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.

You Can Tell by the Way I Use my Walk

Anybody who’s ever met me in person knows I have a very distinctive walk. I don’t just go from Point A to Point B, I go from Point A to Point B in style. It’s a weird kind of strut/stride/shuffle, as if I’m listening to the opening chords of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees on a permanent loop. I walk more like a normal person now, but whenever I’m ready to have an adventure, even if that adventure is going to Safeway to buy more pancake mix, my walk is confident, with zero fucks to give.

Meanwhile, somebody might have noticed that there are no recent pictures of me. I am violently opposed to being photographed, and I really try to avoid mirrors. Even as I was doing it, I wondered exactly what it was about my image that bothered me so much. I can look at old pictures just fine. I’m comfortable in my own skin, for once, and pretty laid back about my appearance. I’m not hideous.

Finally, I figured out why. It’s because I don’t recognize the Jeremiah I see. As a novelist, I see myself as the main character in a story, and the character looks like me in my late-twenties or late-thirties (except with gray hair). Since then, I’ve put on about fifty pounds (I lost a lot of weight last summer, but I gained a lot of it back in the winter). I wear the weight relatively well, i.e. I am not obese like President Trump, I just appear to have the advanced stages of a dad bod. Again, I’m not hideous.

However, when I imagine myself in the world, like I’m on a date, I picture myself rakish and stylish. You know, the hero. But when I picture myself as I really look on that same date, I see someone bumbling and oafish because the hero is NEVER fat. When I think of myself the way I really look, I’m awkward and self-conscious, but when I picture me as the hero, I am badass and ready to take on the challenges of the world.

I think it would help if I could see other people who looked like me, but they’re not in TV or the movies unless they’re farting. What counts as morbidly obese in Hollywood is a little chubby to the rest of us in this country. When Thor put on weight in Avengers Endgame, it was treated as one hilarious fat joke after another—even his mom had to take a swing at him. I can’t look to entertainment for role models. As for the people around me, most who live in my neighborhood are extraordinarily fit. So I got nothing. I feel lonely here with my belly (which my cat loves, by the way).

Now that I’ve identified the source of my hang-up, what can I do with it? I’m fine with things the way they are, but I can’t avoid mirrors forever. Even if I manage to lose all of this weight again, that is a slow process, and I’ll be living in this body until I get to that point. Eventually, I’m going to have to come to terms with how I look.

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.