31 December 2012

AU REVOIR, 2012.

So, twelve months ago I did a 'year in review' post that generated thousands of hits for me because I included an image of Justine Bateman (removed for copyright purposes) that somebody on an IMDB GAME OF THRONES message board linked to. Thought she looked like Arya.

But I won't resort to such cheap tactics this time around.


Despite the loss of a gallbladder and having our car forced over a guardrail and smashed by a former student, things worked out pretty damn good for me this year. You can say what you want about The Second Law of Thermodynamics, but I think there's something to it (if John Edward Lawson is to be believed.)

For me, the last twelve months were about friendship, and being part of a team. Working with Jennifer and John from Raw Dog Screaming Press has been a damn-near perfect creative experience. Talking with them never fails to widen my field of view in new and exciting ways. Mike Arnzen always motivates and inspires me, even when he doesn't realize that's what he's doing. Maybe it's just his subversive nature, but Arnzen's Five Rules of Writing (or three, until we remember the last two) didn't write themselves. As for the remainder of the creative types--Tricky, Deanna, Stephanie, D. Harlan, Dustin, Lee... I consider myself lucky to be able to siphon off so much energy from you all. 

And Heidi, I can't imagine a life without a creative partner like you. Do I know how lucky I am to see you whenever I look up from my laptop with a question? You know it. Thank you for helping to make this such a wonderful year. And thank you for inspiring me. Big things ahead. 

Yeah, 2012 was a pretty amazing year. I think we can do better in 2013.

(And Katy, Preston, Pauly and Ben--see you in 2013. Going to be a hell of a year.) 

18 December 2012

Today was a good day, all of my students made it home okay: Thoughts on Sandy Hook and all that comes next.

As a teacher, I suppose I try to look at particular subjects without the normal veil of cynicism and sarcasm I'd normally wear. And there are many, many things I've learned not to take as seriously as I've gotten older and so much wiser. Football? Basically it's an opportunity to eat Buffalo Chicken Dip once a year. Immigration? My great-grandma was an immigrant and she was all right. Besides, we can't rely on white people to make the cuisines of other ethnicities. That's how we ended up with Taco Bell. 

And as far as political theater goes, I think the fiscal cliff is at least as funny as The Cosby Show and definitely funnier than Blossom and Saved by the Bell. Boehner hasn't given us any catch-phrases or buzzwords (Joey Lawrence only had "Whoa!" which isn't really a catch-phrase as much as it's a noise that sits just above grunt on any developmental vocalization chart.) I know that Congress will either work it out, or it won't. But no matter what happens it ain't going to kill me.  

But explaining this lock-down procedure with the same tone that I'd use to explain the rock cycle or the Big Bang theory has framed the subject of gun control and free, unlimited access to certain guns and types of ammunition in an entirely new shade of absurdity for me. Because it's not funny. At all.
Since Friday we've experienced an inconveniently-timed fire drill, an urging to review lock-down procedure and to carefully consider the possibility of a shooter in the building with our students, and will discuss ways to improve the process after school today as a faculty. Yesterday, as California Area School District went into lock-down, I had to respond to the question, "What if he shoots the glass and opens the door from the inside?" by explaining a secret scenario that I've been replaying in my head since Columbine. I told him, "See this lab stool? I'd beat him with it until he stopped moving."

Brilliant, right?

I actually had to say that to my 4th period. And since then I've discussed other contingencies to protect our students with the teachers on my floor, the fruit of our labors being the idea that we need to use tape to mark visibility lines on the floor so the students know exactly where and what a potential shooter could and couldn't see. A whole new shade of absurdity.  

Most of the people reading this probably experienced Air Raid Drills and fire drills and severe weather drills as students, but nothing comes close to the eerie silence of 900 people pressed against the walls and floors of their classrooms in total darkness and total stillness. Nothing comes closer to the raw emotion of an actual incident than a lock-down drill because a fire comes with the sensory experience of alarms and smoke, and a severe weather alert is usually preceded by a National Weather Service warning. This lock-down, on the heels of what happened last Friday, had the somberness of a memorial, which I suppose for some of us, it was. It was an extended, shared moment of silence.  

I know most teachers remember the Sandy Hook—or Columbine, or Paducah—shooting victims every time they look into the faces of their own students—your kids—and have to explain how things could possibly go in an actual emergency, even if they don't know for certain how a real incident would go down. I know when I walk through the cafeteria in the morning I see escape routes and secure walls. When we have a bomb threat, I count heads over and over as we evacuate the building, a habit I picked up as a whitewater raft guide back in the Nineties. When somebody cuts across school property wearing bright orange, carrying a hunting rifle, we call the office who immediately notifies the police even though we 'kind of' know how his intentions are good.

