Trying to make sense of the senseless

Whenever something happens like this week’s mass shooting in a Charleston, SC, church, it is usually described as “unthinkable.” Then we spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Undoubtedly, this is an effort to provide some sort of context. The latest horrific event is — must be — the outgrowth of one group hating another group. Or the result of a society awash in guns. Or the myriad evil thoughts leaking out on the Internet.

For if there are plausible reasons for these occasional outbursts of violence, perhaps they can be eliminated. Get the warring groups to reconcile. Scale back the weaponry. Get a handle on the dark side of the Web.

Such thoughts are comforting, because the alternative — that mass killers are simply a random fact of life, like tornados and plane crashes and great white sharks — is scarier.

But what if there was no real context to the Charleston shootings? What if it can be explained in three short words: “He was crazy”?

Whatever the trigger happens to be in such cases, it is almost a moot point. There will always be a trigger. In this case, it was a hatred of black people by a white person. On other occasions, the perpetrator has been a black person who hated white people. Or a Muslim hating Christians. Or a Christian hating Muslims. In the case of the 2007 Virginia Tech school shootings, the gunman was a young Asian who seemed to hate everybody.

If a person is psychotic, schizophrenic or sociopathic, he or she is prone to attach their feelings of rage and frustration and fear to a convenient scapegoat. My life is torture for me, and it’s all because of …. them.

True, the identity of “them” may depend on the cultural environment surrounding that person. And it is also true that the vast majority of those with mental illness never act on these feelings.

Moreover, in a democratic society, it isn’t against the law to be weird, as long as that weirdness doesn’t directly affect others. Therefore, in case after case, news reporters post-massacre always roust out some relative or friend who will say of a mass shooter: “Well, he was always kind of odd, but we didn’t think anything of it. He usually kept to himself.”

In the case of Christopher Speight, who shot and killed five members of his family and three innocent bystanders in Appomattox, VA in 2010, he had stopped taking his anti-psychotic medication and began shooting at a target behind his house for hours.

So there are often warning signs. But sometimes not.

The point is, the fact that a young white man walked into a black church and killed nine people does not necessarily mean that race relations in America just took a giant step backward. Rather, I think it is safe to say that anyone who randomly kills nine strangers who have done nothing to him is, by definition, insane. (Unless it happens during wartime, in which case the shooter is usually applauded).

The good news is, the chances that any of our lives will be shortened by an encounter with a mass shooter — or a serial killer, for that matter, are infinitesimal. They exist, just as tornados and man-eating sharks exist, but they are relatively rare.

Maybe that should be comfort enough for us.


Freelancing: You can’t take always it with you

This guest post is from Barbara Trainin Blank, author of “What to do About Mama: A Guide to Caring for Aging Family Members” and a recently dislocated freelancer.

Relocation is Dislocation, but…
     There’s a Jewish proverb that states: Changing one’s place changes one’s luck—with the implication that it’s for the better.
     That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that moving is one of the top stressors in life; some even say the top five. I certainly found that to be so.
     Moving away from a city we had lived in for 24 years—even to go to a place that promised to be better overall— negatively impacted my professional success as a freelance writer and editor and hence, my pocketbook. A number of my clients—mostly local and regional magazines and newspapers—decided they preferred writers who still lived in the area and could do interviews face to face.
      That seemed to surprise many people, who couldn’t understand why, in this day of the Internet, I couldn’t “work from anywhere.” Well, I couldn’t …
     Even though there are more opportunities in our new location (Greater DC), to which we moved for my husband’s new job, they are often very specialized opportunities, such as technical and government jobs. There is also a lot more competition, and people are more “political.” Also, in our particular corner of Greater DC, people typically have been living here 30-40 years, and formed strong connections. It’s hard to break through. Even people who are otherwise reliable friends seemed reluctant to give me referrals if they were in competing fields.
      So what to do when you get to a new place? Some of the suggestions I’m giving you, the reader, are ones I didn’t have the courage or wherewithal to follow during the first 15 months of our sojourn here. Hopefully, that will change over time.
      1. Tell everyone you meet that you’re looking for a position or for freelance assignments/projects, no matter how uncomfortable you are.
     2. Go on “informational interviews” with anyone successful in your field or maybe any field if there’s a link.
     3. Work with a mentor coach. Through a psychologist, I was able to find an organization that is flexible about fees.
     4.  Get involved in networking groups. If you’re shy (like me), try to find a low-key one where people, for example, meet in members’ homes.
     5. Approach nonprofits, businesses and associations, as well as newspapers and magazines, that might need writers. Certainly, journalism is undergoing a crisis, but freelancers are still needed in some places, if you can find them.
     6. Maybe write for someone who doesn’t pay to collect credits. (I’ve done that for a regional theater guide, because I love theater and free tickets!)
    7. Hang out at places where writers might hang out, like writers’ centers, bookstores, and library events. Tell everyone you’re a writer, without shame.
     8. If you published a book (like I did a year ago), try to get a reading someplace that charges little or nothing, and be ready, at the drop of a hat, to tout the “wonderfulness” of your book. (This is something I’m still working on.)
     9. Don’t overlook (as I too often have) the Internet, both in terms of web sites and listservs that target writers exclusively or partially (like Craigslist), and those that might be looking for bloggers and freelance writers. Some of the latter are not to be trusted, but others might be goldmines.
     10. No matter how dark things look, always remember they can change.

