Signal and Noise: A Response to the Newtown Tragedy

SignalNoise

As the nation continues to reel from the news and aftershock of yet another mass shooting, many of us are wrestling with our own thoughts and emotions. We review the facts and details as they become available, and from there we try to create a rational explanation for a monstrous and irrational act. It’s a fool’s errand, really, like trying to negotiate with a madman, and yet we make the attempts. And when we fail, as reasonable people are most likely to do, we look for ways out of the conundrum.

Mostly, we focus on ways to fit this communal tragedy into our own personal understanding of the world, however short-sighted or narrow-minded that understanding may be. In the libraries of our minds, we try to shelve this latest tale of terror under psychology or religion or politics or feminism. “Experts” from all of these disciplines have appeared on a range of talk shows and news broadcasts lately, variously depicting the shooter as a godless gun nut, an insecure young white male, an autistic videogame addict.

I’m normally drawn to literature for explorations of human madness, but this time around, I’m finding more appropriate parallels and metaphors in music, specifically in the science of sound. Maybe this is due to the title of Nate Silver’s recent book, The Signal and the Noise, which looks to mathematics and statistics as they relate to pundits and would-be prognosticators. More specifically, Silver discusses attempts to predict future events, such as elections, and wonders why most of these attempts fail.

At this moment, here’s the future-oriented question most of us struggle to answer definitively: How can we keep something like the Newtown killing from ever happening again?

Such a complex question inevitably inspires a great deal of “noise,” the static and chatter that surrounds and distorts a sensible discussion despite its tangential relevance. For example, we’ve heard many conversations about “mental illness” despite the lack of any confirmed diagnosis in the case of the Newtown shooter. Others have attributed his motives to celebrity-seeking, despite any evidence to that effect, and thereby condemned the media. One person ironically hijacked the persona of a media celebrity (Morgan Freeman) in order to make his own anti-media point more popular in the world of social media.

All of this is noise. When we listen to it and perpetuate it, we lose track of the signal: the clear message buried inside.

Signal and noise have been core components of electronic music for decades now. I grew up during a time in which music was transformed by the appearance of the synthesizer. These electronic devices generate a source tone (for example, discrete sounds like sine waves or random signals like white noise) that is subsequently processed through a series of oscillators, filters, and envelopes to create a final note or sound (helicopter rotors for a Pink Floyd album, for example). The resulting signal can then be amplified and heard through headphones or stereo speakers.

The science of synthesizers may be complicated, but I want to focus on two concepts related to signal and noise: filters and amplifiers.

The goal of a filter is to block and withhold unwanted material, such as a particular range of sound. An equalizing filter, for example, allows you to lessen (or conversely boost) the amount of treble or bass you might hear through your stereo system. Some physical filters, such as a coffee filter, are quite refined and prevent small particles from passing through. In a weird way, a bulletproof vest is a crude sort of filter; its function is to block the passage of ammunition through to the wearer.

Throughout our lives, we develop multiple filters to help us process and understand the world around us. Otherwise, we might feel completely overwhelmed 24/7/365—as if some of us don’t feel that way already. Some of these filters come prepackaged—in academic or religious instruction, for example. We construct and employ others through our own experience, the lessons learned in life. Like the bulletproof vest, these filters shield and protect us; they give us the strength and courage to venture into potentially dangerous situations, both physically and mentally. They help us face up to monstrosities.

At this point, perhaps a line of poetry is in order:

The heart knows no filter.

If you’re like me, the initial news of the Newtown massacre came as a shock to the system. My first responses were all raw emotion: grief, rage, fear. Heartache, of course, because the heart, not being bulletproof, was wounded.

I might add disbelief to the list, but I can’t. For starters, it would be a lie; Columbine and Aurora and all the previous mass shootings should have already prepared us for this. On top of that, disbelief is a secondary, filtered response. The prefix “dis” serves as the filter, processing the initial state of belief. When we said we couldn’t believe the news of the shooting, what we were really saying was that we didn’t want to believe. The filter acted to block the truth, to deny its passage and place in our world.

Pressing further, I would argue that, due to the intensity of our emotional responses, many of us were rendered temporarily insane by news of the Newtown shooting. This would explain our disbelief, our denial of reality, our futile grasp at adjectives such as “unthinkable,” “unimaginable,” and “inconceivable.” By the very definition of insanity, we “lacked reasonable thought.”

And so began the noise, the procession of unreasonable responses to the tragedy. Despite a nearly total lack of evidence, analysts began offering possible motives and explanations for the violence, many of them tailored to fit their particular areas of expertise or concern. Conversations about gun control gave way to discussions of mental illness and health care, all based on conjecture. One viral essay, a blog post from the mother of a difficult and sometimes violent child, claimed such a deep level of understanding that she equated herself with the shooter’s mother. It was an absurd reduction based on an unknown and complex situation. Such extreme filtration of the facts resulted in one of the most highly illogical and self-centered responses to the shooting, and yet it continues to dominate some discussions today.

Many of these filtered responses were amplified via the media and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Immediately after the event, many of us reached out to family members and friends via phone calls, e-mails, and status updates and expressed our deepest, most sincere thoughts and emotions. Subsequently, we began to pass along the thoughts and feelings of others, mostly those that corresponded closely to our own beliefs. In other words, we filtered out the rest. We began to process the signal and, in some of the more extreme cases, distorted and completely lost it.

