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Ready, Aim, Fight

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I am mildly inured to fictional violence, as is anyone raised on television and film. But even fictionalized, I’m not terribly comfortable with harm. As a child I much preferred the ‘Pow’ ‘and Zowee’ of Batman than the guns used in Superman. As I grew older I preferred Quincy’s methodical crime solving than the gun-wielding villains of Baretta or The Rockford Files. Growing up in and around a major city guns were (mercifully) fictional or only associated with illegal acts. There wasn’t any (visible) recreational use and not much second amendment chatter.

I didn’t see a real live gun until I lived in a (very) rural community. People carried them in and on their cars and trucks. They weren’t in the process of committing a crime, they just liked guns. Sometime during this exposure to real live guns I decided it would be prudent to know how to use one. Perhaps by feeling more comfortable around guns I would understand people’s affection/fervor.

Fast-forward a decade and there I am, in a gun club of the seediest kind in a New Jersey suburb known for many nefarious doings. The storefront facility on a dead end street smelled of dust and gun powder. In that fake wood paneled (no doubt part-time porn set) store the jarring smell added to the uneasy ambience. The faded posters and scratched glass cases filled with guns (including a pink model for the ladies) jolted me into the realization that ‘gun club’ is not a euphemism. People pay dues and come regularly to shoot. They bring their guns in fancy cases: intimidating versions of a bowling bag or cue stick case.

Down on the range, goggles and earphones on, I was told to pick up the gun. Bathed in sweat, my stomach lurching, I stepped back. The desire to learn a skill or conquer a fear is not a bad thing.  But staring at that semi-automatic gun it became crystal clear that there is only one reason to pick up that gun in real life. Knowing how to shoot a gun is not like knowing how to drive a stick shift or performing CPR. It is not a life skill it is a death skill. The only reason to pick up that gun is to shoot a bullet into a person. That is a lot to consider in mere seconds. Confused by the realization and conscious of the muddling nature of fear, I chose to just do it. I made it through two rounds (that’s a bunch of bullets) and hit the bull’s eye each and every time.

I went immediately home, poured a large glass of wine and got into the tub. There was no sense of accomplishment, no feeling of conquering a fear: a heaving stomach and a heavy heart was all I had. How could anyone want to ever shoot a gun let alone own one (or several?) People enjoy what just made me physically sick. I don’t pretend to understand anything or anyone anymore than anyone else. But after my certificate earning shooting experience I understand some people even less. I wanted to believe that (like bowling) shooting is an activity that is for some but not everyone. I wanted to believe that it was about honing a target skill, like archery. Maybe for some people it actually is. For me, it was violent and frightening and very upsetting.

I don’t understand wanting to shoot. I don’t understand owning guns. I cannot even fathom having guns in a house with children or compromised adults. However, I do understand people’s sense of entitlement and I will fight it any and every chance I get.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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The Mean Streets of New York

New York City is a world unto itself. The names of its roads conjure full-length narratives; Wall Street, Broadway, Fifth Avenue. A harbor city with a rich commerce and immigration history, it is also a trendsetter. NYC and its rugged individualism stems from its bursting at the seams size. A recipe with millions of ingredients is bound to be unique. If you look hard enough (and factor in tourists) you might just find every type of human being imaginable in NYC. For years business in NYC mirrored this diversity and singularity.

However, as tourism has boomed commerce has followed suit with entire areas now resembling a mall. Times Square is the most obvious example. An area once considered sordid (if not flat out dangerous) home to PeepLand is now an amusement park for tourists and children. Enormous stores hawking (vending machine) candy and anything and everything branded with the candy’s logo, dot more than one corner of the square. Chain restaurants pop up like three-card-monte games once did. Cartoon and puppet characters now troll the streets in a plush walk that echoes their prostitute foremothers. They shake down “family men” for $5 after giving them a hand in creating a photo op.

But stray from midtown and it’s still pretty much an Elmo-TGI Fridays free zone (for now.) Yes Banana/Taylor/AnthroUrbans dot the landscape from the Bronx (up) to the Battery (down.) But real neighborhoods do not cater to or court tourists. The further you stray from the middle the more interesting things become. Neighborhoods bubble up, dissipate and bubble up again in the span of blocks. Retail reflects the nationality and/or ethnicity of local residents. Style and trend is set and followed locally. For better or worse there are many New Yorkers whose world does not expand beyond a one-mile radius. (How many times have you heard someone boast of “never setting foot above 14th street” or “getting a nosebleed above 86th street”?)

Given the almost insular nature of some city neighborhoods it’s jarring to spot a uniformed police officer (and marked car) stationed in front of a local movie theater. While the theater is not technically in the middle of nowhere, it is nowhere in terms of foot traffic or visibility. Living in New York one becomes accustomed to seeing incongruous evidence of heightened security. Body men outside of a diner? President must be in town. Federal and international agents milling about? Deposed leader in town. But one police officer in front of a rather dull movie theater on a weekday morning? Batman. That’s right, during a summer of obscene levels of street/playground shootings in New York City, there is a police officer assigned to the outer wall of a movie theater.

