I make excuses to myself…

…but really, there are a few reasons my desire to just blog for the heck of it ebbs and flows. And it’s more often ebbing. One is that I write and edit for a living so I see words all damn day. I never realized there would be moments when I just couldn’t read another thing or feel so emptied of eloquence I didn’t want to bother writing. But that’s been happening inside my head for years.

Also, there are rules to what makes blogging work, get new eyeballs, etc. At least in professional digital publishing. So when I get to my own blog I don’t want to fuck with those. Like, “Always have an image! People are more likely to read on if there’s an intriguing image!”

Well yeah, I get that. I have no objection in my day job to ensure every post I’m responsible for in any way has a grabby, interesting image as a draw. Even better if there’s a well-chosen video or I’ve padded it out with relevant tweets. That’s the job and I’m gonna do it right.

When it’s just me, I just want to write. I write a shocking amount by hand in journals and on notebooks to get my brain limbered up and working. One of the joys in that is I only have to please myself with what’s on the page. I get to a blank blogging CMS edit screen here, I don’t want to worry that no one will bother if there’s not an image. I kind of resent the feeling I need an extra hook, I guess. Plus, choosing that media is extra mental energy and creativity that could be directed at something more permanent.

Then there is the fact that I established I could get paid for this 16 years ago and have made a living doing it ever since. There comes a point when a personal site like this feels low-key like just giving it away for free. When I have what I think is a good story idea that might not fit the publication that employs me, I don’t think, “I’ll put it on my blog!”

I think, “wonder who I can sell this to as an article/book/show or documentary idea?” Because I know that possibility is always there for me (and make no mistake, I am eternally grateful for that; I know how lucky I’ve been). I tell myself sometimes that just putting it here will make it into a throwaway.

The word “throwaway” has nothing to do with those who do read it (you, whoever you are), it just has everything to do with the way Google and social media work.

That’s perhaps my buried lede, but again, this isn’t for work and if I want to present someone with a portfolio of my work it won’t be this blog, but stuff I got paid to do. I can bury all the ledes I want here.

People still blog plenty, but as Google kept adjusting itself to point away from personal sites owned by individuals who might not be able to produce professional-level reportage and writing, ranking sites, as Twitter and Facebook began coding all sorts of arcane rules based entirely on what Silicon Valley thinks is worthwhile, readership of workaday blogs dwindled to next to nothing.

Maybe that had to happen in some way, and there is no doubt I’ve benefited from it, too. But it slowly reduced the chances that you or I might really discover a site, or a writer.

My example of this: Fifteen years ago, I was googling about an unsolved crime from 2004 and the top result I got was TrueCrimeDiary.com — the crime blog established by the late author Michelle McNamara. At the time, no one in any online true crime community knew who she was, who she was married to, that she had real journalism training, etc. — but thanks to Google and Michelle’s innate gifts as a writer and journalist, I found her quickly and she became my first choice in “solo” bloggers to check out for reliable writing, reporting, conjecture, and thinking, in general.

We became friends and it still took me two more years to put it together that her “comedian husband” was Patton Oswalt. It was about the crime stories for us, especially the unsolved.

She said later that she’d found my blog within months of me beginning it pretty much the same way I’d found TCD.

Those connections are still possible online, and I’ve seen them happen a lot on Twitter, in particular. I’ve also made a ton of good friends on Twitter. It is hard to square in my head why that’s still possible, but keeping a blog up is hard because search engines have turned into Interstate highways steering between the big cities only. Personal blogging and whatever is left of the blogosphere seems to have become like Route 66 after Eisenhower’s big roads took over America — a pleasant, even quaint relic of an earlier time, one that is slowly pixellating over time and turning into so much digital sand. To extend the stupid metaphor.

I sat down to write this to work something out, as is probably obvious, and that’s another thing blogs provide to those interested — you sometimes get to watch someone work things through in their minds almost in real-time. That’s not too interesting to many people, but it is to me. The best we get now is Twitter threads, and those are hard to write and remain organized enough to permit the reader to follow your train of thought.

Work it out I did, though. In essence, I’m aware that the problem is almost entirely in my personal, subjective perception, though I’d submit it’s grounded in realities. A way for me to both be a lazy thinker and writer and not stretch. Something that becomes easier and easier to do with age.

(Side note: Something else I do to limit myself is constantly search for new online writing venues, even as I’m thinking the things I wrote about above. I tell myself I’m ensuring I’ve got my name and identity under control in that domain so no one can pretend to be me or whatever — which is something that can happen but is truly statistically rare — but I’m really putting off pushing myself a bit.)

