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 Muffled Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Road to Tinseltown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production Racket

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

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

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

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

Mixology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.