Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The illusion of safety

Yesterday's shootings at Virginia Tech are on my mind. Like any normal human being, a tragedy like this shocks me, sickens me, angers me. Since the birth of my son, tragedies like this rock me at a deeper level. My first thought was of the parents of those students who were killed; I put myself in their place, receiving that phone call or waiting for hours and hours for the confirmation that their child was among the dead. It physically turns my stomach. The tears have been stinging my eyes since last night.

On November 1, 1991, I was a junior at the University of Iowa. It was a dreary, snowy Friday afternoon, and J. and I were preparing to go back to our hometown for the weekend. When he picked me up at my dorm, he told me about how he'd had to come a different route because there were all kinds of emergency vehicles and ambulances around the Pentacrest, the heart of our campus. Puzzled, but able to brush it aside in the way that narcissistic college students are able, we packed up the car and hit the road. We were no more than 20 miles out of town before announcers broke into the music and reported that several people on campus had been shot.

At first, the numbers that were reported were up to 25; later, it turned out that five people were killed, one person was critically injured, and the gunman had killed himself. We listened to the radio all the way home in shock. In the days before cell phones, there was no way to know if my brother and sister-in-law, who worked on campus, or any of our friends were among the victims; there was no way to call our parents to tell them we were okay. When we got to my parents' house, my mother's relief was palpable. Not sure when we'd left Iowa City, she'd tried repeatedly to call us, but the huge influx of calls from anxious parents and loved ones had jammed the lines.

After calling his parents, me, J., and my family sat in front of the NBC Nightly News, watching Tom Brokaw report on the "massacre" that had happened at our school. Eventually we were able to reach my brother and our friends and they were all okay. The details trickled in. The shooter was a graduate physics student from China. He was angry because his doctoral dissertation wasn't nominated for an honor. He killed the student who received it, along with three physics faculty members. He then walked across campus to an administrative building, killed the associate vice president for academic affairs, and seriously wounded a student employee, who survived but is now quadriplegic.

We returned on Sunday night to a quiet campus (in my insular world that revolved around myself, I didn't even about what it must have been like for my parents to send me back that Sunday night). Classes were cancelled the next day, and there was a memorial for the victims. Students stayed in their rooms, gathered with friends, processed the awful event. More than anything, I remember the quiet of that day and the days that followed. It seemed like time stopped for a little while. Even when classes resumed, people didn't talk much, and when they did, it was hushed.

The feeling I had then was remarkably similar to the one I have now. I felt stunned and deeply saddened, sick — but also felt as if I didn't really have a right to those feelings, because I didn't know any of the victims personally; I wasn't touched directly by the violence. Although I like to think that as a human being, we are all touched — injured — when something like this happens.

Last night I sat on my couch and watched the coverage while my two-and-a-half year old son lay sleeping quietly in our bedroom. He was there in our home, safe in our bed...but I didn't feel any reassurance. Watching the images of a bloody student being carried from a building, of the crackling of gunfire coming from a building on campus, a voice in my head said "This is the world you have brought your son into. This is the world you will send your son into. This is the world you DO send your son into."

Today, I feel a deep sense of guilt for that. That my selfishness, my desire for a child brought him here to this cruel, senseless, violent world — a world where college students are gunned down for no other reason than that they were there; a world where children are snatched from their beds, raped and murdered; a world where the president of our country talks about the tragic deaths of these college students while he sends other (often less-privileged) 19-year-olds to Iraq to be gunned down; a world where the president says that schools are supposed to be sanctuaries, while schoolchildren in Iraq face violence and death every day at his hands.

The hypocrisy of that is stunning to me. The words flying through the airwaves today are empty to me. "How can we stop this from happening again?" "Are schools in America safe?" "What needs to be done to increase security?"

The truth is that we cannot stop this from happening again. If we could, there would have been one school shooting in history and then no more. Schools in America are not safe. America is not safe. The world is not safe. Increased security will do nothing but add one more hurdle that a deranged murderer will not hesitate to overcome.

