Which Came First – The Violence or The Rhetoric?

Republished on HuffPost

Who or what do we blame? (This is a rhetorical question, by the way).

Because honestly? Blaming is a moot point. On June 14, 2017, human lives were put in unnecessary harms way, in what might have become a devastating massacre if not for The Capitol Police. We can hopefully all agree that there is nothing more devastating in life than the loss of life – especially when that loss is sudden, cut short, tragic, or at the hands of a deranged person with an assault rifle. Unfortunately, it seems one of the only things that jars our country out of a complacent lull anymore is a mass shooting. And then how do we make sense of it? We try to figure out who or what to blame.

All the tired arguments come out of hiding. Arguments like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” but then those same people asserting that “people kill people,” block any attempts to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. These are circular arguments. They do no good. They always result in finger-pointing with no resolution. And there has been no shortage of finger-pointing from all sides, all day long, which may possibly continue for days. Sandy Hook was, for me personally, the day I lost all hope that measures to make our country safer (with regards to guns) would ever happen. I know I’m not alone in that feeling. 

Wednesday morning at 8:10 a.m., I awoke to the sound of constant vibrations from my phone on the bedside table. My husband was not there in bed with me as usual; he’d had a last-minute, spontaneous backyard “camping” trip overnight with our youngest child, and they were still asleep in the tent. Kind of as a celebration over this being the first week of summer break. My husband is usually the one to get morning texts – not me – so when I do, I always fear it’s bad news. I sat up in bed and rubbed my eyes open to read a string of group texts from some of our family members who live in Alexandria, Virginia. The first thing I read was, “We’re okay.”

I had not yet turned on the TV and had no context until later, after I digested the whole text string and watched some news, but they were letting the whole family know they were safe. The reason we needed to know was because they said they were also at home, which they told us was “about five blocks away from” an active shooter who opened fire on republican lawmakers. Of course, in the part of Alexandria where they live, where this attack occurred “about five blocks away,” is basically almost within view from their front porch. This was a big deal, so throughout the day, especially as I saw maps of what happened where, I realized exactly how relieved I was for many things, including that my family was safe. 

As I listened to the news to learn more, I purposely heard and saw the reports from multiple sources. What happened was clear: the Republican Congressional baseball team was practicing at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria for an upcoming tradition – an annual, bipartisan, charity baseball game – when out of nowhere, James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Illinois opened fire with a military-style rifle and handgun, injuring five people. Among the injured were House GOP Whip Steve Scalise, a lobbyist, a congressional aide, and two police officers assigned to Scalise’s security detail. A sixth person, Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex), injured his ankle while helping others take cover, according to Washington Post. 

The US Capitol Police were rightfully commended by Congress, and across the media all day for acting heroically and swiftly, for literally running straight into the line of fire, risking their own lives, to stop what would have been yet another deadly massacre on U.S. soil, by a U.S. citizen; reports of this were corroborated by my family in Alexandria who were stunned by the sheer number of police cars they watched racing through their neighborhood to reach the horrific site – something rarely seen in their neighborhood. City officers arrived at the scene and opened fire, joining Capitol Police officers who were already engaged in a gun battle for over two minutes with Hodgkinson, who later died in police custody at the hospital. 

As soon as the reports started rolling in about exactly who James Hodgkinson was, the insinuations, accusations, and blaming started. When speculating on a possible motive, it was reported across various news sources that Hodgkinson, in addition to having a somewhat troubling past with violence and the law, had also regularly posted to social media about his distaste for our current government. It also came out that he was a Bernie Sanders fan and apparently, a volunteer on Sanders’ presidential campaign. 

With all of that knowledge put together, it was then reasoned all over media that Hodgkinson was not a terrorist but more of a “lone wolf,” and that because of his online presence where he regularly attacked both Republican President Trump and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, his attack was most likely politically motivated. (His motives are officially still under investigation.) 

Hodgkinson allegedly posted on social media and in comments sections his “angry rants” about politics, about his ongoing support for Bernie Sanders, and memes that poked fun at, or showed resentment towards the wealthy, including both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (My God, who hasn’t done this at some point in time – over any person in power?) Barack Obama’s presidency was rife with more than just social media “angry rants.” In fact, there was no shortage of graphic photos and memes all over the internet, depicting effigies of our first black president, hanging from nooses, burning, or wearing a crown of thorns. And now that we have, for the first time ever, a President who has yet to disable his personal Twitter account and has made serious, false accusations there towards former President Obama, where is the bar set? 

