A couple of my friends grew up as Coast Guard brats and have often told the story of the time their dad improvised a Christmas tree. I got the full story from their father today:
I was stationed up in Kodiak, and one morning a bit before Christmas I came into the office and this guy had on his desk this little bare alder branch mounted on a stand, and hanging from the branch was a drilled-out cartridge, so there was no powder or anything. And we asked him what it was, and he said, “Don’t you know your Christmas songs? That’s a cartridge in a bare tree!”
I thought it was funny, so I made one for my desk when we were stationed back at New York. And one of the other guys there was Jewish, and when he walked in he started laughing really hard and said, “Oh! That’s great! It’s a bullet in a bush!” I figured that’s pretty good, the joke works in multiple religions.
I am rotten at puns. I don’t think they’re nearly as funny as the person telling it usually does, but I don’t despise them as much as some people do, either. Sometimes one does tickle me, and the “cartridge in a bare tree” is one that always makes me chuckle. Perhaps because in this case, the person telling the joke had actually made a physical bare tree with a cartridge in it.
I wish I could say that I enjoyed this pun because the original song’s line is also believed to be a pun. This has been suggested since at least the mid-1800s that because the French for “a partridge” is “une perdrix”, which when pronounced correctly sounds very much in “on pear tree” to English ears.
The song itself is much older, it was first published in England in 1780 and even then described as a traditional Twelfth Night game. In a memory-and-forfeits game, players gather in a circle and the leader of the game recites a verse, and each player must repeat it in turn, then the leader recites an additional verse, and each player must repeat the new verse and the previous verses. This continues until someone makes a mistake, at which point he or she has to forfeit something, usually a kiss or a piece of candy or the like.
One can imagine someone in such a game in 18th Century England mixing French and English terms, and someone could easily misunderstand some of them. On the other hand, part of what made such memory-and-forfeits games fun is that the items were either funny or somewhat nonsensical.
There were many variants over the years, some of them regional. In Sussex, England, for instance, the fourth day’s gift was “four canary birds.” While several variants give the twelfth day’s gift as “twelve bells a’ringing.” Though I think my favorite twelfth gift is “twelve crowing cockerels”—it being just a bit of a tongue-twister.
And while the first day’s gift is almost always a partridge in that tree, I quite like the variant that posits “a very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.” Even though it would spoil the cartridge joke.
Although it might explain about the guy who was found, kicked into unconsciousness at a stable, with a bottle of glue in one hand and a bunch of peacock feathers in the other. Apparently he’d been told to prep some horses to be ridden in a Christmas parade, so he was trying to put some plumage on the mare’s knee.
Reporter Marissa Bodnar took this video of the first same-sex couple to be married in Maine stepping out of city hall a bit after midnight:
That was a big crowd to be standing outside at midnight on a snowy night, waiting for a few hours to congratulate some of their fellow citizens. News reports indicated two protestors standing some distance away, singing religious songs. Apparently they kept fleeing the reporters and cameras. One talked briefly to a print reporter and said, “This is a wicked thing,” but wouldn’t say anything more.
I would be the first to defend the right of the protestors to make their beliefs known in a public space. But if you are going to do that, have enough strength of your convictions to stand up for those beliefs. If you don’t have the courage to be photographed protesting in public, why bother? It must be a very, very fragile world you live in if the thought of two women being in love will utterly destroy it. If two middle-aged men (who have been building such a life together for nine years) showing up at city hall (with their four grown children to cheer them on) to get a marriage certificate threatens your whole belief system, it can’t be a very robust faith. No wonder they’re so afraid of everything!
When people find love and build a life together, living and working within their community, that’s a good thing. Accepting your neighbors for who they are strengthens society, it doesn’t weaken it.
Shared fear erodes all that is good in us. Shared joy uplifts and strengthens.
So, share the joy.
As the poster says, “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”
In 1066 William II of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings, effectively conquering England (though it took him several more years to secure his victory). Among the changes William the Conqueror wrought on English society was to place a number of his French and Norman allies into positions of power throughout the kingdom, and Norman French became the language of the elite.
