The Snow Miser Reloaded

I used to live in Nebraska. It wasn’t for very long—only four years, or less than one-eleventh of my life. At Hastings College in January, we had what we used to call “Interim,” but is now called “J-Term” (the latter which feels like a racially charged insult of some sort, but I’m not in charge of marketing for Midwestern liberal arts colleges, so what do I know?). I have a lot of memories of the time I spent in Hastings, some good, some bad; but Interims, with their university-like focused classes and more spare time than we were used to, really stuck out. I bonded with people I’d never really spent any time with before, I’d had a lot of adventures, I played a metric shit-ton of Doom II in the computer lab, and most of all, I froze.

I lived in Indiana for another four years later in my life, and I spent long January and February weekends in Upstate New York. I loved winters in New York City, as I often had a girlfriend at those points, and there was a lot of cuddling under the covers to keep warm. Also the city seemed so much more electric at that time of year, sometimes because of Christmas, and sometimes it might have been that the cloud of air in front of your face that invigorated everyone. Of all these places I’ve lived, nothing has measured up to winters in Nebraska, where once, as I walked across campus to get to my dorm, a gust of freezing wind caught me and slid me back about a foot on the ice.

Winters in New York were impersonal, dropping in because they had a job to do and leaving as soon as was polite in March or April, only to return again later in the year. Winters in Indiana brought ice storms with them, which were just kind of mean. Mostly what I remembered of the winters in Upstate New York, as well as those in my hometown of Gallup, New Mexico, was the slush, which felt like the season just throwing in the towel. Winters in Nebraska, though, were brash yet cozy, like that relative who was just going to stay over a few days and ends up using up all the hot water and eats all your food. It got into your bones, and even when you were sitting in front of a roaring fireplace in a cable-knit sweater over a set of long johns, you just can’t get warm.

Winters in Virginia and DC, however, have been nothing short of mild. They’re actually pretty wet. Sure it gets cold every once in a while, like when it was in the low 20s (-4° Celsius) last week, but within a few days, it was almost 40° again (4°). And we never, ever get snow. Well, we got snow this year. It was like somebody dumped a big bucket of it on the region. I thought this was great. Winter doesn’t start in DC until mid-January, and on the rare occasion we do get snow, it happens later in the season. Therefore, a major winter storm on January 3 means we won’t get one in February (this is not remotely how meteorology works), and hopefully spring will come early.

I’m thinking about winters in all the places I’ve lived, especially Nebraska, because this morning, when I woke up, it was 16° (-8°) out, certainly not the coldest I’ve ever been, but the coldest I’ve ever been in a long time. I opened the front door to stand in it for a minute and remember what it felt like to absolutely freeze to death. It was not as fun as I remembered. Also on the horizon is a snowstorm that is supposed to be as bad as the one two weeks ago, but with freezing rain to add to it, and I’m like, what am I, in the Midwest? We still haven’t gotten rid of the last snow.

Weather’s not the same as when I was a younger, and that is 100 percent because of manmade climate change. Where weather that approached 0° (-18°) used to be pretty bad in the Midwest, thanks to polar vortices, temperatures far below that are frequently gripping the Heartland and bringing it to its knees, which is a particular hardship given the shoddy American infrastructure—which tends to be worse in states with Republican governors. This is the way it is now.

I don’t know if DC’s recent run of actual winter in the winter is a result of climate change, but I do know that this morning, I stood in the doorframe, my breath visible, wistfully remembering what it was like to bundle up and brave the outside, as well as curling up under a blanket with someone special, sipping hot chocolate and watching through the window what looks like stars, slowly drifting from the sky and resting peacefully on the ground with all of the rest of the stars in the universe.

The Muffled Man

A friend recently made a post about how she feels out-of-sorts with her bipolar meds. She’s not depressed, but that’s really the only way to describe her mood, “not depressed.” She has no motivation to do anything. It got me thinking about my experiences.

