Plague Diary, 1.

And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world. This situation continued [from May] until September. ~ Agnolo di Tura, Siena, 1348 

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A medieval Plague Doctor (Wikimedia)

I’ve been thinking a lot about Agnolo di Tura, called The Fat.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic. In fact, I very strongly doubt the world in the grip of the Coronavirus Pandemicwill be anything like the graveyard that was Europe in the wake of the Black Death. Most things will go forward. There may even be opinion pieces written later about how it was all overblown.

One hopes, anyway.

I began with the passage above because this sentence is like a prose earworm in my brain, some days: “And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands.” If you read all of Agnolo’s narrative, you’ll see this is how it begins:

The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing. . . . It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship…

You can read the entire piece here.

There are other readings as well, but the image of Agnolo, a fat man struggling in the heat to bury his children under a merciless sun, has never quite left me. The simplicity of his narrative has always struck me as sorrowful in a timeless way. The kind of devastation that has no point in history because whatever the year on the calendar, it would be the same for anyone in similar circumstances. The words of a man writing nearly 700 years ago, and it’s almost as if you can still hear him sigh.

I’m mostly just following the brush with this post, which is being written on the kind of day that has always given me the creeps, because it is so like bad dreams I had as a child.

It is windy and a little chilly outside. Clouds are rushing by, white and gray, and the sun isn’t really out but I can see blue sky as well. The evergreens that rise behind the houses across the street are restless in the wind, which doesn’t moan so much as it murmurs.

I had a lot of wind-filled nightmares when I was a child.

One that I never forgot came shortly after watching the 1964 film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am LegendThe Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price. In that nightmare, I woke to a murmuring and constant wind pushing its way through my childhood home, which was in ruins. One of my sisters was just a mummy in a creaking swing on the back porch. I found myself outside then, and I stepped over two mounds in the driveway that I realized were my parents’ graves.

The wind never stopped, and I know I thought that whatever happened to everyone had come with the wind.

The dream ended at my elementary school, with me standing outside my kindergarten classroom, which was in shambles. I heard the distinctive ringing bounce of a red gym ball on the cement behind me, as if someone had just dropped one, and I turned to see a ball bouncing away, but there was no one there who could have dropped it.

And so I come back to this wind outside today, and all the coronavirus news skittering across my Twitter feeds, on my big-screen TV, and the Agnolo di Tura in my mind, hunched and sweating over the dead.

No one wants to know that kind of sorrow. No one wants to know how alone the man must have felt.

So I guess even the worst-case scenario imaginings in my mind regarding coronavirus are enough to shake me a bit, to rattle my cage.

There are probably many lessons to learn from Agnolo di Tura. The one that will not leave my thoughts today is something that first occurred to me after my brother committed suicide 20 years ago. Then again after my sister died from septic shock in 2016.

Sometimes it is a curse to survive.

Blogging and me

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I first created a blog in 2000. My wife got me started and I learned some early blogging conventions I still use today from her.

By 2005 I was a professional writer. I didn’t expect to become one, even though I’d dreamed of it as a kid. It happened after I’d spent 5 years honestly just blogging about whatever the hell occurred to me. I wrote about a ton of subjects, from personal stuff to the paranormal, just whatever hit me as interesting. Eventually I settled in the groove of just crime blogging and that was what led to the paid work—which eventually was the main thing I did.

I’ve maintained a couple of WordPress sites—this one and a crime blog—in spite of rarely using them. I may have used Medium more in recent years. I’ve been unsure as to why, the whole time.

I write up to 18, sometimes 20 blog posts a week. They are all for my work as a contributing writer and the weekend digital editor for Maxim magazine. It’s all content only appropriate for Maxim, subjects of interest to the mag’s readers. Subjects that don’t necessarily always interest me.

When this has occurred to me and I’ve considered blogging about whatever I’m really into there’s been this feeling of “Ugh. I write all the time. My brain can only handle so much.”

But not lately. And Twitter, which I unapologetically use a lot, doesn’t always cut it.

And the thing is, I feel like I found something in those early days blogging. I don’t mean writing ability or anything, but a freedom inside my brain that I have since reeled in, for some reason.

Maybe I’ll resume with the memory of those early blog days in mind. Plenty of people read my paid work now, but few read this. That’s a freedom I should take advantage of. Especially since I turn 50 soon.

Living half a century gives you just enough to talk about it might be worth the trouble.

