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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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Our Massacres

Devil Inside

Once upon a time, a male perpetrator wearing combat gear and armed with x semiautomatic pistols and x assault rifles entered a xxxxxxxx and shot xx people, xx of them children, before turning one of the guns on himself. Xx people died at the scene and xx at a local hospital.

No motive is known, which hasn’t stopped myriad pundits and mothers of disturbed youth and other self-proclaimed experts from cherry-picking as-yet-unconfirmed details to fill the vacuum created by a lack of information that commonly follows in the wake of massacres. Joining the speculation bandwagon, I’m guessing that most people are motivated by a fear of the unknown that makes them desperate to organize the chaos of what has happened. This attempt at sense-making happens every time a killer bloodies a public space.

Dave Cullen, who published a ten-year investigation on the Columbine massacre, wrote after the Aurora, Colorado, shooting last July, “Do not look for a unified theory of mass murder, a single coherent drive. It doesn’t exist. Examining all the mass murderers together yields a hopeless mass of contradictions.” He does identify a few common traits and three categories of mass murderers, but he emphasizes that these traits have not helped to predict future incidents.

Most troubling, in my opinion, is the tendency to enshrine victims and perpetrators in a binary set of good and evil. The perpetrator is labeled a “monster,” while the victims are “saints” or “heroes.” And both epithets are true, but such language is incredibly powerful in that it shuts down discussion about the complexities of the individuals involved.

There’s a well-intentioned desire to honor the fallen and a fear of sympathizing in any way with the perpetrator. Such responses are designed to prevent us from imagining ourselves as victims or realizing we may know a potential perpetrator and, thus, bear some responsibility to help prevent future massacres. The last thing we want to do is relate to these characters, which is what they are to us. Psychic distance serves as a valve that helps us feel connected to some degree while managing the flow of the horrible truth.

Which makes it possible to push the horror away. For most, violence remains intermittent and, hey, the homicide rate has actually been going down. Between spirited if short-lived public outcries to each massacre of mostly middle-class white people, gun violence typically occurs to people of color and/or the poor. Thinking about any of that would be too painful. Speaking up about gun control might be politicizing the situation.

Furthermore, without crime, what would we have for entertainment in our culture? Not that the crime fictions we enjoy are based on fact. I mean, they are, but fictional fact. Those aren’t real characters in the morgue. They just die for the sake of the story. Their grisly ends are just imagined. We’re not a violent culture. We’re simply entertained by fictional violence. And we get off on the catharsis. And we get off on getting off.

We’re just filling the vacuum of the unknown. We can close the book whenever the terror becomes too much for us. Or at least some of us can.

The First Year of Grief Is as Much Fun as You Think It Is

A year ago today at this moment, I was waiting for my father to die. I had recently returned from a trip to visit him and my family, and it was clear he wasn’t going to hang on much longer. I had pretty much said goodbye then, so I decided not to travel back for the death watch but rather wait for the funeral and to help with post-mortem errands.

The afternoon dragged on as I kept expecting the phone to ring, for The Moment to arrive. As I prepared to leave my office, my sister called. She told me he died, we talked a bit, and I hung up. I cried for two minutes, then, slumped in my task chair, stared at the walls and the stuff in my office. I’d been bracing myself, as if the moment I got the news I would bust through a barrier. It was more like my engine failed or my tank ran dry, and I just slowly, slowly rolled to a stop.

Conventional wisdom says the first year of grief is the hardest. Yeah, whatever. It’s a cultural lie designed to make life emotionally tidy and to create structure for Hallmark Channel movies. For me, there were easy moments of Yeah-I-know-Dad-died-but-it-didn’t-really-happen-right? as the idea sank in. I also had the benefit of my mother visiting for half of the year, and she, Doug, and I had some good talks about Dad and not about Dad. And there were plenty of oh-yeah-Dad’s-really-dead moments. Daily.

