The politicization of tragedy

Many older generation Americans will tell you they can still remember exactly where they were when they learned of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. For my generation, all of us can tell you where we were when the towers fell. Even more recently, I can remember where I was when I heard that former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot on Jan. 8, 2011.

I was walking to the Daily Wildcat offices for a meeting, my first official action as incoming news editor. I happened to be absent-mindedly browsing through my Twitter feed as I walked when I saw the breaking reports. Shortly thereafter, people began texting me, asking if I had seen the news, what I had heard.

In the days that followed, I hardly left the office. I hardly slept. And even after the story had been dutifully reported and our collective attention began to return to normalcy, one questioned still rang out to me every time I contemplated the events of that day.

Why?

What could possess someone to so needlessly and heedlessly take someone else’s life? Who was this Jared Lee Loughner? What were his motivations?

Much of human existence revolves around the search for meaning or purpose. We go to school to learn about the world around us, to college to learn what path we want to follow in life. This inevitable human curiosity is what spurs innovation and creation, engenders our competitive natures and drives us to succeed in our personal goals. But, much like troublesome children around a hot stove, curiosity can sometimes be a painful experience.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 11 shooting, people began searching for Loughner’s purpose. They scrutinized his rambling YouTube videos in an attempt to determine his political leanings. And, in doing so, they arrived at the conclusion that he could be either a fringe right activist or very liberal. Eventually, one of his friends came forward to explain that Loughner harbored a grudge against Giffords stemming from an exchange at an event.

It is this same search for purpose that is driving the swirling speculation today regarding the massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Just like the shooting of Jan. 8, people are trying to make sense of the senseless violence. Who was this James E. Holmes, and why did he allegedly, and seemingly randomly, open fire on a crowd of complete strangers?

Perhaps it’s just the times we are living in, or maybe it’s because news outlets are in full campaign mode, but already the politicization has begun. ABC News reported that he apparently had tea party leanings, an unfounded allegation that the organization later retracted. Joel B. Pollak, of Breitbart News, reported that Holmes may be a registered Democrat, a factoid that was, too, partly retracted as the story continued to develop.

So what we’ve learned thus far is that the shooter may either be a tea party activist or a registered Democrat, but may be neither.

In time, perhaps the shooter’s motivations will become clear. Or, as may be likely, there may be no discernible underlying motivation, no conspiratorial headline for blogs and newspapers to trumpet. Maybe it was just another senseless act of violence in a world that is sometimes devoid of sense. And that may be the hardest thing for us to accept.

All my thoughts are with those who were affected by this tragedy.

Who says you can’t go home? Well, I used to

High school is a time of uncertainty, a time when you begin to truly discover “who you are” and put the finishing touches on a transition into adulthood. Truth be told, when I was in high school I didn’t know where I was going to go for college, what I was going to study when I got there, how I was going to pay for it or a plethora of other mundane details that come with budding adulthood. But there was one thing of which I was certifiably certain: I wasn’t going to move home after I graduated.

Now, a little less than two months after graduating, my bags are packed and I’m homeward bound.

There’s always been a stigma surrounding the boomerang college student. When you hear of someone who moved back in with their parents after graduating you immediately think of a guy in a white tank top covered in the remnants of several microwavable meals who calls the basement his “bachelor pad” so often you begin to question whether he’s joking or not. Don’t deny it.

Then there’s the other implication of moving back home: That of defeat. Sure, you gave the job market the ol’ college try, but you just weren’t good enough to land yourself that sweet slice of employment independence. So you scurried back home, tail between your legs, immediately donned a tank top and dedicated yourself to watching the original run of “Star Trek” in its entirety.

That fear of failure rings particularly true for me. As a proud boy of Flagstaff, I had the opportunity to attend Northern Arizona University for next to nothing. I could have lived at home for free and assured myself that, no matter how tough things got, there would always be a pantry to raid. But, like teenagers are wont to do, I rebelled. With both a sister and a mother at NAU, I had to break out on my own, not only to show them I could do it, but to prove it to myself. Being an adult meant facing the challenges that accompany independence, and I was eager to go to Tucson and face them, head-on.

It certainly wasn’t always easy. Heck, I almost transferred back to NAU after my first semester. There was the time my meal plan ran out with two months left my freshman year and I had to survive in large part on Pop-Tarts and the occasional whole, rotisserie chicken when I could scrounge together the money. Then there was the time(s) I had to sell plasma and put almost all of my electronics on E-Bay to pay rent. I worked three jobs, and Hot ‘n Ready’s were manna from heaven.

