Watch your mouth.

When I was a little kid I believed in magic. Not tooth fairy/birthday wish/taking Communion magic, but for really real magic. For example, I was terrified to talk to myself when no one else was around because I was convinced that I would step in a specific place or make a specific set of motions with my hands while saying a specific group of words and unwittingly open up a portal to another dimension and no one would ever know what had happened to me or that they needed to locate a warlock to help get me back. On the other hand, I was perfectly happy to talk to myself while in the company of others. All the time. Maybe not my best decision ever. Also, as if your image of me as a weird child who talked to herself weren’t enough, I had a pretty large and varied group of imaginary friends. Yup, sure did. But I never gave any of them names, because what if there’s a real person with that name? And what if I fuck up their life by having my adventures with their invisible doppelganger? And then what if I meet them by chance one day or, horror of horrors, they’re really mad and hunt me down? And I have inadvertently started some kind of global paranormal war with my mind? With my words? Not worth it. So I gave all the imaginary friends numbers and became a writer. Seemed like the simplest solution, really.

Because, you see, words are magic. They’re the closest thing to real magic that we have, besides those things that we know science can prove but we haven’t figured out how to figure them out yet. So words and dark matter, I guess, are the closest things we have to real magic. You know that old “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” thing that we tell to children to keep them civil on the playground? That little nursery rhyme is absolute, unmitigated bullshit. But it works, for just a second, between the ages when they first learn to be mean to each other and around the time they start middle school, that singsongy nonsense works like a charm, doesn’t it? Gives them just enough confidence to let a little name calling roll off their backs before they become crippled by hormones and angst. Magic! Like a protective spell. Which I suppose is one of the most important parts of parenting magic, teaching them to build some armor on their own.

But a useful lie is still a lie. Words absolutely can hurt us, and do. And not even mean or nasty words. Not only hateful or pointed words. Who was it? Was it Carlin? I think it might have been Carlin who said “There are no bad words, only bad intentions.” I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. I think that there are words used with bad intent, absolutely, but some of the most painful words are the ones used with no thought whatsoever. The ones whose meanings either escape us or have been so clouded by time or misuse that we don’t even think about what they refer to anymore. These words tend to not feel icky because we’re so used to them. Or they feel icky, or taboo, or just plain wrong, but we can’t put our finger on why. So we toss them off as a part of normal conversation, with no bad feelings or ill will towards anyone, and not directed necessarily at anyone but the person to whom we are speaking. The point is that because we’ve stopped thinking about the origins of words, we don’t think about the groups of people they refer to as real people. They are merely adjectives. The ubiquity of disregard is what’s insidious.

And I’m not necessarily talking about slurs or name calling or even outright bigotry here, although those are the obvious examples. (And now you’re making a list in your head of the things you say every day. Good. Keep doing that.) No, what I’m talking about is careful word choice in general. Precise magic. Let’s take as an example a word I grossly overuse: just. “Just” is a handy little word. He can be a “just man” or it can be a “just cause.” As an indication of quality or quantity of actions: you could “just hang out” or have “just one more.” But used indelicately, “just” can be really negative. I’m “just a blogger,” therefore I’m not a real writer. Or my best friends are “just high school teachers,” implying that their profession is not important, or that somehow their opinions are worth less than someone with more flashy title. Someone’s mom is “just a housewife,” meaning that she doesn’t have a paying job, even though housewifery and motherhood are full-time and damn difficult occupations. He’s “just a kid,” so let’s excuse his bad behavior because kids aren’t people. Or in your own defense: “I just kissed her, honey; nothing happened.” (That one’s just an oxymoron, idiot. You’re busted. Deal with it.)

