Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Remembering the Pulse Nightclub Shooting One Year Later

My family had the recent privilege of spending two days and three nights in sunny Orlando, Florida. While Florida is often painted as some sort of tropical paradise, I'm afraid we often fail to place enough emphasis on "tropical". Especially in June. I didn't realize how being 650 miles closer to the equator would magnify the heat of the sun. I have never been more thankful for sun screen and air conditioning

I was there for the BlogHer 2017 conference and thought it would be a blast to drag along the family. There's nothing quite like spending 10 hours in a vehicle, cruising 75 mph down I-95, for family bonding. Despite his best efforts, my husband has yet to convince the offspring of the real artistic value of music from his 1980s techno phase. Sorry, Hon. Maybe next trip.

When friends and family and total strangers learned we would be visiting Orlando, there was an automatic assumption that we were going to visit at least one of the many overpriced mouse-themed amusement parks.  But we didn't. Mostly because I am "The Meanest Mom Ever", but also because I don't enjoy the prospect of supporting expensive capitalistic tourist traps. (You can read that as: "We can't afford the admission tickets." Those two things are basically synonymous.)

Instead, the kids and their dear ol' Dad hung out at the resort swimming pool, played video games in the resort arcade, and generally enjoyed the resort's fantastic air conditioning while I rubbed elbows with bloggers from all over the country.

A picture from our brief visit to Pulse Nightclub
But don't think I didn't take the kids to see any of the Orlando sights. On the contrary.

We made a trip by Orlando's Pulse Nightclub, the site of the worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history.

Don't let anyone tell you that I don't know how to show my kids a good time.

We were in Orlando just a few days after the one-year anniversary of Omar Mateen's violent rampage that killed 49 people and wounded another 58. The entire country was turned upside down. It left us all questioning our safety in public places and sparked a national debate that blamed everything from gun culture to men kissing for Mateen's heinous act.

We even blamed masculinity, forgetting that it was mostly men who rushed in to eliminate the threat, secure the area, and treat the wounded. (Shameless plug: I wrote about it here.)

I'm not sure why we felt the need to go there, but I can tell you it moved us. I don't know if it was the murals painted with words and images of mourning and loss or just the mundane surroundings. Maybe it is because occupying space where so much chaos and hate erupted and rippled through our culture is a humbling thing.

I was most struck by the size of the place. Pulse Nightclub isn't particularly large. I think I expected more from Orlando with its giant theme parks and reputation for the grandiose. But there are much larger clubs back in Greenville, NC where I went to college.

There is nothing particularly impressive or fancy about Pulse, or the business that surround it, or the bustling street that it occupies. It is difficult for me to understand how something so utterly commonplace and unremarkable could stir up such hate and disgust in one human being.

Seeing the size made me realize just how packed it must have been. Dancing with throbbing music and pulsing lights with more than 300 of your closest friends must have made those first shots so very disorienting.

For Omar Mateen, it must have been like shooting fish in a barrel.

I figure somewhere in their adult lives, my children will probably recline in some therapist's office and tell the story of how their family went on vacation to Florida. Their therapist will look baffled as he or she scribbles notes about how their mother wouldn't even let them go to Disney World. Instead she took them to the scene of recent history's worst mass shooting.

But empathy is a difficult thing to teach, especially to teenagers. For them, too much of life is viewed filtered through a screen. Constantly connected to phones and tablets and laptops, it sometimes becomes difficult to distinguish news stories from video games and the latest season of their favorite Netflix series.

It is one thing to watch the aftermath of violence and death played out on cable news and quite another to stand in the spot it happened. To see the people still milling about the fenced-off parking lot in somber reflection. To see the teddy bears and candles and flowers piled at the base of a wall scrawled with messages of good-bye, messages of love and loss and pain,. That makes it more real than watching news footage of crime scenes and flashing lights or people running frantically down Orlando streets in the middle of the night.

We saw the exit doors that the revelers attempted to open in panic only to find them locked or barred. It was easy to imagine frightened people piled against them as each one realized there was no way out, hearing the gunshots that were systematically killing the people piled up behind them.

Being in that space made the fear more palpable. It was easier to imagine it being you or someone you love lying frightened and bleeding inside of those unassuming walls.

The children were absolutely silent while we were there.

Later, I asked them what they had thought about seeing the Pulse Nightclub.

"I don't know," they told me, shrugging their shoulders with typical teen dullness.

I counted it a success that they didn't roll their eyes.

"How did it make you feel?" I asked, pushing a little more.

All of them were quiet for a long stretched-out moment. I felt almost defeated, which is often how mothers of teenagers must feel.

Then the youngest said in a small sighing voice, "Just really sad."

It wasn't apathy at all that made them silent. It was heaviness. A heaviness born out of sympathy and feeling... and empathy.

I'm not high-fiving myself on this one, though, because it doesn't really feel like a parenting success While I think I succeeded in orchestrating a teachable moment about empathy and respect toward our fellow humans, I'm just really sad, too. I'm just really sad to have to prepare my children for a world that can be so cruel.

And while empathy is one of the most important characteristics we can cultivate in the next generation, I'm also cultivating other things, too. Because empathy, while powerful, won't save them if they ever find themselves jammed against an exit door as gunshots ring out behind them.

Call me paranoid if you'd like, but my children also know how to be cautious and aware. To always have an escape plan whenever they are in public. To know how to disarm an attacker or go down trying.

Because even the most empathetic fish is still just a fish swimming laps in a barrel.

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