I thank our President Barack Obama for providing such a relatively measured and balanced response in the wake of this tragedy. In doing so, he reminded me of the kind of leader the country needs at a time like this, someone more like Mr. Spock than the Incredible Hulk. He did not indulge the vigilante superhero fantasies that preoccupy so much of the American mindset and perhaps contribute to this sort of violence in the first place. (I urge you to read Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined for a much more thorough exploration of this.)

As Nate Silver reminds us, logic is a tough, impartial judge. Like the rules of law, facts and statistics are indifferent to your or my personal opinions or beliefs. As filters go, logical analysis is our most reliable option, difficult though it may be. That’s why, in the wake of extreme tragedies like Newtown, we must continue to educate one another and ourselves in the facts of the matter. It’s also why we need to place a renewed emphasis on logic in the education of our children. No tool will be more useful to them in the course of their lives.

With that in mind and by way of example, I offer some attempts at a logical analysis of various reactions to the Newtown massacre below, keeping in mind the question: How do we keep something like this from ever happening again?

We need more, not fewer weapons. Pro-gun people often claim that an armed teacher or principal (or mall shopkeeper, movie theater attendant, member of the clergy, bystander…all of us, really, I guess) could take down hostile trespassers and prevent deaths in situations like this. Studies have shown otherwise. A more fully armed populace might prevent deaths, but it wouldn’t prevent the situations themselves, so this is at best only a partial solution to the question above. It might also have the opposite effect of increasing the number of such incidents, since more weapons would be in circulation and potentially available to would-be shooters.

Let’s say we pass a law (and some politicians have proposed such laws) that mandates weapons for school officials and teachers (and, by extension, shopkeepers and movie theater attendants and so on and so on). By that reasoning, the willingness to carry a weapon and undergo extensive training in its use would become a prerequisite for anyone applying for these jobs. You would need to feel ready and able to shoot and kill another human being when called upon. Pacifists, whether on religious or just plain moral grounds, no longer need apply, at least not until all the discrimination lawsuits have been settled.

Also, if we truly want to prevent any future bloodshed by arming ourselves even more, we have to trust in our ability to act fast and first—probably without time to fully assess a situation, and certainly without time to attempt a diplomatic or talk-down resolution—which means responding with immediate gunfire to any threat, real or perceived. This is the rationale behind the “stand your ground” laws in some states, which, as we have seen in the case of Trayvon Martin, can sometimes result in the death of innocent children.

These pro-gun arguments also conveniently ignore (filter out) the fact that more and more of today’s mass shooters wear bulletproof vests or combat armor on their sprees. Unless we’ve all been trained to be reliable sharpshooters, our chances at taking down an armed maniac before he takes us down are therefore slim. Shooting at him becomes more like kicking at a hornet’s nest.

In a “good-versus-evil” shooting match, there’s also a high probability that innocent bystanders will be wounded and/or killed by “friendly fire,” especially in dark or smoke-filled spaces such as the Aurora movie theater. I suppose that in order for all of us to feel completely safe from potential gunfire, we should be wearing bulletproof armor at all times. Consequently, our country begins to sound less and less like “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

We need to restore God in the classroom.  For starters, this argument always seems to focus first on the victims, not the shooter himself. Secondly, it baits an argument about whose God we should all bow down to. Thirdly, this argument conveniently neglects (i.e. filters out) the large number of violent historical events, some described in gruesome detail in the Christian Bible, in which God supposedly commands others to kill on his behalf. These people, some of them respected figures in religious history, dutifully obeyed the voices they heard in their heads. Chew on this: What if the all-knowing God spoke to the Newtown gunman and told him, “There is one and only one way to wake up Americans to the need for gun control. If you go into a kindergarten and kill dozens of small children, I guarantee you that gun laws in your country will change and that thousands more lives will subsequently be saved.” Religious philosophers, discuss.

 We need to prevent the mentally ill from owning guns. For starters, the buyer and owner of the guns used in the Newtown killing was the man’s mother, and she wasn’t mentally ill. By all accounts, her son wasn’t officially diagnosed as “mentally ill,” either. Therefore, this restriction would not have prevented the slaughter in Newtown.

Restrictions that focus on mental illnesses also seem to assume that such conditions are both evident and permanent, that they manifest themselves from birth and remain consistently visible throughout a person’s lifetime. Anyone who has the slightest inkling of knowledge about psychology knows this is hogwash. Do you feel the same amount of mental stability each and every hour of each and every day? Did you feel 100% mentally stable when you first heard the news about the Newtown killing?

If we feel that we must prevent the “mentally ill” from owning guns, then we must establish an “acceptable” level of illness when it comes to owning guns—that level at which a person is at risk of harming either the self or another living creature. One could argue that nearly everyone feels capable of harming the self or another living creature at some point in his or her life, either during a case of severe depression or in a moment of stress-related rage. With that in mind, the “no guns for the mentally ill” proposal could mean, in its most preventative application, no guns for anyone.

Speaking of acceptable levels of mental illness, let’s consider all those people who heard about Newtown and felt compelled to rush out to buy more guns. Some felt sure that they needed these weapons to protect themselves and/or their loved ones from future incidents. Others were afraid that their personal gun rights were about to be stripped away, so it was best to stock up now and hope for a grandfather clause that would protect their stash. Such extreme and self-centered responses to this national tragedy suggest a form of delusional paranoia, itself a mental illness, yet these are the supposedly reasonable folks intent on protecting us all from the irrational gunmen.