I’ve got some story ideas I’ll work on this summer and I’m going to at least start here. One is simply too thin to make a book, or I’d consider it. Not enough information on it to flesh out a full read. I still feel compelled to write about it. It’s the story of a killer who might make you think of the Zodiac, or if you really know your true crime history, the Texarkana Phantom. This killer was neither, as far as I know. And there’s a possibility he never truly existed at all.

Giving myself a deadline on this would be setting up a situation I’d find easy to fail, so I’m just gonna say, soon.

And if you are reading this, especially all the blather above, thank you. However you got here, I’m glad you’re there.

 

Uncle Leroy Was a Country Singer

Leroy Lane in the center, standing, holding packages.

Uncle Leroy died in January 1972. I was 4 years old, and would not turn 5 till November that year.

That surprised me when I looked up his obituary. I have always remembered him so clearly, I forgot just how young I was. He was tall with narrow shoulders and he walked with the kind of hybrid cane and crutch that has handles and elbow braces. That’s him standing in the center of the photo above, which was published in the Nashville Banner in 1957.

Uncle Leroy had a form of muscular dystrophy or he wouldn’t be in the photo, which was made at the Brentwood Country Club, some kind of Christmas charity event for MD adults and kids.

Leroy Lane kept going for as long as he could. He had four kids like his younger sister, my mom. Like my mom, he had those kids with a strongly-built, temperamental redhead for a spouse, his wife Lois. As a result of that coincidence, his kids looked more like my siblings than cousins.

I remember I loved Uncle Leroy because he and my mom were a lot alike. A unique combination of sly wit and kindness. I was still more toddler than pre-K age but I was often compared to him. It was partly us all just looking like Lanes — any photo of my maternal grandfather reveals I inherited his facial bone structure, as did mom and Uncle Leroy.

The funny thing is, Leroy and I really had a lot in common. Far more than I knew at the time. Like music. Listen to the video below.

That’s Uncle Leroy singing in his big, plain voice. If you go listen to any number of lesser-known country singers from that time — the record was pressed in 1968 — well, well, well, well-well-well, he was just about as good as any of them.

Especially considering he had a disease that affected his upper body musculature and lung capacity.

I don’t know if taking a keen interest in my family’s stories long after many firsthand sources have “gone home to Jesus” (good old Southern Protestant phrase for being dead) is a byproduct of my own aging or what. I mean, I’m sure it is to some degree, but I wouldn’t have some of these clear memories had I not always had some interest in family.

Because all families are full of stories that could inform you about yourself and your own choices.

It doesn’t help that I’ve finally read Tolstoy, who was masterful at writing about the real inner lives of people tied together by blood and marriage, and my wife and I are also into genealogy, though she is by far the expert on that subject. If anyone thinks I’m a gifted researcher, they just haven’t met her yet.

For years I felt my interest in my own family stories was self-centered, or solipsistic. And perhaps it is. I knew for a fact, too, that it was at odds with the way I relate to my family. I’m the only one who ever moved over 1,000 miles away to live, thoroughly establishing myself in another part of the country. I’m certainly the only one who has done the kinds of jobs I’ve had, especially writing and editing. I’m from a long line of men who worked with their hands, dropping out of school in 8th grade, 11th grade, getting whatever higher education they needed from the military or on the job.

Majoring in voice and focusing on classical music, I did for a time feel sheepish about my white trash background. But with age, I’ve turned around and in a way, it has become a source of pride.

I’ve also thought about how my family was full of talkers and storytellers. I inherited that impulse and channeled it into writing. No matter how loquacious I might seem, I’m outwardly kind of quiet compared to people like my late paternal grandmother, late sister, or my dad.

So, with Leroy above and with the preceding post, which was the first installment in what will be a longer (somewhat fictionalized) story about Dad’s maternal relatives, I’ve begun to tell family stories. I am, in part, doing it for myself. I’m doing it to answer questions I have been asking in some form since I could speak. Also, because the story I began in the preceding post is so in line with how I launched my writing career — with true crime — I’m trying to trace patterns through generations to try and understand how they produced me, and what in me is an echo of those people and the lives they led.

Like Uncle Leroy, a good man with ambitions who overcame some mighty challenges for as long as he could.

Sometimes, you can still find 45s of Leroy’s songs on eBay. So it cheers me up when I think about them and know he left a little legacy.

I might even sing a duet with him one day, if I can ever figure out the software.

 

Genealogy, Part 1.

