The Truth Is out There

Now that Babylon 5 has been kicked off of all of my streaming services, I’ve started to watch The X-Files. I’m several episodes in, and I’ve picked up on some things. 

One is that Skully was into Mulder as soon as she saw him. Either Gillian Anderson wasn’t the maestro of acting she is today back then, and she really was into David Duchovny; or she just pretended to be flirty with her “But, Mulder, science!” dialogue. Either way, she was eye-banging him from the beginning. When this show began my senior year in high school ,I couldn’t figure out why people were obsessed with them getting together (while being simultaneously obsessed with keeping them apart). Thirty years later, I get it. Thirty years later, I have to put on the subtitles, and I have to wear glasses to read the subtitles, because I can’t understand a goddamned thing Mulder is saying with all that mumbling.  

Another is that Mulder was bipolar and a bit of a narcissist, with a clear case of delusional disorder. I am not a psychiatric doctor, however, there is no way Mulder behaved in that manner without some kind of disorder. He was the absolute worst. “What happened to the last donut, Mulder?” “There is a secret cabal in the government to cover up the existence of UFOs who like to eat pastries. I learned it from my contact in MUFON.”  

The X-Files didn’t stick the landing (not as badly as Game of Thrones, though), which is why it’s only a footnote in pop culture. I watched only the first season in its entirety because season two and beyond were aired while I was in college, and I had more important things to do. (Hi, Emilie! Hi Abby!) Also, I didn’t have a TV until I bought one in 2001. So I caught glimpses in there, like the time my friends sat in the Altman Hall lobby and watched the episode where cockroaches were killing people, all huddled together like Scooby and Shaggy while being chased by a capitalist in a rubber suit. I also saw the series finale. That was a turd.  

It caught the zeitgeist, particularly because conspiracies were big in the nineties. These were harmless conspiracies, like the Denver Airport (a concentration camp that was going to be fully operational any day now. Any day now) or HAARP (which can control the weather). There was even a movie about conspiracy theories called Conspiracy Theory. Real freaking original, Hollywood. Nowadays, conspiracy theories led to a pretty awesome pizza and ping-pong gym getting shit up with a rifle. They lead to insurrections at our nation’s Capitol building. I’m pretty sure the writer of that hilarious film Moon Fall was thinking about nineties conspiracy theories when they made one of those goofy, obsessive freaks the savior. 

There was a spinoff show, The Lone Gunman, about the quirky conspiracy theorists who periodically helped Mulder, or more accurately, enabled Mulder. It ran for thirteen episodes before it was cancelled, and the first episode featured a plot to fly a jet liner into the World Trade Center, airing in March, 2001. The last episode ended on a cliffhanger, which was resolved when the characters returned to The X-Files roughed up and said, “Don’t ask.” And then the show killed them. 

The first season is still really good. The leads are really phenomenal, even though they’re liddle biddy babies. I just watched the guy who can squeeze into pipes and eats people’s livers, which is one of my fondest memories of the show while I was a senior in high school.  I would try to pitch it to adults, and I’d tell them about the best episode so far, and by the time I got to the nest made of bile and newspapers, I consistently lost them.  

I love how the show was out there, but it tried to stay grounded, like not showing the aliens until it was way along. But after a while, the nebulous aliens got faces, and there were different kinds of aliens, and zombies with black goo, and the show lost its way. In the earlier episodes, though, it was sheer joy: “I don’t know how you don’t see it, Scully. This is exactly the pattern of a string of UFO abductions in 1972.” “Mulder, your theories don’t make sense. All the evidence points to trees that eat people!” I love that the show had a versatile premise, so any episode could be a thriller, horror, science fiction, or comedy. The standalone episodes, before the show was engulfed by the modestly named Mythology, were the best. 

They tried resurrecting it a couple of years ago and it didn’t quite catch on. There was one episode, a comedy, that did stick out—otherwise, it wasn’t interesting at all. They planned to do more seasons, but that never caught on. 

When The X-Files was on, it was on, and when it was huge, it was huge. I remember getting excited on Friday nights (I had no life) and seeing what batshit thing Chris Carter thought of this week.  