A gay time in Lynchburg, VA

Things change, if you wait long enough.

Twenty — or even 10 — years ago, the idea of a same-sex couple applying for a marriage license in Lynchburg, VA would have been unthinkable. Or, if it did happen, it would have been accompanied by a jeering, sign-wielding  crowd and, perhaps, the National Guard.

All in the name of Christianity, of course. For this was the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s town, and he often used the “gay threat” as a means of evangelizing and fund-raising. In all fairness, he was no doubt coming from a place of personal conviction, because Falwell grew up in a semi-rural county where the attitude towards gays was, to say the least, unfriendly.

And things haven’t changed completely even now, because one of the two men who applied for a marriage license in Lynchburg earlier this week under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling asked to be identified only as “Ron.” The other didn’t want to be identified at all.

This was always a large part of the problem, a social Catch 22. Because being gay usually meant community disapproval, people were understandably not anxious to emerge from the safety of the closet. Yet had they done so, and their “straight” neighbors and co-workers realized that they were just regular folks, like them, things might have changed more quickly.

We had a gay reporter a few years ago at the newspaper where I worked who handled it well. On the first or second day, he told some of his colleagues: “Oh, by the way, I’m gay. hope that’s not a problem.”

It wasn’t. But had he kept it to himself, rumors would have circulated. Somehow, when you’re hiding something, it begins to seem bad.

Don’t get me wrong, though — I’m not discounting the courage it takes to come out and face disapproval.

Indeed, I always considered that the strongest argument against the “they’re just gay because they want to be” argument. Why would someone willingly put up with all that aggravation?

For unfortunately, if you accept the “gay by choice” argument, the next step is to think: “Maybe it’s catching. Maybe if I’m around gay people for awhile, they can convince me to turn gay.”

Not a chance. Every gay person I’ve ever talked to said they instinctively knew their orientation at a relatively early age. In most cases, it’s built in.

That’s not to say that some people don’t experiment with bi-sexuality, or that same-sex relationships don’t  happen among heterosexuals in artificial settings like a prison. But something else gay people have told me is best expressed by one man who said: “Why would I come on to someone without knowing where they’re going from? At best, I’d get rejected. At worst, I might get beaten up. We have no desire to ‘convert’ anyone.”

Think about it, though. Do you really think much about what your straight co-workers do in their bedroom?

Then why obsess over the intimate life of someone who is gay? Sex, while powerful, is only one facet of a person’s identity.

Many Christians will tell you, in all sincerity, that they are against homosexuality because the Bible is against it. I think that’s simplistic, but I don’t have the space here to argue it, and I lack the ammunition for such a discussion, anyway.

Even if that’s true, though, weren’t we told by the same book: “Judge not, lest ye be judged?” So isn’t the morality of being gay God’s problem, not ours?

I saw a bumper sticker once that said: “If We Are to Love Each Other, We Must First Learn to Leave Each Other Alone.”

Amen to that.