There is one essential difference between the two most recent presidencies that’s worth pointing out. In 2008, the anti-Obama angry crowd, for the most part, were white people (the majority) violently protesting against black people (the minority) by damaging/destroying their property, threatening violence, verbally abusing, and physically assaulting black people because of their uneasiness with a minority black man being voted into the office of POTUS for the first time in American history. Dylann Roof, notorious white-supremacist who murdered nine black people in the Charleston church shooting was a prime (albeit extreme) example of that type of white supremacist, violent protesting, and thank God there weren’t many more nut-jobs that went so far for that reason. 

Eight years later, the anti-Trump angry crowd “aka “The Resistance,” were holding almost entirely peaceful protests, marching, or practicing peaceful civil disobedience (with the exception of a small handful of extremist nut-jobs who were not being peaceful). The Resistance, collectively (individually made up of The Women’s March, and every other marginalized group) was protesting because of their uneasiness with a wealthy, white, verbally repugnant man being voted into the office of POTUS who had demonized minorities, and indeed, all marginalized groups, incited violence at his own rallies, and regularly threatened minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, and Muslims, to name a few. 

So, where does the blame fall for senseless acts of tragedy? It’s an argument with no absolute answer, and again, a moot point because the damage is already done by the time we get around to having these conversations. Regardless, many Republicans and conservatives took to social media and news interviews throughout the day, seeming to relish the idea that a “progressive” was responsible for this heinous act (though, my gut feeling is they seem to mix up the terms “liberal” and “progressive,” so all their “feels” may have been misdirected). Some of them stated their belief that violent acts like these are born out of the left’s “Resistance” movement. (Though, I doubt those saying that actually know anything about The Resistance, which is all about non-violence. It’s about all the little things we can do, and the type of grassroots programs we can implement to prevent any one person from becoming a dictator of our beloved country). 

Robert Reich, who streams live on Facebook every night and is one of the leading voices in The Resistance movement and Indivisible said it best:

“Whatever the motive of the shooter, some Republicans are saying today that in the era of Trump, they (Republicans) are being threatened as never before. They point to a virulent backlash against Trump that they say is going beyond the bounds of reasonable dissent, and that suddenly – or not – they say the backlash is encouraging violence. Donald Trump, Jr. is among those arguing that – as he puts it – ‘liberal hate speech is leading to violence.’

Meanwhile, lawyers – and I’m talking about particularly Republican lawyers, Republican members of Congress, have had town halls that are rowdy, overflowing, bordering (they say) sometimes on being dangerous. Representative Dave Brat from Virginia says, ‘town halls now often include a thousand people screaming, and it takes only one person off the reservation to cause a problem.’

I just want to make sure we all are on the same page here. Democrats are experiencing the same level of hatred as Republicans, and there are way too many invitations to violence on both sides.

A few weeks ago, on the eve of his election to the House of Representatives, Montana Republican Greg Gianforte beat up Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian newspaper… Last year, Donald Trump said of a protester at one of his campaign rallies, ‘I’d like to punch him in the face. In the old days, protesters would be carried out on stretchers.’

There’s absolutely no excuse for fomenting violence. There is no excuse for political violence, there’s no excuse for violence of this sort in our country, in our culture, in our democracy.

I’m not blaming the President, obviously. But Donald Trump does set a tone. You remember when he said, ‘Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick – if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.'”

Of course, Trump’s claim was wrong. Hillary Clinton wanted to enact stricter gun control but had no objection to responsible gun ownership. Regardless, when did it become acceptable for a person seeking to be President of the United States to suggest violence in any way, shape, or form? Was it when Trump referred to the “Second Amendment people,” or was it when Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like, incredible.” Was it then that we collectively decided that type of reference to violence was okay?

Or was it when Trump said, “part of the problem is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.” Or when Trump said, “The audience hit back. That’s what we need a little bit more of.” Or when he said, “Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court, don’t worry about it.” Or when he said, “I’d like to punch him in the face,” or “Knock the crap out of them,” or “I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will,” or “maybe he should’ve been roughed up?” 

Because if those things didn’t upset us enough (and clearly, they didn’t since Trump was still elected POTUS), then someone’s “angry rant” on social media certainly shouldn’t upset us, either. Further, we can’t demand our citizens to stop lodging their criticisms or complaints about our government on social media, (which we can’t even prove “incite violence,” as much as people wanted to say so in media today), but then allow our own POTUS to actually incite violence at rallies. 

