Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Isla Vista

This blog tends to err on the side of humor, unless the topic is so dire that it renders snark inappropriate. True, the TV show “M*A*S*H” hung its collective hat on its ability to deal with dire topics by specifically using humor.

You’ll forgive me if I can’t do humor too well tonight, though.

This past Friday night, in Isla Vista, California, there occurred yet another in what appears to be a steady stream of incidents that have rendered the term “mass-murder” unnervingly commonplace.

Quickly, pundits went on the chat shows and pontificated. “We must figure out what is responsible and fix it!” cried the pundits (and, movingly, the family members of people gunned down for no very good reason). But somehow there isn’t the political will (or the resistance to lobbyists, or adequate available money) amongst our elected officials or other policymakers to actually make the changes that would help. And the 24-hour news cycle churns on with more important celebrity news – until the next rampage happens. Rinse, and repeat.

This one, though … this one is a remarkable aggregation of things we gotta deal with somehow.

And in this case, as distinct from many others, there was some first-person writing available that shed a whole lot of light on a whole lot of dark stuff.

I just spent most of my free time in the last couple of days being unable to stop reading this piece of writing – even though I thought I knew what the ending was going to be.

Elliot Rodger, the young man who last Friday night shot up several blocks’ worth of Isla Vista, wrote half-a-novel worth of excruciating detail about just how it had come to this, at least according to his understanding of the world around him.

It’s a hundred and seven thousand words of writing that, in the past few days, I’ve seen described (by journalists and those who aspire to be) to as a “rambling manifesto”. I can promise you one thing: it’s very long; it’s remarkably detailed; and repeatedly returns to a central theme, so often that at times it gets tiresome. But it’s not a ramble.

It’s a spiral.

Beginning with Rodger’s earliest memories – age three; who remembers things clearly from when they were three years old? – the reader is introduced to his insecurities about his height, his lack of prowess in sports (skateboarding and soccer, particularly), and numerous other subjects of early-childhood drama which, for a great many American children, are very commonly felt. Nearly no children are immune from having to deal with playground arguments, or bullying, or moments of jealousy, or not getting the toys they were hoping for. There are plenty of pre-adolescent issues which later seem fairly small, but which at the time seem like the end of the world, or at least seem like insurmountable problems. They, along with how our wiring allows us to perceive them, all contribute to our development as humans.

By the time Rodger hits the fifth grade, in his narrative, just about everything he experiences points back to two inescapable truths: [1] girls won’t talk to me, but they’ll talk to all the other boys; and [2] those other boys are not nearly as deserving of the attention (and, by the time high school has arrived, the “sex and love”) that the girls heap upon them, as I am. Over and over and over, it all comes back to a version of this phrase: “why them, and not me?”

I’m not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. I took one Psychology course in high school and one in college. I know just enough to know that I’m utterly unqualified to analyze or diagnose anything to do with matters of the mind – and this is no knock on the teachers of those courses. They just helped me to see that the mind is a staggeringly complex thing, and that I should not just toss around hypotheses willy-nilly.

That said … the 137 pages of this young man’s writing suggest to me that there was a bit of nurture and a bit of nature, each, involved here. At numerous points in my reading of this manifesto, I had to pause, catch my breath, and consider how one person’s brain can be wired one way, and another’s can be wired another way. (And wonder, with each passing anecdote, how the events would have been described by someone who lived outside of Rodger’s head. The same? Differently? VERY differently? And how did that affect the people around him who might have gotten him help earlier, or treated him differently, had they understood? And when would none of that have mattered anyway?)

His extended narrative contained, at least to my perception(!), a number of very clear moments where that spiral began to accelerate. And accelerate again. And again. And then teeter on the edge of out-of-control.

Just about two-thirds of the way through, Rodger uses the term “Day of Retribution”, and it’s a harrowing moment for all of its relative offhandedness. If you’re reading the thing at this time, rather than, say, three weeks ago, you know that the Day of Retribution happens, and that it involves more than one hail of gunfire, and that it kills six and injures 13 others. Foreshadowing is unavoidable. The final corner that Rodger turns – which has not been widely reported – is startling. Not because there’s no way he could have achieved it, but because for 135 pages his sole focus has been about how unjust the world has been to him in terms of social success and then suddenly (and I mean that) it gets global.

By which point, the use of the term “Day of Retribution” has become not offhanded at all.