Thanks to the proliferation of cheap handguns and abundant ammo, that's the new reality in our nation's schools.   

Look, even most sensible non-gun owners know that most gun owners only ever look down their sights at deer and turkey. Or they should know that. And I don't think anybody is trying to change this particular situation.   

Some of you keep a pistol or two in a nightstand or closet for that terrible moment when an intruder kicks the door down and pushes into your bedroom or into your kid's room. Most of you are more than happy to never use your weapon in the capacity of home defense, and are more than happy to take it out to the range a few times a month to shoot at black circles on a big piece of paper.   

I believe the Second Amendment protects your right to bear those arms, and believe that right should be defended, same as the right to worship and the right to speak as you please. And although I'm no constitutional scholar, I can't see the Second Amendment ever changing to take those rights from you, nor would I want it to. There's a reason Jefferson plopped that one down at number two.

I'm just going to speak for myself here, but what I'd like to see happen is something that should've happened without so many meaningless deaths. I'd like to see a ban on assault rifles for all non-military and non-law enforcement uses, and I'd like to see tighter restrictions on the way handguns and ammo are distributed to the general public. Is that taking away a gun-owner's right to hunt, or defend himself or his home?

It isn't.   

Consider the following:

Statistics can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Per capita stats would look much different than straight stats, numbers would vary by state and by year, and even the method of data collection could be used to skew statistics to benefit a pro-gun or anti-gun stance. And I suppose that's why I'm saying what I need to say here, in a post, rather than in a circular series of internet quibbles that either end like they start, or with an unfriending or unfollowing.  

But the one personal statistic I can't interpret objectively in the number of students I've personally known who have been injured or killed, accidentally or intentionally, by a handgun. I refuse to see them as numbers instead of names because I can't afford to forget the emptiness and sadness I felt upon learning that a young life had been extinguished so senselessly. I've been to the funerals. It's real. The names mean more to me than a number ever will.

Am I biased?

I have to be.  

Would they all be here today handguns weren't so accessible?


You know there's no way anybody can be certain.

And what I didn't say on Facebook, and what I believe with all my heart, is that the kind of person who would wait three days for a handgun, the kind of person who understands that there's a reason ammo purchases should be regulated, is the kind of person who probably gets wrongly offended when things like this come up. Most of the people who own guns never fire it in a non-recreational capacity. I know that guns are passed on from fathers to sons in a tradition that predates the Constitution. I know that lives have been saved by quick-acting gun owners.

Nobody's saying they should have to give up their guns. I'm not.

I'm saying it's time to compromise. It's time to give in to the demands for regulated ammo and a ban on assault rifles for non-military and non-law enforcement uses.

And do I have an answer for the folks who feel that this is a slippery slope to total civilian disarmament?

I do.

I'd say to have as much faith in your Constitution's ability to protect the United States of America  as you do in your gun's ability to protect your family or yourself.

10 December 2012

PRESTON BLACK'S OPENING ACT! Black Bear Burritos, Morgantown, WV, December 8, 2012.

I just wanted to do a real quick post to put up some pictures and thank everybody who helped make Saturday so amazing! You guys blow my mind. We had West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania represented, UHS peeps, SHU peeps (is this seriously the first time I ever noticed that?), Morgantown Poets, more Raw Dogs Screaming Press editors, authors, poets, and friends than you could shake a stick at, two toddlers, some cousins, brothers, sisters and moms, a wife and a whole bunch of new friends who showed up to get their hands on Preston (or Katy.)

First and foremost, I have to thank Heidi, for making everything seem so easy. Without you, this is just another job.  

I'd especially like to thank Jennifer and John from Raw Dog Screaming Press for being a writer's and reader's best friend, and give a special shout-out to their assistant Ripley, for making sure this event remained zombie-free.

I also have to give a special thank you to Tony from Abacus Jones for keeping the music flowing. (Joe and Jason, your thanks will come fifteen minutes later, just like you guys.) Seriously, you sounded amazing and kept folks smiling.

Last, and certainly not least, I want to thank the gang at Black Bear Burritos Downtown for their endless supply of awesomeness!! You're support and enthusiasm never cease to blow my mind. And the food... The (Ham)bender was 3.75lbs of savory deliciousness and I loved every bite!

Joe and Ayla, I can not even begin to tell you how amazing you've been over these last few weeks. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You are the best.        

Yinz should've been there.

If you weren't, here's what it looked like:

07 December 2012

THE MAGIC OF FELLENGREY: Guest post by Scott Thomas.