On grief

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My sister Sherry Huff in her early 20s.

It’s been one month and three days since she went away. My sister, my friend. My second mother. Brash and beautiful and loving. One month ago, on June 6, I was writing this, her eulogy. Today I realized, as I was going for a short run before the heat set in, that even if I’m fine day-to-day, even if I get work done, I’m still filled with sadness and a sense of loss that’s somehow tinged with anger.

And yet I also think I write too much about grief. I was just looking at Huffwire—a separate Medium blog I set aside to publish slightly more finished things I couldn’t figure out how to pitch to people who’d pay me for them—and saw it. All the grieving. I’m not sure how to get past it, at the moment. I joke a lot on my Twitter feeds, I’ve written a book that is sold under “Parody” on Amazon and am writing another in a similar voice. I don’t even think of myself as a gloomy guy.

Grief has figured in my writing life for so long. I guess in part it’s my way of processing things—writing it out—and that’s good, perhaps, because others can maybe see they’re not alone in feeling some of the things that go with mourning. It’s also bad because it can lead to accusations of self-dramatization. The worst of those accusations come from inside my own head, of course.

But here I am, writing about it again. And not sure what I’m saying. Perhaps just writing things out to see them on a screen, hoping once they’re out they’ll burn off under the lights of other eyes, like fog at dawn.

Maybe all I’m saying is this, something that’s occurred to me more than once over the last month: Grief is a shape-shifter. It’s always the same creature under the skin, but its lifespan and colors change over time. One time it’s a storm, flattening you, the next it’s a tsunami and you are the lone swimmer caught unawares and puzzled as to why the tide is coming in so fast. Then it’s back and disguised as the longest, darkest night, the only sound an angry wind outside, worrying the eaves.

So I guess you just hold on, try to stay awake and watchful, and rely on the fact that the sun will come again. That’s all we can do. That’s what I’m doing. My sister would want me to. She loved the sun.

Sherry’s Voice: Eulogy For My Sister

Sherry’s Voice: Eulogy For My Sister

My sister and I, 1971

My elder sister Sherry Huff passed away on June 3, 2016. She was 58 years old. She’d begun to feel sick on May 17. It seemed like the flu at first but eventually it spiraled into septic shock.

Below is the eulogy I gave at her memorial on June 7, 2016, at Williamson Memorial Funeral Home in Franklin, Tennessee.

Sherry’s Voice

Let’s acknowledge it: for a force of nature like Sherry, it is very hard to accept the reality that she’s no longer with us. I don’t want to be in that reality. None of us do. Yet here we are. 

Words are my job now, I write every day, sometimes thousands of words. But I’ll tell you, it’s hard to find the words for this. So I’ll try to speak to the Sherry I knew, and hope that in the mess of what I say you find something familiar. 

Our grandpa Ben Huff had a phrase for men whom he admired or respected: “much of a man.” A man in full. Grandpa reserved the phrase for very few and he always said it with reverence.

My sister Sherry was much of a woman. I know she went through some very hard times. I saw her in the middle of some of those. A couple we went through together. But to me–and perhaps this was a youngest brother’s perspective set in stone from the cradle on–she was always much of a woman. Even when I knew she had hit rough patches and was struggling, I never doubted for a moment she’d make it through. This was my sister Sherry Huff, after all. Sweet, sensitive, creative, yes, but some steel in her spine, too. Being here today is a shock because I can’t believe she didn’t make it back.

When our brother David died in August, 2000, Sherry showed me how to try and get through a time like this. She was hurting just as bad as everyone else, perhaps even more, for they were ‘Irish twins’–siblings so close in age they could be mistaken for having been born at the same time. I saw her tears, yes. She didn’t try to hide them. Yet she set her jaw and carried us through it–carried me through, alongside her. Thinking back now, I believe I instinctively trusted that she would.

She’d always done that. When I could barely walk, she would take my hand and lead me through the woods. She’d lead me through the neighbors’ field where she, David, and Rhonda had already played years before I arrived. She’d sit me down in clover and weave crowns from it and put them on my unwilling head and take pictures of me then, sitting beside our old dog Bub. Sherry with a camera, even then. I can remember kind of dreading her and Rhonda pulling me away from whatever I thought I was doing to go outside, yet hoping they would.