On a larger scale, we also use more overgeneralizations in everyday conversation than I’m comfortable with. I catch myself doing it all the time and I have to backpedal and qualify what I’m saying. It’s terribly time consuming. But I hear/see things like “All Republicans are assholes” (untrue), or “all Christians are dumb” (patently untrue), or “all English majors are doomed to unemployment” (this one is only a little left of center, actually). What drives me nuts about these sorts of statements is that when we say them we have a particular example in mind, and it’s usually the most visual or vocal or loudmouthed extreme that there is. If we were judging all Christians by the Phelps family, yes, we would conclude that they’re raging fucking morons. Or if we were measuring all Republicans by the state of Arizona, sure, they seem like assholes. But that’s incomplete, imprecise, and potentially offensive to the regular folks who are being lumped in with lunatics because the lunatics are all that the media feels they need to cover. This extends further than language, though, these overgeneralizations. There’s something about our psychology that loves a false dichotomy, that relies heavily on synecdoche. Take runway model A and compare her to normal adult human woman B (who is probably an overweight American in stretch pants). These are your only options, and you have to look one way or the other. Pick an avatar.

And words are grossly misused left and fucking right. I know that the argument over “literally” is kind of played out, but that one sticks in my craw. No, bitch, your head did not “literally explode.” Your head metaphorically exploded, which is the exact opposite of what you said, and the opposite of what I wish to see happen. When people use “literally” incorrectly, my first instinct is to stop listening to what they’re saying so I can immediately tell them why they’re wrong, which in turn makes me look like a pedantic asshole. I’m actually fine with that. I’ll take one for the team. Oh, and “ironically” crawls all over me, as well. When you go to a place because you think it’s dumb or buy a thing specifically so you can make fun of it with your friends or wear a shirt with a thing you don’t like on it, you aren’t being “ironic.” You’re doing those things “sarcastically.” And the fact that we’re substituting the word “irony” for “sarcasm” or “cynicism” is somehow supposed to make us feel better, I think. More intellectual, maybe, and less like apathetic dicks who can take no joy from things without tearing them apart. Alanis Morissette really screwed us as a generation, didn’t she? None of the stuff in that song would be considered ironic as much as unfortunate, or badly timed. But I suppose “I Have Shitty Timing and That’s Why Everything in My Life Goes Horribly Wrong” doesn’t exactly make for a marketable single title.

There’s a little piece in Louis C.K.’s special Hilarious when he rants a bit about how people talk nowadays. There are a lot of “blaaaaah, bluuuurgh” pukey noises in it, so I can’t really quote it here. Unfortunate, that onomatopoeia. But basically he says that we don’t give a shit about what we’re saying anymore. Word-like noises simply fall out of our heads, uncontrolled and without any forethought. It’s a good point, but consider the source. Comedians are mutants with highly evolved linguistic instincts and keen ears for bad word choice. Maybe this bothers me so much because I’m a writer (well, just a blogger, really). I don’t think it’s necessarily as important to your average joeschmoe guy, who has spellcheck and autocorrect and predictive texting on his side. (Which, for the record, does not solve your there/their/they’re problem, joeschmoe guy. These are not interchangeable. Not even a little bit.) We’ve gotten to the point where to be barely understood is all that is asked of us. Recently I noticed that a friend on Facebook asked another friend to lunch thusly: “have u 8?” Now, I understand that sentence, and you probably do, too. But it bothers me. It doesn’t bother me that we abbreviate in a 140-character society. It bothers me that we think this level of unintelligible gibberish is acceptable outside of texts and tweets, as a substitute for articulate adult discourse. It bothers me that people may not even notice, that they think that this is just how people speak. It’s like we’re devolving and soon we’ll just be grunting at each other while we grow cyborg parts to hold our smartphones, communicating with pictures of what we want for dinner and selfies that emphasize our boobs. Hopefully I’ll be dead by then. Sweet jebus, let me be dead by then.

Meanwhile, think carefully about the words you use. There is no magic word. They are all magic words. You may now commence to gleefully picking apart every word choice I’ve made in this post. Proceed.

