Tension, Juxtaposition, and the Origin of Apocalypse City
February 11, 2014 § 5 Comments
Craig Reinbold discusses the quandary of gun ownership and the origin of his recent Brevity essay Apocalypse City:
Some situations announce themselves pretty loudly as essays, or potential essays, or stories, or whatever. Think of all the anecdotes we carry around just waiting for a break in the conversation. But then an anecdote isn’t really an essay, and although I wrote down this party conversation as soon as I got home, it was another year before I had an idea of how to turn this scene into something more than yet another arbitrary example of Arizona crazy.
I’d been working on another essay, a massive collage of similar scenes and situations, but the thing refused to meld. One of those situations involved me creeping around the house in the middle of the night in my underwear—with a stick in my hand, because the dog had barked and I thought someone might have snuck in our back door—and ended with my wife and I walking along the dirt roads north of where were living at the time, and she was laughing at me, laughing at these irrational fears of mine. And I was laughing too. Eventually I stuck these two scenes together, and sure enough, in the juxtaposition, in the tension between those two situations—the tension between that crazy PhD going off about his guns, and this other situation in which I was terrified my family was under attack and all I had was a stick to defend us—the real story emerged. That juxtaposition added a greater ambivalence, and with that layer of doubt, that hesitation, that muddle, these anecdotes, finally, came to resemble an essay. So I like to think.
More months passed. Somehow the superfluous was chipped away, and by way of some lucky grace, boom, 732 words, there it is, Apocalypse City.
This here is more interesting though, I think, not so much how this essay came to be, but how the story is still changing: There’s often a long lag between writing something and seeing that something published. That friend’s birthday I wrote about was two years ago, and since then I’ve told the story of this AZ nutcase a lot, mostly to friends, but also family, colleagues, occasional strangers, and I’ve discovered my reason for telling it has somehow changed, in kind of a big way.
At first I told the story out sheer wonderment, akin to, whoa, did you know the universe is not only expanding, but that it’s actually expanding faster than ever!? Crazy. Then I was mostly just amused, having a good laugh at the poor gun-loving caricature of crazy. Then I started telling this story as possibly an actual sign of trouble ahead. Those on society’s fringes are sometimes calibrated to see what’s really happening even as the rest of us are obliviously checking our email. Maybe, I started thinking, this guy is some kind of Cassandra. Which is to say, my thinking about this simple story has gotten even more complicated.
In the weeks after Sandy Hook, I read a New York Times op-ed (which unfortunately I can’t re-find, c’est la vie) by a writer who had more or less discovered guns only when he set out to play with an array of them as research for a novel that apparently involved a lot of shooting. This was weird for him. He’d always been pro-gun control in the sort of unthinking way many of us are for or against so many things. But the experience got him thinking. Later, amidst some city-wide disaster, he realized he wouldn’t be able to evacuate his family, and they had to hole up where they were for a few days. He realized how volatile the world we live in is, really, how fragile civilization is when there’s no electricity, or water from the tap, and food is running low. He now keeps a handgun at home. This writer knows the statistics: this gun is more likely to kill one of his children than an intruder. But his was not a decision based on reason. It was a gut-check. The sum of so much testosterone + fear. Both of which I know well.
Don’t get me wrong. I have zero desire to go all Charlton Heston. Truthfully—though I’ve recently taken up hunting, and have developed an appreciation for a good rifle—firearms in general frighten me, or they don’t, but the fearmongers so proudly toting them do. I still think that AZ nut who’s been doing all kinds of weapons work at Raytheon for the last two years is crazy. But maybe the writer of that NY Times op-ed is on to something.
Writing this essay, I knew my wife was laughing at the absurdity of my being afraid of some hapless stranger who happened to be out for an evening walk—as we were—in the beautiful desert. She was laughing at how ridiculous this fear of mine is. Obviously.
But then, just as I was proofing this essay, here, online, in this altered context, I read that last scene differently. It suddenly occurred to me that she could have been laughing not at the fact that I was needlessly afraid and comically defensive, but rather at the absurdity that I thought I was going to protect anyone with a 2-inch blade cum pliers.
It’s like I just hit myself over the head: This is a drastically different interpretation of my own writing, an interpretation that had never occurred to me before. One way of reading this essay suggests I’d be a fool for giving into this absurd fear by carrying a gun. Another way of reading this essay suggests I’m a fool for not carrying a gun. Maybe the laughter I invite by reaching for my Leatherman as that unsavory character strolls by doesn’t come from the fact that my paranoia is absurd. Maybe the laughter comes from the fact that a Leatherman is a toothpick, and I should be carrying a Glock.
Writing, writing essays, can help us wade through an issue, a problem, a thought. The act of writing can help us figure something out. Sometimes it just mires us deeper in the mud.
I struggle. I want to live in a world that doesn’t turn on a constant threat of violence, but I don’t want to bury my head in the caliche either. I want to believe in nonviolence, but I also want my family to be safe. I dislike guns, but I’m proud to be a pretty good shot with a .30-.30. I am a contradiction. Am I a contradiction? What does crazy even mean? What’s right? I have no idea. Shit.