I remember pestering her as we got older, wishing she still wanted to do those things more, but life went on. And that was okay, because Sherry was still always there.
After all, she’d been there when I was 7, leaning over me in the night as food poisoning tore me up inside, her face tight with worry. Sherry was there when I was 17. She bought me my first glass of wine and got me to tell her about the girls I loved. She was there when I was 33, leaning over me in her living room as I napped in a chair, as we prepared for David’s funeral. She was just there, beautiful and urgent in the way she loved her family. She was vibrant. To a little boy, she was magical. I believe I wasn’t the only one who ever felt that way in her presence.

But after we grow up we can forget that siblings are like the pieces in one of the crazy quilts my Granny Huff used to make: tightly threaded jagged parts that together form something warm and comforting.

Sherry would remind me, though, and she had a hilarious way of doing it. She’d text me crazy clown pictures. It started with Bozo the Clown, then Pennywise, then whatever else she could find to mess with me. Sherry and I shared a lot of traits. We were a lot alike, and she knew that better than I did. We made the same kinds of dark jokes and liked the same kinds of movies. We understood our family in a similar way. With family, she was my touchstone. If I didn’t understand someone’s actions, behavior, even wondered why they posted something on Facebook, I would text Sherry and we’d go back and forth, laughing at the craziness, in the end. Sherry always understood.

It’s easy at a time like this to be too sad for words. It’s easy to be angry, in 100 different ways. She was too young. She was too vital. She was too Sherry. But if Sherry and I shared another thing that’s become very important to me over time, we shared humor.

Sherry had a Twitter account and she knew I enjoyed that site. We even ended up sharing friends on Twitter, people from all over who had jobs like mine and found my sarcastic sister funny too.

I’ll admit, it’s probably going to be hard to look at her Twitter for a long time. She posted a lot of things that to me were the best about her. Photos of old barns and sunsets and of course of Odie. I’ll never see any of those without thinking of her. She would tweet at me, too. One of the last things she ever directed at me was a tweet she posted in January with an image of a shower head and the words, “Our ultimate goal is to make as many people as sad as possible when we die.” She added her own comment: “This is a true story.”

It was dark and very funny.

I want this to be organized and have a point and be good writing–or speaking, I guess–but you know, it’s a mess because this is hard. However, I can’t help but think Sherry would want me to close with something that’s almost as funny as it is sad. She’d want someone to smile and shake their heads.

After she’d gone into the ICU and it was clear even to me up Massachusetts that the situation was very bad, I realized I was a mess and needed to clean up. And maybe I needed to be alone, away from my wife and kids for a minute.

I got in the shower and within a few minutes I was crying. I hated being so far away, I wished I could be near her one more time. In the middle of this tornado of thoughts, a loud, forceful voice barreled through everything: “CRYING IN THE SHOWER, BABY BRO? REALLY? THAT’S SO CORNY!! COME ON!!” Followed by that big old laugh. Sherry, the Sherry I knew and loved beyond words, piping up in my head and smacking me out of it. I don’t mean it was actually her–it was a voice from how I knew her, and how I suspect many others did as well. And I tell you, I went from tears to laughing in a heartbeat. And I knew that Sherry would be glad I could do both.

Let’s remember the best of my beautiful, fiercely loving sister. Let’s remember how sweet and kind she was. Remember her magical eye for sunsets, for old barns, for the sky. And I have to believe she’d want every one of us to remember laughing with her. As with any other force of nature, like storms, you got it all with Sherry. That’s why it’s so hard to believe I’m having to say these things today.

She’s really not gone as long as any of us have a memory. Like me, you’re going to have moments, is my bet, when Sherry will pipe up inside your head, breaking you up, making you laugh, smacking you into your senses. Hold onto them as long as you can.

Sherry is a huge part of me. She helped make me who I am, in many ways. My second mama, a piece of my heart. Her voice is inside me, forever. It’s not enough, I want her here. But I will hold onto it for as long as I live.

Wouldn’t you know it…

Wouldn’t you know it…

I recently put up the money for one of WordPress’s good hosting plans to gussy up this blog as well as my new True Crime Wire. And wouldn’t you know it? I get so much work I don’t have time for my own blogging at all.

Which, thing is, I really want to do. But I have to admit that sometimes I get done with writing a post for my regular gig with Maxim or for one of my freelance gigs (there are a couple, including Vice’s tech vertical, Motherboard) and my brain is too drained to do much else. I’m trying to change that. 

We’ll see how that goes.

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.