Fear the bullet

Guns are scary, which is why I can’t understand why so many people aren’t scared of them

static1.squarespace
Image by Matt Tumlinson, http://www.tumlinsonart.com

The atmosphere at a gun range is never not tense. If you’re a seasoned “operator,” to use the parlance of gun people, you are in all likelihood strictly intolerant of any nonsense of any kind because you respect these tools of death. If you’re a novice, you quickly learn why these people are this way. You don’t even have to shoot the gun. You just have to be near one when it goes off and you immediately understand why everyone’s balls are in their throat. And if you have any sense, yours are there too.

Recently, I went to a gun range north of Toronto, and there were a few things that surprised me. I remember, for example, that you could hear the sounds of the shots over the car engine as you drove down the street towards the range—something that might not be remarkable except this was an indoor range. The sound gets progressively sphincter-tightening as you get closer. The front shop is separated from the actual range by double soundproofed doors, at least one of which must remain closed at all times, otherwise the customers would be at constant risk of a burst eardrum. Ear gear on the range is a given, but the instructors also wear face masks, because the lead gets in the air and becomes poisonous after a while.

When you’re shooting the instructors stand right behind you. They load and ready the gun and offer stern reminders if the barrel begins to wander anywhere that is not the target. The shells that are ejected from gun with each shot are scorching hot and have been known, on occasion, to fall down a shirt or, horrifically, behind one’s eyeglasses. They told us at the outset that whatever pain or injury this might cause, we are not to panic. The absolute last thing we should do is to forget about the gun in our hand.

Before we got to shooting we were all escorted into a classroom where they explained all this, and shared a few other unsettling facts. Like for example, on the pistols, the firing mechanism claps back towards the shooter at about 1,000 feet per second. This mechanism passes just centimetres above the pin meant to protect your hand, and if your hand is in the wrong place, it’s not pretty. The instructors demonstrated this on these polyurethane models which were sitting on these tables at the front of the room. Before the instructors arrived, none of us touched them. Except one guy.

This guy was, as I later overheard the instructors calling him, “a cowboy” but he might be better known to you or me as “an idiot.” He came in to the classroom and, in front of a room of total strangers, picked up the model gun and began pretend-firing it, like a kid who just saw Scarface. He—a grown man—did this totally unprompted. Once we actually got on the range, he quickly volunteered to shoot one of the pistols first, which he picked up, barely-aimed and shot like a video-game carjacker, and that was when the instructor decided his day at the range was over. He wasn’t allowed to touch another gun after that.

Anyways, the point of all this is that these things (the guns) were intimidating. There was never a moment when we felt truly comfortable, and we knew that anyone who did was doing something wrong. For me personally, it took all of my focus just to stop my hands from shaking as I squeezed the trigger. And I’ve fired guns before.

*

People talk about guns being “fun” which I understand but also think is kind of fucked up. Their value as a toy is in direct proportion to the facility with which they can end a life. A shotgun or a rifle is more fun to shoot than a pistol, but it’s not as much fun to shoot as a grenade launcher.

The ironic part is that the thing that makes it fun is also, typically, what makes us feel safe. You feel better when you have a bigger gun, even if it’s only as a deterrent for people with smaller guns.

You see how this works: Maybe you get into guns because they’re fun, but eventually you feel like you need that gun, and you’re willing to allow for the possibility that lots of other people who probably shouldn’t have guns will have guns so you can have yours. You see, so you can protect yourself from them. If you’re American (they’re always American) you’ll defend your right to have that gun by clinging dogmatically to constitutional documents; documents written by people who lived in a time when men earnestly challenged their rivals to duels, and for whom the term “heavy ammunition” meant a cannonball. It doesn’t matter whether you and your guns, however big, could actually defend yourself from a government intent on harming you (as the people who wrote those documents intended). The point is you feel vulnerable without them. And those stats about how you’re far more likely to harm yourself with your own gun than anyone else, well, that’s not you, is it…

This is the problem with guns. It is also, as a way of thinking, so self-evidently misguided that I find it incredible it hasn’t occurred to every single person who has ever held a gun before. There are good reasons to have a gun, but keeping yourself safe is not one of them. Because guns are not safe. 