Now that Babylon 5 has been kicked off of all of my streaming services, I’ve started to watch The X-Files. I’m several episodes in, and I’ve picked up on some things. 

One is that Skully was into Mulder as soon as she saw him. Either Gillian Anderson wasn’t the maestro of acting she is today back then, and she really was into David Duchovny; or she just pretended to be flirty with her “But, Mulder, science!” dialogue. Either way, she was eye-banging him from the beginning. When this show began my senior year in high school ,I couldn’t figure out why people were obsessed with them getting together (while being simultaneously obsessed with keeping them apart). Thirty years later, I get it. Thirty years later, I have to put on the subtitles, and I have to wear glasses to read the subtitles, because I can’t understand a goddamned thing Mulder is saying with all that mumbling.  

Another is that Mulder was bipolar and a bit of a narcissist, with a clear case of delusional disorder. I am not a psychiatric doctor, however, there is no way Mulder behaved in that manner without some kind of disorder. He was the absolute worst. “What happened to the last donut, Mulder?” “There is a secret cabal in the government to cover up the existence of UFOs who like to eat pastries. I learned it from my contact in MUFON.”  

The X-Files didn’t stick the landing (not as badly as Game of Thrones, though), which is why it’s only a footnote in pop culture. I watched only the first season in its entirety because season two and beyond were aired while I was in college, and I had more important things to do. (Hi, Emilie! Hi Abby!) Also, I didn’t have a TV until I bought one in 2001. So I caught glimpses in there, like the time my friends sat in the Altman Hall lobby and watched the episode where cockroaches were killing people, all huddled together like Scooby and Shaggy while being chased by a capitalist in a rubber suit. I also saw the series finale. That was a turd.  

It caught the zeitgeist, particularly because conspiracies were big in the nineties. These were harmless conspiracies, like the Denver Airport (a concentration camp that was going to be fully operational any day now. Any day now) or HAARP (which can control the weather). There was even a movie about conspiracy theories called Conspiracy Theory. Real freaking original, Hollywood. Nowadays, conspiracy theories led to a pretty awesome pizza and ping-pong gym getting shit up with a rifle. They lead to insurrections at our nation’s Capitol building. I’m pretty sure the writer of that hilarious film Moon Fall was thinking about nineties conspiracy theories when they made one of those goofy, obsessive freaks the savior. 

There was a spinoff show, The Lone Gunman, about the quirky conspiracy theorists who periodically helped Mulder, or more accurately, enabled Mulder. It ran for thirteen episodes before it was cancelled, and the first episode featured a plot to fly a jet liner into the World Trade Center, airing in March, 2001. The last episode ended on a cliffhanger, which was resolved when the characters returned to The X-Files roughed up and said, “Don’t ask.” And then the show killed them. 

The first season is still really good. The leads are really phenomenal, even though they’re liddle biddy babies. I just watched the guy who can squeeze into pipes and eats people’s livers, which is one of my fondest memories of the show while I was a senior in high school.  I would try to pitch it to adults, and I’d tell them about the best episode so far, and by the time I got to the nest made of bile and newspapers, I consistently lost them.  

I love how the show was out there, but it tried to stay grounded, like not showing the aliens until it was way along. But after a while, the nebulous aliens got faces, and there were different kinds of aliens, and zombies with black goo, and the show lost its way. In the earlier episodes, though, it was sheer joy: “I don’t know how you don’t see it, Scully. This is exactly the pattern of a string of UFO abductions in 1972.” “Mulder, your theories don’t make sense. All the evidence points to trees that eat people!” I love that the show had a versatile premise, so any episode could be a thriller, horror, science fiction, or comedy. The standalone episodes, before the show was engulfed by the modestly named Mythology, were the best. 

They tried resurrecting it a couple of years ago and it didn’t quite catch on. There was one episode, a comedy, that did stick out—otherwise, it wasn’t interesting at all. They planned to do more seasons, but that never caught on. 

When The X-Files was on, it was on, and when it was huge, it was huge. I remember getting excited on Friday nights (I had no life) and seeing what batshit thing Chris Carter thought of this week.  

