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Reflections on the Movie Theater Shooting

Before:

“I notice that you haven’t been hanging out with your friends lately.” When my daughter’s social habits change it sometimes means there is something going on that we might want to talk about. I could have said it. But I didn’t. “Some other night,” I thought. It just didn’t seem like the right time.

Later my daughter told me that she had been texting to a group of friends about going out that night…to the midnight showing of the new Batman movie…at the Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colorado…Thursday night, July 19, 2012. For a variety of reasons my daughter and her friends decided not to go. She also told me that if I had made that comment she probably would have gone, thinking I was hinting about needing some time to myself.

But other people did say things to friends and acquaintances and many made the decision to go. “What do you want to do for your birthday?” “Let’s go see it. We can take the kids with us.” “Let’s go to the Batman premeir after our shift ends.”

During:

Batman character costumes everywhere…the lights dim…previews go on forever as usual, but people are too excited to mind. Finally, it starts.

I turn out my bedroom light and the cat jumps up to get chin scratches and give purr therapy. My daughter is still on her computer. My dreams start. My daughter’s game goes on.

Now the excitement on the screen begins. It’s a Batman movie—it has to be exciting. Then the excitement moves off the screen, down to the front of the theater. It’s a premier, special effects aren’t too surprising. Then the growing realization that this is different. At a celebration of imagination, the unimaginable is taking place. It is impossible to grasp, but people begin to move. Men throw themselves on top of loved ones and strangers, protecting them from the crazed fireworks.

My daughter puts her computer to sleep and goes to bed. The cat changes rooms to get more attention and purr a lullaby. My daughter falls asleep.

Some people scramble for the exits, others duck or play dead. “Do I look dead enough?” Maybe some were considering heading to the front of the theater to try to take out the source of the terror. Some of the heroes survive. Some are lost. People lose friends and loved ones in the crowd. “My baby! Where is my baby?” Some find each other again outside.

At 6:00 a.m. my radio switches on. “Mass shooting…movie theater…suburb of Denver…Aurora, Colorado.” Now I am awake. Thank goodness my daughter isn’t a Batman fan. I go check her room anyway. She is sound asleep. I turn on the TV for awhile before heading out for my day, which will go on as planned.

Some people’s plans for the day have become completely irrelevant. On my morning walk I pass a man talking on his cell phone. “I’ve called all of them, but they aren’t answering. I just want one of them to answer the phone!”

I realize what this might mean, and every step of my walk becomes a prayer for him, for everyone frantically calling hospitals and hotlines.

Hundreds of people who were in the theater need to be questioned by the police, and cell phones are either in their cars in the theater parking lot or have been taken by the police in case they hold any clues. Many families wait agonizing hours before hearing from their loved ones. And some wait through two days longer than all the previous days of their lives put together to hear the official word that there will be no reunion for them.

As I watch the news on Friday I remember watching that last bus full of students come from Columbine High School, the last few tearful reunions, and the last few dazed parents who finally knew that their last chance for a miracle was gone.

After:

In the aftermath of an act of violence like this questions beginning with “Why…?” swarm through our minds, desperately seeking answers. There is no answer to why hundreds of ordinary decisions made that night led to safety, to injury, or to loss and death. Why did one family decide to go and another stay home? Why did one person end up in theater 9 and another in theater 8? My decision to keep quiet was not a better decision than that of my daughter’s friend who decided to participate in the excitement of a movie premier, but one led to safety and the other to five bullet wounds and a hospital stay.

People who study random events use probability as a tool. “Wearing a seatbelt can increase your chance of surviving a crash by 45%.” Yet probability doesn’t determine the fate of an individual in these events. Unless an event about which we are making a decision is 100% or 0% likely, someone lands on each side of the outcome divide. Few events about which we make decisions have a guaranteed outcome. For instance, the probability of surviving if a semi-truck falls off of an overpass onto your vehicle and bursts into a fireball would seem to be 0%. Yet explain on May 13 that is exactly what happened to a young couple as they drove under an I-70 overpass in Avon, Colorado. They walked away with a few scratches. We can call it good luck, bad luck, or fate. It doesn’t matter to the person hit by lightning if he is one out of ten or one out of 5000. He hurts.

