The weekend in Newtown's wake.
One of the things I’ve always found difficult is balancing the serious and humorous. When I’m with my friends, I get caught up in the moment and the joke and tend toward the manic. However, when I’m alone, I let my notorious furrowed brow get the best of me. I pull up my coat collar around my neck and shove my hands in my pockets, still unable able to shake the allure of Stephen Dedalus’ monastic influence.
Like most people, I take the world seriously. I care about doing good unto others, being generous, compassionate and kind. Yet, there is still something in my nature to turn everything that I see into an absolute joke, to embrace the absurd nature of life, or to simply just mock, behind his back, the guy walking slowly in front of me in the subway, as though I were Ace Ventura at a Miami cocktail party.
I imagine that most people have the same kind of dilemma and I know that I am in no way especially unique. However, also like most people, since the Newtown shootings on Friday, I have been looking inward and trying to find what kind of compassion I am capable of, or rather, how much compassion I should offer to the universe, to people that will never know me. To people who are experiencing a pain and loss I have no concept of.
What I suppose I am really struggling with is the notion that the sacred and the profane or the serious and the pleasurable exist side-by-side every day. Now, I realized long ago that the previous statement is fundamentally true, but when you are faced with something as awful as the death of 18 young children and 8 women, sometimes even the most accepted of truths becomes harder to understand or recognize.
On Friday evening, after obsessively refreshing CNN’s news-feed covering the immediate aftermath of the Newtown shootings, I left work and went to my apartment to have dinner. I ate and watched CNN’s coverage of the evening vigils in Newtown. I watched ABC News’ interview with Kaitlin Roig and began to cry. I thought of my mother who is a high school teacher and called her. She didn’t pick up, so I lay down to take a quick post-dinner nap. I left CNN on, but couldn’t concentrate on drifting to sleep with the stream of pain and information coming out of Newtown. Instead, I turned the channel to AMC. White Christmas was on, which is one of my mother’s favorite movies. Bing Crosby started singing—not about a White Christmas, but something else—and I dozed off in a post-dinner haze.
I was awoken a few minutes later by my phone vibrating. My mother was calling, so I picked up and we rehashed our feelings on what had happened at Newtown. It wasn’t anything revelatory, just the standard, “there’s no way anyone can turn their back on gun control laws after this” and “we need to re-evaluate mental health treatment and policy.” I empathized with my mother since she is a teacher and lives in a world where one of the on-the-job worries for a teacher now encompasses worrying about being shot.
We talked a little longer. She wondered how her students would feel and what questions they would ask her (she teaches child psychology) on Monday. I told her White Christmas was on and then she thanked me for calling.
Later that night, I arrived at a birthday party in East Williamsburg. I had made a promise to myself that I wouldn't bring up the shooting, though I wasn’t sure why. I knew that I could handle talking about what had happened, but I supposed that at a birthday party no one would really want to talk about children being killed; and that I probably wouldn’t want to either.
The apartment filled up and some guy played Frank Ocean, Kate Bush, Outkast and 90’s R&B classics over the stereo using YouTube. The cops even came at one point to quiet everyone down. After they left, I decided to leave the party early and go to a bar with some friends.
At the bar at the end of the night, I was sitting with my friend next to a random black guy wearing sunglasses who looked 28 years old at one angle, but then looked 55 at another. We guessed he was closer to 55. He was telling us the best way to pleasure a woman and then he walked over to the bar to try and pick up two white East Williamsburg girls. They were creeped out by his dancing, so he walked back over to us.
“How do you guys think I should go about approaching this young pussy over there?” He asked.
“You’re asking us?” I said.
Then the guy offered us drugs. Soon after that, the lights in the bar went on. We had closed the bar down without wanting to. And before I knew it, I was in a cab rounding the bend of the BQE that looks out onto Liberty and Governor’s Islands with the windows open, trying to explain to my driver why Adam Lanza wanted to shoot six and seven-year olds. Needless to say, I couldn't.
