A Gift of Platinum and China

I struggled for a year about what I should do for the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The most obvious thing to do would be to go to New York and be there for it, but I really can’t. It’s not because of money or finding a place to stay or anything but because it’s not my New York. My New York is trapped in amber from 1998 to 2004 when subway fares were $1.50 and the Freedom Tower hadn’t even been conceived yet. My New York doesn’t exist anymore, just like the Jeremiah of 2001 doesn’t exist anymore either, and that is a mixed blessing. I thought of myself as a New Yorker for years after I moved on, but not anymore. I’ve lived in the greater DC area for thirteen years (minus the two-and-a-half I lived in Qatar), far longer than I lived in New York, or even New Mexico, which I consider my home (I won’t be going back there either). I made the decision I would stay home for the anniversary of the day the world ended.

New York has always been a city in flux, so it’s not only unrecognizable from 2001, but it’s also unrecognizable from 2014, the last time I was there. I think that really showed itself in the weeks following September 11, 2001. The Twin Towers had dominated the skyline for decades, looking like, as Donald Westlake described them, an upside-down pair of trousers. Suddenly, it was gone, and all that was left was wreckage that was still recognizable as the World Trade Center. After we finished running away, screaming, and when the dust settled, we had to return to our lives. There was an updated subway map on September 17. By September 24, I was back to work a block and a half from a smoking crater, having to take a ferry there from Hoboken because the PATH train went directly into the World Trade Center. We got used to the Towers’ absence really quickly, and life went on.

Except life didn’t. I was in a relationship at the time that was irreparably damaged by the events of that day and limped along for another five months out of sheer inertia before falling down and dying. The problem was she was shaken to her core by the attack, and she needed comfort. I was unable to give it because I had shut down my emotions to get me through that day, and they didn’t come back on for a long time. It didn’t help that I was drunk and high constantly for the two weeks following the incident. Not dealing with it was how I chose to deal with it.

As a sidebar, I met someone who would become one of my most fondly remembered friends as a result of that day. At the end of the month, someone threw a party for all the September birthdays that didn’t get celebrated that year, and I met this really cool young woman and wanted to be her friend right away. She was celebrating because 9/11 gave her the kick in the pants she needed to divorce her terrible spouse. As with everything, there were good side effects.

The vaccine-denying, election-overturning, polarized hate-fest that is modern America has a lot of roots in this day. There are a lot of milestones on the road to where we are now—the nomination of Ronald Reagan for president in 1980, the ascension of Newt Gingrich to Speaker of the House in 1995, and so on. However, as a result of being president on one of the worst days in American history, George W. Bush, who was well on his way to becoming a one-term president, became a two-term president, and the Republican Party really got the hang of hateful polarizing tribalism. Rudy Guiliani would have been a footnote in history had he not stood on the rubble and started barking orders. Do you remember flag pins? Do you remember what would happen to you politically if you didn’t wear one?

On the twentieth-anniversary year, we finally left Afghanistan, the country we destroyed in retaliation for the attack. When we first invaded in 2002, the Taliban was in control. In 2021, the Taliban is in control. As much dread as I feel for the people stuck there under this oppressive regime, I can’t help but shake my head and wonder what the fucking point of all of it was.

Osama bin Laden has been quoted saying he wanted to bankrupt the United States, not conquer it. People who were watching American troops loot Saddam’s palace a year and a half later were thinking, “U! S! A! We won! Take that, bin Laden!” But we have gone trillions in debt occupying countries and not actually helping anything. All of the precious freedoms President Bush said “they” hated were being signed away by the PATRIOT Act and other bits of legislation. Dick Cheney’s company Halliburton robbed the off-the-books budget and didn’t even pretend they weren’t doing it. Osama bin Laden wasn’t a stupid man. He accomplished his mission.

September 11 is a formative chapter in my life as a young man. I’m not a young man anymore. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush and Al Gore fought like gladiators over prescription-drug benefits for seniors. The summer of 2001, the most front-page headlines were about Gary Condit, a U.S. Representative who was suspected of killing his aide. America has not been young for a long time, but in 2000, 2001, the stakes seemed a little lower. We can’t go back to those days again. I can’t go back to those days again. I could go to New York, but it will be as foreign to me as San Francisco was when I went this summer. It would be like going back after a while to that coffee shop you frequented until you left the neighborhood, and the barista who knew you by name doesn’t recognize you anymore. In fact, we’re going to let Pearl Jam play us out with a little number from 1993, “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.”

