Reports of an active shooter on the Highline College campus near my house

highlineshooter_crop

With so many weapons, why aren’t we safe?

At 8:55 a.m. on Friday, February 16th 2018 my daughter, a high school junior in the Running Start Program, going to a college campus in Des Moines near our home, sent our family’s ongoing group chat called Froggy Johnson the screenshot of school alert she received on her phone.

“We have reports of gunfire on campus. Please lockdown all offices and classrooms until further notice. This message was approved for delivery to all students by the office of the Vice President for Administration under the Highline Student Email Policy.”

A barrage of messages (nine on my phone in nine seconds) piled up as my wife and daughter talked about where she was, what was going on, what my daughter was hearing. I looked down at my phone as it began to ping ten, fifteen messages. At first, I thought my daughter who is a pretty new driver had gotten into a fender bender or was having engine trouble. Instead, it was the report of an active shooter on her college campus.

As I caught up and read that she was in her room, that the doors to the room were locked, and that the police were coming, my first thought was she is probably safe. And let me wait and see before I invest any emotional urgency in this event that is beyond my daughter’s control much less anyone in her classroom’s control.

This is not the first lockdown my daughter has experienced. Every year since she was in grade school, her school has had lockdown events. There have been people on the campus with weapons. lockdown. There have been threats that someone was going to come to school and shoot people. lockdown. There was a massive riot between rival groups at the school. lockdown. The lockdowns are so routine that the fear of armed killers is a persistent part of the environment, like global warming, like a nuclear holocaust, like mass plagues, like ambient drug trafficking violence, like an e-Coli outbreak.

Life is not that dangerous, unless it is.

I began to follow #HighlineCollege on Twitter because it seemed to be the only aggregate source of immediate information about the event. Mostly, it was kids rightly scared out of their minds tweeting existential shout-outs to the void.

Updates kept rolling as the police began to respond. My wife heard the roar of a fleet of police cars and firetrucks racing up Pacific Highway South. SWAT Teams arrived. A woman with asthma had an attack. She and another person were taken to the hospital.

As the SWAT teams evacuated kids, they took them across the street to the Midway Lowe’s, and then let them go.

A traffic jam snarled the streets hours after the lockdown started. Traumatized kids left school. The college canceled classes for the rest of the day.

Despite someone tweeting an image of a white guy with a shotgun, it was unclear in the aftermath what had prompted the lockdown. It may have been fireworks. Chinese New Year is coming up, and so some people have fireworks. No one really knows what happened. But at the same time, no one is saying “Never Cry, Wolf.” We are saying about this event, cry wolf often and loud because there are people with guns, typically young white men with AR-15s, and the lockdown is part of this ritual.

Charles Mudede at The Stranger wondered why our society continues to allow our children to be murdered in our schools in his post, Mass Shootings Reveal America Is a Civilization That’s Reverted to Ritual Sacrifice. This is the same question the kids hunkered down in class were asking. “Why do I have to put up with this threat to my life just because I want to go to school? Why are my parents allowing us to be killed?”

The kids at Highline weren’t killed on February 16th.

After the danger had passed, my daughter came home and did her homework and played her video games. I ruminated on the news at work, reminding myself that there was nothing I could do about it. Even writing about it, like this, will do nothing.

After the danger had passed, I kept working. I work as a technical writer. I had a meeting with a man who didn’t want to talk me. He was confused about why I wanted to talk to him. I was not articulate enough to help him understand why I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to talk to him about something I was writing, and how this thing I was writing wasn’t making sense to me. I was told he could make sense of it.

He paced back and forth and said about this document I was working on, “I can’t tell you because there is too much wrong with it.”

I’m a writer. There is an idea that writers are supposed to somehow get at the truth of things. Journalists have their methods. Fiction writers have their methods. Technical writers have their methods. But the act of looking for the truth seems increasingly like Schrödinger’s cat.

It helps to know that the cat is dead. It helps to know if an assertion is false. From there you can proceed toward the truth. Even saying what is wrong with something is a movement toward the truth.

I believe our society knows this. We know there are false things and there are true things. Rituals are designed to make the untrue, true. Charles Mudede calls our society a civilization. Maybe our society is a civilization. Or maybe it is a post-civilization. I believe civilizations are based on conventions, just as the dictionary says — “an advanced state of social development, e.g., with complex legal and political and religious organizations.” But in the mode of a post-civilization, people would think that my relying on a dictionary was as naive as relying on the will of a society to protect the truth or its children.

We know one fact about weapons in our country. What we are currently doing is killing people.

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Last book I read was SnapChat.

Bing watch your favorite books, or death.

I’ve been quizzing my daughter’s friends about what they read. My daughter is 17 years old. I am an old man who should not be allowed to ask children questions.

Moby Dick?

No.

Leaves of Grass.

No.

The Scarlet Letter?

No.

Really? Huckleberry Finn? You’ve read that right?

No. What’s that?