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Wind in the Willow

Since I just watched the last episode, I thought I’d turn my attention to the new Willow. The original Willow is nostalgic and fun, and I love it, but I would not call it a good movie. This was George Lucas’s Next Big Thing after Star Wars, and it was only okay. The world-building was interesting, and a lot of the characters were memorable. Even though they were the most annoying part of that movie, I talk to the cats in a brownie accent when no one’s around and Nicole is out of the country, so, “A-HA! Does the kiddies want to eat?” But George Lucas proved he’s not an inexhaustible font of ideas by putting both Han Solo and Darth Vader into this movie.

I am getting exhausted with the nostalgia sequels. To all the people worked up about Beetlejuice 2, I want to ask them if there was one nostalgia sequel that actually satisfied them, and their answer would be Bill & Ted Face the Music, and I say, okay, aside from that. How did the new Halloween work out? How was Ghostbusters? Punky Brewster? Sex and the City? Remember Tron: Legacy?You don’t? Shock. Those were movies and TV shows that were actually made, and you forgot them because they were only okay.  

The wild card here is Top Gun: Maverick, which made piles and piles of money, but it doesn’t count because it was always going to make piles of money. Even in these bitter times we live in, we love to see some jingoism and explosive victories thrown at us to the sound of Kenny Loggins.

All of that is to say that I only watched the new Willow because I was curious. And the first episode was not very exciting. None of the characters were particularly interesting, the plot far from compelling. The worst character was kidnapped in the first episode and didn’t come back until the end, so there was that. The action was competent, and sometimes competent is the best you can ask for. And there’s a secret, and it ties all the way up to the most important MacGuffin in the original movie, and the show is so dull and predictable that it sends you obvious clues, and you’re yawning, saying, “I know what the secret is, you telegraphed it, like at the beginning of the episode,” and the show says, “Ha!” and I was completely wrong, and suddenly something really interesting happened with the secret, and that’s has exciting as that twist got.

There was something wrong with the dialogue that I couldn’t put my finger on it until the second episode when one person made an observation, and the other person says, “Right?” in that exact way, you know what I’m talking about, like she’s a sorority girl in 2020 and not a warrior princess in a faraway medieval land. The main character, whose name adorns the franchise, who was the spirit of the movie, high-fives a guy. Folks, I’m not sure I like this. There’s one of two explanations for how this happened:

  1. Disney execs tell them they have to be relatable to young girls, you know, like that Muffin the Vampire Killer, so the writers, probably mostly men with a mostly young, female cast, decide that everyone should be sassy and speak in the same voice.
  2. The writers were just lazy.

If I want to watch a bunch of teenagers lusting after each other in a fantasy setting and speaking the modern lingo, I’d watch The Vampire Diaries. That Damien got sass. But I came to Willow to see high fantasy that’s not as oppressive as Game of Never-ending Spin-Offs.

I read an interview with the showrunner, and he defended the anachronisms by saying he was inspired by Madmartigan, who was the only reason Willow was good, according to him. He said that Madmartigan felt like a person from the eighties transplanted into this fantasy world, and I call bullshit. If they did it his way in the original movie, he would have said, “Don’t have a cow!” Which is kind of what they’re doing in the new show.

It’s not that bad. I remember there were a number of shows and movies that did anachronisms, and none of them did it as smoothly as Willow, not even A Knight’s Tale. It’s still jarring, and I still don’t think I like it, but it’s clearly the work of professionals. The sets are amazing, some of the acting is really good. The expansion of the world has been working marvels. The plot is weak, and it could not sustain eight episodes. Some of the acting is really bad. The MacGuffin of the series is a mouth-breather, and that was hard not to stare at. There are a lot of clichés here. I’m glad that the main characters are teenage girls, even if it means Willow has to step back a little (he steps back way too much).