*

My first time shooting was at a hunt camp about seven years ago, where my cousin was celebrating his 30th birthday. His father-in-law, Rocco, is a proficient hunter, and the protagonist of many entertaining stories. My personal favourite is the one about the porcupine who was eating his deck for weeks until one day, Rocco exacted terrible revenge in the bleary-eyed hours of the morning when, wearing nothing but boxer shorts and boots, he kicked open the front door and blew away the critter mid-meal.

That weekend we went skeet shooting, target shooting, and hunting, and while I wasn’t supposed to be shooting any animals I was buttering up Rocco most of the weekend so he would let me. I didn’t actually want to kill something, it was more like I felt like I had to, to understand what it was like. I am (and you are too, probably) indirectly responsible for the deaths of many, many animals on a fairly regular basis, and I felt that doing the deed myself was a kind of moral obligation.

Rocco told us about all the things that could go wrong with the gun before anyone shot anything. We were all appropriately on edge during the skeet shooting while some of us rookies tried to work the safety. At one point, Rocco told me about the older generation of Italian hunters who would walk using the gun as a bastone, the muzzle downward in the dirt like a walking stick, and how they didn’t seem particularly worried about the fact that a clogged muzzle increased the likelihood of blowing off the aiming part of your face. When we did finally go hunting, Rocco let me hold the gun as we walked, trusting I would be decisive and take the shot when something worth shooting came into view. 

After failing to take said shot several times, I started to get antsy. Then someone in our group pointed out something rustling in the tree directly behind us. Following Rocco’s prompt, I wheeled around and fired the shotgun into the branches overhead, killing what I didn’t realize at the time, was a bird.

To say I “shot” the bird wouldn’t really be accurate. As my cousin pointed out, I was probably close enough to kill it using the gun as a club, plus the bird, whose body was probably slightly larger than a man’s fist, appeared to catch the bulk of the buckshot. I picked up the tail, which appeared to be the only part still intact. The other parts were scattered metres apart on the forest floor and camouflaged by the leaves and dirt sticking to the blood.

I remember feeling nauseous and guilty, but more importantly I felt kind of shocked. My expectations about what a gun can do didn’t match what I saw it do. We’ve all seen it in movies: The bang, the smoking barrel, the person dropped by the force of the shot. But that’s not real, and I don’t think there’s anything that can prepare you for what those pieces of lead exiting that muzzle can do to flesh. My experiences since haven’t convinced me I would have been any more prepared if my target happened to be bigger or farther away than that bird was.

That’s why killing something fucking devastated me. It was so easy, and the damage the gun inflicted was inversely related to how easy it was. Walking back to the camp, my mind ran through all the scenarios in all the darker universes of the things this gun could do to me or my compatriots with very little action from the person holding it. Killing that bird didn’t make me feel in powerful or in control or whatever. Instead it created this sense of dread—that, despite the safety precautions, we were always dangerously close to losing control. 

*

Here is the way some doctors describe the effect that bullets have on the human body, as told to the New York Times after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida: “Bones are exploded, soft tissue is absolutely destroyed…bystanders are traumatized just seeing the victims”; “the exit wounds can be a foot wide…I’ve seen people with entire quadrants of their abdomens destroyed.” One talked about a victim who had a tiny entry wound in the front of her leg where the bullet had entered. When she turned on her side, the physician saw that the entire back of her thigh was gone.

Granted, these are descriptions of military-style rifles, whose bullets travel twice as fast as ordinary handguns, and whose shockwaves blow through the body leaving massive cavities in their wake. But the fact is most guns, with few exceptions, are designed to kill or maim whatever they are shot at. Bullets from handguns still pierce and rupture muscle, bone, and viscera. The difference between these and a military rifle is one of effectiveness, not of purpose. 

But you and I, Mr. Gun Person, can probably agree on most of this. We don’t differ in our opinion about how devastating bullets are. And, unless shooting things has made you cold and dead inside, you’d probably even agree that you never really get used to inflicting that kind of damage on a living thing.

