Saturday, April 30, 2005

"Bowling For Columbine"

I just watched "Bowling For Columbine" and here are my thoughts.

I have to admit, I like Michael Moore. I'm no knee-jerk liberal either. I like to give everyone a fair say before I react. What is Michael Moore trying to say and what did I think?

I remember the massacre at Columbine High School, April 20, 1999, which left 13 students dead. I remember watching the news footage about it, seeing students crying outside of the school, the panicked faces of parents, and one student escaping out a window onto a ledge. I was a high school teacher in Los Angeles at the time which made it all the more vivid. A national debate was started: why did this happen? Or even more broadly: why do we live in a society where a disproportionate amount of people are killed by guns?

Is rock music to blame? Gangster rap? The NRA? Blacks? Our country's violent history? Loose gun control laws? A decline in church attendance?

Moore argues "no" to all of these for one simple reason: other Western countries have these same influences upon them but do not have over 10,000 homicides a year. So, Moore spends most of the movie on a quest to try to find what makes America different. What is the key element that makes us more violent than other countries.

The film largely argues that it is our culture of fear--perpetuated by the media--which produces such violence against one another. And, so a lesser degree, our government's aggressive attitude in the world community is echoed on smaller scales in our personal communities.

This film, I believe, would have been better if it would have stayed more focused on these answers. This seems to be what Moore really wants us to understand, and the films best moments are when he goes to Canada to discover their media does not pump its citizens full of fear. They do not even lock their doors at night. They own plenty of guns, but rarely ever kill each other. Dick Clark need not be bothered to hammer this point home. He is not part of the problem, but part of the system of problems. Carlton Heston, by Moore's own admission, is also not to blame. It is not the presence of guns in our lives that make us more violent, it is the presence of fear.

When George Bush won his re-election, I sat down to ponder this and brainstorm my thoughts. What came out was a litany on fear in this country. I had not seen "Bowling For Columbine" at the time, but this was the only explanation I could manage as to why Bush got re-elected. It seems obvious to me--and if I can see it anyone can--that we live in a scared society. Why did Bush get re-elected? It certainly wasn't because of his job approval. But it definitely was because no one in this country wants to change. We live in fear of homosexuals, terrorists, blacks, Hispanics, liberals, and tolerance. And this was never more true than in how people came out to vote for Bush to save them from their fears.

Along these lines, I believe one other element in our "fear factor" should be addressed. Among Western, gun-loving countries we are also the most religious.

Of the countries profiled by Moore in the movie, here's a breakdown of country's church attendance and also their homicide rate (murders, not just with firearms) and how much spent on military per person.

Germany: 5% / 960 (14th) / $470 (19th)
Australia: 16% / 302 (32th) / $577 (14th)
France: 21% / 1051 (12th) / $772 (10th)
United Kingdom: 27% / 850 (18th) / $527
Canada: 38% / 489 (26th) / $244 (30th)
United States: 44% / 12,658 (6th) / $953 (3rd)

I wonder if going to church contributes to the problem? Church, after all, is about division. People who go to church are going to heaven, and pleasing God. Others are not. I can see the fundamentalist thread and xenophobic attitude running through our society's common fears: fear of terrorism, homosexuals, minorities, etc. It's one thing to own a gun. It's another thing to own a gun and not be able to break bread with your neighbor.

However, I looked up one more statistic: perception of safety, and the results were surprising.

Australia: 64% of the people felt safe.
United Kingdom: 70%
France: 77%
Canada: 82%
United States: 82%

Now, wouldn't you think the countries with the most per-capita crime would have the population that feels the least safe? Or vice-versa? But the inverse seems to be true. Of the countries polled, America has the highest per-capita murder rate, but also felt very safe--the 2nd safest behind Sweden (85%). New Zealand had the lowest per-capita murder rate (45 murders, 55th place) and felt the least safe (62%)!

On the surface this statistic undermines Moore's biggest argument in the movie: that we kill each other because we're afraid of each other. Apparently American's are not afraid, but maybe that's only because we sleep with loaded .45s under our pillow. Maybe that's the attitude common in many military and police officers--they feel safe because they can lead out of aggressive action rather than defensive reaction. It is a guise of safety, and a gilded cage. But I believe our values and fears play themselves out in our actions. We vote down equal rights for people we don't want to understand, and--like our government--we use violence to solve our problems.

But, is there even a murder problem at all? I saved this question for last because it is the question that doesn't even get addressed by Moore. It is just assumed that since we had a school shooting we must have an epidemic on our hands. The United States ranks as the 24th most per-capita murders in the world. #23 is Bulgaria. Who has ever heard of Bulgaria's alarming homicide rate? And here's how we ranked with those other western countries in per-capita murder.

49th - Germany, .01 per
46th - United Kingdom, .01 per
44th - Canada, .01 per
43rd - Australia , .01 per
41st - France .01 per
24th -United States .04 per 1000 people

So, if we were a country the size of France, 60 million people, our murder rate would go from 12,600 to roughly 3,000. That's still high. Germany--Germany!!--has 82 million people and only 1000 murders a year.

While I enjoyed, and agreed with, most of his movie, Moore sometimes tends to do the same thing he is convicting the media of doing: pumping people full of fear. Do we live in a society where everyone sleeps with a .45 under their pillow? Where everyone locks their doors and hates blacks? No. But is that element of fear in our society? Are we an arrogant, ethnocentric nation that takes matters into it's own hands, reacting rather than processing information? Absolutely. And as I watched the movie all I could think about was my daughter, who will grow up in a country where she is at least 3x more likely to be killed than if she grew up in France, Germany, England, or Australia. Outside, it's America.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Driving in Silence

We drive in silence. We always do when I am driving to the drop-off point. I go through the same symptoms each time: loss of appetite, moodiness, and introspection. But I wonder what it is like for her, what she thinks about. What does the world look like through the eyes of a four year old girl?