The only thing I might change besides, you know, resurrecting my father, is that I would have preferred to be there when he died. Or close by. Even on my way there. Losing my shit on a layover in Detroit seems preferable to plodding on distractedly in my office. I’ve had a year’s worth of work days to do that, and some days I still do. I didn’t have more to say to him. Maybe I wanted to be useful to my family. Mainly, I wanted to witness the event.

I wonder what it is about commemorating a year that feels important. I think I’m just programmed to acknowledge the day and my first full trip around the sun without Dad. Doug is better at ritual. He’ll help me think of something commemorative to do that’s just right, something small, probably involving ice cream and swearing at other drivers.

Left to Our Own Devices

Mom came for our wedding in early October and expected to stay a month. Then she stayed for Thanksgiving, winter holidays, the new year, her birthday, and before we knew it, winter turned to spring. It’s an 1100-mile trip (she drove). Might as well make it worth everyone’s while, right?

Most of our time on this visit was spent without much talking, all of us interacting more with our various electronic devices: Mom on her iPad keeping up with sports scores, Doug on his laptop doing genealogy, I on my laptop working on my novel. We spent hours and hours in the same room, half-watching something on Netflix, the trees outside the picture window turning orange then brown then bare then budding. But we were in our own worlds, looking up occasionally to make sure we were all there.

I didn’t feel the clock ticking (rare for me). I didn’t worry about making good use of our time together. I didn’t feel compelled to force meaningful conversations only the have them fall flat. A stunner might happen while unloading the dishwasher. Or it might not.

We all needed this visit. It’s all been very fun and distracting, putting grief on paused even as we continue to slog through it. And boring. And, occasionally, irritating, the way life can be when you live with people you love and get in one another’s way but don’t want anyone to move out.

Friends asked me how things were going with Mom here so long, some of them giving me concerned looks, their eyes widening over the months of her stay.

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Shameless Plug: Book Writing World

"after keith" (haring) by devi laskar

My friend Devi created this in a yearlong effort to create a work of visual art per day. Isn't it cool?

Over at Book Writing World, I’ve been contributing posts for the past month. I’m one of many contributors who are reflecting on various aspects of writing process. Sure, a lot of people write about that, but I think we have some unexpected insights about these topics. Check us out.

To do this shameless plug right, I must give a shout-out to Elizabeth Stark, our fearless leader, and Devi Laskar, our editor and creator of most of the artwork you’ll see. (If you’re interested in poetry, also check out Devi’s and my NaPoWriMo project, which was our alternative to NaNoWriMo because we both needed a break from our books!)

Losing That ‘Phobic Edge

This evening as I unlocked my car outside the Y, a car zoomed through the parking lot in my direction. It was dusk, but the remaining sunlight and increasing fluorescents revealed there were three or four people in what appeared to be a souped-up Neon, similar to one of the cartoonish Hot Wheels cars I had as a kid and hoped to drive someday.

The passenger-side window was down, which seemed odd since it was a little cold out, and one of the passengers’ heads was leaning out. My brain and body went into anticipating-gay-bashing mode: I re-unlocked the door, reached for the handle, tried to calculate through felt sense whether I would be able to get into my car before the three or four assailants could leap out of their losermobile, meanwhile scanning the area for possible escape routes. To say avoiding danger is second nature to me is an understatement.

As I swung my driver’s side door open, a teenage boy pushed himself out of the window of the losermobile and shouted, “Yo, I’m GAY!”

I didn’t really process what he said until I was safe inside with the door locked and the losermobile had vacated the premises. Yes, there was an anti-gay insult; being gay was, according to the young man’s tone, laughable. But rather than throwing the insult at someone (me), he threw it back on himself. His technique was reflexive and somehow self-deprecating. Having experienced a fair (actually unfair) number of “faggots” and “homos” hurled my way over the years, I was surprised by this development.

At the risk of overanalyzing (you know I’m going to risk it): Maybe he’s depended on “That’s gay” as a guaranteed laugh-getter, but it doesn’t get the approval it once did. Perhaps he’s been a hobbyist homophobe but he’s losing his edge. So instead of hurling a “gay” pie at someone else, he turned it on himself. The payoff didn’t seem worth it to me, but to be fair, I’m not his target audience.

I found the whole scene (which took only a few seconds, actually) so befuddling, I haven’t even been able to think of clever comebacks that would have slain him with wit if I’d been able to think of them. He just seemed like a pathetic little fuckwad. Being able to see him that way is a vast improvement for me. Situations like this usually trick my mind into believing I’m a vulnerable adolescent. In a dark parking lot, that way of thinking is probably still the best strategy.

It’s All About Survival

As a teenager, I thought about what it would feel like to slice through a vein or artery or both. I didn’t know the most effective technique, and I didn’t particularly want to die. I just wanted a break from the indignities of being whatever I was. Most everything anyone said to me felt dismissive. It’s hard to know if my perceptions were anything close to reality.

The biggest assholes of them got it right: I *was* a faggot. I *did* have school pretty easy given my IQ was around 140. At the time, those were things to hide because they made me different. So I hid them.

In bio class when we were supposed to be dissecting some poor, dead, wan frog that seemed at the time to have a better situation than my own, I pressed the corner of the blade into my wrist just to get a tiny fraction of an idea how it would feel. It stung, and I could do the math to figure out the pain caused by shoving the blade deeper. It’s nothing I wanted. It wasn’t the way to peace.

The sad thing is I don’t know what I can tell my younger self about things getting better. They have, yet they haven’t. I suppose the responsible thing to do would be to lie and say life becomes wonderful. Ideally, I would have a dry-erase board behind me and draw a squeaky ascending line to show how much more sunshine comes out of my ass with every passing year. Fuck that.

Sorry to bring the real, but this is my life. I don’t struggle every day with horrible thoughts like I did as a teenager, so in that sense, yeah, it gets a fuckload better. But that makes it worse when when the thoughts come back, because I’m out of practice at pushing them away. (The Summer of Death screws with my head, although sometimes it’s not about that at all.) It’s worth the effort, although I’m tired and can’t honestly tell my younger self and zir modern counterparts that life doesn’t suck a lot of the time. It does. That’s simply true. As a friend told me a long time ago when I was having yet another depressive episode, life is a lot of work, day after day. I knew it already, but hearing him say it made the weight so much more bearable. His words come to me when I need them.

I may not have done much, but I’ve survived, and really: that’s fucking huge. I’ve survived depression and anxiety and OCD to have bad days instead of no days–and more and more good days. I’m just having a bad night. I’m blogging my way through it. Soon I’ll be reading your beads and cajoling you in my loving/snarky way. Unless you’ve read this, you’ll probably remain oblivious to my struggles. Hey, whatever.

You’ve got to reach out. It’s a big world. Someone somewhere is paying attention and is glad you’re surviving, too.

My Father’s Mixtape

Dad often asked, “Who’s singing this?” I could picture him on the other end of the line holding his phone out toward whatever speaker emitted the unidentified sounds, whether he was at home, in his car, or standing in the middle of a store with his arm jutting toward the ceiling.

He did this even though I usually couldn’t hear the song. Knowing his taste for what I’ll dare to describe as self-indulgent pop/rock, I could usually figure it out through some detective work. (My ability to assist declined in later years when he developed an inexplicable affection for “smooth jazz.”)

Everybody loves music–it’s a cultural cliché–but Dad’s love of music was an ongoing surprise to me. He had nearly zero musical talent and had trouble staying in tune while humming more than three notes in a row. Nevertheless, he constantly tried to make music, as if it were aural exhaust from the engine that drove him. His nasal, high-tenor doo-dee-doot-doos seemed less an expression of the music he admired than a personal soundtrack, the fully orchestrated version of which only he could hear as the protagonist of a very jolly movie.

