All Alone in the Moonlight

It was Saturday morning, early, and I was enjoying a latte from a cafe called Wine and Butter in Lincoln Park (not to be confused with Linkin Park). I like to write in public places because the crowds energize me, and, at 7:30 a.m., there are runners and dog-walkers, and the day was already quite beautiful.

The thing I don’t like about the pandemic is that I can’t see the expressions on people’s faces as they do their thing. That’s part of where the energy comes from. But I can watch their body language, and I look up from my notebook periodically to see who’s around.

A woman walked toward me, not wearing a mask. This part of D.C. is practically religious about wearing them, so she was out of place. But when she steered in my direction, I became a little nervous. I wasn’t wearing a mask because I was sipping my latte, and by the time she stood just a couple of feet from me, I hadn’t had time to put mine back on.

I thought she was going to ask me for money, despite being well-dressed. She said, “Hi!” I said, “Hi!” And then she just stood there, watching me, this smirk on her face. And finally she went, “Really?” and she stomped off, adding, “Damn!”

I think I was supposed to know this woman. I think that she was saying hi to someone she knew, and he had no clue who she was. I am mortified by this. Was it someone from The Container Store? Was it someone from my day job? Did I just blow off someone who I liked, and who liked me?

That’s what I’ve been doing most of the day: trying to figure out who this woman is. I’m pretty sure I made a huge mistake, guys.

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.

The Way You Shake and Shiver

On this night, twenty years ago, I broke a haunted house. To be fair, it wasn’t one of those insanely professional haunted houses like they have in Maryland, or one of those torture house, or even a Hell House (though I wouldn’t mind breaking one of those). This was an amateur production in a brownstone in Brooklyn, where whoever was throwing the party had access to all three floors, and it was mostly ghastly decorations, spooky music, and people jumping out at you from behind curtains.

When I was skinny, my celebrity twin was Norville Rogers, with the big chin, the patchy chin beard, and hair that seemed long and poofy, even after it just got cut. And yet, for some reason, this was the first year I decided I was going to dress as Norville, aka Shaggy, for Halloween. The costume couldn’t be any easier: just shave off my mustache and wear a green T-shirt and brown bellbottoms (failing that, any overly large pair of brown pants would do). To complete the ensemble, I went to the Times Square Disney Store with my best friend, Katie, and found a small hand puppet of Scooby Doo.

This led me to the party my brand new girlfriend wanted to go to in Brooklyn, the one with the haunted house. I wasn’t planning on going through it, as I have a pretty acute startle reflex, and I don’t like to be scared, especially among people I don’t know, but the haunted house was between the front door and the booze, so I put my head down and stepped inside. Not looking forward to embarrassing myself in front of the woman I was trying to impressed, I took it slowly and alertly. The music ratcheted up the tension, the curtains billowed, I braced myself, and, “BOO!”; the man in the ghost costume burst out. Everyone gasped in surprise.

But not me. I held it together somehow. Instead of reacting like I ordinarily would (screaming and crying), I jumped back, cowered, cradled little Scooby in my arms, and cried out in my best Shaggy voice, “Zoinks!”

The hipsters running the haunted house were not prepared for this. The ghost and his support staff all exploded in laughter, as did the group I had come in with. I’m sure that they reset themselves and were able to scare the next batch of partygoers, but because of my quick thinking and my pretty good impression of Casey Kasem, the group I was with made it to the party without any further scares. I had a few drinks, indulged in some Scooby Snacks (marijuana cigarettes, and you know that’s EXACTLY what Scooby Snacks were—why do you think they were so hungry all the time?), danced with my girl, and engaged in a heated argument with some douchebag about what was the second-best Soul Coughing album.

Sadly, no pictures of that costume survive.

Grim Grinning Ghosts Socializing

Halloween used to mean a lot to me. I used to dress up, even in college, taking the opportunity to be someone other than myself. Living in New York, I became an observer, heading down to the Village every year to catch the parade or the wake of the parade, watching everyone having pure, innocent fun. I have a very fond NSFW memory of the parade I think I’ll keep to myself as well. The last time I dressed up for Halloween was in New York, and I wore the same costume two separate years (more on that tomorrow).

Later, I married someone whose religion venerated October 31 as much as Christmas and Easter combined, and the day took more of a sacred tone. And that meant feasting. And, for a while, drinking. But that gradually dropped off, and Halloween became just another day of the year. I don’t have kids, I’ve never had trick or treaters coming to my door, I never had anywhere to go. October 31 just sort of comes and goes.

I don’t know how kids are going to trick or treat tomorrow, but I know they will. Signs in my neighborhood are promising contactless candy, and I have to say, I’m curious. Nicole and I are going to a house, where she tutors two children, to give them some candy in exchange for seeing their costumes. It’s a small thing, but it’s going to bring me joy again on this day, a joy which has been lost to me for a long time.

Which Way the Wind Blows

I was watching a teen movie last night, and the class pariah and the literal prom queen got thrown into a situation together, and by end of the movie, they were besties, spending their summer together. I asked the closing credits, “Yeah, but what happens when the school year begins?” I asked because I had gone through this.