This is one of the reasons English has a number of pairs of nouns—one with an Old French root, the other with a Saxon root—which mean the same thing, but one word in the pair is thought to be more formal or fancy and the other casual. Examples include poultry and chicken, purchase and buy, or scarlet and red.
Not all of the words borrowed from French happened at that time. With only the narrow English Channel separating the isle of Great Britain from France, English had no shortage of opportunities to mug French for some new words or phrases. And that’s just one language. Since speakers of Ænglisc started raising families in the British Isles in the 4th or 5th Century, we’ve stolen from every language we could. Leaving us with an embarrassment of riches in the synonym department.
This wealth of words with similar meanings leads some writers into excess, with the thesaurus aiding and abetting their literary crimes. The most noticed version of this crime is the Dialog Attribution Transgression. It’s dialog where John exclaims, Sue retorts, Jim rejoins, Walter observes, and so forth. When what the author really means is that John said one thing, then Sue said another, then Jim said something, and finally Walter said something.
It’s wonderful that the language has all these verbs that can describe a person speaking, but when every line of dialog uses a different verb, the reader stops following the story and wonders which verb you’re going to resort to, next. The author does this because he or she thinks that the repeated appearance of the word “said” is going to bother the reader. The mistake here is misunderstanding what is important in a fictional depiction of a conversation. The most important thing is what the characters actually say. The next most important thing is to help the reader keep track of who is speaking. Most of the time, tone of voice, facial expressions, and so forth are not even of tertiary importance. If you write the dialog correctly, the reader will infer a lot of those things just from the rhythm of the sentences.
Unfortunately, you only learn to do that by practicing a lot. And that takes time.
It’s perfectly all right to use some of those other verbs sparingly. For example, if there’s a tense conservation happening between a couple of characters, one character threatening the other, the threatened person may very well mutter resentfully, “For now…” or “You’ll be sorry” at the end. The fact that the person is muttering it, adding it as a threat of his own that he mostly doesn’t want to be overheard is probably important to the plot. But they really need to be reserved for situations where how someone says something is important to the story.
Dialog attribution isn’t the only place this sort of literary crime can occur. British author Simon Winchester likes to tell the tale of a student who, when assigned to write an essay describing how to do something, chose to write about how to transplant flowers, and apparently decided that saying one would need to wash their hands afterward, because their fingers would be dirty just didn’t sound academic enough. So he poked around in the thesaurus looking for other words that meant dirty (or earthy, as they would say in England), which eventually led him to refer to the need to wash one’s “chthonic fingers.” Chthonic is usually defined as “of or related to the underworld,” and thus often has demonic and even Lovecraftian connotations. It appears as a synonym for earth-related words because it originally referred to thing of or related to being buried or otherwise under the ground, and in myth the metaphorical afterlife was said to literally be deep underground.
My own tale, as an editor, was a writer who submitted a science fiction story set on a very inhospitable planet. After spending a paragraph describing just how deadly the planet’s atmosphere was, the author then transitioned to talking about some other aspect of the planet with the phrase, “…beneath that empyrean envelope…” Empyrean is a word that comes to English ultimately from Greek by way of Latin. And depending on where you look it up, it is defined as angelic, divine, God’s dwelling place, or the highest heaven in certain ancient cosmologies. In other words, heavenly. Not exactly a word that springs to mind for an atmosphere that will burn your skin off within seconds of contact, which seems more hellish. The writer had gone to a thesaurus, beginning with “sky” and looking up other words listed there until he found this one. Which he didn’t look up in a dictionary, he just typed it in and kept going. That’s a particularly bad idea with an unfamiliar synonym of a synonym of a synonym.
A lot of aspiring writers come at the craft with the notion that great writers know a lot about words, and therefore if you want to be good, you need to use a lot of words. But first, you have to be sure you know what the word means, including uncommon connotations. A word by itself has a lot of different meanings. In context, that meaning narrows. Which is why what writers really need to know a lot about is sentences.
Howsoever, that is a digression to be cogitated during a different diurnal cycle.