What we disagree on is how likely it is that you, as someone who frequently handles guns, will come into contact with a bullet. What we disagree on is whether these tools are inherently dangerous—that this danger exists apart from the person operating them. You respect the bullet, of course. No nonsense. But while you might be slightly nervous around gun rookies, and you might fear people with guns who mean you harm, you do not fear the machine itself. I think you should. 

Advertisements
Fear the bullet

A Few Words on Writing from a Great Writer

10636563_10102294593592931_7615541076765846592_o

The first time I read John Saward’s column for VICE, I remember laughing so hard I had to stop to catch my breath. Here’s the opening paragraph from his piece “Why I Love Watching Ron Jeremy Fuck”:

To witness Ron Jeremy have intercourse is to witness a grizzly bear eat a flamingo, or an orphan try to break into a vending machine. He is a manifestation of the grotesque male id, jamming fingers and genitals into every orifice at every opportunity, doing all of these things simultaneously, not making sense, not following some plan, just a man bludgeoning the human body with his sexual impulses. It is like watching a chimpanzee try to open the package of an Xbox controller.

That’s just the beginning. The rest is just as densely packed with those sorts of outrageous, illustrative and (to hell with it) perfect analogies. Upon finishing my teary-eyed second reading, I dropped whatever it was I was supposed to be working on that day and read everything else he’d published.

If you read VICE, you’ve likely come across something he’s written. He’s mostly known for his meditations on masculinity from his column “We Are Not Men” and, more recently, for his takedowns of various media/celebrity blowhards.

Probably his most popular post entitled “This American Bro: A Portrait of the Worst Guy Ever” appeared continuously in every one of my social media feeds the day it came out. One person who shared it said it was “required reading” and seemed all but convinced it would alter psyche of every douchebag who had the attention span to make it to the end.

But beyond sheer incisiveness and wit, the writing also has incredible heart. Last father’s day he wrote about his dad and this Valentine’s Day he wrote an essay on being in love: a series of descriptive scenes that were lucid in the same way your own philosophical arguments seem lucid when you’re talking about really impenetrable shit at the bar.

Easily my two favourite pieces, though, are about boxers. His piece on Mike Tyson is one of the best things VICE has ever published and his piece on Joe Frazier might be even better. After I read the Frazier piece I felt, for the first time, like I needed to tell the author how great I thought his story was. I emailed saying I wanted to be able to write like him and asked if we might be able to talk about his work, what he reads, etc.

His response remains one of the most cherished emails I’ve ever received. You can read it in full below:

In my early-twenties self-loathing had become a sort of recreational activity. I had just graduated from college and could not determine whether it was a period of growth or decay or stagnation. I suspect now that this is an affliction shared by many creative people (those who are immune to this are robots who need to be destroyed), but at that time I struggled to detach myself from it. I still wrote, but for purposes I could not identify. It was on the backs of receipts and in messages typed into my phone while riding the subway and on sprawling, unstructured Word documents. Writing was a messy, violent ejection of fractured ideas that I couldn’t assemble or refine.

Sometimes I sought activities that had as little to do with writing as possible. I mowed grass. I shoveled snow. I intentionally waited until the dishes in the sink grew into a small tower on the verge of collapse. For a few hours I would be consumed by things I did not like but knew I could at least get rid of. I floated in a nothingness, a lack of context, a separation from the narrative. I see the snow there under the tires and under the stacks of wooden planks rotting outside the garage. It exists in finite quantities; my body repeats the same mechanics automatically until it is gone. It is grueling but in a way that writing is not: it is of no significance beyond the act itself. It isn’t a reflection of who I am or what I might become. You are not “good” or “bad” at shoveling, and if you are it doesn’t matter. It is just snow. You get what you can and the rest melts. It was a sort of invincibility; a rapturous alternate reality.

The compulsion to write, or the pervading, pulsing need to be good at writing, is a monster. It’s there and it’s always there and you hope it doesn’t eat you alive.

I still feel that way. I feel that way frequently. There were certain elements of the Joe Frazier piece that I had been working on for three years. There was a moment, at six in the morning, still awake from the night before, the piece due later that afternoon, when I was convinced to a scientific degree that I would never complete it, not to any level of contentment, not for all eternity. I read the sentences relentlessly, until they became just words, just letters, just shapes, just static. I decided I would have to disappear and live under a bridge and burn down the entire internet and become a carpenter. I wondered about lumber grades.

