Zombie Apocalypse

“If you don’t think a mental patient has the right to bring a sawed-off shotgun to the church where his ex-girlfriend is getting married, you’re part of the problem.”

David Sedaris from let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.


I made the terrifying mistake of giving my students from South Georgia the writing prompt, “Are you prepared for the zombie apocalypse?” The answer is YES. All of my students are armed with enough lethal weapons to annihilate an entire army of the undead. Their writing responses, supposed to be metaphoric and possibly leading to insights about who and what they value most, turned into long lists of guns and ammunition that they or their parents have stored in gun cabinets/bomb shelters.

“But why do you have stockpiles of guns and ammunition for real?” I kept asking.

“In case we are attacked,” they responded.

“By who?”

“Terrorists, the Chinese, our own government, that guy from down the road who shot my puppy.”

I explained calmly that in my humble unarmed opinion the zombies were the most likely scenario—after the guy who shot the puppy.

I am anti-gun, and I have even had students ask me incredulously, “You don’t believe in the second amendment?”

I tell them that I believe in it—as in I think it exists—but it just doesn’t have the same meaning to me. I have noted that “The right of the people to keep and bear arms” part is really just a clause to support the “A well regulated militia” part and is taken out of context. It is sort of like all the clauses that could come after “In case of emergency.” In case of emergency break this glass, exit out this door, abandon your car in the middle of the street, let Sandra Bullock drive the bus.

And they were responding to the needs of our country in 1791. A lot has changed since 1791. For starters, we are a developed country. We have a well-funded, organized military. States have the National Guard. We do not need private citizens running out to join the cause with the shotgun they keep under their mattress. Also there have been significant technological changes since the Bill of Rights was drafted. Advances in gun design and manufacture for example, which greatly change the meaning of the word “arms.”  And maybe most importantly, there have been major changes to the structure of our society—how and where we live—that creates new anxieties. New dangers that require us to adapt. To amend.

However, I like interacting with these bright and well-rounded students about guns because I do not think anyone in my classes is dangerous. I have no concerns that they are going to shoot up a movie theater or my classroom. They live in a rural area, and their parents have taught them gun responsibility. And most of them earn A’s in my class.

However, it doesn’t change my position. Simply because something can be handled responsibly doesn’t mean it will be handled responsibly by the entirety of the population. Compared to all the things—the nouns—that we have made illegal in this country, like drugs, counterfeit money, prostitutes, cheese, immigrants, black people, none are as deadly to humans and used in more dangerous illegal verbs than guns.

Perhaps it is so challenging to make changes about gun ownership because the opposition is heavily armed. It was probably much easier to make drugs illegal because it is difficult, although not impossible, to stand your ground by waving a bag of coke in someone’s face. Even steroids are illegal, and if the Tour de France was the Tour D’America, Lance Armstrong would probably still have his titles if instead of taking drugs he just carried a gun and shot out the competitors’ kneecaps in self-defense.

This country was founded on the fact that we fought back and gained independence (and then enslaved people). We are Americans, and we are armed and dangerous! A significant part of our patriotic ethos stems from the fact that we are fighters, and we can protect ourselves. But we aren’t protecting ourselves.

We make it much too easy to get a gun. I have to go to a doctor and get a pap smear to get a drug that gives me the power to keep from becoming pregnant with a single person, but an individual can buy a gun to murder an entire room of people with very little interference from professionals. In my state, there is a background check policy, but not if the gun is purchased from an individual and there is no waiting period. Perhaps, we should require people to get a rectal exam to get a gun—an asshole check.

Basically, by refusing to make any changes to gun laws, even simply increasing waiting periods and/or requiring more rigorous background checks, we are saying that the right to bear arms is more important than the right to not be shot. Reading the comments section from articles linked to from the NRA website, such as a recent article about Regal Theaters’ decision to begin checking bags as a safety precaution, NRA supporters continually promote the idea that by carrying guns they are adding to the safety of the environment because they will be able to stop a crazed shooter with their own gun. The response is almost always based on the idea that if the bad guys have guns then the good guys should have guns.

But shouldn’t a good guy be willing to wait two weeks or even longer to get a new gun? I had to wait six weeks to get my new passport in the mail. When I applied for my passport, I was just coming out of a break-up, and I thought the next best move was to flee the country, but by the time my passport arrived, I had calmed down and decided not to abandon life as I knew it. I put the blue booklet safely away in a drawer.

We can make adjustments without banning guns entirely, although we seem to be fine with bans on other possibly dangerous things. Things that can be abused or can make people dangerous—drugs and drunk driving for example. We do not argue that the best defense against drunk drivers is for good people to also drink and drive—that I should drive drunk in order to run the other drunk drivers off the road, like a goddamn hero. We make laws that are based on the fact that since some people cannot be trusted, we must enact zero tolerance. We declare war. We put people in jail for even the possession of illegal substances. But not guns. It is our right to keep and bear arms so that we can maintain a well-regulated militia, which is necessary for the security of a free state.

But why do we have stockpiles of guns and ammunition for real?

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Nonfiction in Sheep’s Clothing

I consider myself unqualified for everything. Even as a parent I usually feel like I am just pretending to be in charge. All the other kids have real mothers, and I am just a babysitter—the kind that you might not call back unless you were desperate. The kind that will definitely eat all your food, and if you stay out late enough, she might drink that bottle of wine you bought on your last romantic getaway to Napa. I don’t have a good excuse for floundering; it isn’t like I got pregnant as a teenager or after sex-change surgery. I was 30 years old when I had my first kid. I was married, owned a home, and had good insurance. Feeling inadequate just comes more natural.