Here’s another inconvenient fact related to mental health: In many gun-related incidents (though not, it seems, Newtown), a major factor in the shooting is the consumption of alcohol. If we expand our scope to consider all alcohol-related fatalities, we find many, many more deaths of innocent people and children caused by drunk drivers each year. Grouping these deaths together sends a clear signal; spacing them apart renders them more like noise. That may explain why we see few people either suggesting or rallying around a proposal to ban alcohol in order to prevent deaths, either by gun or by car. Another argument for another time, perhaps.

Stricter background checks will prevent these killings. This is an argument of hindsight, which, as we all know, is 20/20. The purchase of a gun will always precede a criminal’s first armed robbery, rendering a background check ineffective. What we really need is a foreground check. Absent psychic powers of prognostication or the development of software that aggregates all your personal data and predicts whether or not you’ll become a mass murderer, we’re still a few miles shy of the finish line with this proposed solution.

Ban assault weapons. This one makes sense, though once again it’s a partial solution. Even if it can’t stop shooters from doing harm, it can at least limit the amount of damage done. In other words, it saves lives.

Think of it this way: an assault weapon is an amplified version of a single-shot gun. It makes a weak signal stronger. It allows one lonely, unstable voice to send out a disproportionately loud message. Even though that message may be unclear or irrational, it echoes throughout the culture, filtered and amplified by our own voices as we try to make sense of it, voices that are in turn amplified by the many forms of media at our disposal.

What we’re left with is chaos and cacophony. In the world of music, it’s called feedback.

Put more simply, it’s noise.

Stronger

Preface

No, this piece is not about Kelly Clarkson’s current Top 40 hit, “Stronger,” though I’m gladdened by its success, especially because of Clarkson’s popularity among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning youth. This essay is about my father and me, how our relationship changed over time, and about the prevailing power of love.

But if that all sounds rather sugary and sweet, then maybe we should go back to that Kelly Clarkson song for a moment and track down the source of its anthemic chorus, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Kids and pop culture connoisseurs of America, welcome to the world of Friederich Nietzsche. Yes, the German philosopher who introduced us to the dark concept of “nihilism” provided the original inspiration for Clarkson’s current hit with this quotation: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Before Nietzsche went insane toward the end of his life, he penned some of the most revolutionary remarks in modern philosophy, including this one: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”

I’ve been meditating on those two statements after reading Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s astonishing “School of Hate: One Town’s War on Gay Teens” in Rolling Stone Issue 1150 (Feb. 16, 2012; link below), continuing to think about the Rutgers suicide (referenced in my last blog), and struggling to come to terms with the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. I was also inspired by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s op-ed recognition of the founding of ACT UP by Larry Kramer 25 years ago this month (“The Living after the Dying;” link below). During the rewriting of this piece, another of Bruni’s columns, “Rethinking His Religion,” likewise moved me deeply, as did Maureen Dowd’s piece on fathers and sons, “How Oedipus Wrecks.” (Links to both are also posted below.)

I mention these sources to provide context in advance of sharing something that is quite deeply personal. Only a handful of people have heard some of these stories, and I continue to wrestle with their influence and consequences today. I withheld some details while my parents were alive but find that now, in grieving for them, pathways to the past that were once blocked off are now open for travel once again.

Suicide, murder, death by disease: How do we confront and survive such horrors in the world, especially those that are motivated and/or perpetuated by forces that are sometimes close to home, such as racism and homophobia? For me, the answer has always been clear. One at a time, we share our stories and experiences, both real and imagined. We listen, and then we respond. Together, we learn about lives different from our own—through fiction, poetry, music, painting, and every other creative endeavor. In developing our senses of empathy and understanding, we do what we can to make the world a better place.

This, then, is my personal response to many of the tragedies we have heard about in the news recently. It is a true story of survival and redemption, an exploration of how one person (me) found the strength to endure in such difficult and often dangerous times.

"Encounter/Exposure" — Multiple-exposure self-portrait taken back in the day.

 What Didn’t Kill Me

“They should all be rounded up, taken into a field, and shot.”

That was my father back in the late 70’s, responding to a news story about Dade County, Florida, and the ordinance it had passed prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Citrus Queen Anita Bryant was no doubt on the television stirring up homophobic sentiment among the growing crowds who had come to hear her rally against the ordinance under the guise of the innocent-sounding group “Save Our Children.” The homosexuals, Bryant shouted into her microphone, must be stopped. My father obviously agreed.

At the time, I didn’t fully understand what homosexuality was, even though I had some inkling that it was manifesting itself within me. “Fag,” “gay,” and “queer” were insults regularly hurled at me in school, not because I displayed any overt sexual interest in men, but because I was younger, weaker, and smarter than most of my peers.  “Fag,” “gay,” and “queer” were also insults regularly sneered by Archie Bunker on the classic sitcom “All in the Family.” Archie was something of a hero for my father, and to this day, I doubt that he fully understood that the character was intended as a parody, his prejudices a cause for ridicule. When I would come home crying after occasional fights and beatings, my father would sternly advise me to “fight back like a real man.” It was clear to me that, in his eyes at least, I was at risk for becoming something “other” than a man.

I worked on developing a tough outer shell during my school years, mostly by immersing myself in music and shutting out the rest of the world. A quick look at my cassette mixes of the period reveals an obsession with punk rock and goth music. The glittering gaiety of disco held no interest or sway with me. I wanted rhythms and melodies that were darker and more complex, more in keeping with my shaded heart. I favored love songs in which the pronouns and protagonists were gender-neutral.

