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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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Portrait of the Writer as a Li’l Whippersnapper

j3black in 1974, age 5.

j3black in kindergarten (1974, age 5)

This kid was a real pip. I liked being him/her/me.

The picture was taken when I was in kindergarten. Life was already starting to wear me down, but I still had some fire. By third grade, I’d be lost for a while as I did a slowburn implosion for about ten years, until I came out, which sparked a slow-motion explosion that is still affecting the universe.

But then, at five, in my dissheveled red/pink (what color *is* that?) leisure suit, I was thrilled to be sitting there to have my picture taken. You can see my excitement to have woken up that day. Anything was possible.

I love looking at my eyes in this photo. I was already experiencing anxiety at that age. Before that photo was taken, on my first day of school ever, I weeped when Mom dropped me off. I didn’t want to go to school. Others felt the same way, including my friend Jan, who cried harder than I did. I remember feeling that my pain couldn’t compare to hers, so I let mine go. The first few weeks of kindergarten were pretty good.

But after this photo was taken, at the Halloween party, I completely lost my shit when The Wicked Witch of the West showed up. The other students taunted her, which riled her up, and I ran screaming to a corner of the room. She came to me, and I screamed harder until I realized she was a room mother hiding behind green makeup and a black, pointy hat. Continue reading

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The Front Side of 40

On Thursday, I celebrated my 40th birthday. By “celebrated,” I mean that my partner, Doug, took me to a local brewery where we gorged on foods made of cheese and bread and potatoes. Next, we waddled to a nearby bookstore to do some shopping. Just before we were about to crash from our carb-induced high, we got some coffee and rested up for a visit to our favorite ice cream stand.

The only way this birthday was different than others was that we didn’t know about that ice cream stand last year. Otherwise, My Big 4-0 was no big deal.

But a few of my friends made comments that got me wondering. “This is the big one. So…how are you doing?”

Of course, I’ve pondered what it would mean to reach age 40. Compelled to obsess, I ponder meanings. A few days before the big day, I started writing a poem, sort of an “On the Occasion of…” poem. It ended up being about Doug and me, particularly how much of my life we’ve been together. Our relationship has lasted 3/8 of my life, so far. I’d considered the numbers before, but I’d never done the math. Although I’m not exactly a numbers person, I know that’s a significant fraction. Continue reading

Going Around the Block to Get Next Door

1:29 p.m.
AAAAHHHHH! Everybody and everything are in my way today. I wanted nothing more than to get to the coffeehouse and do some writing. On my way out the door it started to rain and so one of the dogs freaked out a little, probably because she expected thunder. I had to wait until she calmed down then repeat parts of my crazy OCD routine because my anxiety was amped up.

On the way I got behind a moron in the passing lane, which isn’t unusual but always bad. The drive-up ATM wasn’t working, so I had to get out of the car and go inside. That took an extra 90 seconds! Then I got stuck behind a truck with an enormous load of lumber. It trudged along and of course didn’t turn off to 522 but continued straight down Market Street, right in front of me all the way to the side street where I usually park, but it was closed so five workers could re-paint lines for the six spaces on that street.

Okay. I’m here. I’m fine. Gosh, that really wasn’t so bad.

1:47 p.m.
Some under-parented child keeps hovering at the end of my table. She’s wearing ruby slippers (well, red sequined slippers, but still very Dorothy (Gale, not Zbornak)). So I’ve got to give her props, but her constant dancing and jabbering and staring at me are really pretty distracting, mainly because the two adults with her (parents I presume) aren’t paying much attention to her. They could be interacting with her, but apparently a laptop and a newspaper are more interesting than a child.

If it were a loud, annoying adult, I could just turn up my music. And if I were a truly vicious person, I’d have to point out that her little ruby slippers don’t exactly go with the lilac stripes in her sundress. But I hate to see a kid ignored. They probably think the looks I’m giving them is judgment on their kid. No, dude; I’m judging you. Parent is also a verb. Try it.

Oh, he’s talking to her. Hey, I’m good. Like a psychic supernanny.

2:03 p.m.
What did I come here to write? Continue reading

Books: Real and Imagined

Today, I traversed the rows of an enormous field of used books, and I reaped hard. A local library held its annual book sale. For $15, you can fit as many books as possible in a medium-sized shopping bag. As the librarian who took my money pointed out, I had a little bit of room left in mine. Oh well.

It was fun not to know what I might find and to end up with so many books I’ve wanted. Like most people who love books (and really–isn’t this cohort as unique as lovers of major holidays or chocolate?), the enjoyment comes from the sensations: the heft of the book in my hands, the way it smells, the sound of the pages as I turn them.

The tactile pleasures of books-as-objects don’t mean so much to me that I would resist using e-texts. I’m still holding out for an option I can afford and would feel comfortable using. Using new formats takes patience and practice. Since I’m not the best reader of paper-based books, I’m open to new possibilities.

