Oh, Mercy, Mercy Me

Here we are, six months into the pandemic, and a whole lot of people are acting like idiots. This spring, armed men invaded state capitals because they literally wanted to get a haircut. I was talking to someone about how this was the way life was now, and something occurred to me.

The last time that a major upheaval happened in our lives was nineteen years ago today. The whole country shut down under the weight of this horrible act of aggression. The peace and prosperity of the nineties was over (the prosperity had already ended pretty much as soon as Bush was sworn in, but that’s not how we remember it), and we were all going to make sacrifices of our old lives in the face of this new reality.

But in actuality, we didn’t. Life returned to normal pretty much instantly, and I’m not talking about extra airport security or Islamophobia or the incredibly unpopular president becoming a superhero to most of the country. I’m talking about day-to-day life. We could go to restaurants, go to movies, get the oh-so-important haircut. The words of comfort and aid from our president were not “Ask not what your country can do for you,” but rather, “Go shopping.” The MTA had an updated subway map out in about a week. We lost some of our freedoms, but we didn’t really miss them. The only people who gave anything up were those that rushed headlong into the recruiter’s office and found themselves in Afghanistan and Iraq, but, in general, those were the kinds of people who were going to join the military anyway, so no real difference.

Eighteen and a half years later, an invader came to our shores again to rob us of our way of life, and Americans, remembering how this kind of thing goes, were expecting a quick return to normalcy. We don’t like change.

But the fact of the matter is, everything changed, and it will be forever different. One day, in a year, maybe more, the stores may open up all the way again, and schools may be taking students in without having to go online again after a rash of infections pop up, but things won’t be the same. Many Mom and Pop stores will be forever shut down, to be replaced by a centralized, corporate structure. The kinds of people who are freaking out about masks will wield even more political power. We’re already seeing America’s billionaires getting exponentially richer over the past six months, and they’ll do anything not to lose their money. This is how life is now. We won’t be wearing masks forever, but the changes to the way we live our lives are fundamental. It is never going to be the way it was before.

And we, as Americans, can’t deal with that.

The Sanctity of Fictional Life

The Sanctity of Fictional Life

It’s no secret that I like the Urban Fantasy, whether in books or in TV. This doesn’t apply only to Urban Fantasy, but to all genre-style books, movies, and TV shows (excluding romance). These works of fiction tend to have a high body count. Whether it’s the victim before the opening credits of a TV show, or the innocent bystander being killed in the carnage of the two heroes duking it out above the city in a movie, or the person who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the sexy rogue vampire is walking through the pages of a novel, genre fiction is a bloodbath, and life (except for the main characters) is cheap.

With that much death, it’s hard to comprehend how we’re supposed to feel about it. It should be shock value when the villain just lashes out and kills another hostage, is it? We’ve lost almost 200,000 people to a virus, and most of that was due to negligence and political infighting. Each of those lives means something, but the number is so staggering, we can’t comprehend it. It’s why people don’t wear masks anymore. They don’t see the lives, they see a number.

I write primarily in Urban Fantasy, and I’m really squeamish about killing people. I mean, I have. My nostalgia novel Infinity has a pretty shocking death toll, and the vampire in my vampire novel’s gotta eat. But usually I let people live.

Partly it’s because of logistics. For example, the population of Sunnydale, California, could have, in no way, supported the amount of people who died there on a weekly basis. And who would want to be a Gotham City cop or a guard at Arkham Asylum when anytime one of them appears on panel, they get their throats slit?

But mostly it’s empathy. Even fictional characters have a family who will miss them. They had favorite movies and food, and statistically, some of them have got to have pets. They may be made up by me, but they’re more than just a statistic to make the bad guy seem extra bad and for the heroine or heroine vow to avenge and then forget later.

Also, I found a lot of storytelling possibilities. In one case, a character who should be another dead victim is turned into a trauma survivor who becomes friends with the heroine. And when I do decide to kill someone, the loss of a life means something to their family, to their friends, and to the heroine who witnessed it. I’ve just made the on-the-cuff decision to kill a minor character in my current book, and it’s really allowed me to think about who he was when he was alive, and to get to know him, not just through his funeral trope where everybody stands around a hole while a priest drones on, but through the wake, a celebration of his life and his potential.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t really have the stomach for the way non-main characters are treated in genre fiction, and the only solution to that is to do it better.

