Thinking With My Skin
Natterings and Fulminations by Bill Cameron
It’s not every day you encounter the phrase “bulldozer rampage.” But if there’s one thing the internet is good for, it’s providing news about people losing their shit in increasingly ridiculous ways. Seems yesterday a fellow bulldozed his way through three houses, all over a dispute about fence lines. The good news is no one was hurt, despite a woman being at home in one of the houses the fellow went after.
The news reminded me of a short tale I wrote nearly twenty years ago about a dispute over a fence. I only wish I’d thought of a bulldozer rampage myself. I share the story below nonetheless.
On May 2nd, the Mystery Writers of America will hold the annual Edgar Awards banquet. Though we’ll have to wait for the banquet to learn the winners in the individual categories, some of the special Edgar Awards have already been announced. One of these is the Ellery Queen Award winner, Johnny Temple and Akashic Books, honored for the renowned City Noir Series.
Over the years, the City Noir Series has become an important member of the mystery community, as well as a bridge to the larger world of fiction. With each new entry, we are treated to stories lurid, insightful, dark, sometimes funny, often harrowing, but always damn fine reads.
In 2009, I had the privilege of contributing to Portland Noir, edited by Kevin Sampsell and including amazing writers like Ariel Gore, Jess Walter, Monica Drake and more. “Coffee, Black,” features Skin Kadash and takes a look at the dark side of Portland’s coffee culture.
In celebration of Akashic’s well-deserved honor, I’m making “Coffee, Black” available at no charge. In the ZIP filed below, I’ve included the story in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. I hope you enjoy it. I also encourage you to pick up a copy of Portland Noir, or any of the other entries in the City Noir Series. They’re all superb.
That may draw the wrath of the gun rights interweb down upon my head, but so be it.
Now, I wasn’t always anti-gun. I’ve never really been pro-gun, but in the past I was more neutral. For much of my life, my attitude was, “not for me, but whatever.” In was only the last few years that I’ve drifted away from that neutrality. While my reasons … have … been … many and varied, my personal tipping point came on December 11, 2012.
In response to the horrors of Newtown, Aurora, and so many others, gun advocates have also evolved. Here I use the word “evolved” loosely. Too many have recklessly ratcheted up their rhetoric, but not only their rhetoric. More troubling, many turn to intimidation and threats. As advocacy for so-called “gun rights” (scare quotes intentional), such efforts only strengthen my own resolve. Seriously, if you show up at a Mothers Against Gun Violence rally with an assault rifle, you’re a walking example of why we need more gun control, not less.
Suggested solutions to the problem of gun violence are many, but Robert Cooperman’s The NRA’s Modest Proposal, a poem which is a rhetorical descendent of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, caught my attention less for the way it exaggerates so much gun advocacy today than for the way it doesn’t. Cooperman himself notes the preposterous extremism of gun rights “solutions,” (scare quotes intentional) which essentially boils down to “There’s a gun-related problem? Then moar guns!” I worry many gun advocates will miss the irony and satire in Cooperman’s poem.
Maslow famously noted, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Well, if you only have a gun, the solution to every problem is three to the center mass, one to the head.
I’d like to think there are other options.
Along with the return of warm weather in the northern hemisphere, April brings us National Poetry Month and 30 Days of The 5-2 Blog Tour. The 5-2 is an ever-growing collection of crime poetry curated by the inestimable Gerald So. I’ll be contributing to the tour itself next week. But in anticipation I thought I would share a poem I’ve been working on.
Somehow I made it to age 49 without learning about “Man Dip.” Which could be the name of a toxic concoction used to kill lice, or could be a delicious, artery-clogging goop served with taco chips.
“What is Man Dip?” you ask? Unless, of course, you know what Man Dip is. The answer, it seems, is multifarious.
At Jen’s Book Thoughts, the inimitable Jen Forbus plies me with five questions, which I answer with my typical thoughtful introspection (my first answer includes reading on the toilet). If you haven’t visited Jen’s Book Thoughts before, take some time while you’re there to check out her other Five on Friday guests, her many author interviews and six word memoirs, and more. I’m sure you’ll be as delighted and fascinated as I am.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m in the mood for the first post on my web site to no longer be about horrible news. So here, in no particular order, are some randomly chosen (by random, I mean I chose them and who knows why) things which are, I believe, not awful.