In my blue-collar hometown, there were no “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered , and questioning youth” clubs or alliances in school. (N.B.: I’ll be shortening that list of identifiers to the commonly used “GLBTQ” throughout this entry, with apologies to those who question the arrangement of those letters.) There was no “welcoming congregation” in any of the local churches. I knew only one openly gay person, a disco-obsessed coworker with crude mannerisms who often showed up at work either drunk or stoned. There was no Web or Internet to provide any additional information about homosexuality or to engage in any social networking. There was mostly the television, with its occasional news story about gay-bashing and raids on “deviant sex clubs,” and my father’s vocal support of killing all the queers that the cops rounded up. Though I suspected that she disagreed, my mother remained silent.

I would often retreat to the basement or my bedroom, playing strange and obscure albums I had heard and read about during my job at a local music store. These would become the soundtrack to my adolescent dialogues with God, the ones in which I prayed for a change in my character while simultaneously praying for the cute guy in calculus class to notice me, the ones in which I would ask God why He had made me the way I was if my existence supposedly offended Him. If, as my mother had taught me, God was the source and sum of all human love, why was my love not a valid part of that equation?

One night, during my senior year, I concluded that there was no possible reconciliation between who I was and who I should be. Despite all the high grades in school and my teachers’ reports of exemplary conduct, I was more evil than good. I was a blot in God’s perfect world, an aberration, a mistake. Maybe, I thought, my father was right. Maybe people like me were better off dead.

And so, on a sudden impulse, I reached for the nearest weapon I could find—in this case, a dagger hanging on my bedroom wall. To be honest, it was a decorative dagger, purchased during a school-sponsored trip to Spain a year earlier. Even so, it was metal and its point was sharp. It would certainly do the trick. Without any second thoughts, I closed my eyes, held the dagger out with both hands, and plunged it toward my heart.

The heels of my hands punched into my chest. There was pain, but not the deep stab I’d expected. It felt more like a tiny bite, a bee-sting.

I looked down to see the blade bent flat and harmless against my chest. The tip had drawn blood, but left little more than a nick in the skin.

Inside, I heard a voice: “No, not this. Not you.” God was speaking directly to me. In that instant, I had found a faith deeper and truer than any I had previously known. My beliefs no longer relied on old-world hand-me-downs from parents and priests. I had just witnessed an actual miracle, a real-life experience imbued with divine grace and meaning. (Some years later, a college physician would explain the “miracle” in more clinical terms: I have an unusual bone spur located directly beneath my sternum, an abnormality that had been either absent or at least undetected throughout my entire life. Make of that what you will.)

To this day, I don’t know who or what had prevented my suicide—and yes, let’s be honest; that’s the word for what I had attempted. Even so, whatever happened that day left me with a renewed awe and reverence for this extraordinary gift of life.

In other words, it made me stronger.

Getting Stronger

Fast-forward to the University of Montana in the early 90s. A lesbian couple and I had been invited into a sociology classroom to discuss whether GLBTQ people should be allowed to adopt children. At the time, I was a graduate student in the English department, an “out” gay man to most of my friends and colleagues yet not to the students in the composition classes I taught.

A woman near the back raised her hand. “I don’t have any problem with you all being gay and what not,” she said. “But I just don’t think it’s fair to do that to the kids.” She paused, perhaps waiting for a murmur of support from her classmates. “I mean, the other kids would just tease them and make fun of them. It just wouldn’t be fair to the children.”

Ah yes; the children. Recollections of Anita Bryant sparked a prickly heat in my chest, but I tried to remain cool and calm on the outside. In the most even tone I could muster, I asked the woman, “Would that be your kids doing the teasing? Because I fail to see how someone else’s bad parenting skills should suddenly become my problem and prevent me from raising my own children with the decent values I intend to teach them.”

The woman squirmed in her seat. I could imagine her offense at my remarks: This class was supposed to be about queer people and their homosexuality, not straight people and their homophobia. Inasmuch as I was tired of straight people talking like experts about homosexuality, I was also tired of being a homosexual asked to talk about homophobia. Why did the task of dealing with gay-bashing—and other examples of bias-based violence, to some extent—always seem to get shoved back onto the backs of the targets of such violence? Hadn’t we been burdened with enough in our lives?

Yes, we had. But then, as I witnessed time after time among a number of GLBTQ friends and allies, we were that much stronger because of it. Through mutual support and sheer determination, we had weathered multiple storms and faced the next ones head-on. We had the courage of our convictions and the strength of our beliefs—convictions and beliefs that had been tested repeatedly, with all of that resulting in a hard-won faith in our God-given characters and abilities.

I recalled that sociology-class encounter as I read a Rolling Stone article about a recent string of teen suicides in the Annoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota. The story received national attention primarily because of the district’s representative, former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, and her Bryant-like crusade against homosexuality. She and her cohorts had promoted policies within the school district that prohibited any mention or discussion of homosexuality, even when it was crucial to addressing any instances of bullying or harassment. Sensitive GLBTQ students understood the underlying message: homosexuality was a sin, an evil in society, a sickness so despicable that it should not even be discussed, in public or in private. In a twisted logic reminiscent of rape cases in which the victims are blamed for provoking the attack, these students were advised to tone down their own behaviors and just be more careful around bullies. One victim noted that while teachers reprimanded students who used racial slurs, homophobic insults went unchallenged.