I seem to recognize your face
Haunting, familiar yet
I can’t seem to place it.
Cannot find a candle of thought to light your name
Lifetimes are catching up with me

The Matrix Rehashed

I just saw the first trailer for Matrix Resurrections, and I am excited. I thought the original three movies were a tight trilogy that wrapped everything up neatly, and they would have to do some serious contorting to squeeze another movie out of it. I was skeptical. But now I’m actually hopeful.

A lot of it has to do with the tone and sluggish pace of most of the trailer. It’s mostly Keanu Reeves as Thomas Anderson sleepwalking through life, and weird shit kind of happens, and then the action starts. I think this is a good sign because it might be about more than CGI and kicking.

The Matrix is my favorite movie. It’s not the best movie, but I’m in love with its questions about control and consciousness. It was a philosophical question with action and special effects grafted onto it. The Matrix Reloaded, however, was action and special effects with a philosophical question grafted onto it. The Matrix Revolutions was just action and special effects.

What I liked about The Matrix that was completely missed in the sequels were the people. The Matrix as a computer program was lived in. There were homeless people, dirty trains, sleazy hotels, stark office buildings, and a place where you can get “really good noodles.” When we find out that this world, so much like our own, isn’t real, we’re shocked. Of course, the movie breaks down in the end when the heroes just shoot everyone.

In the preview for Matrix Resurrections, we see Keanu living in the world, riding in elevators, taking antidepressants, going to coffee shops. It looks like it just might be grounded, like the first movie, and I, for one, can’t wait to find out if I’m right, or if this is another shameless cash grab like all of the other sequels made over twenty years after the last film. Will this succeed, like Bill & Ted Face the Music, or will it suck like all the Die Hards and Rambos that keep getting churned out? I guess we will find out in three months.

Confronting the Sphynx

As I am about to enter this screenplay-writing competition, and, as I’m expecting to lose, it’s got me thinking a lot about the process of trying to get accepted for my writing. My screenplay will likely get passed over because it doesn’t follow the five-act structure, and there’s even more reasons that I don’t know about because there are loads of books on how to write a screenplay, none of which I’ve read. With my novels, I know that there are several technical reasons my queries are getting rejected, despite the fact that, when people read them, they really like them, as is evidenced in my modest number of Amazon and Goodreads reviews (except for that one guy on Goodreads who gave me a mysterious 1-star, as well as that 1-star guy on Amazon who really hated what I wrote).

If there are people so strictly enforcing quality control for the written word, then why is there so much garbage out there? I don’t mean like Two and a Half Men, which was a terrible show but popular enough to last for around ten seasons. I mean the cancelled-after-half-of-a-season kind of shows. The ones that are not well-plotted and lack any memorable or likeable characters and doesn’t connect with an audience, but they still impressed someone enough to hire directors, producers, actors, special effects, and various crews. I’m talking about the dreary, repetitive, badly written books that have made it through an agent, a publisher, and an editor. The first ten pages are what sells your books, so these bad writers must have amazing first ten pages because the rest is just horrible. They’re awful works of entertainment, but they knew the right code words to make it past the gatekeepers. I feel like, if I could figure out how to do the steps precisely, I might have a chance. That means I have to learn the steps intimately, and I don’t really have the patience for that. That’s not why I write.

What does that mean for me? I can’t afford to buy slick covers anymore, so no more self-publishing. Even though she ghosted me, the agent I talked to in April made me think I had at least one book worthy of sending out, and I might get to that later this year. But mostly, I’m going to write. When a contest like this comes up, I’m going to enter, not because I’m expecting to win, but because the challenge of it will appeal to me. Who knows, maybe I’ll do the right dance move and get in the door someday. If I don’t, I’ll keep writing because it gives me joy in a difficult world.

