Who Does He Think He Is?

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I’m Jeremiah. I’m a middle-aged white man in America, so that means I’m over-represented in the media and in the workforce. I’m also a pretty good writer. You can find out a lot about me in this journal, going all the way back to 2005.

For example, my day-to-day life is normal but interesting. What I consider my best slices of life are here, though sometimes things happen that are beyond insane. Speaking of insane, I’m bipolar and have ADD, and these things are so deep a part of me that I have to spend a lot of time making sense of it. I sometimes find myself thinking about the past, and I get a little nostalgic, sometimes sad, but I think about my friends and things are (usually) okay. I’m deeply steeped in pop culture, and I have some pretty serious opinions, though you’d never know that by talking to me. As I said, I write, and I reflect on my unusual process as well as my successes and failures at it quite a bit.

Basically, I like to write little essays that aren’t, with one or two exceptions, too long, and these are hundreds of them. Stop on by, take a look around, tell me what you think.

Totally Sketch

When I was 22, I decided to learn how to draw. I started with stick figures, then I started fleshing them out. I learned to ink, and eventually I even learned to color, first with markers, then with watercolors (with pastels when I was feeling it. It took years for me to draw a decent person, but at the time, I was so excited with every breakthrough I made. I illustrated two comics of my own and two comics for a pair of untalented writers. I gave up on drawing comics, but I illustrated 56 pages of Three Stories in One.

But in 2015, a few months after we got back from Doha, after all the excitement of finally being home after so long, I crashed, and I stopped writing and drawing. When I got my mojo back, I tried drawing again, and I got frustrated. I went through looking at the stick blobs I would get so excited about to every imperfection completely ruining the art.

The joy I found in the act of drawing and painting was gone. I created for the destination, not the journey. I also ran into the problem of what I want to draw. I had no inspiration. I still did my yearly self-portrait, and maybe for about a week or so, I’d get a wild hair and make some stuff. It’s been 2 years since I’ve drawn for fun.

I just treated it as a thing I don’t do anymore,’like drinking too much or watching rock concerts at crowded bars. I’ve been encouraged to pick it up again—my parents ask after the art nearly every time we chat.

Slowly, over the course of weeks, I thought about what I could do to jumpstart that again. I found references, I bought a sketchbook that I could live with if the paper was being torn by an eraser.

I thought, if I learned how to draw with a pencil and eraser, then by God, that’s what I was going to use. I had sacrificed precision for speed, and I was going to use that. If I wanted to skip to the completed drawing, then I was going to take my time, erase some things.

Saturday, I said, “It’s time.” I sat with my sketchbook for an hour, learning to draw faces and figures from the ground up. I repeated it on Sunday, same thing with the eraser.

I feel like the old prizefighter training to get back into the ring.

Star Tropin’ Across the Universe 

I’ve loved Star Trek since I was a kid. I remember once, when my friend Alex was staying the night, my dad let us watch Star Trek while we ate dinner, which was the height of luxury at the time. A few years later, in high school, I was introduced to Starbase Gallup, my fine city’s fan club. We traded licensed paperbacks, fanfiction, and costumes. Tony, the captain of our little ship, wore a uniform every week when we met. I saw him once as a civilian, an assistant district attorney for the State of New Mexico, and it was jarring. I can imagine any of his peers saw him at Starbase Gallup, the effect would be the same. 

I started to lose my interest in Trek as I entered college. This was during the Rick Berman years, when Trek was cautious, overly self-referential, and more spectacle-oriented, drained completely of the political subtext that made Star Trek and The Next Generation the meatier among their contemporary sci-fi shows. I remember my disappointment at First Contact, when the cerebral, even-tempered diplomat, Picard, became a gun-brandishing sociopath, and I remember how much my nerdier peers loved it. Trek and its spinoffs became just more movies and TV series about lasers and rocket ships and not much else.  

I tried the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies, but they’re all flash and lens flares. They brought the bright aesthetic that made the original series great, but at the same time seemed kind of ashamed of it. The Kirk of the movies was a petulant asshole, and he never should have been let near the captain’s chair. However, in this universe, captains pick their successors. One of the movies had Kirk on a motorcycle, and later, the obscenely powerful bad guy’s only weakness was “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. This was Trek at its dumbest. 

When Discovery came on the air, it brought back the intellect and the politics, it brought me a character I could fall in love with (Ensign Tilly), but something still wasn’t quite there. It was good, but it wasn’t Trek enough. The show focused on a small handful of characters, but the bridge crew all had names, all had individual looks, one of them even had backstory, but they are completely forgettable. Meanwhile, Star Trek focused on its three main characters. Someone like Uhura didn’t contribute much to the story, and neither did Sulu or Chekov, but you know who Uhura is. You recognize her by the sprinkle of sass in her voice. You know Sulu and Chekov. You might have gone to sleep remembering Sulu running around shirtless with a rapier. But who are these people in Discovery? That’s a big part of it. 