I am telling you this only to assure you that if you have been paralyzed by that feeling before, you can let it exist, you can let it wrap its tentacles around you, but you can’t let it scare you. Eventually, you always get to send the monster back to its fucking cave.

I realize that very little of this has been “advice,” and for that I apologize. I will say that you should embrace moments of solitude and contemplation, and when you are there, examine what it is that shakes you. Pursue those things to every shadowy part of your subconscious. I am fascinated by the sad and the weird, because there is a desperation exhibited by them that is ferociously honest and something that I recognize in myself. Understand that writing can be, despite its epiphanous moments, something brutal. It is okay if it feels difficult. It is okay to grind. We don’t conquer it. We live with it. If you read something that someone else has written that seems perfect, never feel intimidated. Most of the time perfect does not just materialize from the ether.

I apologize for taking so long. Thank you for your patience. Your e-mail moved me.

People whose existence has been essential to whatever I have accomplished: Bruce Davidson (this), Gay Talese (this), Frederick Exley (this), Wim Wenders (this), Alex Pappademas (this), Don DeLillo (this), Brian Phillips (this, this, this), John Jeremiah Sullivan (this, this), Raymond Carver, Louis CK, Chris Ott (this), O.V. Wright (this).

A Few Words on Writing from a Great Writer

Watching Robin Williams with my Dad

robin_williams_live_on_broadway_2002_7072

When I was 11 or 12 years old, my dad and I got on a plane and flew off to a hockey tournament in North Carolina. It was the same sort of forced father-son time I knew all too well after a childhood of long drives to tournaments closer to home, so I settled in for what I figured would be an uneventful flight.

Shortly after we took off, my dad turned on his laptop and started watching Robin Williams Live on Broadway, a stand-up routine that was, admittedly, a little more graphic than his other work I’d seen (which at that point had been Aladdin, Jumanji and maybe Flubber). It was nothing that, in his adult opinion, I couldn’t handle. So he rummaged through his briefcase and pulled out a little two-pronged headphone jack so I could watch with him.

You already know Williams’ stand-up is known for his motor-mouthed soliloquies and wild one-man spectacles. In his tribute in the New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott describes the time he ran into Robin Williams in Cannes during the film festival’s fireworks:

“You can probably imagine the rapid-fire succession of accents and pitches—macho basso, squeaky girly, French, Spanish, African-American, human, animal and alien—entangling with curlicues of self-conscious commentary about the sheer ridiculousness of anyone trying to narrate explosions of colored gunpowder in real time.”

Re-watching his standup today, it’s a perfect description, one that explains how this man can turn his own act on its head, switching between family-friendly impressions and jokes about fake tits.

As an 11- or 12-year-old who still shuffled nervously when I heard a swear word within earshot of my parents, you can imagine what kind of experience I was in for. Sure, I understood almost none of it, but the awkward parts that I did catch were overpowered by the hilarity of it. You know as a kid when you laugh at everything your dad laughs at because he obviously knows what’s funny? Sometimes there’s a half-second delay when you look over at him to see if he’s laughing before you start laughing too? Or there’s the odd time you go out on a limb and laugh first, hoping he laughs too, but when you realize he’s not it makes you doubt everything you’ve ever thought was funny? Well, when my dad laughed—and he laughed much louder than anyone in a darkened plane cabin has a right to—I forgot that feeling. It was just unmitigated happiness. It didn’t matter if I knew, for Williams’ last joke, why he’d buried his face in the crook of his obscenely hairy arm or what he was doing with that water bottle. I was laughing because dad was.

On the night Robin Williams died I came across a story Williams had written in the Times last year in remembrance of a comedian he loved: Jonathan Winters. He talked about watching Winters with his dad and after a joke that had something to do with squirrels and nuts “my dad and I lost it,” Williams wrote. “Seeing my father laugh like that made me think, ‘Who is this guy and what’s he on?’”

As soon as I read that quote I felt a weird connection.

What did it mean that Williams had those same moments with his dad? What does it mean that my dad and I shared those moments watching him? What does it mean that Williams killed himself and what does it mean that, six years ago, my dad did the same?

