Men, Work, Violence, Men, Work
I pulled over into a rest stop in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago because I was getting a little sleepy. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon I'm settling too much into the Satellite radio, and things are getting a little droopy, so I pull over to sit for a few seconds and then get out to walk into the McDonald's for a coffee.
It's before Zimmerman has turned himself in, and I have already had a warm greeting from a black man I don't know, a stranger. It was just a warm exchange of smiles and a nod of the head, the kind of moment that reminds me of what I've read about the signs used during the time of the Underground Railroad, tilts of the hat from a certain kind of hat at a certain corner, etc.
At this second stop the black man I saw must have been in Islam at some point. He is especially excited to see me wearing a hat that looks like it might be on the head of a Muslim, but it was actually made by one of my Taiji classmates a few years ago, a woman who is takes a name from one of America's indigenous cultures.
The McDonald's was staffed by Latinos as many of those places are along the stretch in Connecticut. My smile put them at ease, as it often does, and I have gotten so used to it that I don't so much question the circumstance. I am beyond looking for trouble. I am looking for the next place to turn on the highway, and on this trip I was trying to make it into mid-Manhattan for a special spiritual celebration for a friend of mine. I was hoping to get to the George Washington bridge before rush hour.
I suppose what I am thinking here as I write is how the signs we use to decode life are rapidly changing and how our repertoire increases with age. My students now were born around 1993, and I am trying to gather notes for what I think are the signs they use to decode our culture and our world. They were only two years old when the film "Heat" was released. My parallel for the time space difference for them to try to relate to "Heat" is that of me relating to "Shane," which is not so difficult for me. It was my father's favorite film, and it is much about American men and their guns.
In some complex way American men associate guns with work. A farmer needs a good shotgun. A policeman, of course, needs a gun for the bad people. In this scene from "Heat" De Niro is a bad person, but he needs his gun to do his job. His work is stealing from other people and from institutions. This scene has nothing I would call humor, but the subject of men and guns and work comes up again for me in the most recent "True Grit" when Jeff Bridges' character explains to young Mattie that he robbed a high interest bank in New Mexico and had to made a run for it. Young Mattie is horrified, bound as she is to her Christian ethics. But it is again that idea of guns and work.
This week I had to get a new tire, which I was not expecting, and the man who works at the dealership as a general manager gave me a ride back home to get my credit card as I don't carry them. I would rather not own one, but that seems impossible in our world, or at least my part of it. I do not own any firearms of any type and have not had one since my military training. I travel as light as I can, but in traveling I sometimes see how heavy men can be when they are at the business of work, and how much of it touches on guns and violence in some way. As I rode to get my credit card, the manager was telling me of how he lost his job as a machinist. We began talking about the difficulty of that work, not the least of which is having correct tolerances. He was glad to be free of the heaviness of that life.
It's the heaviness, I guess, that makes America such a violent place, the heaviness of men having to think of work as moving weighty things such as bad people and obstinate objects through space, and in that kind of thinking there is not much room for lightness. But wouldn't it be a great thing if we could have more lightness and would not have to think that heaviness and the "true grit" of bringing your rough intentions to bear on a subject or on a life are the frames that give a man his character?
I like "Heat," and watch it again from time to time. This evening I watched it knowing that neither of these men know the real heaviness of the life they are portraying. They may have known such men, and that may help inform their performances. But the paradox is having to think of whether what they do is making our lives heavier or lighter. All we can do is wonder and know for sure that in one tragic moment in Florida a man thought his work involved the heaviness of carrying a gun, or that the act of that gave him a manly character.
What will it take to save us from ourselves? I was thinking something like that when I walked up to the counter and asked for a coffee and smiled at the very nice lady about my age who was just trying to make it through the day. Something will have to help us to think there are other ways to be other than taking, that more of us can give.