I’m on a ludicrous amount of lithium, and the side effect of that is that I’m pretty numb all the time. In fact, I feel exactly like my friend. I tell people I’m happy, but I’m using the word “happy” as a synonym for “content.” My life is good, I type, stretching out my hands and arms because my cat is sleeping between myself and the keyboard, but I’m not happy. I don’t even know what happiness feels like. I had an incredible time last month at my work conference, but it didn’t really affect me long-term. Likewise, I have moments of disappointment (my dating life) or despair (that really bad review I got), but never any actual pain. I’m like a Nerf ball: you can put a dent in me, but I’m back to my old shape in moments.

What’s the alternative? Well, I’m bipolar 2, which means I’m depressed most of the time. Depression, with a capital D, is brutal. It’s not just a mental affliction, but a physical one. When I had a bad depressive episode after Robin Williams died, my joints hurt, and I couldn’t walk without pain. Depression turns you into a selfish asshole who sucks the joy out of everything. Nobody knows what to do with you. And when I’m not depressed, I’m manic. Here’s the reason a lot of bipolars will stop taking their medication. Being manic feels like you do after you’ve had a couple of drinks. You’re lucid, better looking, funnier, more charming, and a royal douchebag. Whenever I had a manic episode, it climaxed in some intense behavior, and I would crash instantly into the lowest depression imaginable. What triggers my manic episodes? Unadulterated joy. No wonder I want to be numb all the time. It’s just safer.

What keeps me from becoming a zombie who sits in front of his iPad watching Netflix all day is that I have found the thing or things that bring me joy, and I hold onto it for dear life. I have Doctor Who, as I proved when I spent hundreds of dollars on merchandise in December. Seventeen-foot scarfs and a complete set of Doctors isn’t enough to give me something to feel. My real anchor, which you must have guessed by now, is writing. Making up stories, making up people, and currently, crafting a screenplay (I call if “crafting” because there is a science to drafting a screenplay; i.e. you can’t just make it up as you go along) are the first things I do in the morning, and I can’t wait to go to bed the night before to see what I will cook up tomorrow.  

I’ve lived my entire life like this, and five years ago I finally found the cocktail that works. The side effect is that I’m kind of toned down. I can tell you now that it is 100 percent worth it.

All fourteen Doctors, or the world’s largest doo-wop group?

Crap Shooting Script

I finished the first draft of my first solo screenplay, and it’s not very good. I’m not saying this out of low self-esteem or false modesty or anything like that. I’m usually beyond pleased with my first drafts. But this is badly paced, inconsistent, full of plot-holes, kind of boring, and the main character doesn’t actually do anything. I have some ideas on how to fix it, but I may need to put it down for a little bit before I try.

I learned some important lessons along the way. First is that you can’t write the beginning of a screenplay without knowing how it’s going to end. I can’t do what I do with a novel, and that is write from the beginning and let the story write itself and the characters tell me who they are as I move along. You need a lot more control in a screenplay, which is more rigidly structured than a novel.

You can’t try writing a screenplay as a way of exploring the idea of time and change and your own identity vis-a-vis the identities you embodied in the past. You can write a screenplay that is a look back at your past selves, but you’d better have a really good handle on the characters and plot before you sit down and put pen to paper. Likewise, you can’t be very introspective in a screenplay. There are introspective movies, but that’s generally the work of the director.

Basically, the more I wrote, the more I knew about the characters and the settings and realized that I’d have to introduce these ideas sooner in the story. I came up with an idea about a minor detail from the beginning that should have loomed large through the whole story, but I didn’t recognize the importance of it until I was about a third of the way through. I had an idea that I thought was genius but will be the first thing I cut in the revision.

If I was writing a novel, I’d close my laptop, say “Well done, old chap” (I talk to myself like I’m an upper-class Englishman), and put the notebook on my bookshelf with all the other notebooks for completed and abandoned novels. I’d take a few days to read a novel, and I’d sit down and start my next book. But my screenplay isn’t done, not by a long shot. This is a whole new thing to me, and it’s pretty exciting, actually.

