Monday, June 2, 2008

Why I Write

My Customized Red “Mogul” Apple PowerBook—Steve Wanted To Bop Me In The Head For This Thing...

I often wonder when you, the reader opt to point your web browser Group News Blog-ward, what goes through your mind. What are you expecting to find? It's a hard thing to consider as a contributor here, so I often find myself in those moments when I'm not writing clicking my way here just to check up on things, you know? Not so much monitoring, but mainly to live outside of my skin as a writer here and try to see the place as you see it.

I work hard to put myself in your shoes as a reader and outsider, kind of in the DeToqueville mode. Were I the stranger in a strange land coming here, what would go through my mind?

And when I do that, the question that keeps rushing to the forefront is this one...

Why do they do it?

Why do they write this stuff?

Why do they write?

It's the question I find myself asking as I stumble about Blogtopia as areader and not a writer. Not so much the “why” about agendas, but more to the point, “What is it about 'the word' that drives them to expend the effort to express themselves?”. I understand that leaves out the shills and de-facto party operatives like an Instapundit or PowerLine, who expend little or no effort to educate or engage. These are “bots”. Unthinking advocates for the usual crimson-necked, stogie-chomping, snickering masters who paragraph re-arrange or dumb-down to 10 word posts official GOP talking points. It also leaves out those for whom raw hatred is the “Good N' Plenty” candy that makes their evil train go—The Little Green Footballs and Malkins of the dark side of our world.

No. I'm talking about places like this one. We make it a point NOT to do what those folks do. Nobody's bought and paid for 'round here, and there is no “blast fax” we consult for the “talk of the day”.

Why do we write?

It's a damned good question to be honest.

When I first discovered “blogs” per se in late 2003 / early 2004 I came across a few good ones, and a lot...and I mean A LOT of awful ones. The bad ones colored my view unfortunately and I assumed the driving force behind the phenomenon was mainly overweening ego. But then I found myself falling in love with the good ones I'd unearthed via my web-skipping and it became evident to me that there was something more here. Something drove folks to so boldly speak. And then I started commenting at these blogs every now and then—much the way I did in my earlier web incarnations on sports message boards, and in so doing, something struck me like a bolt from the blue. That lightning strike hit while reading two blogs in particular—Tony Pierce's Busblog, and Steve Gilliard's News Blog.

They were writers of the highest order, and they were fully exploiting the new arena—the blogoverse—as a means to get their words out there. I was a writer too, and reading their work—particularly Steve's—it restored something in me. Something that had been dying a slow death for several years. When you work as a professional writer, there is the elation of the word firing in your mind, that trigger of the nervous system down the arm to the pen or keyboard and then the thing in black letters on a white background before you, making perfect sense and expressing your feelings explicitly. And then...there is the sick, storm cloud colored heartbreak of knowing the pitfalls of getting your creations out there for the world to see. The reality of writing as we knew it up until the web democratized things....could beat your soul into the concrete like a hot nail through butter. I would not be exaggerating to say that many writers like myself were in a state of disillusionment and in many cases—outright depression until this world opened up.

The News Blog did that for me. I can truly say that it inspired me. Energized me. I'll thank Steve for that till my dying day. The daily checking in to see what he'd written about—and how—was a thrill for me, and the ability to join the conversation in comments made my heart leap. I could expand, and explain. Compare and contrast. Snappily snark or be heartfelt. In real-time and reach people. You have to understand what a rush that can be—to reach people with the word. But then, words had always reached out to me for as long as I could remember.

I fell in love with writing as a small child. My father taking me to the park every day as he convalesced from ulcer surgery—Mount Morris Park in Harlem to be precise, and reading The New York Times to me. I was two years old. I learned to read about a year later. It wasn't long after that when I entered school—just before my fourth birthday, and my father's implanting of that love for reading grew in me to where by the time I was five and half, I was familiar with journalists like R.W. Apple and Tom Wicker. I was a news addict by that time as well, what with my dad's having that addiction too. Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, and my then personal favorite, CBS' essayist / editorialist Eric Sevareid.