In which I go on and on again…

I don’t know if anyone noticed, but I didn’t post a blog last week. My apologies. I got a bad cold and was stumbling around in a dextromethorphan haze for a few days. Always a good time. Here’s something they won’t tell you on the box but totally should: Never mix NyQuil and DayQuil. See? I’m looking out for you guys.

So it came blog day and I was still really foggy, trying to put some coherent thoughts together about all the crap I watched while trying not to die on my couch. And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I took the week off to get my head straight and try to write something really great. Something meaningful and well-crafted. Something with heart and with purpose. Something I could be proud of, that might stand out from the normal brain drippings you find here week after fucking week.

And there was just…nothing. A whole lot of nothing.

Too much pressure maybe? My brain retreated like a skittish cat under a bed. The thing just gave up. Or, perhaps, I’m intellectually understimulated and I can’t think of anything to say because everything feels the same and therefore nothing matters anymore. Which is probably the case, but is a somewhat disturbing proposition. I decided to embrace my mindless state and flung myself headlong into a Star Trek marathon. And lo! The gods of science fiction did bestow upon me worthy brainfood. Because they are good and merciful and love us.

In season two of the Original Series, there’s an episode called “Who Mourns for Adonis?” Brief rundown: the Enterprise gets trapped in orbit around a planet by the cheesy giant cartoon hand of an alien claiming to be the god Apollo (cue the space race reference from 1967, and any number of Stargate references). A landing party is sent to the surface to negotiate the ship’s release. This faux Apollo feeds on the adulation of lesser beings and demands that they stay and worship him in exchange for his providing them with paradise forever (cue Jitterbug Perfume reference). Furthermore, he’s very keen on having a more…intimate sort of worship from the lovely Lt. Carolyn Palamas, Enterprise’s resident historian/anthropologist/archaeologist. She falls in love with him and wants to stay on the planet (because clearly a heteronormative monogamous relationship is a better option than a successful career as a space-hopping scientist, right sixties America?). Not to spoiler anything for you, but they use her against Apollo, smash his tacky temple with phasers, and save the day, etc, etc. Because Kirk’s there, so they have to win. Obviously. You ever think that the crew on Next Generation got into so much nasty trouble because Picard never went down with a landing party? Just something to ponder for your next Kirk-versus-Picard debate.

I bring this up (and made you suffer through my hamfisted summary) because there’s a Kirktastic monologue in the middle of this episode that very well may have renewed my faith in myself as a writer about pop culture. In exactly sixty-one seconds. Impressive. And because I know almost none of you will click on that link, I’ve taken the liberty of typing out the whole motherfucker for you here. So there.

KIRK: Give me your hand. Your hand. [Lt. Palamas takes his hand.] Now feel that. Human flesh against human flesh. We’re the same. We share the same history, the same heritage, the same lives. We’re tied together beyond any untying. Man or woman, it makes no difference. We’re human. We couldn’t escape from each other even if we wanted to. That’s how you do it, Lieutenant. By remembering who and what you are. A bit of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end. The only thing that’s truly yours is the rest of humanity. That’s where our duty lies. Do you understand me?

And she does understand. Putting aside any weird sexist shit that Trek may have perpetrated in those early years, this is definitely a case of the young lady being a standup Starfleet officer and saving the asses of a bunch of guys who, frankly, didn’t stand a chance without her. Good for her, although if I deconstructed this episode to much, I’d probably find more to bitch about than to praise. Anyway, not the point. The point is that while that little snippet of wonderful might seem trite or heavy-handed (of course it’s trite and heavy-handed! It’s Star Trek!), it kind of reminded me why I love scifi. It’s not the cool aliens and the awesome ships and the fun explosions. That stuff’s all just gravy. No, I like scifi because all scifi, at its core, is about people being the best that they can possibly be. Technology, exploration, ingenuity, compassion, diplomacy, cooperation – these are some of the things that challenge us to be better people (or humanoid aliens, whatever, fine), and they’re absolutely necessary to good scifi, in some combination.