Halfway through my tour of high school, I was an undiagnosed bipolar going through a hypomanic phase. Things were good. My friends were good, my life goals were good, my job was good (well, not the work part, but the cash for movies, comics, and coffee was good), my prospects were good. Things were good. I went into that summer prepared to hang out with my merry band of misfits and just being good.

But there was suddenly a new kid in the group, and no one had consulted me about him. I knew who he was, and he was kind of a douchebag. He was reasonably popular—not the prom king, but he had his own clique and minions. His clothes were too neat, his hair had too much product in it, and his confidence was just a little too high for my tastes. But a prominent member of our gang vouched for him, and we let him in.

He quickly ingratiated himself into the group. He laughed at all of our jokes. He made his own jokes. He seemed to get us when we were sure that we were the only people who got us. I started to look up to him, as he seemed, despite being my age, older. He had a lot more experiences under his belt, some of which was girls. He helped me refine my music palate, he introduced me to horror movies, and he occasionally found us some beer. He had gone, in a handful of weeks, from being someone I would never associate with to a really close friend.

And then school started again, and he was gone. He didn’t return our calls, he didn’t acknowledge us in the hallways, he completely disappeared from our lives, like he was never there to begin with. The friend who’d vouched for him in the beginning of the summer would get really angry if his name were even uttered, so our entire summer became this taboo thing that had never happened. I had a brief conversation with our missing friend a few weeks after this had happened, and he acted like there was nothing to be done about it. Like he wasn’t in control of the loss of our relationship.

I think about it as an adult who has since learned that popular kids are people too, and I wonder how much control he did have over his relationships. Social castes are real. Even I, who didn’t have a lot of regard for what people thought of him, had immense regard for what people thought of him. Later, as a senior, I had branched out and made friends and acquaintances with representatives of different social strata, but I was successful in doing that because I knew my place.

A long time ago I forgave my temporary friend for abandoning me because he didn’t belong with us. I had three short months to get to be his friend, and I value that time. Each life that has touched mine is precious, even if it was only for a little bit.

My mind is on that movie again. Will the prom queen abandon her friends when school begins? Or will she throw her hard-earned class status out the window for new relationships? She’s got a lot of thinking to do, which is, I guarantee, more thinking than the writers put into this screenplay.

Blinded with Science

I’m a skeptic. I don’t really believe anything unless it’s been peer-reviewed and analyzed to death. I don’t have a lot of faith. A lot of people look down on me for this. They say I’m closeminded, that I’m disconnected from the wonders of the universe. To the latter, I say, the universe, as science sees it, is incredible. I don’t need ghosts, which can be explained through hundreds of possibilities that don’t involve dead people, when I have fire—the fundamental deconstruction and rearranging of matter, and it’s pretty; or water, which has a molecular composition so unusual that our entire planet is built around it.

As far as being closeminded, I can assure you that just about every skeptic I’ve met or read would like nothing more than to find Bigfoot. A primitive hominid wandering around the Pacific Northwest for hundreds of years, just out of sight of civilization? How cool would that be? But it’s 2020, and everyone has a camera in their pockets, and the best we can come up with is blurry images and inconclusive footprints? No scat? No carcasses? When we meet Bigfoot, we want to meet him, not just anecdotes and conjecture, and we are lining up around the block for it.

Skeptics and science-based thinkers love ideas that challenge their own—provided those ideas are credible. The Theory of Evolution is one of those scientific principles that faith-based thinkers believe that we’re so married to that we won’t accept alternatives. What they don’t understand is that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is almost unrecognizable from the Theory of Evolution as it exists today. The theories have been challenged, and they have been amended. That’s why the story of how COVID-19 and coronavirus works has changed so much in the past ten months. We keep getting new information, and the doctors incorporate it into what they know. They’re learning. If you govern from unyielding faith, you get our current government, and is that really what you want to aspire to?

I’m afraid to bring this up because most everyone I know is a believer in something I don’t believe in. Mostly God, but ghosts and other supernatural phenomena, as well. The fact that I say I don’t believe as they do is considered an attack, like maybe I think I’m better than them or something. Trust me, I’ve Facebook unfriended all the people I think I’m better than. And I get it, most public atheists are arrogant assholes, and they don’t make it easy to be me. Or my friends will try to talk me out of my skepticism, which has been honed for years and won’t go easily, or explain to me that I can be faithful and scientific. It was easier to tell the world that I’m not into sex, even though that’s weird and unnatural, than it was to tell people that I’m a non-believer.

Why am I taking a chance with alienating you? Because of TV. I have been watching this Netflix show (I won’t say the title because spoilers), and it has blown my mind. It’s about three investigators, a skeptic, a believer, and someone on the fence. What we’ve learned from pop culture so far is that, in these cases, the skeptic is due for a very hard lesson in the power of the supernatural. The non-believers are always taught that they need to believe. Not in this show, though. Four episodes in, and the miracles and demon possessions have all been roundly debunked. Science wins! (It’s obvious that this show has a supernatural undercurrent that is going to show its face in the metanarrative, but on an episode-by-episode, the skeptic is right!) Science never wins over the supernatural, unless it’s the Ghostbusters. I think the show is a one-season wonder, so it didn’t make it, but for a little while, at least, I can cheer as the scientific method conquers evil.