I read everything I could get my hands on. Newspapers. Dictionaries. Every magazine i could find. Look, Life, Ebony, Jet, Time. I read books on history supplied by a family friend who worked for Time-Life. Ancient Egypt. India. Rome. World War 2. 18th Century America. Then on to science. Diseases. Biology. Physics. I remember a book on jet engines that I read and re-read at least ten times trying to understand how those massive rockets Walter Cronkite was describing with a catch in his voice on lift-off managed to get off the ground. I read Mama's copies of Vogue and Bazaar (It was in an issue of Bazaar where I learned who Germaine Greer was). And when there were no new books or magazines or papers...I read food cartons.

“BHA & BHT added to preserve freshness.”

“Products may have settled somewhat during shipping.”

“Serving Suggestion”.

Xanthan Gum, Lecithin, and the oh-so-tasty sounding Whey Solids.

I remember the day I got my first library card at the Langston Hughes Library in Corona, Queens, and I remember what my first two books were that I checked out. J.A. Rogers 100 Amazing Facts About The Negro, and the two-Sci-Fi books-in-one “When Worlds Collide” and “After Worlds Collide” by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer.

I was seven years old.

A thing happens when you read all that stuff. It starts to stick in your head. The words themselves, and oddly—the styles they're used in. It colors your every day vocabulary. I called one kid's stating that Marvel Comics' Hawkeye could somehow fight off the Hulk “ludicrous” in an argument. I'd picked the word up from a NY Times Editorial on the Ohio National Guard's excuses for their deeds in the Kent State massacre, and I grabbed the word infinitesimal from a “Dr. Strange” comic describing his journey through a mystic Microvese. So, see? You can learn from comic books!

Yes, I fell in love with words. Hard and true.

And what I found before long through all of that reading was that I could use those words I'd absorbed. I could use them any way I wanted. i could mimic a news story, or pen my own “Sevareid”-style editorial. I could even ape Shakespeare with some effort. (Those damned pronouns!) And I could take all of those styles and run 'em through the way I felt about things, and combine 'em into one person's style. Namely, my own. I found that through repetitive watching and now having a writerly ear and brain, I had also inadvertently broken the code of writing for television. You watch every first-run episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from episode one through one sixty-eight as a diagnosed autodidactic, polymathic sponge and there's no way something doesn't rub off on you.

It wasn't long after that when I grasped that I could sort of do this stuff that I realized that beyond the fun aspect of messing about with words that they had power. With these strings of letters into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into chapters, books, scripts, articles, poems, songs, haikus and sonnets, I could do just about anything. I filled blank books with stories and reportage of my own making. I could, with the use of a bit of brain-power, create worlds of my own making, and look at the world I lived in and analyze it openly so that I, and maybe others could better understand it.

Is there anything in the world more fun than that?

Flash forward thirty years.

College has gone by, and more than a few years plying that “fun” craft as a livelihood in radio, television and theatre. I'd hit an ebb. A low point. The “fun” was draining out of the practice. Oh yes, I could still do it—but not with the zip and vigor I once did.

And then I stumble onto Steve's News Blog.

You may find this hard to believe, but within three weeks of my reading Steve, I knew he was an African American. How? As Louis Armstrong once said to a questioner asking “What is Jazz?”, “If you've gotta ask, you'll never know.” Here was a kindred spirit, a fellow child of Harlem who'd managed to do it.The wit. The bold, informative style. Passion. Professionalism. An almost explosive penchant for justice. Mix in an ability to tie in all of the disciplines he'd acquired into that blog of his. And when I started commenting there, I found that I could do the same thing. What a release that was! In time, a few of my comments were brought up onto the front page, and I wrote frequently enough to where a few people asked to see more. “You should get a blog of your own!”

But I didn't have the time. To write as frequently as Steve did or as well as often, or to do the management things involved in running a blog. So kept up commenting.

And then the big guy got sick last year.

