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Thoughts on Narcissism and Constructed Personal Realities June 27, 2023

Last week I traveled to Germany and Belgium. I'll post photos when I recover the energy to go through them all, but right now my body still thinks the appropriate time to wake up and start the day is 2 am.

On the long flight over, I watched a miniseries I'd downloaded to my phone through my public library's Hoopla subscription: Deadwater Fell. I knew nothing about it except that it was a drama and starred David Tennant, so it must be good. And it was.

Tom Kendrick, played by Tennant, is a seemingly kind physician with a seemingly perfect life. A beautiful wife named Kate, three delightful young daughters, a loving friendship with the family across the street. Then one night, Kate and the girls die in a tragic fire...but it turns out they were already dead from poisoning. The girls were padlocked inside the room, with Kate lying outside in the hall holding the key. In the final scene of episode one, Tom wakes up in the hospital and asks, "What did she do?"

The show seems to reveal the cracks in the family dynamic caused by Kate's post-partum depression. The audience sees her erratic outbursts during nice picnics on the beach. A bout of reckless driving in which she lost her temper at the girls in the backseat and caused a serious accident. Scenes of her buying the padlock; snapping at her sweet mother-in-law; and drunkenly sobbing, "I don't want to feel like this anymore" while ever-patient Tom tucks her into bed and soothes her like a young child.

The underlying truth, of course, is that Tom is a covert narcissist who strategically broke Kate down to maintain absolute control over his family. Whenever Kate made close female friends, Tom would destroy the relationships by having affairs with them. To ensure Kate would never find support, he confided his "concerns" about her mental state to everyone in town. He'd touch her buttons in public until she reacted, then shake his head and say to others, "I can't deal with her when she's like this." When Kate worked up the courage to leave him and take the girls, Tom asked her to buy the padlock and calmly murdered them all.

When I arrived home this weekend, I read articles and watched videos about narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). When people say "narcissist" colloquially, they tend to mean someone is generally arrogant and selfish. Clinically, narcissists have at least five of nine diagnostic criteria (from Duke University):

  • Sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with power, beauty, or success
  • Entitled
  • Can only be around people who are important or special
  • Interpersonally exploitative for their own gain
  • Arrogant
  • Lack empathy
  • Must be admired
  • Envious of others or believe that others are envious of them

There are two types of NPD, covert and overt. Overt NPD is what most people think a narcissist would be: very obviously self-absorbed, loud, charming, and controlling. A charismatic bull in a china shop. But in the more insidious form, people with covert NPD present as humble and self-sacrificing. They employ passive aggressive mind games to get what they want.

A relationship with a person with NPD will generally have two stages: idealization and devaluation.

In the first stage, a narcissist will put a person on a pedestal and "love bomb" them to secure their affection. They'll be so apparently honest and open, so sensitive and generous, so vulnerable and pitiable, that the victim will happily do everything in their power to give the narcissist the attention and praise they deserve.

Then when the narcissist gets bored or threatened (for example, by the victim asking for a bit of reciprocity in the relationship), they'll suddenly transform from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. They'll explode in violent rages. They'll throw hurtful accusations around. They'll treat the same person they expressed undying devotion to with contempt, sneer at their pain, and abandon them for days or weeks.

How could somebody act like this? To a healthy functioning adult, it's unfathomable. They must see they're hurting others and ultimately themselves, right? Why don't they stop? And the most incomprehensible part is that none of the dizzyingly complex manipulation seems to be deliberate. The narcissist seems to be a good person. They appear intelligent and insightful. They can say all the right things about ethics, social justice, and mental health. But then out of the blue, they say things so nasty and do things so devious, normal people couldn't imagine them.

In essence, a person with NPD has the emotional maturity of a six-year-old. Due to various potential reasons, including traumatic experiences and abusive parenting, they repress their emotions and don't develop the skill to self-reflect.