Recent protests around both the Annoka-Hennepin suicides, the Trayvon Martin murder, and other tragedies show that many people in society—perhaps even the majority, at long last—are sick of suffering such losses in silence. In calling for an end to toxic mindsets like homophobia and racism, justice-seeking people are now standing their ground and demanding that the law protect them from real threats such as armed vigilantes and over-zealous politicians. Community organizers and activists continue to work to create a safer, saner, and more supportive world for the next generation—not one in which ignorance masquerades as authority in order to diminish or extinguish the lives of others.

For years after coming out as a gay man, I had been working to achieve similar peaceful goals. In addition to organizing support groups for GLBTQ youth, I worked with the leaders of church congregations to make them more welcoming places. I wrote articles and edited a statewide GLBT newspaper. (“Q” wasn’t in the masthead at the time, and the arrangement of the other terms was always a hot-button topic.)

As a balance to activism, I engaged in some subversion as well. Together with a group of gay and lesbian cohorts, I infiltrated a local chapter meeting of noted homophobe Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. At the end of that event, the chairperson came by to thank us for attending. “Your presence here tonight has really opened my eyes,” she said. I noted that all of us had recited the Pledge of Allegiance together at the start of the meeting, and that I for one proudly believed each and every word. “Liberty and justice for all,” I repeated, placing extra emphasis on “for all.” She nodded; she understood. Despite our initial fears of one another, we could connect after all.

In the weeks leading up to my father’s death last June, I told him many of these stories that I am telling you now. (I did not, however, tell him about the suicide attempt, nor about how his own behavior had played a major role in that.) I had been spending as much time with him as I could, trying my best to tolerate his constant cigarette smoking even as cancer, heart disease, and numerous other ailments waged war within his body.

It came as no surprise to me that in addition to football and baseball, some of his favorite television programs were courtroom reality shows: “Judge Judy, “ Judge Joe Brown,” “Judge Jeanine Pirro.” Every so often, a gay or lesbian plaintiff or defendant would take the stand. Their appearances on the show seemed quite normal and never elicited comment, positive or negative, from my father.

But then, just days before his death, my father delivered one final judgment.

We had just spent hours talking about love, sharing stories about the people who had mattered most to us in our lives while a Red Sox rebroadcast droned on in the background. After confessing our secret boyhood crushes, he glanced at the clock. “My God,” he said. “It’s way past midnight!”

Instead of wrapping up the conversation and saying our goodnights, my father raised his hand to hold my attention. “One more thing,” he said. He looked down at the floor, then back up at me. “You know, you’re a lot stronger than I ever gave you credit for. Don’t you ever let anyone take that away from you.”

His words came as a shock. I had never expected them. In fact, I had long ago convinced myself that I did not need them. Because of that, he and I had often kept our distance—both figuratively and literally. And yet, at long last, my father had looked deep inside me and approved of what was there.

This growing approval had been evident over many visits made by my husband and me. Together, the three of us had shared all sorts of stories, from my dad’s wartime adventures in the Phillipines to our relatively bucolic tales of life in Vermont. His happiness for us was genuine, especially when he heard that our friends and neighbors had fully accepted us into their small-town community.

No doubt, my father had feared it would be otherwise. He knew firsthand how strong a force prejudice and homophobia could be in the world. And yet now, at last, he knew another truth: a person could be stronger than that. The fact that I could be such a strong person is, I now realize—despite its tough and tortured origins—my father’s legacy to me.

Epilogue: “It Gets Better”

In response to the numbers of GLBTQ youth who are harassed and bullied in schools around the country, the writer Dan Savage recently utilized the power of YouTube to create inspirational videos in which speakers tell stories focused on the theme “It Gets Better.”

Though the story I have told above might sound like something you’d find there, I have to express my reservations about the project. I don’t mean to say that the thousands of stories told on the site aren’t helpful or valuable. They are, and I applaud each and every person who has added his or her positive voice to the site.

Even so, the phrase “It gets better” sounds so, well, weak to me. As a teenager, I was savvy to simplistic platitudes like that. They sounded like so much wishful thinking, Hallmark cards for the marginalized. What is the pronoun “it” referring to, anyway? And what kind of action verb is “get”?

I know, I know…the writer/editor in me shouldn’t be so fussy when lives are at stake.

But here’s the deal: Sometimes it doesn’t get better. Sometimes the boy doesn’t get the boy, the girls don’t get the adoption approval, or the operation doesn’t turn out the way someone had hoped. Hearing the words “it gets better” just makes it sound like we should all wait patiently and ride out the storm. It’s a passive construction, and, as the stories above should illustrate, I’ve had it with passive. In crisis situations, I crave more control of my life, not less.

So, in addition to (but not in place of) “It Gets Better,” I offer these words of support: “You Grow Stronger.” And if you don’t believe me, just listen to that Kelly Clarkson song again. Or read Friederich Nietzsche.

Better yet, I am proud to report, you can take my father’s word for it.