A wise man once taught me that if you can’t find the answer to a big life question, it may be that you are asking the wrong question. “Why him?” “Why not her?” “What if I had…” “What if they hadn’t…” are questions that have no meaningful answers. The questions that we can begin to explore, that can help us move forward, are questions about things we can control. That terrible night we all came to a new understanding of the nature of evil and destruction. Maybe the most important question we can ask ourselves and act on is “What values do I want to be clearly visible in the way I live my life?” Reclaiming our lives from the paralysis of fear will mean accepting the randomness of life and making ordinary decisions every day based not on that fear but on the values by which we want to be remembered.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2012 in Reflections

 

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Weekly Photo Contest: Water

 

All right, so I’m a week behind, but I still wanted to share this photo. I traveled to Zion National

Falling water at Zion's Emerald Pools

Park last October with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s

Team in Training. Besides the official hike we had plenty of time to

explore on our own. This picture is from the Emerald Pools trail. It’s a fairly easy hike that takes off from the main lodge and is therefore very popular. Because we were there in the off season (arguably the most beautiful time of year) there was plenty of room to pause and let the intense light and cool spray surround me.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Desktop Backgrounds

As I was organizing my picture files last weekend, I chose a new desktop background for my home computer. I have a bright 22″ monitor that gives each image maximum impact. My previous background photo and the new one are very different, and every time I turn on my computer I am struck by the difference in the emotional impact each one has on me. The previous picture was a view of the red rocks of Roxborough State Park against the bright green of early summer last year. It is an image of light and life, and my spirit filled with joy at its beauty.

The new background I chose is a sunset image of the view from my parents’ front porch in Patagonia. I had several pictures where the sky was aflame with intense oranges and fuscia, but I chose a broad view with less intense colors. Now when my monitor lights up I feel all my tension drain out, flowing across the wide valley to the distant mountains and calmed by the pastels of the sky.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2011 in Photography

 

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The People I Never Really Knew

In spite of their lifelong determination to live surrounded by nature rather than people, my parents attracted a rich variety of friends. When I was growing up the crunching of tires on our gravel road usually signaled a chance to sit in our sunny living room and listen to conversations that I now realize exposed me to experiences and ideas far beyond what most young people encounter. Mountain climbers came from all over the world to see the workshop where some of their favorite climbing gear was made. Grandparents, great aunts, and cousins came from New York, Michigan, and Idaho to spend a few weeks in the fresh air. Our most frequent visitors were the Hanssons and Metcalfs, two families who had met at Antioch College. They brought the world of universities, business, psychiatry, and wildlife management. Colorado’s first state botanist, Hazel Schmoll, ran a guest ranch just down the road from us.Local sheriff Roy Fling and his wife Goldie lived log cabin down the road decorated with white antlers that stood out starkly against the dark wood. They regaled us with tales of mountain rescues and Roy’s efforts to keep the peace as hippies, old mining families, and summer visitors intermingled.

Part of my experience of reflecting on Mother and Dad’s lives has been to realize how fascinating all these people are and how little I know them. As a child I took them all for granted. They fit into the context of my world, but I never wondered about the wholeness of their lives. The first time I realized this was when, in my early twenties, I realized that my Great Aunt Florence, who played a big part in my mother’s upbringing and sometimes brought me presents from her overseas travels, would be a very interesting person to get to know as an adult. I tried to visit her one summer, but she was out of town and she died before I had another chance. The more Mother has shared with me about her, the more I regret not knowing her better.