By the end of the thing – fortunately only within the last three pages – Rodger is offering his visions of what a proper version of society and civilization are, and he’s casting himself as a worthy dictator, and as a divine creature, i.e. a god. Even if his visions hadn’t included internment camps in which to keep and eventually starve all the women in the world (i.e. just punishment for having collectively starved him of love and sex for all 22 of his years on Earth) … his last three pages no longer have anything to do with middle-school crushes or frat-boy pickup artists or aloof blonde women or his self-image as alternately a “magnificent gentleman” and an unsuccessful still-virgin full of “desolation and despair”. That corner has been turned, and now Nothing Is Going To End Well, even though it wasn’t going to anyway.

One (me) could still not stop reading, though.

I finished the thing not more than two hours ago, and as I did so, my head was figuratively spinning – though not necessarily due to the writing’s gradual and relentless descent into depths from which only the most skilled mental health professionals had a prayer of rescuing him. And there were those that tried.

Instead, it was the sheer number of issues that had been raised, issues that currently dog America and its policymaking leaders; issues for which there are either no easy answers, or no answers that will easily be agreed upon by members of our representative government or the media (some of whose livelihoods often seem to depend upon not agreeing on things, or understanding issues, or even recognizing that those issues exist).

It wasn’t just misogyny. Although it is a ton of that, no matter how Rodger arrived at it. Nearly from the beginning, he swerves back and forth, from worshipping girls and women (hoping they would bestow even some small bit of attention or approval upon him), to rage and hatred (when they don’t), and back again. And again, it all spirals downward until with about four pages to go he declares that “women are all mentally ill”. By which point, Rodger had dipped his figurative toes into the pool of the men’s rights movement, by way of visiting an Internet website whose purpose was to decry both women and the male “pickup artists” who deprive other, more deserving men of those women’s attention.

It wasn’t just materialism and its effect on someone’s sense of self-worth and on their public image (real or imagined). Although throughout his manifesto, Rodger is convinced that the latest videogame system, or a “cool” hairstyle, or expensive clothes, or higher-status cars, or multi-millionaire status, by turns, are the gateways to others’ acceptance, admiration, and sexual attraction.

It wasn’t just entitlement. Although Rodger’s upbringing does feature a remarkable array of overseas family vacations, new gift laptop computers, birthday and holiday gifts of money, and the like, all of which could contribute to an impression of what has been glibly named “affluenza”. Pundits have referred to Rodger dismissively as “just another whiny rich kid” – well, maybe, but scratch that surface and I think you’ll find there’s more going on here …

It wasn’t just bad parenting choices. Although quite early in his life, Rodger’s parents’ marriage did break down. And their parenting styles didn’t just differ from one parent to another – each parent, and later each step-parent (at least according to Rodger’s understanding), veered from tough-love to spoil-and-enable. By the end, one can imagine each parent trying to figure out just what in the world they are going to be able to do to help their son, and every single time seeming to choose poorly.

It wasn’t just the schools. It wasn’t just educators lacking the ability to spot signs of distress, or to engage Rodger in some way that would help him overcome what started out as social anxiety. Although – and I am a teacher, so I tread carefully here – there isn’t any indication that almost any of his teachers, public-school, private-school, or community-college, tried to help him figure out what he might be good at, if it wasn’t sports. (If there had been a videogaming club anywhere handy, that might have been the ticket – for the second quarter of Rodger’s manifesto, playing “World of Warcraft” is practically all he does.) On the other hand, Rodger doesn’t stay at any one school for very long – he’s able to convince his parents to move him from each school because his social interactions there are such a disaster. One can imagine harried school officials being willing to have Rodger’s parents simply take him off their hands. We got enough of our own problems.

It wasn’t just mental health issues. Although, early media reports identified Rodger as having Asperger syndrome, and then as having been suspected of it by his family, and then, oh never mind, it must have been someone flailing for quick and easy answers. As I’ve documented hereabouts, I’ve taught students with Asperger syndrome. It’s difficult to say “no one with Asperger syndrome would get to the point of shooting up a neighborhood”, but it’s also difficult to say what other behavior tendencies the typical Asperger social-skill-deficiencies might exacerbate. Again, I emphasize my total lack of professional expertise in this matters; but as I read these 137 pages, I couldn’t help thinking that some part of Rodger’s mental wiring had failed him, and in a cascading way.

It wasn’t just issues of race. Although the longer Rodger writes, the more often he expresses disgust about other men of darker complexion (black, Asian, Hispanic) getting female attention of which he, a clean-cut white male, feels he is more deserving. These expressions aren’t pervasive, but it’s not just the California beach bums and frat boys he spends time calling out.