UPDATE:

Since the publication of the original article in Rolling Stone, the Anoka-Hennepin School District finally developed a better (though not perfect) policy in order to “promote a respectful learning environment” in its schools. You can read about the new policy here in their newsletter:

http://www.anoka.k12.mn.us/education/components/whatsnew/default.php?sectiondetailid=233410&itemID=45742

 

LINKS

“School of Hate” in Rolling Stone link:

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/one-towns-war-on-gay-teens-20120202

Frank Bruni links:

“The Living After the Dying”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/bruni-the-aids-warriors-legacy.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=frank%20bruni%20ACT%20UP&st=cse

“Rethinking His Religion:”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/opinion/sunday/bruni-a-catholic-classmate-rethinks-his-religion.html?_r=1&hp

Maureen Dowd: “How Oedipus Wrecks” link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/opinion/sunday/dowd-how-oedipus-wrecks.html?ref=opinion

“It Gets Better” link:

http://www.itgetsbetter.org/

American Anger, Part One

Preface: This is Part One of what I hope will be an ongoing, potentially year-long exploration of this subject. The topic seems well-suited to the “blog” format, serving more as a catalyst for conversation rather than a definitive treatise on the topic. I look forward to continuing the conversation in hopes of reaching some constructive insights, conclusions, and potential remedies.

As you’ll no doubt quickly note, my take on American anger is a rather personal approach; your choices for taking on the topic may no doubt differ. Despite that, I’ll be using terms like “Americans “ and the first-person-plural pronoun “we” rather liberally throughout the entries. I do this merely as shorthand, fully aware that it’s literary sleight of hand, both a contrivance and a conceit. I don’t intend to suggest that there are absolute universal truths here, especially since the insistence on universal absolutes in society tends to generate the very anger I’ll be analyzing.

As always, thanks for reading, and even more thanks to those who respond to provoke or inspire further insight.

 1. Use Your Words

American anger fascinates me.

Here we are, billing ourselves as the “best, greatest, richest, most powerful” nation in the world, and yet people all over the country claim to be angry. Watching the growth of the Tea Party movement in 2010 was like watching the now-famous scene in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film “Network” in which unstable talk-show host Howard Beale inspires his viewers to lift up window sashes across the country and shout out into the night: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” Everyone was mad as hell for different reasons, but there was a feeling that bringing all that rage together into one unifying cry might make it either coherent or effective. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.) In many ways, it echoed a couple of the poet Walt Whitman’s famous lines from “Song of Myself”:

            I, too, am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

            I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

It was not a specific word or words that Whitman called out into the night; it was not an intelligible phrase or clause. It was a sound, an utterance, savage and undomesticated, more animal than human. In a way, Whitman was suggesting, people had been making those sounds for years and would continue for many more, well beyond his own eventual death. We might never come to know who he was or what he meant, but discussion about it “shall be good health to you nonetheless.”

In this election year, 2012, we are hearing quite a few YAWPS across the political landscape, some less tamed and translatable than others.

In addition to all the contemporary social and political dissent, there is a perhaps an even more powerful undercurrent of dissonance—the lack of a rational link between one’s beliefs and one’s reality, however either one is perceived. It’s the feeling we get when we pay top-dollar for something only to find that it’s cheaply made or ineffectual. We vote for a candidate based on his or her promises only to find those promises later ignored. (To provide some continuity between this blog and an earlier entry on football’s “Tebow Time” phenomenon, dissonance was that sickening feeling the hyper-religious quarterback’s more fanatic fans experienced when the Denver Broncos were humiliated by the New England Patriots in a recent playoff game. For the sake of divisional fairness, it was also the sickening feeling the Green Bay Cheeseheads felt when Aaron Rodgers and the nearly-perfect Packers succumbed to the New York Giants the very next day.)

I’ll be talking much more about dissonance and its relation to anger later on, but it’s worth mentioning here just to keep the idea in mind as the discussion of anger progresses.

As Americans, we see anger glorified throughout our culture, from movies to music, sports to politics. Despite our supposed Judeo-Christian foundation, we have movements in the country that promote violence and greed over diplomacy and charity. As our young people’s generation comes to define itself (or, to put it in the passive voice, lets itself be defined by others) as “ironic,” it also grows indifferent to irony’s cousin, hypocrisy. Sarcasm provides an easy segue from skepticism to cynicism, providing many a political pundit on both ends of the political spectrum with the equivalent of sniper’s bullets.

When anger wears us down into a numbed state of depression, anger’s inward-turned doppelganger, we shrug our shoulders and try to focus our attention elsewhere. For some, this may translate into another glass of wine, another dose of Xanax, another marathon session watching the Real Housewives of Whatever County spit their venomous barbs at one another. Other folks may start in on the next level of “Angry Birds,” one of the highest-grossing games in our country. Or perhaps you want to take a virtual trip around the world—killing people and blowing things up along the way—in America’s top game of the Christmas season, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. What a wonderful gift to commemorate the birth of the Prince of Peace. (See how easily the sarcasm comes?)

Many players of these games claim that such pastimes are cathartic—that they help “release tension” and “blow off steam” at the end of a stressful day. If that were truly the case, violent movies and first-person shooter games would leave viewers and players in states of blissful repose. Instead, they ramp up the emotions and boost the adrenalin. (Full disclosure: I play an occasional hour or two of “World of Warcraft” myself at the end of a busy day, so I know that to be successful as a warrior, you need to “generate rage.” It’s right there in the game manual.)

So maybe the term cathartic is a canard when we choose violence-based entertainment as a relief or release of our internal anger and frustration. I’d argue that the proper word is indulgent. Pressing further, I’d express concern that a more appropriate adjective might be catalytic. America seems to like things super-sized and hyper-accelerated, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to anger, amplification isn’t just acceptable; it’s preferable.