All of that leads up to Strange New Worlds, which was probably my favorite show of the year so far, period. It’s got a message, it embraces the brightness, the characters have personalities (though with only 10 episodes their entire first season, they didn’t really develop), Anson Mount is exceedingly handsome and laid back, like a cool dad, and the rest of the cast definitely had a handle on the material. Most importantly, it’s episodic. There was no overarching plot to tie together in an exciting episode-ten climax. Each adventure was one and done, and the only continuity was character development.  

Star Trek is such a part of our national identity that I don’t need to tell you what a Vulcan is. However, if you’re Amish on a rumspringa, they are pointy-eared aliens whose entire culture is based on logic. Vulcans have no emotions, but more on that later. 

One of the most important characters in the entire Star Trek lore is Spock. His shtick is that he’s half-Vulcan, half-human, with both sides warring with each other for control (you don’t get to see a lot of warring; the Vulcan half appears to have won). His father, Sarek, is a high-ranking ambassador for Vulcan. His mother, Amanda (I think her last name is Grayson), is human. That’s her entire personality, she’s human. She was developed a great deal in Discovery, but she was still motivated by caring for her children and not much else. My question is, what brought Spock’s parents together? What did this paragon of logic see in an overly emotional human? What was their first date like? What was it like the first time they made love? Was he an animal in the sack? 

And then there’s T’Pring. T’Pring is the reason I’m thinking about this. When T’Pring was introduced in the second-season episode of the original series, “Amok Time,” she appeared to be an arranged marriage and a prize to be overlooked in favor of your best bro. If there were queerbaiting in the late sixties, this episode would be that. Strange New Worlds introduces us to Spock and T’Pring together, a real couple. They kiss, they have sex, they propose marriage, they make dumb mistakes together, and they’re very clearly in love with each other, even if their tone of voice says “disinterested.” Vulcans do have emotions, but it is against their religion to express them. I want to give Gia Sandhu credit for breathing life into her. It’s not hard to do cold and emotionless (even Henry Cavill can do it), but in the episode “Spock Amok,” she gets very angry. Her pose is stoic, and her tone and volume don’t change at all, but by the time she leaves Spock’s quarters, you’re more scared than if she had been shouting at him. T’Pring comes across as naïve and sometimes bored, but something like that happens, and you can see what’s boiling under the lid. You never know what she’s thinking. I have been transfixed by this character ever since that episode. 

Thinking about these things, I thought it would be fun to write a fanfiction of a Vulcan woman falling in love with a human man or woman. And then I realized, I’d done it before, in two romance novels. They’re human, but their restrained emotions and distance from humanity makes them pretty much Vulcans. I’m afraid to write this fic now because I’m beginning to repeat myself. Meanwhile, in my fantasy novels, one of my villains was so coldblooded and efficient and dry that I kept finding excuses to bring her into subsequent novels.  

What fascinates me about this trope? The sass, mostly. Delivering thinly veiled insults in a flat, even voice is absolutely devastating. Being calm and affectless is a thoroughly masculine trait, though. As boys, we’re taught to have two emotions, anger and lust, and sometimes it’s easy to conflate the two. Other than that, we hold it in, lest we have our Man Card revoked. Masculinity is so fragile. Obviously I’m oversimplifying it, but not by much. Is my being attracted to cold women—attracted enough to marry one—the intellectual equivalent of someone ogling Paris Hilton eating a big cheeseburger?  

It should come as a surprise to no one I’m a cat person. And I don’t mean because I talk about my cat all the time. I mean that I thrive on indifference. For the last half of my marriage, I couldn’t get my wife to say I love you, and yet I stayed. As someone who wanted approval all the time, I got extra points if I got it off of a cold person. If you can get a cold person to feel, then you win. The prize is the new person they turn into, who you may not like so much. You did fall in love with them when they were cold. 

It’s also a straight male power fantasy for the reserved woman to completely lose it, usually through lust, but occasionally she’ll flip a desk. Realistically, if she’s going to lose it, it will be because she’s tired of men grabbing her ass as she walks by, and what would happen next would be the exact opposite of a male power fantasy. We like to watch the cold woman absolutely terrorize her employees then turn around and fall in love with us, the only ones who can get past her force field.  

Does this make it a problematic trope? Sure, but on the other hand, you can do a lot with a trope as long as you know what you’re doing. Kate Winslet was a manic-pixie dream girl in Eternal Sunshine, but she had a soul; she had weight. She critiqued the trope. Same thing with the cool girl in Gone Girl. What does that mean? It means I’m going to continue to write these characters (I love snark), but I’m going to be a little more mindful of them. 

Without showing a single crack in her façade, maybe a slight widening of the eye, T’Pring tells us that she’s tightly coiled, ready to explode, and watching her try to hold it together is pretty entertaining. (Watching a man try to hold it together is intense and wins Oscars and Emmys.) I think there are ways to tell a cold woman’s story without her becoming a prize of some sort who needs to be tamed by a man, and I intend to do it.  

