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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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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?

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A Eulogy for My Father

Tonight, my father’s family and friends gathered to remember him. Instead of allowing one person to attempt to sum up my father’s greatness with a single eulogy, we had a few of them.

My niece, nephew, brother-in-law, and partner all spoke, and so did I. A few of the guests spoke, too, including the best man from Mom and Dad’s wedding 53 years ago and a woman Dad hired 28 years ago who said she was closer to him than her own father.

Dad and I (March 2011)

Dad and I (March 2011)

Here’s what I said, including a few lines I stole from an earlier post:

Long before supposedly modern men carried “man purses,” my father carried one, and he had the nerve to call it what it was: a purse. He was being a bit ironic, maybe a bit feminist, but mostly, he needed a bag for shlepping his notebook, pen, computer, and who-knows-what-else. If he walked out of the house without it, he’d say, “Oops, I forgot my purse,” and he’d go get it, and all would be right with his world.

Whether nature or nurture, I inherited his purse obsession. Taking after Dad, I like a deceptively simple bag, especially courier style. When I flip back the flap, I want to see a plethora of compartments that would put a rolltop desk to shame. But I also want it to be easy to carry. And I’d really prefer to find it on sale.

Occasionally, Dad and I would go purse shopping together. He would point out an impressively durable snap, I would find a hidden compartment, then we’d ooh and aah, whether the bag was made of supple leather or ripstop nylon. Times likes these were the ones I enjoyed the most with him. Browsing. Shooting the shit. Exploring possibilities. I sometimes felt I wasn’t doing enough to entertain or impress him, but he didn’t seem to want much more from me. Whatever we were doing, he just liked to have some time with me.

I don’t want to misrepresent our relationship. I actually don’t have a lot of great memories of us from my childhood. He seemed pretty impatient with me at times and, frankly, wasn’t around much due to work and volunteer commitments. During the time we spent together, he explained mechanical things to me I didn’t understand, or that I understood but couldn’t do. He liked to take apart my toys and show me how they worked, but I couldn’t comprehend why that would be interesting.

We didn’t really hit it off until after I moved out and, when I was about 20, came out as gay. I’m sure I was pretty guarded as a kid, afraid to reveal who I was, assuming my father would hate me, disown me, or kill me. The funny, fortunate thing was that the truth actually set each of us free, and brought to life the father-son connection that lay dormant for years.

Openness worked well for us in the twenty-plus years since then, allowing us to find how we’re similar and to appreciate how we’re not. The inherent conflict I used to sense subsided into minor disagreements we would talk about but not dwell on, and a lot of agreement that I wouldn’t have believed was possible when I was a kid. He was still pretty quiet, both in person and on the phone. Having that time of shared silence meant a lot to both of us.

On a few occasions, he would get serious and tell me I could do anything I set my mind to. He pointed out my strengths and possibilities without setting expectations. He thought it was my responsibility to come up with my own specifics. Just because I had his name didn’t mean I had to be just like him. Some people don’t get that. They assume a son should be like his father in ways that are easy to see. If Dad expected that, he didn’t pressure me. He seemed to celebrate what makes me unique, and I don’t question he was proud of me. But he also enjoyed the little ways we’re similar. He loved that my signature resembles his. We both fill the available space with the “J,” “F,” and “B” of our first, middle, and last name, leaving a trail of jumbled supporting letters in between.

Unlike my mom and I, who can battle when necessary, Dad didn’t like conflict between us. We settled into a quietly intense way with each other. We could talk about difficult things, even painful things when necessary, but he wanted us at least to be on the same side even if we weren’t always in the same place on everything.

Dad had plenty of close calls in his life. He survived a fire when he was a teenager, a motorcycle accident when I was a kid, and, most recently, prostate cancer. Some might use these stories to create a myth of my father as an invincible hero. While it’s true Dad was strong, I’m much more interested in how he was a person who experienced joy and pain, someone I’ve loved even at his, and my, weakest moments. He carried me along so many times when I needed his help, and as I grew up, he showed me he loved me by trusting me to do the same for him.

If he needed me, he’d let me know. When I came back to visit in March, Dad was already looking pretty worn down. We were waiting to be called in for his appointment with his cardiologist, and the waiting room was full. Mom sat next to him, and since there was no chair on his other side, I stood next to him. I felt him take my hand. I asked if there was a problem, if he needed something. He shook his head, looking relaxed, content. The last time he’d held my hand–well I don’t remember; maybe when he helped me cross the street as a little kid. Otherwise, we’ve touched mainly at hellos and goodbyes. It was the best feeling. I wanted everyone to look at us, to witness the gesture, to feel all that I felt it meant, and we held on until they called his name.

MyNoRevMo Day 28: The Good News Is I’m a Slow, Forgetful Learner

I’ve been writing for about 35 years. I don’t mean simply forming letters with ink on paper. That’s how long I’ve been trying to communicate ideas that are at least somewhat “mine.” All that practice hasn’t left me feeling confident about what I do when I write. I have come to enjoy the process of exploring, but I don’t feel like an expert at/of writing. If I want bleeding stopped, an E/R nurse knows a procedure for doing that. If I want a room built on the back of my house, a contractor knows a procedure for making it happen. All I want to do is write some words to communicate ideas, and if feels like a mystery to be solved every time I try.

My current frustration is that I’m not sure I know what a story is. Yeah, I know: Protagonist. Point of view. Rising action, climax, falling action. Show, don’t tell. Blah, blah, blah. Those are elements to look for when reading a story, but I’m not convinced they’re present, or at least clear, as a writer writes a story. So, you tell me, I have to read the story and revise it again and again. I know. About twelve zillion writers/teachers have told me to do that, and I do it. They’re the “apply direct pressure” and “lay a solid foundation” of writing. And I’m almost completely convinced they don’t work very well most of the time.