It wasn’t just issues of mass-media messages. Although for a very long time, the American public has been made to understand that certain attributes are more attractive than others; that you must have these certain things, buy these certain products, look like these certain supermodels, make at least this much money every year, in order to be seen as attractive or successful – by others, or by your own self.

It wasn’t just about guns. Although at the end it was that, in spades.

It was about all of these issues and probably a few more … all wrapped up in a completely untidy package. This story, if you scratch the surface even a little bit, has revealed and highlighted one fact that I think is undeniable:

We got work to do. And I’m not naturally a pessimist, but I’m genuinely not sure how we’re going to do all that work.

It’s undoubtedly too much for any single person to try and wrap their arms around and deal with. We can try to convince our elected leaders to do their gosh-darn jobs and work to deal with these issues (although it seems that we’d have better success if we were corporations with access to lots of persuasive money). All we can do … is all any individual can do, particularly those of us who are not Congresspersons or world leaders or corporations. We can try to make some small difference within our small sphere of the world, and hope that lots of other people do the same, and hope it approaches enough.

It means that I’ll pay yet closer attention to children of any age who are my students. Not to jump at shadows; not to see impending Isla-Vista-grade disaster lurking where it’s actually not. But I certainly never want to turn on the news and hear a shooter’s name with a familiar ring to it. For my students’ sake, not mine.

It means that this summer, I’ll spend two weeks working with future high school drum majors, and I’ll [1] appreciate them that much more, and [2] that much more enthusiastically encourage them to go find that kid who’s about to quit band and make sure they don’t.

And it means that the next time I see my niece and nephew: I’ll keep an eye on ’em, I’ll frankly admire what kind of kids they’ve turned into so far, I’ll nod admiringly at their parents too … and I’ll give them an extra firm hug.

It’s somewhere to start.

May 28, 2014 Posted by | current events | 2 Comments

Put Me In, Coach

Used to be that if I wanted to get away from the bad news that seems to pervade American life – y’know, the shootings and the natural disasters and the general political scumbaggery – I’d go pick up the Boston Globe sports section and immerse myself in the box scores. At least there, at least half the local sports teams could provide me with a winning narrative at least half the time, give or take the Patriots.

Used to be”, I think, ended probably around the same time that Reggie Lewis died. Which is to say that for the last twenty years or so, I’ve been well aware that Keith and Dan (or whomever)’s “Sportscenter” commentaries were about scores and contract squabbles in equal measures.

If only it were only that simple, lately. The sports world is now shot through with *news* stories, and not inspiring ones, either. Lance Armstrong and his voided Tour de France victories. A high school in Texas building a sixty-million-dollar football stadium (grotesquerie #1), and then discovering that the thing was built with support structures that can’t safely support all the fans they needed to accommodate (grotesquerie #2), even as they were laying off dozens of teachers. Speaking of grotesqueries: ancient zillionaire Donald Sterling, and not merely his backward racist utterances but the fact that the beliefs laid bare by those utterances are indeed entirely relevant because they governed his dealings with the people he held economic sway over, both the millionaire athletes and the minimum-wage apartment dwellers, and what in the living hell is he saying now for the love of heaven please stop and quit while you’re behind?

Kind of a relief to read the stories that have to do with actual competition.  The Ranger skater on a breakaway barrels into the Canadien goalie and the resulting pileup yields a knee injury that takes the goalie out of the rest of the seven-game series. Predictably, the Canadien faithful (and the head coach) conclude that the feet-first trajectory of the New York forward had to have contained intent to injure, and just as predictably, the Ranger faithful tell the Canadien faithful what they can do with their aggrieved fainting spell.

(And this Bruin fan, unaccustomed as he is to rooting for the Rangers, is doing so because the Habs sent his beloved black-and-gold skaters to the golf course for the summer, and is therefore ill-equipped to objectively judge whether he’s looking at “intent to injure” or “intent to score while careening”. Although, look, kids, it was a breakaway. Stuff moves fast, grown men fall down. It’s hockey. Quit yer whining and get on the plane to Manhattan.)

But man, the great wealth of sports world stories that deflate the natural optimism. So imagine my delight at witnessing a sports story that ends well and seems to redeem past injustices.

At the age of about nine, I lost one in the lights.

It was my final season in a four-year career in the heady world of Little League baseball. As I remember it, the team I was on wore uniforms very similar to those of successful major leaguers; and that was about where the similarity ended. Our team lost about once a game, on average.

