Book stuff

The book I wrote will be public later today (it will be available in early April). I don’t want to oversell it, but I’m proud of a couple of things: it’s not a serious book–it’ll be shelved under humor in some stores; it’s still about a subject I know a little more about than the average bear. I did have to do quite a bit of research but I knew where to look for that research.

A few years ago my profile as a writer was pretty serious. I covered mostly crime, often heavy stuff, not silly “dumb criminal” stuff. I’m still into true crime as a subject, but I have to admit the fact I got a chance to write something that might be funny in any way means a lot to me. This is an anti-funny way of putting it, but it’s true.

A thing I noticed about many writers and people into true crime is even if they were funny in conversation, it rarely showed in writing or discussion. This makes sense given the serious nature of crime, but at the same time it was really stifling.

So when I decided I wasn’t going to focus solely on crime anymore as a writer, I kind of looked for refuge in something else that’s always been hugely important to me: comedy.

I come from a funny family. My sarcastic, wickedly ironic father, and my sly, observant, witty mom. My late brother could have a room of people in tears when he was really on. We laugh a lot and always have. As a kid I tended to make friends with funny people. Starting in the late 70s I was more often listening to comedy albums than music, even though I ended up majoring in music in college. I have ridiculous opinions on comedy and a pretty specific list of people whom I find funny, favorite comedians and writers. A few are even friends—or at least friendly acquaintances—now.

There’s something satisfying in a personal way in knowing my first book will be organized under entertainment, as humor. That some familiar with my past work as a writer might even find it a real head-scratcher, that it’ll seem like a big 180 to them. It isn’t, though. It just feels a little closer to my natural bent as a writer and as a person.

And I hope it’s not the last book I have on those shelves, either.

Here’s a Thought: Download Whatever the Hell You Want

There are some people—and full disclosure here, I’m one of them—who will download every new social app that comes along.

A short list of some I’ve tried:

  • Pheed
  • Ello
  • This one I forgot
  • That other one I forgot
  • The one you were probably using when you clicked through to read this
  • Google+

… and most recently, the mobile-only app, Peach.

I know I’m not alone in doing this. Here’s a funny thing I’ve noticed and I’m sure anyone reading this noticed as well—a ton of people seem embarrassed to admit it when we check these things out.

For some of us it’s just a self-effacing joke. Others still are just joking, period, because everything on the internet can seem vaguely ridiculous sometimes. But I have to believe there are a few people who genuinely feel embarrassed to be curious about whatever app caught their eye when a friend tweeted about it.

If there isn’t a sense of embarrassment, there’s an immediate skewing toward cynicism. ‘Oh what’s this bullshit app about? I’m supposed to love this now?’

This I get. I’ve felt that way too. A lot.

Today, though, it occurred to me: I’ll download and check out whatever fucking app I want. For whatever purpose. I might make fun of it after I use it, sure—I’ve been on Facebook for eight years and honestly refuse to ever stop making fun of it.

I felt kind of angry at myself because I’d downloaded Peach and posted the same sort of first post I see so many of my friends throw up on such services: “WHY AM I BOTHERING WITH ANOTHER ONE OF THESE.”

What made me angry was this sudden sense I had that there’s an element among those of us who immediately feel embarrassed or something when downloading a social app that there really must be something wrong about doing it. I joked to a friend on Twitter that I’d felt immediate shame at downloading Peach, but you know, I did feel a minor burst of that.

It occurred to me, though: why am I ashamed for wanting to be social? I live in a place I like and do a job I like but the place is over 1000 miles from old friends and extended family and I’m a freelance worker. I communicate mostly with co-workers through Slack. (A messaging app designed much like a good social app but skewed toward workplace use.) I’m also a dad and my two youngest kids still at home are on the autism spectrum. Since I have the work-from-home job I have to do a lot of the kid-related legwork that parents do as well. Why wouldn’t I want to reach beyond my everyday and chat with friends on the West Coast? Or friends in the U.K.? Or, of course, in Canada?

When I was home for a visit in Nashville recently, I told my sister Sherry I thought she and I both were by nature introverted people who had to learn at some point to be extroverted. Like, I think extroversion is to some degree acquired. Perhaps for everyone. If you met Sherry or me you’d think we were loudmouthed peas in a pod (‘Huffs are loud and talk over each other and everyone else’ is how I imagine many friends and even extended family have seen us as a group over the years), but we talked a lot about how much we like being alone sometimes.