Obviously none of those are questions I’m equipped to answer. All I can say is that it has compelled me to write something; to toss in a little more than my two cents in the wake of all this. Despite my reservations, I think it can be meaningful to share these connections, in fact for the very reason that these connections—whether they’re about fathers and sons, laughter or suicide—often prompt others.

It’s been a while since I’ve scoured the obits and eulogies, the penetrative analyses and sad ruminations, in hopes binding together bridges of cosmic significance between little coincidences. Of course I had no more claim to this tragedy than anyone else, but I’m happy I found something.

Watching Robin Williams with my Dad

The Anxiety of Unemployment

*originally written May 24, 2013

You can see the poor bastards floundering and gasping. They’re dying of thirst. They’re out of material. – Tom Wolfe

I recently discovered that when I go for long periods of time without writing anything I tend to talk more. This post is primarily a courtesy to those who may have noticed that before I have. Sorry.

I’m beginning with this apology because this post will be about something I have promised myself I would not write about but, for some reason, cannot stop talking about. The topic of unemployment has slithered into every conversation I’ve had since I graduated last month. If you’ve spoken to me about this, this should clear up any angry or incoherent rambling you may have had to put up with. But make no mistake, this post will be just as angry.

Over the last year (probably longer, but I’ve really noticed in the past year) the media has been filled with personal stories about disgruntled graduates who can’t find their dream jobs. It seems that half them aren’t looking because they’re too busy filling the pages of their favourite publications with their bitching and moaning over the fact that those publications won’t hire them – at least not for any longer than it takes to type up all that bitching and moaning. Forget about dental. Somehow, a lot of very clever journalists have managed to persuade their publishers that they aren’t necessarily talking about them. After all it’s just the “state of the industry” – a vague generality into which every media outlet is forced to fall. So they publish it: our cries over internships that pay us with experience; entitled squealing about the lack of opportunity in the creative industries; or my personal favourite: observations about how the newspapers with all these stories about how newspapers can’t make any money aren’t making any money.

But worst of all are the ironic blog posts complaining about the fact that everyone is complaining. Which brings me to me: The person writing the blog post. I know I’m a few months behind. This trend seemed to be at its height in the Spring when soon-to-be graduates were still in school and applying for jobs. At that point I was still ignorant and confident that I would find somethingeventually. I still can, but it seems more likely that something will include clearing tables or pouring drinks. Kickstarting my career will have to be something I do while I’m not making money.

Still, that’s not an excuse for all this trash. Articles/posts like this one are only really tolerated because we have grown up in a time when a career has become something more than a pay cheque. What was once a source of income has now become “our passion” and nothing less. If you had a grandfather who was slugging 80 pound stones around a construction site all day, I guarantee he was a very different kind of person than the creative types who come home and complain about the lack of “meaning” at their office jobs.

Despite my penchant for intolerable irony (in case you haven’t picked up on it, I don’t take after my grandfather), I do not spend most days half-naked, hunched over my keyboard writing blogs in between other self-loathing activities; i.e., the consumption of really good journalism and sporadic masturbation. However, I’m also not out pounding the pavement – figuratively speaking – to expose myself in the job market.  Some would call it laziness, others would call it fear. I prefer to call it vocational rigor mortis.

It stems from an anxiety. I know exactly what must be done but I am constantly re-evaluating how and when to do it. I spent last week building a website which, once completed, led me to realize I didn’t have anything worth posting to it. Do I build the website or start writing things to fill the website with? Will the website somehow help in the creation of things worth posting to it or will it do the opposite? Does the egg come before the cart or after the horse?

Of course, the result is that I don’t end up doing anything except thinking of ways to scramble the egg and horse dilemmas. Most of my time is spent in a confused state of “where should I begin?” I already know the answer to this problem, I just need to hear it from somebody else. Here are your lines if you decide you’re going to be the one to give it:

“Nobody is looking at that sad collection of writing you call a website so stop Googling yourself to see where it appears on your hit-list of internet misdeeds. Put on a pair of pants and go write something down – something that people will actually want to read. I shouldn’t have to tell you that this doesn’t count.”

The Anxiety of Unemployment