“But Vanessa, scifi is just meaningless genre entertainment and you’re dumb for thinking it’s so deep and important.”

First of all, fuck you, hypothetical critic voice from my head’s darker and more dangerous regions. You don’t get a vote here, not today. I’m well aware that it’s entertainment, yes, but it is far from meaningless. Wouldn’t it be great if we could end hunger and homelessness and eliminate greed by using replicator technology in a non-corporate-fuckery kind of way? I say we’ll be there within a couple hundred years, building on the current 3D printer. What about cell phones and tablets? Star Trek did it fifty years ago and now we carry that shit around every day. We have fucking ion drives, y’all! We could conceivably even be warp capable soon, if the government would stop funding wars instead of the space program. We just need to get our priorities straight, put people ahead of money. And if we got out there into the vasty depths, armed with science and a spirit of open-minded curiosity, maybe we’d realize we’re not alone and that would slap us into shape. We’re small, yes, but we’re not insignificant. We’re not weak. We can do so much, and we can do it better. And not just in space, you know. Disease, hunger, climate change – we just have to throw science at that shit until something works. Or diplomacy or policy change, something, any innovative idea. My point is that science fiction is a way to get into people’s heads at a formative age, inspire them to think and to learn and to solve problems, and maybe one day they’ll change the world. We just have to tell them that they can.

I know it seems like I’m getting worked up over nothing. I’ve been in a very “what’s the fucking point?” place lately. I get excited about something and immediately tell myself that it doesn’t make any difference. And that simply isn’t true. It’s not healthy. Scifi or fantasy or books or music or whatever – at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it’s important in the greater scheme of things. It’s important to me. These are the things that shape the way we all think, about the world, about art, about our relationships, about ourselves and what we stand for. What we fight for. What we teach our children to fight for.

So I’m not going to listen to that impish little voice in my head that says a thing I like is dumb or isn’t worth writing about. And I’m certainly not going to listen to that bullshit coming out of anybody else’s head, either. It has exactly zero impact on other people’s lives that I like the things I like. How is it a detriment to anyone’s existence if I squee like a silly fangirl about something they don’t enjoy? It’s not. There’s no way it could be. And while I enjoy a lively debate, I see absolutely no merit in tearing each other down over our fandoms. That’s just a waste of time. And time is short, friends. Painfully, horrifyingly short. Let’s use it to gather up the things we love, feed on them, and try to make something good that someone else can feed on. What else are we here for?

Everything old is new again…

Stephen King turned 66 this year. And while I’m aware that fifty is the new thirty, homeboy has some van-smashing-related health issues and I worry about his general well-being. So every time he releases a new book I hope with all the fangirl hopefulness I can muster that it’s good enough to be the one that he goes out on. Morbid? Perhaps, but he is a horror writer, so I feel like morbidity rather comes with the territory. Also, I had a scare a few years back when he said he was retiring after his next book. Which was Lisey’s Story. Which was about a famous writer dying. Which was tremendously uncool. Don’t do us like that, Steve! I really thought something was wrong with him.

But his new book, Doctor Sleep, was pretty great. Not earth-shattering, but solid. Definitely one that I’d be fine with if it were his last. It’s a sequel to The Shining. Brief rundown: Danny, the little boy, is a grownup now who has fallen into the loving arms of alcoholism to escape both his memories and his abilities. After spending most of his life stumbling from town to town and fuckup to fuckup he settles in a small New Hampshire village and gets sober. Almost immediately he is contacted telepathically by a young girl with a shine much stronger than his own. Problem is, a group of psychic vampires who feed on people with all sorts of abilities are hunting this girl because of the magnitude of her power. And a hearty chase ensues! With bonus psychic battle shenanigans!

