The View From Away: A wake-up call from Colorado

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The Aurora shootings threw a monkey wrench into my original plan, to fill this space with a bit of lighthearted self-deprecation about making the non-Mainer rookie mistake of choosing midday on a weekend in the height of tourist season to pop into L.L. Bean for a pair of pants I didn’t really need.

Perhaps people need that kind of distraction most at a time like this. I apologize for not being able to deliver.

Most of the time, Maine seems a very special place. Portland in particular is a wonderful combination of simplicity and sophistication. We are blessed with exceptionally considerate and friendly people. It’s not Brigadoon, but it feels laid back and peaceful, almost as if it exists in a world of its own. The last few days have demonstrated how fragile that feeling can be.

Very likely, the citizens of Aurora would have said very similar things about their city the day before a disturbed gunman walked into a theater and changed its legacy forever. There’s nothing unique or even unusual about my initial shock, principally at the horror of it, but also at its sheer randomness. In the aftermath, my mind keeps going back to how easily the victims’ story could have been my own. Is it empathy or simple self-centeredness? Does everybody think the same thing? I don’t know. I do know that the only crime those people in Colorado committed was the crime of going about their daily lives.

On the night of the shootings, I was going about my daily life. I was multitasking at the Sea Dog Brewery in South Portland, writing notes for a play and singing some karaoke. Bobby texted me that he was headed to a nearby Coldstone Creamery. When your teenage son tells you where he’s going, knowing that you can get there, it’s tantamount to an invitation. You don’t turn your nose up at an opportunity that may not come around again for a long time, as I learned years ago when I rejected two invitations to see the Beatles because I didn’t want to look uncool. That’s not a misprint. Two separate concerts, by the way. So I joined my son.

Bobby ate ice cream and talked about the world-building computer game he was playing. I listened and noticed how engaged he was and how much he knew about politics and warfare in medieval Europe. Like much of parenting, it was simultaneously mundane and gratifying.

Things could so easily have taken a different turn if we lived in Aurora, or if the shooter lived in Portland. Because let’s not kid ourselves, these events can happen anywhere. Bobby could have suggested a movie instead of ice cream. We both like that kind of movie. We like midnight shows. I don’t even want to read any victim stories for fear of seeing one that’s too close to our own. As it is, I’m not competent to convey the confusion of feelings that keep cycling through my brain: compassion and heartbreak, but also relief, and guilt for feeling relieved.

How many people feel the same way? How many hyperventilate about the impotence of being unable to defend against chance. And the emotions keep changing. Early on, they were strobing almost too fast to identify, much less make sense of. I’m a stranger, 2,000 miles away. If all of this is going through my mind, what must it be like for the people who were actually chosen by some cosmic coin flip to endure this horrific event directly?

It’s a sacrilege to call anything about an event like this good. However, on a purely personal level, I find myself less jaded as a result of the Aurora shootings, and that is a good thing. An occupational hazard of writing comedy is insensitivity. You learn to think of everything as fodder. This tendency is exacerbated by living in Los Angeles, where seemingly everything is a media event. Some robbers staged a military style assault on a bank during my time there. The local TV stations couldn’t get over how much it looked like Michael Mann’s movie “Heat,” even as real people were being gunned down in the streets. The Rodney King riots were treated more as a sporting event than a breach of the social contract. Even earthquakes were as likely to be reported in terms of their effect on traffic than as awesome reminders of human insignificance.

If there is a point buried in all this, perhaps it is related to how a tragedy like this can make even the most jaded person feel his connection to others. It’s a hell of a way to wake up. Right now I feel like I owe it to a lot of people to stay awake.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at [email protected].