Most young children learn how to recognize what's going on in their bodies when they're angry or sad, and how to communicate that in productive ways. We use our words. We don't bite or hit our friends. We say, "I feel..." and "I'm sorry."

A narcissist, however, stops growing before they reach that point. They get stuck in the perpetual state of a preschooler who demands ice cream and throws a screaming, kicking, fist-pounding tantrum when they don't get it.

This is crazy to witness when you encounter a person with NPD, because they appear to be fully developed adults. Sexually, intellectually, language-processing-wise, they might be. But inside, they have no comprehension of what's going on in their own brains. They can't regulate their emotions, so they act out impulsively to expel their feelings onto others.

The paradox is: narcissists have inflated and fragile egos because they have no real sense of self. It's completely made-up in a perfect image, like the fantasy of a child wearing a bed sheet as a superhero cape. They have a pathological need to control and protect that image. Any tiny challenge to their carefully crafted identity will be perceived as an unjust attack against them.

Most fascinating to me, narcissists create a distorted personal reality that's completely illogical to everyone else, because they can't see all the information we do.

When we feel something that indicates a change in internal state, like our forehead crinkles and our mouths turn down, healthy adults will quickly analyze the current context to identify what caused it. Let's say: I'm eating dinner with my spouse, this chicken is dry, I'm tired, and I had an unpleasant day at work. When our spouses ask, "What's wrong?" we'll say, "Ugh, today was just one dumpster fire after another."

Now imagine you're blind to anything going on inside of yourself. When you're upset, you can only see: I'm eating dinner with my spouse, and this chicken is dry. Therefore, the only possible source of your unhappiness is your spouse and their terrible cooking skills. If they ask, "What's wrong?" you might snap, "You could have at least tried to make something new for once. I hate chicken. I've always hated chicken, but you never bothered to ask. You don't even care what I like, do you?"

Naturally, when the only perceptible causes of negative emotions come from outside of you, you will always be the victim of a cruel, cruel world. Every issue is somebody else's fault. Every consequence of your actions is somebody else's problem. They're too sensitive, too selfish, too weak to deal with it, and how dare they put the responsibility for their feelings on you. Why are they being so mean when you've been nothing but nice and tolerated so much? You deserve better.

A real-life example of all of these traits is the United States' most famous overt narcissist, Donald Trump. In his mind, he is perfect and could do no wrong. Everyone adores him, and anyone who criticizes him is out to get him. He's "a very stable genius." Any investigation into his criminal activities is a witch hunt. Any political loss is a deep-state conspiracy against him. Any challenge to his baseless assertions triggers a toddler-level meltdown. While the world watched in shock as his supporters violently attacked the Capitol, he watched in delight, because he was going to get the absolute power he wanted and deserved.

While Donald Trump and Tennant's Tom Kendrick are extreme examples of narcissism, many fictional characters have narcissistic traits to a certain degree. Villains like Anakin Skywalker, certainly, but also some heroes like Jay Gatsby. In fact, every human has many of these traits as young children and retain a few of them as we age. Everyone gets a little jealous of people who have more money or friends, a little preoccupied with our looks, a little bit manipulative at work to get that raise or promotion.

And every single one of us crafts a personal reality that is not, and cannot be, 100% representative of the objective universe. For most people, our realities adjust as we encounter new information. For people with narcissistic tendencies and others with immature mindsets, sadly, their realities get frozen. They employ mental somersaults to keep them that way. When people who want to believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election are faced with facts to the contrary, they'll ignore the lack of evidence of widespread fraud and latch on to logic with the infallibility of a Jenga tower, like, "Trump was winning and suddenly all these blue votes appeared, so there was something fishy going on," and "I didn't vote for Biden, and none of my friends did either, so he must have cheated."

Character development guides and worksheets tend to build an imaginary person from specifics into a whole, like: What is their name? What are their physical traits? Where did they grow up? What do they want? What do they fear? What's their biggest flaw? And so on.