Swallow This

My first horror movie was Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. Prior to that, I’d spent fifteen years squeamish around gore and sensitive to people in pain. Horror movies in the eighties and early nineties were primarily slasher flicks, and I had no interest in seeing people get murdered, and I certainly didn’t want to see any guts. I liked my violence clean and sanitized and without any real consequence, as in superhero comics and Star Wars.

And then came the sleepover where I woke up early in the morning, and my friend was watching one of his favorite movies. I poured some coffee and joined him, catching the beginning, before the insanity started (and this was early in the movie, because the insanity starts pretty much right away), and I watched, through dismemberment and torture, and I wasn’t at all queasy like I’d expected myself to be. I was transfixed by the sheer spectacle of it. It was just around the time that the hero’s demon-possessed hand dragged himself into the kitchen to hit himself in the head with every single plate in the tri-county area that I turned to my friend and asked, “Is this supposed to be funny?” He told me that it was.

Evil Dead 2 is not so much a horror movie as it is a demented cartoon. Director and writer Sam Raimi throws subtlety and nuance down the garbage chute while invoking terror and tension, never giving the audience the chance to relax. Leading man Bruce Campbell has to carry a large portion of the movie by himself, and he is over the top while convincingly being horrified, terrified, grief-stricken, and angry. This movie sucks you right in and doesn’t let you go, no matter how ridiculous it gets.

In the hour and a half that I spent in my friend’s living room, I became desensitized to violence and gore on the screen, and suddenly I could watch any movie without fear. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less blasé about onscreen death, and now I find myself wondering after the families of the people who are getting killed in my fiction.

I guess the whole point of this post is that I just finished a rewatch of Evil Dead 2 after decades of it existing only in my memory, and I have to say, it still holds up. Groovy.

Like Cheese and Fine Wine

A pet peeve of mine: Those memes where they say, “If you remember/get this pop cultural reference/lifestyle/article of technology, you’re old.” A variation is the insinuation that most people won’t get said pop cultural reference/article of technology.


We get it. You’re older. Things are different now. Younger people might not recognize the things we liked when we were their age.

But, unexpectedly, some might. I was listening to the Byrds, Donovan, and Steppenwolf when I was a kid, and those were way before my time. Don’t assume that you’re different than them because you rode your bike without a helmet and didn’t die. You’re not better because you can use a rotary phone. Helmetless riding is dangerous, and rotary phones were obnoxious.


I get nostalgia. I think there’s way too much of it, but I get it. Sometimes I feel like grabbing people my age by the shoulders and saying, “Remember dot matrix printers?” I don’t think I’m superior because I had to tear off the sheets, one-by-one, and those strips with the holes in them. Remember them? They were so wasteful. Did you ever make springy things out of them? I did, all the time. Printers are so much better now, but without the springy things.

Knowing this hiccup in the march of technological progress is kind of like being in a secret club with millions upon millions of members. I understand how that feels. But the smug winking of these memes really annoys me.

Mandela Effect

I had a long conversation about the Mandela Effect with Nicole and her friend because he had stated he wanted to see a band in concert, she told him he had already, he told her he hadn’t, and she found pictures on Instagram of him seeing that band in a concert he had no recollection of.

The Mandela Effect, if you don’t know, is the collective false memories that our society has about famous events. For example, most people remember four people in the presidential limo on November 22, 1963, despite the fact that there were actually six. Mostly, it’s pop culture, like the lines “Hello, Clarice” from The Silence of the Lambs, “Luke, I am your father,” from The Empire Strikes Back, or “Beam me up, Scotty,” from Star Trek, lines that were never uttered in any of those movies or TV shows. Some say that they saw video of the man in Tiananmen Square get run over by a tank, despite that no such video exists. There are those who swear that it’s spelled Volkswagon, not Volkswagen (despite that the former is not remotely German). The Mandela Effect gets its name from the fact that Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, despite the fact that a large number of people remember seeing his funeral on TV years before that, and if you go to any page on the subject, particularly pages with comments, people are really freaked out about it.