I made beer again. And again. My first two batches came out great. My third batch was an abomination. My fourth batch (and the first five-gallon attempt) was, well, not great, but at least drinkable. I wouldn’t serve it to guests, but for a night watching movies, why not.
But my fifth batch shows real promise. It’s a winter ale, dark and malty and spicy. Some people don’t like ales with cinnamon and nutmeg and similar spices, but in the dark winter, I do. The batch is bottle conditioning now so I don’t know absolutely for sure that it’s a winner. But my taste test at bottling gave me great hope. So much so, I went ahead and created a label for it.
After a rocky summer, with surgeries and middle of the night visits of the emergency vet hospital, the Dark Poodle of the Apocalypse has snapped back and is doing well. She has to get medicine via inhaler twice a day, and still is subject to coughing. But the worst is past for now. She is officially a Little Ol’ Lady Dog now, but still has plenty of puppy-tude in her, which makes us all happy.
Grouchy Cat is grouchy. Hilariously so.
2012: Up and Down, But Let’s Focus on Some Ups
My daughter is pregnant. I am going to be the kind of grandpa who occasionally needs a talking to because of the awesomely cool but seriously you did that? things I’m going to do with my grandkids.
The Spawn started making brownies. He’s even willing (grudgingly) to add nuts to part of each pan for me.
My wife continues to kick ass in nursing school. Trust me on this, if it ever comes to it, you want her for your nurse.
Skin Tags. Disclaimer, I don’t approve of vandalism. Whatever. I still like these.
There’s more, but I’ve nattered on long enough. However, before I click “Publish,” I want to say one last thing.
Thank you to everyone who’s reached out to me when the bad stuff was being bad. I received a lot of kindness this year, and for that I will always be grateful.
It took about five seconds after Newtown for pearl clutchers to blame violent media and video games. (Only those citing God being banned from schools were quicker to lay blame.) On the whole, this is typical. Former Senator Joe Lieberman, a man who never met a bomb he didn’t want to drop or collateral he didn’t to damage in service to the so-called “War on Terror”, was among those who leapt into the confirmation bias fray to J’accuse video games in particular.
A more measured approach is, arguably, to ask a question. During the afternoon after Newtown, friend and author Kari Dell tweeted:
At what point do we ask if the stories we’re creating are contributing to the “Violence is the answer” mentality? *commence shitstorm*
— Kari Lynn Dell (@kidell) December 15, 2012
A scientist interested in the matter might have worded the question differently (and not many peer-reviewed studies feature “Commence shitstorm” in their abstracts) but to ask the question in a way which doesn’t presuppose the answer is appropriate. It’s a question I’ve asked myself as a writer and consumer of violent media.
Obviously it’s not a new question. Every time an event like Newtown occurs, movies, games, books, etc. get dragged into the public square and roughed up by the usual scolds, er, suspects. Research is cited, often without context and oh so selectively, to support various pet theories.
Most typically the pet theory is in the form of “behaviors of which I don’t approve caused negative result X.” So Mike Huckabee thinks his particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity should be the state-sponsored religion, and since the establishment clause has been interpreted to mean public schools can’t force students to pray like him, God let a mass murderer kill children. And Joe Lieberman doesn’t like video games so for him it’s all Halo‘s fault (though I bet Zero Dark Thirty gives Holy Joe a raging hard-on).
So at what point do we ask the question? The thing is, we’ve always asked it. During the decline of the Roman Republic, Cato the Younger wrung his hands over the younger generation and its obsession with poetry, sex, and the games (which, for what it’s worth, made Call of Duty: Black Ops look like Kirby’s Dreamland).
We are a species for whom violence has always been the answer. And God in some form or another has always been along for the ride. World War I and the American Civil War somehow happened without the encouragement of Resident Evil. The Old Testament is one God-sanctioned genocide after another. Both sides in the Albigensian Crusades were praying their asses off, but we still got “Kill them all. The Lord will know his own.” In America, we have people who go to church on Sunday and bully or beat those they see as “other” the rest of the week. Pat Robertson and Bryan Fischer think hurricanes are God’s punishment of America for allowing Teh Gay. (Seriously?)