My biggest concern is that it won’t be possible to share virtual books. I must emphasize the verb “share.” In computer terms, I’m making a distinction here between moving book files and simply copying them. The former is a way to share books, whereas the latter is how you give them away, which is problematic when the book is yours but the rights are not. Continue reading

Less Than Stellar

Advertisers love me because I know what’s true: commercials are the reason TV exists. I only pretend to understand the term “commercial interruption.” As so-called programming transitions into a commercial, I harumph along with my fellow TV watchers, but I don’t share their frustration. I feel relieved to finally get down to business.

Any commercial may grab my attention. I appreciate high-quality persuasion. A fine balance of pathos, logos, and ethos rocks my world in advertising just as it does in other forms. But I admit that I am drawn to a certain characteristic: less-than-stellar production values. When it’s clear that a company has set a limit on how far it will go to get me to buy a product, well, I probably won’t buy it, but I admire that kind of honesty.

Currently, I’m a little fascinated by the Snuggies Designer Series commercial. I find no false advertising in it. The advertiser unashamedly shows you how you can look wearing a backward bathrobe made of zebra- or leopard-print fleece. The disembodied voice says it “looks as good as it feels,” and I’m going to trust she’s telling me the truth.

If only I had some of the problems that Snuggie allegedly addresses, I might buy one, but I have no problem staying warm while lounging on my sofa, petting my dog, or any of the other issues mentioned. The free gift (a press-and-open booklight) does not sweeten the deal. Somehow I am able to appreciate yet resist the offer.

It’s amazing how much this kind of commercial has not changed over the years. Within a minute or two, you are presented with images of people (actors) happy because of the product, and you learn that you can get the product and more (a free gift and/or double the offer) if you call immediately. I can’t remember ever calling, but I enjoy the game.

For a brief time many years ago, I wanted to become a star of less-than-stellar commercials, perhaps because I loved the irony of such a goal. I was signed up with a talent agent, who sent me out on go-sees for print, TV, and industrial jobs. I quickly learned most talent, including me, didn’t have the look to do fashion modeling. But there was decent money to be made playing common people. I rose to the challenge to be common and landed a commercial for a product called the Stretch-Out Strap. The strap was designed with loops that help the customer do various stretching exercises.

The director guided me and a young woman through various scenarios in which the product made our workouts easier. I remember smiling a lot, but I had to be prompted. I understood that the product was useful (and I’m impressed to see that it’s still being sold), but I did not have a gift for communicating unfiltered glee about poking my foot through a loop. Continue reading

Vi-Char’s Customized Mish-Mash

Jane and I are in Vermont to attend a workshop on disabilities training, which begins tomorrow. We’ve managed to get in some talk about writing and life and general gossip, but she has to respond to papers. Witness how diligently she works.

Jane, working.

Jane, working.

Meanwhile, I am working on an outline. My deadline: June 30, or thereabouts. Actually, I finished, but writing the explanation that will accompany it is the hard part.

Jane and I work well together, or more accurately, not quite together. She does her thing, and I do mine.

However, I’m distracted by the scary, pee-colored lighting. And there’s a portrait of a woman in Victorian garb with bows on her shoulders and around her neck.  She is understandably bug-eyed. We worry that Violet-Charlotte (our name for her, or Vi-Char for short) suffocated while being photographed.

Jane says the same portrait is hanging in her room in the same spot on the same wall. The layout of our rooms is the same, although each room has a customized mish-mash of decor that is at once 60s, 80s, colonial, and lodge–yet achieves the style or comfort of none of these. The portrait only adds to the feeling of unease, despite Vi-Char’s dedication to watching over everything.

Stars

I wanted feathered bangs like Farrah’s.

I wanted to make the sidewalk light up with each step as Michael did in the “Billie Jean” video.

Farrah’s cleavage turned me on when I was a kid, mainly because I thought I wasn’t supposed to see it, even though that beaded gown was designed to show it off, and that photo was on the cover of Time for all to see.

Michael moved his body in oddly graceful ways that put me in a trance. I don’t care if it makes me one of the mindless masses; his moonwalk was thrilling to watch, even when he lip-synched.

Both of them worried too much about how they looked and went too far with cosmetic surgeries. They were beautiful. Maybe didn’t realize it. Or maybe they did and hoped they could preserve their youth.

I won’t think about this for long. I wasn’t a big fan of either. It was impossible not to notice them, though. They were big, bright stars, and I was a kid who wanted to matter. They were there for me to admire, and no one gave me a reason not to.

They seem like people I once knew well, but at some point, we grew apart.

Remembering them is a pleasant distraction, not sorrowful at all, except for remembering how sad I was back then and how much time I spent gazing at stars, hunting for my place in the constellations.

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