Then there’s the magic. With one or two exceptions, magic is about throwing green or purple lightning bolts. They have names for spells and curses, and they study for long montages, but in the end, it’s a green or purple lightning spell. See also WandaVision. Put some thought into it, people. Even the Fantastic Beasts movies put together some fun, imaginative magic fights. Even though the green-versus-purple lightning battle was visually stunning, it just felt … dumb. I am exhausted with Sassy Marvel Studios, and now sassy Willow. The hero can’t take the apocalypse seriously, why should the audience?

Late in the series, a character turns evil, and the actor cannot pull it off. They’re not Hayden Christiansen bad, but the whole thing is unconvincing, and it’s supposed to be the dramatic anchor of the final showdown of the season finale. Everybody else can kind of hold it together, but there’s this actor. The last episode was so bad I’m not planning on watching season 2.

You might enjoy it the way I enjoyed the Vampire Diaries franchise, i.e. as fast food with no nutritional value. The theme to the TV show Willow was “be yourself,” which was the exact same theme to just about every kid’s show in the eighties (unless you can be Destro—then you should probably be Destro). “The power was within you all along my apprentice!” What made the movie Willow so memorable was a really young Warwick Davis being the sincerest creature in the realm. The sincerest character in the show Willow, counting Willow himself, is the comic relief, but everybody laughs at them, not with them. Oh, and Spoiler Alert: XX XXXX XX XXX XXX. It doesn’t live up to its message, is what I’m saying.

The first few episodes, I wasn’t particularly blown away, but I thought it was a nice contrast to my current binge show, Babylon 5. Did you know that by the year 2258, Zima has made a huge comeback and is being advertised in dockworker bars on a space station hundreds of light years from Earth? You never know!

I can’t believe I wrote twelve hundred words about such a mediocre, inoffensive show. Something about this lazy, nostalgia strip-mining is really getting under my skin.

Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic?

I smoked an average of twenty cigarettes a day from October 1994 to May 2007. I was not a person who smoked, I was a smoker. And I was all in. I’d had a total of three Zippos in my life, and I had a hip pocket devoted to pack and lighter (currently for the cell phone). I followed the lead of top intellectuals like Denis Leary and sang the praises of smoking. And while I became much less of an evangelical about tobacco after cancer took a beloved aunt, I still enjoyed it.

I tried quitting, but I never wanted to, so every attempt was a failure. Sure, they made you cough, and sure, if enough time passes without having one, you turn into the Incredible Hulk. Sure they turned my fingers and teeth yellow, and sure they were just pumping carcinogens into my lungs, I wanted to keep doing this. I was young. I was immortal.

I enjoyed the taste of the filter on my lips. I enjoyed the pageantry of lighting a cigarette. When I was in college, anybody I knew who had a Zippo pulled elaborate stunts with them to light a cigarette. Not me—I flicked open the lighter, ignited it, lit the cigarette, and flicked the lighter closed. It was out and back into my pocket in less than five seconds. According to some, my technique wasn’t necessarily the coolest, but it was up there. I enjoyed a cigarette in my hand. I wasn’t so much holding a cigarette, as much as the cigarette was an extension of my fingers.

I was the kind of person who would say things like, “You want a cautionary tale about smoking? I bring you George Burns.” (To my Hastings College contemporaries, substitute “Darryl Lloyd” for “George Burns.”) At the time of my being the most militant about smoking, I was no better than any Trump fan. Give me irrefutable proof that the tobacco corporations were breeding and cultivating the perfect piece of toxic waste to make you keep sticking toxic waste in your mouth until you died, and I’d make up excuses. I can’t remember any of the excuses because when I had my epiphany about them (several years after I quit), I purged every single positive thing I could say about big tobacco.

I didn’t quit smoking because of the horrible things it did to me. I found out about the horrible things it did to me because I quit. For example, I’ve never had a masculine musk, and I do sweat a lot, but in the middle of August with the A/C broken was Drakkar Noir compared to how I smelled as a smoker. You can’t smell yourself when you’ve caused permanent damage to the inside of your nose. When it grows back, and a smoker is nearby, you know it. You know it before the get within ten feet. It was a Doppler effect with smell. I smelled like that. All. The. Time. How could anyone stand to be around me? How were women ever attracted to me?