*****

Dad bought the Flashdance soundtrack, mainly for “Maniac.” He bought Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, mainly for “Mr. Roboto.” But he liked weirder stuff, too, by which I mean pop weird stuff, specifically the pop weird stuff I liked. He of course had to take little jabs at my music before humming along (so dorky!). At least he didn’t mindlessly settle for Lionel Richie’s easy listening vibe or Laura Branigan yelling her face off. And it really did matter to me that to some extent he liked the music I lived for.

He drove me to buy Duran Duran’s monster mix of “Wild Boys” when it was released early at a record store across town. I was 14, and this exciting event occurred at midnight, but although it would have been logical to wait, I had to have that record as soon as possible or else I would surely die. As we waited in line to pay, I had to suffer his mangled pronunciation of “DOO-ran DOO-ran.” I worried the obviously very cool girls in front of us would harshly judge me, but they were busy talking about which band members were the hottest. One of them said, loud enough for the entire store to hear, “I would totally fuck John Taylor’s legs off!” My dad, distracted by his internal soundtrack, didn’t flinch.

One perfect, angst-free afternoon, he was driving us somewhere in the Celica and let me listen to Men Without Hats on cassette, and not just “Safety Dance,” but all of Rhythm of Youth. His favorite album at that time was Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). I had bragged to all three of my friends that he’d bought it for himself. He would mutter about Annie Lennox’s orange buzz cut (“I had that hair cut in high school!), but he couldn’t deny the power of that voice or the comforting beauty of analog synths as we rolled down the highway.

*****

For his visitation and memorial service, my sister, brother-in-law, and I agreed there was no damn way we would fill the service with dirges. We’d stir some emotions, perhaps, but the playlist had to consist of his favorites. Each of us selected a few songs we knew he loved. We had to include some live Frampton featuring the talk box. (I mean, duh.) But the first song we decided on was Cher’s “Believe.”

The man was seriously Cher-crazy when that song was released. He recorded her concert on HBO and sent the tape to me. My partner and I couldn’t afford premium channels, and he didn’t think we should have to miss it, assuming we’d love it as much as he did. Ironically, Cher was the first diva I ever worshipped, but by then I’d forsaken her and was all “what-has-Cher-really-done-since-Moonstruck?” I didn’t even watch his tape, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He went to his grave not knowing.

Besides, I figured that if he could put up with my school-age fascination with Cher and all those years of my Madonna mania, I could support his adorably giddy version of fandom. It wasn’t as if karaoke was a feasible means of expression for him. He probably could have carried the tune (barely), but would he have risked revealing so much of himself in front of strangers?

I came to feel honored he would let me hear him humming, which underscored so many of our moments together, moments I had thought were pointless. I felt he was letting me know the music he made was really for him, and that making it was the point.

*****

When he died, I didn’t notice it was almost six months to the day after his birthday. Only six months earlier, on January 27, he spent his birthday in the hospital, supposedly for pneumonia, but Mom thinks the doctor who looked at the x-ray could already tell it was something worse than that.

I spent half a year preparing for the aftermath I’ve been experiencing now for the subsequent half-year, unaware of this potentially meaningful bit of numerical trivia, as if I might be able to change everything if I could force the right meaning on it. All I’ve learned is that when I hear a song I think Dad would like, I should abort the phone call before pressing “send.”

A few weeks ago, I heard a voice say, “And don’t expect him to call you, either,” which was slightly yet significantly different than remembering not to call a dead man. It was like watching his casket sink into the ground again, only this time without the benefit of running on an adrenaline high.

It’s really not so bad. I’m functioning, and overall life is good. It’s painful only in the way it leaves me feeling disoriented. There are so many songs and other found inspirations I want to share with him because only he would get why they’re important to me. I consider what he might say. My best guesses feel counterfeit, overproduced. What I need more than anything, just for a while, is silence.

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