I’m going to assume that for the purposes of this discussion I don’t need to remind anyone of the plot of The Shining. It’s a touchstone of American horror and we all know it, but let me be clear that the movie and the book are drastically different in a couple of ways that are important to this new book. In the novel, the hotel blew up because of a malfunctioning boiler. It adds a ticking clock element to the whole story that was missing in the movie. Also, I think Kubrick made the Overlook a character unto itself, a malevolent force whose goal was to bring out the evil it saw in Jack Torrance. He was food for the beast. But in the book, he fights against it and seems to be a genuinely good guy who’s battling things within himself rather than the hotel’s evil outside influence. Absorption of evil, rather than excretion of it, is a key plot point in Doctor Sleep. The place where the hotel used to stand is very powerful for the weird band of horrible psychic soul suckers and is an analogy for their way of life. King’s approach seems to be more autobiographical and an integral part of his intricate storytelling, whereas Kubrick’s is much simpler and more suited to his visual horror medium.

All of that aside, what I think is most interesting about Doctor Sleep is King’s portrayal of alcoholism, versus how he dealt with it in The Shining. He has a wealth of hindsight at his disposal now. While Danny is dealing with his disease in the present, the author has a very “you’ll get through this” attitude that was absent in The Shining, when King was in the throes of recovery himself. Even in the scenes with the worst bits, he seems to use more gentle language. In The Shining it was all rage and crashing consonants and jarring descriptions. This ties in, also, to Danny’s two most important relationships in the book: his AA sponsor and the young psychic girl, Abra. The AA sponsor is reminiscent of, but fundamentally different from, his earlier relationship with Dick Halloran, the old cook who taught him about his abilities in the first book. He abandoned that connection and that friend when he took up drinking full-time. He learned from those mistakes and is trying to rectify them with both of these new teacher-student relationships. And his Mr. Miagi-type teaching-the-grasshoppah-about-her-powers kind of dynamic with the kid is really very poignant, if a bit heavy handed. It’s the ninth step, in a way, for Danny and for Stephen King.

I should really stop comparing and contrasting sequels to their predecessors. It’s a bad habit. Why can’t I just enjoy a continuation of a good story? The thing about sequels is that you either love them or you hate them. What’s interesting here is how much King’s style has changed over the years. The Shining was his third novel. Doctor Sleep is his fifty-sixth. Not only does he have thirty-five years of personal growth (getting sober, raising children, almost dying, becoming a bazillionaire and an integral part of the Western literary and cultural canon), but he’s also got a whole fictional universe or three to draw on and tie into his work. And boy, does old Steve love a good inside joke. He references at least four of his own books (by my count), one of Joe Hill’s (who is his son, just FYI), and – completely randomly – an off-the-cuff reference to Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. Also, because one of the main characters is a tween girl he gives brief mention to Twilight and a bunch of other things she would be into, most of which I will admit that I’m too old to understand. The dude is a brilliant weaver of completely disparate storylines and universes. As well as a keen observer of pop culture. Badass. Genius.

So, yeah. As always, the new Stephen King is totally worth the read. And if you haven’t read The Shining, what the fuck is wrong with you? Get on it. It’s a classic. Even if you’ve seen Kubrick’s brilliant film, you should still read the book. It’s apples and oranges, for real. Oh, and, there’s a weird documentary about the movie that I recently watched. Room 237. It’s on ye olde Netflix and is great, if a little wacky and conspiracy theory-tastic. So check that out, maybe. And then mash all these things together in your brain and let them stew for a while and try to untangle them into some sort of sense-making sentence blob. You’ll end up with a blog post that makes little sense and has no cohesion whatsoever, like this one. Good times.

Making the world weirder, one click at a time.