An admission: cathartic, indulgent, and catalytic are big words. I’m a writer, so I sometimes use big words. That’s because language, like anger, fascinates me. They’re both acts of expression that have rich, sometimes hidden, roots and origins. Example: I wrote a poem about one such instance, the word decimate. Many people think it means “to destroy completely and indiscriminately.” In fact, the word is based on the Latin root for the number ten and originally meant a methodical act of slaughter in which exactly one victim in ten was killed. (Ironic, eh?) The meanings of words may evolve over time, but the origins of their species are there for all to comprehend and appreciate.

But I digress. Let’s return to the notion of anger as a cathartic force and set forth a little thought experiment. Imagine that you’re a parent dealing with a red-faced child whose inexplicable rage has sent cereal, milk, and orange juice flying across the kitchen. To calm the child, would you—

  1. put on some soothing, New Age music and send the child into the corner for a five-minute “time out” period of self-reflection?
  2. tell the kid to march off to his/her room and go the f*ck to sleep?
  3. tell the child to imagine having an automatic weapon in his/her hands during a stressful, high-stakes combat mission whose outcome will determine the fate of all mankind?
  4. ask the child, “Why are you so angry?”

Now imagine America as a red-faced child.

Modern child-rearing gurus recommend option d. Many advise parents to respond to their children’s extreme behaviors with the expression “Use your words.” This doubles as both an encouragement of self-expression and a redirection of energy. It’s a graceful dance step that moves the child away from visceral reaction toward more cerebral creation. Emotions, meet intellect. Intellect, say hello to emotions.

To some, however, “use your words” is just so much poppycock. To quote the blogger MetroDad, a rather literate and opinionated New Yorker: “I think it’s a bullshit mantra that only helps raise the next generation of pussies.” Like it or not, that’s using your words.

In some ways, “use your words” promotes a form of therapy. It seeks to replace the outburst with what we might call the “inburst,” a breaking-and-entering of the psyche in order to see what secrets are hidden in the closets or nailed beneath the floorboards. We ask a child “what’s really bothering you?” with an expectation of stolen snacks or missing pets, but sometimes the answer shocks and surprises. I’d argue that this is true even when we as adults ask the question of ourselves.

It’s no surprise that many people view creative expression as a form of therapy. Just read the inexhaustible output of writers writing about writing, a quite profitable if overindulgent niche market. We’ve even “verbed” the word “journal.” Did you know that people who journal frequently are able to reduce their stress and manage their anger more efficiently? I could say the same thing about blogging, but then there’s that quote up above from MetroDad. (I kid MetroDad. His blog entries are actually quite amusing, entertaining, and even insightful.)

Too often these days, when it comes to using our words, people settle for quick fixes rather than deep introspection. It’s the 140-character Tweet of the daily pet peeve versus Plato’s lifetime of examination. I’m not suggesting that everyone sign up for therapy sessions, but I do ask friends and colleagues to strive for clarity and honesty in their communications. That often requires work. True expression isn’t effortless.

Even as I write this, I am surrounded by reference materials. As a writer, it often isn’t enough simply to “use your words.” As you’ve noticed, I often rely on the words of others, be they expressed in song or psalm, poetry or prose, book or blog. I would be lost without the dictionary, the thesaurus, the atlas, the encyclopedia, and the patient guidance of my editor/husband—even though all of those things can tempt me along time-consuming tangents with their fascinating insights. Likewise, I am inspired and guided by the works of scholars like Geoffrey Nunberg, whose books and NPR spots on language have both educated and entertained me. Honestly, how many of you get excited when you see an essay entitled “The Politics of Polysyndeton” Hands? Hands? Hello?…

My own fascination with language started in second grade, when my wonderful teacher Miss Burke introduced me to bookmaking with the simplest materials, and it has grown deeper ever since. Even so, one catalytic instant stands out. (Please, if you still don’t know what catalytic means, either look it up on your iPad’s dictionary or ask your car mechanic. After all, these elite, ten-dollar words aren’t reserved for professors holed up in their ivory towers. If you truly love your country, learn the English language. Have I made my appeal clear in both liberalese and conservatese?)

Elie Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and the holder of a Congressional Medal of Honor, is another humanitarian hero of mine. Wiesel spent most of his life coming to terms with the violence, anger, and despair he witnessed as a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust. I heard him speak about his experiences shortly after he received the Nobel Prize. One of his responses during a question-and-answer session has haunted me ever since.

“Americans,” he stated matter-of-factly, “have one of the most violent languages in the world.”

The truth of that comment struck me. No…it hit me in the face. No…it blindsided me. No…it knocked me out. No…it fell on me like a ton of bricks. No…it blew my mind. No…it bowled me over.

Everywhere I went and everyone I talked to—suddenly, I was keenly aware of the insidious presence of anger and violence in everyday American language. On one occasion, I felt compelled to alert a pacifist minister to her repeated use of violent idioms and imagery in a sermon on compassion. She stood there dumbstruck (as we say), amazed by the horrible truthfulness of the comment.

For a while after hearing Elie Wiesel speak, I too felt dumbstruck, “made silent by astonishment” (to quote Webster). As a writer, I also felt aware in a way I had never felt or experienced before. The Buddhist in me smiled silently. Mindfulness, after all, is one of the key concepts of the practice, summed up simply in the popular mantra “Be here now.”