Gonzlaught @flickr

November 13, 1937

It was cold out but fair that night as Arthur Jasper Heflin walked along Franklin Pike. Middle Tennessee wasn’t as suburban as it is now, a place of shopping malls and celebrity sightings at the Outback Steakhouse by the Cool Springs Galleria. It was quiet once you left the pools of light by roadhouses like The Lousy Duck. Then you were under the canopy of stars and in the country of night, where the November trees were dead claws rising from graves, the green that would come in March seeming a century away.

Heflin went by Jasper. He was a laborer and farmhand by occupation, married to a lively woman named Mamie Johnson.

At some point during his walk, headlights appeared. They swayed a bit as they came down the long, gentle hill toward him. He bowed his head to keep the glare out of his eyes. He tried to step a little further toward the fence running between the highway and farmland. But something was wrong. The car wasn’t quite on the road. The driver was perhaps sleepy or drunk.

Jasper was a little drunk himself. He decided not to worry about it. A man couldn’t go through life afraid of everything. There was not enough whiskey in the world to ease that kind of fear.

Jasper thought of his occasional boss, a man they called the Bull o’ the Woods. It was an ironic name if you saw the man at a distance. He was slender and not even 5’10”. But he had the presence of a 7-footer with shoulders wide enough to haul a calf. That was a fella who wasn’t afraid of much, thought Jasper.

He looked up. The headlights of the oncoming car grew until they swallowed him.

November 14, 1937

The litany of injuries was gruesome:

  1. Compound comminuted fracture of the right frontal bone & extensive injury to the brain (his skull had virtually exploded on the right side)
  2. Fracture of both bones of both lower legs
  3. Secondary shock — due to loss of blood

They formed a list of what a good 1930s American sedan of modest size could do to the human body in the wrong hands.

The wrong hands that night, according to a report in the Nashville Banner, belonged to Frank Allen of North First Street. The shattered body belonged to the former Arthur Jasper Heflin.

Heflin’s wife Mamie, that lively girl, was alone in the world.

But she still had her job. A crisp $3 a week, cooking and cleaning for Ms. Bertha, whose nerves were constantly shot. At least in part due to her marriage to Jasper’s off-again, on-again boss, The Bull o’ the Woods, Harry Brent Dalton.

Mamie knew that Harry–my great grandfather–would take good care of her.


Note

The preceding is the first installment in a work of fiction based closely on real events. Some names have been changed to protect me from the wrath of elderly, distant relatives. 

While many dates will be accurate and events will be described as they were recorded in various legal and personal documents as well as aging memories, I elected to fashion the connecting tissues myself to lend structure to the narrative. 

Sources: Nashville Banner and The Tennessean via newspapers.com; a variety of archived Tennessee state civil records found via ancestry.com. 

So, I’m finally watching….

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, about the mysterious death of Elisa Lam. This is very frustrating. I’ve started this post two or three times and deleted each draft because I don’t want to sound like a bastard toward people doing what I essentially launched my writing career doing: “websleuthing,” kinda.

This series troubles me because the ultimate truth of Elisa Lam’s death isn’t chilling, real world horror as if she’d found herself trapped in some real world version of The Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining. Elisa Lam wrote openly about her struggles with mental health. Anyone who has ever witnessed another person in the throes of a psychotic state saw the infamous elevator video of Elisa at the Cecil and knew what they were seeing.

All the internet churn surrounding Elisa’s vanishing and death from amateur sleuth types was understandable — and ultimately pointless. People loaded up Youtube with hours upon hours of utterly pointless videos discussing this case, parsing every moment…and in the end it was a bipolar woman off her medication and actively psychotic.

Of course there are questions about Elisa’s death. There will always be. Many are legit, I don’t question asking them.

But as someone who has had a part in evolving online crime writing and websleuthing and as someone who has lost a sibling to mental illness, this particular series is really bothering me. I have no idea how it could’ve been made differently, but one thing that does occur to me is framing it as some kind of gritty true crime account is a disingenuous choice. It pulls the focus away from the person at the center of the story — this intelligent, creative, and sadly very troubled young woman — and onto the self-styled “sleuths,” especially.

But Steve, um, weren’t you kind of at the vanguard of this sort of thing? There were like, what, three crime blogs online when you started?

Yeah. I was. And I learned from every single thing I wrote about. One thing I learned is we begin immediately making up our own narratives about high-profile mysteries. And because most of us are not in law enforcement and privy to a huge load of actual, concrete evidence, we start reinforcing our theories. We put them online. People start coming up with counter-theories. Others question your interest, as if all humans aren’t immediately curious about the fates of others — because we are. That’s the root of so much interest from strangers in true crime cases, in real mysteries of any kind.