Massaging history

True, it’s just one school board in one city. Still, a recent edict handed down by the Jefferson County School Board in Denver has to be more than a little unsettling to those of us who believe that history should adhere to that current popular saying: “It is what it is.”

And not what we would like it to be.

Apparently, the Jefferson County board wants to edit history, and a lot of parents in the community aren’t happy about it. Even the Guardian weighed in on the story, after providing a little background on widespread community discontent with some recently elected members of the board.

“The spark which ignited the tinderbox,” the article continued, “was a proposal written by one of the conservative majority on the school board, Julie Williams. In it, she calls for a review of the Advanced Placement history curriculum using the following set of criteria: ‘Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.’

“Williams gave an interview with Colorado’s Channel 9 News in which she made a statement that has since become a rallying cry for the students, parents and teachers protesting against the proposal: ‘I don’t think we should encourage our kids to be little rebels.’”

So a group of nonconforming students decided to come to school “dressed as famous historical rebels; figures who were responsible for just the sort of ‘civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law’ that Williams’ proposal seemingly aimed to banish from the classroom.”

Cute. Meanwhile, most of the teachers called in sick. I don’t blame them.

For if there’s anything America isn’t, it’s passive. Just ask any politician, anywhere. Respect for authority goes only as far as agreement with that authority — otherwise, it’s every American for himself.

Absent “civil disorder,” slavery would continue to be practiced here (or at least segregation), women would not be allowed to vote, and we’d still have troops in Vietnam.

Moreover, how can you promote any “ideals” through history, which is generally fluid, unpredictable and uncooperative?

We already serve up a sanitized, glorified version of past events to our school-age children. Eventually, if they haven’t been turned off for life from the subject, they learn that our Founding Fathers weren’t perfect, the men who wrote the Constitution didn’t all agree, some of our foreign policy since 1776 was just wrong, and the Civil War is a lot more complicated than most people realize.

I wonder if Julie Williams stopped to think that “respect for authority” and “respect for individual rights” often collide. Maybe she should listen to the students.


Blame Madison Avenue

As we find ourselves careening into yet another political season — this time the “midterm” elections — I can’t help but think about how much commercial television advertising has influenced plugs for political candidates.

And not for the best, in my opinion.

True, commercial ads have been around since the Republic was founded, and there has always been interplay with their political cousins. Television, however, upped the ante by allowing more sleight of hand, subliminal messages and outright misrepresentation.

For example: A man with a pained expression stares out from the screen, explaining that he has a splitting headache. He takes two capsules of Product X. When next seen, he is playing with his children, smiling and declaring “My headache’s gone!”

That’s inspiring. Yet if you read the tiny type at the bottom of the screen, it says “a simulation.”

The pained man is an actor. He didn’t really have a headache, and Product X didn’t really make it go away.

Many political ads do pretty much the same thing. They warn of a problem that doesn’t exist, then talk about how their candidate will solve it.

Then, there are the commercials that compare a product to a mythical horrible example. One that sticks in my mind touted a well-known muffler company. It showed a customer bringing his car into a shop filled with what looked like extras from “Deliverance.” The new muffler wouldn’t fit, so the most brutish of the group picked up a big hammer and roared: “I’ll make it fit!” as the customer looked on in horror.

Sure, the muffler company in the ad would be far better than those clowns, if they were real. But they are merely straw men.

The worst of the current political attack ads take a similar approach. I remember one that purported to show that a candidate’s opponent was soft on crime by photo-shopping him into a group of inmates, all actors.

If an ad makes a comparison between Candidate A and his opponent, Candidate B, that’s fair game. Likewise, if the ad points out some position held by Candidate B and states how Candidate A would do or see things differently.

But some of these ads attack the opponent while saying absolutely nothing about the favored candidate. In that case, it’s just a cheap ploy to put the other guy on the defensive while avoiding having to say anything about your own platform — if you even have one.

Finally, there is the commercial that shows gorgeous scenery, happy people, children and dogs, but only provides the slightest intimation of what product it is actually endorsing.

Politicians have perfected similar feel-good ads — the candidate with his or her family, shaking hands with obviously supportive constituents, etc.