Or should I just say, a topic for another day?
I’ve never been particularly good at symbolism—at least not in my own writing.
When symbolism happens in my stories, it is entirely subconscious. I remember some years ago another writer commented on one of my stories that she was deeply envious of the symbolism I’d pulled off. When she explained it to me, I looked at the story and realized that the repeated symbolic occurrence of pastiche/patchwork was there beginning in the first paragraph and continuing to the final scene. But I hadn’t planned it or even been aware that I was doing it.
Even back in school I always had issues with the notion of symbolism in literature. I remember reading one time that snow is always symbolic of death, so if a birth scene happens during a snowstorm, the scene isn’t about the beginning of a new life, it’s about the inevitability of death. Or it foreshadows a premature death of one of the characters. Or something.
And my immediate thought was, “what if the person just happened to be born in December or January?” I was foolish enough to raise that question in class. I was told not to be ridiculous; literature is totally under control of the writer, so things should never happen due to chance. No good author would set a birth during a snowstorm without meaning to allude to death, you see.
Which seems more than a bit artificial. Sort of like saying that a painter can never use the color yellow except in a painting about joy. Yellow symbolizes joy or delight or summer, right? So an artist can never depict a sad person under a lemon tree? And why does yellow symbolize joy? When a book is very old, the paper pages turn yellow with age. Or someone’s skin turns yellow while experiencing certain health issues. Why can’t yellow symbolize decay?
The answer is that, of course, yellow can symbolize either, depending on how it is used. Or it may not symbolize anything. Sometimes a lemon is just yellow, right?
Similarly, crows and ravens usually are assumed to symbolize death, but in the real world crows can be aggressive, clever, or clownish. I’ve witnessed more than one incident of crows skirmishing with seagulls over the contents of a public trash receptacle. It’s impossible to walk around certain parts of town without witnessing such an occurrence with some frequency. If a story I read mentioned one, it would evoke a lot of memories. Depending on how it was described, it might symbolize petty squabbling between family members, or disproportionate responses, or scarcity of resources. And while death can certainly result from petty disagreements or competition, it doesn’t have to. Crows fight with other birds over dropped food and so forth. It’s just something that happens.
Symbolism can add verisimilitude to a scene or story. The reader doesn’t even have to consciously be aware of the meaning of the symbols in order for them to work. But paying too much attention to them, as either a writer or a reader, can be a distraction.
As an author I can choose the setting, period, and characters of my story. I decide which details to describe, and which to leave unmentioned. But that includes the ability to include details not because they have a traditional literary meaning, but because they sometimes happen in the real world in the setting which I have chosen for the story. I shouldn’t include details that don’t serve the story. However, they should be included only because they serve my story, not in accordance to some academic prescription.
About a week after we eloped a friend said, “I’m going to ask you a question that may seem weird, but I’m asking because so many people asked me the same question after I got married: do you feel different?”
My answer was, “Actually, yes, I do. It’s a little weird. Great, but weird.”
There are several reasons I didn’t expect to feel different. Michael and I have been together for nearly fifteen years, living together for 14½ of them. We already know each other’s quirks, bad habits, good habits, who is most likely to misplace his keys/wallet/watch/phone (me), or who is most likely to not check to see if his keys are in his pocket until he’s out of the house but know exactly where they are inside the house (Michael). We’ve registered as domestic partners, first with the city, and then when the state offered it, the state. We even had a small party with friends the first time. We’ve been through medical emergencies together. We’ve bought two cars together. We’ve been calling each other (and thinking of each other as) “husband” for many years.
When voters in our state approved the referendum three years ago affirming the legislature’s vote that extended all the state-given rights and responsibilities of marriage to domestic partnerships (but not to call it marriage), one of the changes was that the process of dissolving a partnership became the same as getting a divorce. When we received the official notice from the state that we had a certain number of days to dissolve the partnership under the old (much quicker and simpler) process before the new law went into effect, I remember we had a few moments of joking that if either of us wanted out, this was our last chance. It was a sobering thought, and one which I don’t think most couples entering into marriage think about as much as they ought.