Elisa Lam’s death was a gruesome and incredibly sad mystery. The real story is about mental health, however. Crime Scene spends way too long framing its narrative like true crime before it finally digs into Elisa’s own writing about being bipolar.

It begins to feel, by the third installment, like this was a fascinating and complex 90-minute documentary shoved into multiple episodes. I say this as someone who has been in their position many times, too, but it relies far too much on the videos from “sleuths.” They feel by the end of the second episode like what they are: filler.

I’m watching Crime Scene to the end to give myself a chance to change my opinion because smart people I know who do genuinely good work with true crime are involved, and producer and director choices were not their call.

But maybe since I sat down today to record segments for a true crime show on an actual murder I wrote about 14 years ago when I ran crimeblog.us, I’m just thinking a lot about this whole true crime thing online and how it has evolved, especially since podcasting was revealed as perhaps the ideal web-centric format for it.

The subject is still a source of intense fascination for me. My best ideas for nonfiction books are true crime subjects. I am really finding out in the last couple of years, however, that my perspectives have changed. I don’t know if I just take it all much more seriously than I did or if this is a result of just aging and growing up, but there it is.

 

Something to push against

The author at the gym
Image: Huff
Person in the Image: Huff

Yeah that’s me and no I’m not doing Bane cosplay. It was just the best flu mask I could find before I headed to the gym.

After I had COVID earlier this year something went to work in my brain. Something that’s always been part of me. Best example: Sophomore year in college, late spring, and we were all dreading Music History. That was next up, all junior music majors required to take it. A band guy, brass player whose name I’ve forgotten but I still remember he looked like the Big Boy restaurant mascot but with serial killer glasses and a cheesy ‘stache, looked at me with a serious expression and said, “Don’t worry about Professor Olsen’s class”—the name of that year’s music history prof—“No one passes it the first time.”

The guy wasn’t being a jerk. He was sincere. Yet some alchemy just happened to take place in my brain right then, some combination of moment, mood, mindset. I said, “No one? Ever?”

”Far as I know.”

I took that as a personal challenge. Something to push back against.

Here is the silliest part: I was generally not a great academic student. I majored in music, vocal performance, and I lived for being onstage. I memorized my music early and diligently, always fulfilled my obligations as a singer to the hilt. But a lot of the academic side of music bored me. I was a low B student, basically.

Yet I decided then and there to be one of the best scholars Professor Olsen ever lectured, with his permanent handkerchief held to one side of his permanently leaky left nostril. I did it in anger. I was mad that anyone would dare lump me in with the masses of students in previous years and in years to come.

Junior year rolled around. I was in the class with two of the smartest people I knew, the woman to whom I was engaged at the time and the woman I would break up with her for and end up married to for 8 years. (I get horny for brainy people but refuse to ever use a term like “sapiosexual,” it just sounds…pathological.)

Both young women (52 and 54 today) were dedicated students in general and both were superb writers with razor-sharp, incisive minds. Both had already helped me limp through previous courses we took together. I feel bad about that today but at the same time, it would be 10 more years before I was diagnosed with ADHD.

I did not feel competitive, exactly, with either, but I did decide I would make better grades in this famously writing-heavy music history course than they did. On one hand, I look back today and that’s totally manic. An observer who knew all three of us might have laughed if I’d said that out loud.

I proceeded to do exactly that. At the end of junior year, Professor Olsen told me I was “the most incisive historical mind” he’d taught there, one of the finest writers, and cut out to practice law (he was, oddly, also an attorney). He had no idea what a shitty student I’d been and would be again in the future. And he might have been right about the law, I wondered myself. But just opening the LSAT study book made my eyes cross, so maybe not.

Anyway, I’m indulging myself here, but there is a point—I have frequently shocked myself by accepting a challenge no one even issued just to prove I can conquer it if I want. I remember every one, but the story of music history is the one that I often reflect on.

Sometimes I think catching COVID hit me a bit like that brass player’s laconic challenge. I came out of it saying to myself that I would respect the fact I survived the virus by completing a mission I began in earnest at 44: Making my aging body as ironclad as possible against whatever aging and life throws my way. I don’t have the natural energy to try and get superhuman with it, but now I feel like I did heading into that first history lecture junior year: weirdly assured I can accomplish the vaguely ridiculous goal I have in mind.

