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.

On being boring

Every day I write a little in a moleskine. I date each entry. Most entries are just a paragraph, and often just things I tend to observe–the weather, something that happened with one of my kids, sometimes my exercise. Anyone finding that journal hoping to see some sort of Secrets of Steve situation would be disappointed; it’s seriously fucking boring.

I don’t do it in lieu of blogging, I just do it for me. It feels like, at this point, an oddly necessary practice. And for someone who has always prized trying to make his writing interesting, it feels almost like a zen thing: let yourself be boring.

A brake on my blogging–there are many–is that fear of being boring. I only recently realized this, and realized it was keeping me from writing at length in a way that I used to do every day. That daily or near-daily blogging, even before I had paying jobs doing it, mattered to me. I feel confident I can tweet something mildly amusing once a day–tweeting is pretty easy. But a whole blog entry? Apparently I’ve developed the attitude it must be Received Wisdom of the Ages or nothing at all. That’s arrogant bullshit, because honestly, I kept blogging after I began the practice (and blogging is a sort of practice) 15 years ago because I enjoyed it, not because I thought I was great at it. Having blogging and writing jobs later was a total surprise to me, and sometimes still is.

I think I still might do this thing on a regular basis if I just chill out and don’t worry so much. I’ve said before (I think) that I keep this space open for a reason, even though I don’t touch it for months. I think that’s true.

I recently read somewhere a good way to fuck up a goal is to tell people about it. So I’m not going to get into any goals I have re: blogging from here on out. I’m just gonna give it a go and see what happens. Practice is practice.

Fishing Trip

(I have written about what’s going on with my father here. I wasn’t sure why I wrote the post below and still am not sure, but it is what it is.)

We rode up through the mountains and then through the forests to the lake. James’s son Kelly and I sat in the back of James’s El Camino. You and James sat up front driving and talking about whatever men talk about with wind bellowing in the windows and country music blaring through the speakers.

The lake revealed itself curve by curve, glimmering through the trees. A burst of reflected sunlight here, there a gray green slice of waves.

Then we were at the main lodge to check in. Kelly and I walked idly around the lobby, picking at brochures. I’d just begun driving. Kelly was 12. We’d played off and on for years when you and mom got together with James and Linda but I felt like I was saddled with amusing this kid. I wasn’t very good at it. I was 16. Too old for this.

You flirted with the older round women behind the check-in desk and I watched a master work. Your pale green eyes and devil’s smile. Both women giggled and nodded and seeing them so charmed I realized how much I didn’t know about my father.

Shopping at the convenience store on the state highway before we arrived, you’d bought nothing but garbage junk food and I thought, this is how men eat when no one is around to frown at them. 

We loaded into the cabin, you and James on one side, Kelly and I on the other. I stared at the lake through the windows. Beyond the rolling water, the rock faces rising to the trees. But for you and James and your beer-fueled laughter, it was the quietest place I’d been in a while.

Before we headed out with our rods and tackles we ate Ho-Hos and Twinkies and RC Cola, and you didn’t say a word about how fat I’d been as a boy or about worrying I might get there again and I loved you for it.

Under the white sun we floated and for a son whose father is a legendary talker it is perhaps remarkable that I remember nothing of any of our conversation. I know with our red hair and pale skins we burned. We burned, and we didn’t catch any fish.

Time has shuffled memory’s deck of cards–blown it apart and lost a few, really–and I can’t quite recall the order of the rest of our trip. So here is what I do remember:

  • We docked to gas up the boat and buy a few supplies and Kelly and I wandered the dock. It was like an outpost in another country. I couldn’t see any roads on the land around it. It was as if the smell of the entire lake had been concentrated there.
  • At some point I examined the fishing license you’d gotten me. My birthday was 2 years and 2 days off–11/5/1965. I never knew if you’d made me older on purpose, some game law, but I never asked you, either.
  • Neither you nor James ever caught a fish. Kelly and I caught 3 a piece. You wanted to show me how to clean and filet them and I watched, but I couldn’t do it. I could never do those sorts of things. By the time I was 16, I felt like you’d finally come to a truce with that. You and James fried the fish and we all ate and it was better than I thought it would be.

The thing I remember most clearly was how we took the boat out at night.

It was cool for a Tennessee summer. We dropped the fishing lines in the water where they drifted unbitten.

Eventually we fell silent.

I was 16. Kelly, at 12, was just the right age for fishing trips with Dad. Me, I was too old, too easily bored for this.

Yet I remember sitting silent in that boat at night on a quiet lake better than anything.

I was never going to be too old to drift there and watch the stars with my father.