Fact is, I did acquire both some social skills and the occasional desire to socialize. I have certainly liked talking to people in the past. Getting to know them. The older I get, the more I realize I’m stuck with that social part of me, as long as I feel I have a certain amount of choice in the matter.

And social apps provide a pretty damned safe route into doing that, on the whole.

What the hell is wrong with wanting, or even admitting to needing any sense of connection to others? Not a goddamned thing.

Think about it: in prison the most brutal thing you can do to an inmate isn’t even beating him or her. It’s prolonged solitary confinement.

Without any social connection at all, humans tend to lose their minds.

Yes, there are volumes of criticism of social media still to be written. It promotes mob behavior. It can encourage bullying and trolling. Nuanced thinking can get lost and binary thinking rules the day. Of course social apps all come with the same curses, because they come with other people using them.

Still, I’ve made friends online. Hell, I met my wife online back when people generally considered doing such a thing some kind of thrill-seeking act of self-destructive insanity (as opposed to today, when it seems like the norm). I love some of the friends I’ve made online as much as I ever loved a friend made in school, in rehearsal, or backstage at a show. It seems to take longer to feel like a friend from the internet is a real friend—I read body language and tone, and you mostly miss that—but eventually, you do.

That’s actually pretty beautiful, if occasionally a little strange to an aging Gen Xer like me.

Social media is full of silly bullshit and can often reflect the very worst sort of lazy behavior both intellectually and emotionally, but social apps are here to stay. They’ll evolve as we do. There will be new ones hitting app stores or being linked to every year.

Chances are I’ll try them all. I’ll abandon some right away. Others I’ll stick with for a time then forget. Still others I’ll stay steady with, use once a week at best. And of course there will always be mainstays I check every single day. Because that’s where I have some pretty good friends, folks I’d hang with anywhere.

There ain’t a damn thing wrong with that. For me, or you.

Hometown Boy

nashville-tnphotoI’ve been thinking a lot about my recent trip to Nashville. I didn’t do much, really. It was mainly to see my folks, as we’ve missed each other a lot, and I spent most of my time with them, which was great. But thanks to my best friend Anthony​ I did get a look around and did get out a tiny bit, enough to remember some things I love about my hometown and things I don’t.

I love Nashville humor. Bear with me here. I think people who come from or just live some place long enough learn that place’s character. Nashvillians tend toward a sly, sweet-toned but sometimes cutting kind of humor that’s probably lost on the average visitor. But I catch it and I love it. My dad has that kind of humor. So does my mom, sister and my friend Anthony. I don’t know how best to describe it past “knowing” and “subtle,” but it’s a vibe I only get in Nashville. Example: Nashvillians are masters of making fun of you to your face and leaving you still thinking they’re just the sweetest, ever. Maybe we learn to do it as a way to flip off tourists without making them feel like anyone’s been rude to them.

I kind of hate the very thing the world knows Nashville for now. Do I even need to point it out? I don’t hate country music itself. In fact I like old country more every year. But the modern country music *thing*. Whatever it is that’s turned lower Broad and 2nd Avenue into teeming hives of tourists in fanny packs and cowboy hats night and day. This is probably the cri de coeur of many old school Nashville natives. We still fondly remember when 2nd Ave. was OUR THING, and even a little bohemian. Pretty sure there’s nothing remotely bohemian down there anymore.

My perverse love of a certain kind of tackiness is thoroughly Nashvillian. I realized this while I was there. I was charmed by every pair of boots with jeans and every carefully styled but “casual” country hairdo.

I love the fact you can live in New England and not need to make more than a 10 mile drive for any reason in part because going back to Nashville after a bit I immediately wondered how any of us ever did ALL THAT DAMNED DRIVING. The whole south is like that to some degree, but in Nashville and Atlanta it’s kind of extreme. You just drive, and drive, and drive. If you have a good buddy or beloved relative to chat with as you do, it’s fine. If you do it alone it feels a little crazy. How did we do all that driving all those years? It’s nuts.

I love our accents, and I love simple politeness. I love hearing “yes ma’am” and “no sir” used as part of casual conversation and realizing no one saying it is being sarcastic at all. I still love RC Cola and Moon Pies and had to really school myself to not go through a few Goo-Goo Clusters while waiting for a flight at the Nashville Airport.