I don’t reject aging, that’s not it at all. In fact, since I turned 40 aging has been kind of, well, fun sometimes. I joke about it, but the truth is, I’m strangely proud of already making it this far.

That is, making my body “ironclad” isn’t about reversing the clock of my skin, fading spots or filling wrinkles. It is about making the man the age I am now as strong as he can be.

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I may get there.

Dithering

Here goes nothin’

It is a running joke in my marriage: How restlessly I shift from site to site looking for a place to land the words I put out when no one is paying me to write them. The web is littered with my digital detritus. I have an excuse to some degree—I have zero shame when it comes to squatting on a property (a subdomain, like my Medium address, for example) just to own my name, but what I struggle with is the actual tool itself. This thing I’m writing in now.

I’ve had Blogspot blogs—I sometimes post to this one still as a way to say “yep, haven’t forgotten”—and other WordPress sites. I’ve grabbed countless social media accounts. In the end I always find a way to get restless and look for something new.

This morning, however, I thought, “Man, fuck Medium and Substack and whatever the hell else needs to be fucked, I still have WordPress.”

And WordPress is a good tool. I’ll likely be using it for paid work again in the next year or so.

Also, I have friends on here who write and if this prompts them to get back at it, all the better.

I’m sticking with one tool…for now. I have to give myself that out. I reserve the right, that is, to change my mind.

For once, I’m not sure I will change my mind. I no longer want to use brain space thinking about stuff like whether I could make money on a Patreon or with a Substack. I’m using the tool I know best, the one that works.

The dithering is done.

Hi there.

In the years since I first began a blog in 2000 (my wife, then fiancee, inspired me to start one for reasons not worth going into now), I became a professional writer and editor. Blogging, which I initially enjoyed enough to daydream of doing it for a living, is what I do for a living. That plus writing the occasional book means it’s not a bad living, either.

What happened over time was the more I wrote for money, the less I wanted to give it away for free. That makes sense, right?

I would have a twinge of nostalgia sometimes over the last 11 years–I last kept a regular blog of my own in 2009 or so–and start something new, only to give it up again. There was an embarrassment factor in that as well. I have ADHD — not diagnosed until I was 33 — and have found I’m kinda sensitive about the way it affects my behavior. I can be disorganized and forgetful, easily overwhelmed. The word “flighty” comes to mind. To me it is an intensely negative, dismissive word, yet it certainly fits me where some subjects are concerned, at least on the surface.

…But what I’m saying is of course I worry that I’ll do it again. Write this post about how I want to do this more then not write anything personal and casual for the hell of it for a year or more. It’s like a running joke.

And I might, I don’t know.

But here are the facts as I sit here at 9:23 pm in Central Massachusetts on a warm August night: I have this blog, to which I’ve imported various blog posts written randomly over the last six-seven years, and I have this: truecrimepost.com.

At the moment the true crime blog contains crime blog posts I (again) imported from other destinations, just to flesh it out. They are missing images and links might be broken, but hey, there’s something there. I also frankly think it’s a good URL, which was important back in the early days o’ blogging, but who knows, now. So it might fire up too.

I have a Medium account at Huffwire.com. The only wishy-washy-ness I feel right now is deciding on which blog CMS to use — stick with WordPress or make myself Medium only. Medium is a lovely content management system and there’s a built-in audience… but it kind of pisses me off on a regular basis too. The writer’s program doesn’t work as well as Medium intended, I think, and for every intriguing Medium post that is well-written and worth reading there are 20 badly-written, semi-plagiarized piles of automated content farm level bullshit.

But I ramble, something I haven’t given myself permission to do in a while.

The thing about doing my own blogging again is it hit me recently that the things I do don’t really have a home online. I’ve kind of been coasting. I need to present more than just my whack-ass Twitter account to the world.

I’m a singer and a writer of more than men’s lifestyle stuff for Maxim or any other sites.

Also, I’ve believed for years now that the deprecating of longform personal blogging for “micro-blogging” was in some ways a mistake. It has led to a soundbite culture. That has its place but sometimes you don’t want to click the “thread” link on Twitter. You want to read the full thing written out and in editable form, should the writer make a mistake that needs correction.

I can’t bring that back and I can’t bring back crime blogging, make it supplant true crime podcasts, most of which I find either tone-deaf or severely lacking in bringing anything new to the table. I won’t even look at this as trying.

I just know it’d be nice to return to a more personal space. One where I don’t feel pressed to worry about SEO or whether I’ve got a goddamn image embedded every two paragraphs or so.

It’s worth a shot.