While these can help for brainstorming, I think the question to keep in mind for a consistent, cohesive character is: What is their reality? And how tightly do they cling to it?

For example, if we just play Mad Libs with character worksheets, you might end up with something like:

  • Name: Madison or "Maddie"
  • She's 18, athletic, and has curly black hair.
  • She grew up in a small town in northern California.
  • She dreams of becoming a journalist for the New York Times.
  • She's afraid of spiders.
  • She's a little too frank and sometimes doesn't think before she speaks.

So we seem to have shaped a person, but it's like an online dating profile: just a collection of vague unconnected traits. None of this will drive her story or inform how she interacts with others.

Now, what is her reality?

Maddie has an idealistic outlook informed by her protected small-town upbringing in progressive northern California. She believes people are essentially good and do bad things only because they're ignorant or misinformed. She's certain that if she exposes hard truths in viral articles, people will be energized to act and the world will change.

Now we can start to see what kind of choices this young woman would make when faced with challenges, what kind of people she would gravitate towards or come into conflict with, and so on. For example, a young person like this would be vulnerable to being used, because she couldn't fathom that people who share her views could have bad intentions. She'd have difficulty coping when she goes to college to become an investigative journalist and change the world, only to run up against discouraging professors, vicious personal attacks from readers, and pranks from mean girls she angered by putting her foot in her mouth.

We can also concoct the allies and villains of her story by considering what kinds of realities would mesh with or clash with our heroine's.

Maddie's roommate grew up in Indianapolis and has a strong pride in her identity as a Hoosier. Her upbringing was superior because girls in Indiana don't wear makeup and have good values, unlike those superficial party girls from bad states like California. But she's not mean-spirited. She'll be humbled to meet people from different backgrounds, and ashamed to realize how judgemental she's been.

A young man in Maddie's class project group is witty and kind, but cynical. He grew up with Reddit trolls and Twitter bullies. He's convinced that people are essentially selfish jerks who will never change. To protect himself from bitter disappointment, he will strongly resist getting his hopes up that people could be decent.

The mean girl down the hall believes she's the heroine of this story. She is the most attractive, most intelligent, nicest person in the room. All men would prefer her over their girlfriends, who are fatter than she is and a lot less fun than she is. If another woman becomes the center of attention, she's a threat who must be swiftly eradicated. Because, as Mom and Dad taught her so well, a person's worth as a human being is determined by how externally successful they appear compared to everyone else.

That gets to the essence of a character much faster, I think, than eye color and hobbies and that single disastrous event in their past that haunts them to this day. (How many people have one of those?)

Hawaii Vacation December 13, 2022

Last week, Sweetie and I visited Hawaii for our first substantial vacation in twelve years! We came back with sunburns, souvenirs, and 3450 photos and video clips. As tempting as it is to share all of them—because every photo taken in Hawaii is stunning, especially with a shiny new Sony A6400—I've selected only the important highlights below.

Sunday, December 4: Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head State Park

Though we were scheduled to arrive in Oahu at noon on Saturday and spend the afternoon on the beach, with airport delays we reached our hotel late in the evening. Fortunately the time difference worked in our favor, so I woke up early the next morning and rushed down to the water to capture the sunrise. When stepping through the front doors I braced myself for cold wind, but I was shocked to get a face full of warm, humid air instead.

Waikiki Beach
Waikiki Beach

After a breakfast of pastries and pineapples, we walked two miles to the Diamond Head state park. On the way we discovered something no one mentions about Hawaii: there are chickens everywhere! Not domesticated chickens kept for eggs and meat, but unusually small wild ones walking around in public like pigeons. We found a hen foraging with her fluffy yellow chicks right along the sidewalk.

Wild Chicken and Chicks

The climb up the Diamond Head crater was hot and sweaty, but it rewarded us with amazing views of the island. The water off the cost of Oahu is the purest, brightest turquoise I've ever seen in nature.


Diamond Head Top View
Diamond Head, Tamara

In the afternoon we took a ride on a submarine operated by Atlantis Adventures. Sadly photos from a submarine don't turn out well. The tour guide explained the water above filters out the color red, so everything looks like a muted, shadowy blue. Nature videographers make their footage look vibrant by adding artificial light, the cheaters. But the boat ride out to the sub was very photogenic, with rainbows appearing over Waikiki as we sailed back in.

Tamara entering the submarine
Tamara in the submarine
Tamara on the boat
Rainbow over Waikiki Hotels and Diamond Head

We closed out the day with a swim. We didn't bring the camera, but Sweetie took some impressive pictures of the sunset on his phone.

Tamara wading into the ocean
Waikiki sunset

Monday, December 5: Circle Island Tour and Polynesian Cultural Center

We caught a Roberts Hawaii tour bus at 7 on Monday for an all-day adventure to the other side of the island. The driver narrated as he took us up the east coast, then north through the center with stops at scenic overlooks.

Oahu Beach from Tour Bus
Blowhole Scenic Area
Circle Tour Scenic Stop
Circle Tour Scenic Stop

According to the driver, there are so many interesting-looking chickens like this guy wandering around because a few decades ago, hurricanes destroyed most of Oahu's coops and launched the birds hither and yon.

Wild Rooster

The bus made an obligatory stop at the Dole plantation—a popular attraction with tasty ice cream, but which I couldn't fully enjoy knowing who the Doles were and the unsavory things they did to native and Asian immigrant peoples in the late 1800s. I did enjoy seeing this tiny blue-eyed kitty in the bushes, though.

Small Siamese cat in the bushes

The bus dropped us off at the Polynesian Cultural Center at lunchtime. The overpriced food trucks were forgettable, but I was impressed by the hibiscus bushes in full bloom in December. All of my flowering perennials died back in October, and I won't see them again until next July.

Hibiscus at Polynesian Cultural Center

The Polynesian Cultural Center is run by the Church of Latter Day Saints, which I didn't know when booking the tickets. Most of the staff are BYU students who came from Fiji, Tonga, Aotearoa, and other countries to study. A man-made river runs through the center of the park, surrounded by the "islands" where the staff put on shows and lead educational activities.

Polynesian Cultural Center

At the islands we learned how to make coconut oil, twirl a fire baton, spin poi balls and play Maori stick games. Here's me attempting to follow along in a brief Tahitian dance lesson.

Polynesian Cultural Center Tahitian Dance Lesson

The day ended with a luau and big finale dance show. Thanks to a surprise tropical storm we we looked like drowned rats at the luau, and no recording was allowed at the show. However, I can show you this delicious alcohol-free pina colada served in a hollowed-out pineapple with an orchid on a toothpick on top. We got to keep the wooden straws!

Pineapple drink

Tuesday, December 6: Zipline and Horseback Ride

Sweetie convinced me to sign up for a zipline and horseback ride package, which were also on the North Shore near the Polynesian Cultural Center. We had to catch a Honolulu city bus at 6 am to get there by 8:30, which was a little stressful, but I was impressed they have a regular and reliable bus line that covers the whole island like that. Over here in Central Oregon, you need to own a car just to obtain groceries.

Riding the ziplines was terrifying at first, but after a few rides I trusted the hardware enough to let go with one hand. Then two.

CLIMB Works Zipline
CLIMB Works Zipline, Upside Down

After hamburgers we caught the bus to the Gunstock Ranch, where we enjoyed a pleasant slow walk up a scenic hill on a pair of very well-behaved horses. I learned quickly to just let mine do whatever he wanted to do, with only a gentle lift of the reins now and again when he got distracted by delicious green grass.