Over the course of my tour in the Littles, I had found most of my defensive success in the infield. I could fire across the diamond from third with accuracy. I actually was part of a decent double-play combination at age eight. My single inning as a catcher featured a runner barreling home from third, and after the throw arrived from right field, I blocked the plate firmly, and when the umpire asked if I was still holding the ball, I showed it to him (and subsequently begged my coach to move me anywhere else on the field please and thank you).

As a pitcher, I was fine until I hit my first batter. Got him square in the bicep, and after that my inside-pitch location just went all to heck.

So, one night during my tenth year on Earth, the coach sent me out to centerfield.

The scene was movie-grade. It was a night game, under the lights. Somehow, everything looked more pro-baseball. The aluminum bats twinkled. We could imagine far more fans in the stands than were actually sitting on those little tiny bleachers on the third-base line, because it would have been tougher to see the ones that were sitting further up under the nonexistent upper deck anyhow. There were no cornfields around the warning track; in fact, there wasn’t even a warning track, just more grass and eventually the infield on the far corner of the complex. But it was okay.  We were in the majors.  (Of our town, anyway.)

I trotted out to center. Traded a few long tosses with my friend in right field. Bent over to pick a few blades of grass; the usual major-league groundskeeping. The first batter hit a slow roller to second, and I dutifully moved to back him up. You never know; nine-year-olds will occasionally let one through.

PING.

I saw the swing, heard the sound of metal hitting baseball, and observed that the baseball was going not to left or to right but straight over the mound, high, and toward me. I took a couple of involuntary steps backward – it had been a pretty loud PING – and looked up.

And my whole field of vision turned violently purple.

At no time had we held practices at night. A crucial error. During the day, there’s only one Sun, and you know where it is, so you know instinctively where not to look. At night, as it turns out, there are at least four suns, two to your left and two to your right, and if you look at any of them, your eyes’ chances of recovering in time to find that incoming artillery dial down to fractions of percentage points.

Couldn’t find the ball. At all.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad had I not known that it was hard, and moving fast, and undoubtedly headed for my braincase. I’d been hit by pitches before, and only at eight-year-old-pitcher speeds. This had the potential to get me good.

In spite of the part of my brain that wanted to look like a dashing sports superstar, the part of my brain that had a little common sense won out. I put my two forearms straight over my head. Protection trumps derring-do. It wasn’t flight, but my instincts told me not to fight with fifty miles an hour worth of cork, rubber and horsehide.

More than a little embarrassing, though, when the ball hit the ground a complete twenty yards in front of me.

I would like to think that I recall picking that ball up and firing a sizzling strike to the third baseman to cut down the runner who was trying to stretch a double into a triple, but it was about forty years ago and honestly I don’t remember. I was so mad that in that moment I probably could used the piqued energy to briefly become the Dwight Evans who used to take a ball that had rattled around in Fenway’s right-field corner and throw it in a physics-defying, nearly-flat parabola directly to Rico Petrocelli at third who then would apply the sweep tag, and none of this one-hopper crap, oh no indeed, and you, dear runner, will take a seat in your dugout and consider the foolishness of trying to run on my arm because you are more out than a guy who can’t find his house keys at two o’clock in the morning in the dead of winter.

No, I probably slunk back to my spot in center and vowed to be perfect the rest of the night.

I’m pretty sure that only I remember that little vignette, now.

Fast-forward four decades or so, to the middle of last week. I stopped off, on the way to a choir rehearsal, to watch my seven-point-nine-year-old nephew and his Little League team do their thing. He was decked out in a Dodger blue t-shirt and cap that in fact read “Dodgers” and “LA” respectively. I sat on the blanket that his mom had laid out on the grass, in foul territory beyond third base, and noted that at least one thing in this country hasn’t changed in all this time. As the sun began to approach the tree line on the other side of the field, kids were working on baseball skills. Coaches’ barked instructions were followed with instant enthusiasm. Running and throwing (and sometimes catching) drills were happening. Number One Nephew was running and throwing with utter second-grade abandon. (Throwing a good deal more accurately than most of his mates, it seemed to me, ten yards ahead into an eight-foot-square net, though that could be Uncle Bias talking.) And, as always happens when a group of three or more kids gather to play ball, one of them and then another one made a two-handed chuck of their fielder’s gloves high in the air. And might have lost them in the lights, if they’d been turned on yet.

Okay, I thought to myself, smiling goofily. The extended Hammerton bloodline has reclaimed that field. Because Number One Nephew was making it happen on the very same ballfield wherein my Centerfield Moment had occurred. For my money, the Curse is Reversed.

