watching parents of high schoolers play an elegy for victims of columbine

Most of them were crying by the end of it. The conductor, too, who held them all still longer than necessary, so they could gather themselves. They were members of a community band, but most of them had children who’d attended this high school in which they were performing. Some audience members sniffled. At one point the first chair trumpet solo’ed what we had been told beforehand was Columbine’s fight song from a box seat. People really lost it then.

I was trying to understand how they’d feel, as parents who had watched this happen in 1999 but whose children had escaped unscathed so far. But I have no idea what it would feel like. I only know how it felt to watch as a student then and in the years after, and how, sitting at my desk closest to the door at work as I do, the first (and only) in line of sight as I am or would be, I scripted long ago what I’d scream, if I had the chance. (Maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I’d be taken out in the head or the throat or something.) What I’d do, if I were at first hidden (as I often am, popping my pelvis back into place under the desk), how I’d try to do what I could from behind. How I’d probably die but then I’d been thinking I’d probably die since 1999. Like everyone else my age.

The conductor introduced this piece with that background: that it was written shortly after Columbine and before 9/11, and Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook and Boston. How now it could be seen to encompass so many more things now, though no one wished it could. Before the band played there had been a children’s chorus, and all of those kids (plus brothers and sisters, and the children of band members or the adult chorus or the orchestra) sat now in the audience, and I wondered what their parents had told them about these events. As nine year-olds, what had they been told about Columbine? If nothing, surely they would now ask, or could anyway, since the word had been put into their brains as the impetus for a whole song they had to sit and listen to. These kids wouldn’t even have been alive yet. Had their parents been forced to dredge the whole thing up after Sandy Hook? Was all this information fairly new to them? Were they frightened?

I had expected the Columbine piece even before the conductor’s introduction, because my mother-in-law told me that my father-in law had trouble getting through it; he teared up halfway through and couldn’t read the music anymore. I intuited that this was an emotional intimacy not necessarily granted to those closer to him, and my husband in his shock when I conveyed this to him confirmed it. We are each other’s emotional informants. Each of our parents shares with the other something too tender, maybe, to stand alongside the images of themselves they built up as parents over decades—too tender to be shared with your kid. So you share it with your kid’s wife, and she tells your kid and vice versa, because these are the parts of our parents we crave.

As the music climbed to its peak, not mournful but warm and welcoming, I rebelled against it with the visceral sense that the shining tones of all the instruments together were like my mom’s squeeze of my hand as doctors huddled with scalpels and tweezers over part of my face after an injury: it was consolation I couldn’t accept. I held completely and totally still, controlling my breathing, not squeezing back even a hairsbreadth, because to do so, to welcome in that comfort, would be to take in more tenderness than I could deal with. Shittily-applied topical analgesics and needles sticking through my face I could take, if barely, but someone acknowledging that that must suck, and that they would make it better if they could, would derail me. It was also, I thought, scrambling desperately to come up with analogies for the situation to distract myself from the music’s onward march, like the feeling I got when offered a tissue at my grandmother’s funeral, watching my dad cry at the podium as he attempted to read the book she’d read to him when he’d had scarlet fever when young. I shook my head fiercely when the offer came my way; I refused to look at the tissue box. Or when my calculus teacher said I’d rather not know my grade. I am more wrecked by your attempt to help me than by whatever you’re attempting to help me survive.

[[Several paragraphs eaten by crappy app. Thanks, Tumblr.]]

So I looked at the nine-year olds and the eight year-olds and the seven-year olds in the audience, surrounded by adults sniffling into tissues and sleeves, and wondered how much they understood. And how much their parents thought they understood. I imagined there was a fairly large discrepancy there.

And maybe it’s a necessary one. Maybe everyone needs to continue the fiction of the kids being all right, in order for there to be any hope of the kids being all right.


What Makes a Good Woman?

Whether it’s The Heavy or Tom Waits or The Good Men Project, there is (and, I think, always has been) an awful lot of discussion about what a good man is, or should be, and how one ought to go about becoming one. And what I’m curious to know is why no one seems to be asking the same of us women. 

