From the October 1994 issue of TLD


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


On death, domination, and diminution


The week before final exams in my junior year of high school, a sophomore girl was raped and strangled by a senior boy she had been dating. His arrest came 12 hours after the discovery of the body in the elementary-school playground. The funeral was private. A couple of pastors who worked with the kids in our small town quietly made it known that they were available if anybody needed to talk about what had happened. For a week or so, two or three girls who had been close friends of the victim suffered intermittent crying jags, but we all took our final exams and got pretty much the grades we expected and deserved. Life went on, and we all started school that fall as psychosis-free as most teenage kids.

Twenty-five years later, one of my co-workers was killed in a drive-by shooting as the car she was in traveled a major Washington street. The perpetrator was out on bail awaiting trial for another violent crime. Our senior management at work brought in a grief counselor for a series of group sessions with our staff; attendance was mandatory. Most of our staff were younger than 30, about half of them had worked with or for the murdered woman, and they were uniformly hysterical for about a week, during which the business of our organization came to a virtual halt.

I hadn't worked with the woman and hadn't had much in common with her. To be honest, I hadn't even liked her much; our dealings could be categorized as "business civil." My emotion at her passing was a mixture of regret that a random act of violence had claimed a human life, sympathy for the family, and outrage at a legal system that allowed vicious little toads like the murderer to walk the streets. In short, a response appropriate to a healthy adult.

I managed to avoid my grief-therapy session. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to avoid the staff-conducted non-religious memorial service that was organized at the recommendation of the grief therapist. The office closed, and we were ferried to a meeting room at a hotel, where we were joined by a couple of family members, two or three local politicians, and crews from every newspaper and TV station in town. I've succeeded in suppressing most of my memories of the service, except for an interminable gospel song delivered by two preteen girls — friends of the family — which was vaguely derivative of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," and a eulogy by one of our clerk-typists who announced that the dear departed had reaffirmed her sense of identity as a strong woman by teaching her how to blend her eye shadow. Halfway through the next eulogy, I sneaked out to the cocktail lounge with a buddy from the data resources department.

Four years later, employees who never met the slain woman talk about her with an air of deep personal tragedy and an occasional damp eye. I try not to go to lunch at the same time those people do.

The night of O.J. Simpson's arrest, the networks scrambled to find authoritative commentators to fill the hiatus between the booking and LAPD's news conference. One network procured a grandfatherly psychiatrist who discoursed at length about how the viewing public could expect to be lethargic and depressed the next day. That was, he assured us, the normal aftermath of accelerated adrenalin secretion triggered by deep grief and stress. I suspected that any lethargy I suffered would result from my staying up until 2 a.m. listening to weird shit, so I exercised my sovereignty over the "off" button and went to bed. When our next National Tragedy occurs, I suppose Gaia will be called upon to console the asteroids in their pain and grief. If so, I hope the TV boffins can manage the technicalities of "film at 11"; that might actually be worth watching.

This 30-year progression illustrates the effect that government protectionism exerts on formerly rational humans. When I was in high school, logic, observation, and Christian theology all taught that it was the lot of man to die, and not always in a fair and timely fashion. Since then, a series of increasingly intrusive and paternalistic governmental fiats have encouraged the inference that it's somehow our right as American taxpayers to be shielded from all forms of bodily decay and injury. Seat-belt laws, bicycle-helmet laws, smoke-free buildings, mandatory chicken pox inoculations.... I could go on, but I'd rather not; you get my drift.

A few weeks ago I heard a snippet of news, probably on PBS, although I can't swear to it: a child-safety advocacy group was trying to ban asphalt-topped playgrounds because of the number of children injured on them each year. They gave a number which I can't now recall with absolute certainty, but 30,000 sticks in my mind. Hell's bells: 40 years ago, a thousand kids like me could have racked up that many skinned knees and elbows the first week of summer vacation. One of the most strictly enforced rules in our house was: "Never bleed on the beige carpet in the hall."

I've frequently said that I'm glad it's my kids, not I, who are stuck being parents in today's society; I have no interest in navigating hazards that include being charged with child neglect or worse, if one's little terror breaks his arm emulating Tarzan in the back yard. If the sapping of the American ability to deal with adversity and learn self-reliance in the process continues at the current rate, I can state with certain conviction that I don't want to meet my grandchildren's grandchildren. They won't need bicycle helmets; they won't have any brains worth protecting.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion and thinks the important thing to remember is that Old Abe arranged the deaths of 623,000 Americans, not that he felt all sad and mournful while doing it.

© 1994, 2002 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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