When I was single, I would think, I am probably not good enough to be your girlfriend, even if you did call back. Now that I am married, I am positive that I am unqualified to be a wife. I see all these other women with their mother-in-laws on speed dial and their genuine supportiveness, and I know they are good wives. Even the GPS lady is a better wife than I am. When my husband makes a wrong turn, she doesn’t say, “I TOLD you to go 800 more feet, jack nuts.” No. She just calmly asks him to make a series of left turns until he is right back where he started. I imagine her winking at me through the dash, “See, he doesn’t even have to know he was wrong.”

As I was reading David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and I noticed a trend about his fictional work, which he includes as intercalary chapters to his nonfiction essays, I thought I should write about it. Then I reminded myself that I am unqualified for such a task, but then, THEN I said, “Listen, jack nuts, if there is anything you are qualified to do, it is to write a fake review of Sedaris’s new book.” It was a good feeling—a warm blanket of useless qualification.

His fiction seems worth writing about because it is often snubbed. New York Times reviewer David Carr stated in his review of Sedaris’s new book, “His attempts to write complete essays in another voice do nothing for me,” and then he calls two of the fictional snippets, “both affected and unaffecting.” Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is the first book to include fictional essays since Barrel Fever, published in 1994. Barrel Fever includes twelve “stories” and only four nonfiction essays, but is most known as the book that includes the elf essay. “Santaland Diaries” is funny, yes. Sedaris’s perspective of his time spent working as a Macy’s elf is hysterical even. However, the fictional essays in Barrel Fever are far more provocative. (I prefer the term fictional essays because Sedaris’s fiction resembles the format of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” more so than the traditional short story). Sedaris is much darker in fiction, and often his fiction writing is just his nonfiction cloaked in a dark veil or maybe a bloody ski mask.

One of my favorite essays by Sedaris is the fictional, “Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!” in Barrel Fever. The Christmas letter is narrated by a suburban housewife named Jocelyn and sums up a year that includes the arrival of her husband’s twenty-two-year-old Vietnamese daughter, the teenage pregnancy of her own daughter, and the subsequent tragedy that follows, including the death of the new grandbaby. It parodies the family Christmas letter and contains many exclamation points!!!!!!! By the end it seems that Jocelyn is not only narrow-minded but a maniacal killer. It is ridiculous, tragic, hilarious, and much more political than Sedaris’s nonfiction. Jocelyn is fucking crazy, but she is also a caricature of a real type of person, which makes her profoundly troubling. Jocelyn wishes her readers,

The Merriest of Christmas Seasons from the entire Dunbar family: Clifford, Jocelyn, Kevin, Jacki, Kyle, and Khe Sahn!!!!!
Some of you are probably reading this and scratching your heads over the name “Khe Sahn.” “That certainly doesn’t fit with the rest of the family names,” you’re saying to yourself. “What did those crazy Dunbars get themselves a Siamese cat?”
You’re close.

Jocelyn continues, describing Khe Sahn’s skimpy wardrobe and her failure to speak English, “She arrived in this house six weeks ago speaking only the words ‘Daddy,’ ‘Shiny,’ and ‘Five dollar now.’”

(Please read this essay immediately)

In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, the fictional narrators (also a bunch of crazies) collectively reflect the opposition. Read as a complete book with chapters, not as a collection of individual essays (some fiction, some non), the fictional voices serve as a friendly reminder of what else is out there. A reminder that the world-at-large is not a Sedaris essay.

I like to read about the life of a middle-aged homosexual man, even the romantic parts and the parts that speak warmly of Europe. However, not everyone shares my views, maybe even readers that are fond of Sedaris’s big ticket essays like “Santaland Diaries” or “Six to Eight Black Men.” The new book has a compelling vulnerability to it. In “A Guy Walks into a Bar Car” Sedaris tinkers with romance—in his own way—by recalling a romantic encounter on a train in Italy, emotionally describing his one who got away, “Bashir got off with his three big suitcases and became a perennial lump in my throat.” The train ride with Bashir is starkly paralleled with another encounter on a train that was messy, awkward, and involved a hefty mix of vodka and pot.

In contrast, the fictional “I Break for Traditional Marriage” is narrated by a man who shoots his wife and daughter because “if homosexuality is no longer a sin, then who is to say that murder is?” And it is miraculously funny. A tender story about love on a train is the type of writing that can be taught, but a hilarious mock essay about murder and bigotry—that is just natural born talent. At one point, the narrator listens to a right-wing call-in show where the host and a caller debate whether one could now marry a pizza, “‘There’s no reason I can think of why you couldn’t marry a pizza,’ he said. ‘Hell, you could probably even marry a mini-pizza, one of those ones made from an English muffin, if you felt like it.’”

The fictional essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls fill in the blanks that the nonfiction, which depicts an idyllic world of success, life partners, and world travel, leaves untold. The intermingling of nonfiction and nonfiction-in-disguise gives the new book more depth than his old stuff. But who am I to say? He is David Sedaris. He can write whatever the fuck he wants. (And I can continue to like it.)

David Carr’s review is from The New York Times Sunday Book Review, online edition, published on May 17, 2003.

Sedaris’s Barrel Fever was originally published in 1994 by Little, Brown. The excerpts here are from the 2009 ebook edition.

The excerpts from Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls are from the 2013 first edition published by Little, Brown.