It was written by Mark Twain. You’ve read something by Mark Twain? “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County?”

Huh?

Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, Ann Carson, William Burroughs, Margaret Atwood?

Those are authors, right?

What have you read? Do you read books in school?

We read books. The Kite Runner. My class read that.

You haven’t read Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, or 1984?

Dead white men.

You haven’t read The Moons of Jupiter or Beloved?

What are those?

Books from Nobel Prize-winning female authors from North America, who are still alive.

I hear you have written some books. Have you written anything that I’ve seen?

Seen, like in a bookstore?

Netflix.

No.

I like Stranger Things. I love the 80s.

When were you born?

2000.

And you like the 1980s?

Everything seemed so much freer then. You could do anything you wanted to do.

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Doesn’t Look Like Anything To Me

Snoqualmie Pass

In the snow, it is the same forward as it is back.

In the late winter at the Snoqualmie Pass, I walked into the snowdrifts under the fir trees. A truck on the freeway sounded its horn, and under that the rush of tires on the frozen concrete whirred and groaned. The crust of snow shellacked with a rain mostly held. When my boot broke the surface, my boot sole plunged into powder, filling my sock with shards of ice and a spray of snow. The snow melted and soaked my socks. The ice shards melted slowly as I pulled my boot back up to the crusted surface and kept moving across the ice.

I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go. I had wanted to go out into the snow and had this image of walking until I came to a creek that was free from ice out in the middle of the current. The flowing water would be black. And around it the white snow and blue icicles hanging from the trees would make it feel as though I had come to a place, somewhere out in the forest, but as I slowly made my way across the ice crush between the trees, the entire forest began to look the same. There was the sound of the freeway behind me, receding, until I could only hear the occasional flump of a tree releasing its snow load or I could hear the whistle of a marmot or the chatter of birds eating whatever they could find. A camp robber had been following me the half mile or mile I traveled into the forest.

A misty fog or clouds depending on how you wanted to look at it had descended to the tree tops and obscured the cliffs and mountain tops that would provide some sense of where I was. I could see how easily I could get lost. I kept breaking through the ice and left a trail back to where I came, otherwise, forward and back were the same sequence of heaps of snow and ice, trees with ice clinging to the bark. To head, back was the same as moving forward. Eventually, I arrived at a creek with free-flowing water in the channel. The water was black in the white landscape. I turned to head back but didn’t know where to return. To head back was the same as moving forward.

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A Time to Eat: On Making a Living as a Writer

A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorised and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.

A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorized and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.

Slate had a review of a new book called Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living with has some great observations and information about writers such as Cheryl Strayed and the nuts and bolts of how much they earn from publishing their books.

I spent my twenties in writing programs. A small press published my first book in 1999, and have published eight books with a ninth coming out later this year. I spent my thirties teaching creative writing in a continuing education context (University of Washington Extension, Richard Hugo House, The Writing Center in Bethesda) or as a volunteer, and then spoke at the Associated Writing Program (AWP) on panels over a couple of years (2012-2015).

I learned that the writing industry (when it comes to prose) is predicated on – like acting – the starry-eyed concept that you too can MAKE IT as a writer. This means if you have the skills, you will pay the bills with publishing books. Conversely if you do not have the skills, you will not pay the bills.) Sitting at the book fair table at AWP  I could overhear the gaggle of graduate students strolling past the small press table where I sat talking about agents, book advances, about getting out of school and really getting down to writing once they got a book contract. Some of these students had paid a lot of money for the training to be a novelist. Many programs cost more than 50,000 a year. They were looking at coming out of a two year program in debt more than 100K. They were going to be need a pretty generous advance on their first novel.

Continue Reading →

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No Outlet

No Outlet

Back of a stop sign at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines, Washington in the winter of 2017.

I pass this sign when I walk from my house to the beach. It is a stop sign on the way from my house toward the beach. I have never stopped walking when I passed this stop sign. On the way back from the beach, I pass the sign and enter the region that is here declared as no outlet, a set of dead ends and cut-de-sacs, and I walk a trail that leads into the forest. I pass along this trail through the forest and have a choice of where I would like to exit. I can pass along behind a row of houses along a muddy track and come out onto a paved cul-de-sac in a development of houses built in the mid-1960s. Or, I can walk along a road that ends in a gate that has never been open, and then walk alongside the road on a shoulder that is not really meant to hold pedestrians. Blackberries hang from the maple trees and a fence. Or, I can walk up to a set of bridges that cross over the canyons where the paves roads end and then the creek cuts through narrow gullies that finger out into the subdivisions built along Pacific Highway South.

There is clearly an outlet at this point even though the sign declares to anyone paying attention that there isn’t one. I routinely ignore the warning labels and laws with their clearly stated does and don’ts and I don’t know at what point in growing up I learned then and at what point I learned that I should not follow them. Continue Reading →

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The Fence Maker by Matt Briggs in Necessary Fiction

The Fence Maker began to punch up the tall fences before 1980, we are plenty sure. The fences stood twelve feet tall. The height was as regular as a regulation.