With all of the horrifying things said on the campaign trail and beyond, it’s hard to know exactly when that bar was set for lowering the level of discourse, of taking it from simple to crude to inciting violence. Which came first – the rhetoric, or the violence? It’s impossible to answer, and doesn’t matter anyway. Violence is never the answer. 

As Robert Reich pointed out on The Resistance Report on the evening of June 14th:

“We don’t settle anything with violence. Violence of any kind is totally unacceptable in our society. Real social and political change is achievable – and we know this from the Civil Rights Movement, from the Women’s rights, from gay rights, from conservative movements – we know that real social and political change is achievable only through non-violent action.

It is critically important that all of us continue the fight. The non-violent fight. Mobilizing, and organizing, and energizing those around us to make sure that we have a health care system that protects people. To make sure that we get big money out of politics, to fight for Medicare for all. To fight against some of the anti-democratic, unconstitutional things that Donald Trump is pushing.

But by “fighting,” we’re talking about civil disobedience. Discussion. Debate. Yes, by all means, go to town meetings. By all means, raise your voice. By all means make a ruckus about what the Republicans are doing. But it is vitally important that we maintain civility.” 

The question remains, are politics beyond repair? Lots of talking heads today posed this and other rhetorical questions. Are human relationships beyond repair? Should we beef-up our security measures in public places? What about gun control? What about mental health care? “Technology” was even on the table as the thing that could’ve led to today’s horrific event. Additionally, many people who are “fighting” are not even fighting over politics, but over deserved, basic human rights, which should be available to all of us – and, which should be totally unrelated to politics, but somehow have become intertwined and chaotically weaved into the fabric of this 45th presidency.

It seems common sense, that when you have the President of the United States, lowering the level of discourse in general, when it’s acceptable for him to use racist speech, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, sexist, Islamaphobic, and xenophobic speech, with absolutely no consquences, people in those marginalized groups are going to get offended. They are going to push back and hold a person like Trump accountable for hate speech. This is our job as the American people – to criticize, petition, and question our government, because in America, political power belongs to the people. This is our government, this country belongs to all of us, not just one political party. 

It is extremely alarming that the Trump administration has seemed to intentionally weaken part of our constitutional First Amendment rights with regards to freedom of the press. He has done this by vilifying the media, by attacking journalists and reporters in particular (by calling them collectively “fake media,” “dishonest media,” “fake news,” and “public enemy #1”), and by even naming individual journalists and reporters in attempts to strip away their rights, or somehow punish them for merely doing their jobs. He has set a very uncomfortable precedent for the values of free speech and free press going forward.

Like the chicken and the egg, how can we know whether the blame of June 14th falls on rhetoric, violence, technology. or other. It’s a circular argument, and no doubt, people will even comment here with their opinions of what went wrong and why. But honestly, who will ever know what went on in the mind of James Hodgkinson on June 14th? What his motives were, whether he was mentally ill, or perfectly competent? Obviously, he comes off as another extremist nut-job, since most rational people on every side from right to left can all agree that it shouldn’t take a tragedy like this to unite us as one country. Where or what to place the blame on is indeed a moot point. I won’t say it’s Trump’s fault. I won’t say it’s The Resistance’s fault. But I have to admit, it is not hard to see how the unique rhetoric of a Trump presidency provokes people – whether those people are completely rational, or teetering on the edge –  to take drastic measures.

Lessons Learned At The Train Station

I’ve always been a “what if” kind of person, much to the chagrin of my husband who, for all purposes, is practical and very much a realist. As one of many dreamers in this world, I can honestly say that we consider all the “what-ifs.” We ponder all the possibilities, we think outside the box every time. Which makes sense, considering we tend to be idealistic and creative people – our thought processes are typically profound and somewhat abstract.

We’re the people who make decisions with our hearts just a little more than with our brains. We can easily be driven by emotion over logic, thus, we are easily hurt. Also? Dreamers, by nature, really dislike conflict; we much prefer harmony. Indeed, we will often push our needs to the absolute bottom in order to maintain group harmony. Conversely, if it involves issues we consider paramount to our moral fiber, we will not be silent or complacent for the sake of harmony. For those, we will compose a symphony of discord to be understood – or at least, heard. 

My dad is a fellow dreamer, and I’m happy to have another one in my life. Being married to a realist can be lonely at times, because I have no one to consider all the “what ifs” with. I suppose being a dreamer married to a realist is actually a pretty good balance, because he keeps me grounded. In fact, it’s probably a great thing I didn’t choose to spend the rest of my life with another dreamer, because I imagine we’d live on a perpetual loop of “what ifs” and would never get anything productive accomplished.