The problem is, a candidate can be a wonderful family person but a lousy public servant. The two really have very little to do with each other. In fact, candidates for national office often hardly see their families for the eight months or so they’re chasing that job.

At the moment, my television set is broken, and I’ve been meaning to call the cable company about it.

Maybe I’ll just wait until December.


Remembering Hurricane Hugo

This fall marks the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, the last big storm to savage the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Having worked for several years in Charleston, I went back to see what that “lunatic wind” (James Dickey’s later book title) had done to a city that I loved. This recycled newspaper column is by way of remembrance.

Starting conversations with veterans of Hurricane Hugo wasn’t a problem last week.

People were more than willing to talk, and there was no shortage of stories. Friday morning, in fact, Charlestonians began lining up at 6 a.m. outside the King Street Palace — normally used for pro wrestling — to tell their stories to Oprah Winfrey.

Alas, only a small percentage could get Oprah’s ear, much less her autograph.

But there were other ears, two of them, belonging to a visitor from an obscure Virginia newspaper, and not once did I find someone unwilling to talk.

A woman from shell-shocked Folly Beach even gave me the addressses of her rental properties and urged me to visit them so I could see the damage.

“Just go right in,” she said. “Look around. And don’t worry about the golden retriever at the one place — he’s really a pussycat.”

Starting conversations was easy. Finishing them was hard, because the traditional ending phrases were unavailable. I couldn’t exit with “Good luck” or “Take it easy” or “It was nice talking to you.” There was really nothing for me to say.

Or to write, at this point — not in the sense of hard copy for the 6 o’clock news or USA Today. Or to photograph, because this is one case in which pictures and newsreel footage are ineffective.

After all, we’ve become numb to collapsed houses or washed-out bridges or overturned cars. There’s a disaster somewhere in the world every day, most with far higher body counts than the 20-some killed by Hugo.

What blew me away (so to speak) was the sheer magnitude of the destruction. Hugo gave South Carolina a stinging backhand slap across the coast, and the bruises stretched for 60 miles north and south and 150 miles inland, a collage of broken trees and overturned trailers and imploded roofs.

I would have expected a wall of wind to create uniform damage, but Hugo was a roll of the dice. Flimsy wooden houses stood next to brick ones that had buckled. A Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant was gone, but the neon bucket bearing Colonel Sanders’ smirking face remained.

There was post-Hugo adrenalin for awhile, no doubt, a giddiness born of danger and relief and the attention of every TV anchorperson in the country. Within days, though, that rush of emotion had bled out, replaced by a crushing weariness. With no homes to take shelter in and no workplaces to go to, people wandered the bleak cityscape of North Charleston and the highway shoulders of Berkeley County like refugees from a nuclear war.

Suddenly, all the radio commercials were Hugo-related. Let us rebuild your home. Car ruined? We can help. No payments until 1990. Bring your insurance checks.

I encountered a gaggle of car salesman sitting inside a dealership in downtown Charleston, drinking coffee. There were no windows in the formerly glassed-in building, and the 130-mile-per-hour blast of the hurricane had pelted the cars in the outside lot with shingles from a neighboring roof.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the salesmen.

“Oh, no,” it’s fine,” one of them replied. “All of this is insured. And when people start getting paid from their own insurance companies, all of them are going to need new cars. We’re ready.”

Others weren’t so lucky.

“My favorite T-shirt,” said Sabrina Kallberg of the local Red Cross, which lost the roof of its building, “was one that said, ‘I survived Hugo, but the aftermath is killing me.'”

So true. At first, hurricanes are terrifying and monstrous. Then, they’re a pain in the neck. If you’ve ever been without power for a few days, imagine having your lights punched out for three weeks. Your drinking water fouled. Your furniture coated with mud.

Half the stoplights in Charleston weren’t working last week, creating some interesting traffic patterns Somehow, drivers adapted. As many as 20,000 homes remained without power. People shared.

“I heard about one woman who let 50 people take showers in her house one day,” said Rick Davis, director of the McClellanville Red Cross shelter.

My daughter Cindee went down with me, because she had been born in a duplex on James Island and wanted to see if the house was still there. It was, although both oak trees in the front yard were down. If there’s one thing South Carolina won’t be short of this winter, it’s firewood.