But mostly, though, I like cold people for their snark.

Blackjack Anniversary

My neighbors are all women in their late twenties, and they have the priorities people their age have, like dating and FWBs. We have a picnic table in our backyard, and they like to hang out there when the weather is good, sometimes with the company of gentlemen callers. A handful of times, when I’m taking out the trash, they will invite me to sit with them. A handful of those times, I’ve taken them up on it. I never say anything, I just listen.

On one occasion, the subject of September 11 came up. They weren’t kind. They treated it as an overrated, overhyped spectacle that people needed to get over. If I really wanted to make them awkward, I could have told them where I was that day, but I’d probably no longer get invites to enjoy their show. Plus they’re kids. When I was twenty-seven, I wasn’t a kid, but twenty-seven-year-olds now are kids. Prior to September 11, 2001, I was pretty flippant about Vietnam and the people affected by it.  

I wasn’t offended, and that’s because I’ve been writing a novel where two twenty-six-year-old women fall in love. They’re in Battery Park, New York City, and the subject of the 9/11 Memorial comes up, and it occurred to me as I was writing that the Twin Towers on fire looked just like a movie. If you were a kid, say five years old, when this happened, how would you be able to tell the difference? Maybe I should ask a Baby Millennial/Geriatric Zoomer.

My main character: “September 11 is Generation X’s defining moment, like Vietnam was for Boomers.”

Love Interest: “What’s the Millennials’ defining moment?”

Main Character. “Look around. Take your pick.”

If disaster and disaster came my way just as I’m becoming an adult or trying to settle down with my young family, and if the people in power don’t represent your viewpoint anymore and are legislating hard against people like you, somehow two buildings falling down doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

September 11 is old enough to drink or, in select states, purchase cannabis. What’s happened is that it, like every memory, grew hazy with time. September 11 was bad, but twice as many Americans died in Iraq fighting a war that was proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be manufactured by people who profited immensely from it and were never punished. Almost that amount died in New Orleans when a hurricane they should have been prepared for ravaged a US state, and many more died because relief efforts were so poorly planned. And so on, to this decade, when a virus spread through the country, killing almost a million people, which could have been contained if leadership wasn’t incompetent. Now we have mega-billionaires bending the country to their will and a reactionary minority preparing to take rights away from all of us.

All that in mind, what does 9/11 mean to me? It’s not the worst thing to happen to this country in the past thirty years. Why do I feel something heavy in the pit of my stomach every time I see the date on a calendar? Is it because I was there? Because everybody’s memory of September 11 is one tower burning while a plane crashes into the second, while mine is from a different angle, on the ground, looking up buildings so tall, you couldn’t see the top, now covered in flames and smoke.

My experience with COVID was disappointing, to say the least. I was hoping to be bedridden for a few days, but all I got was a headache. But twenty-one years ago, for about four hours in the morning, the world was on fire. Strangers would grab you and yell in your face that they destroyed the Pentagon! They’re taking out the bridges! And the guilt. I actually believed I could run in there and help people. I didn’t care how or what I did, I thought I could help. Instead, I ran. I’ve made a lot of decisions in my life, but that was probably the smartest.

This essay doesn’t have a clear thesis. Like September 11, there’s no lesson to be learned here. It reveals nothing about our humanity. My generation likes to think they’re jaded, latchkey kids who’ve seen it all. But we were spoiled. America won the Cold War and was riding high when we were young. We were the punching bags of the Boomers until Millennials came along with their avocado toast, and that’s really as bad as it got for us collectively. (Individually, I know a lot of Gen-Xers who’ve suffered unfairly in life, but as a whole, we’ve done pretty well.) Our innocence died on September 11, and as a result, the subsequent generations never really had any. Maybe that’s why I go back to that day, again and again, starting in August every year. It was the morning that changed everything, even for the Millennials and Zoomers who don’t realize it.It was the morning America got so scared that it went completely mad and hasn’t recovered since.

Imagine growing up in that.

Learned Part 6 

It occurred to me while I was listening to my neighbors, both beautiful women in their late twenties, and they’re talking about dating apps and their conquests or lack of conquests, that I interrupted them and said, “This is why I miss my twenties.” Not for the untreated, at-times-crippling mental illness, but for the fact that I wasn’t concerned about IRAs. This stuff was life or death to them, as it was for me when I was that age. There’s an innocence to it that is impossible to replicate, and if there were some way I could give my neighbors more time to enjoy it, I would.  

One of my neighbors, I’m going to call her Ethel, talks to me like she knows me. We’ve had a couple of one-on-one conversations, and we share the same pot dealer, but that’s really it. But she’ll say something that would probably impress me if I knew what she was talking about, and I’ll stand there, and she’ll cock her head like she’s expecting me to weigh in. She gave me a recently published, critically acclaimed book to read which is currently draped in a thin layer of dust.  