It’s a cold night. The snow falls softly and vanishes as it hits the warm windshield. We drive up highway 94 through Wisconsin towards her home in Minnesota. Her grandfather, my former father-in-law, has agreed to meet us halfway, at the tiny town of Tomah. This gives Zoe and me about two hours together in the car.
She sits quietly. I can’t see her in the darkness of the backseat that stretches out of sight.


“Yes, daddy?”

“I was just seeing if you were sleeping.”


She seems to take these final drives rather well. But what is her concept of time? Minutes before she asked me what time I would see her again. If I say weeks or months will she understand? Her concept of time is still forming—one day rolling into the next—that happy, innocent, formless void of childhood.

She breaks the silence by singing one of her favorite songs. “Do you want to sing it too?” she asks.

I laugh, “I don’t know the words, Zoe.”

“Yes you do,” she insists. And, although I don’t, her faith in me and in the sincere belief that everybody must know the newest song she has learned—songs are universal, right?—compel me to try to sing with her.

Suddenly she is asking a harder question. “Daddy, how come you and mommy don’t live together? How come Gavin lives with his family but I don’t?”

This question can take on many forms, but I take it hard. To me she is asking: how come my life isn’t the same as my friends? How come I have to deal with this, I’m only four! Why should I pay for your mistakes?

I meagerly answer, “Your mommy and me decided we’re going to be friends, which means we don’t live with each other.” A weak attempt, but maybe it will pass?

“I remember when we lived in the white house with Sunny!” Sunny was her dog and she seems happy at this memory and perhaps is lost for a moment back when her life was more stable.

“Do you remember my plan?” I ask her.

“No” she admits.

“I’m going to try to see you as often as I can, and you can call me whenever you want.”

“Daddy, it takes you so long to see me.”

“I know, baby. I’m going to try my best.”

Sometimes she starts to falter and cry a little--it’s more like a quiet sob. But this time she accepts. “OK” she says, and then adds, “I’m going to miss you so much.”

“I’m going to miss you too, baby.”

I live 500 miles away, and sometimes I can see her after four weeks, sometimes six, sometimes two months…but it is not anything consistent and that to me is the real issue for her: that I am simply not accessible to her. And it hurts me. When I found out I would be a father I remember reacting: “I hope I get a little girl!” and God gave me one and she continues to defy all my greatest expectations. And I just can’t help but feel guilty about the lessons I’m teaching her.

She rides in the back, always amicable--singing, once in a while requesting some more juice or gum. But now we are nearing the drop-off point. “We’re almost there” I say.
We turn off the highway into the small town and I pull into a Quick Trip parking lot.

I spot a familiar green truck. “There’s grandpa!” I say, trying to sound excited and happy for her. “Tell him all about your vacation! He’ll be so happy to see you!”

But when I stop the car and turn around she is crying, silently. I hadn't even heard it. How long had she been crying? Tears are running down her cheeks and her lip is quivering.

“Baby, don’t let grandpa see you cry," I say. "You know he doesn’t like it.” And I know she is trying as hard as she can, but what can I expect? I am a 28 year old and with all my coping skills I will be crying as soon as she is out of sight. But for now: a brave front, for her.

I undo her seat belt and help her out of the car. “Wait here,” I say. I grab her red backpack out of the trunk. I’m automatically doing these things, my brain has stopped sensing, a defense mechanism I suppose. I hand them to grandpa who greets me warmly. He is a jovial man with a moustache nestled comfortably on top of a sincere smile.

We make small talk for a second as I hand him her things: her bag, her Dora the Explorer pillow, her car seat. Once again I am handing her out of my life one item at a time. I turn around to say a few last words to my daughter. She is standing there, in her coat, head turned to the ground, clutching a tiny, white toy cat she adopted and named Sally.

I kneel down and hug her and lift her. “My big girl!” I say.

“I don’t want you to go, Daddy” she says.

“I know, baby. I will be back soon, I promise. Now…” I’m starting to lose it, “Now, just sit with grandpa and go to sleep. It’s late, and when you wake up it will be OK.”

And I lift her up and she holds onto me tightly. I notice that she doesn’t fight. She doesn’t kick or scream or panic. What is it like being a small child and your whole life is forced on you in one way or another? I place her in the seat but I can’t look at her anymore. I buckle her in and hug her one more time. “Remember my plan, Zoe. I love you. Call me tomorrow if you miss me.”

“I love you too, Daddy.”

I step back outside and her grandpa is talking to me but I can’t hear him. My head feels as hallow as a drum. I feel sick and empty and cold. I shake his hand and get into my car parked next to his truck. I look through the side window and she is crying. I can’t hear her but her face is flushed, mouth open and her head is quivering back and fourth, eyes producing tears. It is the sincere face that says: I am in pain. It is the face that only an innocent child can make. No defense mechanisms, no coping, no faking, none of the facades that adults so naturally incorporate into everyday life.

I force a smile and wave goodbye. She looks at me, biting her lip to keep it still, and finally her hand comes up in a reflexive action, waving back just as the truck pulls away. Did I teach her that? Did she learn that from watching me or other adults? I don’t know when she learned that lesson: that when someone waves you wave back. She must have just picked it up along the way. Now it is so ingrained it is just reflex action to her young mind--that is how society works. And I wonder, what other lessons is she learning?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

my first post

Well, here I go. I don't have anything in particular to say but I just wanted to put something out here.

I'm not sure how I'm going to use this thing--as a journal or just for random thoughts--but we'll see how it goes.

Right now I'm in the process of organizing everything for my move into St. Louis. I bought my first house and I'm pretty excited and a little nervous.

For starters, I'll put some old election ramblings up.