As I walked to the bus stop last night, on the same campus where I went to school and where I now work, I thought to myself how nothing really changed after the shooting in 1991. There's a memorial walkway, dedicated to one of the victims; there are anniversary remembrances and vigils that are more sparsely attended every year. But it's no more difficult for a disgruntled student with a gun to mow people down now than it was on October 31, 1991. How could it be? What, honestly, could be done?

The truth is that safety is a necessary illusion that we nurture in order to be able to function every day. When something like yesterday happens, it is momentarily shattered, and then the rationalization and the empty words and simply time and distance from the event let us build it up again. We need that illusion to prevent us from completely giving in to debauchery and instant self-gratification, to be productive, to raise our children as if, by some miracle, they will survive intact to live out their projected lifespan.

For breakfast this morning, I let my son have a cupcake, because the only words in my head that don't seem empty are these: enjoy today as much as you can.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Neko Case Concert: A Dream Come True

Warning: This post is going to sound like I am 15 years old again because, well, I was and am so PSYCHED about the concert last night that I can't contain myself.

Last night we went to the Beachland Ballroom to see Jon Rauhouse and Neko Case in concert. The ballroom is located in a completely charismatic, old-time working class neighborhood of downtown Cleveland. There were union buildings, mom-and-pop type storefronts, taverns...all with that heavy red brick, rundown feeling that is charming and wistful and sad all at once.

The ballroom was built in 1950 as the Croatian Liberty Hall. It has a tavern attached, and a music store in the basement, as well as some vintage stores elsewhere in the building, I think. The actual ballroom is a standing-room-only venue, and looks like a combination of an old-fashioned movie theatre, with amazing crown molding on the ceiling and interesting mural panels dotting the perimeter, and a school gymnasium, with its high ceiling and wood floor. Along each side is a little shelf for setting down your drinks. It smelled like old smoke, old shoes, and old sweat, and I loved it. It was like stepping back in time. I could imagine couples, dressed up for their night on the town, dancing away to big band music all night long, smoking their cigarettes before the government took it away (Cleveland has a law now that you can't smoke in any public place. In a place like the Beachland, it really is a shame, because it's kind of part of the ambiance. There were posters up all around the Beachland which expressed the management's view of this law. They said: "Big Brother Says No Smoking. Any Questions? Call the Cleveland Anti-Sex League at 1-800-XXX-XXXX." Like I said, this is my kind of place!)

When we got there a little past 7, there weren't many people there--maybe 30 or so. We got some drinks, went back outside for some smokes, then settled in at the right of the stage. We were able to rest for awhile before having to stake our claim to our spots about 10 to 15 feet from the artists themselves. AWESOME! The show got started a little late but opened with Jon Rauhouse's amazing Hawaiian steel guitar performance. I am going to his website today to buy it. It's old-fashioned, forties-style, non-cheesy Hawaiian music. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

After he and his band, including the amazing Kelly Hogan on vocals, played for awhile, Neko came out and began tuning her guitars. Jon, members of his band, and Kelly remained on stage to back up Neko. When Neko opened her mouth to sing, it came out of her so effortlessly and flawlessly. It was amazing to be in the presence of such talent, really. I mean, I can't imagine having a gift like that. She was really humble, modest and funny during the show. She sang all my favorites, including "Deep Red Bells," "Maybe Sparrow," "John the Baptist," and "Lions Jaws." I was awestruck, honestly. The main performance lasted for about an hour, then she came back for a three-song encore, then came back for one more song.

Not ready to relinquish the magic of the evening, Tingle, J. and I stood around the stage for awhile after most of the crowd had filed out. A few brave souls jumped on stage to grab some set lists. Then a stage crew person came out and someone asked him if there were any more. He found some, and Tingle spoke up and asked if we could have a couple, and he very kindly just handed them out. The one Tingle has is different from mine, and we were exactly sure which one was the one followed last night because they are very similar, but who cares? They were on stage!