So while I think the latest vote that got rid of domestic partnerships and extended marriage to same-sex couples was important, I didn’t expect to feel different. Having been through so much with Michael already—having covered all that emotional ground together—I figured the actual being married part would feel like the same old same old. I knew I would get emotional during the actual ceremony. I cry at tearful scenes in movies that I’ve seen millions of times, for goodness sake. Of course I was going to tear up a bit.
Okay, so I didn’t just cry a little bit. I cried while reading news stories of couples who had been together for many decades getting their licenses. I cried seeing the pictures and watching the videos of crowds of people congratulating strangers. I cried when they took our picture after we picked up our license. I cried when relatives and friends sent their congratulations. And I cried at our elopement. I cried a lot.
And I still get teary-eyed. While I was tidying the house on the afternoon of Christmas Eve it struck me that this is our first Christmas as a married couple. And I teared up and had to go give Michael a hug.
I know part of that is because it is new. I know another part of it is because I’ve had to fight for legal equality my whole life, and it’s still just a bit of a shock that a majority of voters in my state agreed this institution should be open to gay people, too. Related, over the last few decades I have become painfully familiar with just how many legal rights and responsibilities are utterly unavailable to couples who don’t have the flimsy piece of paper from the state saying you’re married.
A few years ago I read an editorial about how important marriage is to society. In building her argument, the author pointed to several gay rights web sites that had lists of legal rights available only through marriage and heart-wrenching stories of long-term partners being kept out of hospitals or funerals by bigoted relatives as the best source of information about how deeply entrenched the concept of marriage is in many of our customs and laws. “No one understands the value of a social or legal institution more than the people who are not allowed in,” she said.
Which brings me to the people who feel such a burning desire to keep the institution an exclusive club that only allows people of whom they approve. People don’t raise millions of dollars, compose disingenuous television commercials, and pass laws to exclude people from a mere piece of paper. They don’t amend state constitutions, try to oust judges, or fire teachers to prevent the mere public acknowledgement of the “true commitment that happened in private.” To do that sort of thing you must believe that this institution is something more important than a simple piece of paper or public declaration.
So one shouldn’t be surprised if one does feel something once you’ve managed to join that very institution.
I’ve been failing to complete this posting for several days because I can’t quite put into words the difference that I’m feeling. Searching the web, I see that in other blogs and articles it’s split about 50-50 between people who insist that nothing feels different, and those who admit that it does feel different, but they can’t quite explain what it is.
One thing I know it isn’t: the ceremony was not the culmination of our relationship. It isn’t a pinnacle. It was a high point, but it isn’t the highest we will ever reach together.
It was a wonderful and very moving day. It was and is fabulous to feel the genuine excitement from our friends. The love and support and well wishes that we’ve received have been palpable and have made me grateful to have so many wonderful people in our life. It’s the beginning of a new phase in our journey through life together. Not radically different on a day-to-day basis, but very subtly different.
I can’t fully describe all the ways I feel different. And I certainly don’t claim that the way I feel is the same way any other married person ought to feel. But I do know that I feel very, very, very lucky to have this wonderful man as my husband.
And maybe that’s all that matters.
This time of year I often find myself saying, “You don’t have to get me anything. No, seriously.” And I mean it.
One reason I mean it is because I already have too much stuff. I’m a packrat, son of packrats, grandson of packrats, great-grandson of packrats, and things accumulate around me. I hang on to extra adaptor cables, chargers, old gadgets that have been replaced with newer models because someone might need that someday. I collect books, certain kinds of toys, pens, earrings, paper products, movies, music, and other things because I like them. Or because they have some kind of sentimental value.
And my husband has similar tendencies.
So, on one level, I literally don’t need more stuff.
On the other hand, who doesn’t like getting gifts? Particularly if it’s something really wonderful? A couple of friends found an old book I didn’t know existed, written by an author I love, illustrated by an artist I like, featuring a character both my husband and I have enjoyed reading about, and with a hilarious title which was perfectly innocent when the book was written in the 1930s, but now sounds like a sensational expose of some secret gay life of the character in question.