I don’t really read because I have yet to find the book that scratches my itch. I spent a year or so burning through Urban Fantasy novels, looking for the one thing and not finding it. Finally, I decided that I’d have to write it myself, and I currently have over two-dozen novels written. And maybe the reason Ethel talks to me like she does is because she sees me writing constantly, and she thinks I’m unraveling the secrets of the human condition when I’m actually writing a murder mystery starring New York nineties club kids.  

Ethel thinks I’m an intellectual, and she is way off. 

I’m not anti-intellectual. Ever since I was a little bitty asshole, I could soak up information like a sponge, but what I couldn’t do was process it. I would learn everything I possibly could about a subject and that’s what I want to be when I grow up, and a new subject would come along, and no, this is what I want to be when I grow up. It was exhausting, and I didn’t score high marks in grade school. 

They flagged me as gifted in the seventh grade and entered me into the gifted program where all the smart kids got together and went to concerts and played the stock market game and listened to guest speakers, but mostly it was a chance for us to miss class and hang out with our nerd friends. My first kiss was in the back of a Gifted and Talented Education van (high-five!). Looking at the GATE kids now, about half of us are a serious letdown. The reason I was in this program was because I took an IQ test well, and those things are not reliable. One of the girls I used to hang with in middle school repeatedly tried and failed to test into the gifted program, and she was smarter and more hardworking than me any day.  

It wasn’t because of GATE that I felt like an intellectual when I was a teenager. It was because of my Best Man. He was an artist from a Seattle-adjacent town in Washington, and in the time since he’d dropped out of high school and moved to Gallup, he taught himself culture. I would sit in his studio apartment for hours, learning from him. 

When I was in college, I set out to be an intellectual, but I didn’t have the discipline. I bullshat my way through the English Department. (If the English Department ever reads this, their response will be to impatiently reply, “Yes, we know!”) I stopped dressing like a grunge fan had sex with a goth and I was the product of their union, and I started dressing more like a smart person, with tucked-in shirts with banded collars. I almost failed out of college. 

The intellectual mindset followed me to New York where I was going to become a writer of a novel that was going to make critics cry. I drank whisky with a high school English teacher. I wore hound’s-tooth sports jackets. What I didn’t do was write. I got into art, and all my friends thought that was fabulous, but I couldn’t make them understand is I wanted to learn how to draw pictures of one person punching another person really hard, not canvases that contained the secrets to the universe. I wasn’t planning to write literature, just something fun with hopefully some heart, when I got around to it. 

I began my career as an editor within a year of leaving New York, and that made me feel like an intellectual, but I was editing self-published books, and a substantial portion of those were people talking about their lawsuits. A number of them were political diatribes. I read a lot of thrillers written by middle-aged white men about middle-aged white men who got shit done, unlike all this pencil-pushers in the CIA. I read a truly baffling book about a dented can of Juicy Juice that made people dance if you listened to it (but whatever you do, don’t drink it). There was no scholarly literature in the pile, but I kept up the pretense for ten years until I was fired for turning in substandard work.  

That takes me to now. When I’m not working, or when I’m working from home, I wear T-shirts and jeans. I hardly talk to anyone, but I don’t try to give the pretext of being smarter than I am. I watch Marvel movies (though I am rapidly becoming disillusioned with them) and collect Doctor Who action figures. I have a framed print of a cat in a TARDIS surrounded by framed postcards of varying sizes of John Singer Sargent paintings along with a small black-and-white drawing of Wonder Woman drinking a latte. I have one shelf of my bookshelf of actual books and seven bookshelves of graphic novels. I have Lego models. There is nothing in here that says intellectual (except for Ethel’s dust-covered novel), but the myth persists. 

Do I explain to Ethel that I’m not actually that smart? That I’m not literary, not cultured? Do I really want to dispel this myth? And my answer is no. I hardly ever see her, and I talk to her alone even less than that. I’ve heard some of her guy friends talking, and they’re as bad as I used to be. What’s the harm in her thinking her neighbor is this cool intellectual who sometimes hangs out in the backyard? This, I’ve concluded, is the smart thing to do. 

A Groovy Kind Of

I am very loose with the work “love.” I can say I loved my ex-wife, or that I love my family, or that I love The One That Got Away, and they all mean different things. There’s friendship love, either squealed at each other at bachelorette parties, often accompanied by the word “bitch.” There’s the “I love you, man,” accompanied by the most distant hugs imaginable, because God forbid anyone thinks you’re a homo.  

From the way we differentiate between loving someone and being in love with someone, the word love has many different meanings, like “aloha.” I am in love with a number of people, and it’s not because I want to marry them. I have my friend, the princess, who I will love until the day I die, and all I want to do is cuddle with her. I’m in love with The One That Got Away, and her I want to marry. I’m in love with my Best Man, Shane, my brother. I’m in love with the one who brought me out from party to party in New York and made me feel cool, and that’s mom love. I’m in love with my best friend in 1999 and 2000, and the only thing I want from her is to lie in bed together with a dictionary, spending the entire evening looking up the dumbest word.  

