Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ambiguous Threats and Confused Fears

With very little information regarding the spree of bomb threats, University of Pittsburgh denizens are left with speculative worries and a dimly lit path for analysis.  How do we try and understand a puzzle with so few pieces?


Now resting (for the time) at 57 empty bomb threats, students, faculty, and staff of the University may want to allow their minds to wonder to questions beyond that of safety.  Two come to my mind: What are we responding to? And, what is the appropriate response?

Let’s begin with the first question.  Our security measures are a response to…what, exactly?

Despite full email, text, and voicemail inboxes, the knowledge about what the bomb threats say and how they are being received is nearly null.  The news has stated that some of the bomb threats are coming through e-mails from Austria and online there are a few posted pictures of the scrawled messages left on bathroom walls, but the university continues to repeat the minimal message, “A general bomb threat has been received for…”

The lack of reasoning regarding the purpose of the mastermind leaves the Pitt campus pathologizing and theorizing about intentions.  Is the person trying to leave us with a false sense of security, making a real attack easier?  Is the person just a student enjoying the mayhem?  Or trying to get out of a test?  Or perhaps someone is severely mentally disturbed.  However, there is also the chance that this is a piece of political or social action servicing a larger point being made.

It comes as no surprise there is almost no talk of this possibility.  Let’s consider the national response to 9/11: Rather than a discussion about our sketchy military presence in the middle east, we began a long-term abusive relationship with the word ‘terrorist’ and general anti-Islam demagoguery sprouted against the Muslim world.

Is there any reason that someone could be angry enough to make such an audacious and disturbing statement?  Well, there are the tuition hikes. Also, there’s recent the University decision not to allow trans-gender bathrooms.  Finally, we are forgetting the general anti-capitalistic movement—primarily crystalized in the ‘occupiers’—that may invoke someone to lash out at the idea of paying for a degree in the face of the many cheaper methods we could be dispersing education.  

Of course, causing thousands of university members to suffer and waste more money seems to be an immature way to evoke discourse about any of these issues; however, the ability of those same members to understand their fear is precluded without any real information.

· · ·

Now, rather than postulating the number of ways we could respond if there were further information to be considered, let’s continue under the assumption there is nothing more to report. 

What is the best response?

In the most recent e-mail sent out by Pitt’s chancellor—Mark Nordenberg—he polarizes the possible modes of response between ‘being less cautious’ and ‘going further’:
“At one end of the spectrum are those who feel that we are being too cautious, are creating our own disruptions to campus life through the approach we have chosen, and are consuming too many resources by continuing to evacuate and search every targeted building…at the other end of the spectrum are those who feel that we should go further and close down this campus, either for a specified time or even indefinitely.”

Casting our opposition to the threats on a single axis of ‘caution’ leaves out the possibilities of responses that are less about security and more about the systematic structure of our university.  Why not push for professors to record their lectures and put them online?  Ask teachers and graduate students running small seminars to open their homes and make use of outdoor accommodations (of course some are already doing this on their own).   Generate tests that can be done at home or in groups. 

There are a sundry of options that make threats more innocuous and our reactions calm and covert. 

My point is not to poke fun at the university for trying to protect our community.  What we do see, however, is a pattern of how the general American attitude toward dissidents and public disruption rarely involves understanding the problem or reconciling the idea that we may be the cause of it.  Instead, we allow fear to linger over aiding in public comprehension and stick with our extreme reactions over building a tactful response. 

· · ·

As I write this it appears that the demon haunting Pitt’s campus has been put into custody (though only time will tell if we have the real perpetrator).  From my understanding, a group of redditors cracked the case by paying close attention to the location of bomb threats in accordance with conversations happening on a sub-Reddit regarding the issue. 

The only question is now, in the aftermath, will we make a showcase of this person as an example of absolute evil or will we attempt to understand the impetus and rethink how we could have made for a less tumultuous experience?

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Poem: The Shape of Hills and Repeated Falling

I stand up on a hillside to watch across the chasm.
Grey skies wander overhead with harrowing clouds glowing as if occupied by spirits.
You stand on your own mound,
hoping to rectify a house.
Floors, walls, stairs, and windows:
a new space for you to dance.