As if this wasn't good enough, Jon Rauhouse then came back out and sat down at his steel guitar. "We have to go all the way to Columbia, Mo., tonight, so I have to replace this string right now." We told him how much we loved his performance, how we were going to be buying his CD, etc. Then we asked if he could sign our set lists, and he seemed flattered by the request. J. kindly ran and got a pen from the bar. We were so excited!

Then we headed out to the lobby area, where there were all kinds of cool things on sale, including awesome coloring books from girlsnotchicks.com. We wandered into the bar, just hoping maybe Neko would be in there milling about. No dice. We wandered back into the lobby area, and J. and Tingle were going to go downstairs to look in the music store. Tingle decided at the last moment that she would stay upstairs with me, since there was a rumor that Neko would be coming out to visit with the minions. J. went downstairs.

Then, she appeared behind the table, talking to the girls selling the merchandise. We were right up by the table...Some guy called out, "Neko, will you sign anything?" She replied, "Sure!" and sat down. Tingle and I moved up front and shoved our set lists in front of her. We were fucking shaking, we were so excited.

When she looked our way, I engaged with the ultra-original, "I love your music!" "Oh, thanks!" she said, very friendly. "Have you been singing as long as you can remember?" I asked her. "Well...at home," she said and smiled. "Well thank you so much for sharing your gifts with us," I said. Cheesy, I know, but shit, I was dumbfounded, okay? Then I told her that we had driven all the way from Iowa to see her. "Oh," she said and put her hand to her heart. "Bless your heart," I think she said, or it might have been, "Oh, that is so nice!" or something like that. "Make sure you drive carefully on the way home!" We said we would, then J. appeared and told her again that we were from Iowa City. I then said, "You should come to Iowa City!" And she said, "Yeah, the Englert! We'll be going back." I couldn't believe she just knew right off the top of her head about the Englert. I remembered then that she'd played there several years ago, before I knew about her. I told her that I'd missed her the last time she played and that I hoped she'd come back. Then we left, shaking with excitement.

I thought that was the pinnacle...but then, upon getting home and downloading our photos, I found that Tingle had shrewdly taken photos of Neko at the table AND signing my set list! FUCKING AWESOME!

Bottom line: Neko case rocks. Tingle rocks for getting J. and me the tickets for our birthdays. Beachland Ballroom rocks. The whole evening FUCKING ROCKED!!!!

Whew. I think I have to go have a cigarette now.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Smells like Cleveland again!

The title of this post is inspired by my first real whiff of Cleveland, received yesterday on the way back from our museum run. Wow. For some reason, I've never really smelled it on our other visits; this time, with the heavy, wet spring air, it was at full strength and really, really awful. I had to adopt the patented Tingle Air Filter maneuver in which you pull the front of your shirt up over your nose, and even that didn't block it all. I told Tingle she should keep a bar of soap in the car to sniff on her commute. Or a gas mask/respirator combo. Jesus.

Hi folks!

I didn't intend to stay away from my blog for so long, but for some reason I just wasn't "feelin' it." The last couple weeks haven't been very remarkable. It's been one of those spans of time in which you feel you are just kind of surviving. Nothing major, just the daily grind. The sinus infection that won't go away (I'm now under the care of an otolaryngologist and taking $25 co-pay antibiotics, nose spray, prednisone, and chanting over chicken bones every night before I go to bed); Bubba's allergies/asthma (he and I are going to the allergist/asthma clinic in April); an unusually busy period at work, etc.

Today, I come to you from the fair city of Cleveland. J. and I are visiting Tingle and her husband for a few days. Bubba is staying with my sister and brother-in-law for the weekend and then with my mom and dad for Monday and Tuesday. The inspiration for this trip is the Neko Case concert we are going to tonight. She is playing at the Beachland Ballroom tonight in Cleveland, along with Jon Rauhouse. If you've never listened to Neko Case before, I highly recommend her. She is very difficult to describe, but here are some words that come to mind when I try: haunting, old-fashioned country flavor, soaring, intimate, deep, beautiful. Just go listen for yourself! We are SO excited to see her, especially in such small and intimate venue.