I have been a non-smoker for fifteen years. I can’t say I haven’t smoked in fifteen years because I’d had two cigarettes since, a little over ten years ago. They were both really horrible, and I have not wanted to go near one in the past twelve years. One of the cigarettes was a blatant attempt to start a conversation. It worked. Cigarettes used to be really good for that. I had a lot of friends whose relationship with me could withstand five-to-ten-minute bursts every hour, and that was about it. Smoking was a solitary or a social activity, depending on how you were feeling that day. There was something magical about that. I wanted to capture that.

I was full-on smoker when I created a number of my enduring characters, and as a result, many of them were full-on smokers—in the stories I wrote during that thirteen-year period of my life. In stories I’ve written about them since, they’d either quit, or I’d completely forgotten about the smoking thing. I wrote one story last year where I paid lip service to tobacco for continuity’s sake, but otherwise ignored it.

Smoking is intertwined through much of my early oeuvre, but it’s not crucial to the story. I only call attention to it as a set piece of something cool happening. (Girl puts a cigarette out in boy’s coffee. Boy, eyes on the girl, drinks the coffee.) I’ve started writing scripts set in the time period where most of these characters would have been smokers, and I’m choosing not to write the smoking. The way I see it, I have three choices.

One: I can add tobacco to the contemporary stories. It wouldn’t be hard because I’m still in the draft phase, and I’ll be going over them several more times.

Two: I can go back into the classic stories, some of which have been quasi-published, and strip the smoking out. That would mean removing non-essential but still fun scenes and exchanges. The boy meets the girl when he creeps out while bumming a cigarette from her. This is the most important relationship in this series of stories. So I’d have to completely rewrite it.

Three: Or, I could leave the smoking in the classic stories and not include it in the contemporaries. I don’t have to explain it. Let the smoking and non-smoking characters be alternate universes. Whatever. The important thing is, this requires the least effort. Why do I want to be giving this vile habit anymore thought than I’d already put into it?

The world is evolving, and I am there for it. Popular opinion has turned against tobacco, Homosexuals have the same marriage rights as the rest of us. You cannot function without a cell phone now. The creator of the most beloved contemporary series of children’s novels is currently on blast for being anti-trans. Dr. Oz is not Senator Oz. The legalization of cannabis in New Mexico kind of ruined the screenplay Shane and I wrote about the hunt for a vicious pot dealer on the Navajo Reservation. It took us days to figure out how to fix that.

There was a time, not that long ago, when public opinion was generally cool with cigarettes. I used to smoke in my dorm room. You could smoke while you were eating at restaurants. There were ashtrays in hospital waiting rooms. Can you imagine? That’s when these characters were born. And while some of these stories have been rewritten from the ground up (one twice), they are still a product of their time.

I am definitely going with option three, for nostalgia’s sake.

Walking Against the Wind

I feel like celebrating, but most people I know will hear about my accomplishment and not see what the big deal is. However, my friends with ADHD or are ADHD-adjacent will give me high-fives and pour Gatorade all over me. What did I do? I remembered to turn my roommate’s plant lights on when I wake up in the morning and turn them off before I go to bed for seven days in a row.

Odds are, you’re reading this and wondering why this is the highlight of my week. How hard is it to remember to do that? And you certainly don’t understand why I have to leave myself notes and se alarms on my phone to pull this feat off. It’s because I have to work myself to exhaustion just to function normally, and I still screw up. Note that my roommate has been gone for three weeks, and I’ve only done seven days in a row.

I come into work early because I like the quiet, and I can get through some of the ten inboxes I monitor without people throwing in more email. Today, I saw an email about licensing that I should have been CCed on, so I forwarded it to my primary account. Less than a second passed before I received a notification that I had a new email, with my name on it, and my first thought was, “Who could that possibly be this early in the morning?” This is normal for me.

I had a discussion about face blindness with a friend before work, and neither of us has object permeance when it comes to characters in TV or movies. I’ll be watching something with someone, and the actor will make a triumphant entrance, and I’ll be all, “Who the hell is that?” And my companion would be all, “That’s the main character’s brother. He’s been in every episode.”

