Guilty (Caught up in the frenzy)

On Friday twenty children and six adults were murdered at an elementary school in Connecticut, U.S.A. The horrifying news story spread at light speed around the world to our billions of constantly connected devices. Within hours the world was watching. And for any update available.

I was one of these people, watching for these updates. I wanted to know everything. What caused the mass shooting? How many total dead? And the more and more macabre: What were the ages of the children? What were their stories?

I am not proud of this morbid curiosity in the face of absolute shock, of sickening violence. At the time I convinced myself that it was related to my previous jobs in online media: the drive to be the first to break news, to share the heartbreaking stories and iconic photos that will be most remembered in the months and years following the tragedy. Because in many cases, that is what the news has become: the first at any cost. Keep the viewers coming back to your site because you have the latest details, the best photos. Reach, clicks, revenue.

When the Gawker story “Is this Ryan Lanza, the Connecticut shooter?” showed up in my Facebook feed I fell for that dangled question mark at the end of the headline. I clicked. I added to the publication’s reach and revenue. Did I believe that I was viewing the Facebook page (and then Twitter feed) of a killer? No. Because of my editorial work I read most things with skepticism and a load of doubt. But the trace possibility that I was reading words written by someone responsible for such horror was compelling. What would his last words be? What clues to his madness did he leave behind? Yes, I got wrapped up in and moved on, knowing that eventually these answers would be known.

But given our climate of need-to-know info culture, our ability to consume information and react at blinding rates, this kind of reporting can be toxic — not to mention irreparably damaging.

In “I am Facebook friends with Ryan Lanza” (Salon.com) cartoonist Matt Bors writes about being Facebook friends with Ryan Lanza — the brother of the alleged school shooter. I think his his account of trying to put the record straight (i.e. Ryan Lanza was not the school shooter) and the vitriol he experienced at the hands of rabid tweeters/texters and media should be recommended reading for any journalist. Our rush to judgement and our overwhelming need-to-know-everything-now appetite steamrolls innocent people, leaves behind a flotsam of misinformation, and creates hysteria.

Yes, like millions of others, I read those articles. I checked out that suspect Twitter feed. And while I’d like say, well I’m an editor and I know how to read these things, blah, blah, blah , I still engaged, and I let myself wonder. This has given me pause for thought. And makes me wonder if it’s even possible now to slow down and resume responsible news reporting. I’m not so sure we can.

How tragedy teaches geography

Hearing today’s horrific news about the shooting deaths of twenty young children and seven adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, gave me pause for thought (of course). But it also reminded me of a poem I wrote in 1996:

Tragedy teaches geography

How disquieting that earthquakes,
airline crashes and murdered children
help to impress location in our minds
more clearly than a textbook;
how in a few minutes of news we learn
those key details: the topography,
climate, and exact longitude and latitude
of a town split wide open by death;
how suddenly we know the weather
outside a small cathedral in Dunblane.

Similarly and no less tragic, in the Dunblane school massacre sixteen children and one adult were killed before the shooter committed suicide.

This is more of a fragment than a poem; I could never seem to arrange the words to evoke the feeling or bring the meaning intended. Over the years I added place names and took them out — Lockerbie, Bam, Waco, Oklahoma, Hungerford, and then Phuket, Haiti, Columbine, Blacksburg (I could easily, and sadly, go on). But I always left in Dunblane. It was that shooting that prompted the poem. It was that shooting that I remember most as I watch news coverage of the Newtown massacre.

In 1996 I was in my twenties, a few years out of university. What struck me in the following days in that suddenly I knew exactly where this little Scottish town was located. And I will continue to remember. Like a pin pressed into a map marking the latest location of profound tragedy and human loss. Those pins, glowing red across the countries. Towns and cities I may never have known until a bomb exploded, a earthquake rattled, or a shooter opened fire.

This fragment will be revisited again and again. I’m quite certain that it will never quite capture what I want to say. Maybe I’ve already said it here.

12.12.12: not just for freaks

I could not let the day go by without mentioning it, especially given that today is the last major sequential date for almost another century. 1.1.1 won’t happen until 3001.

Beyond the numerical significance, people — mainly the religious/superstitious and astrologers who are damp with anticipation — see today as incredibly “lucky.” Babies born today are being celebrated for their bright and prosperous futures, couples with expectations of constant wedded bliss are getting married by the boatloads, and those in perpetual search of miracles await the great bestowing of the extraordinary. Hell, even the Pope waited until today to tap out his first tweet.

As long as the craziness is kept to a minimum (i.e. no forced births/marriages/leaps of faith), I don’t begrudge celebrating the occasion. As humans we like to think that unique planet alignments and rare sequences of numbers mean have an elevated meaning: that the formation signifies something special. Usually luck. If anything, it’s fun. It gives us (and marketing agencies) something to look forward to.