Nevertheless, Cindee came away impressed. A storm-toppled tree sprawled with its roots up is one thing. Trees sheared in half as if by a giant weedwhacker — as were evident all the way up the King’s Highway between Charleston and Georgetown — are quite another.

“This doesn’t happen very often, doesn’t it?” she said.

Nope. And steel girders aren’t twisted by the wind very often, or automobiles tossed into the back of pickup trucks, or mobile homes deposited onto the median of interstate highways.

So we drove around two days and looked, and listened, and then we drove back to a house with lights and water and a roof in a city that was very fortunate not to have met Hugo firsthand.

“It was supposed to hit Lynchburg, actually,” I said to the woman from folly Beach.

“Count your blessings,” she told me. “You have no idea.”

Afterthought: On a pile of broken brick and mortar across the street from the News & Courier, where I used to work, someone had spray-painted this defiant message: “We Demand a Rematch.”

So far, thank God, that hasn’t come about.


Defying Andy’s Law

As most of you know, it was artist Andy Warhol who once predicted: “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”

That hasn’t quite happened yet, although Facebook and Twitter are pushing us in that direction. But I still consider Warhol’s statement to be prophetic.

And double-edged. The upside is that fame can now ambush almost anyone, at any time. The downside is that maintaining one’s place at the center of attention is becoming increasingly difficult.  The public curiosity span is shrinking drastically.

The Eagles nailed it with their song “New Kid in Town,” asking: “Where you been lately? There’s a new kid in town. Everybody loves him. But you’re still around.”

So when I read recently about the most recent antics foisted upon the public by Miley Cyrus and Jason Beiber (more twerking, more trash talking), Andy Warhol came to mind. Could it be that these two pop stars sense that their time in the center ring is fading? Maybe this is their way of letting people know they’re still around, and refusing to go quietly.

True, athletes and politicians and entertainers don’t necessarily vanish when the public gives them the hook. Many continue to have long, successful careers — it’s just that you don’t hear about them in quite the same way.

I got a taste of that on a very local level when I started writing a newspaper column for the News & Advance in Lynchburg, VA. The paper hadn’t had a columnist for two decades, so I was a something of a novelty. Everything I said in print attracted a barrage of letters (the was before e-mail), pro and con. I was getting lots of invitations to speak to groups, or to judge somebody’s food or talent or beauty contest. Everybody seemed to want me around, or want me to shut up.

Because I had no competition, this lasted for a couple of years. Then I noticed that the feedback and the invitations were slacking off, and I realized what had happened. The people who liked what I wrote got tired of patting me on the back. For those who didn’t enjoy what I wrote, I had become like the eccentric relative who always says the wrong thing at family reunions, causing his kin to sigh and say: “Oh, that’s just Uncle Harry. Who cares what he thinks?”

I spent another two decades as the paper’s columnist, and got some wonderful feedback from time to time, but my “It” days were over. It happens to everyone. Actors get fat. Athletes get hurt. Bands get repetitive. Politicians get boring. Columnists get overpublished.

Here’s a brief list of celebrities whom I think have crested the mountain of “It” and are headed down the other side. Consider Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus one and two. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear some of your own nominations:

3. Oprah Winfrey. When she went behind the scenes as a network head, that visceral connection with her adoring audience may have been severed. The only way she can get “It” back now is to run for President. Perhaps she could give everyone who votes for her a car.

4. Rush Limbaugh. When your audience knows what you’re going to say before you say it, it’s not a good thing. His is a terminal case of “eccentric relative syndrome.” Ditto, Glenn Beck.

5. Sarah Palin. She keeps trying to remind us how fortunate we were that she wasn’t elected vice-president. But since that’s not going to happen now, who cares?

6. Al Sharpton. Like Jesse Jackson before him, he always seemed more interested in calling attention to himself than calling attention to whatever injustice he was protesting. After awhile, that gets old —  and so has Al.

7.  Alex Rodriguez. Some people shoot themselves in the foot. A-Rod apparently shot himself somewhere else.

8. Pat Robertson. I’m not even sure God is listening to Pat any more.

9. Reese Witherspoon. She is aging out of her signature roles and — on several recent occasions — into trouble.

10. Nancy Pelosi. Who?