Did The Iliad cause the Punic Wars?
That said, the violence in my own chosen medium is something I’ve long contemplated and worried about. It’s struck me we’ve been in an arms race in popular fiction and movies for all of my life (at least). Each new incarnation of Jason or Texas Chainsaw has to be moreso than the last. Red Dragon begat Silence of the Lambs begat Hannibal—hell, Thomas Harris has been in a fictional arms race with himself.
I’m not immune. Consider my own body count:
- Lost Dog: four murders, one attempted sexual assault, two attempted murders (perhaps four attempted murders depending on how you interpret the final scene.)
- Chasing Smoke: four murders, one suicide, one attempted murder.
- Day One: five murders, one killing in self-defense, a number of assaults.
- County Line: three murders, one killing in self-defense, several attempted murders, several assaults.
In my currently unpublished young adult mystery, there’s still more violence and death. I’ve started work on a romantic suspense novel which opens with five violent deaths. And I haven’t even considered my short stories in the count. Still, I’m a piker compared to much popular fiction and movies.
I read and view much of this type of content myself. So I’m hardly exempt from criticism on this front, even from myself. I’ve asked myself again and again, is what I’m doing okay?
Honestly, I don’t know for sure. My answer for myself is always changing. Given who I am today, Lost Dog is a book I wouldn’t write. The nature of the violence isn’t something I could write about today, and the motivations of the antagonist are not something I would comfortably tackle now. Of course, becoming the me of almost 2013 included the experience of writing Lost Dog while being the me’s of 1995-2007. So arguably I needed to write Lost Dog in order to become the guy who can no longer write Lost Dog.
And don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of Lost Dog. I have readers who’ve told me it’s their favorite of all my work, and I’m thrilled by that. I don’t mean to suggest I wish I hadn’t written it, only to admit how I’ve changed as a writer.
The events of last week will almost certainly change me as well. I’m not sure what is going to happen with my YA mystery, but after Tuesday, I may want to make a couple of small changes. (I’ll leave that decision till after I see if an editor is interested in the novel and discuss it with them.) I also decided to do something different in the novel I’ve just started. That story is still so new (I’ve written about 500 words of narrative) likely it will change dozens of times in the weeks ahead, but one idea went away in the wake of the Clackamas Town Center and Newtown events and I don’t think I’ll resurrect it.
Where am I going with this? Simply that I don’t think video games, or movies, or music, or books caused Newtown or the other horrific violence our world sees every day. If anything, I suspect our violent natures are reflected in the stories we tell. I think it’s up to us to decide who and what we want to be. To the extent our stories reflect us, they can help us see ourselves more clearly.
But we have to be willing to look. Knee-jerk blaming some “other” of which we don’t approve, whether it’s a game, a movie, or a religious belief, a sexual identity, or a host of other things, is the exact opposite of the kind of self-reflection we need if we’re going grow beyond being a species for whom violence is the answer, no matter what the question. We have to be willing to change, to both own who we’ve been and to claim who we want to be.
A number of folks got in touch yesterday with some variation on the message, “I hope you’re doing okay. I’m sure today’s events seems especially upsetting to you after what happened on Tuesday.” The messages were kind and thoughtful, and I’m grateful.
But I admit it’s hard for me to think my experience is all that important. The events in Newtown are so horrific I feel almost guilty about the idea I deserve even a moment of sympathy. Don’t think about me, my gut says. Think about those mothers and fathers in Connecticut.
But, of course, you are. I know that. And you’re thinking about your own children, and your families, and your friends. We’re all thinking about how fragile our lives are, and how much hope we have for our loved ones.
In the end, one horror does not erase another. This isn’t some race to the bottom, a kind of twisted onedownmanship where only the most horrific experiences count. And yes, I was and remain extra twitchy after yesterday’s events, even if my own experience wasn’t as bad. So thank you for thinking of me, and thank you for thinking of others. If nothing else, I take away a greater sense than ever we’re all in this together.
And what of yesterday? I’m not a praying man, but whether you are or aren’t, I have to think this powerful and heartbreaking tweet captures what so many of us are thinking.
How do you write an obituary for a 5-year-old? Then how do you write 19 more?