I have a Mandela Effect of my own, in a guy I went to college with who married someone close to me and is friends with most of my friends from back then and has pictures on their Facebook page of concerts that I’ve been to and is someone I should at least know peripherally, but I have no memory of whatsoever. I’ve spoken to my psychiatrist about this, and he agrees that selective editing of my life like this is highly unusual, even for someone with a legendarily lousy memory such as myself. But there it is, a “this-guy” hole in my life.

There are lots of explanations for the Mandela Effect, including alternate realities and the fact that the world actually ended on December 21, 2012, as was predicted by the Mayans, making this is some kind of weird echo/restart. Perhaps we’re all in virtual reality, and they keep rewriting the Matrix. Maybe something went funky with the Hadron collider.

In the end, though, it is simply misremembering things. Memory is one of the most fallible parts of our experiences as humans, and in a world that makes very little sense, our minds will fill in blanks to make things coherent. For example, one of the biggest bits of evidence that people will use for the Mandela Effect is the Berenstain Bears, the children’s book and cartoon series. People will swear up and down in a court of law that it’s Berenstein Bears, and the fact that it’s not is evidence that something’s not right in the world, not that they just remembered it wrong. When you think about it, -stain isn’t very often the end of someone’s surname. It’s usually -stein. People made assumptions, they were wrong, and they dug in their heels and declared that they couldn’t possibly be wrong, so the universe must be broken. I myself thought it was Berenstein until I learned about its place in the Mandela Effect conspiracy, and I just accepted the truth (i.e. it has always, from day one, been Berenstain) like an adult.

The Mandela Effect is kind of fun and a little bit creepy at times, but there is no such thing as alternate dimensions where they’re known as Looney Toons, not Looney Tunes, as they have been since the forties. This conspiracy is just another way that (mostly) Americans can defy the truth that’s in front of our eyes in favor of our “intuition.” This is yet one more reason we’re still in quarantine six months later when listening to the medical experts could have slowed down if not stopped the spread of a deadly virus. It’s the reason our president can gleefully violate the Constitution and other American laws and get away with it.

You’re going to be wrong about things, even things you’re positive you’re right about. It doesn’t make you less of a person. It makes you more of one.

An Honest Profession

A little over two years ago, Kate and I were on a cruise of Alaska, whale-watching, spa-enjoying, and quaint-stuff-shopping. It was the last real thing we did together, and I will always remember it fondly.

In the town of Ketchican, we wandered around and headed back to the boat, but I stopped. We had man hours ago before we had to board, and I wanted to tour Dolly’s House, a museum upstairs from the Red Onion Saloon. Dolly’s House was not only a brothel, but one of the best and most successful in the Alaska territory.

When the tour group gathered in the foyer, the tour guide, in character in her finest risqué Wild West dress and Warby Parker glasses, looked around the crowd and said, “Seeing a lot of familiar faces among the gentlemen.” We looked at each other and laughed at the absurdity that us straight-laced tourists would go to a whorehouse this day and age.

As we went on, our guide was describing some of the complexities of how business was run, and she said, “And they have to follow the first rule of prostitution. Who knows what that is?”

I raised my hand and said, “Get the money first.”

She looked at me, nodded her head, and said, “I knew I’ve seen you here before!”

And that is how I got called out by a fake prostitute.  

Antisocial Studies

If I needed any further proof that I have completely lost my ability to be a normal, social human being functioning in society, I have it.

Today at the pet store, the clerk was delighted by my Doctor Who mask, and he started a conversation with me about it. And I just stood there, staring blankly, like I was in a spelling bee, and they asked me to do Zstylzhemghi. I know I should have answered in depth and asked him some questions, but I had no idea what to say or how to say it. The moment passed, and I knew I had dropped the ball, and that’s been haunting me all day.

I used to be social. While not an extrovert by any means, I used to be friendly and chatty and attentive, and now I’m decidedly not. One of these days, I’m going to need to make more friends, and I can’t if I’m always standing there, like a deer in headlights.

Oh, No, Mr. Build!

When LEGO started to transition from freestyle building to model building, I was resentful. I spent a large fraction of my childhood with my LEGOs, creating worlds from a handful of styles of bricks. My imagination could fill in the rest. I was sad that the next generation of youth was going to have these rigid rules forced on them about what they should be playing with. What was the purpose of a set of blocks if they could only go together a certain way?