So, I’ve been extra crazy busy for the past month, as you’re probably aware. And this is how I arrived at my current state of brain mush, what with the lack of time for books and movies and food and sleep. I decided to steal a fun trick from Chuck Wendig and Jenny Lawson and go through my blog analytics, examining what whacked-out shit gets people from their normal lives to my site. To be fair, both Lawson and Wendig’s lists are way funnier than mine. I think they have weirder fans than I. Which is really saying something. Roughly ninety-eight percent of my search terms were some variation on “where can I get a cardigan like Bernadette from Big Bang Theory?” (the short answer: fucking anywhere, seriously). But some of them were fantastic. And because I love you, I’m going to share some of my favorites. And because I’ve got brain mush and everything has to be super organized or I can’t think straight, I’ve divided them into categories. It’s really better for all of us in the long run if everyone agrees to embrace my OCD. Just cuddle the disorder. Three times. And four on Tuesdays.

Urm. Anyway. Category the first: Weird (read: brilliant!) combinations of things I’d like to see exist in real life. Let’s make these happen, people.

Jad Abumrad Piers Anthony – I see an Incarnations of Immortality Symphony in our future. There’s no possible way that would end badly.

Felicia Day Patrick Rothfuss – She simply must play Auri in the movie version of The Name of the Wind. Yes. Yes yes yes.

Kurt Cobain Ray Bradbury – Seeing as how they’re both dead (sad face), I’m going to be forced to write a short film where some guy wanders through a land of former awesome people and receives their wisdom from the other side. Damn it, one more project idea I just gave away for free.

David Foster Wallace Clive Barker – My vote? A dark and kinky Barker-ized movie version of Infinite Jest.

Star Trek John Cusack – I don’t know who he would play, but I’m sure J.J. Abrams could absolutely find a place in the next movie for a handsomely brooding Starfleet somebody with a great sense of humor and fantastic hair. Because you always need at least one of those on a spaceship, right?

Patton Oswalt Nine Inch Nails – Oswalt is so metal and so witty, I’m confident that if he wanted to make an album the industrial strains and screams of Reznor’s work would be a fitting backdrop.

Category the second: Pure hilarity. These don’t make sense, for the most part, but I love them for one reason or another.

What’s the difference between a scumfuck and a crusty? – To my understanding, scumfucks and crusties are incomparable. Apples and oranges. A scumfuck is someone who maliciously meddles in other people’s lives, or who turn any fears, needs, or shortcomings against others for their own gains. Think people who scam or rob or cheat or climb to great heights on the backs of smaller folk. Contrarily, a crusty is just a street kid, usually of a dirty punkish hitchhiker persuasion. Which is not to say that a crusty can’t be a scumfuck, obviously, but one is behavior and one is more of a fashion and/or lifestyle choice. Now you know.

Ridiculousness cardigan – I’d like to think that this is a superpower cardigan, which I could don and then all my ridiculousness would immediately become un-awkward and charming. One can dream.

Torturing the people that own our asses – For the record, I hope whoever did this search was talking about something other than actual physical harm. Because that search would just be “how to torture,” wouldn’t it? But I also hope that they found a clever and sneaky way to retaliate against whoever owns their asses, like in Office Space. Or Fight Club.

Made up holidays for old people – Because there are so many? And what does “old people” mean in this context? Old in age, like grandparents? Or old in a historical way, like George Washington? Doesn’t matter. All holidays are made up. So I guess that answers that.

Y’all know I was just fu king with y’all – I feel like this one might be an internet thing that I missed. I’ve been away. But it’s still funny that it got someone to my site, typo and all.

What does spawn mean? – Urgh. So, you googled it as a question, and then instead of clicking on anything that had the word “definition” attached to it, you somehow thought it would be more effective to come to my blog where I (completely inappropriately) refer to other people’s children as “spawn.” Let us hope you’re better at context clues and reading comprehension than you are at using search engines, my friend.

Stephen King get to the point – This one’s fair. Mr. King, while verbose, does always get to the point eventually, though. Worth it. Wait it out.

Category the third: a bit sad. These made my tummy hurt a little.

Reply back think about me – Either someone is looking for advice on relationship-related texting (in entirely the wrong place, by the way – but seriously, don’t send that text, dude), or, in what may be the best thing that ever happened on the internet, a robot is trying to figure out how to sound more human. And they turned to my blog. I win everything. The second option makes me feel less sad.