It was a perfect gift for us. And I was truly ecstatic when I opened it.
Several years ago, when my mom was trying to come to grips with the problems inherent in her packrat tendencies, asked me to refrain from buying her things that would just sit around taking up space. “If it isn’t something I can use up or that you know I need, please don’t.”
It has proven a valuable guideline, which I have been trying to apply to everyone I shop for at Christmas time. And I really enjoy getting that kind of present from others. For instance, another friend gave me some really comfortable, extra warm socks in my favorite color. They’re perfect for cold winter evenings when I need to keep my toes warm. And yeah, they’ll wear out eventually, but the whole point is to use them, including use them up.
Another friends got us a custom engraved photo frame with the date of our elopement. We were blessed to have several friends take some really great pictures of the event, and yes, I want to display a few of them. One of aforementioned friends gave us framed printouts of some of the best of the pictures he took. More great gifts.
I know that I have ignored others telling me that I don’t need to get them something. I’m not trying to be difficult, and I certainly don’t want them to feel obligated to reciprocate. I do it because I want to give them something. Sometimes it’s because I saw something in a store or at a craft fair or in a dealer’s den and I thought, “Oh! So-and-so simply must have that!” And sometimes it just means I was thinking of them.
And I recognize that the same thing is happening with the people who give me things when I say they don’t need to.
It’s a dilemma with no easy solution.
Well, actually, the solution is quite easy: now that I’ve typed it. Instead of telling people they don’t need to get me anything, I should just stick to a heart-felt “Thank you!”
Beginnings in fiction are very important. If you don’t grab the reader’s attention and engage his/her curiosity at the beginning, they’ll never read the rest of your story. It’s no surprise, then, that numerous books, courses, seminars, and panels on how to write spend a lot of time on beginnings. They also spend time discussing how to develop and advance a plot, how do to characterization, and so forth. But I’ve always felt that endings get short shrift.
Knowing the right place to stop is deceptively harder than it looks. The ending needs to resolve the conflicts (both external and internal) which drove the plot. The ending needs to leave the reader with a sense of closure. Or, if not exactly closure, some indication of where things are headed for the characters the reader has spent the entire story bonding with.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’m working on (what I hope is) the last round of edits on a novel. A couple of my advance-readers have commented that the final chapter is a little long. The climax and crisis action happens before the final chapter in a big dramatic fight, and then I have the final chapter to wrap everything up. In literary circles they call this the denouement: the unraveling of complications, the final resolution of the story.
This is one of the places where my tendency to write stories with lots of characters makes my job harder. The reader has spent a lot of time with many of these characters, and understandably wants to know at least a bit about how each has been affected by the events at the climax. Also, there are one or two running gags in the story which it was inappropriate to resolve during the battle. Those each have to have a pay-off (and judging by the writers’ group reaction when I read the first draft of the final chapter, those work). I don’t want to skip any character that had significant appearances, because each character, no matter how strange, will be the favorite of some readers.
I’m not saying that one needs to perform “fan service.” But, as a writer of a novel-length tale, I’ve asked the reader to come along for all the ups and downs of these characters. If I don’t finish the tale for each, I’ve wasted some of the reader’s time. As a storyteller I’m not obliged to give the reader what they want, but I am obliged to tell the best story I can.
Fortunately, a lot of the characters can appear in denouement scenes together, so the reader can see them one last time and see how they are.
I’ve also been thinking about this a lot lately because two different television series I’ve watched and enjoyed for a number of years are coming to their conclusions. In each case, the creators of the show have been given an opportunity to end things on their own terms. They knew in advance that this was the end, with plenty of time to write the ending they want.
A lot of writers (not just TV writers) don’t get the chance. While it is frustrating for a fan when that happens, trust me, it’s even more frustrating for the writer.
I wish them luck in their endings. As a fan I hope I get something that feels fitting, with maybe a surprise or two.
And as a writer struggling with an ending of my own, I really hope I don’t blow it!