An Orange on a Toothpick

I watched this movie about a dozen times, maybe more, before I turned twenty. After I turned twenty, I’ve seen it twice, and the second time was last night. Watching it again, I understood what a formative role it had in the development of my identity as a social being, something I’ve fallen completely away from. The movie is So I Married an Ax Murderer.

Aside from the extreme nostalgia I feel for the movie, it doesn’t really hold up. It’s very nineties, seen mostly in the outfits Anthony LaPaglia wore, but also in locations like a beatnik coffee house and pre-tech-boom San Francisco, as well as oversized posters and Nancy Travis. This was before Mike Myers really solidified his brand, so he was looser here and a lot more charming, but you could still see, peeking through, cringeworthy habits that would ultimately lead to The Love Guru. I’ll be honest, I was DMing a friend about San Francisco the entire time the movie was on, and I didn’t miss a thing because I had the whole thing memorized, from all of the butcher-shop flirtations to my second-favorite rendition of “Do You Think I’m Sexy.” (My first will always be The Revolting Cocks. Sorry, Mike.)

I cannot overstate how much I wanted to be Mike Myers in this movie when I was young, specifically Charlie Stewart with his sentimental creativity and energetic sense of humor. I had his hair, coincidentally, for many years. I was trying to be my funniest at this point in my life, and this movie helped me develop that. (And no, I’m not talking about screaming out in a terrible Scottish accent, “Head! Pants! Now!”) I was never as funny as Mike Myers could be, but I held my own. I could never quite work out how to use humor as flirting, but again, I held my own. That was a long time ago. These days, when I’m relaxed, I can still be funny, but I don’t have the full-body gusto that I used to have. This movie made me really miss it.

I think, if you’re a certain age, it’s a pretty great little movie. Maybe you can remember the days when you and your peers pretended to be his Scottish father (also Mike Myers because, if there’s one thing he can never do wrong, it’s Scottish), shouting at each other, or maybe you’ll be amused by the love story, such as it was. It was an original story, not based on overexposed, underdeveloped Saturday Night Live characters, so it had that going for it. Mostly, it was a movie where they got this budding comedian to screw around on camera for ninety minutes, and you know what? It can be an absolute joy to watch. Next, I think I have a duty to write short essays about other movies I’ve seen over ten times and how they influenced my life. That means Face/Off and The Highlander.    

Bleak Production

I saw this TV show years ago, I can’t even remember what it’s called. It only lasted one season, and I think that was by design—the story had wrapped up quite neatly. The only thing I recall about it was the star, James Badge Dale, and the fact that it completely realigned my philosophy about the country, and it may have killed my sense of hope.

The plot of the show is simple: an intelligence contractor uncovers a conspiracy, including members of our government and several corporations. As he unravels the plot, lives are destroyed, betrayed, or ended, and he nearly loses everything, but he keeps going, because the truth is what’s important. In the finale, the conspiracy unfolds exactly as it’s supposed to, and the world is forever changed. The hero confronts his boss, who was in on it, and tells him he has the proof. He’ll tell the world. And his boss asks him if he thinks anyone would care. If the hero somehow convinced media outlets to run the story, what would change?

This resonated deeply within me because I witnessed the NSA get caught spying on American citizens under the tutelage of the Bush Administration, and no one cared. Sure there were those of us who do tend to care about this kind of thing, but to the general public, it was a non-issue. The Constitution was aggressively, flagrantly violated, and it was no big deal. No one lost their job over it. I don’t even recall the program being shut down.

This was one thing I witnessed. The American public, at large, didn’t care as our rights were struck down, those in power abused it unapologetically. This came to a head during the Trump Administration when the president and those working for him didn’t give a fuck. They behaved badly, they behaved incompetently, and the American public didn’t care. Most voters, when asked about Trump’s first impeachment, couldn’t figure out what the big deal was (the big deal was, he broke the law by offering a foreign country military aid if they helped him win an election). Yes, we elected Joe Biden, but 70 million people voted for Donald Trump, and not all of them were Qanon.

Right now we have people like Jeff Bezos actively and fundamentally screwing over his workers and the whole country in general, and simply consolidating all the money, and it’s well documented, and it’s no big deal. We still have children in cages at the border, and America is all, meh. What’s it going to take for people to get mad? What’s it going to take for something to change?

