• About Quota

    Bookmark and Share

    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.

  • Recent Tweets

    Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

  • Categories

  • Add to Technorati Favorites
  • Recent Comments

    Elisse on The First Year of Grief Is as…
    The First Year of Gr… on Postmortem
    The First Year of Gr… on A Eulogy for My Father
    The First Year of Gr… on Keep on Truckin’
  • wordpress stats plugin

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.

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.

Continue reading

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.

Golden Ages

It’s when you’re getting ready for work that you realize
a golden age has passed.You’re scraping lather
and whiskers off your face when suddenly you feel
his absence, your new normal,
but unlike every other moment of the past three months
you understand how much time you’ve wasted
in your whole fleeting life hoping for more,
just like the cliché running diligently through so many songs
and sitcoms and movies and books, a truth familiar to most of us
but with the corners rounded off, because the songs and sitcoms
and movies and books haven’t prepared you for the impact of this truth
that smacks you upside your head. The not-rounded-off metaphor rips into
your forehead and takes a little flesh with it. For all your effort
not to draw blood this morning, it’s happening anyway.

You’re left feeling vulnerable. Isn’t this similar to how sharks
wear down their prey? Take a little skin? Goad a little blood?
Leave us thinking it’s easier to give up than to struggle? The truth
comes back for your gut as you’re reaching for a tissue and a reason to live.
You stand and bleed and breathe, and if you’re lucky, you cry,
surprisingly not drained of tears after months of depletion. You float
in the moment, lather drying on your half-shaven face, no blood
or sharks, not even enough water in the sink to drown although,
if you really want to, you could open the faucet wide.

Finish shaving, brush teeth,
apply deodorant. You’re all dry and combed,
door open, coat dangling from your arm,
a minute from your morning commute when the truth comes back,
now a toothless shark like a child’s puppet that wants you to know
it doesn’t mean to scare you: There are more golden ages to come.
They’ll keep coming and they’ll pass you by
whether or not you believe in them.

Light in Darkness

Yes, all of you hyper-logical types, we get it: New Year’s Day is an arbitrarily chosen re-starting point. I have attempted to kill this buzz myself, but I’ve come to realize it’s not necessary. New Year’s is plenty dull on its own. As with my birthday, I’m left feeling a day older and, having bought into the idea that something major will happen, I end up a little more melacholy than usual once the champagne buzz wears off.

But I like the opportunity for a collective reboot. If I’m going to get my hopes up but feel underwhelmed, it’s nice not to have to do it alone. Last year I broke my own pattern of not making resolutions by resolving not to over-enforce my goal-setting, especially with writing projects. The idea was that I would determine very minimal goals on a daily and weekly basis, and they would be so minimal that I couldn’t help but fulfill them. The short version:

I resolve to treat myself well and hold myself accountable.

The plan was conveniently loosey-goosey. If I failed to follow through, I’d only hurt myself. Honestly, who was going to care if I never wrote? I would berate myself, a few of my writing friends would encourage me, but it’s not as if I had an editor breathing down my neck. To keep writing, what I need more than anything is to strike a balance of nudges and guilt, and that can only be found in the midst of things.

As those of you who know me or have read this blog know, 2011 provided a few significant life-gets-in-the-way events. Some illness. Some death. A wedding. Like the really bad first draft of a real-life novel. All of that was done by mid-October. Looking to December 31 as the end of this year’s story, the denouement has been long. I’ve felt like a Sondheim character searching/waiting for the great lesson.

The gift of the denouement has been a long visit from my mother. She came in early October for the wedding and decided to extend her visit. I swear this is okay with my husband–in fact, he’s the one who’s encouraged it. She didn’t want to go back to her house and experience the first Thanksgiving and Christmas without her husband, my father. My sister’s family lives nearby and have been able to take care of her house, so why not? Our hope was that through avoidance the great lesson would sneak up on us, and that is more or less what has happened. We’ve found light in darkness, the true reason for the season.