I wonder about the window,
You wonder about the chasm.

As I watch you build, I remember-
There is infinite sadness in the world:
Children stripped of provisions,
Mothers without volition,
Fathers strapped to addiction,
While senators vote to redistrict.
Lovers can’t be honest,
Patriots refuse to seek solace,
Combat infused with no purpose,
Feelings we each hold furtive.

The pale blue eyes that have directed me to and from sorrow glare across the hollow abyss.
I’m coming.
We meet at the edges of the dark void to speak.
“Sorry for how things are,” you say.
“Sorry for how they’ll continue to be,” I say.
We don’t know what we’re sorry for.

I continue my pacing, in regress.
You work toward your building in duress.
Then as the rains begin to fall from the dark clouds,
Each step causes a slip.
Down toward the hollow we forgot to avoid.

Neither of us have reasons for lingering on the steep bank.

We slip down, realizing we know this space.
We slip down, realizing how hard it will be to get out.
We slip down, reanalyzing each other’s disgrace.
We stay down, to hover in the presence of familiarity.
We stay down, to repeat what will echo for years:
“Sorry for where I need to go,” you say
“Sorry for where I am right now,” I say
We each know what the other’s sorry for
Our own selves left in the dark.

And as we climb back out, we promise to change.
The heartache that brought us given primary blame.
Once things are different maybe we’ll find our flame,
But now things are stagnant – reminded of the same.

Another vote gets counted-
39% showed.
Another prisoner compounded-
Right evidence undisclosed.
Three kids molested-
Thirteen years until another’s told.
A soldier gets aggressive-
Losing his liberties to a life he sold.

Each moment that goes by, the hill gets less steep-
the wind eroding the peaks of the rises we keep.
The gully becomes filled with the patches of dirt,
Falling from our hills as we re-craft the earth.
You go back to building,
I make a place to stand,
And we look at each other across the transitioning land.
“Sorry for how it was down there,” you yell.
“Sorry for what the future holds,” I yell.
Each of us not knowing what the other is meaning, 
We continue alone as long as our paths seem worth leading.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

An Excerpt from my Short Story "13 Images of My Self Through a Nikon D3s"

I’ve Found Myself Here Again – Reliving the Past in Wide Angle – Image #1

As I exit my car I hesitate due to the collision of comfort and dread that accompanies my seeing the large, redbrick suburban home I used to visit on a weekly basis in my youth. Decorated for Christmas, I am reminded of the jejune feelings of excitement that pervaded the holiday season growing up. Naïve joy brought about by the cluster of events our culture feels the need to contrive to celebrate a day that has gone from holy to commercial. My soft spot for jovial gatherings becomes lackluster under the guise of forced ritual and hackneyed repetition. The purview of my visual experience buffets me with a rhapsody of recollections ranging from the disport experiences of my teenage life to the peccadilloes of my old friends who are socializing inside.

The trek through the kitchen and down the stairs startles me as images begin to disinter. I become encumbered with torment trying to replicate the view these individuals must have of me. My attempt at empathy leaves me with the disquieting feeling of self-derision and disgust at the flippant attitudes I have come to expect. As I round the corner of the stairs, I attempt to shake the premonition and search for ‘the benefit of the doubt’.

“Well hello there guys.” I make my presence known to the crowd of individuals surrounding the perimeter of the white-tile bar. Then the choir speaks: “Fr-EH-d”, “Oh alright, Fred”, “Holy shit, didn’t even know you still existed”, “If it isn’t Fred-DICK, hah”, “What’s going on man?” Each greeting coming in tandem with a head nod, point, or grimace. “Not much, I suppose. Kinda hard to sum it all up in a few words,” I try to placate the myriad of stares coming from all angles. “Yup,” says Don who then turns to continue the conversation he was having. The group resumes its cacophony, and I sit next to a friend on a bar stool who is plotted beside a done-up female figurine on his left.

“Hey man, how’s it going?” I ask as my mind becomes filled with the past context in which I knew the person sitting in front of me. “Oh, not bad, not bad. This is my girlfriend Megan by the way. This is Fred.” Holding the array of past occurrences involving Randy in my head, I know I have already met her. A sharp memory is a blessing and a curse: the gift of having easy access to past details is often spoiled by an awareness of the inconsistencies and disappointments latent within a historical contextualization of a person, especially oneself.