I don’t like the weather. When I dream about Nashville, the skies are always gray. When I remember some things, the same. The fact is Nashville probably has more sunny days than where I live now per year but my memories of the weather weren’t undone at all by my trip there. I looked out my parents’ back windows at the hills beyond, being stripped for new suburban homes, and the pearl-colored skies, and I thought, ‘yep, that’s what it’s like here.’

I found myself blue that Antioch—where I grew up, which already was the kind of Nashville address that might get you funny looks from other Nashvillians 30 years ago—has become so run down. It was weird to see so many familiar buildings either derelict or bearing completely unfamiliar names.

Sitting in the Airport Whitt’s BBQ eating a pork bbq plate and listening to a couple sing classic country duets at the Airport Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge next door, I started crying.

Not bad crying. Not a desire to stay. But more an expression of love not just for the place where I was born, but for the people who go there. Who live there. For their dreams, and their music. I realized just how Nashville I was, as a person. And that I was fine with that. Proud, in fact. And I realized that even if I’m never there for more than a week again, even if home may be what many from Tennessee would consider the freezing hell of New England, I’ll always be a Nashville boy, and love the place for the time I spent there. And there will always be friends and family, folks I love, living there still. I cried because I felt a little more complete than I did when I landed four days before.

I cried because it was Nashville, there were high lonesome sounds in my ears, and damned good barbecue on the end of my fork. Sounds about right. No matter where I live, the rest of my life, sounds like home.

Ignoring

Tonight there was another screaming fracas in the street below. I don’t know what about. My wife and I were too busy watching funny videos. All I know is in the end there was no one dead in the street nor did we hear the sound of gunshots. 

So no harm no foul. 

It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just sometimes you have to shut out the world. The shouting. The squealing tires. Shut it out and watch funny videos. 

For the mouse is a creature of great personal valor…

humorous-157_smallMice are cute but no one wants them in the house.

We got our cat Bella to catch mice and other vermin and she has been a phenomenally successful little hunter. When we lived in Georgia she killed mice, lizards and at least one rat.  Here in Worcester, Massachusetts I’ve lost count of her mouse tally, but it’s in the double digits.

Bella’s hunting skills are great because mice really freak out my wife, Dana.​ And if I’m being honest, they give me the willies, too. I’m embarrassed by that, considering I grew up in a rural area, but I can’t just make myself not be creeped out.

When Bella catches one I’ve found I can handle scooting it into a small bucket, taking it outside and dropping it in the storm grate.

This is not necessarily a death sentence if the mouse is merely stunned when I get it in the bucket (Bella has killed them outright merely by pouncing on them) because they are great little swimmers; I tell myself I’m giving the little guys some kind of fighting chance they definitely wouldn’t have with Bella.

Tonight, Bella caught two mice in a row. The second she killed in the process of pouncing on it. By the time I had it in a small bucket (wearing thick, suede work gloves the whole time–told you they freaked me out) it was gone. It plopped in the brackish waters beneath the storm drain grate and floated there, motionless, another bit of refuse.

The first mouse, though–when I saw her with it, the mouse was cornered beneath a cabinet in the kitchen, all twitching whiskers and contained energy. Bella would swat it, stun it, and then it would recover and try to scamper away.

I trapped it beneath the overturned bucket. I put on the work gloves, and scooted it in the bucket. Then I called my 14-year-old daughter into the room and made her pull a couple of paper towels so I could cover the bucket and ensure the mouse didn’t spring out as I carried it downstairs.

I carried the mouse in the bucket down to the street. The night was warm and still, and headlights flashed far up the street. I crossed to the storm grate and upended the bucket.

The mouse slid out and hit the thick metal grate. It bounced, found its bearings and sprang onto the pavement, and it was gone, running as fast as its tiny legs could go.

Whatever vestigial hunter remains in my brain tracked it visually and for a moment I wondered if I should take a handful of long strides and stomp it flat, leave some message to the universe about the minor brutalities of man under the street lights.

I let it go. And as I walked back into the house I wished it well. I imagined it rushing across that vast expanse of black pavement towards the safety of shadows, wondered if it felt something like relief even as it fled.

I don’t want that mouse in my house, but tonight it is my hero.

Is it weird?

OK, definitely not all. But maybe more.
OK, definitely not all. But maybe more.