When I was a teenager, the local community college upgraded the lights for its baseball field. After the first night game, a relatively well-to-do widow who lived next to the field called to complain that the lights kept her awake. They were so bright, her curtains couldn’t keep the light out.
So a school official met with her. At her request, he came back during a game and let her show him how much of her house was impacted by the lights. The school brought in some experts to look things over.
Fairly quickly, the school offered to pay to install new windows and blinds, and to investigate whether trees could be planted on school property to shade her house, or whether a tall barrier would work better. She responded with a letter from her lawyer, explaining that the only acceptable solution was the complete and permanent removal of the lights. The letter also asserted that the additional heat from the lights made the house unbearable as summer came on.
The college countered with an offer of more remediation steps, including paying for a central cooling system. She answered by filing a lawsuit against the school and several state agencies.
Thus began a back and forth of offers and rejections. Various state officials became involved. More accomodations were offered. She countered by adding the names of specific officials to the lawsuit, and recruiting various cranks (who would all be part of the Teabagger movement if they were around today) to stage protests, storm board of trustees meetings, and so on.
When the school offered to buy her house for a specific percentage above assessed value and to pay to move her to her new home, her lawyer suggested she take it. She fired the lawyer and hired a new one, and filed more motions to the court. The state attorney general’s office recommended, with all the time and money already sunk into an attempt to get a settlement, that they not risk the expense of all the suits going to trial. They recommended the school moved to condemn her property for the construction of new facilities (they had been buying up property nearby and building new buildings, already).
The process for condemning land when needed for essential services (which, thanks to the original framers of the state constitution, includes education) is much quicker than any lawsuit. The appeals process is more limited, and the standards for filing a suit to stop condemnation are much higher than that to file an ordinary suit.
By the time I was a student at the college, and Editor of the student paper, the final appeal of the condemnation was in the works. She suddenly changed her tune. Those same cranks who had mobbed meetings and staged protests, insisting that none of the offers the school had made were an acceptable solution, now demanded that the school stop the condemnation process, buy her the new blinds, and plant a line of trees to shade her property from the field lights.
Though the drama seemed to be nearly over, I thought it might be worth a story or two. One of the other student reporters was very keen to interview the widow, so I assigned the story to him. A couple days before deadline, he told me the interview had been awkward, but he would have the story in.
The threatening phone calls started before I’d even seen the story, and long before we printed anything. I’d been a student journalist in high school before coming to college, and I’d gotten threats and harassment before. But they had been mostly from other students. This was, I think, the first time that nearly all the threatening phone calls, messages, and notes had been coming from adults outside the school. And some were very vicious, though, to be fair, none were death threats; we usually only got those in relationship to abortion and art show reviews—yes, art show reviews!
I attended the board of trustees meeting where the last opportunity for the school to back out of the condemnation proceeding took place. Dozens of people showed up to speak on the widow’s behalf. But she wasn’t there. She had never attended any of the meetings. She wasn’t incapable of leaving her house. She had hosted several strategy dinners at a restaurant just outside of town to arrange that crowd at the meeting, for instance.
Every single person who spoke on her behalf mentioned again, and again, how she was such a helpless little old lady. And they repeated the appeal for the school to do the very things they had offered to do many times before starting condemnation procedures.
One of the reasons I believe she never showed up at any public meeting was because in person she didn’t come across as a helpless old lady. The student reporter who had interviewed her said that at first she was very sweet and charming, but he must have said the wrong thing at one point, because she became hostile—not in a screaming or insulting way, he said. Her eyes went from twinkly to glaring like a predator. She made several veiled threats indicating she might be able to cause him some trouble if his story didn’t treat her fairly.
Difficult to play the helpless victim when you’re threatening people, particularly in that cold, quiet, and calculating manner.
Even if I hadn’t know that, the personality type was clear by her legal findings. Every compromise that was offered simply spawned more threats, until finally the bluff is called, and suddenly she was all for compromise. It’s classic bully behavior.
Just like Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, who spent the summer and fall issuing statements that the passage of the Marriage Equality Referendum on the ballot would force his priests and churches to perform same-sex marriages, and urging all religious people to oppose it for that reason. And now that it has passed, he’s issued a set of instructions to the churches in his archdiocese, quoting the portion of the same law that explicitly exempts churches and ministers from performing same.
