“We stop existing and start living.”

So, Michael Jackson died.

Say what?

I know, right?

That was my reaction, too, when I got home from work last night and flipped on NY1 to see crowds of people gathering not in Azadi Square in Tehran, but outside Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. I descended on to the futon and sat there staring at the TV and wearing my doubleyoo-tee-eff face—the one I use to bait instant assistance in hardware stores and auto service stations.  One eyebrow up, one eyebrow down, nose wrinkled a little bit, mouth quirked up on one side and mouth dropped open (the degree of openness depends on the extent of my confusion).

Like Michael himself, my grieving process was unconventional.  In lieu of anger, bargaining, and depression, my emotions hopped from yeah right to uhhh, for serious? to this is super freaking weird and then I had to call my dad and ask him why so many bad things are happening in the world.

My Cool Aunt gave me Dangerous on cassette tape for Christmas when I was eight years old and I lllllloved it. I just listened to iTunes’ 30 second preview of each song and I recognize only five: Heal The World, Black or White, Who Is It, Give In To Me (sort of?), and Will You Be There. Those are tracks 7-11, and from that I deduce that Black or White and Will You Be There were my favorite songs, and I learned to like the ones in between them (and the one right before Black or White because I had to hear some of it every time I rewound my tape to play through again—and again and again, for weeks straight).

It was the first mainstream album that ever captured me (previous fixations included the soundtrack to The Little Mermaid and the greatest hits of Sharon, Lois, and Bram). It’s hard to understand retrospectively exactly what it was, but there was something about the music—and to a lesser extent, the lyrics—that I really felt. It sounded beautiful and interesting and emphatic in a way that I hadn’t yet realized music could sound.

And yet, I have mixed feelings about my memories. I choreographed album-length dance routines in the basement with my best friend. I was mesmerized by the fireworks-heavy Michael Jackson Super Bowl Halftime Medley. I thought it quite serendipitous that my favorite artist sang the theme song to my favorite movie, Free Willy.

But then my favorite artist went from oddly enigmatic to bizarre and creepy. There was a time when it was unanimously, decisively not cool to like Michael Jackson—and back then, the qualifying argument for his profound talent and influence was moot. Of course, kids my age couldn’t comprehend the precedent of the entertainer’s career or his stardom—I only learned today that he was not only the master of “The Moonwalk”; but the creator. I always had one bully or another picking on me over something, but the fact that I was OB-sessed with his album and showed no intention of giving it up—that was pretty much 1993: The Year In Teasing Emily.

I didn’t understand the allegations against him; I just knew he’d been accused of a very bad thing, and it gave me an icky feeling in my stomach. The running “free willy” jokes didn’t illuminate things much further. The pinnacle of that controversy must have coincided with an especially delicate moment for my psyche, because I couldn’t shake it off.  Eventually, I put Dangerous in the back of my bottom desk drawer, vowing never to listen to it again.

It’s a vow that I kept, perhaps because cassette tapes were phased out, but at least partly because the tape reminded me of being teased and embarrassed and feeling confused about this very bad thing. I guess I didn’t fully realize this until yesterday, but I pretty much resented the guy for going off the deep end and taking my third grade dignity with him.

In actuality, I don’t censure Michael Jackson—not for his outrageous appearance nor his absurdities of behavior and language. Do I think he was “Wacko”? Undoubtedly. But what made him that way? Michael is about 11 in the first interview clip of this video. Look at his face as he hesitantly answers a question about performing. I’m talking about the first 20 seconds after the ad.

Watch his expression change—a momentary grimace before his mouth twitches with a sneer.  That boy is clearly removed from the moment. His mind has gone elsewhere, distracted by something that frustrates, confuses, angers, saddens, and frightens him.

The continuous coverage and commentary right now has put into perspective how very damaging all the attention, the pressure, the scrutiny, and the criticism was to that man. I was ashamed enough by my stupid loser jerk classmates to ban my favorite tape from my own Walkman. It’s not at all difficult to see how the scorching spotlight in which Michael Jackson existed could drive him to madness.

It’s almost unbelievable that Michael Jackson is gone now. Though it’s difficult to know what to believe, I hope his death released from his burdens and pain. I hope he’s achieved peace. To those who only condemn him: the man was damaged beyond repair in life; let’s not do any more damage now. If nothing else, listen to and take to heart the valuable positive messages he hoped to express through his life and his music, peace included.

So, for the first time in more than fifteen years (and the first guitar riffs still make my heart skip), here is Black or White:

Peace out, MJ.