Me, I’m not buying a lottery ticket, heading to Vegas, taking any big risks, or preparing myself for the apocalypse.

I just think that numbers are incredibly cool. I’m a sucker for the numerically unusual. Patterns and sequences give us structure and boundaries. But they are also are good for the mind, for exploring, for creativity.

Time to write now, I think.

Light leaving

Writing is best when the light is leaving,
as clouds cling to dimming reflections,
as the last traces of the day dissolve into dark.
Until the last clinging arc of blue
drips down and joins the liquid evening.

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Like water

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You can hear everything in this house; the sound travels like water.

Each crash, each gasp rushes into rooms in small torrents, bursts through hallways, and down stairs. Creaks seep beneath shut doors, bleed into the carpets and drip, down down. Voices find the gouges in the floorboards; words muffle their way along the floor, find the cracks in the wall. And even a whisper can find its way to an open ear.

I heard what happened. Listened as each scratch and rattle and groan gave way to water and traveled to my door, leaked in. Let its tributaries paint my walls as the paper bubbled and unstuck seams gave way. And I listened even when I didn’t want to listen anymore.

You can hear everything in this house; the sound travels like water.

Anywhere diner

Booths

Eating diner fries at the corner grill
everything is on the menu: burgers to Chinese.
Reminds me of that place where we used to meet
when the late afternoon released us
squinting into sunshine and snow.
Our hands unwrinkled, faces unfurled.

There is comfort in these everywhere places:
the too-familiar scent of old grease and vinegar.
The waitresses: kind but worn, tired,
like this floor. Like the faceless
and frameless anywhere artwork.
But the walls, they remember us,
would still recognize our lined faces.

In these places, a permanent grit exists:
a little bit of everyone left behind.

Pepsi sign

‘Don’t become a writer. ❤ Dad’

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I’m walking past the shop-fronts; some alive and vibrant with clothes and jewellery and knickknacks, some dissolving into the blur of grimy windows and melancholy. And in that blur, one window jumps out of the dinginess. It has a message.

I can’t see anything inside the store; it’s dark and dusty, and only a few metres of worn floorboards catch the light. Nothing has called this place home in a while.

And stuck to the inside of filthy window is a short note (supposedly) from father to child: HAVE A GREAT DAY AT SCHOOL! AND DON’T BECOME A WRITER. ❤ DAD

This makes me stop, and within seconds I’ve invented his story. There is a man — who knows if he is a father. He’s a tired and rumpled guy who looks ten years older than he is. Lined, unshaven. A little anxious. He has has penned a few unread novels that sit somewhere in these shadows. He tried to hide from writing and make a living from running a takeaway shop. Which was also unsuccessful. Failure haunts him and he’s had enough. Leaves his books and his shop and his warning behind.

His message, sarcastic and pathetic, is meant to be funny. And it is funny. Few would argue that it is probably sound advice to little writer wannabes. A message that perhaps people would have remembered him for.

Writing and lawnmowers

The goal was to write every day. Without fail. Without making excuses.

And yes, there was the flu week. The days of fever and wheezing and general nastiness. If I had managed to drag my aching fingers to the keyboard who knows what drivel would have poured forth (I’ll resist a tempting snot analogy). Those days I give myself a pass.

But what of December 2, 3, and 5? What’s my excuse for not coming here and doing what I love: making pictures with words, coaxing characters onto the screen?

I get distracted, sidetracked. There were years when I kept an online journal with daily accounts, anecdotes, and creative wanderings. And then it would stop. And start again. Humming and whirring away — and then clunk. Over. Like my mom’s old lawnmower: the slightest little rock or wrongly-shaped blade of grass and it sputters to a stop. Almost offended. And then it takes so many cranks to re-start that it doesn’t seem worth all the effort to get it going again.

I am not exactly like a lawnmower. The comparison ends at both the ease of quitting the job and the difficulty in restarting it.

  1. I do not attack writing with the viciousness of shearing blades.
  2. I would like to think that I create instead of destroy.
  3. I do not follow a linear path, back and forth across the page until the job is done. Because sometimes I write poetry.

As as much as I like to anthropomorphize, I do not think that a lawnmower actually enjoys the task of cutting grass. I would think that mowing the lawn ranks pretty high on the monotony list. And while writing can be a chore sometimes, I actually enjoy it (when I’m not avoiding it).

So what do I need to do on days when the motor won’t start or imperfect greenery threatens?

Get a pushmower. Or a weed-whacker. Or maybe even just a pair of scissors. Approach with a different perspective. And just get it done.