Dad holding newborn me

Dad holding me while I slept, summer 1974

June 5th marked Matt’s and my anniversary (18 years married, 21 years together). We don’t do much fanfare anymore – just heartfelt or funny cards, sometimes a dinner out. We always watch our lovely wedding video that Dad made and gave us, and I still cry over that every year. But we’re at that point in life where the notion of doing *nothing* is very seductive, and we’re more likely to choose that over being out & about, dealing with a toxic mix of social anxiety, claustrophobia, and the general public. This upcoming fall, we have tickets to see one of our favorite authors, David Sedaris. That will be our anniversary gift to each other.

Despite it being my anniversary month, I consider June my Dad’s month. Because it marks both his birthday (June 2nd), and Father’s Day, which is upcoming in a few days. While these are only two dates on the calendar, they represent two of the many times throughout the year in which I purposefully reflect on my dad’s influence on my life. As a fellow dreamer, we share lots in common. But one thing always loved exclusively by my Dad was trains. Everything trains. Trains in real life, toy trains, model train sets of all scales, train movies, train decor and themes, and train magazines. He even pretended to love the tacky train kitsch I gave him for birthdays and father’s days when I was very young. A 99-cent toddler-sized wooden train whistle with the carved inscription I Like Trains for a 45-year-old man? Yes! A baseball cap reading This is my train and you can’t play with it for a man who never wears baseball caps? Sure! 

For this hobby, everywhere we lived Dad would carve out a niche somewhere in the cubbyholes and name it “the train room.” In the 1960s before I was born, I understand the train room was in a dark, dank, underground basement lit by a couple of dangling, pull-chain lightbulbs overhead and a bank of camel crickets tenanting every corner. In the house where I spent the majority of my time growing up, the train room first was situated in a long, odd-shaped, abandoned walk-in closet off the upstairs hallway. Later, it was central to a small room addition that he and my mom constructed near the back of the house. 

When they eventually retired and built a house on some quiet, country pond property, the train room was located outside the house, a short walk away. It was inside a generous barn-like shed that stood among their forest of pine trees – pine trees that were ultimately unearthed in 1996 by Hurricane Fran. That train room was perhaps my favorite, with my dad’s heating unit cranked up to high in the winter. It made the space inviting and cozy, especially if you had some hot coffee.

It was here one late fall evening after dinner where I found Dad contentedly watching over his model trains, our sweet, faithful dog Max resting at his feet, and a third item that did not belong – a Harvestman, (or Daddy-Longlegs), hitching a ride on a miniature boxcar as it circled the track. Without speaking, I looked from this “spider” back to my Dad, my eyes squinted tightly with furrowed brow. As if this was an occurrence one should expect to see, Dad explained that these “spiders” (which weren’t even spiders, technically) were friendly, harmless, and most importantly, didn’t like the cold, and that they regularly came in and kept him company when it got too brisk outside.

“But why is it riding around on your train?” I asked. Dad answered as if it were common sense, “Because that’s what he likes to do! I welcomed him in. He’s happy; let him be!” Next I’m fairly certain Dad referenced scripture from the book of Matthew along the lines of “…truly I tell you, whatever you have done unto the least of these, you have done unto me.” Subtext: though this arachnid may seem insignificant to you, it is still one of God’s living creatures and I feel charged to take care of it by whatever means necessary. 

I understood this language. This particular bible verse was one persistently declared by the kids in our household to justify the frequent bringing home of feral cats when Mom opposed, so I understood immediately; there was no need to argue. And then I thought, one day when Dad is no longer with us, I hope and pray to always remember him exactly this way – in his happy place, mellow, leaning back in his chair, pipe between his teeth, cold beer in hand, content dog resting at his feet, a man quietly enjoying the beauty of his creation. A moderate, liberal, loving man who felt empathy and emotions so deeply, that he always made sure to care for ‘the least of these.’

Aside from being a place of comfort and refuge for all, the train room was also an unexpected sort of art studio. It was the place where my Dad imagined, planned, designed, engineered, and used his bare hands to build amazingly intricate model train layouts (HO scale is what I mostly remember, but he used all scales at different times). He would often start out with a plain plywood door as the benchwork on top of whatever supporting structure was there. From there he would build upwards, from the terrain and landforms, to the working hanging stoplights over the town.