Social anxiety at comic con – I know nothing about this subject. Social anxiety, sure, but not specifically at Comic Con. And anxiety can be crippling on a normal day. I can’t imagine how bad it would be at such a gathering. I hope they found whatever advice they needed to enjoy their Con experience.

Survive broken heart overanalytical – Weirdly, this search took the searcher to my Big Bang Theory post. If your heart is broken, guys, sitcoms are not the answer! I guarantee it.

Category the fourth: The utterly inexplicable. Seriously, what the fuck?

Never poke your cousin if you can’t find your cardigan – I concur wholeheartedly with this statement. I have a lot of cousins. A lot. And one of the few solid pieces of advice I can give in this life is: don’t poke them. Not for any reason. Do not poke the cousin. Consider the possibly stolen cardigan a loss and back away slowly.

Fuck cancer in Chinese – I love that this happened. Because fuck cancer, indeed. My only hopes are that the patient survived, and that the Chinese symbols are not intended for a tattoo. Because tacky. Or retro, I suppose. Which is also tacky.

Explanation cardigans control humans blood money – This is yet another opportunity for me to jump up and down and scream about how punctuation should be allowed in search engines. Because “explanation: cardigans control humans’ blood, money” is completely different from “explanation cardigans, control humans, blood money.” Is the idea to control humans through their blood while wearing a cardigan? Or to use cardigans to control human blood for fun and profit? Or to explain political strife in countries where murder is for hire through tracking the proliferation of delightful wooly sweaters? None of these seem likely, so punctuation would be essential. I rest my case. You hear me talking, Google?

And now that most search engines are making searches anonymous, we won’t get to have fun explorations into the minds of internet users anymore. What a strange moment in time it was, right? Esoteric, true, but a good source of giggles for all of us who were here and paying attention. Like a great bar tucked away in a back alley that suddenly closes and you have that Breakfast Club experience, you know? But without the freeze-frame jumping into the sunset. Because that’s just ridiculous.

Damn you, Digital Age! I want my ice cream!

I went to the movies the other day, which is a rare and coveted treat for me, as you well know. I was so excited to see The World’s End. Like, unreasonably excited. And about fifteen minutes in, the film went negative and started to skip. It was really trippy. I thought for a second I might be having another flashback, but no! It was an actual technical difficulty. So, the lights came up and we waited for a while, and then the movie started back up. And then, ten minutes later, it happened again! (I feel like I should use extraneous exclamation points, I was so mad, but I shall restrain myself.) We waited. They fixed it. And then it happened a third time! By this point the Husband, who is the most laid-back guy you’ve ever seen, was squirming and huffing in his seat, so I knew the situation was legitimately out of hand. The little man finally came into the theater (or theatre, if you speak real English) and told us that the movie was broken, that we could get a refund or raincheck tickets or blah blah blah.

Now, I know that this is not the fault of the theater minions. I understand that shit breaks. All the time. We live in a world based on capitalism based on obsolescence. I get it. But doesn’t it seem to you like the bonus of the Digital Age is not having to sit through things like, say, for example, broken film? Shouldn’t we be past that particular inconvenience? As a species? Not scratching a dvd is a fuck of a lot easier than not damaging reels upon reels of real film, you guys. I mean, come on.

But I hold no grudge. It’s really fine. I’ll see it eventually.

I must! It’s going to be so good. The first twenty minutes (which took me an hour to watch) were great. Here’s the thing about this movie and its cohorts in the Cornetto Trilogy: I didn’t realize when Shaun of the Dead blew my face off that it would be part of a trilogy. I didn’t even realize it was a trilogy when Hot Fuzz disappointed me (but made bank at the box office). To be honest, I’m not sure that those gentlemen even realized it was a trilogy at that point. But when I finally found out that it was a trilogy? I squeed like the squeeing fangirl that I am. I couldn’t help myself.

