Gun Is A Four Letter Word

the story i started writing thursday morning was about how i had a sinus infection and couldn’t smell or taste anything for my second consecutive thanksgiving dinner. then how i found a pair of a former lover’s underpants in my closet, and then my ex-girlfriend’s costume butterfly wings behind the fridge, put them both in the trash and tried to be thankful for the things i had right that moment: a new love, cooking holiday dinner for family, a book deal. a new bulb for the porch light.

friday morning, somewhere in between reading chronology of water by lidia yuknavitch over the first cup of coffee, checking facebook, and replaying in the shower what i should have said in an interview i accidentally got included in at a friend’s tattoo shop a couple of years back, something happened. a little piece of the brainmeatmachine crumpled and the whole works went lateral.

while trying to diagnose and repair the damaged thought mechanism, i got back online and looked at all of the news articles and social media reactions to the school shooting in connecticut on friday. i won’t try to pile on adjectives describing this awful event. there is a whole internet out there going for broke doing that very thing. nor do i wish to enter into a political discussion about gun control. or a social commentary on using the internet to react to something that you are not directly connected to. especially when the event you are not directly connected to–while one hundred percent undeniably scary and sad– is exactly the kind of thing that if it happened in another country would not have the same impact it is having in the news and on the social networking sites that it is here today.

we are given an abundant amount of terror, crime, death, torture, and more from around the globe around the clock. it is not my intent or place to point a judging finger at anyone who finds it within themselves to post a picture of their breakfast or kitten or humorous work anecdote without any apparent grief, on the same day a natural disaster or war or melting-down nuclear reactor kills huge numbers of people and poisons the earth on a different continent. i do it too, though my breakfast and kittens of choice are dream fragments, or the strings of playful nonsense i mumble at my ladyfriend when she kisses me awake before she goes to work.

most of the conversations i get into about politics or current events where people get really emotional end in me asking “well, what are you going to do about it?” this is an efficient way to appear insensitive, and upset your friends/family/bloggers you’ll likely never meet. and a way to open the door to the response from said people, “well, what are you doing about anything?” this is a fair question. to that query most of the time, i can honestly answer “not a single useful thing.”

all the talking the last couple of days, and hearts going out, and the inundation with facts and images about guns, gunmen, bullets and children, got to me in a way that it usually doesn’t. stopped the underpants and butterfly wings. the turkey i could feel the shape of in my mouth, but had to guess at what tasting was like. it made me stop and think about my personal experience with guns as a shorter more trusting person. while nothing in the shape of a gun was ever allowed in my house for me to play with, i knew they were around. rats got shot by the cheese-baited trash burn barrel. coyotes were fired at to keep them away from the chickens and our feebleminded car-chasing dog. i didn’t arrive unannounced at the house of certain relatives because of shotguns behind doors. a neighbor’s silver pistol killed the snake in my house i mistook for a worm because i needed glasses. kids all had bb guns, experimenting with soda cans and small birds for targets. they dreamed of the day when they turned 12 or 13 and were old enough to be given their first .22 rifles.

as my family moved slowly away from the very rural to the slightly rural, i ended up living in the small town where someone went postal for the first time, leaving behind yellow ribbons on the street where i lived where someone’s parents used to be. how going postal became a thing people emulated in the following days and weeks, and this got called copycat murders on television. the word disgruntled became commonplace, as in later years the terms hanging chadsdisenfranchised, and fiscal cliff became buzzwords of the media heads, the consumer mouths. in stores and at school, it was all people talked about. then joked about warily, the way the living congratulate themselves at their great luck of not being dead. the letter carrier got eyed with squinty mistrust and gossiped about. no one wanted to go to the post office.

years later i ended up in high school in the pacific northwest. i was a year younger than most of my class, and a late bloomer. i drew pictures and fooled around with guitars and weirdly-shaped dice. i didn’t shower much or have any money for nice clothes. my hair was huge and unbrushed, my first name got me asked a lot of questions about the brand of pants i wore.  i was pimpled and fat and got roughed up a lot. even by people a grade or two behind me. girls tripped me and stuck trash in my locker. then a funny thing happened in the summer before my senior year. i grew almost a foot taller.

in other schools in bigger cities, i heard about security cameras in hallways. metal detectors. drug-sniffing dogs. in my tiny town, these were alien concepts. there was no such thing as the internet yet for most people, so my world was pretty small and isolated into a goat-smelling bedroom where i stayed up all night listening to records, drawing pictures, reading secondhand sc-fi paperbacks. far away from stepfathers, locker rooms, the spitballs and chewing gum i’d pick and cut out of my hair every day. this miniature stinking world built for one was the only place i ever felt calm and safe. weekends i’d escape my house and go hang out with one of the few kids as uncool and long-haired as me. my friend lived on the edge of some pretty deep woods, where we made reproductions of medieval weapons from branches, leather scraps, nails and twine.

as far as we knew, no one anywhere was actually trying to gun down their teachers and fellow students, even if the dead milkmen wrote a snarky song about it. the fantasy of it was sometimes kind of satisfying. no more hard hands and cruel mouths. easier to live maybe if they were gone. but mostly i planned to be far away as soon as possible after graduation.

at lunch in high school, i sat with some people outside as often as the weather let us. a few people like me. unpopular. lunch room was a bad place to be, loud, clannish, good place to get cornered or have your food spit in. no car or money, so leaving campus was a bust. you could still catch a hassle out there sometimes, but at least outdoors there wasn’t the toxic ranch dressing and french fry fart cloud sticking to everything. mostly we got left alone out there, until a guy who probably had a worse life than me got a group of friends together to give us a hard time.