Because I’ve read some great stories that don’t dwell on that stuff. The writer carves a not-necessarily-narrative-but-nevertheless-fascinating path. In some stories, it’s even less definite, more like the writer has rubbed a finger over a steamy mirror. The piece of writing has structure and tells some kind of a story, but the way it unfolds, you know the writer didn’t overthink the process.

Example: Sam D’Allesandro’s “The Zombie Pit.” The narrator ponders how a current boyfriend is and, mostly, isn’t like the perfect boyfriend who got away. It’s a gorgeous mix of past and present, of truth-telling and truth-withholding, as much an essay by a fictional character as a story about a fictional character.

Stories like this, the ones that fascinate me most, go against advice I’ve received to offer vivid details about characters and their actions. As a reader, I don’t care a lot about characters’ appearances, nor do I need to be able to picture every action in my mind. The experience of reading a book doesn’t need to feel like watching a movie. To the contrary, communicating via written words allows a writer to inspire the reader to imagine not just what might happen in the world but in the minds of others as well. I want to know what characters think and feel; that kind of information will probably tell me more about them than their hair color will. Maybe that’s what some of my teachers have meant when they’ve asked for vivid details, but most have indicated that it’s physical details they want.

But written stories are not movies. The purpose sharing information in a story is to give the reader a sense that something happens. It’s necessary to offer a few physical details to establish the characters exist in the world of the story. If you feel you don’t need quotes around dialogue and the reader plays along, it’s a story. If you mixed tenses and an editor plays along and approves it for publishing, it’s definitely a story. And even if I, the lowly writer, feel strongly convinced by what I’ve accomplished and refuse to change it, it’s a story. As long as I feel that way when I read it again. Even as  flaws become obvious (which happens with published work), it’s possible to see the success that no one else did. What I’ve learned from the attempt will inform the next attempt, but hopefully I’ll internalize the important parts of what I’ve learned and forget the rest. Focusing too much on the prescribed parts pulls us away from writing an interesting whole. Most of my writing time is spent translating personal, preverbal language into what others might understand. It takes an enormous amount of time. As frustrating as it is, I accept it as part of the job.

The rules are mostly bullshit. At best, they’re guideposts that are true often enough to keep the masses convinced they’re true, but in practice, they don’t lead you to where you need to go, nevertheless to places you want to go and probably need to invent. The guideposts are small and poorly constructed, obviously a bureaucratic excuse that help was offered. You can’t see the next one from this one, and there’s so much room between them, you can get lost, which is exactly what I’m trying to learn to do. I could bleed to death and die of exposure, but there really are so many other ways the story could go.

The Day We Destroyed the City

On some sweet Saturday in April that convinced us it was June, David called me and said he had to get out of the house. By he, he meant we. The rose garden at Loose Park was a known cure for cabin fever, we agreed. Although the roses weren’t blooming yet, we could imagine what they would look like, and the stone work was lovely year-round.

We were both far too pale to deal with laying out or walking around without shirts, though. I felt no shame wearing shorts and, after some adamant convincing, got him to agree to put some on. To my great surprise, he was actually wearing them when he picked me up. The first thing I did was make fun of his pasty white legs. He then complimented me on my knobby knees. Throwing inhibitions to the wind, but grasping tight to our egos, we took off for a day of citified nature.

Loose Park spread out for we-didn’t-know-how-many square city blocks right in the middle of Kansas City. It was my ideal fantasy of what the country was like (only because I had conveniently forgotten the weekends my family spent visiting friends who lived on a farm). I preferred a little nature with my city, not the other way around.

All of the parking spots by the rose garden were full, so we drove around until we found a spot along the street at the other end of the park. We took the walkway that hugged the circumference of the park all the way around, through trees, across a little bridge that stretched across a pond, then by the playground. David wanted to stop  to play on the swings. I think he needed to stop. Within a year, he wouldn’t be able to walk very far without resting. He’d have to quit his job, go on disability, spend even more time alone. My job that day was to help him forget what was coming. If I hadn’t already known, everything about him that day might have left me blissfully ignorant. Continue reading

Getting Elevated

The doors shut me in the elevator. I can’t reach any of the buttons. To get into the elevator, I hoisted myself up onto the ash can that was about as high as my waist and I felt the rim of it dig into my little almost-four-year-old knees so I could poke the call button. I wanted really bad to make it light up like my Dad did after we checked into the motel.

But there’s no ash can in the elevator, just flat, brown carpeting, which can’t give me a boost. The elevator doors are shiny but dull metal, so I can only sort of see myself in them. My face looks like a blob I’ve colored with a peach crayon, and my t-shirt is red and goes way outside the lines. My reflection only reaches halfway up the doors as I stand in the middle of the elevator car, then feeling it start to sink downward, I brace myself against the rail on the fake-wood wall. The ceiling seems to be made of an eerie, bluish, buzzing light, not too bright for me to stare at.

When the doors open, there are people pushing into the elevator with legs like small trees too big for a little kid like me to dodge around. I’m not good at games about dodging or running or even hiding. I like to look at pictures and make up stories so my Mom or Grama make pleased faces or laugh. That’s all I want to do now, and I’ll never run off again if I can find them. They’re somewhere in the motel, which is in someplace called Houston, a “sweaty hell hole,” according to my Dad, where we came to visit some relative who’s getting married. I don’t know what that means except that I get to wear the suit I’ve worn the few times Mom has dragged me to church. The doors shut again. Continue reading

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