Her presence hasn’t interrupted my writing. To the contrary: she inspires. The events of the year had already done that, but not in the ways I assumed they would. I ultimately wrote more than I thought I would last January. My writing energy went where I needed it. I had to write through grief as a way of lifting rubble off of me. I wrote posts and poems–new material that has energized me. Even though I wrote for myself, others appreciated what I wrote. Without having any of my work formally published, I experienced what it means to be read.

Progress on revising my novel slowed a bit, but I didn’t stop. Somehow I’m ending this arbitrarily defined year having almost finished the second draft of my novel, and I feel more driven than ever to continue the journey to having it published. More important, I confronted obstacles by writing. My heart broke, so with words I patched it up and continue to alternate between dwelling and moving on. It wasn’t quite a journey to the underworld, but it wasn’t completely not that. And since I’m the one writing this story, I’m going to say I’ve nailed the ending. Once the buzz wears off, I’ll get over myself and begin again.

MyNaPoWriMo Is Over

As other writers spent November 30 fulfilling their NaNoWriMo obligations of 50,000 words, I have just fulfilled my promise to write a poem a day in November, a.k.a. MyNaPoWriMo. For those keeping score, my friend Devi (whose idea this was in the first place) successfully completed her 30 poems, too. You can read them at Book Writing World.

I planned to write my daily poems rather quickly and continue revising my novel, but I found myself focusing on poetry writing. It was kind of like going back twenty years. Before I wrote anything else, I wrote poetry but have gotten away from it the past few years. I won’t let that happen again.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  • I need the breaks from writing prose, and especially from writing/revising a long project.
  • Cranking out a poem a day allowed me to explore other ideas. Creating a (solid draft of a) product by the end of every day helped me understand how I become inspired. I just need a small bit of something, but that something has got to spark or else I can’t sustain even a short writing and revision process.
  • I enjoyed the openendedness of the process, allowing exploration of form as well as content. I could literally see the shape of each poem. Although that’s harder to do with a novel of a few hundred pages, I need to imagine the structure graphically or as a visual metaphor, not just in terms of an outline or other textual system. But I concerned myself with what shape worked best for the poem rather than what some supposed expert would give me permission to do, as I should do with every project no matter the size.
  • Playing with words is why I like to write and revise. With a novel, the wordplay begins to feel like a job. With a new poem each day for a month, the process is more art-for-art’s-sake. I recognize that when I’m revising to the best of my ability, I’m drawing on my skills as a poet.

MyNaPoWriMo was definitely not a vacation from writing-as-work. Many days I felt a great deal of pressure to produce when I just didn’t feel like, and I had to push myself pretty. But because my poems could be as long as they needed to be, I could devote myself to producing something well done instead of churning out a minimum number of lines or words. And that freedom allowed me to find something enjoyable about writing every day.

A real writer writes every day, but if s/he enjoys doing it, that’s even better. Tomorrow, I’m back to work revising my novel, hopefully bringing some renewed joy to that process.

Sophie, My Protector

Sophie, Thanksgiving 2000

Sophie, Thanksgiving 2000

Sophie was my protector. Not so much physically. At 25 pounds she couldn’t have fended off a mugger or a monster, but she saved me from loneliness, which is one of my greatest fears.

I was lonely for the first year after we moved to Pennsylvania. I couldn’t find a job in the area, and even though I worked part-time online for my former university, I wasn’t making enough money to contribute my fair share, and the limited contact I had with my former colleagues only emphasized how isolated I was. Doug went to work to teach all day and stayed most evenings for rehearsals. I knew no one else.

On fall break, Doug insisted we go dog shopping, their eyes met, and we came home with her. The only reason I was opposed was because I took the responsibility seriously and worried I would screw up as a pet parent the way I felt I was screwing up in general. To a lesser extent, I felt left out of whatever bond Doug and this dog had. Sophie was never as excited as when she reunited with Doug upon his return to the den. Throughout the day, we would look at each other not with hostility, but with confusion. What were we supposed to do while the guy we loved, albeit differently, was out of the house?

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: