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.

 

 

 

This space

I may renew an effort to update this thing daily for a while, just to see if I can. In part because my father’s fight against cancer is so heavy on my mind (because I live 1000 miles from my parents so I’m obsessed with my inability to help them) I find I have a need to write more often. Not about cancer. Not necessarily about whatever is going on in my head regarding my father and my relationship with him and how that has formed me. Mostly just to write and make a record of whatever.

Perhaps this counts as one of my parodies of the blogger apology for not updating more often. Which is fine. Hey guys.

Old Tape

tape
My audition tape, circa 1998. Or 1999. Not sure.

I was always depressed. Often about a woman. Sometimes about my weight. Or just my life. And none of these things were truly that terrible. Depression would’ve come even if all other circumstances had been perfect. It’s genetic, I know that, now.

But I could sing, even if depressed. I might mangle the languages a bit, but I aimed for the intensity. That’s what I identified with when it came to opera. It’s overblown, big, and strange. It’s yearning, impassioned, and sad. I was raised in the south and heard mostly hymns, classic rock and country music before I turned 13. Once I was introduced to opera I felt what it was about. I understood it.

The competition was held at a theater in New Haven, Connecticut, in early spring. I’d recorded the audition tape months before. They took long enough to get back to me, I later wondered if I was just the least bad choice left to round out the competing singers to ten. But maybe that was my depression talking. Or being from the south. In spite of the presence of my first wife, who had a worldly and cosmopolitan air I felt I lacked (and who in hindsight was enormously gracious in going with me–our marriage was by then pretty rocky), I felt like a rube the moment we ferried across the Sound from Long Island to Connecticut.

I felt like a rube entering the theater and meeting the other singers. Every singer except for me had an established career. There was a tall bass who was a legitimate star in his native Taiwan. A tenor named Chuck who is today a staple in European and NYC opera houses. He’d already done Mozart roles with the New York City Opera. A soprano who’d won the Metropolitan Opera National Council final competition. I’d only ever won the first round of that.

The other singers were, to a person, friendly and personable. I particularly liked my fellow tenor. Tenors compete hard onstage, but we always get each other backstage, if we set that aside. In the world of classical voice, being a tenor can be very strange.

My ego wanted to surge at learning I had the most humble career of anyone there, at the time (I would go on to do roles with the Atlanta Opera and some good concert work–but it took a few years). It seemed promising. But I think the depression that was already hovering had begun to descend.

I’ve talked with other singers–other performers in general–and it’s often hard to recall anything that happens once you walk on stage. I recall nothing about that competition in New Haven. The light, perhaps. I did my best, but the dark anchor had already pulled me down.

My wife was frank but not unkind when I asked about it after. You just sounded under-powered.

One of the things I’d always had was sheer vocal power. I could project. Over 80-piece orchestras, 60-voice choirs, you name it. That day, I gave an anemic, careful performance. My wife said she heard someone behind her remark I had a nice voice, it just wasn’t very strong.

In the end I couldn’t truly be ashamed of how I’d done. The judges seemed to consider me in the middle of the field, fifth out of the ten in quality.

One of the judges was opera great Licia Albanese. One of the very first opera records I ever owned as a teen was a La Boheme she’d recorded as Musetta, with perhaps my favorite great tenor, Jüssi Björling, playing Rodolfo. I do recall what she said to me after.

You sing ‘Nessun dorma,’ said the old diva, you are not yet a Calaf. Not yet.

I received a modest, runner-up award check–I can’t recall the amount but it might have been $150–and my wife and I headed back to the ferry. Then we were on Long Island, at the small Ronkonkoma Airport. We were very low on funds by then, and there was no way to cash the check there. Our flight was to be the first out the following morning–the airport shut down at midnight, and flights began departure around 7 a.m. the next day.

We didn’t have enough money already in the bank for a motel.

We slept in the airport. At least I think my wife slept. I stretched out, the suit bag holding my rental tuxedo under my head, and listened to the muzak.

I remember scrounging change for peanut butter crackers from a vending machine around 5 a.m.