Post-Countdown Countdown

I wanted to wait until 2022 to get all this down, just in case the universe has anymore surprises to throw at us (Betty White), but now that it’s January 1, I feel like I can safely look back. The one thing I dread every year between Christmas and New Year’s is the pile-on about how terrible the previous year was. Everyone is falling all over themselves to condemn it the hardest, and a quick look at your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr (which is still a thing—I just checked) reveals the accepted wisdom that 2021 was a terrible year. So was 2020, and 2019, and 2018, and 2017, and so on. I have very, very rarely looked at a social media post stating that the year that passed was a good year in all the time I’ve been on social media, and I had a Friendster account. Honestly, the news was pretty bleak this year, and I have several friends, one in particular, whose December was a terrible nightmare that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, much less someone as kind and generous as she is. But the thing, the news is bleak every year. That’s how they sell news. And while I watch the rise of fascism, income inequality, and disease in my own supposedly clean, democratic country with a sense of dread, I had a pretty good year.

I am not a trend-maker, and I cannot convince anybody to do anything, no matter how much I think it’s a good idea, so I don’t expect this to catch on, but I would hope that maybe in the future that people will look upon the passing year with a little nostalgia. This seething hatred and disgust for every year that passes cannot be healthy for us as a society, and neither is this hope for the next year that will be dashed completely a few months in. I’ll go first, and I’ll do it in meme form.

Everyone else:

Me: In 2021, I self-published 10 e-books and one print book, and I got pretty good reviews (and one really bad review) on a couple of them. I jettisoned an unhealthy relationship that was draining me dry. I lost twenty-five pounds in the spring and summer (and gained back six in the fall). I (kind of) learned how to play tennis. I got a promotion and subsequent raise at work. I went on my second business trip ever, and I had a wonderful time and met some really amazing people doing it. There was another Matrix movie, which may have been fan fiction, but was still welcomed with open arms by me. I went to San Francisco and had a much more enjoyable time than the last time I went and got to go on the So I Married an Ax Murderer tour I so desired. I entered several novel-writing/screenwriting/movie-pitching contests and advanced to round two in some of them. I rediscovered classic MacGyver. I befriended my neighbor, who is a treasure. I moved to a better apartment. I went wild and bought all fourteen action figures they made of Doctor Who. I tried dating (which didn’t really take), and I met a lot of interesting people in the process. I went to a movie in the theater for the first time since January 2020.

Again, I know that I have very little influence on what people do, but I still highly recommend doing this for yourself. If I push the flaming dumpster fire that contains things like the January 6 insurgency and both Delta and Omicron—as well as the negative review my TV pilot got or some of the fights I got into with my roommate—off the cliff and never speak of it again, what would I do with all these victories I racked up? Times are hard for America and the world, but they were good for me, and I’ll bet, if you try hard enough, you can come up with some reasons 2021 wasn’t that bad.

If you’ve ever listened to a thing I say, make it this: Live your life. Enjoy the good parts as much as you can. Don’t be hating every moment that passes, or you will die a miserable person.

The Road to Tinseltown

I’ve decided that I’m going to write a screenplay. This is a huge undertaking on my part because I have no idea what I’m doing. I wrote, with Shane Van Pelt, a screenplay twenty years ago, and it’s getting great (but not winning) marks in the contests I’ve entered it in, but my teleplay for a TV pilot got excoriated so harshly that I doubted my ability to write again (for about a day). The negative review indicated that I wasn’t properly using the formatting, but they gave me no advice on how to actually do it, so, if I want to learn, I’m on my own.

And there’s the challenge. When I write novels, I’m doing it completely freeform. I write what feels natural, I throw in a few twists, and I decide after sixty thousand words or more that I should probably wrap this up. The only formatting I need to know are paragraph breaks and decent grammar.

But screenplays have, like, so many rules, guys. Teaching people to write screenplays is a book-publishing, webinar industry on its own. Not only do you have the dreaded formatting, you have to worry about a three-act structure, rising and falling action, low points, high points, call to action, and a whole bunch of other save-the-cat details that must go into writing or it won’t even be considered. That involves plotting and outlining.

I can’t stand plotting and outlining. A story will tell itself to me in the process of writing it. I can’t tell it what to do. It’s like an external force.

So I’m going to do something I never thought I’d do. I’m going to read a how-to-write book and see what it has to say. Maybe I’ll learn something.

If you’re curious what this idea is that’s got me so worked up, let me know, and you can become a beta reader for my 350-word pitch.