My Twitter friend Amanda Mull, the managing editor for PurseBlog, tweeted a link at me about a strange crime yesterday, then followed up with this question:

I’ve been thinking about that question today. My answer last night was that it was less weird than it used to be, but still strange.

And it is strange, but I realized today that I no longer feel so bad about that.

I started to write something much longer here about me and true crime but realized I’d just be repeating myself. So…

A while back my friend Quinn told me she was sure I’d get back to covering true crime stories in some form. I didn’t argue but I felt a little skeptical. Turns out she’d observed something I’d only been half aware of: my interest in the subject was as strong as ever. Only my desire to really dig into stories I found unusually interesting waned.

Additionally, I’ve gotten over my wariness regarding the label “true crime writer”–or in my case, blogger. I know I’m just a writer, full stop, but I no longer feel the need to try and correct anyone who wants to pigeonhole me with terminology.

I just want to write about shit I find interesting. Especially if I figure out I might have something to add to the subject, even if all I add is my own weird perspective.

That’s what I’m doing by going from maybe a post a month on this blog to, what, three in one day? I’m shaking off a bunch of old crap. Finding whatever my groove may be now.

Let’s see where this goes.

It might get dark.

Hope you’re cool with that.

Medium vs. WordPress

I had almost decided to park my blogging efforts at my Medium address. Medium has become a better blogging site than it once was. The final product looks great once you publish. I get the impression it’s pretty easy to get eyeballs on your stuff if you have a Medium site. Then I read this post by my friend Scott Bateman, which states, “Due to Medium not valuing creative people who bring them literally millions of page views, you can now find my chart-like charts at chartlikecharts.tumblr.com.”

Scott was one of the creators (writers and artists) doing paid work for Medium until about a month ago, when the site peremptorily ended the popular publications featuring those folks’ works.

I’m a shitty team player. I never have been good at that sort of thing. I’m certain it’s a personality flaw, plus an impulse to take charge that is often counterproductive, at least in some situations. But I do have a sense of solidarity with many groups of people, including creatives like Scott.

His post made me think, “fuck it, I have my WordPress space, I know WordPress, I can make it look how I want.” That made my decision for me. I’m not going to use the site much, if at all ever again, if that’s how they dealt with a talented guy like Scott.

It isn’t trying to be weirdly holier-than-thou for me, it’s just understanding how it feels to have people suddenly discount your work.

My first professional writing was for Crime Library, a site that has been defunct (after many incarnations over the years, some very high profile) since last August, officially.

To be clear, it was an amazing opportunity. For web-only writing, it paid well (in hindsight). I had more leeway than I realized at the time to cover what I wanted. I’m grateful I got to do it and grateful to the person who gave me the opportunity.

However, nearly a year into the gig–it was “perma-lance,” not staff writing–I submitted an article about a truly horrible aspect of a crime I was actively covering for Crime Library and on my own crime blog. A serial molester and killer of children, Joseph Edward Duncan, had apparently recorded some of his crimes on video. Just the fact he did was nightmarish enough, and I reported it as straight as I could, but it was clear, I think, that I was really horrified. I’m queasy thinking about what I learned even now.

I don’t remember the title I suggested for what I wrote, but I know it went against news practice by being more suggestive of the horror of the crime than explicit.

When the article went live on the site I was fucking sick to see the title had been changed to “JOSEPH EDWARD DUNCAN’S PORN TAPES.” (That may not be the 100% accurate actual title but it’s very close.)

Writing about crime in an appropriate way is hard enough. I have not always succeeded, at all. That time I’d done the best I could and I came to find out that the editor had changed the article title to that leering tabloid bullshit after consulting with an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) expert.

I don’t recall how long I kept working with Crime Library after that, but my disgust weighted everything I did, so it wasn’t long. It wasn’t the same as what happened to Scott Bateman with Medium at all, but I suspect the sudden realization your work had no value to the publisher the way it might matter to you was probably similar.

So that’s the root of a simple, dumb decision to stick with one blog platform or another, this time. WordPress mostly knows it’s a tool others use to try and present their thoughts in whatever way is most pleasing to them. Medium, after Scott’s experience, and in reviewing the homogeneity of all its publications, feels a little more like a product of some kind of vaguely dystopian thinking. Like hey, be a special part of the hive mind, we’ll even pay you, until we won’t. No to that. Nope.