When I heard about the latest mass shooting in San Bernardino, I was sitting in my car after water aerobics munching on a protein bar. This seems to be my spot for bad news, and yet, I still briefly thought it was the chlorine fumes clouding with my mind.
No, it couldn’t be happening again so soon.
Driving around aimlessly listening to the news of more innocent people arbitrarily and violently slain, like many, my mind swam furiously past the hows to the whys.
But as someone who has never considered showing up for a holiday party strapped for war to senselessly snatch lives and orphan a daughter, this is a puzzle I cannot solve.
Too, it seems like a trick of reason that quiet or normal-seeming ones can commit the most horrific crimes, which are later put to a haunting soundtrack of surprised whispers of those who thought they knew them.
He was soft-spoken. We talked about cars a lot. She was a brilliant student who wanted to be a pharmacist. They were new parents.
Why were they able to hide their desire to inflict such devastation in plain sight?
We are busy, distracted, raising children, paying bills, chasing dreams and managing our own mental health. We cannot know everyone and everything deeply because there is only so much time in the day, room in our brains. We cannot wrap our thoughts around life imitating fictional scripts in ordinary places.
But we have to. At least in small doses.
The day after the San Bernardino community center attack, California Gov. Jerry Brown said we have to be on guard. To do whatever we can do.
I am not big or strong or bullet-proof. I am not FBI, police or threat assessment staff, so for me this means scrutinizing those in my immediate universe more closely. Sobering to the notion that just because a co-worker shares creamer or chit-chat doesn’t mean they aren’t building bombs in their bathtubs or stockpiling assault rifles. Watching, watching, watching WHILE still counting all the good things that happen more since I can’t un-know the bad things.
Who wants to breathe in anxiety and breathe out fear, but lately I am way too aware of strangers hovering near the employee entrance at work or around the neighborhood. Or someone’s voice getting edgy at the airport. Or a new rider on the bus.
Really, I just want to play 2048, read something on my Kindle, and fight for my right to zone-out sometimes instead of extending a watchful eye.
I can’t raise the dead. Predict the next attack. Explain what flips the switch to make a food inspector and a housewife rain fire at a holiday party. Can’t get stricter gun control laws yesterday or wave a wand and grant everyone good mental health, but I can pay more attention.
The last time I felt my guard jerk up strongly was at the first theatre movie after the 2012 shooting in Colorado. Once a local cinema employee ran a metal detector over my purse, I took note of who was sitting where, and eased into a seat by the exit and waited for my shoulders to lower.
That same year a co-worker was mugged on her way to work, and I took to playing the “describing” game I played shortly after that happened to me in college. It bothered me back then that I was too flustered to describe the assailant to the cops, and had spent a good minute struggling with him.
I go for easy visuals. Race, sex, height, build, something they are wearing, odd behavior. I do this at least once a day with random strangers in the periphery, neighbors too, with a prayer I will continue to lend these images to novel characters rather than retelling some shocking scene.
Not proud of this, but I will forget most of the names, dates and details of the San Bernardino attack before the next one happens. But I will not forget to pay more attention to what’s going on around me. Not out of paranoia or fear, but as a practical life skill that might enable me to help myself and others in the ways I can.