The next day I woke up late, nursed my hangover, and got myself together. I went on my computer for a little while. On Facebook, people were dressed up in Santa costumes and I remembered that it was Santacon. People were getting drunk in Midtown or wherever else in Manhattan. I looked at my Facebook and Twitter feeds and saw that everyone was going ahead and posting the same statuses, complaints, photos and videos as per usual.
It seemed strange to me, though I supposed it made sense. In my own little sphere of the world, no one had a young child that had been killed. All the people on my Facebook feed offered up their sympathies, their human compassion and decency and thoughts on politics through a variety of tweets and statuses and then moved on, perhaps holding onto the depths of their own grief in private. I didn’t want to frown on anyone for going on with their lives because, well, I was doing the same thing for God’s sake. I had stayed out at a bar until four in the morning while people cried, lit candles and probably punched a few walls in the sad sanctuary of their homes in Connecticut.
Even though that rationale all made sense, something still seemed off. As though, I don’t know, maybe we all shouldn’t have been OK with just moving along with our plans, desires and ambitions in the holiday season and winter air.
But that was probably wrong.
In Williamsburg, I walked into my barber’s shop in the fading light of a beautiful December Saturday afternoon. The shop was filled as it always is on a Saturday, so I waited in line. My barber had a table of liquor and Italian tri-color cookies set up and he offered me some. I took a little scotch and two cookies.
I sat back down and looked at the TV, which was playing FoxNews. I watched a blonde anchorwoman interview a priest who explained, or tried to explain, the process of the grief, grieving, and impossible acceptance the people of Newtown would have to go through and how God would be with them now and was with their children when they suffered. I don’t begrudge any priests, but something about the whole thing was absurd and surreal.
Fox showed more images from Friday; images of people crying outside of the elementary school and holding candles and set it to some terribly moving, well-produced string score. Then it was five o’clock and Governor Malloy made his address to Connecticut and the rest of the country. There was something about the poise in the governor’s voice when describing all the pain and suffering that made me want to cry. Not because I wanted to feel something, but more because I didn’t know what those people in Newtown were feeling and I didn’t want to try and fathom the actual loss of life; because I knew if I did, then I would fall to the floor and bawl in front of an old man and two guys my age just looking to get some inches taken off the top and the side and then a hot neck shave.
When it was time for me to get my haircut, I told my barber what I wanted and he did it. I looked at the pictures of his grandkids next to the mirror and asked him how they were doing. He said he hadn’t talked to them yet, but that his daughter was worried.
“She lives in Dix Hills,” he said. “It’s just like that Newtown.”
I agreed and then we asked each other about the holidays. When he was done, I paid him, gave him a holiday tip and a hug.
Later that night, I was in College Point, Queens with three of my friends to get authentic Sichuan food for my friend’s birthday. We drank Tsingtaos, ate beef tendon, crab in chili sauce, pork kidney, squid, spicy prawn and all other kinds of fantastically flavorful and tongue-numbing dishes. We ordered bland, odd, grey-colored desserts, drank tea and made jokes about girls, ourselves and anything else. We were having fun.
With our stomachs full, we walked down the street and went into a random neighborhood bar. It was silent in the bar and a bunch of tough-looking older men and other locals sat around drinking. It seemed like we had walked into a scene in The Departed or another mob movie. However, we ordered Budweisers and put on classic rock and soon we were playing pool against a guy who we agreed had a very “jaily” vibe and a scar running from the left corner of his mouth up slightly to his cheek.
After that, we played some darts and suddenly we were getting rounds of whiskey on the house and meeting the owner of the bar who was setting up karaoke for his friend’s birthday. My friends and I decided to stay for karaoke.