My attitude on that changed many, many years later, as a plague wept the nation, and there wasn’t much to do. I decided that I wanted a TARDIS for my LEGO-compatible (but not actually LEGO, let’s be clear on this) action figures to play with, and I remembered that LEGO had made a playset. It’s out of circulation, so I had to pay an obscene amount of money for it, but it arrived in the mail, and I spent an afternoon following the directions, watching as the familiar shapes and colors met with new shapes and colors and formed a TARDIS, a console room, and a pair of Daleks. I had to put it in a display case because Henry the Cat insists on knocking it to the floor whenever he feels not loved enough, so I can’t play with it anymore, but I still have that powerful feeling of accomplishment from converting a pile of modular plastic into something that looks mostly like something I watched on TV for years.

Months later, I’ve been living a routine of writing my book, going to work, watching TV, going on walks, and going to bed, with eating in there someplace. I decided to break out of the cycle and drop another ridiculous sum of money on another LEGO kit, this time just for the joy of building it.

People who suffer from attention-deficit disorder sometimes go through something called “hyperfocus.” I’m pretty sure people who don’t have ADD have experienced it too. It’s when you set yourself on a task, and nothing else matters. Your house could catch fire, but you don’t even care because YOU HAVE TO DO THIS THING. I can get this way with writing, though not lately. Today, though, as I poured the thousand-plus little pieces onto my desk and opened the instruction manual, I was there. I’ve been at it for two-and-a-half hours, and I’m only a third of the way through, and I pried myself away to get a glass of water, go to the bathroom, and pet Henry, who can’t wait for me to finish, so he can knock it off of a shelf.

Me, I don’t want it to ever end.

Hope & Change

What if everything that’s going wrong with this country politically—the hatred, the distrust, the bad faith, the hundreds of thousands of deaths, could be traced back to a single event twenty-six years ago? Without that event, our country could become a more reasonable, equitable place? What if you could make that event go away? Would you do it?

But making that event goes away would change everything. It would smooth away some of the adversity that makes you who you are. You might not be friends with the same people, you probably wouldn’t live in the same place. Your economic situation could be different. You could even have a different partner. And almost certainly, every single person born in the last twenty-five years would cease to exist, replaced by other people, who I’m sure are lovely, but they wouldn’t be your sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and friends. Would you still do it?

That’s the question I’m asking in my current novel. I’ve identified an event in 1994 that has led directly to where we are now, with federal agents kidnapping innocent Americans off of the streets (but, ironically enough, not the Americans that stormed state capitals with AR-15s on their backs), and I’m asking if everything good that would be altered in history was worth it to change our decades-long slide into fascism. Do you have a duty to the hundreds of thousands of those who have lost their lives so far and the millions more living a nightmare life of poverty, or do you have a duty to the members of the Zoom Generation who have touched your life?

Would I do it? Would I change literally everything?

And the answer is, I don’t know. I really don’t know.

Cat Nap Fever

Lately, I’ve been feeling … I don’t know if guilty is the right word … about Newcastle, because all he does is sleep. He will aggressively snuggle with me about once or twice a day, he likes to watch the birds sometimes and tries to attack them through the window. He and Henry will wrestle every other day, and occasionally, he will run the length of the apartment and back again. Of course he eats and goes to the bathroom. But that’s all he does.

I shouldn’t be so concerned. He’s sixteen years old. I wouldn’t expect a senior citizen to go running around like his cousin, who is a third his age. I just don’t want him to be napping all the time because he’s depressed. I don’t want him to be wishing he’d stayed in Reston with the other two cats, group snuggling. Is he bummed out that my roommate has been gone for the past two months? Are his needs being met? Is he seeing and smelling enough to stimulate him? Is he happy? And then I remind myself, he’s not a person. He doesn’t think like we do.

This is the part of quarantine where I’m starting to crack up. The rest of the city is acting like the pandemic is over when it’s actually as bad as it’s ever been, if not worse, and instead of relaxing my protective measures, I am solidifying them. Thanks to grocery deliveries, the only reason I leave my apartment now is to go to the drug store (they won’t deliver with my insurance for some reason). With my world having gotten smaller and smaller, and is now only about 800 square feet, this means I may be worrying a little too much about things that aren’t a problem.

I tell you what, though. That cat is one hell of a cute sleeper.