“Actually I’ve met Megan before, remember after your boxing match a few years back. Although you were a little woozy and it happened really fast.” As I continue to see Randy in a larger pool of memories, I am reminded of his truly docile nature - in spite of his pugilistic interests - and feel vexed at having highlighted his lacking memory in front of his girlfriend. Wide angles are made possible by short focal points. A plethora of memories brought into view, reflecting off internal mirrors to ensure each angle is brought into focus. The limited distance of the focal point provided by the large lens of history leaves me unable to forget the larger setting I’m a part of and focus on the niceties of my company.

“Oh, alright alright. I wasn’t sure.”
“No worries, it’s nice to meet you again anyways. So what’s life been like, where are you working?” This begins an onslaught of perfunctory questions about his life, most of which are answered by vague positive remarks like ‘good’, ‘awesome’, or ‘it’s not too bad’. I sometimes worry about the insidious nature of our inability to share deeper considerations. We feel comfortable with simple answers to life questions and save our words for banter and small talk. Does this numb us to our flaws, our inner disturbances, our mode of existence, or does it protect us from the reality of the mundane?

In the midst of my interrogating Megan about her job selling medical devices, I notice the mirth of those in my periphery. Don, perfectly in character, is making playful jokes about past behaviors and beating at the humor of his beer being in a plastic bag in the fridge. The group of brothers who grew up in this house have always seemed to have an idolization of Don, ostensibly for his wit, athletic abilities, and social energy, but suspicion suggests his family’s affluence, local popularity, and attractive dress and looks may inspire a submissive sort of envy. I can’t help but hear their back-and-forth as languid remarks that represent the stagnancy of their identities since high school. My judgment makes me uneasy, redirecting the judgment onto myself for discerning one form of life as better than any other. During a moment of silence between Randy, Megan, and myself, Don begins hovering, seeing if it is appropriate to interject.
“So Fred, what are you doing these days? You working around here or are you still out at that company in Chicago?” My consciousness becomes cluttered with the possibilities of how to answer this. I feel as if I am deigning myself due to the lack of appreciation and interest I suspect beneath the intentions of this question. I casually mention my lab job, but make the centerpiece of the conversation my quitting the job in Chicago. I tirade him with the disgust I felt for the chase of money, being sure to pause occasionally and ask him to describe his job as an accountant. He emphasizes the enjoyment of his current milieu, antagonizing me to transition from a critique of corporate life to a vilification of the individuals I was surrounded by in my former job. I felt dizzy at the internal oscillations of my attitude. Moments of candid expressions of the alienation I felt in corporate life accompanied by a real interest in the quality of his work life that were quickly transformed by the desire to quash his self-confidence and prove to him his own shallowness. The anxiety of dual disgust toward my situation and myself kept me on edge throughout the remainder of the conversation.

“Let’s play catch phrase,” finally, a way out. A suggestion made by Emily, a female gem of the old group I both respected and detested. The respect comes from what she has become—a self-motivated, liberal health enthusiast whose interests span from the benefits of meditation to the problems of agricultural funding—and the detest from what she has always been—a girl, aware of the power of her good looks, who thrives on the attention given to her by guys, and yet feigns ignorance when it becomes suspect that she may be merely toying with someone who is developing genuine feelings for her. Whirling around in my own head, dizzied by the vertiginous affects of being in a constant fluctuation of past and present, sympathy and antipathy, pride and self-effacement, I am compelled to run from that which I cannot.

As we play the game, I watch as the group I once was a part of reveals to me the schism that is insurmountable from my position. Finally as the image of the party begins to include my own presence, I discern that I am the one at fault. Not a single one of them felt afflicted by my company, but rather pleased to have me in their game. The inevitability of my captious thoughts made me certain that I had to leave - not for my sake, but theirs. I had a simple excuse: my friend Alan’s sister Laurel came into town tonight and he wanted me to meet her. At the close of the game I tersely express my need to depart, and hurriedly escape the inner discordance in which I had been wallowing. I took a final snapshot of the panorama of memory and moment I had been fabricating as I watch my former friends gesture me an awkward goodbye.