Is it because we know already, or because we think that to define it is placing constraints on us that we fought so long to remove? Is the [male idea of] being a good woman just not sleeping with anyone else? Is it being able to say to one’s chosen mate “yeah, that taller/more successful/’better’ in whatever way male over there, I’m not sleeping with him, I’m sleeping with you instead?” That seems a terribly low standard. And yet I don’t see anything else being put out in popular culture (which is heteronormative, let’s be depressingly clear) as defining what “being a good woman” is.

It was this song by The Heavy that made me think of it. Why is it still acceptable to talk about being a good man, when by and large discussion of being a bad or good woman slips quickly, and likely justifiably, into accusations of sexism? If the only thing that determines whether you’re “good” or not is who you do or don’t sleep with, of course the entire idea is ridiculous and stunted and should be abandoned. (See: considering those women who don’t respond to your catcalls to be bitches, considering those who flirt with you but don’t sleep with you to be “bad,” considering those who are seen as toying with several men but committing to none of them as evil or conniving or manipulative in some way.)

So what makes a good woman? Are there other socially-cemented norms I’m not aware of? The only times I can think of the phrase “a good woman” being trotted out is when the male character talking about his good woman is reminiscing about a.) a meal she made, b.) how pretty she was before she died, or c.) how she put up with some fault or failure in him without leaving him.

Is that it? Is that all it takes to be stamped with the label of “good?” If that’s it, no wonder we have little interest in pursing “good woman” status. But if we can look at that and know it’s not worth pursuing, why are all these men still trying to be “good men?” What does it mean for them? Not beating women? Not impregnating people and then skipping off on child support? Showing up for Thanksgiving at your mother’s house? Driving a baseball bat into the face of the man who raped your sister? What makes a good man?

And why do we care? 

All day I’ve had This Ain’t No Place For a Hero stuck in my head,conversely because it’s wrong right now. This is exactly the place for a hero.

The other day I had my dogs out front, doing their business, because there were too many squirrels in back to get anything done. The smaller dog clawed at the grass with gusto, kicking bits of dirt and grass up into the air behind him, and I dodged the bits as I bent down to clean up after him.

“If you’re not careful you’ll end up covered in dirt!” Came a voice behind me. I rose and turned and saw that it was a cop, careless, striding at a measured gait down the sidewalk. I wondered if he’d turn in at pus hated building, thinking maybe there was domestic dispute (sometimes the neighbors argue pretty loudly) or something, but he just kept on past our flagstones, nodding to me in a friendly manner.

I grinned ruefully and said it ha even known to happen, them kicking diet up over me. I cleaned up after the other dog and watched the cop carry on down the street, across the intersection and out of sight.

A few months ago the guy across the street was held against the wall by the throat as two guys robbed his apartment of his electronics. I think I that every time I hear yelling outside. I was grateful to that cop on the sidewalk for just being there. I understand, when I hear these people on the Boston radio station saying they’re comforted by the presence of the SWAT vehicles and national guardsmen and armored trucks, when there is someone who boot a bunch of bombs and was able to detonate some if them at large, somewhere nearby. I can feel, over the horizon like an incoming cold front, the articles that will be written against this sentiment. The anti-government conspiracy theories, the this-or-that truthers, the people who have zero experience of a police state railing that we are becoming a police state.

It’s easy to bitch about cops when the guy across the street was not held against the wall by his throat as he was robbed. When an 8-year-old kid wasn’t ripped to ribbons at your town’s biggest holiday event. I feel these articles being written, these condescending entitled tweets and status updates forming in the fingers of people who never had to worry about the shape of their [insert device here] being seen through a bag lest they get knifed for it, and I fume. And I already plan my withdrawal from the social media outlets where I’ll run into these people, because I cannot make them feel a need for safety and they cannot make me feel a need for brazenness. But I know they’ll eventually come around because it doesn’t seem like fear is sparing anyone these days.

wild 2

Once you get past the first chapter it’s more bearable. We had it but it was missing and I put in a request and here it is.

“There, I could have a fresh start. I would stop grieving so fiercely. I would stop raging over the family I use to have. I would be a writer who lived in New York City. I would walk around wearing cool boots and an adorable hat.

It didn’t go that way. I was who I was: the same woman who pulsed beneath the bruise of her old life, only now I was somewhere else.”

Still, that first chapter may kill you.