Classic bully behavior.
I don’t get the holiday blues.
I used to feel guilty about that, since I have known many people who do. Then one friend, who suffers from rather severe holiday depression, said that she wanted to hear about other people having a good time. “Just because I can’t enjoy it, doesn’t mean I want no one else to.”
My late husband, Ray, struggled with depression most of his life, but he couldn’t stand people who talked gloom and doom all the time. He was often a very happy person, which seems to contradict the previous sentence. He usually explained depression this way, “It’s not that I’m sad or glum all the time. It’s that, no matter how happy I am right now, no matter how well things are going, there’s this constant certainty deep inside that all of it will be taken away any second, now.” Depression is not a bad mood. Depression is not being down in the dumps. Depression is not a dread that things won’t go well. It is a certainty that bad things will happen. Because “bad things always do happen to me,” or “I don’t deserve good things,” or “I always mess things up,” and so on.
In my early teens a relative on Dad’s side of the family decided to tell me in great detail how many members of Mom’s side of the family had had nervous breakdowns. Back then, “nervous breakdown” was the term medical people would use to describe to laymen various acute mental disorders serious enough to impair a person’s day-to-day functioning, usually including the symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. It was usually assumed to be a temporary event triggered by stress. But this relative (who had almost a 19th Century attitude toward mental illness) was trying to convince me that that side of the family had a congenital mental defect. This whole thing happened as my parents’ marriage was breaking down, and I realized later it was a rather clumsy attempt to get me to tell the divorce judge I wanted to be placed in Dad’s custody.
One of the instances she cited was a great-uncle who served in the Marines in WWII (in the Pacific campaign) and who subsequently had a serious breakdown a few years after the war. Now I recognize that it was a classic instance of untreated post traumatic stress disorder, not necessarily indicative of any genetic pre-disposition.
Throughout my teens and well into my twenties, I would periodically have depressive states that I couldn’t shake for days for no apparent reason. Because of some other weird medical happenings when I was 17, and because one of my siblings was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was evaluated. The verdict was that my issues were ordinary teen-age volatility, perhaps exacerbated by a higher-than-normal testosterone level (no one was more surprised than I at that last bit!).
Years later, when I finally came out of the closet completely, those periodic instances became much less severe. Since learning that men have hormone cycles, too (most just don’t want to admit it), I figured that those incidents had been a combination of ordinary hormones combined with all that anxiety, worry, and stress from trying to keep a big part of myself secret.
Plus, of course, I’m always deliriously (and annoyingly) bouncy and cheerful from Thanksgiving Day through New Year’s. As regular as clockwork, you could say.
After my late husband, Ray, was diagnosed with an incurable illness, as his body deteriorated before my eyes through rounds of chemotherapy and other treatments, those periodic moody periods became bad, again. And since his death, every year for a couple months—from approximately his birthday until the anniversary of his death—I’m moody and slightly more prone to feeling down.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that I understand that depression, mood disorders, or simply bad moods are neither simple nor trivial.
But I also understand that they don’t have to be the end of anyone’s story. It is often said that we can’t control how we feel. I think that’s an over simplification. We can’t completely control how we feel, but we can decide how we react to our feelings. We can find ways to channel them, to moderate them, to reinforce the ones we want to keep, and diminish the ones we don’t want.
I’m not saying it is easy. But I am saying we always have a choice. And even when the choices are between unpleasant options, there is always at least one that doesn’t involve lashing out.
So, if you don’t feel like dancing, that’s fine. Don’t dance. But also, don’t bitch at those who do.
Within minutes of the news of the horrific shooting at an elementary school, the voices of inaction started spreading across the social networks:
- “Even if you ban all the guns, people can still be killed with other things!”
- “Why do people start talking about mental health care whenever there’s a violent event?”
- “Now is not the time to talk about political action. People are just starting to mourn this senseless tragedy.”
