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.