Same word, completely different meanings. So when I tell you I was in love with her from the moment she forced herself into my conversation, it wasn’t because I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen (though, to be fair, she was), but because she radiated artistry, sensitivity, and mischief. She was a very tactile person, holding hands, stroking forearms, using one another as chairs, and it was easy to confuse a guy who’d never had a girlfriend in high school. However, expectations were set and revisited, and things were great until I started to run with a crew that viewed sincerity as a character flaw, and she was sent into exile, which wasn’t the punishment it was supposed to be because she had many friends across all disciplines, and I don’t think she missed us.  

She wasn’t gone from my life, though, and we kept bumping into her, and I wanted to keep bumping into her, but there was still a part of me that saw her as the enemy. I was awful to her. She continued to extend the hand of friendship, and I repeatedly slapped it away.  

That was college. After college, we became closer. During a celebration of a relative’s accomplishments, I told her that I was married, and I loved my wife, but I loved her too, for different reasons, and I didn’t have the language to explain, but she understood. That’s probably why I fought so hard against her. She understood me, and I didn’t want anyone to. But ten years after graduating, I wanted it more than anything in the world. 

We talked to each other rarely over the next several years, but any doubt I had about our relationship was dispelled when I visited her at her home a couple of years later, and we spent a couple of days having the kind of drama-free relationship we’d always wanted. We went back to communicating rarely, and I saw her one more time before we went back to communicating rarely.  

In May of this year, while “suffering” from COVID, I wrote my memoirs. I have known a lot of people, and I have done a great many things, so I wrote it down. I broke the book down into nineteen particularly influential individuals (my ex-wife gets two chapters). I sent her her chapter. I wanted her to see what she meant to me. I wanted to tell her how in love with her I was, but not in that way. I wanted her to understand me, more than I wanted anybody to understand me. So she read it. She had no notes. She read the rest of the memoirs because I wanted her to know everything about me.  

Now we text every day.  

For reasons I won’t go into, I’m taking what is probably my last vacation. I stopped by to see my sister in Colorado, and then I retreated to my cabin in the woods, where I was visited by the friend I was in love with. With a brief exception, we sat on the cabin couch and talked about ourselves, our past lives, our present lives, not very much about our futures, our impending disasters we had no control over, our regrets, our mistakes, our triumphs. We also talked about TV and movies. We talked a lot, is what I’m saying. I’ve become touch averse in my old age, but she got through my shields like she always belonged there, holding my hand, playing with my hair. This was our entire relationship in a nutshell. I had no idea how much I needed this. 

I live-blogged to her the rest of my vacation, the writer’s retreat with my old friend Shane, running into those people from my past who crossed social boundaries to be my friend, how I’m feeling, etc. I’d rather be sprawled out on the couch, my head on her lap, recounting the events of the day rather than sending her a text. When I think of her, I think of warmth and companionship, and never romance. It’s the perfect relationship for someone ace.  

Now that we’ve so clearly spelled out what we mean to each other, what does our future look like? I don’t know, but we have the rest of our lives to figure it out. She’s not going anywhere. 

Home Again Jiggety-Jig

When I arrived in Albuquerque, I had a few hours to kill, and I explored a neighborhood called Nob Hill, close to the university campus. I breathed in the mountain plants and beheld the adobe houses everywhere, and it had been twenty-four years since I’d spent more than a few days here, but it still felt like home.

As I approached Gallup from the east, the shapes of the buildings—the gas stations and auto parts stores and restaurants—were all the same, even though they are all different businesses than they were in the twentieth century. I drove in a car I thought of as invisible i.e. it’s so generic that it can follow you for miles and you’d never notice, and I coasted down Coal Avenue, my favorite place to go when I’m downtown. An entire block of the street was gone. Aside from that, it looked great. The coffee house that had opened up after I started college has been renamed and expanded, and the ratty, crumbling apartments that had housed several of my friends have been given a fresh coat of paint. On the other hand, the department store across the street is exactly the same, and so is the Crashing Thunder Art Gallery a few businesses down. The New Mexico souvenirs store now sells CBD products.

On day two of my return to Gallup, I started to entertain fantasies about quitting my job and settling down there. The dating scene is terrible, but I have no interest in that kind of thing. I have three friends there already, which is more than I have in DC. This would be a good place to retire.

By day five, I’d had a chance to look around. The elementary school my dad taught at is gone. There’s not a molecule of it remaining. My middle school had been expanded by erecting these Borg-cube-like buildings. My high school has been completely rebuilt, though the roof is still that familiar zigzag shape, making me suspect they built on top of the original. Lots of familiar buildings have unfamiliar storefronts, Comics, Cards & Games, for example, had been replaced by a sign that simply says “Waxing.” However, from a distance, Gallup looks the same as it did when I grew up here. The Gal-A-Bowl hasn’t changed its cheesy sign, El Sombrero is still there, the courthouse is a masterpiece of Southwestern architecture (just don’t look at the modern office buildings springing up around it).