And so here I am, now, in an American culture defined (in part) by its reactionary anger toward so many things—including each other. I’m struggling to understand that anger, both in myself and in others, and to use my words to describe it. But what do we talk about when we talk about anger?

Defining anger, as I hope to demonstrate in the forthcoming part two, is no easy task, but it’s well worth the effort. Our fate as a nation, if I can ramp up the election year rhetoric, may actually depend on it.

• • •

Playlist for “American Anger”

“Music is food,” says my artist-friend James “Mayhem” Mahan, and so this post comes with a playlist for the full multi-media experience. These are songs that fed my mind as I considered this post and its upcoming parts. It’s also collaborative, so if you’re on Spotify, I encourage you to contribute as well as to listen. Mostly it’s for fun…testing once again how all of this interactive interconnected technology works. Enjoy.

  1. Green Day, “American Idiot”
  2. Public Image, “Rise”
  3. Nine Inch Nails, “Terrible Lie”
  4. Kanye West, “Monster”
  5. Florence and the Machine, “Kiss with a Fist”

(You can listen to and help build this playlist on Spotify here:

American Anger)

The Best of 2011…Is Yet to Come

"Opportunity for Reflection"

First of all, happy Gregorian 2012 to everyone!

In this season of endings and beginnings, I’ve been thinking instead about continuity and the hope that it offers us. After all, just a few weeks ago many of us were celebrating the winter solstice, that annual moment when Earth’s perpetual journey around the Sun begins to favor daylight over darkness. We could say with scientific certainty that brighter days were ahead. Ecologically, this is also the time when seeds stir in the earth and prepare for the upcoming growth seasons, even though their first green shoots are still a few months off. We celebrated that cycle of life along with the turning wheel of the seasons—the ongoing recurrence of natural patterns over time.

From the winter solstice, fast-forward a few weeks and the focus shifts to the close of the calendar year, a somewhat arbitrary and historically variable marker. After all, if you so desired, you could celebrate New Year’s Eve throughout the year, as long as you researched all of the lesser-known calendar-flips (Happy Gudi Padwa, everyone!) in addition to the more well-established date-changers, such as Rosh Hashanah and the Chinese Spring Festival. For much of the world, however, the calendar established by Pope Gregory XIII holds sway, making us all followers of the Catholic tradition, if only for a short time. This might explain all of those confessions of guilt and penitent vows of self-renewal associated with New Year’s resolutions. (Religious history purists can make what they want of the fact that January 1 also marks the supposed anniversary of Jesus’s circumcision. Perhaps that explains the noisemaker tradition?)

In western culture, the end of the calendar year has also become a time of retrospective judgment. “Best of” lists vie with “Worst of” lists for our consideration. Many of these seem contrived solely to boost sales at the end of the fourth business quarter (or second, if your company uses the July-to-June model). It’s probably no coincidence that the holiday season segues so seamlessly into the “awards season.”

For a long time, I was a huge fan of year-end best-of lists. Reading them was like sneaking a peek at the teacher’s edition of some cultural textbook: Had I chosen the right movies to watch? Did I memorize the words to the most worthy songs? Would reading the highest-rated books provide clues to help propel my own to the top of the list some day? One of my friends, a film studies major, regularly sent out a detailed report of his top-rated movies from the previous year, and I learned a great deal about cinema while studying his reviews and rationales. For weeks afterward, I sought out the films he had mentioned—no small feat, given the obscurity of some of them and the occasional lack of comprehensible subtitles.

Then, one year during graduate school, it all went sour. A film critic published his “Best of the Year” list in the city’s newspaper. There were just a few slight problems. First of all, he hadn’t screened all of the movies that had been released that year (but then again, who could?). Perhaps more importantly, he confessed that he hadn’t yet seen some of the films topping the box office charts or other critics’ “best of” lists. Furthermore, several of the movies that he mentioned were well over a year old, and the reviewer admitted to having only SEEN them during the course of that calendar year. In short, his list was a sham.

A subsequent exchange of letters between the reviewer and me was quite instructive and forever changed both our minds about end-of-year pronouncements. During our conversation, we noted that a movie often takes years to produce and premiere. The film itself is, in turn, based on a screenplay that may have been written and developed for several years prior to that. By extension, some films are based on pre-existing stories and novels (and, in more recent times, comics and board games). Those original artistic creations themselves might have required years of germination. The date stamped on such a film (or novel or musical composition) masks years of hard work and risks becoming, as dates sometimes do, misleading and meaningless.

Based on these musings, I will go out on a limb and suggest that Jane Austen did not fret over the fact that Pride and Prejudice was not named “Best Novel of 1799,” the year in which she completed the first draft of the manuscript. In fact, she would have to endure another fifteen “not-best-of” years before the book was even published. This should serve as an inspiration to all of us who labor on long-term projects like novels, child-rearing, and the deployment of particle accelerators. Some things just take time. To appropriate T.S. Eliot, those of us who craft lengthy books should measure out our lives with coffee spoons and printer cartridges, not calendar pages.

So, for many who look upon the start of a new year as a time to “take stock and start anew,” I counsel patience and perseverance instead. There is no reason to pause at this specified instant and judge what we did or did not achieve in 2011. Opportunities for reflection will no doubt come in 2012, and we can decide for ourselves which moments and contexts best serve our current endeavors.

In the meantime, here’s looking forward—perhaps far forward—to those future years in which the seeds we planted all these past years bear fruit.