sick, but, aside from depression, not seriously sick.  My experience with medical professionals basically comes down to sitting in their office, having them tell me that everything looks fine, then leaving.

The extraction/implant is clearly the most serious procedure I’ve ever been through.  And it really wasn’t bad.  It didn’t hurt at all.  There was no swelling.  I had to eat soft foods for a few days, but that’s it.  And going into it, I was about as frightened as I’ve ever been.  I’m already afraid of getting the crown put on in a few months even though I know the hard part’s over.  It’s weird what scares us.

So, I’ve decided that rather than abandon my goal, I will amend it.  I would still love to keep all of my remaining body parts.  But I’ve realized that that is really part of a broader goal.  The goal is simply to avoid medical procedures.  I imagine I won’t be perfect, but I’m going to do my best.

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My Favorite Sin Redux

A few days ago, a friend invited me to go out to the bar. I’d been hunkered down in my apartment for a few days because of the cold, and I was ready for a night on the town. I caught my reflection as I jumped in the shower. Maybe it was because I was happy to be getting out of the house, or maybe I was finally looking at myself with some acceptance instead of criticism. Whatever it was, as I looked at myself, I felt good. I felt so good that I grabbed my phone and took a picture of myself.*

Like any human being with a high resolution camera on them at all times, I’ve taken nude pictures of myself before, primarily for the benefit of other interested parties. I’d considered cataloging those pictures on a Tumblr or something like that, but I always chickened out in the end- worries about future careers or relationships and the like. But something about this picture compelled me to share it. I didn’t understand why I felt that way, so I do what I normally do when I don’t understand something. I wrote about it.

This is the second version of this essay (hence the “Redux” in the title). In the first version, I wrote about how my desire to be seen was vanity, and then launched into a defense of vanity, pride and immodesty. It was a fine essay, yet there was no real point. I do think that vanity, pride and immodesty get a bad rap, but the world doesn’t need an essay from me to make a point Al Pacino made better twenty years ago. It was a hollow piece of writing, as if I was building a flimsy writerly framework to justify saying, “Hey everyone, look at me!” Which, honestly, would be completely fine. I have dozens of pictures I could have done that for though. Why this one?

I let a couple of friends read the first draft, and they agreed that something was missing. Between talking to both of them at length, I realized that unlike most of the other intimate pictures I’ve taken, this one was taken for me. I didn’t have anyone else in mind, and I wasn’t performing for anyone else. I was pleased with what I saw, but what I was capturing in that image was not my body. I was taking a picture of my happiness.

What does it mean, that I couldn’t recognize happiness as such? That when I tried to understand it, my first instinct was to label it with pejoratives-vanity and pride? That it took a few days, six hundred words and the insight of two different people to help me experience my own emotions? It means that I haven’t done enough work to tear down the emotional walls I’ve built up over the years, the walls that have kept me safe in very difficult circumstances but have also cut me off from fully experiencing my own feelings. That trade-off made sense in other contexts, but not in the one I find myself in now.

I felt happy in that moment- with myself, with what I was doing, and where I was going. I also felt happy when I decided to share that picture, because I looked good and I want others to see that. Maybe that is vanity and pride, but I don’t want to frame it that way. I like looking at myself. I like being looked at. I like the nervous, edgy energy of being seen. And if it is vanity, well, then it’s my favorite sin too.

 

*This is the picture I took. IT IS NSFW. It leaves some things, but not all, to the imagination.

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The X-Files

I’ve been watching The X-Files since 1993.  I even watched when Mulder left and was replaced by the Terminator.  I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore fan, though.  I’ve always enjoyed the show, but I’ve always preferred the monster of the week stories to the overarching conspiracy stories.  My favorite episodes are the comedic ones.

Season 11 premiered tonight.  I don’t exactly know what to make of it.  I mostly enjoyed myself, but all that really takes is watching Mulder and Scully be Mulder and Scully.  The whole episode felt like an hour long prelude, but I have no idea what it’s leading to.  I’m a little suspicious that some fan theory came too close to getting things right, so Chris Carter decided to double down on the craziness and change everything.  I can see where people would hate this episode, but I didn’t mind.

The thing that struck me, though, and the reason I’m writing this, is that the whole episode almost felt like a spoof of The X-Files.  While I was watching, I kept thinking about the Simpsons episode where David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson appeared as Mulder and Scully.  There’s a scene towards the end where Mulder goes into this speech about how the truth IS out there, and the speech goes on and on, and the visuals suggest several days go by while Mulder is pontificating.  It’s a near perfect send up of the X-Files.  Tonight’s episode turned that joke into an actual episode of the show.  It seemed like the whole hour was taken up with Mulder speechifying, then Scully speechifying, then the Smoking Man, then back to Mulder, Skinner got a short turn, then back to Mulder, then Scully, then some more of the Smoking Man, then more of Mulder.  The mysterious members of the Smoking Man’s group even got their turn.  The speeches continued during the action sequences, dramatic beats and montages.  It was kind of crazy.

Anyway, that was just what I was thinking about while I watched the episode.  It didn’t ruin anything, I’ll be right back next Wednesday to watch the next episode.  It was just so very weird that I wanted to share and see if anyone else felt the same.

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