Gunstock Ranch Horseback Ride

Wednesday, December 7: Iolani Palace and Ala Moana Center

In the morning we visited the Iolani Palace, home of the last monarchs of Hawaii. It's similar to other large Victorian houses I've seen, like the Pittock mansion in Portland and the Newport Mansions in Rhode Island, since the king was trying to impress the same European aristocrats that the Vanderbilts were. (A fan of monarchies, I am not. I got myself on the volunteer tour guide's Problem Child list by asking loudly where the money for those amazing jewels and golden servingware came from.)

Golden servingware
Diamond butterfly brooch

1800s tax dollars at work.

After an unexciting jaunt to the laundromat, we went to the Ala Moana Center for a late lunch of fancy Korean corn dogs and bubble teas. As I said in the beginning, this post documents the most important highlights of the trip.

Tamara eating Korean corn dogs

Thursday, December 8: Daniel K. Inouye Highway

We flew to the Big Island on Thursday morning and rented a car, then immediately used it to attempt to see lava from the erupting Mauna Loa volcano. Unluckily for us, the lava flow from the last active fissure had basically ended the day before we arrived, and the feds don't want anyone to get close enough to see anything. We could barely see faint steam from the eruption by driving very slowly past the viewing area. You'll have to click to the full image to see the wisps at the peak.

Mauna Loa Erupting

We did find a pretty scenic pull-off along the highway, though, with trees and groundcovers growing stubbornly through the lava rock. We learned later at the Volcanoes National Park that the tree with succulent-like leaves and red flowers is an Ohi'a, and the flowers are called leihua.

Daniel K. Inouye Highway, Scenic Area
Daniel K. Inouye Highway, Scenic Area with Ohi'a Tree

Friday, December 9: Volcanoes National Park

We stayed for two nights at the Volcano Village Lodge, which has two-person cabins in the rainforest. When I saw the phrase "in the rainforest" in reviews, I imagined they meant some tropical trees and ferns grow around the edge of the property. No, they meant in the rainforest.

Volcano Village Lodge, Hale Kilauea

Volcano Village Lodge Pond

This is Gino, the Lodge's resident cat. He likes to sit in the parking lot and greet the guests.

Gino

Despite its looks, this rainforest gets cold in December. A tree took out a power line on our first evening there, so between 5 and 9 pm we huddled under the bed covers with flashlights, no internet, and no running water. But as soon as we had the magic of electricity again, the cabin was cozy and luxurious compared to our basic 19th-floor hotel room in Honolulu.

On Oahu, we thought we'd over-packed for the trip. With nights so warm women strolled around the shops in bikini tops and breezy coverups, what were we going to do with our heavy jeans and fleece jackets? But at the high elevations of the Big Island, visitors to the Volcanoes National Park were shivering in their puffy hooded coats. At the overlook for Kilauea, which has been low-key erupting continuously since 1983, the freezing winds were strong enough to knock over a small child.

Kilauea Overlook
Sweetie at Kilauea Overlook
Tamara at Kilauea Overlook

After coming back down, standing directly in the hot steam heated by the lava below was sooo nice.

Steam Vents

We followed the Kilauea Iki trail down to the crust of the lava lake, which formed during a massive eruption in the 1950s. The little white and pink flowers growing in the rocky wasteland are bamboo orchids, and more Ohi'a trees are doing their best to establish there too.

Sweetie on Kilauea Iki trail
Bamboo Orchids on Kilauea lava lake
Kilaea lava lake
Tamara on Kilauea lava lake

After climbing back up the other side of the crater, the path leads to the Thurston Lava Tube, then back to the Visitor Center with views back down. The whole loop was about 6 miles for us, and would have been shorter if we'd known to park further east.

Thurston Lava Tube
Kilauea Iki trail overlook
Kilauea Iki trail, crater overlook

Saturday, December 10: More Volcanoes and Black & Green Sand Beaches

We went back to the park in the morning to take some quick snaps of sights we'd missed the day before: the Devastation Trail and the Sulphur Banks. Sweetie was disappointed the "Devastation" has recovered so well since the '50s, there's only a brief stretch that still looks dead. The sulphur banks look cool, but we needed to wear N95s because of the unhealthy gases.