 — Necessary Fiction

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Resist the Hivemind, thoughts on the Jack Straw Writers Program

2007 Jack Straw Writers

Nine years ago I was pleased to work with the following group of writers at the Jack Straw Writer’s Program: Doug Nufer, Anna Maria Hong, Susan Landgraf, Cheryl Strayed, Charles Potts, Corrina Wycoff Kathryn Trueblood, Laurie Blauner, Vis-a-Vis Society(Sierra Nelson and Rachel Kessler), Willie Smith, Howard W. Robertson, and Molly Tenenbaum.

In 2007, I was a curator for the Jack Straw Writer’s Program, a program created by Rebecca Brown and Joan Rabinowitz, and last night went to a reading at Jack Straw and it was kind of comforting (considering) to hear and see many local writer’s able to work, publish, and exist in the Pacific Northwest. I wrote the following essay in response to the question about curating the series and that every writer I was able to listen to them then, and they remain writers I listen to now even I haven’t been in touch with them for a long time. You can find audio of that year and following years at Jack Straw.

Resist the Hivemind

from the Raven Chronicles new issue “Celebrating 20 Years of the Jack Straw Writers Program, 1997-2016

On Facebook, I often read appeals to “Hivemind.” They write, ”Hivemind, can you tell me…” They do it without apology, as if all of our individual capacities as thinkers are reduced to a kind of communal processing capacity. We are the mental equivalent of ants. Writers resist this conception of thought. Writers who eschew cliché, doggerel, and sentimentality strike out toward the strange wilderness of what they think. When they are deep into what they really think and how they think their alien thoughts, their written or spoken work provokes me as a person. I can recognize myself in them, but also recognize someone who is not me. A book or a poem inevitably provides relief from the incessant pressure of my own presence.

A community somehow levels the progressive nature of the written word. It joins us into a structure with conventional standards of decorum and the watchful guidance of our fellow, polite, thinking ants in the Hivemind.

In late 2006, around the time that Facebook was opened to everyone over the age of 13, I was asked to be a curator for the Jack Straw Writers’ program. This allowed me the chance to listen to and engage with a collection of writers who could offer access to their interior thoughts. I felt myself drawn toward writers (or in the case of the Vis a Vis Society, a pair of writers) who adhered directly to that. Willie Smith embodies this urge. Willie will be the first to flog his writing with the communal standards of the Hivemind. And yet, year after year, he is incapable of bottling up his urges, confessions, and lurid suburban Cold War tantrums. I have had coffee or drinks with some of these writers, but I don’t claim to know them. We are not part of a physical community. Yet, we are a gathering of individuals who had cultivated, and continue to cultivate, a method of capturing our inner voice. I was pleased to hear how they read their work in 2007 and hear them speak aloud their inner voices. Nearly ten years later with Facebook used by 13% of the world’s population, they are still thankfully engaged in their work of writing as singular voices and not as part of the Hivemind.

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Genre of Silence by Matt Briggs at Connotation Press

From Robert Clark Young, Connotation Press‘s Nonfiction Editor:

Matt Briggs Genre of Silence

Genre of Silence, an essay, Connotation Press, 9/1/2016

“While Connotation Press is far from the first magazine in the history of the publishing world to run photos with a story, or even the first online magazine to do so, one cool thing about our website is that we can put up all manner of multimedia projects just with a click. The photos in Matt Briggs’ “Genre of Silence” do a beautiful job of illustrating—in the best sense of the word—the story, much of which has to do with his father. This piece covers a lot of ground and is an absolute joy to read—and view.”

You can find my essay at Connotation Press.

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curd majesty

Internet, SoundCloud, 2016

Most of the human sounds that we hear have evolved as communication signals that transfer useful information from one individual to others of the same cultural group. Some sounds, such as the alarm calls made when a person swoops at a predator, have obvious effects on other animals as well. They irritate the predator, and, at the same time, attract other kinds of humans that join in the effort to drive the predator away. Curd Majesty comes from the banks of the Green River bringing with them the sweet melodies and essential anti-predator noises.

You can find field recordings on SoundCould.

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Literary Fiction is the Neo-Con Genre

a human face

Humans have a face.

It is odd to me how conventional thought and identity are represented in fiction. Most literary magazines and most literary fiction generally present a highly conventional sense of identity on the part of the humans that are in the stories. These humans stream-of-thought sounds similar (to us). The way they interact with the world is similar (to us). Even the larger structures such as plot assume certain motivations and actions (that we can relate to). As readers we expect these conventions to be in place.

Anyone who reads I suspect is either fitting their encounter with actual people into these conventional molds, or the are, as I am, happily confused by the strangeness of other people. In my case fiction, even naturalistic fiction, is as realistic as high-fantasy. The sympathetic narrator is as alien to me as an elf. Continue Reading →

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