I don’t think I slept. No, no sleep at all.

Daddy

dadgrandcanyon
My father, Bob Huff, at the Grand Canyon in 1968. Pretty sure this was a selfie.

He always wanted me to be tougher than I am. Physically tough. Not the fat, bookish boy I was, but lean and as strong as my shoulders–inherited from him–implied I could be.

More than that, I knew he wanted me to be mentally tough. Not so quick to emotion, not so easy with tears. He wanted at least one of his sons to learn to be cool in an emergency, level-headed, in charge. He wanted this so once I wasn’t under his roof anymore, he wouldn’t feel the need to worry about me. I know he always has, even though after I turned 18, he rarely said a word.

I’ve tried. I’m in okay shape for a 47-year-old man born and raised in the south, eating southern cooking most of my life. I lost 100 pounds between age 43 and now and kept it off and most days feel better physically than not. I’m still prone to severe bouts of depression, but at some point in adulthood I discovered there were times I was great in an emergency. I could maintain my cool and save the freakout for later–a pretty handy skill to have. At some point I also discovered I could survive the bouts of the blues. It took getting help and patiently riding out internal storms, but the clouds have usually lifted, eventually.

And I’ve been thinking about this a lot because both my family and I–I think–fear my capacity for falling apart. Or just being useless. I did the best I could to be strong for my parents when my brother committed suicide, and I may have done better than I thought I did, but I still felt like my sister Sherry shouldered the greater burden. My personal life was chaotic at the time, so I came home to Nashville for my brother’s funeral already heavily burdened with all sorts of bullshit. My internal load was creaking, and my brother’s death almost cracked the undercarriage.

Then about a year later Dad had a stroke, and I did what I could then, too. But it didn’t feel like enough.

Now I’m at a place in my head where I feel like I could help my parents. Be strong for them, and for my sisters. I can’t explain it without going into a lot of bullshit that would be more personal than this already is–I tend to blog about news stuff or history because “personal” blogging makes me uncomfortable–but if I lived close to my family, I think I could help take some of the burden away while Dad copes with his cancer.

Since 2012, I’ve lived over 1000 miles away. A big change from before, when I rarely lived more than a 3-4 hour drive from any close relative.

And I love living here. I have a Tennessee twang and get sentimental about my hometown, Nashville, but something in my temperament was always meant to live in New England. I suspect that part of me is a lot like my father, who had an implied attachment to this region for as long as I could remember. He hated living all his life in the south.

But it’s very far from my folks, from my sisters. And learning that Dad’s cancer wasn’t gone, that he would need radiation, well, it made the distance stretch. I am distracted lately because my brain is trying to ford the distance and find ways to bridge it. To do something. Anything.

My father was never an actual cowboy. The photo above was made at the Grand Canyon in 1968, on a trip out west to see his uncles. He was always a working man and a part-time military man in the National Guard. He was also cool if things felt crazy. His level voice from the front yard as a tornado approached, then waiting to watch it come, until the last moment. Taking groceries to my brother who was in the throes of a psychotic, manic episode as if that was natural. Striding through the hospital cafeteria the morning after my first child was born 2 months premature, solid and energetic as ever, good old Dad–I’d never been more happy to see him and though I was 27, I kept holding his hand like I was 6 again.

My father has always wanted me to be tougher than I am. Now, more than ever, I’m going to try.

Hey guys!

Hey guys, sorry I haven’t updated in a while! Things have been crazy. First, I discovered I have a vestigial parasitic twin. I named him Rupert of the Ages, and he gradually took control of my mind, beginning with my base motor functions. Then he developed a form of telekinesis and began randomly murdering loud neighbors in unsettling ways. I got him to stop, but he pouted and threw tantrums by setting random fires in neighboring restrooms. We called it the Burned Junk Tour ’15! LOL. Anyways, I had a special form of neurosurgery that may have cut Rupert from his comfy spot in my corpus callosum, so now I’m in the process of recovering my basic motor skills! I’ll be back to regular blog posts and feeding myself with actual utensils real soon!