And honestly, in day of QAnon and cries of fake news, a little skepticism is probably a good thing.

This Didn’t Have To Happen

Someone I know just died from COVID. We weren’t close friends—she was someone I knew from when I was wrangling editors at Author Solutions twelve-to-fifteen years ago. But she was one of my top editors. She was efficient, accurate, as well as friendly, funny, kind, and a little flirty. We’ve been Facebook friends since I left, and when I tried, unsuccessfully, to reignite my freelance editing career a year and a half ago, she was there to walk me through it to the best of her ability, even though we really hadn’t talked in an incredibly long time.

I don’t know the details, like, at all, but I know she came to the United States to visit someone, a friend or family, and she got sick and died. She was at risk, so it didn’t take long.

I’ve been taking this outbreak pretty seriously for the past six months (the first month, no so much), and I’ve been horrified watching the infection rate and the death toll rise while our populace walks around like nothing is happening. I haven’t been personally affected by it while some of my Facebook friends have been infected and recovered—as much as it’s possible to recover from this disease. But I’ve not seen anyone I know die, especially not someone I really liked.

I’m not trying to make this about me. It’s about her family—both genetic and adopted, who will most certainly miss her because she was one of the most sparkling editors I’d ever met (and editors aren’t people you’d really describe as “sparkling”).

But I feel this bubbling inside, and I apologize because I try my hardest to avoid using language like this in my feed, but fuck you, coronavirus for everything you’ve done to us this year. Fuck you Donald Trump, along with everyone else who doesn’t take this seriously/thinks it’s a conspiracy. If you’re one of those people, please unfriend me. Don’t say goodbye, don’t drop in and tell me why I’m wrong about COVID-19, just go. My country is a plague state that killed this incredible woman, and it’s all your fault.

And good bye, Karen. I know we weren’t close, and we weren’t really a part of each other’s lives, but now that you’re gone, I really miss you.

That Darn Cat

Newcastle just got back from the cardiologist, where I just spent a lot of money to get him checked out. They diagnosed him with congestive heart failure. Six years ago. When the doctor called me after the appointment today, it was clear that he was shocked that Newcastle was still alive (the usual survival after a diagnosis like this is a year, two tops), much less in great shape. At sixteen, there is no sign of arthritis, and he sleeps a lot, but he loves to play, with Henry and with the ribbon-on-a-string, he eats really well, he has no problem in the bathroom, and his coat looks like it’s been blown out recently by an expensive stylist named “Grigio.”

There’s something special about this cat, I tell you.

The Taste of Defeat

Life is a series of mistakes. We rarely ever get it right the first time, and the true measure of us is how well we incorporate the lessons learned from them into our lives. Mistakes are how we grow.

But some mistakes are just really stupid. In 2005, I made one of these. At the time, I was working for a self-publisher in Bloomington, Indiana in a small room, editing. One of my coworkers was fond of selling his own image as a man of many talents. Today, that talent was gardening. Wrapped in a napkin, he presented the editorial office with a small, yellow vegetable. “This is a Thai ghost pepper. I grew it in my garden. It’s the strongest pepper in the world, and you probably shouldn’t ever eat it—”

“I could eat it,” I said from my desk without looking up.

“You probably shouldn’t. This is hot unlike anything you’ve ever known.”

“I’m from New Mexico,” I said, getting out of my chair and walking over to his desk, “nothing scares me.” And I plucked the pepper out of the napkin and bit it.

In the time it took me to stroll six feet and deposit the stem in the trash, it hit me. I couldn’t see my own face, but witnesses assure me that the shade of it was crimson. Pure, ignited, liquid napalm exploded in my mouth, and a sound that came from my belly was, “Gurgle.” I hustled to the break room, where we had a vending machine that sold milk (this is the only time in my careers that I have ever encountered such a thing), and I bought every eight-ounce carton of milk in stock and chugged it. That provided relief for the ten seconds at a time that the milk was pouring down my throat. Again, more insistently, my stomach went, “Gurgle,” and reading the subtext of that, I knew I had to find a restroom immediately.

I’ve lived through a lot of things in my life, and I survived them with the knowledge that this would pass. It seemed horrible now, but in a few hours, days at most, it would be a memory, and I’d be stronger. On that toilet, I didn’t have that knowledge. My eyes were streaming with tears, my ears were ringing, and my mouth had been reduced to something that existed to inflict pain. In short, every orifice had turned against me, and it would never be better, ever again.

Eventually the agony of those first minutes passed, but it took days for my digestive tract to forgive me. I was a changed man now, a humble man, a cautious man. I still believed that my coworker was full of shit, but I would heed his warnings in the future. The most important lesson I learned from this experience is the one that I pass onto you: if someone says don’t eat this, for the love of God, don’t eat it.