Production Racket

Late summer, early fall, I decided to try something new with my writing: I was experimenting in getting seen by movie and TV producers. The thing about trying to sell scripts and pitches is that there is a precise science to it. If you don’t do everything 100 percent right, they throw you away, regardless of how good your idea is. There is a whole publishing industry dedicated to how to write screenplays. I have a lot of good ideas, and the closest I came to being seen was a video pitch (in which I tried and failed to not sound like I was reading off of a sheet of paper). If I had made it past that round, I would have been put on a Zoom call with actual producers who would have ruthlessly picked my idea apart and probably made me cry. There are thousands upon thousands of ideas out there for movies, and it is up to these gatekeepers to decide which movie will be made.

My question is this: with this much quality control, why are the vast majority of movies and TV shows rubbish? I was just looking at Netflix for a movie to watch today, and I couldn’t find anything that I hadn’t already seen or didn’t look like a complete waste of my time. Are the ideas I come up with actually worse than these ideas (no, they’re not)? I know that movie-making is a business, not an art, so will I base my success as a writer on how marketable I am?

I don’t know what about my video pitch didn’t sell. Was it my insistence on making the main character a party animal? Was it that I turned the other main character into a stalker? Was it how well I read my script? Was it my tie? I don’t know, I didn’t get feedback. But I know what I want to write, and I will write a tale of drunken debauchery with a side of stalking. I don’t need anybody’s permission to do that.

My experiment ended up costing me about $400 in fees and gave me a bad review that still troubles me to this day, and I’m glad I did it. But I know after all that that this isn’t the way forward for me. I’m sticking to unpublished novels from now on.

The One That Got Away

The love of my life, my biggest regret, is engaged to be married. The idea of her ever leaving her perfect life with her long-term boyfriend and his kids and ideal career and so on for me is as much as fantasy as anything in Lord of the Rings. But it was my fantasy, and I’m crushed.

Life wasn’t perfect with her. We’d broken up four times, and I still don’t think she’s forgiven me for the last one ten years ago, but when I think back on my life, she was one of the biggest parts of it, second only to Kate. I first met her during my first month in New York. We broke up. We came together again shortly after, a little more established in the city and sure of ourselves. We broke up. I was pretty sure that was it for us.

We somehow found each other again, as friends, after over a year and change apart. She started hitting on me, and I knew she was doing it, but I didn’t appreciate it, and when she directly asked me out, I told her no. I stayed at her apartment overnight because she lived about as far away from me in Manhattan that she possibly could, and I changed my mind about her. I was a different man then, much more confident, and much more fun. Together, we enjoyed the best New Year’s Eve of my life. We went to concerts.

Someone recently asked me what my best memory was. Without thinking about it, it was a cold winter’s day in New York, early in the morning, getting off the train that we took downtown together. We were about to part ways, and she kissed me. It was a small peck of a kiss, just a quick goodbye, but it was the first time she had done that. It felt natural and cozy. It’s one of my most vivid memories, even now, twenty years later.

We broke up.

Years later (while I was married, but open), we hooked back up and had a romantic week together for Christmas that I will never forget. I heard her sing, and until I did, I had no idea how much I had missed it. We tried to video chat when we could, and we texted constantly. And therein lies the problem.

When Kate wanted to open up our marriage, she meant that she wanted to sleep with a bunch of men, but I shouldn’t be able to sleep with women. When the love of my live and I reconnected, Kate was insanely jealous and hid it from me. She made it impossible to carry on a relationship with her, and her behavior led her to think that I was cheating on Kate, not that I had her blessing. A year later, I met another woman, and Kate pulled the same thing. My relationship with the love of my life has never recovered.

That’s not why she is my biggest regret. What haunts me about this colorful relationship I had with her was that I’d never told that I loved her. Of all the people I’d told I loved them (except for maybe Kate), none deserved it like she did. She’d told me. I never reciprocated. I always thought I’d have more time with her to kind of ease into it, but then we would break up again. There’s no way I can tell her now. She’s engaged to be married. She has two stepkids she loves like her own. She’s got the ideal job and a number of side interests that keep her occupied. How would it look if an old boyfriend made that kind of declaration to her? It would look terrible, that’s how it would look. So how I feel about her will have to remain my secret.

