Friday, September 4, 2015

In the Shadow of the Tower


Outside my office window, an army of cranes is constructing a slowly expanding hull of concrete and iron.  Their long arms swing and dip like gawky birds, a set of angular skeletons building another angular skeleton.  Behind them, giant downy puffs of clouds soften the cranes' starkly geometric presence.

One day that building will be a medical school, and people will stream through its halls learning how to cut open bodies to save them, how to use poison to save people from cancer, how to re-break legs to allow them to heal properly.  One day, in rooms that today I can look straight through and see the clouds behind, men and women in white coats will work themselves until they can hardly stand, until they are sick and exhausted and probably second-guessing their stupid choice to become a doctor in the first place.  One day lives will be saved, and lives will be lost, in the building being pieced together by robotic arms on the horizon just outside my office window.

And below those industrious cranes, between their work and mine, a few dozen people lounge at the pool outside the campus gym.  Professors swim laps with plastic caps over their hair.  Lifeguards sit in tall chairs and stare, all wearing the standard uniform of red swimsuits and bored expressions.  Young women who still have the bodies of teenagers adjust their bikinis, leaning back in reclining chairs and holding their stomachs in.  A group of rowdy undergrads laugh and splash like the children they still seem to me. 

Today, the talk in the office revolves around Texas’ new campus carry law.  What areas are exempt, and do those exemptions make anyone safer?  How do we balance obeying the law and protecting those kids splashing in the pool outside our windows?  And Lord knows we don’t all agree on whether the law will change anything about how safe we all are, or are not, here working in academia.  And Lord knows those us of who work in the shadow of the tower where the first mass campus murder in America was committed come in and out of awareness of the fact that we come to work everyday to the kind of place where people like to bring their rage and their bullets and their desperation.  We know it, we remember it, then we forget it again so we can keep coming here and doing our small part in helping another generation of kids get an education.  We can’t hold both truths at once, not all of the time: the truth that colleges and schools seem to attract the murderous interest of some of the most evil people our society has produced, and the truth that colleges and schools exist to pump learning and art and research into that same society.

I guess it’s the same with any dichotomy; you can’t keep both sides in your head all the time.  You know the inherent dangers of driving your car, yet you climb in it anyway.  You think about the radio station and the traffic, and only when someone veers out of their lane and threatens to crash right into you, do you feel a knot in your stomach as you think how you might have died just then.  If that jerk driver had come one foot closer, or if you’d been distracted and unable slam on your brakes in time, you might have been just another life sacrificed to the rush hour pavement.

It’s the way of survival, I guess.  Because how can we get up in the morning and face a day full of meetings and spreadsheets without driving from our minds the fact that Syrian refugees are erupting from their war-torn homeland only to learn there are more ways to die than becoming a casualty of war?

But sometimes the brush of death comes close enough, the other car just inches from colliding with you, and you wake with a start to the ugly truths you’ve been keeping at bay most of the days of your life. 

Right on the other side of campus, the cranes toil at their everyday art, carrying tiny far-away humans who hang at impossible heights to build something big and strong and useful for the world.  Today, that building looks almost as if its been shot through, itself.  Just a carcass of what it will be. Chances are someday the doctors who study there will have to pull a bullet out of a child, or a not-quite-child, and in that moment it won’t really matter what the law said about the gun used to cut through the body of their young patient.  Registered or unregistered, legally or illegally obtained, it will still have left a hole in the lives of everyone who knows that child.  The details of where the gun was fired will matter much less than where the impact hit, and the doctors will be left to work their everyday magic of trying to save one more life.

The fluffy clouds hang over the work of the cranes, and over the not-quite-kids splashing in the pool.  The sky today is strikingly beautiful, picturesque and playful, urging me to look up and out, away from the list of rooms I’m putting together, rooms that just might qualify as gun-free zones once the campus carry law goes into effect.  It’s probably an exercise in futility, anyway.  It’s likely none of these rooms will qualify as exclusionary zones, and even if they did, who’s to say it would do anything to deter a would-be murderer from just stepping inside, taking aim, and waking up another swathe of the country for one, brief moment.

No one can live in these dark truths all the time, so I put away my list.  Make a run to the water fountain.  Look out the window.  Pray to go back to sleep.

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