If I look closer, the stucco on the house I grew up in has been replaced with aluminum siding, the Pic-A-Flic video store I once relied on is now a payday loan place. The theater where I went to the movies by myself for the first time at age nine (Godzilla 1985) is now boarded up. A lot of businesses are boarded up, actually, while other businesses, mostly the ones downtown, have been given facelifts. Gallup in 2022 looks like the Gallup of 1994, but it’s not. It can’t be.

Even the people I’m seeing are the same, but not really. My friend from high school kept up her enthusiasm and her bright smile, but she’s an accomplished professional now, not a giggling cheerleader. And then there’s Shane. Shane is a special case because we’ve led parallel lives that occasionally intersect. When I met him in Gallup, he was an artist and fixture in town who went to bed in the same studio where he created his paintings. When I pulled up to his place in Gallup last week, I found an artist and fixture in town who went to bed in the same studio where he created his paintings. But when I looked closer, I could see many differences. He has two children now, one of whom is twenty-four and living in New York, like I once did. He has less hair. Money is no longer the precious commodity it once was. There are hundreds, as opposed to dozens, of paintings leaning against the walls. If I moved down here, I’d have to navigate a Frankenstein recreation of the city I grew up in, and I don’t think I’m ready to do that. On my way to my hotel, there is a sign for a diner that was once a Gallup landmark. The diner itself is gone, now a weed-infested parking lot. The ghost diner speaks to me. It says, “Don’t look back.”

The More They Stay the Same

May through August of 1998 is known to me as My Summer in Purgatory. My plans for my post-collegiate future were pulled out from under me, and I was so tied up in graduating and working almost full-time that I didn’t make alternate plans, so I moved in with my parents. And my two sisters, who had been doing fine without me there, thank you very much for asking. I spent most of the time being drunk and stoned, being needlessly … well, me … to a wonderful young woman who has moved onto bigger things and beyond. I was offered a hand out, and I took it, and decades later, here I am. I’ve visited Gallup a few times since then, but over the years the city has been completely rebuilt and redesigned while also remaining the exact same. Here I am, twenty-four years since the last time I’d spent more than a couple of days here, crammed into a coffin of a hotel room ten miles from town, and it still feels like home.

I’m here on a writing retreat with Shane. We want to take a 156-page screenplay and expand it out into a four-to-six-episode TV series, and thanks to his networking from being a successful painter and having once been married to literary intelligentsia, he has contacts, and he might be able to get it in front of people. If he doesn’t, that doesn’t bother me. The whole goal of this trip was to work with one of my oldest and best friends on an art project together like we used to do. We have met that goal. We have written a solid first draft of the pilot, and we’ve finished more episodes. What it needs is a fine polish, and then we’re ready to send this butterfly out in the world and see where it lands.

It’s about a hitman and his sidekick and the people they pick up along the way searching for a ruthless drug dealer in Gallup, New Mexico, in 1995, a time and place Shane and I know very well. And the thing about Gallup is, it’s weird. I know, I know, you think your hometown is weird. You’ve never lived in Gallup. It’s a curious cocktail of mixing cultures that don’t mix well, but can get along to get along. The characters, who have impressed some of the contest readers who’ve seen it, are what we’re focused on. The hitman is a professional, but he’s emotionally unstable, and pops antidepressants and anxiety meds like Pez. The sidekick is a hitman in training who doesn’t want to kill people and dresses like a 1995 rapper. The point man is a Reservation resident who acts chill but is shifty. The victim is a cute redneck girl once kidnapped by the drug dealer, and who hangs around the hitman so she can get her bloody revenge. The waitress is a high-class girl in search of adventure. Nobody knows what’s up with the drug dealer. That’s something we have to work on.

Sorry, didn’t mean to bore you. I’m proud of what we’ve done together.

Shane has been a resident of Gallup for years, after living around the country and even outside our country. The town has a certain gravity. It draws people back, like a few of my friends from high school (and me) in the years following. They all scattered to the wind, but a few more came back as adults. And I don’t mean adult like me, where I have a job and failing eyesight, but otherwise I haven’t changed. I mean adult as in married, with children, and buying houses. This was where they wanted to raise their families. Shane knows more of them than he can count. I know two of them.

The first was the cute cheerleader turned cute mom and high-ranking school administrator from my last post. She’s the one who informed me that the narrative I had where I survived high school by being invisible was not remotely true. I’d been seen.

I knew she was in town, and I had expected to see her, so that didn’t blow my mind as much as the next guy. Shane called for a break during a particularly unproductive stretch of hours, and he drove me to the UPS Store to see someone who really wanted to see me. I’m terrible with faces, so I knew that, unless he told me who it was, I wasn’t going to guess. And he took me up to the pass-through and pointed his chin at a guy wearing a COVID mask. I shrugged, and someone called his name, and I remembered everything I talked about in this entry:

tl;dr: If 1998 was My Summer in Purgatory, 1992 was My Summer of Adventure. The Lost Boy was a really good friend when his crew was away, but as soon as the crew returned, he ghosted us. I was heartbroken at the time, but as I got older and met more people who were popular when they were young, the more I understood why.