So far we have had a fun-filled, jam packed day and a half in Cleveland. We got here Friday night and had dinner at one of my favorite restaurants here, a little corner Italian place that has incredible eggplant parmesan. That night Tingle and I stayed up talking and playing show-and-tell with photos, drawings, and of course the gifts that Tingle showers on me every time I see her. This time she got me a sweet LED light panel that fades to different vibrant colors...it's very cool; a cool journal; a fun book about disgusting things; some hair combs; a sushi magnet; some fun stuff for Bubba; a lovely red sweater; a fiber-optic lamp; and probably some other stuff I'm forgetting. Tingle just can't help herself from buying stuff for other people. Her house is always dotted with little piles here and there of gifts for this person, that person, and oftentimes, me. I've given up on trying to match her gift for gift and have relaxed into the knowledge that this is how she is, so now I just get her something if it strikes me but otherwise accept her gifts with gratitude and peace.

Yesterday we went to the Monet exhibit at the art museum here. I have to say something about Monet. Yes, the paintings are beautiful, and yes, the man was extremely talented...but when I look at his paintings, for the most part, I think, "yeah, that's a pretty picture." And that's about as far as the reaction goes. Some of the paintings evoked a little more emotion in me, to be sure, but for the most part, he just doesn't do it for me. I think it's a combination of not really getting into landscapes all that much, and the fact that it isn't all that disturbing. Pain and darkness speak to my soul much more strongly than serenity and beauty. That's just the way I am. But J. and Tingle really wanted to go, so Tingle's hubby and I went along for the ride. I felt I learned something, so that's worth it.

We ate lunch at trattoria in Little Italy. Very good. We topped that off with pastries from an Italian bakery there, where I had an orgasmic napolean. That sounds like a band name, doesn't it?

Then the boys went off on their own to go to music stores and play videogames, while Tingle and I continued on to the Princess Diana exhibit at the Historical Society here. I'm fascinated by Princess Diana. She seems like a truly good person; human, of course, but basically good. The exhibit was great. Organized by her brother, it included some of her childhood belongings, home movies and snapshots her father took, a whole section on the charity work she did, the original, scribbled-on lyrics to the Candle in the Wind song Elton John and Bernie Taupin adapted for her funeral; and of course, the dresses, including her wedding dress. I felt like crying many times during the exhibit...then felt kind of stupid for wanting to cry about someone I never even knew. It was touching. I was especially moved by the entire wall, filled top to bottom, with condolence books from all over the world.

Then Tingle and I, almost crippled from our day standing at exhibits in museums, hobbled out to the car and came home for a hot bath (me) and a nap (Tingle), before heading out once again for a get-together with Tingle's boss and her husband at their beautiful home. They had intended for it to be a larger gathering of creative people they knew who would get together and discuss spirituality and stuff like that. We did do that, but unfortunately everyone else begged off for some reason, so it was just the four of us. They are a great couple and we had a great time, great snacks, and great wine. To top off our classy evening, Tingle and I stopped by Taco Bell on the way home.

We will be here two more days before heading back Tuesday morning. I have to say I miss Bubba much more than I expected to. More than I have on previous trips without him. It's reassuring to me that I feel this way, even though it is somewhat painful and I'm struggling against the natural urge to feel guilty for leaving him. I truly believe that it's good for Bubba to grow up knowing that Mom and Dad have other parts of their lives that don't revolve around him. I know from experience that it's a lot of pressure when YOU are your parents' whole life. I also know that it's good to nurture his relationships with the rest of our family. Yet, he's at an awkward stage where he knows that Mama and Daddy are gone, but can't really understand why, so I do feel a pang of pain at that. I checked in yesterday and he was doing great, playing with my sister's family dog, running around, doing Bubba things. I love him so much. Soon (hopefully) I will be posting a "funny things Bubba does" entry, because he's endlessly amusing right now and I want to get it down for posterity's sake.

So...that's my update. I haven't been checking blogs or commenting or anything, but I promise to try and catch up soon. Until then, take care!