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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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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.

Dream On

A week ago, a friend wrote to tell me she dreamed of my dog, Sophie, who recently died. She dreamed she was walking Sophie and that dogs from the neighborhood surrounded them. She reported the incident to a local official, concerned that the dogs would somehow be in danger. The official told her to talk to her neighbors and solve the problem together. Back on the street, the dogs had vanished. When she set Sophie down, Sophie ran away across a beach and into a city.

My friend asked me what it meant. If there’s an intended message from The Universe, I don’t know what it is. But I’m jealous that she’s having dreams of Sophie and I’m not. Supposedly we all dream, but I almost never remember mine.

Her dream makes me think of something that actually happened. Shortly after we adopted Sophie, my parents visited. Sophie barked at my father for a day and a half until Dad offered her a Triscuit. That simple gesture won Sophie’s trust. Whether she was easy to win over or had been demanding some kind of payment from him, who knows. Once while Dad had her outside, she ran into the corn field behind our house. We lived about a quarter of a mile from a highway, so I worried not just that she would get lost but that she would get run over.

I’ve forgotten the details, but Doug tells me he was inside and heard me yell her name and saw me run after her. All I remember is feeling relieved that she stopped, that she came back home. I couldn’t have taken the pain of responsibility if she’d gotten hurt or disappeared. Even though Dad was with her, I’d trusted him, so it would have been my fault.

I do have a brief, apparently false memory of my father running after her, disappearing into the stalks of corn. Not only did he not run after her, but the corn would have been harvested by the time they visited, which was around Thanksgiving, so there would have been nothing to block my view. Considering Dad died just before Sophie, I’ve probably rewritten the scene to connect them. They’ve both run off, and this time they haven’t come back. I’m impatiently waiting for something I know isn’t going to happen. I’m feeling responsible for something I didn’t do. I’m feeling abandoned when neither of them would have done anything to hurt me.

Knowing they’re together would comfort me if I could believe it’s true. I’m open to the possibility, and maybe my friend’s dream is a faint sign. But where the hell are my dreams? My dead loved ones never come to me. I’m as open to their visits as I could consciously be, and still there’s no pixie dust sprinkled in my dreams, no irreverent voices from Beyond telling me they can see me peeing. No sublimity, no ridiculousness. Just absence.

I’m assuming their presence in dreams would fill the emptiness I feel when I remember them in waking moments. “They’re always with you” is a nice idea, but in day-to-day life, it’s kind of a bunch of crap. A colleague noticed Sophie’s photo as we ended a meeting in my office. I explained that she recently died. His response? “She has the sweetest face.” His observation happened in the present tense, tempting me to avoid talking about her in the past tense, which I do to acknowledge reality. It’s the same with my father. It’s the same with friends who died on me nearly 20 years ago.

If I love you, I don’t let go. I want to have you around in present tense again. I want to feel some confusion about which moments are happening now or even real. Every now and then, I want to take a staycation from reality without plunging headlong into psychosis, and I want you to be there. I don’t do faith, but I’m faithful. I’m like a dog that way, waiting on the front porch for you.

Subject to Change

I want to say something about Change, if only because Change has had its say (flipping me off, mostly) and deserves one of my sharp retorts. This summer, my father died, our oldest dog died, a tree fell on our house. Those are some major “fuck-yous”–depressingly final.

Even the positive changes have been major and leave me unsure where things are, metaphorically and literally. We had new flooring installed in our family room and office, which required completely clearing those rooms and removing the carpet. At work, my department just moved to a new space, so there’s a lot of unpacking to do amid all the usual prep work for the semester that begins in a week.

What I really want is to leave things where they are for a week or two. I have vacation time left, so it’s possible, but it’s not a good idea. I wouldn’t be able to relax and would return to work feeling even more overwhelmed. Taking leave of reality only works for fictional characters with unlimited resources. “I’ll send for my things,” they say. How much does that cost? I have a feeling if I have to ask, I can’t afford it.

I don’t want to stop and mope, but I know it’s not a good idea to soldier on without time to reflect. As the shock of loss wears off, disbelief lingers. I woke up a few days ago and thought I saw Sophie lying on the bed, but it was light playing off the wadded sheet. I dreamt last night that dog heaven is actually on Earth, somewhere in one of the northern, central states, so in my dream I was planning a road trip to find her. As for Dad, every day I see news about some gadget I want to tell him about, or I think of a question I want to ask him next time we talk. I look at pictures of him and want to hug him so hard that, if he were still alive, I would just end up crushing him to death.

Time is all that will help me at this point. And timing. I’m going to keep grieving deaths and dealing with life on my schedule. Sometimes it will help to talk, and other times I’ll need to sit by myself. As needed, I’ll speak up, close my office door, force a laugh, write contemplative blog posts, go offline.

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