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One of the very few photos we have of one of Dad’s many different scaled model train set layouts; he painted or placed every decal with precision

Carved, extruded foam became the hill and mountain profile, or sometimes, just wrinkled brown paper grocery bags, stuffed with crumpled newspaper held in place with masking tape. With an artist’s precision, he’d brush on earth-color latex paint for dirt surfaces, or cover the terrain with liquid or spray pigments and all sorts of textured surfaces. He could blend and combine colors that rivaled nature’s own. What an adept eye he had.

After weeks or sometimes months of hard work, when completed, Dad’s train sets included fantastically brilliant scenes of ordinary, every day life, often with some humor infused: bustling towns with tiny people interacting, the “town drunk” was usually hanging out with a stray cat among store fronts or back alleys, and little passengers seated inside little passenger train cars appeared to be going somewhere besides the perpetual loop they were on. There were sparkling rivers that seemed to rush, level crossings, paved roads with potholes and hand-painted center stripes, different levels of vividly colored underbrush and autumn foliage, and lush, undulating meadows.

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Dad painstakingly added every detail around and on every building, from the paint colors, to the decals, to the graffiti on the bench, with teeny, tiny paintbrushes, and a ton of patience

No attention to detail was lost, regardless of how time-consuming they may have been to create. Weathered galvanized roofs of boxcars, Aging freight car lettering that was fading, or running onto the paint below, decals meticulously applied with tweezers on every building and speed-limit or billboard sign, graffiti, rusted water tanks, working electrics, lighting, special effects, and the landscapes. My God, the landscapes; they were way more realistic and beautiful than even the prize-winning photographs inside Model Railroader Magazine, the only reference point for this art form I had at the time. 

Then, without warning, one day I’d walk in the train room to ask Dad a question, and the entire layout would be completely obliterated. Demolished. Gone. Not a trace of the artistry was left behind except maybe an edge of blue horizon paint on the wall. And then he’d start from scratch, all over again, and build another, totally different layout. Another trip to The Hobby Shop, another theme, another scale, more wiring and soldering, more needlenose pliers, hobby knives, Testors enamel paint, foam insulation, and plastic bags of fine terf, green poly fiber, and medium ballast. 

I’d wonder, “why do all that hard work just to tear it down? Did it get boring? Did you not like the way it turned out? Why not at least take a picture of it first, for preservation? What is this whole process chasing after? At the time, I simply couldn’t make sense of it all – the way this man, who was my Dad, had the artist’s eye of John Constable and work ethic of Alexander Graham Bell just blew my mind. How come I didn’t inherit that talent or dedication? I longed for it. 

When I was pretty young, mostly between the ages of five to ten, my dad would take me lots of different places in general (to school, to his workplace during the summer, to friend’s houses, to the Quick-Pick up the road where I’d try his patience deciding which candy bar to buy this time), but one of the places we went most often for fun was downtown, to the city’s train station – usually during the summer, on Friday nights near dusk.

TRAIN - Zebulon, steam train 4501 to Raleigh, Dad filming

One of my very young trips to see a train, in Zebulon. My grandmother is holding me on the left, Dad is on the right. He was filming a news story.

We’d visit early before the train was scheduled to arrive and we’d walk up and down the railroad tracks, picking up and studying various railroad remnants like rusted metal spikes and tattered ticket stubs. Occasionally we’d come across casual small objects that might’ve fallen out of someone’s suitcase, now buried underneath a layer of gravel and dust, long forgotten. We’d suppose what kind of person might’ve owned that thin leather wristwatch, or where they were traveling, or what their story was.

Rusty Railroad Spikes

The type of rusted metal spikes Dad & I would pick up along the railroad tracks

Although I just thought we were having fun, these trips were also very educational. My dad would teach me about the history of railroads in America as well as other countries, and I learned how railroads reflected the times they operated in, and vice versa. I learned that railroads were economic entities, not just cool places to hang out and people-watch on Friday nights. I learned how trains moved raw materials and manufactured goods from place to place, and how the patterns of these movements were all driven by economics. My Dad taught me the different types of trains, specific train stations (and sometimes, their ghost stories), and the characteristics of different types of railroad cars like freight, passenger, sleeper, lounge, and cargo. I learned about how engines work, why railroad tracks went one or the other, what whistle codes, hand signals, and different light signals meant, and I learned about geography, landforms, bridge construction, and tunnels. 

Seaboard near Boylan downtown, www.pwrr.org

Train tracks in downtown Raleigh, circa 1981. Source: http://www.pwrr.org

During our walks up and down the tracks, waiting sometimes what seemed like hours for the train to arrive, I’d ask lots of my notorious “what if” questions. One I remember in particular was a “what if” I asked after learning about the function of a railroad switch and how it enables a train to be guided from one railway track to another. My dad was telling me about the strength of the switch motors and how railway workers had to be careful to keep their limbs out of the way, and I wondered what might happen if a person was walking along the track and their foot suddenly got ensnared when the switch motor was engaged.

I’m sure he gave me some technical answer about the likelihood of that actually happening, or possibly glossed over gory details of how that would likely crush and break all the bones in one’s foot, but I don’t remember exactly what he said. I was too busy thinking, “wait a minute… what if that person was me, and what if it happened right now while I’m walking with you? And what if there was no one around to help?” I asked him this out loud and his answer, without even a moment’s hesitation was, “Well, I guess I’d have to get out my pocket knife and cut your foot off. That’d be the only way to set you free if nobody was around to help.” 

I was horrified at the thought because it was such a disturbing image, and yet, I was also mystified that someone could love me enough to go to such lengths to save my life – all within this complicated, “what if,” completely speculative and made-up scenario that my six-year-old mind concocted. 

Looking back, with the perspective of now being a parent myself and having knowledge of how tiring it is to answer all the “what ifs” of little kids’ imaginations, I realize my dad probably just said the first thing that popped into his mind to placate me, so I’d quit with the “what ifs.” Or maybe because that answer was easy and uncomplicated for a six-year-old mind, and it satisfied my question so I could then move on. He knew me so well. 

Later in the evening, by the time conversation had run out of steam, we’d finally hear the far-off air horn of the Amtrak Silver Star, or maybe the CSX or Seaboard System locomotive. As the sound of the Nathan Airchime approached and grew more intense, we’d back up into the safety of the train depot where we could stand and watch. As the train approached and I could feel the rush of wind, I would get butterflies in my stomach. Maybe that was just adrenaline and excitement because that massive, oddly majestic beast of steel and aluminum was finally arriving. Sometimes the freight trains would whoosh past us on their way, sometimes the Amtrak would stop at the station.

CSX Raleigh 1984

CSX, circa 1984, Raleigh, source: http://www.trainweb.org

Seaboard System Train 1

Seaboard System, 1983, source: Don Ross Collection, Don’s Depot

 

Amtrak Silver Star, Raleigh, 1981, www.pwrr.org

Amtrak Silver Star, circa 1981, source: http://www.pwrr.org

When the train would stop, there was so much to take in: the squeal and hiss of the brakes and the faint smell of burning, the muffled announcements heard from crackling overhead speakers, the eclectic mix of people getting on and off, the clacking of luggage wheels on pavement. The shadows of people sitting in windows would prompt my mind to wonder another string of “what if” questions regarding who they were and where they were going… it was a never-ending scene of noise and movement that abruptly ended the second the train doors closed for departure.

We’d then watch the train as it inched off towards another destination, leaving more quietly than it had arrived. In the lull following its departure, the train station would resume its deserted, ghostly appearance while the dirt and dust settled. Dad would say, “Well, that’s it! Ready to head home?” And as the evening stars grew brighter we’d load back into the car, my summer feet grubby and sooty from walking bare along the tracks. He’d drive us home talking about the next time we’d come and what “souvenirs” we might find.

Whether visiting my Dad’s sacred train room where I knew not to touch anything, or taking field trips with Dad to the actual train station where I was allowed to touch everything, it was always a ritual I looked forward to. Not because I was ever a train aficionado, but because it was uninterrupted quality time spent with my Dad, doing what he loved to do, what he was passionate about, that only he truly understood. I so wanted to please him and share that passion. It was fun, but honestly, I didn’t care much about the trains.

I just liked the precious alone time with my Dad, when he was in his element, happy, enjoying that special place where the earth and modern technology collide. And ultimately, the lessons I learned from his train room artistry, and our trips to the train station became major life lessons. At the time, in my young mind I was just hanging with my Dad. But what occurred to me gradually, and at unexpected times throughout my life, was that there were so many reoccurring themes of train stations and railroads that were applicable to life. 

Dad with newborn me 1974

Dad, apparently trying to elicit a smile from a newborn me. July, 1974 (That bad-ass ’70s leather bracelet/watch he’s wearing, though!)

1.) The railroad track enables the train to move by providing a dependable surface for its wheels to roll upon. Life on Earth is not much different. On traditional railroad track structures, the maintenance demand is heavy and costly. Weakness of the underlying subgrade and drainage deficiencies, as an example, can lead to pretty hefty maintenance burdens and costs. Life on Earth is not much different. The earth is a fairly dependable surface for us to inhabit, at least for now. As we roll upon the course of life, we must think to take care of it. We must pay the price and invest in protecting it now so that it will remain the same solid foundation for future generations, so that they can savor and dwell upon a dependable surface as well. 

2.) There’s always a diverging path. Just like with railroads, in real life there is always a choice to make of continuing along on the same path, or flipping a switch and changing your course. It is often literally that simple. If you’re not happy, change your course. A junction in the context of rail transport is a place at which two (or more) rail routes converge or diverge. In life, you might be side by side with a friend or significant other for a while before going off, forever, in two totally different directions, or vice versa. I’ve found that whichever way you end up is meant to be, whether you change your own life’s course, come together with someone new, or split ways from someone who has been at your side. However, should you happen to get stuck or ensnared somehow in the process of switching course, you most likely won’t have to lose a limb.

3.) Just like at the train station, people come and people go. You don’t always know where they’ve been, or where they’re going. You can surmise, but you might end up being wrong, or even worse, hurt. Unlike “bad order” tags applied on defective pieces of railroad equipment that are not to be used again until repairs are performed, unfortunately, our fellow humans in need of psychological repair do not come with these tags. There are, however, less obvious “red flags,” and gut feelings we have when getting into a relationship – whether friendly, romantic, sexual, or otherwise. I’ve learned to trust those red flags and gut feelings. They’re almost always as reliable as bad order tags. 

4.) Don’t underestimate the importance of the “Dead Man’s Switch.” Once upon a time, if a train engineer became incapacitated in any way, there was a safety mechanism which automatically applied the brake and stopped the train. This was called a “dead man’s switch.” In most modern locomotives, an “alerter” is used. Historically, these switches and levers were intended as a fail-safe to stop a machine with an incapacitated operator from potentially dangerous action, or to stop a machine as a result of accident, malfunction, or misuse. In life, we have human counterparts of the dead man’s switch. They’re called “designated drivers.” Use them when you’re out and you’re drinking. Always. There’s invariably someone who wants to fulfill that role. If not? Call an Uber or a cab. Too many high school students, mothers, fathers, friends, relatives, and children have died in drunk driving accidents during my lifetime. It shouldn’t happen, especially when there are ways to keep it from happening. 

5.) On the point of repeatedly building up and tearing down intricate model train table layouts? That thing I never quite understood? What I ultimately learned through the course of many trials and errors of my own, was that the building process was the best part. While it’s nice to sit back and admire your work sometimes, the building part is where the adventure is. Not only that, but it’s also where the learning occurs. The early years for my Dad must’ve been learning experiences because I’m sure he made some mistakes, and possibly cut corners – maybe in areas he shouldn’t have – and that maybe translated into problems that then didn’t happen the next time around.

This building & re-building theme was also evident in the house where I grew up. My parents’ idea of a fun weekend was one that included demolishing a room and rebuilding it. They were constantly re-arranging furniture and room layouts, remodeling inside and out, tearing down old walls and building new ones. The dining room turned into an extension of the living room. The TV den was turned into the dining room. They turned the kitchen around completely backwards. They put a hole in a wall to create another entrance into a room. A hallway was closed off and turned into the powder room and closet area of the master bathroom. At one point we had a patio, which later became the area for a small deck, and even later we had an English garden in the area that used to be the deck and the patio. Our house was so much in a state of flux, my friends would joke from one week to the next, “If I come over today, what part of your house will be different?” 

But now I realize the bigger theme. It wasn’t just a fun adventure. My parents were always striving to make things better, to make things more cost-effective, more efficient, more aesthetically pleasing, and/or more helpful. I also learned that sometimes, tearing something completely down is the best way to move forward. Because if you don’t fully tear down something that you intend to replace, your finished product will never look or work very good. As long as my Dad was rebuilding new train tables and layouts, he was still working, improving, and learning. It was brain exercise. 

Some of the more simple lessons I learned at the train station, but arguably the most important, were these:

  • “What if” questions can be healthy. You might just learn a thing or two about unconditional love. 
  • You don’t have to spend any money to have quality time. 