Some people think that having ADHD is just an excuse for being a flake. My supervisor hasn’t said as much, but it’s pretty clear she believes this. She doesn’t seem to take my disability seriously. She chews me out if I forget something, which doesn’t happen an excessive amount, but it happens enough. How am I supposed to function in an office where everything feels uphill, and no one wants to give me a hand, and on top of it, I’m getting scolded every couple of days. (Note: I’m going through official channels to deal with this because I can’t deal with this.)

To be clear, I’m not one of those people who uses his disability as a crutch, and I don’t blame everything on it. It took me three years to tell anyone at work about it, and that was only after someone backed me into a corner. Also to be clear, despite this person, this place is not a hellhole. The benefits are amazing, the people are nice, and with the exception of my supervisor, nobody has scolded me for one of my innumerable errors.  

I get why people don’t really believe having ADHD is no big deal. I’m sure there’s not one among you who wouldn’t forget to turn on or off the lamp once. People who are trying to be help have told me this—everybody forgets stuff. But there’s a difference between “I lost my keys, I’m so ADHD!” and the fact that I have to set an alarm on my phone to remember to shower. I need assistance to perform basic hygiene, that’s how bad I am. I have alarms for feeding the cats, turning the lights on and off, taking my Adderall, cleaning the litterbox, taking my medication, and watering the plants. I have so many Post-Its everywhere, I look like that Charlie Day conspiracy meme. I take two medications for it, and I’m still a mess, and it gets worse the older I get. I’ve been told by people I consider family that I’m just not trying hard enough. Reminds me of people who tell you not to be sad when you have depression.

I don’t talk about it much, mostly because the skepticism is a personal insult to how hard I work. Also, I have it under control, so I don’t need accommodation. However, if you’re going back to the seventh paragraph to remind yourself that I don’t take showers without prompting or anything else in this essay and ask, “That’s under control?” That is under control for me. It could be whole lot worse, which is why I try not to miss a dose, but even with the alarm and the threat to my mental health, I miss an average of one-to-two doses a week.

I am tired. Part of the reason I don’t like to socialize anymore is that it’s too complicated. I could go to meetups or schedule coffee with a friend in the district, but I’ve been working and dealing with the escalating scolding from my supervisor. About the only things I can concentrate on are writing and work (and the drawing, it turns out).

In conclusion, I needed to get that off of my chest. It’s been a tough week.

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.

Watch for Falling Enthusiasm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind Closed Doors and Minds

I don’t often have call to compare myself to a hard-right, easily and loudly offended, conservative, but things have a tendency to take you by surprise.

In December, I made a new friend. In fact, she’s the first woman I’ve been attracted to in a long time (not counting little crushes). She is into a lot of the geek ephemera that I’m into, she’s ace too, and most importantly, she’s a writer. She writes fanfiction for one of the big sites, and she has a really good following. When she told me this, I asked her for her username, and she said, and I quote, “Not a fucking chance.” I’m the opposite—I’m overeager to share my work. We’ve stayed in touch since the conference, mostly through IM, which is funny because her office is ten feet from my cubicle. I don’t know what prompted this, but last week she decided to share her works with me.

I don’t know what I was expecting, to be honest. I knew her fandom was the Avengers, but that’s all I knew. If you know anything about fanfiction, there is a tendency to create worlds and identities for a character (or real life person) that are nothing like the ones we’re familiar with. Fifty Shades of Grey is famously Twilight fanfiction, and when a major publisher picked it up, they made EL James change the names, and that’s pretty much it. She had recast Edward Cullen as a businessman, as opposed to a sparkling vampire. That’s what she did here, though not as drastically. It hews closely to the movies (as of when they were posted), but otherwise, so much has been changed.

The most interesting thing was what I found in the tags: D/s. In case you didn’t know, that means Dominant/submissive. Within a few paragraphs, it was clear that the relationships were going to be between male Avengers. So I found out my asexual friend was writing gay bondage fiction about the Avengers. Here’s where my mind took a hard right: I assumed that it was going to be sexual.