Me, Jen, Jesse, Hubris, Jim, Sara and a host of wonderful folks stepped into the breech to do the best we could in Steve's absence—see-sawing emotionally all the while as his health rose and ebbed. Until he was truly, and sadly gone.

I don't think I can tell you the depth of my despair that Saturday morning when I read the e-mail noting his passing. I ached for the loss of the man. And in days, I ached for the loss of his work.. Most mornings, I'd boot the Mac up and had The News Blog as my home page. I couldn't bear looking at it in that black backdropped post-passing version. Instead, I went back to old e-mails he'd sent me, particularly one around Christmas that still moves me. In it he thanked me for my commentary on his blog, and complimented me on the quality of them as well. He was effusive and heartfelt—something a lot of folks didn't grasp he could be if they'd only read the blog. I missed him even more and basically weaned myself away from the blogoverse (beyond brief sympathy messages in a couple of spots.) and mourned. His funeral came, and I met his family, and Markos, Jane Hamsher, Lindsay at Majikthise, Zuzu, Maha and Liza at CultureKitchen (a place you really should visit often). We eulogized, we talked and we cried. Then cried some more.

And shortly after that, a few of us began talking and figured we'd try to keep a bit of Steve's reader community doing on a permanent basis what we'd been doing since he'd fallen ill in February. A name was chosen, some art created, the techier minds between us built the powerful frame on which the writers would hang the muscle and sinew of writing on, and then, some thirty days later...The Group News Blog was born.

It's been a blur since then, but I will tell you this: Loss is a remarkable thing. I readily admit to the fact that I am an abysmal handler of loss of people I care about. I am hopelessly immature about it. It devastates me...and I know from whence that comes.

When I was eight years old, my best friend “E.” and I were hanging around my dad's restaurant playing after school. It was a Wednesday afternoon, sunny and bright. As my dad ran the place, there were perks, like knowing the secret switch on the jukebox to get free plays. “E” loved Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band's jam “Express Yourself” and I played it for him maybe seven times in a row until I got a dirty look from Daddy's No. 1 waitress that said “Enough.” “E” and I laughed about that. Laughed long and hard that day. He left a little while later with his dad...and that was the last time I saw him alive.

He fell early that evening in the driveway at his dad's meat-packing plant and broke his arm. He just broke his arm. The next day, he went in to have the break reset. He was given anesthesia and evidently got too much of it (This was the early seventies and anesthesiology was nowhere near the science that it is now), and lapsed into a coma which he never awoke from. “E” died that Sunday morning and I. Just. Could. Not. Understand. It.

We were playing the hell out of a jukebox. Firing straws weighted with paper clips into the air—our own ghetto-ass Apollo rockets, and wolfing down cookies fresh off the racked sheets in the restaurant's basement bakery. And now, he was gone.

I went to “E's” funeral the following Wednesday along with a couple hundred classmates. This was before grief counselors, so there was no real prep for what we would see...which was an amazingly placid “E”, looking to all the world as if he were merely asleep. I filed past his casket and stopped for a long while staring at my seemingly somnambulant friend, hoping he would maybe wink, or sneeze—anything that would give me proof of life. Of course, he didn't. And I went home that day and I don't think I spoke to anyone until I was ready for bed and my mother asked me if I'd laid my clothes out for the next day's school. Oh, they tried to talk to me, but...there was nothing I could say.

My friend who I truly loved...was gone and I would never be able to speak to him again.

The finality of that has scarred me ever since. I've lost my father, the man I respected more than anyone on God's green earth when I was twenty-eight years old and a father myself. And while I did not totally, and externally break down for the sake of my family—inside, I was a basket case. I'm in tears writing this about it. Friends, other relatives, a woman I nearly married—all of them gone , and me a wreck every time. I am a Goddamned baby when it comes to loss, here a a few years shy of a half-century's living.