Devastation Trail
Steam at Sulpher Banks
Sulpher Banks mineral deposits

Then we drove south to the Black Sand Beach, which was as advertised.

Tamara at Black Sand Beach
Sweetie at Black Sand Beach
Black Sand Beach
Black sand

Ten or so sea turtles were sunning and bathing on the shore, protected from harassment by a barrier. The distance was no problem for our shiny new camera, though.

Turtles on Black Sand Beach
Sea Turtle at Black Sand Beach

One of the employees at the Lodge recommended we visit the Green Sand Beach as well. So the plan was to make a quick stop to see it, then head up to Kailua-Kona for a dinner reservation before flying home. What the employee didn't mention is the beach is two miles away from the parking lot as the crow flies, along an extremely rocky, windy, challenging non-path. We were determined to see that sand, so we cancelled the reservation and forged ahead. And we made it!

Sweetie at Green Sand Beach

The sand isn't "green" like you'd imagine from the name, but we couldn't come up with a better name for it. It's green-tinted brown, but what's interesting about it is the sparkle rather than the color. When the sunlight hits it, it looks like ground-up pyrite.

Glittering sand

Since this was our last beach before leaving, I ran around like a little kid and tried to take cool pictures, but the seawater splashed the lens.

Tamara at Green Sand Beach
Ocean at Green Sand Beach, with splashed lens

Then it was time to leave to catch our plane. Hawaii is a windy, windy island. Green sand got in our eyes, our hair, all over our arms and legs. I found some hiding in my ears a day later.

Ascent from Green Sand Beach
Walking back from Green Sand Beach

Monday, December 12: Home at last!

We flew from Kona to Seattle at 10 pm on Saturday, but a snowstorm in Oregon foiled our final flight. We finally made it back to home, sweet home the next morning. Now, back to our regularly scheduled winter.

Snow-covered home in Oregon

Guns in Fiction Land, Part 2 - Ten Years Later May 27, 2022

Nearly ten years ago, after the unfathomable mass murder of children in Sandy Hook, I wrote the post Guns in Fiction Land. Now in May 2022, after what has become just another commonplace mass murder of children in Uvalde, absolutely nothing has changed.

Disturbed kids who go on rampages don't need guns to kill. They choose guns because that's what all of their disturbed role models used. Because the magical boom-boom sticks make them feel powerful. Nobody quakes in fear and regret when they see a teenager holding a steak knife. But a gun...that's where the infamy is. That's what gets your name in all the headlines.

After every gun-related tragedy in the news, politicians promise do something about it. The something is always some minor expansion of gun control laws—closing loopholes in background checks, new restrictions for mental health conditions, mandatory training for new licenses, etc. Then the proposed laws inevitably fall apart in the senate after something even more tragic happens in the news. We've reached the point where every comment I see online is a variation of, "Our country is so messed up. Nothing will be done about it, though. Oh well."

But even if the politicians did pass laws restricting purchases of new guns, the tragedies won't stop. Checks are good. Training is good. But the reason America has such a huge and seemingly unfixable problem with gun violence is cultural, not procedural. Restricting sales of new guns won't make the nearly four hundred million guns in America miraculously vanish. The Secret Service reports that three-quarters of the guns used in attacks at schools are acquired from the homes of parents and close relatives, not bought by the perpetrators (p. 22). And no law will stop a psychotic murderer from chasing retribution and infamy.

The descriptions of these killers rarely changes. They're predominantly male, usually the impulsive age of 18-20, usually white, always with wounded egos because they failed to get a girlfriend or job or a parent's approval. They are or perceive themselves to be the targets of bullying. They choose to attack more defenseless targets: minorities like the Black shoppers in the Buffalo supermarket, immigrant sex workers like the women in the Atlanta massage parlors, and unarmed students and teachers in countless schools. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland High, and hundreds of others we don't hear about because too few children died to be newsworthy.