Today I'm very happy to have Scott Thomas talk about magic as he sees it. I'll give you a hint--it isn't that fantasy you're used to. --Jason 

Magic, in the fantastical setting of my novel FELLENGREY, could quite easily be likened to fire. It’s purely natural, for instance, and one could speculate that it exists as something of an element alongside the four that we are accustomed to. Similar to fire, this force, or whatever you would term it, can be a good thing or a bad thing, just as flame can either scorch you or keep you warm against bitter cold. It depends on particulars. But magic, on and about the two kidney-shaped islands that constitute the fictional 18th Century world of Fellengrey, sometimes acts as if it has a mind of its own, an unpredictable, untethered mind, like lightning imbued with the capacity to choose where it strikes. A sensible soul would regard such powers with a certain respect, if not a measure of dread depending on the circumstances.

Each island was burdened with some sort of undesirable magic. To step foot on Cat Milk's Lapse, for example, was to risk having one's mind become precisely like that of a feline, which may in fact have been an improvement in some. Broken Mast not only boasted the rockiest shore of the bunch, but offered the singular disease known as mirror blisters, the symptoms of which were chestnut-sized welts that looked to be scrunched versions of the face of the person they appeared on.
     And, of course there was Small Island, where a man could only remain for thirteen hours before shrinking to the size of a child. Once afflicted with “the shrink,” an inhabitant could only be off the island for thirteen hours, or suffer certain death.

Hale Privet, the hero of this adventure, holds to a healthy wariness when it comes to interacting with magic, though the locals commonly involve themselves with it. For them mystical forces are a resource, something to call on, something to shape and program and apply in the form of spells and charms that are used for everything from healing and bringing about sleep to matters of the heart. Love spells are particularly popular in certain parts of Fellengrey. But magic is married to mystery, and not even those familiar with it fully understand it or even the forms in which it presents itself in their world, whether the manifestation is amorphous or as tangible as a stone or an animal.

The bird was an up-dead, a small, unremarkable thing of brown, no bigger than a sparrow. For reasons unknown up-deads upon dying floated up into the sky, up and up and up until lost from site, never to be seen again decomposed or otherwise.

Natives of  Fellengrey don’t, for the most part, stop to contemplate the origin of magic; it is a natural part of their world, as common as changing seasons and the rhythm of the tides. Like the tides, it sometimes harkens to astronomical influences.

“Ahh, a curse falls on money taken with blood, and one must wait the new moon for the magic stain to pass.”

There is no “supernatural” in Fellengrey. Ghosts and spells and the unexplainable come from the same box of colors that paints the clouds and fireflies, and often strange forces make a home of palpable items like moss or sea shells or islands or in skulls that turn into fists of wind or a tree with the power to heal wounds caused by bladed instruments.

So, it stands to reason that magic is woven through the Fellengrey seasons. Notable is an annual event that comes on the heels of the harvest.

     This was Ghost Hasten, the most dreaded day of the year, when the souls of the angry dead were free to dash across the earth and wreak havoc on the living. Preparations -- like hanging wreaths of brittlethorn to discourage chimney visitations -- had been going on in the village for days. Coveted silver nails, which, generally speaking, were the most expensive articles that local planters were apt to own (and kept for this express purpose) were scattered about the front door stoop. It was a well-known fact that cruel ghosts hated silver. A rusty iron spike poked up from the outer sill of every window and upon these had been impaled apples, crudely carved with the features of a skull.

It would be unfair to focus entirely on the ominous and treacherous aspects of Fellengrey magic. Remember it’s like fire, which can dance and is mesmerizingly bright. Magic is suited to and even enhances the rugged green and gray beauty of the islands known as Fellengrey, and it is infused into the vernacular traditions there, the rich lore that is firmly rooted in the splendidly inexplicable. 

  Legend held that the sun darkened and died one terrible winter’s dusk, and a little girl, seeing her family’s despair, snuck out into the night snow and prayed until she froze to death. Hearing her prayers, and seeing her sacrifice, half the bees of the world flew up into the dark sky and joined in a great circle amongst the cold stars. The summer heat within them turned them into a great ball of fire...a new sun was born.

I am not spoiling anything here by disclosing that the source of Fellengrey’s magic is never divulged in the book. The topic is never explored. We might just suppose that the numinous forces there have always been around, that they joined the wind and sea in shaping the twin islands, that they’ve been in the air as long as there’s been rain, and that they’re older than the stones of the craggy coast. Readers are welcome to speculate, of course, but the book holds onto the secrets behind Fellengrey magic, only allowing us to see that its dual aspects of menace and beauty waltz so closely together that at times they seem to be a single dancer.

Purchase the hardcover or paperback editions at Amazon.

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