I may not remember the name of the show, but I can close my eyes and vividly picture the final scene, on top of the building where the main character worked, as the hero and his boss looked into the sunset, and his boss said those devastating words to him. I remember my stomach going cold and realizing, God help us, he’s right.

Pros and Conflict

Despite all of the press being focused on Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the fact is, Marvel is the dominant force in the entertainment industry, as they just proved with WandaVision. Some people (I can name several Facebook friends off the top of my head) absolutely loathe them. Some people can take them or leave them. Me, I love them. I’ve seen all 247 of them in the theater, and I will gladly shell out the $20.00 rental price on future movies until this whole pandemic is behind us, and I feel like going back into a theater. But, I don’t know if this is a result of me growing up or just me seeing something a lot and getting tired of it, I’m starting to get kind of bored with the usual conflict resolution in these movies.  

The whole point of a superhero fight is the annihilation of your opponent through violence. Even in Captain America: Winter Soldier, when Cap defeats his brainwashed best friend by refusing to fight and telling him he loved him, there was still a pretty huge battle scene before he took the path of peace. In The Avengers, Iron Man saves the world by sacrificing himself, but not before a full half-hour of the Avengers slaughtering aliens by the dozens. Avengers Endgame also involves a sacrifice by Iron Man, but not before every superhero in the world murders every alien in the galaxy. In WandaVision, a show about how to process grief and loss that ends in the heroine giving up that which she wanted most, the run-up to this is two witches throwing magical laser blasts at each other and two androids throwing each other through walls.  

I suppose I can get behind fights, as long as they end in non-violence of some sort, but what kind of world do we live in when the winner of moral battles is the one who can punch harder? That’s why I hated Zack Snyder’s Superman movies so much—Superman is an aspirational figure of hope, but he breaks a guy’s neck in Man of Steel to save the day. What is the point of taking a man we’ve been raised to believe uses his powers to help people and making him murder someone with his bare hands.  

I suppose I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. In my novel A Fae at the Race (available now at Amazon for $3.99 or free with Kindle Unlimited), the heroes win by casting a spell that releases the world from the glamor of a powerful, magical foe, but to get there, I do include a scene where one of the heroes has to physically battle one of these foes to the death. In Family Business (also available now on Amazon for $3.99 or free with Kindle Unlimited), the secret weapon is extortion, so that’s a step up. The thing is, I’m trying. Now, whenever I write a fantasy book, even one as action-heavy as mine tend to be, I actively try to come up with solutions that don’t involve violence.  

As far as media I consume, I’m not sure where this leaves me. Yes, I will watch The Falcon and the Winter Soldier this weekend, even though it seems to consist mostly of punching. I’ll watch Black Widow when it comes out in May, even though it is also mostly punching, but with Russian accents. I don’t hate violence, I just don’t like that it’s regarded as the only solution. I like fast-paced plots, and I like plucky protagonists who outsmart their foes. I don’t like a lot of comedies, and character-driven dramas don’t really interest me. This leaves me with not a lot of choice. I guess I’ll just keep looking.  

A Shining City on a Hill

I have lately been baffled by the eighties. I’m not baffled by the fact that they exist, or by shoulder pads. I’m baffled by the sheer reverence of that decade, and how it’s not going away. I remember people being nostalgic for the eighties in the nineties, and that was almost thirty years ago. The eighties are to the nineties, aughts, teens, and twenties what the fifties were to the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

Everything is the eighties now. Joker was set in the eighties for no real reason, Punky Brewster just came back, and let’s not forget Stranger Things and IT: Chapter One. We had a new She-Ra a couple of years ago, and a new He-Man is on its way. So is Beetlejuice 2. And those are just the examples I could think of off of the top of my head. Name an eighties band, and I’ll bet you a dollar they’re still touring. The eighties even gets all the credit for Saved by the Bell (which also just returned) when that show mostly aired in the nineties.

Like the fifties, they were far from idyllic. The Cold War, which had become less of a priority in the late seventies, got cranked up by a president so insane that we weren’t sure if we were all going to die in a nuclear war. AIDS and homophobia were pretty big back then. The hatred of government that Reagan fostered led to a lot of government services shutting down, especially mental health, leading to a lot of the visible homelessness we’ve seen since. Deregulation turned our beloved children’s entertainment into commercials for toys that my parents couldn’t afford to buy.