The second thing people always say after these tragedies is, "We need more support for mental health." Obviously these killers are disturbed. But they're also mostly male. Young American women also have mental health issues. There are psychotic people of all genders and ages in all countries around the world. But young men in the U.S.A. are the ones who steal the guns from Mom's bedroom closet, don bullet-proof vests, and walk through campuses shooting innocents at random like they're starring in a remake of The Godfather.

Why? In large part because of The Godfather. And Die Hard, The Terminator, and Pulp Fiction. And every other Western, war movie, and U.S. military advertisement ever made that glorifies manly men with manly guns.

We treat guns as symbols of American strength and masculinity.

Killing an animal or person with a gun is a favorite "Now I'm a Man" moment for both heroes and antiheroes in books and movies. In The Yearling, the adolescent protagonist shows he's ready for adulthood by shooting his pet deer. In L.A. Confidential, the goody-two-shoes detective shunned by his peers earns their respect by shooting a fleeing gang of Mexican criminals. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch proves to his children that he was a real man all along by shooting a rabid dog.

How many young American men every year graduate from high school in June, and in July post pictures showing how sexy they look in their new Army or National Guard fatigues, cradling "The love of my life: My M4!" How many American farm supply stores have a home decor section with "funny" window signs and welcome mats that say, "This house is protected by GOD and GUNS" and, "Yes, I Do Have a Beautiful Daughter. I ALSO HAVE A GUN."

The second amendment is meant to guarantee us a method of self-protection against state violence in times of absolute necessity. It's not meant to be an endorsement of guns as props of macho dominance.

Our culture teaches children that having a gun makes you cool. Having a gun makes you mature and fearsome. Even when we intend to teach children how dangerous guns are, we do it by inviting police officers to Brownie and Boy Scout meetings to say, "Now kids, I can hold this gun because I'm a big strong man and I know what I'm doing. You can't because you're too little. If your Dad has a gun at home, don't ever touch it until he says you're old enough and teaches you how to use it."

My husband (formerly known as Sweetie) says there would never be a school shooting again if congress passed a law that all guns must be colored hot pink and decorated with Hello Kitty stickers. That would decimate the Facebook posturing and Rambo revenge fantasies right quick.

That's not likely to happen, so to lessen the appeal of guns to psychopaths, we must commit to undoing all of the harmful messages in our media that link violence with heroism.

Stop equating being "a good shot" with being a leader.

Atticus Finch was dreamed up in the 1950s, but showing that a protagonist is a good shot continues to be used today as a fictional shorthand for competence, bravery, and all-around greatness.

In The Hunger Games, we know Katniss Everdeen is destined to save the world because she can shoot a squirrel right in the eye, every time. In an early scene, when apathetic judges ignore her performance with the bow and arrow to feast and be merry, she shoots the apple out of the mouth of the roasted pig on their banquet table. Haha, that gets their attention! So cool! And Katniss earns the top ranking score like she deserves!

A bow and arrow seems more romantic and family friendly than a gun, but the lesson to young readers is the same as in all those Westerns that establish which cowboy we're supposed to root for by showing who has the best aim. If you become good at killing, people will notice you. They'll respect you, and fear you, and talk about you.

Stop showing guns in movies and shows. Period.

In October, Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust. Everyone wants to know how the prop gun was loaded, why the crew believed it wasn't, whether Baldwin pulled the trigger or it discharged on its own, etc. But I want to know why, in 2021, the crew was setting up a "cool" scene of a beloved movie star pointing a gun straight at the camera and shooting it.

After the tragedy, headlines announced that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson vowed not to use guns in his movies or TV shows moving forward. Finally, progress! I thought, before clicking on the details. Clarification: The Rock will not use real guns on the sets of his movies or TV shows moving forward. His production company still intends to show beloved movie stars pointing guns and shooting them, but they'll be safe rubber props.