We put in our songs and sat on stools watching the locals sing. One by one they came up to sing, each one looking more unassuming than the next and, one-by-one, they all proceeded to sing in amazing, in some cases, pitch-perfect voices. My friends and I were in awe. We pinched ourselves and figured that we must be in some kind of Twilight Zone episode. Then we each had our turns to sing and of course we performed like twenty-somethings from Brooklyn. We danced and jived and tried to make witty jokes to the crowd and I tried to do my best Peter Wolf impression as I bellowed through “Musta Got Lost.”
It was getting late and we had to go. However, on our way out we said goodbye to nearly everyone in the bar, including the guy operating the karaoke machine, who seemed genuinely sad to see us go.
As my friends and I rode the 7 train home, we each realized that we had experienced one of those special New York nights that seem to surprise you from time to time.
On Sunday evening, I made dinner and prepared for the work week as I usually try to do. I sent out some e-mails at my computer, paid a few bills and then got a beer and sat down to watch a little of Sunday Night Football.
Al Michaels explained that President Obama would be speaking at a vigil in Newtown and that coverage of the game was going to be interrupted. So I sat and waited and soon President Obama was speaking at the somber, humble candlelight vigil. I hadn’t seen Obama cry live on Friday afternoon and I was interested to hear what he would have to say after two days of reflection and political and public pressure to take action in regard to gun laws.
I watched Obama speak. I noticed every click and flex of his jaw, the glances down to compose himself for the next line of his speech, the distant gaze out into the back of the audience. Like most people, I was amazed at how he spoke about the nature of love and the nature of human purpose in life. There was something soothing about the groping philosophy and attempts at universality. The speech seemed to be full of real conviction and mourning. I thought of the young Obama running on the Upper West side, the young Obama that Vanity Fair tried to capture earlier this year in a feature article.
Then Obama began reading the names of the deceased children. The camera displayed a shot of some of the audience members’ backs. You could see the people leaning into one another and crying. And I wanted to cry too.
Obama spoke about America needing to do better and to try harder so that we don’t have to mourn any more of our citizens or children in these public displays, which may be impossible. And before I knew it, Obama was done and I was back to watching Tom Brady throwing the football against the San Francisco 49ers in the rain.
You’ve all seen the full coverage of Newtown. You all watched President Obama speak on Friday and again on Sunday. Nothing I’m reporting here is groundbreaking. All I know is that I feel absolutely terrible about what happened in Newtown and I know that when Obama said that America needs to do better and to try harder, my stomach grew hollow because I don’t know what that takes. I know what it takes as far as changing the laws, but I don’t know what it will take for all of us, all of our human souls—those smoldering coals deep in our guts—to make it happen.
I am not especially brave or heroic, nor am I as philanthropic as I proabably should be. I have a tendency to naval-gaze and simply enjoy the things I enjoy as much as I possibly can. However, despite what Stephen Marche at Esquire says, there is room for empathy alongside cold-blooded reason and policy and I am not sorry for crying or feeling terrible for what happened in Newtown or for even calling it a tragedy.
And I guess I understand that life always has to move on and that with Facebook, Twitter and all the other forms of new media, that life moves faster and flows right around the rocks and disruptions in the stream much more rapidly than perhaps before. Hell, I couldn’t even keep myself from getting drunk two nights in a row.
Yet, I know that tragedy isn’t supposed to keep us from enjoying our own lives. I just want to make sure I honor and take in what actually happened as much as I can. I may never comprehend the pain of anyone from Newtown, but I want to feel as much as I can possibly feel from where I sit in this world. I think everyone is entitled to that.
From there we all start the messy business of putting aside our own agendas and doing what is best for this country, for what will keep children safe at elementary schools. I don’t know the extent of the hours of work drafting legislature or sorting through paperwork or petitioning that will take. I just know that I don’t want to have to think or worry about six and seven year old children being killed at school. Whether that be worying over my own children—potentially, if I am lucky—or a stranger’s.
And regardless, I’ll still continue on, figuring out how to balance the serious and the humorous in each passing moment.