I don’t really get the fondness for the eighties because I missed that decade while it was going on. While my peers were watching John Hughes movies and listening to Duran Duran, I was watching Airplane and the Marx Brothers and listening to “Weird Al” Yankovic and the Beatles. I discovered culture in the nineties, so that’s my decade, a decade that gets no love whatsoever. My warm fuzzies come not from leg-warmers and big hair but from heavy layers, chokers, and Doc Martins. Imagine my delight when Captain Marvel took place in the nineties, and her secret identity was a NIN T-shirt.

I know why the eighties were so popular: they were a colorful time with catchy music, easily identifiable fashion, and memorable tropes that are easy to replicate. The nineties are really hard to sum up in an easy image. There was grunge and gangster rap, but there was also the rise of boy bands and Brittany Spears. There was the Real World—that was uniquely nineties. It was kind of a weird decade. If you tried to pinpoint something that was the aughts, for example, you have what? Low-rise jeans? A long series of economic recessions? I guess the eighties really was the last decade you could draw a caricature of and have it be on-the-nose.

Nostalgia just is. I’m not going to talk about the dark side of it because that’s not what this post is about. If neon leotards and “Tainted Love” are what make you happy, then enjoy it. There’s so much in the world that makes us feel awful that you should stick to the thing that causes you joy. For me, that means pulling on my flannel and listening to Nirvana. Just be happy.

This Is Where I Live

Please indulge me while I make it about me for a second:

This is my home. I live in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, along with thousands upon thousands of other people. I don’t keep a home here and go back to my constituency every summer and winter. I don’t intern here and go back to where I came from. And I sure as hell don’t go to places where other people live and try to overthrow the government.

I live close to the National Guard Armory, and during our nightly walks, my roommate and I stroll by it. We have never seen people there before this month. Dozens of buses filled with camouflage-wearing men and women have been pulling up. The streets are full of soldiers, and armored vehicles drive past my block constantly.

The Capitol is close to my apartment. It’s far enough that a walk home from there while having to go to the bathroom is agony, but it’s close enough that it dominates the skyline if I walk a couple of blocks. It’s close enough that, if some entitled psychopaths decided to start torching residences, it wouldn’t take them long to reach me.

There is a park six blocks from my apartment where I go every weekend to have a latte and write. It’s full of young couples with their babies and children punching while their mothers tell them to “CUT THAT OUT!” Older people (who are, to my horror, not much older than I) go to the café on the outskirts there for meetups. There is a dog park there I’m not sure is actually a dog park, but put enough affluent people in a place with dogs, and it becomes one. Right-wing groups have been posting that they are using it as a gathering ground before they start their upcoming insurrections.

Restaurants in my neighborhood are not allowed to have outdoor seating until the end of the month. My doctor’s office closed because no one can get to the building through the barricades. There is an eight-foot fence surrounding the Capitol, previously one of the most accessible government buildings.

They don’t care. The people who are coming to town over the coming week to disrupt the legitimate swearing in of a new president couldn’t give a shit about the lives they’re disturbing, about the fact that they’re putting a city under martial law. It doesn’t matter to them because they are RIGHT. They are on a CRUSADE. The president they voted for, who isn’t all that popular in the first place, is the TRUE LEADER, and they don’t care whose lives they have to disrupt to make this TRUE.

This is my home. I’m so tired.

Deconstruction Zone

Superhero deconstruction is big business. From Watchmen to The Boys and including the odious Man of Steel, creators are thinking seriously about what superheroes are, and they’ve concluded that they’re assholes.  

The genre was created to be one of hope for the little guy. When Superman was created, he didn’t take his power and use it to take over the country. He took on corrupt politicians and their goons. When The Bat-Man was created, he wasn’t beating economically disadvantaged muggers into hamburger on the streets, he was taking on evil capitalists like the kind who’d caused the Great Depression. They quickly fell into fighting costumed villains who wanted to overturn the status quo, but Superman’s optimism and Batman’s good-natured two-fisted justice brought the kids back for more.   