I can still wish and hope that someday she’ll find me again, but I know that she hardly ever thinks of me. She might even still be mad at me for “cheating” on my wife with her. I send her a Facebook message every year on her birthday, and the next year, I’ll note that 365 days have passed since the last message exchange we’d had. Life goes on without me, as it should.

Ain’t That a Kick in the Pants?

Does anybody remember America’s Funniest Home Videos? Honestly, the adults who condemn younger people for their TikTok hijinks really have no place to talk because they made that show a hit, and America’s Funniest Home Videos was TikTok before the internet, except for one difference. TikTok doesn’t have Bob Saget narrating the videos with funny voices and sound effects. Maybe if they did that on TikTok, more Boomers and Gen-Xers could get behind that. Where is Bob Saget anyway? He’s not doing anything. He should get on that.

But I digress. America’s Funniest Home Videos was a contest, and every week there was a first, second, and third place winner, and every single week, one of the placers was a male of some age getting punched, kicked, crushed by a ball or rake, or experiencing some other impact to his crotch. Rule number one of comedy: temporary, debilitating pain is funny.

Today, I had an America’s Funniest Home Video moment during my tennis lesson, when the instructor served a ball directly at me at my most sensitive. It has been decades since I’ve experienced a collision with that part of my body (I was drunk and trying to leap-frog over a parking meter; spoiler alert, I didn’t make it), so I’d forgotten how utterly painful it was. I had to sit the rest of the lesson out. I was lucky the instructor was hitting them slow, or it could have been a lot worse.

Where was my tennis partner during this? She was bent over, laughing her ass off. Because that’s the kind of relationship we have.

A Heaping Slice of Humble Pie

This is quite possibly my roommate’s favorite story about my youth. In high school, there was a guy who loved to argue. He’d argue about anything, and he was never wrong. In his eyes. He was my friend, despite the massive headaches he gave me, and he stayed my friend for a long time. One thing that never changed was his insistence that he was always right, despite the evidence against his point. It should come as no surprise that he grew up to be a proud Republican who I can no longer talk to.

One day, I’m pretty sure this was senior year, he came to the group of nerds and misfits in the Gifted And Talented Education program, and he told us that we were pronouncing manicotti wrong this whole time. It wasn’t man-ih-COHT-ee, it was man-ih-CUHT. He’d know because he was Italian. This was, in my opinion, the stupidest thing I’d heard in quite some time. None of the nerds and misfits were swayed by his argument, and we all had to endure it whenever the word manicotti came up (which to be honest, was pretty rare) and he corrected us. He was ready to die on this hill.

One day, toward the end of our stretch in high school, he sheepishly came to the group of nerds and misfits in the Gifted And Talented Education program and confessed that he found out that it was indeed pronounced man-ih-COHT-ee. He had his bib and his fork out, prepared to eat a shitload of crow, and our reaction was only, “Yeah, we know.” The journey he went on had no effect on our lives in any way whatsoever. In retrospect, I wasted that moment. I should have treasured it because, in his forty-five years of life, this was the one time in history that this guy, this fucking guy, has ever admitted to being wrong about anything.

Also, Nicole and I pronounce it man-ih-CUHT now because that’s how much we love a good story.

Mixology

In 1996, I cobbled together the most awesome, ambitious mix tape for myself. It was four sides, two ninety-minute cassettes full of my favorite songs at the time.

I can’t describe how much care and attention I went through to document the length of every song so that I could cram every one into each forty-five-minute side while minimizing the amount of dead time at the end of the tape.

I had to consider tone—the last thing I wanted to do was put a kick-ass rock song next to a gentle love ballad, unless the juxtaposition was my conscious goal.

When finally doing the actual recording, I had to sit there and play every song from beginning to end, making sure I didn’t accidentally include some of the next song in the album.

I also had to write out every song and artist on the paper insert in the tape case, and I had to make it perfectly matched the other cassette in my series.

And finally, I decorated each side identically with inappropriate stickers my friend Jeff had liberated from the pharmacy where he had worked.

Those mix tapes, as well as the mix tapes I made for other people, were a work of art, and I have never felt the same level of accomplishment or satisfaction with any CD I’ve burned or any of the dozens of playlists on iTunes I’ve put together as an adult.

I wish I knew what happened to those tapes (or the tapes others have made for me).