Decisions are made everyday that focus on image rather than logic or substance. But what makes this particular NYPD decision so baffling is how incredibly reactionary it seems. Was there intel about a ‘copycat’ attack in NYC? Would anyone unbalanced enough to actually do such a thing be deterred by the sight of a lone police officer leaning against a wall? Is there anyone actually living in the area who is concerned about their safety in a specific movie. Is the police officer a comfort to any local people? Or is this officer (and perhaps officers standing in front of every theater showing the film) a public relations move aimed at tourists? Tourists are probably not visiting the playgrounds and streets where children (and adults) have been shot. But they may come to the big city and go to or walk by a movie theater. Cynical conclusion? Perhaps that what comes from too many Grover/Pooh/Goofy/Shrek mingling.

 
 

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That Which We Call A Rose

No one is immune to the volcanic force of language.  An altered preposition, an inflection or a simple nuance can change the course of events if not our mood for the day. This awesome power is acknowledged before we even arrive on the planet. Our names will be labored over (sometimes literally.)  First names, middle names even last named will be constructed to pay respect or foretell character traits or ensure we’ll never have a seat on the supreme court. The words we are first taught, those we are allowed to hear and those we are punished for saying are all overseen with a scrutiny befitting a bank manager. Our legal system and our government are keen on the minutia of language and are poised to change and limit it all the time.  (Lest we think only of the dangers of limiting free speech, let us remember that screaming “fire” in a movie theater is simply not prudent.)  As a society we are continuously reexamining what words and terms are inflammatory or used to incite.

One of the most potent uses of language is that of branding.  There are words and phrases whose intent is spin.  Over the course of time we have found ways to passively (aggressively) brand people or things.  When a grown woman is continuously referred to as a girl, it just sounds more polite than repeating, “you are less than a man.”  Almost any person who’s affiliated with an underrepresented group could offer examples of this paradigm.  As groups become more visible and vocal, words and labels change.  People and groups are still labeled but with new words that have yet to ring as offensive to our ears.  No doubt there is a predictable timeframe of revision that is in play.  What sounds innocuous in 2012 will probably be horrifying in 2032.  We need only think back to what a compliment it was in the 1950s to be called a ‘housewife.’  In the 21st century it is considered an insult (to houses or wives, I’m not sure.)  People now stumble and scramble over terms such as: ‘stay at home mother’ (which suggests an ankle monitor) or “work in the home” (which could mean anything from novelist to parenting to piecework.)  Lots of awkward vague phrasing which rarely accurately communicates anything.

Of course where this less than graceful terminology stems from is the discomfort we’re currently experiencing around women, work, and parenting in the 21st century.   There is much anxiety around the freedom of choice that some women experience.  The anxiety is only exacerbated by the fishbowl we now inhabit.  Even a person 100% certain about his/her choices is barraged by confidence shaking messages.  Culturally we are reacting vigorously to the fact that women now do have choices (perhaps not enough but far more than any other time in recent history.)  If you were a Martian and found yourself at a magazine stand you would think it was in fact the 1950s.  Women are cautioned and coached on how to keep a man interested.  Fashion consists of girdles (with naughty names) sky-high heels, artificial hair (all the better to swish ‘round a pole) dark lacquered nails (requiring daily maintenance) and false eyelashes (forcing perfect posture so as not to inadvertently drop one onto someone’s lap or lunch.)  Now of course no one would confuse a fashion magazine for anything but a nicely bound advert delivery system.  But people are buying them and presumably reading them (which takes all of 10 minutes.)

Is it any wonder that in the midst of what can appear to be a pop culture feminist backlash we find ourselves peppered with the ‘man’ prefix?  It all probably started innocently enough with the first utterance of “male nurse.’  As if we are French and need gender defining articles preceding our nouns.  We now find ourselves in a sea of ‘man caves’ ‘man bags’ ‘bromance’ ‘manny’ ‘manscape’ and countless others I’ve been fortunate enough to ignore.  I’m not sure when a tote bag became feminine or why male friendships need a new name.  Having had male sitters as a child, I’ve no idea why nannies need gender identity.  Manscape?  Really?  It’s called grooming.  What really sticks in my craw however is the ‘man cave.’  If this was a real cave, one in which caped crusaders worked on mammoth computers and were served tea by stiff-upper-lipped British man-servants, I’d be all over it.  But alas, it’s not.  It is a reference to an abode or part of an abode that is reserved for a man.  You know, like how Ward Cleaver had his den and Don Draper had his office because the home was really the woman’s domain?  Look, I’m no Martian (or am I?) but it’s beginning to look a bit like the late 1950s.  Women molded into a Betty Boop silhouette (surgically or through the miracle of spandex) teetering on heels, men sequestered in their “he-man women hater no girls allowed’ space looks an awful lot like there is a yearning to get the genie back into the bottle.

Whether there is something worthwhile in this yearning for a time with clearly defined roles is an interesting concept.  It could be illuminating to tease apart our feelings and desires around equality and options.  But to do so, to have a discourse which goes beyond soundbite or 1000 word blog post we need to know what we’re actually saying.  Understanding ourselves, let alone each other is not facilitated by euphemism or trendy semantics.  There is a difference between using language that is respectful and using language to obfuscate.

 

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