Conservatives are obsessed with sex. The recent tragic Supreme Court decision was not protecting the babies, it was about restricting who can have sex and inflating the consequences of it. In entertainment news, the newest Pixar film made conservatives freak out because a character had two moms … WHO KISSED! When normal people sees this, they think this is a family. It’s innocent. Not a conservative. They see two middle-aged women scissoring and fingering each other. When they see drag queens, they don’t see men who dress as women having fun, they’re picturing them sticking their penises inside of each other. And they expect you to be thinking about it too. The mere act of being LGBTQ at all is a sexual statement.

When I started reading my friend’s fic, my assumption was that it was going to be porn. I’ve been surprised by erotica in some of my friends’ writing before, so I braced myself, but this was nothing like that. It was an Avengers high-octane, dark action story. However, Captain America and Iron Man were married, and they shared a sub in Bucky. They did not whip Bucky or make him lick their boots, but rather it affected their relationship. When Bucky goes rogue, the bond between doms and subs is tested, and the most fooling around we get are Captain America and Iron man holding hands while they worry about Bucky. Nothing about their relationship was sexual.

Like homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality, B/s is sexual at its core, but like all of these other sexualities, B/s is about relationships. I’ve never thought about B/s deeply before because, if I know anybody who is, they haven’t shared it with me. Full disclosure: before we were married, my ex-wife was into that kind of thing, and it was very sexual. That’s why my mind went there.

I feel silly now. I feel like Tucker Carlson. I wasn’t going to go off on a rant about it, but I was thinking what he would be thinking. I guess I’m not as Woke as I thought I was. But then again, who is?

A Question About Some Romantic Comedies

I started a new novel last week, and I’m already at sixty typed, double-spaced pages. Part of the reason I’m putting so much work into this in what little time I have is because it’s made up of little set pieces that I am itching to write out. It’s also been surprising me every time I think of a new idea of where to take it. For example, a chapter in was when I decided that the main character’s best friend was going to be trans, and I’ve never written a trans character in a major role (hopefully one day I’ll tell a trans person’s story, but I’m not ready yet).

Another reason I am so taken in by this story is because it’s making me flex my gender politics muscles, to the point where it’s the most Woke thing I’ve ever written.

When I sat down and started writing this, it was going to be a simple story about a guy who has a crush on his boss, who always looks serious at all times. He vows that he will make her smile, and his friend calls him out on it, i.e. calling him a white-collar construction worker. Twenty-three years ago, I’d vowed to make a coworker smile, which I’m filing away as something I did because I didn’t know better. (I wasn’t creepy or an asshole, I just engaged her when everyone else in the office had written her off as a bitch.) It took fifty pages for the boss to smile, and when she does, it makes her uncomfortable because of baggage she’s been carrying around since she was a kid.

Even before the smile, the relationship evolves into heavy flirting coming from her but appreciated by him, and the real issue at the center of the narrative comes into focus: it doesn’t matter the boss is hot and female, and it doesn’t matter if the underling likes it, any advance they make toward them is still sexual harassment. The encounters with HR are intense and ridiculous, labeling an innocent St. Patrick’s Day pinching as sexual assault. But don’t they have a point?

I think about my boss’s boss, a slightly overweight middle-aged dad who sometimes grows a beard. What if he gave an unsolicited pinch to my crush, his underling? We’d get HR on that, right? How would that be any better if it was my crush, a tall, lean, pretty blonde, pinching me, her underling? I’d probably like it a lot (maybe not, though, as I’m touch-averse), but someone who has some control over my professional life shouldn’t be deciding when it’s appropriate to touch me without consulting with me first.

The main character takes HR with a grain of salt, and the boss begins flirting with him even harder, and what I believe to be the central conflict of my book becomes clear (and it only took sixty pages to find it). At first it will appear to be how do they have a real romance under the nose of human resources? But the real question is, how can they have a real romance when everything about it is unethical?