he was a short tubby kid, who wore a puffy sports jacket and baseball hat. he tried to affect a menacing mtv rapper swagger. his friends gave him a really unflattering nickname, doughboy, but followed him around. this wasn’t a gang, not in the sense that big cities with bad parts of town have real gangs. but they had the seeds of it, the status-hungry boys become dog pack, where runts and outcasts could become powerful and feared in a group. these guys didn’t have it worked out too well yet, and they’d picked a soft alpha. mostly they were easy to ignore, not too clever with their insults, not ready to really start a fight yet. but toying with it. picking  an easy target, seeing how far it could go.

during lunch one day the dog pack arrived and started in with some softcore name calling and gestures, and i guess i’d been likened to a woman’s genitals once too often. at their alpha’s umpteenth suggestion that he beat up my one quiet woods-dwelling friend, i stood up by myself. six foot one of tie-dyed shirt and sandals with bright blue socks. afro and glasses and all. but they hadn’t ever really been this close to me before while i was standing up, finding it easier to hassle some hippie-looking dudes while they were sitting down. so now i looked way down at him and took a step forward. “ok, kick my ass then. if you can get your foot that high, short stack.” he looked around him, waiting for the rest of the pack to join him, only to realize that everyone had taken two steps back, leaving him quite alone just inside my reach.

“yeah, i’ll kick your ass. um, after school!” he said. i took another step forward, and put my nose down really close to his. “oh no! not after school! how about right now!” his mumbled reply barely audible. “how about i kick your ass right now in front of your friends? who would hold their hands and walk them to class then? i’ll make it fair, little buddy. you get the first shot.” i held my hands up, as if in surrender. i worried that the numbers were against me. that my bullshit mad guy ready to throw down act was paper thin.

but instead of using their numbers and fists against me, his friends laughed and started walking away, calling the same old insults over their shoulders, like they’d all just that moment gotten tired of us anyhow and decided to split. it took a bit for the alpha to catch on, then he turned and kind of trotted behind them to the door to the main building. i figured that would be about the end of it, until at the doorway to the main building, this tubby little kid in his puffy sports jacket, trying to retain some cred shouted out, “i’m bringing my gun tomorrow. i know where you live! you are dead!”

unfortunately, just about everyone knew where i lived. it was a small town, i lived close enough to school to walk home or be the very first bus stop. i opted to walk home most days when it was nice out to avoid a nightmare bus ride. and on my way home, i got passed by every car and school bus, looking unmistakably like no one else in town.  costumed in a version of 1960s people i thought i admired, dropouts and pacifists. why hadn’t a badass been my hero? the walk home that first day was pretty intense. i felt very alone, exposed, and every car and bus window was full of predator eyes.

nothing ever came of the threat. i didn’t really see much of that kid after that. other people had heard him and told somebody and then he just wasn’t there. without a precedent in the world we knew of, even the life-and-deathness of his threat didn’t mean the same thing as if he would have said it today. his dog pack deposed him as alpha, and they caught on to messing with people younger and smaller than themselves. then i graduated. 2 weeks later i moved to seattle to go to art school. i became another set of stripes in a weird zebra herd that no one noticed. the following year my high school got security cameras installed in the hallway. and a few years after that, columbine.

i remember thinking when the shooting at columbine happened, this is just like oklahoma. someone goes into a school, workplace, mall, house of worship. hair dresser’s. kills as many people as possible. then kills themselves, or tries to. except that no one in washington state remembered. not the way i did. i thought of oklahoma again when the shooting after that happened. then the next one. and the next one. and all the ones that have happened since then. virginia tech. aurora. oak creek. clackamas, just down the road from where i live now. it’s just become a thing, unpredictable in its location or timing, but following a regular pattern of results. going postal isn’t even a term people use any more. unless you play this video game seriessee this movie based on the games, or this movie not related to the games. or, maybe if you’re me, and you were lucky enough to be there when it started.

i feel very thankful now that i didn’t fit in from an early age. that i don’t have a forgettable first name. that i prefer the company of books and paints and ink pens to many people. it wasn’t until i got on toward 30 that i realized what a gift this is in my life. even though it is painful to be part of the out crowd early on, it’s often what makes people more interesting as adults. it’s hard to explain that to a kid who might be feeling the same way i did as an angry adolescent. that you you don’t have to grow up to be an angry adult with a gun. that if you endure and make your own way it’s worth it.

the reason i am trying to write and draw things for children now is that (besides trying to communicate at my own comprehension level) most of the time i feel like adults have made up their minds to be one way or the other after they’ve hit their teens, maybe early twenties. buyers. watchers. parents. with a little luck, i’ll get to drop a tiny idea in a malleable mind that will encourage it to remember what it experiences, record it, and take these recordings and adventures forward into adulthood to use as a feeling of empowerment and courage to do what needs to be done to make what’s left of the world a tolerable place to live in.

even with all of the access people have now to instant information and communication, there are more people now in their own version of my isolated boy cave than when i was in mine, hiding out from worse than my stepfathers and snakes and bullies.  the facts of life are harder and scarier. guns are easier to get for many than good friends or health care. and the question of “what are you going to do about it?” gets a little harder to answer every day.

i don’t hold some huge hope that my work will save or change the world from being what it’s going to be. but i’m going to keep writing and drawing, because i don’t know what else to do.

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