Most movies and shows don't show gun violence because it's a dark part of real life we can't scrub away. They use guns for glamour, thrills, and comedy. They show "morally gray" supermodel spies threatening cringing brown drug dealers with guns to get information. Bearded old mountain men with shotguns and Southern drawls shooting at innocent trespassers for laughs. Scrappy heroes engaging in laser gun fights with imperial Stormtroopers for pulse-pounding excitement.

(Then the heroes say some words about how war is bad. Then they go right back to shooting and whooping in celebration when the soldiers explode and die.)

Stop "gameifying" war.

Playing video games doesn't drive young men to insanity and convince them to go out and shoot people in real life. Politicians love to blame video games for mass shootings because it's cheap and easy and won't affect their polling numbers, unlike proposing real solutions like financing social programs and taking on the Russia-backed NRA.

What violence in video games does do is reinforce retrograde ideas of masculinity, encourage weapon worship, and teach players to equate killing with winning. In other words, it's fantastic propaganda for the military and feeds the whole wannabe-soldier mindset of police departments, conspiracy-mongering militias, and the baby-faced teens on YouTube giving rave reviews of tactical vests and rifle scopes sold on Amazon.

Few developers are imaginative enough to come up with gameplay mechanics other than kill, kill, kill. Kill aliens, kill robot dinosaurs, kill hooded wizards and mace-wielding knights and foreigners guarding priceless treasures. The more enemies you kill, the more rewards you get. Higher grades on end-of-level score cards. Money to buy more powerful weapons that kill enemies faster. "Achievement" badges with funny names that friends and strangers can admire on your profile.

Marksman achievement: Kill 50 enemies with headshots

Only a handful of popular games reward nonviolent conflict resolution, like Undertale, or punish players for indiscriminate murder, like Metal Gear Solid. We need more of them. Ideally, all of them would do one or both of those things moving forward. We have hundreds of games that reward killing already. Why make more?

Finance support for boys and create more positive masculine role models.

When I was growing up in the '90s and '00s, the community invested in special programs to encourage girls to become astronauts and senators. There were no equivalent programs to encourage boys to become nurses and preschool teachers.

All children emulate the adults they see. In the study "Effects of Exposure to Gun Violence in Movies on Children's Interest in Real Guns," children were shown a PG-rated movie that either contained scenes of characters shooting guns or no scenes with guns. The children who watched the movie with guns were much more likely to pick up and pretend to shoot an unloaded gun they found in a playroom cabinet afterwards.

It's common sense that American boys who see cops and soldiers shooting guns on TV or in video games will also develop an interest in guns. The interest persists into young adulthood as they see images of manly heroes saving the day by killing the bad guys over, and over, and over.

They don't see images of men saving the day by talking down the aggressor. That's portrayed as an exclusively female, and therefore inferior, skill for heroines like Moana. Male heroes who try a nonviolent approach suffer for it, like when Christopher Reeve's Superman tries to reason with Lex Luther and gets his powers sucked away by Kryptonite as missiles pummel California and Lois Lane dies horrifically.

"For god's sake, just break his neck!" exasperated audiences will groan at the screen, as Superman calmly listens to Luthor explain his dastardly plan. Because clearly listening is a stupid thing to do, and the only real solution to a conflict is for someone to die.

I'd love to see fewer movies with so many men holding guns, the weapon models are lovingly cataloged in the Internet Movie Firearms Database, like Dwayne Johnson's Skyscraper (2018). We need to replace them with movies showing manly heroes as nurturing childcare givers, librarians, tailors, dance teachers and stay-at-home dads.

And in real life, we need to proactively raise boys to succeed by being empathetic and cooperative, not entitled and aggressive. We've put so much money and effort into teaching girls to shed the ignominies of traditional femininity, and we've done a great job. But we need to put just as much effort into helping boys shed the toxic parts of traditional masculinity.