The book is written in the first-person perspective of someone who is really enjoying these advances because I am really enjoying writing these advances. My last book (The Sass in Assassin) involved a lot of murder, so I want to make the characters in this one happy. But the more I write, the more it’s becoming clear that the boss is wrong. She’s hot, the flirting is hot, but it’s so wrong. Is she going to get out of this situation without being fired? Is the main character? Are they actually going to get together, or will they just tease each other until someone loses their mind. I don’t know because I haven’t written it yet.

Off the Old Block

There are a series of short stories I really love, by famed mystery writer Lawrence Block, and they’re all about a character named Keller. The stories were published all over the place, and they’re self-contained, but there’s a specific order to them, and with the collection I own and have owned since slightly after I moved to New York, you can follow the story. I remember I first encountered the character in an issue of Playboy (there IS stuff in there that aren’t nude pictures, honest!), and he stuck with me that I was stunned to find out that there was a whole book of his stories.

Keller is a regular lonely guy in New York who has maybe too much spare time. He watches movies, goes on long walks in Central Park, sees a therapist, and he takes up stamp-collecting at one point. Every once in a while, maybe once a month, he gets a phone call, he takes a train to Upstate New York, talks to his boss, and flies out somewhere in the United States, and murders someone. He’s not an action-movie hitman by any means. He very rarely uses a gun, he’s not a martial artist, he’s not insane, and he doesn’t kill only “bad people.” He just very efficiently figures out how to get into someone’s comfort zone and exterminate them, no questions asked.

As someone who had been raised on Tarantino movies and a lot of the crime dramas from the nineties, it was very easy for me to put aside the horrible job this character has and get to know him personally. Maybe it was that compartmentalizing I’m pretty good at. Either way, I didn’t think much about it. He’s an introvert with a rich inner life, like me, only instead of fixing spreadsheets, he killed people, and I was able to identify with him.

Around the time I got the book, I was dating a wonderful artist in Brooklyn, and she was interested in whatever I was interested in, so she watched all my favorite movies and read all my favorite books, yet she has a very low violence threshold. She really wrestled with the book because she liked Keller, but what he did was monstrous, and she struggled to reconcile that.

I’m rereading the book, trying to inspire myself to write my next novel, now that I’ve finished the one I put aside to write my screenplay, as well as the one I put aside to write the one I put aside for the screenplay, and I’m remembering something that pissed this girlfriend off about the book more than any of the murders did. In one story, Keller gets a dog, and in a subsequent story, he later gets a dog-walker. Then, in another story, he and the dog-walker hook up. One story after that, Keller gets an assignment and takes care of it, going through all the motions, until the very end, where he tells someone she left him, and she took the dog.

This infuriated my girlfriend. Why did he take twenty-five pages to acknowledge that his relationship had ended? Why was he not thinking about it and mourning it that whole week he was out of town and killing someone? Why did he not talk to anyone about it? And yet for me, this seemed to be the natural thing. This is before “compartmentalizing” became a word that people used, but what was wrong with filing grief away? There was an unexpected loss in your life, and you might as well start moving forward as soon as you can instead of dwelling on it. It’s how I handled my breakup with her, and boy did that cause problems post-relationship (she is the one ex who will never talk to me ever again—all of the others, even with their grievances, acknowledge me). It’s also how I handled my divorce. The grief spilled out sometimes, mostly because of the far-reaching financial ramifications, but mostly it was tucked away where it wouldn’t interfere with me.

I am willing to acknowledge that my muted reaction to the divorce probably had to do with the truckloads of lithium I’m on, but there was no excuse for how I reacted in 2002. (Which was twenty years ago. Jesus.) I also know that I almost had a friend break up with me last year, and I did not compartmentalize at all. I yelled, I screamed, I begged, so I’m not incapable of feeling grief. Men are taught not to feel emotions other than anger, so I wonder how much of that had to do with Keller’s reaction to that breakup, as well as mine. I haven’t lost anyone close to me in years—what’s going to be my reaction when it inevitably happens?

I haven’t made it to the offending story yet; Keller has just met the dog-walker, and they are just friendly right now. I haven’t read this book in over twenty years, so I wonder how I’m going to see it. Will I identify with Keller’s stiff upper lip, or will I be angry at him like she was, all that time ago.

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.