Today I started to write an entry about my father’s guitar playing. It was family friend Dolores LaChapelle who got him started, and I decided to try to contact her. I remember Dolores as a tall, warm, earthy woman with a long thick braid of hair hanging over her shoulder. She and her son Randy (later known as David) spent a few summers with us in Colorado while her husband Ed followed the ice and snow to Alaska. I also remember visiting them in Alta, Utah in the winter. Their home was a small chalet up the hill across the valley from the ski area and accessible in the snow only by a rope tow. Visits were warm and friendly and permeated with the smell of damp wool and warm ski wax. They had a howitzer on their front porch which Ed used to shoot down potential avalanches before the lifts started up in the morning.  A bit of Internet searching placed these personal memories in the context of three influential lives. Dolores wasn’t just someone who played the guitar and served us hot chocolate when we came in from a day in the snow. She was an internationally known pioneer in powder skiing technique, a scholar, a researcher, and a philosopher. Her husband wasn’t just a guy with a job keeping the ski slopes safe. He was a scientist who studied snow structure and glaciers and a pioneer in the development of the avalanche beacon. And their son Randy/David who was just a kid my age who shared my love of the outdoors when we were growing up made a name for himself as a wilderness guide and writer, following his mother’s deep love of and connection to the earth. And they are all gone. The Internet told me that, too. Dolores died in February, 2007, active until the end. Ed died just a few days after attending her memorial service. David died in the summer of 2009. Just like that, they are all gone, and I will never have a chance to sit and talk to them and get to know them outside the lens of childhood.

All this makes me grateful for the people from my childhood that I have spent time with as an adult. Meg Hansson, an astute businesswoman with a warm heart that welcomed a parade of exchange students into her home when I was young welcomed me into her home when I moved back to Colorado almost fifteen years ago. I call or visit her several times a year and through our conversations I have begun to fill in the context of many lives from my childhood. I have also spent time with Dad’s army buddy Bob Swartz and his wife Dorothy, and Stan and Ginny Boucher, old climbing friends of my parents. The memorial services we held on our old mountain home brought other people from my childhood into my adult life. As I close this entry (guitar playing will have to wait) I remember a promise I made to another family friend that since my last two phone calls to her were to bring the sad news of my parents’ deaths I would call her again just to talk. She lives on the West Coast, so it’s still early enough.

 

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Surrounded by Music

I grew up surrounded by music. Although we lived in the mountains of Colorado at 9000 feet on 20 hilly acres of forest and meadow, music was so essential to my father that he bought yards and yards of cable and walked around the hillside behind our house until he found a place where he could pick up Denver’s classical music station. I believe it was KDEN at that time, call letters that currently belong to an NBC Spanish language TV station. Our radio was set up on a timer so it woke us up in the morning, put us to sleep at night, and played most of the hours in between. The main exception was when Dad was playing an opera on his reel-to-reel tape player. KDEN (whose classical music function was taken over by KVOD in 1969) was at the time a commercial station with a wonderful range of programming. I especially remember their broadcasts of various Broadway musicals, complete with scene set-ups and commentary modeled after the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and their wonderful folk music program featuring, among others, Joan Baez and “Denver’s own Judy Collins.”

I know that music had always had at least some part in my parents’ lives. Dad played the violin when he was young. He and mother, during their courtship and the early years of their marriage, had visions of playing recorder duets in their idyllic mountain log cabin. I recently discovered a journal Mother kept of our first trip to Mexico (about 1956) in which she writes of walking over the hill to the beach and playing the accordion into the evening. (I think she is referring to the beautiful sandy cove called Chencho on current charts, but which we called Colorado Beach because it was protected from the open sea by Punta Colorado.)

When Dad was in an overseas hospital during WWII being treated for what was then known as shell shock, an opera singer came through the wards, giving impromptu performances to the wounded soldiers. From what Dad has told me, this was where he acquired his lifelong love of opera and ballet. The night before he died, he and my brother watched a video of Swan Lake together. When I was growing up I remember opera playing almost constantly in his workshop while he worked on his new designs for camping equipment. I will never forget the day I learned that operas tell stories. I must have been very young, maybe six or seven. I often joined Dad in his workshop, helping him package drawstring clamps and other small items or constructing my own projects out of nylon and leather scraps. A comment I made led him to explain to me that an opera is a play set to music. “What is happening now?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “Rigoletto thinks that he has the body of his enemy the Duke in the sack he is about to throw into the river. But that is the voice of the Duke singing, and Rigoletto is about to discover that his daughter has been killed instead.” That’s enough to make a lasting impression on a young girl.