But deconstruction took a dark turn in the eighties. Thanks to The Dark Knight Returns, the fun-loving, straight-laced Batman of the fifties and sixties (and the globetrotting adventurer of the seventies) was turned into a fascist, sadistic psychopath, and he’s pretty much remained this way ever since. The image of Superman was forever tarnished because Frank Miller couldn’t imagine the US government not turning the Man of Steel into a mindless weapon for Reagan-era politics. DC’s top two heroes were turned into the worst versions of themselves.  

Now we have Zack Snyder’s Superman destroying a trucker’s entire livelihood because he hurt his feelings, and the audience cheers. We have Batman turned into a middle-aged, murderous fogey. Snyder was inspired by The Dark Knight Returns, and it shows. Superman v. Batman took away all of the heroism of their characters and turned them into empty punching machines.  

Meanwhile, in The Boys, we have Homelander, the Superman analog, and he is the answer to the question, “What does a 900-pound gorilla do?” Specifically, an indestructible 900-pound with laser vision and a great publicist. Garth Ennis, creator of The Boys, hates superheroes. He loathes them. He wants to do everything in his power to destroy them, so he turned the Justice League into murderous, drug-addled, Nazi rapists. (Ironically, in an issue of Hitman, Mr. Ennis told a Superman story with warmth and heart and positivity not seen in the character in some time.) 

Even Quentin Tarantino got in on the action. He’ll never lower himself to make a comic book movie because he makes Art(tm), but in a monologue in Kill Bill: Volume 2, the titular Bill breaks down the meaning behind Superman in a way that makes his whole character pretty unsavory.  

It seems like every time a creator wants to look under the hood of what makes a costumed hero run, and all they can find is grit and grime. Why? Because these creators look at all of that power, and they try to imagine what they’d do with it, and this is what they come up with. It seems like the modern concept of deconstructionism is basically: Superhero, but with nasty character flaw. It doesn’t have to be this way.  

In the sixties, Marvel came along with their own version of deconstruction. Stan Lee asked questions like, “What does a superhero do when their costume gets dirty?” The answer, you take it to the laundromat, where the bright red and blue colors turn your underwear purple. This is the kind of thing I love. The Flash has a super-high metabolism, so he needs to eat all the time. Spider-Man tries to make money as a superhero, which is the logical thing for a broke college student to do, but the checks are made out to Spider-Man, and he has no way of proving who he is when he goes to cash them. This kind of thing still goes on (see Ms. Marvel), but it’s eclipsed by the horrific violence and perversion that these dark deconstructionists want to inflict. 

As someone who owns a leather-bound copy of The Dark Knight Returns and prizes his twenty-two-year-old paperback of Watchmen (and who enjoys The Boys whenever it comes out), I certainly don’t dismiss deconstruction out of hand. But it would be nice if our heroes were heroes, you know? Instead of making them out to be inhuman monsters, make them human beings. Wouldn’t a little positivity be nice? 

Are Women From Venus, Though?

So, there is this cliché in culture where men find it cute and hot when women eat a lot. They don’t like it when she puts on extra pounds, though. It’s a lot like the way that men will brag about how they love a woman without makeup, but they are pretty horrified by what women do look like without makeup. Men want their women to look beautiful, but they don’t want their women to go through the work of looking beautiful. It’s inconceivable to us, the gender that can look conventionally attractive being kind of out of shape and taking a ten-minute shower that it might take a carefully monitored diet and up to an hour in the bathroom to be conventionally attractive.

Some of it might also be because we’re, as men, taught to devalue the girly, and what could be more girly than caring about the way you look?

So I’m making a female superhero a main character in my next novel (which won’t be a superhero novel per se, but will have superheroes in it), and I’m trying to think of the practicalities of her powers, and I briefly flirted with her having to eat 6,000 calories a day to function, so she was always shoving food in her face. But then I thought, do I want to be that cliché? So I’m going to pass on that. It would have made for a fun gag, but it’s also really misogynistic. I can give her a personality that’s not just a male wish-fulfillment quirk.

I know I’m not going to be a bestselling author, and my impact on the cultural zeitgeist will be that of a light cough, but it’s still important that I do the right thing.