Steve's loss was devastating, too. Because I felt such a bond with him through all the zeroes and ones, and the electrons and bits of cyber this and that. He and I barely had a chance to meet each other, but thank you God, we did, and I'm so glad I got to see him healthy and hearty. I showed him my crazy red “Mogul” custom Mac PowerBook, which he joked about bopping me over the head and filching from me. But our main bond is through the words we shared, tossing them up onto the blank canvas of the blog's front page and the little Haloscan windows. He challenged me mentally every day, and he also challenged my sense of moral justice too with his taking up verbal arms against those who so thoroughly deserved it. But again, he was now gone.

This group of us decided to do something, though. Not necessarily a continuance of “The News Blog”, but a step into a new future for those of us who loved what that place was. And so it began. I didn't really have the time for it that I thought I should have to get anywhere near to the level of or quantity of work Steve was doing back in the day, but I plodded along. Consuming news, and keeping an eye and ear out in the world as I always have, but now with the mindset of bringing that world to readers in an entertaining and informative written form.

It was impossible. Un-doable. Scary. A nightmare. And then...

It wasn't so much.

I couldn't come close to what Steve was doing, but I could at least, even if half-assedly blog a little. That terribly daunting thing I had no time for and not enough focus to devote to, I found that I somehow did. I could sort of do this thing. And Steve's loss is what in effect enabled me to discover that. Oh, I'd seriously considered doing it while he was still with us, and I remember all the well-meaning calls to do my own thing and get the hell out of the comments section. I even nabbed a couple of blog names via Blogger for “that day I would do the damn thing”. But I never did, until Steve got sick and eventually left us.

Loss is a remarkable thing.

For the first time in my life, instead of a loss addling me for an eternity, it was moving me to take a positive action and move forward. That something, is creating what I create here at Group News Blog. And the person I thank for being able to do it, after reading him for the years I did is Steve Gilliard. I soaked it up. From “I'm A Fighting Liberal”, to his historical pieces that described the war in Iraq using the past as prologue and pattern, to his take-no-prisoners local reportage on things like the NY transit strike. He taught me and he didn't even know it. I called myself simply enjoying reading his stuff and I didn't even know I was learning. But learn I did, and what I learned is manifested here today. God-almighty I miss the hell out of him (What he would do with Saturday's Harriet Christian tape—“Harriet Christian's Soldiers” perhaps?) every day, while sometimes checking back to the old mint and buff version of The News Blog first thing in the morning some melancholy mornings, but I'll be damned if his passing on hasn't finally matured me a bit in terms of dealing with loss. There are other people who've moved on whose places I'd gladly switch with him so we could still have him around every day doing his Steve-a-licious thang, but I can't. Fate is what it is. Leave it to Steve to book on up to that great pitch in the sky and in his passing, end up make me a better person. But there's that bugaboo again that haunts me. I can't talk to my friend any more. I can't tell him...“Thank you.”

Well...I can actually. By doing what I do here as many days as I can. This place has unlocked in me a lot of long-blocked potential. I can write every day on politics, sports, food, history, film, television or any damn thing I like that's affecting somebody out here in the world. I can be funny or profane. Mean or caring. Professorial or ghetto-ass grimy. I can do videos, or grind out short scripts, and oh yes...those fun and funky photoshops that accompany the pieces, or are sometimes the pieces themselves. The main thing is to create, dammit. Create and change. Be an artist and be involved—which absolutely played to my family's sense of activism to make the world a bit better. I write here for all these reasons, and these two mentioned before mainly:

“To create a better world, and to better understand the one in which we live

I do it for you. I do it for me. I do it because I'm the kid who read The Times at four, loved Eric Sevareid and Jimmy Breslin at seven, and thrilled when I found out what infinitesimal meant in the dictionary. I do it because I came to love it and because I love the guy who got me to learn to love it all over again—Steve Gilliard.

And I love this country and this world too damn much to not do the things I do relatively well that could possibly make it better.

Thank you, Steve. For bringing me here. For bringing us all here...and kicking us in the ass to do something we never thought we could. That's what truly living life life is all about, isn't it?