On the other hand, a member of the crew I ran with that summer was an easily offended, vindictive bitch, and he very well could have unilaterally exiled the Lost Boy.

Either way, the last time I saw him up close was when he tried to explain to me without explaining to me why he had to leave us behind. But once I heard that name, those sharp, manicured eyebrows could belong to no one else. Shane got his attention, and he came over, and they chatted. Then Shane said, “Look who I brought!” The man I used to know as the Lost Boy called out my name and ran out from behind the counter to tackle me with a hug. He looked the same—compact, in shape, no wrinkles, not a single gray hair. The only change was his mullet. He used to have the kind of mullet that would make Billy Ray Cyrus look like Sinead O’Connor. It was business in the front, very long party in the back. And now he had a respectable middle-aged-man haircut. He asked me where I was and what I was doing, and he was excited to hear I was still writing. He reminded me that it didn’t matter if I wasn’t a New York Times Bestseller, I was writing.

Beyond his sexy cool, he was one of my most enthusiastic cheerleaders. When we were hanging out alone, he was always encouraging me to write. At the time I believed that I could tell the story, but I couldn’t think of what the story should be. That’s why I was working on an idea with the vindictive bitch as opposed to my own, which I wasn’t sure I had. But my friend believed that I could come up with my own. He also had a female friend he thought would be a good match for me when the school year began (but that went away when he did). He knew I was bound for bigger things. That hadn’t changed in the slightest, even though it is literally thirty years, summer-to-summer, since we had known each other.

He gave me his number. I’m going to shoot him a text.

Gallup, New Mexico is a weirder-than-average town close to Arizona and three Indian Reservations. It’s a place where magic happens. I’ve set two novels and a screenplay here. It will always be home.

Social Influencers

I didn’t enjoy high school, but my senior year in high school was kind of nice, actually. People stopped bullying me, Severian wasn’t around to bring down my mood, I made new friends, a new comic book shop opened, and this cute cheerleader started following me around. She hung on my every word and often arranged to be where I was going to be. She manipulated events so we could be coeditors of the school paper. I had enough presence of mind to recognize that these weren’t romantic overtures, just someone who was fascinated with me for some reason, like Jimmy, who had a man-crush on me.

She also met Shane separately from me and followed him around too. It wasn’t until I was telling him about my new cheerleading friend in school that he told me he also had a new friend, and our descriptions of her matched up, and when one of us said her name, we knew.

I lost track of her after graduation, and I found out, like, 12 or 13 years ago, that she was back in Gallup. When I saw her then, I was really depressed and feeling gross, so it didn’t make much of an impression. This time, I was alert and content and feeling confident, like I have been during this long vacation I’ve been on, so we went out to drinks and caught up with each other’s lives.

She told us that, even though she was a cheerleader in a popular crowd, she felt miserable and like a fraud. She had admired me through most of school, and she wanted to soak up some of my mojo, whatever it was. She told me that I was a goth back when goths still wore colors (I don’t agree with that assessment), and she had to learn to be like me.

When she met Shane, she was enamored of him, as many women are. According to Shane, she made a move on him, but I never trusted his interpretation of events when it came to women (because his interpretations tend to consistently fall under the category “She Wants Me”).

It’s weird for me to hear I was a formative influence in someone’s life. I don’t think of myself as making much of an impact on this world. She told Shane and me that if she hadn’t met us, she would have been shallow and unhappy. Now she is relaxed and herself and successful and in a good place. I guess I did have an impact.

Momma Raised a Quitter

I used to have a drinking problem. I’d say I was an alcoholic, but I wasn’t addicted. My problem was that I started out with one drink, and I’d keep drinking until I ran out of alcohol. This was a real problem whenever I cracked open a bottle of wine. It wasn’t that I set out to be a binge drinker, but I was on a medication that kept alcohol from affecting me until I was about five or six drinks in, then I would go from sober to drunk in seconds. I loved drinking, though, so I kept doing it.

I loved how numb it made me while being simultaneously awesome (or so I thought). It turned off the part of me that should know better, so I was a free man. In that way, drinking was like having a manic episode. And I loved the taste of a good beer or wine. And I can’t stress this enough, I didn’t need it every day. I just needed it whenever. Whenever turned out to be most days.

Say what you will about my ex-wife, she made a lot of really positive changes to me. She found me the psychiatric help I needed to be better, she researched Chantix, the quitting smoking drug that makes you want to commit suicide, and she encouraged me to quit drinking, at the beginning of July 2007, after I fell flat on my face at a party and almost hit my head against something. I didn’t go to AA or to a doctor for help, I was just determined to do it. I half-assed it, though. I used to sneak drinks here and there and kept a bottle of mouthwash in the car (that I shared with Kate, so I had to really hide it) to shake suspicion.