— PRAY FOR NEWTOWN (@Pray4NewtownCT) December 15, 2012
I appreciate the many wonderful comments on my post yesterday. In my note at the end, I mentioned that I was moderating because I’d gotten some weird comments. The good news, is very few. But the tenor of them have stuck in my craw a bit. (Note: what is a craw; must Google).
Because of the tweeting I discussed yesterday, a number of journalists got in touch with me. I spoke with a few, but not all, for a number of reasons. At first, I thought, “I opened this can of worms with my tweets. I better deal with it.” The reporters I chatted with were all thoughtful and kind but naturally had lots of questions. That said, it quickly became clear to me that my own experience was at the fringes. (For that I am grateful.) One TV news producer asked if I would be willing to speak on the air and when I told her I thought others experienced far worse than I did and would have more to offer, she said, “Don’t worry about that. It’s not a competition for who had it worse.” A good point, but I’m glad others were the ones to do the talking.
I really do feel like I was on the fringes, and my experience is fairly insignificant from a standpoint of newsworthiness. So I decided to decline any further requests. One writer for the Huffington Post made several requests however, so I thought, “Okay. One more.” We spoke by phone, and I told him what I remembered, best as I could.
I bring this up because the first comment on the story at HuffPo has something in common with some of the comments I blocked on yesterday’s post. The comment, by one Jessica Ann Stallings, was much less inflammatory, but the dismissiveness toward what I shared is familiar.
I replied at HuffPo, but I’m not sure if the reply went through. It’s not showing as of this moment, but it might be in moderation. In case it got lost, I’ve pasted it below.
Jessica, I will be the first to admit that my own experience is just one out of, as you say, 10,000. And, honestly, I think my little piece of it was pretty minor compared to what many others faced.
But yes, in the moment, around me, it was chaotic. To be fair, the reporter and I didn’t talk much about the period later, when I was leaving the mall and things were very orderly. People pulling out onto Sunnyside Road were driving thoughtfully, without rush. I’m sure a lot of us were anxious to get away, but no one drove that way.
Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, not because they intend to be but because the brain works in funny ways at moments like this. I tried to share what I remember as best I could. Yes, my memory differ from many others, but in my defense I wrote everything I could remember down within half an hour of the event to help ensure my own memories would be as fresh as possible. Perfect? Hardly. But not necessarily inaccurate either.
Certainly you should consider every report you can find to get a more complete picture of the situation. That said, I think your derisive dismissal of my experience is unfair and unkind.
A lot of the blocked commenters have been far more blunt and harsh than Jessica. I don’t want to suggest her comment is the same as theirs, only that I made a mental connection because of a minor aspect of them. Others called me a liar, claimed I wasn’t there, or that I was never in danger, or suggested I be jailed for lying about what happened at the mall. Even though I haven’t mentioned gun laws or the Second Amendment in all my discussion of this, I’ve even been accused of being an “anti-gun traitor.” Whatever that even means.
Some people are seriously weird.
Regarding the “never in danger” idea, in a sense that’s true. As I’ve pieced together where I was when the shooting started, it’s reasonably certain I wasn’t actually in direct danger. But that misses a larger point. Everyone in the mail was in danger, all 10,000 of us. I’m sure I’m not alone in playing the What If? game in my mind. The series of tiny, random decisions I made as I wandered through the mall that day could easily have ben very slightly different and placed me both closer or further from danger. The same is true for everyone who was there.
I actually believe Jessica’s skepticism is reasonable, especially in light of a lot of sensationalizing journalism today. My response was meant more to the assumption that my experience was inaccurate or that the reporting was unfair. I think it was accurate to the best of my subjective memory, and I think the reporter was fair. But it was a piece of a larger story.
Are there more stories? Hell, yeah. And more important stories. I was serious when I told the reporter I would go back to the mall and why. The workers inside who helped others to safety demonstrate the best of humanity in times of stress. Those stories are far more important than anything I have to say.
If anything, I would hope that would be the real takeaway from what the HuffPo reporter shared. Not that it was “chaotic” or that what I said was different from the sheriff’s report (I myself would give his comments more weight than my own). But that people in a moment of high danger put themselves at greater risk to help total strangers.
As that TV producer said, it’s not a competition for who had it worse, or whose experience is more “accurate.” It’s way bigger than that.