And lastly? Found artifacts such as the rusty metal railroad spikes Dad & I picked up along the way don’t just make great paperweights; they also trigger fond memories, bring forth an underlying wealth of random knowledge, become thought-provoking and deep conversation pieces, and as such, they make awesome souvenirs that last a lifetime.

Railroad spikes spelling LOVE

Thank You, Mom

For standing over my crib in the middle of the night, feeding me a bottle, even though you were barely able to hold yourself up because you were sick with the flu… thank you. You never had time off or sick leave. Fortunately for your family, you had the work ethic of an aircraft engineer.

Mom - holding me

Mom holding me on a family trip, circa 1976

For having the foresight to realize the importance of early childhood education through play, and for sending me to Mother’s Morning Out a couple days a week at Mrs. Hague’s preschool… thank you.  Continue reading

Victims of Bullying Don’t Need To Change, Bullies Do

Re-published at The Huffington Post

Recently I had PTK surgery on my eye to fix recurrent corneal abrasions due to an underlying condition. A day later I had my post-op appointment, and everything went exceedingly well. Since I still couldn’t drive yet, my husband Matt had to bring me and our youngest son Charlie decided to tag along. After my post-op appointment (which was out of town, took an hour longer than we expected, and we were all starving afterwards), Charlie asked if we could go to IHOP for brunch. It was just Matt, me, and Charlie since our older son Jack was in the mountains with friends for spring break, and our daughter Kate was spending her spring break in driving school.

So, we went with intentions of having a nice, relaxing, casual brunch, just the three of us – a rare special occasion. Besides, successful eye surgery was something to celebrate, considering my extreme phobia of anything coming remotely close to my eyes. Continue reading

Today, I Grieve

Tuesday, April 11, 2017. This morning I was the invited guest lecturer for an NC State Abnormal Psychology undergraduate class from 8:30-9:45 am. It has been on my calendar for months, and I was looking forward to it very much. An old friend I went to college with is working on her Ph.D. and teaching classes at NCSU. She asked me to present on the topic of gender identity. Overall it went well. Especially considering the circumstances.

Also, this morning, we lost our fur baby Athena. At approximately 9:35 am, while I was doing my lecture, she was Continue reading

Are Trans Women Really Women? Why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Answer Matters

Ah, semantics. If ever there was a case for the importance of words and their intended, assumed, or literal meanings, it is this story. In case you haven’t yet heard, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a world-renowned, award-winning Nigerian author and feminist, was recently interviewed by Cathy Newman for the UK’s Channel 4 News and asked if she thought trans women were really women. Specifically, Ms. Newman asked, “…does it matter how you’ve arrived at being a woman – I mean, for example, if you’re a trans woman who grew up identifying as a man, who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man, does that take away from becoming a woman? Are you any less of a real woman?” In short, Adichie’s answer was, “My feeling is trans women are trans women.”

Notice she didn’t say, “trans women are women.” (If you want to hear just the quote in question, skip to approx. the 2:44 mark).

Adichie went on to explain how if you’ve lived Continue reading

Misogyny: Do Americans Really Hate Women?

About two years ago, Target stores decided to make a radical, positive change in the way they marketed their toys, home, and entertainment departments. A news release announced they were “ditching” gender labels. They were going to accomplish this by doing away with gender suggestions on signs, as those seemed to be antiquated relics in a society that is ever growing upwards in its quest to understand, empathize with, and embrace the non-binary construct of gender. Continue reading

Rainbow Kids: Don’t Quit. We’re Fighting For You

Republished on The Huffington Post 

Dear Trans Kids,

I’m writing to you, but not just to you. I’m also writing to all the rainbow kids, whatever you call yourselves, however you identify. I am writing to you as an American-born, white, straight, cisgender, liberal Christian mother of three with a good education, a good job, three good kids, and a good husband. What do I have to offer you? My unconditional love and my unwavering support in a battle for your rights – a battle that with “45” in office is only just beginning.

You don’t know me, but I’ve been advocating for you for the past nine years.

My youngest child is a boy who Continue reading

Birthday Blues and a Review

On Tuesday, Charlie turned 11. This should’ve been a joyful day, but I could tell something was wrong when he got up. He seemed distant. We went to school and went on with our days. Matt came for Charlie’s lunch at school and we all sat together with a good friend that Charlie picked. Matt brought McDonald’s and cupcakes with neon colored frosting. When it was time to pass out cupcakes, Charlie and his friend gave one to everybody in the class, but Charlie did not want one. Very strange. They took the rest of them upstairs to share with the teachers. We hugged goodbye and I Continue reading