Every decision I made, difficult as it might have been, was necessary to avoid a very tank toppy future. And after graduating, I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. I had done it.

Of course, then I remembered I majored in journalism and those easy sighs turned into hyperventilation.

Granted, I’m not alone in this mom-and-pop-ward migration. According to a recent study, as many as 85 percent of recent graduates will move home after they graduate, a statistic made all the more realistic when considering the fact that 53 percent of recent grads are unemployed or working a job that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree. Let’s be frank, that picture wouldn’t be rosy even if you looked at it through rose-colored glasses.

But, as with most things, perspective is everything. After all, I could not have a home to go back to, or not have a mother who was so understanding, or a sister who had already done the same thing thereby guaranteeing I could do it, too. Sure, maybe I end up washing dishes at a diner, or giving disingenuous welcomes at Wal-Mart, but at least I have a family that supports me, and a group of friends who won’t tease me too much. About this at least.

And, if all else fails, I still won’t end up like the prototypical move-back-homer. I don’t even own a tank top.

The drive to drive, or lack thereof

Most people are probably familiar with the concept of the game, “Never Have I Ever.” Basically, the idea is that people go around in a circle (or other preferred polygon) and say things they have never done. If you’ve done it, you signify by putting down a finger, taking a drink, or, in most cases, both.

For the last six years, I’ve always had an ace in the hole for “Never Have I Ever,” something I had never done that virtually every other adult had.

You see, until very recently (this past Wednesday, in fact) I had never gotten my driver’s license.

That factoid usually elicited a range of reactions, running the gamut from shock to strident disbelief. And really, who wouldn’t react that way? According to a study from the Federal Highway Administration, 87 percent of eligible drivers were licensed in 2006, a staggering proportion that somehow fails to fully encapsulate the car-crazy culture of the average American. Perhaps it’s the antiquated romanticism of the “open road” that harks back to the mobility modus operandi that has been ingrained in the American psyche since the days of Manifest Destiny, or perhaps it’s because the nation’s largest transportation network was built to accommodate the quick movement of supplies in the event of a Soviet invasion. Regardless of the reason, most Americans live in a constant state of bona fide four-wheeled frenzy.

Then there’s the social stigma around being an unlicensed teen. If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone tell me I had to get a license because it’s a “rite of passage,” well, let’s just say I would be more fiscally comfortable with my decision to major in journalism. I didn’t know a single other person of legal driving age at my school that wasn’t licensed, and the vast majority of them had their own cars, to boot. This, despite the fact that fewer teens are driving now than they were two decades ago, according to a study from the University of Michigan.

I wish I could say that I refused to get my license out of some noble interest in the health of Mother Earth (I am from Flagstaff, after all) or that I didn’t want to support an automobile industry that was quickly running out of gas (pun very much intended), but the simple truth is that I was never that interested in driving. I got my permit, but let it expire after exactly one driving excursion (the most memorable portion of which was my sister yelling at me to flip off someone who had cut me off).

And yet there I was, fresh off two jaunts around my neighborhood (never exceeding 20 miles per hour) and ready to take my written and road test at the local MVD. Ready to be tested in all manners of horrors I had never faced before. The phrase “parallel parking” was enough to make me break into a cold sweat. I told myself over and over that I knew how to drive, there were plenty of defeated video game levels that stood as a testament to my abilities, even if I could count the number of times I’ve driven on a paved road on one hand. The written test was a breeze, most of driving is pretty logical anyway (except for the stuff about children’s car seats. I’m just going to have my kids in full-body restraints while in a car until they leave for college, just to be safe).

Then it was time for me to get behind the wheel. First up, parallel parking, a bridge you have to cross to even get the privilege of taking a road test. Fun fact: You automatically fail that portion of the test if you so much as nudge one of the orange pylons that encircle the testing area. I suppose it’s preparing you for the real world, except replace “fail that portion of the test” with “get sued into oblivion by someone who is very protective of their car.”

Then there was the actual test, which provided myriad milestones for me as a driver. For instance: stopping at a traffic light, leading into an intersection to make a left turn and going above 25 miles per hour. Needless to say, I passed, with the lone critique that I should relax behind the wheel a little bit more because I looked nervous. I wonder why…?

And thus did I finally complete my “rite of passage,” only six years, four months and 16 days after most seemed to think I should have. Now it’s time to celebrate the finishing touches on my ascension to manhood, to revel in my newfound freedom and heretofore unimaginable independence.

Uh … anybody want to give me a ride?