And not a contract squabble or a banned-substance suspension in sight.

Okay.

May 20, 2014 Posted by | baseball, family, sports | , , , | Leave a comment

Steady On

We were in my Mom’s living room, the five of us. My two-year-old niece played with her toys on the floor. My sister, my brother-in-law, and I sprawled on couches and other comfy chairs and considered the question that my mother had just put to us.

The question was: are we really going to need that much food? How many people are going to come to this thing, really?

My memory is not super clear on which one(s) of us said it, but I’m pretty sure the reaction was: … are you kidding?

We’re gonna be swamped. We’re gonna be up-to-here in people. We’re gonna need a lot of copies of the bulletin. We’re gonna need crowd control.

Really?

Mom. Seriously. Only the whole congregation is going to show up for this thing, and that’s just for openers. Do you know how many people are going to show up and claim that he did something for them, for them personally, that made their lives all the better?

I don’t think any of us actually spoke that last sentence. It was implied, though.

Nearly ten years later, that scene is plain as day in my mind.

Ten years ago today, my dad passed away.

Ten years ago minus about a week, the five of us were sitting around after church, digesting the noon meal, and four of us were trying to wrap our heads around the details of a memorial service. My niece was still happily playing with blocks, or something.

As I presume is usual in that situation, so many clear understandings were floating just out of our reach … but this one thing, at least, I knew for sure: Mom was crazy. More than a smattering of folks were going to show up. More than a few dozen folks were going to show up. It was slight hyperbole to suggest that half the civilized English-speaking world was apt to show up; but the ushers were going to break a sweat.

What I would eventually end up saying in the eulogizing talk that I gave at that memorial service, and what I would go on to write in a couple of online spaces in the time since then, was this:

[Dad] didn’t do giant-sized things for people with the intention of putting them on a billboard and pointing and saying ‘look what I done’. He did small things for individuals: a staggering number of them. ‘What goes around, comes around’ is a phrase that applies to good deeds in life, too. I think Dad would be startled to realize just how beloved he really was – he really didn’t think too hard about that.”

So I was comfortably certain that this one time, I knew better than my mother: I knew we’d see lots of people at that memorial service, and at the visiting hours the night before. Lots. And lots.

As it turned out, I’d actually lowballed that estimate.

Yes, the church was packed full of people, including a full choir, that Saturday afternoon, as was the reception afterward. And, as I recall, a whole lot of the church’s reliable sources for food preparation swung into action and made sure there was enough food at the reception.

But what probably got my attention most, that weekend, was the line of people at those visiting hours on the Friday evening before.

My family and I stood and greeted people for three and a half hours out of a scheduled two. Yes, you read that right. The line of people extended from the chancel, down the side aisle, to the doors at the back of the sanctuary, out into the narthex, out the exterior doors, and I honestly don’t know how much further outside since I was kinda pinned to the chancel.

But people stood in line and waited patiently for the opportunity to walk past us and tell, in many many cases, stories about something kind or helpful that Denis had done for them – stories we’d never heard before.

Current and former congregation members, some of whom had been welcomed into the church by Dad the Usher when they had arrived new at the church some Sunday morning, recently or long ago.

Next-door neighbors. Next-door neighbors years and decades removed from our street.

Summer arts camp comrades of mine who remembered Mr. Hammerton, that humorous gentleman with the English accent.

My Dad’s co-workers – with some of whom he’d been setting up science experiments on the day he passed; and some from longer ago than that.

A squad of Holy Cross band members, with whom I was working at the time: “your Dad came to so many of our home games, wearing that tall furry hat and that huge down coat! And cheering for the band louder than for the football.”

(And a squad of my UMass band alumni friends, who had just about those same memories, albeit from twenty years earlier.)

I’ve long since given up trying to calculate just how many people we greeted in those three and a half hours. It left me shaking my head in wonderment. The guy was so low-key that, in spite of my certainty that he was one of the world’s finest examples of human … I was genuinely startled at just how very many other people thought the same thing about my Dad, for a staggering multitude of reasons.

Of course we miss having him around, here, with us, in person. How many times in the past ten years have I imagined what commentary he would have made about something (and chuckled)?  “Steady on, team,” or something similar.  But on the other hand, how many times have I made commentary about something and been struck by how much I just sounded like my Dad?

So, if Jackie Robinson was right in saying, “A man’s life is only worth how much he impacts other people’s lives,” … then oh yes, Dad’s still around.

May 4, 2014 Posted by | family | 1 Comment