This was bad, and I’m honestly not sure how I got away with it as long as I did. I mean, this is the kind of thing people who were addicted did. I didn’t need it every day, just once or twice a week—whenever I could, basically. So for the month of July, I snuck around with drinking. Finally, at the end of the month, Kate was going to be out of town for the weekend, so I could have a whole bottle of wine to myself in privacy, as long as I could get rid of the evidence.

I’ve told this story before, but something clicked in me as I took that bottle off the shelf and placed it gently in my shopping cart. It reminded me of all the times I quit smoking where I’d have one or two, just to take the edge off, then I was a pack-a-day smoker again. It asked me who’s really losing in this situation, me who definitely wasn’t quitting, or Kate, who thought the man she trusted and loved was being honest with her. It asked me how long I intended to keep this up. And mostly it asked me what kind of a man couldn’t keep promises to the woman he loved. So I put the wine back. As I’m fond of saying, I don’t remember the last drink I took, but I clearly remember the first drink I didn’t have.

Fifteen years later, the only drink I’ve had was when a bartender in London didn’t understand my order of club soda and got me a vodka and soda. It took one sip to figure out the mistake (the bartender didn’t apologize, she just doubled down on her logic, which is who goes to a bar to get a club soda?). Do I miss it? I wish I could have a glass of wine, I love a good red. I hadn’t experimented in whites before August 2007, but I’m sure I would have loved them too. I liked beer. I liked standing around with a glass of scotch, not really enjoying it, but feeling classy. I don’t miss being drunk, and I definitely don’t miss hangovers.

I don’t really pride myself on my impulse control and willpower, but in the same year, I quit smoking and drinking, both of which I was dependent upon. Maybe I do have it in me.

Watch for Falling Enthusiasm

When we were doing our little mixer for the fifth floor, we were asked to tell someone we’d never met before something only our best friend knows. The next day, I spoke to one of the women who had organized the activities for the gathering, and she said if she could do it again, we’d tell the stranger what was number one in our Netflix queue.

A few weeks ago, I watched Thor: Love and Thunder. I remember being entertained, as a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan and as a Taiki Waititi fan, but I don’t remember much about it, except that I had this strange feeling sitting in my belly like a brick. And after chewing on it for some time, I figured it out. I didn’t really like it. I had a similar feeling after watching Dr. Strange: Into the Multiverse of Madness, with the added conflict of Dr. Strange being one of my favorite comic book characters and loving Sam Raimi since I was old enough to watch people cut off their own hands with chainsaws. I remember having a similar feeling after Captain Marvel, when the feminist in me wanted to love it, but the storyteller in me said, “This is actually not good.”

I don’t want to dislike these movies. I want Marvel to be successful. And I’ve been enjoying the various series on Disney+. I just don’t think these movies were very good. What about them don’t I like? Mostly it’s the sassy snark. It’s not even good sass. It’s weak sass. It feels like Joss Whedon, who patented snarky sass in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has taken over all of the dialogue for Marvel, and he’s phoning it in. These movies are making me retroactively dislike Buffy and Angel, two shows I love.

Now we return to my Netflix queue. I have been watching a show, as I tried to explain to my coworker, that is not good. The scripts are overly simplistic, the special effects are from 1998, the acting is both wooden and over the top, the music is the worst, the title font is stolen from Harry Potter, and the title itself is embarrassing to say out loud. And I can’t get enough of this show. As I sat in my bed, enjoying another episode before I turn the lights out, I ask myself, “Why am I watching this?” The answer is because it’s sincere. There’s snark, there’s sass, but it’s always delivered with an eye-roll, and it’s pretty infrequent.

The show is about a teenager who suddenly finds herself immersed in a world of fairies and elves, doing magic. She is taught how to control her newfound powers in a library classroom that has four students, two fairies and two elves. They work for a department of the Australian government whose job it is to keep magic from being discovered by the normals, and that means these teenagers have to stop the occasional magic outbreak, sometimes coming from magical objects hidden in the library. So they’re fighting tentacled monsters that eat people? No, they’re trying to stop chairs from floating around in a park or locating a graffiti artist whose signature frogs come to life. The stakes on this show couldn’t be lower, and I am there for it.

I’ve particularly fallen for a character named Peter, who is close friends with the first teenager. Peter is a regular human and a conspiracy theorist who figured out that something weird was going on. In the beginning, trying to keep Peter away from the magic was a running theme, but he was let into the magical world, and he’s now a rabid fan-boy. His enthusiasm and goofiness really carry the show.

This show has been the perfect antidote for the cynical humor of Marvel movies. And each episode is twenty-four minutes long. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a show under an hour on Netflix and Hulu anymore? This show has got this joy and earnest innocence that I kind of need in my life right now, especially after I tried and failed to watch all of season four of Stranger Things (the bloated episode lengths are just one of my complaints).

The title is The Bureau of Magical Things (I told you it was bad), and it’s on Netflix, if you need an antidote from all the violence and cynicism out there.