- “Why does the media put so much attention to these things? It only encourages other people to do this so they’ll become famous!”
- “If only there were more armed citizens, this could be prevented.”
…and so on.
An internet meme is one of the least nuanced ways to discuss anything, but I have to admit that sometimes they raise a good point. Thanks to one failed clownish attempt to take out a jet with a shoe bomb, millions of us are forced to take off our shoes when we go through security at airports. Meanwhile, over 30,000 people are killed by gun violence every year in the U.S., but we can’t even talk about changing any gun regulations?
The air travel security processes that have been imposed on us are a horrific overreaction, don’t reduce the odds of a disaster by a significant amount, and are therefore a colossal waste of time and money. So we shouldn’t duplicate the thinking over there.
But doing nothing after decades of these mass shootings is an even more colossal waste.
The good news is, there are options between the extremes of overreacting and doing nothing.
Will banning assault weapons end violence? Of course not. But think about this: last week, a man went on a rampage and stabbed 22 school children in China, but no one died. Yes, it was a horribly traumatic event. Yes, it is certainly possible to kill someone with a knife, but it is much harder for a single person to inflict deadly wounds on a whole bunch of people in a short time with knives than with an assault rifle. So regulating the sale of certain types of weapons, offering gun buy-back programs, and so forth might save a few thousand lives a year.
Will better mental health options end all violence? No. And the usual argument people make on this point is that most mass shooters have fallen through the cracks of the mental health system. The problem with that argument is that currently, the mental health care system has cracks the size of the Grand Canyon. Nearly everyone falls through the cracks. Let’s get a functioning system together, first, shall we?
The variant on the mental health argument I was quite amused with recently is that, since so few of these shooters survive to be diagnosed, we can’t assume they are mentally ill. One person making this argument insisted that mentally ill people are no more likely than the non-ill to be violent. And as proof said, “Of the 61 mass shooters of the last five years, only 38 exhibited signs of mental illness before the crime, but none had been diagnosed.” Thirty-eight out of sixty-one is 62%. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, only 26% of the population suffer from a diagnosable mental or mood disorder at any time. So 62% seems at least a bit disproportionate.
The “now is not the time” argument is beyond infuriating. If anything, talking about it after a tragedy is too late, certainly not too soon. And silencing the discussion by saying we’re trying to politicize a tragedy? That is politicizing a tragedy. So, stop being a hippocrit, man up, and debate the issue.
The “media creates these events” argument is very tempting. And in more than a few of the cases there is evidence that the person was trying to make a statement, having left behind videos or notes. But you know who else does that sort of thing? Terrorists. And no sane person believes that the guys who flew those planes into the World Trade Center thinks that if only the news hadn’t revealed their names, that they would have never done it.
The “more guns argument” overlooks a few facts. First, there are already more privately owned guns in this country than there are people. We have no shortage of guns available for citizens to defend themselves. Second, one need look only at incidents such as the Lakewood shoot a couple years ago in my state: four armed cops, all experienced, all having been in shooting situations before hand, were at a cafe when an armed guy walked in and started shooting. He wasn’t even armed with an assault rifle, but none of the officers was able to draw and fire back in time to stop him from killing all four. There are dozens of similar cases, and statistics galore that indicate that just having responsible, trained, armed people there doesn’t put a stop to these crimes. In the majority of the cases, even after a large force of armed police arrive, it’s the shooter killing himself that ends the massacre, not the police killing him.
And all of these leaps to unsupportable conclusions are keeping us from tackling any of the sources of the problems that lead these guys (and they are almost all men, usually young men) to do these things. We aren’t willing to talk about our society’s toxic expectations of what masculinity means. We aren’t willing to discuss the correlations between the economic and romantic frustration that many of these mass murderers express before these things happen, and how many of them form alliances with gun-stockpiling, paranoid communities.
We have to stop leaping to conclusions, stop following our gut reactions, and look at the facts. We have to be willing to start seriously implementing multiple changes. We have to be willing to get past the bumper sticker/internet meme rhetoric and talk about the difficult problems.
Otherwise, the senseless deaths are going to just keep happening.