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2011 in Music

 

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Music in my Life

In a few weeks I will be traveling to Sedona, Arizona for my 40th high school reunion. The three years I spent at Verde Valley School were golden years in the fine arts program of the school, with exceptional teachers of music, theater, dance, and studio arts. For me, music was the center of my high school life. I dabbled clumsily in pottery and jewelry-making in studio classes. My participation in theater was limited to performances where music and theater overlapped: a medieval liturgical drama and a spoof on opera titled Opera! Opera! The mysterious world of dance was for me both fascinating and terrifying, so I watched from a safe distance as my friends did amazingly expressive things with their bodies. Making music was such an integral part of my life at the time that I couldn’t imagine life without it. My life has since led me in many unexpected directions, and at the moment active participation in music is in the background. However, my experience of music has helped form the person I am now. This is the first in a series of posts in which I will explore music in my life.

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2011 in Music

 

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How to ensure that your talented articulate child will not reach her potential.

Some of the details of this account have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

A few months ago a new student came to my class. From the minute she walked in I could tell that she was very intelligent and articulate, a view shared by her parents. On the other hand, within half an hour she was involved in an altercation with one of my students who has behavior issues. At first I wasn’t concerned, because this other student is known for zeroing in on new students and causing problems. However within a few days it was clear that the new girl had difficulty getting along with a wide variety of students. For the next month I struggled to find a way for her to participate in group activities without problems. I eventually ran out of options and then spent most of my time during group activities monitoring whatever group she was in to try to teach some group work skills.

All of this is part of teaching. It would have been manageable, and this student (I’ll call her X) might even have made some progress in learning how to get along, if only the parents had supported my efforts to help their child. Instead, the constant message this child heard (and still hears daily) when recounting her day is, “The students are all bullies, the teacher is unfair, and you, poor thing, are entirely in the right.” Her arrogance and disrespectful attitude have grown steadily since she arrived. When the parents objected to phone calls about problems in the classroom we met with them and agreed to send home a daily behavior report with three goals: Have positive interactions with other students; have positive interactions with adults; focus on learning without talking out of turn. She was scored 3 times each day on a scale of 1 to 3 (with occasional 4s reserved for exceptional accomplishments). Here are a few excerpts from the comments the parents wrote on the form on a day when she scored two 2s and the rest 3s:

  • “I am getting sick and tired of X coming home upset and making me upset with what’s going on. You have no right on this planet and life to call X a liar…”She will not be push around by so called “Bullies” and “Teachers”. You need to stop coming up with false accusations about X. I am not playing around with it and I will not take it anymore. One thing you better know, X is not a liar and this matter is going to the DPS administration.”

It is clear from this that the word “liar” is a hot button for these parents, a point we have been very clear on since our first meeting with them. For the record, I have never called this student a liar (I’m not into calling my students names) and have even avoided the use of the word “lie” since that meeting. Here is my first piece of advice for parents who want to keep their daughter from reaching her potential: make sure you are in complete denial about the issues she needs help working on, and then take away the language she needs to use when others are trying to help. X has several times denied doing something that reliable witnesses (including myself) have seen her do. She does sometimes change her story when faced with the evidence. At one point, when she had owned up to something I asked her what words I should use when talking to her about a situation like this. My thinking was that in families where “Shut up,” is considered highly offensive language an alternative (i.e.  “Please be quiet.” ) is offered for situations where someone is being too loud or saying mean things. X got a rather desperate look on her face and finally said, “I can’t call it that.” She knew exactly what it was, but she will never be able to ask her parents to help her work on it because it is a taboo subject. This must be having an effect on her self esteem, too, to know that she does something that is so terrible that her parents can’t even utter the word.

My second piece of advice for parents who want to prevent their child’s success it to be sure that your child knows that her problems are always everyone else’s fault, because she is so wonderful that she would clearly succeed if only the rest of the world would get out of her way. That way she will never learn that the only person’s actions she can change are her own. She will spend her life achieving far below her potential, unhappy and frustrated that the world is against her.

That is a pretty depressing prognosis, but I don’t believe it is inevitable. This student is as capable of learning social skills as she is academic skills. At the moment any attempt to teach her is undermined by her parents’ need to believe she is already the person she is capable of becoming. My hope for her is that a future teacher or mentor will be able to help her learn accountability in spite of the undermining of her parents. Because she is so intelligent she may at some point realize that her current patterns aren’t working and be motivated to look at her life in a new way. Once she starts on that path there will be no limits to what she can accomplish.

 
 

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