Tension, Juxtaposition, and the Origin of Apocalypse City

February 11, 2014 § 5 Comments


Craig Reinbold

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.

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§ 5 Responses to Tension, Juxtaposition, and the Origin of Apocalypse City

  • 3boxesofbs says:

    Interesting view into the writing process. I do want to challenge you to try to see more of the other side. If you were writing about a different character, say LGBT, or from another nation or culture; would you blithely dismiss their world view as crazy?

    Most gun owners have studied the facts and statistics. Yes, Crime is a relatively rare event for most people but the stakes are enormous. I think you even recognize that fact in your reaction to others walking on the same road. Gun owners, even those of us who carry, aren’t crazy. We do recognize there is evil in the world. We recognize the limitations on police response and how harm can be done before they respond.

    We’ve just decided to take a little more proactive stance then carrying a leatherman on our belts.

    This writer knows the statistics: this gun is more likely to kill one of his children than an intrude

    I wonder if you are referring to the Kellermann study?
    Either the first version were gun owners were 43 times more likely to harm someone in their house or themselves than a criminal. Or the 2nd one after all the critiques of his work showed the flaws in his data and the odds dropped to 2.3 times.

    Kellermann excluded, deliberately and with malice aforethought, each and every defensive gun use that didn’t end with a death. Kinda hard to show people use firearms to defend themselves without harm in that case, eh?

    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 think you’ll find most gun owners agree with you completely. We don’t want to live in a violent world but accept we do. I’ve also found that the presence of a firearm often de-escalates violence more than it escalates it. A criminal breaks in– a shot gun is racked and the thug flees. A woman walking home pulls out a handgun as the mugger/rapist (wouldn’t it be nice if they wore a sign announcing their intention) flees.

    The National Crime Victim Survey (conducted by the Clinton Administration) found as few as 108,000 defensive gun uses per year. The Kleck and Gertz (supported by 16 other surveys) found as many as 2,500,000 defensive gun uses. Literally people are more likely to stop a crime than be hurt by a firearm.

    I dislike guns, but I’m proud to be a pretty good shot with a .30-.30.

    Do you dislike guns or do you dislike how firearms are too often used to injure and kill (at least that is the media view)?

    I think modern media does a disservice and presents mostly negative stories that greatly influence our perception. Like millions of people, you probably grew up around firearms, been shooting for years and yet to have harmed anyone.

    Our tension, our contradiction I think lies in the fact we don’t want to have to do great violence to protect our own but are absolutely willing to do so. Peaceful people who want to do the best for the world while dealing with the possibility that the worst will come to our loved ones.

    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.

    This is an issue I’ve thought long and hard about. I think the best way to describe it is not, I’m not a fool for carrying a gun nor do I think those who don’t are one. I want to do what is reasonable (carry a firearm, maintain situational awareness, run like a bat out of hades if I can, etc) while not letting fear keep me from doing things.

    Like attending parties or walking on roads.

    Bob S.
    3 Boxes of BS

  • Daniel Casey says:

    Reblogged this on Gently Read Literature.

  • I noted I liked your above essay and I want to state why. You brought up issues from both sides, considered the uneasiness of settling your own ideas about the subject, and showed how the same essay could be used for either side of the argument.

    The world does have a lot of violence though I believe there is less now than through history. Americans are also very naive and afraid when they have less to be afraid of than most. My thought, subject to change as yours appear to be, is that life doesn’t have final, one decision fits all answers. Your questions go to the heart of who you are and what you stand for on the issue of guns and the probability of having to use one against another human.

  • I enjoyed reading this essay-exploration of shifting personal perspectives on a difficult topic. Perhaps the most dangerous weapon of all is the one we pick up and brandish without noticing — that we “know better” than others, or even that we “know” ourselves as well as we might like to think.

    The decision an individual makes regarding their own behavior, whether or not they choose to own and/or carry a firearm, is highly personal, and often the only kind of judgment I think we can make about another person’s decision IS “unthinking” — because we do not have the interior, personal access to their history, moral/ethical background, family situation, and so forth required to make a complete assessment, the same depth of information we take into account when making such a decision for ourselves.

    Thanks for posting this.

  • Nan Morrissette says:

    Well written. I struggle with this quandary a bit myself. I was brought up to respect firearms, even to fear them a little as they can unexpectedly change/end/destroy. I felt this same way sailing on the ocean in Maine – there is a great, seductive beauty out there on the waves. But carelessness or Mother Nature can suddenly cause an abrupt shift in the situation. I do not own a shootable gun. My sense is that a criminal could easily get it away from me and would, no doubt, be a far better shot than I. Is my head in the sand? Sometimes the view there is better or, at least, easier.

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