But you get the joke, yeah? Cornetto Trilogy? Does that joke play in America? A Cornetto is a kind of ice cream. It’s like a Drumstick, Yanks. It’s also called the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy, if that helps.

Point is, it’s a trifecta of rabid mutant fandom: the zombie film, the buddy-cop film, and the creepy alien/robot film. What more do you really need? Rom-coms? Fuck ‘em. Slapstick with bonus fart jokes? I’d rather have an encounter with my friendly neighborhood gallows. Arthouse films? Yes, I love them, but the Venn Diagram of filmdom/fandom isn’t appropriate in this case. Because comedy. Arty movies are usually a downer. A useful and beautiful downer, but a downer nonetheless. Why is that?

So, I’m looking back, over the history of my admiration for Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and Edgar Wright, and I’m realizing that it’s out of order. Because I, like most Americans, fell in love with these guys because of Shaun of the Dead. It’s an incredible film. It’s a departure from both comedy and zombie movies. In the wake of things like 28 Days Later and all the Romero reboots, a zombie comedy was a delightfully fucked up breath of fresh air, a hilarious and disgusting palette cleanser that kept my head in the zombie game when I would have otherwise checked out. Of course, this is before I started writing reviews of horrible zombie films for a website which was using zombie films as a metaphor for American society as a whole (and brilliantly, I might add, winkwink, nudgenudge), and didn’t understand how bad zombie movies could really get.

There’s that, the overt and unabashed hardcore fandom. And then there’s my preexisting inexplicable soft spot for funny gingers. Where does that come from? Is it because gingers are dying out? They possess sexy comedy on a genetic level, to help them keep their numbers up? I call unfair bullshit, DNA! That’s sneaky. But effective.

Anyway. Skip ahead a few years, to when we all know and love the Pegg/Wright/Frost combo. And here I am, browsing ye olde Netflix, and what do I run across? Spaced. You may not have heard of Spaced. Because Americans have little to no appreciation for the BBC unless it’s shoved down our throats. There’s good stuff there, y’all, even if you haven’t heard of it. (See also: Jekyll, Hustle, Black Books. Check it out. You have the interwebs.) So I saw Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright and clicked the thing and watched every episode of Spaced like a horrible, couch-dwelling glutton.

Don’t judge me.

It’s hard to describe this show. I would say it’s a sitcom, but that’s not quite right. It’s comedy based on two people forced to live in a house together, with concomitant shenanigans because their lives and friends are suddenly intertwined. Fallout comedy, would be a good term? Maybe? The girl is a tortured writer played brilliantly by Jessica Hynes (I identify with her, but I’m not nearly that funny). And Simon Pegg plays a comic book artist trapped in a tangential career, working in a comic shop and bitching about the Phantom Menace to anyone who will listen (I identify with this character also, but for a whole different set of reasons). You should definitely check it out. It’s awesome, but not just because of the setup. I think American television has a whole lot of “Oh, let’s all wait and see what funny thing will happen because of this situation” going on, while British television is funny because of good writing and great characters, plot twists and cunning wordplay. Not to beat a long-dead horse of a stereotype, but they’re just smarter than we are. Sorry. Culturally speaking, anyway.

They have Monty Python! What else do you want me to say?! For fuck’s sake. I have no defense against British comedy. It’s just too good. Dry. Witty. Acerbic. I love everything about it.

Here’s the thing that’s weird about this situation, though: I was already a fan of the people involved, but because of their later work. It’s like discovering that a band you really like has an early album you’ve never heard of. It’s different. It’s nascent. They were just getting their feet under them, both as artists and writers and creators, and as a team. That’s important here. The teamwork. Because Pegg, while a brilliant comedian, is not a director. And Wright, while a ninja director, is not an actor. But together, they’re nigh unbeatable. Then you throw in Nick Frost, who is one of the most hilarious improv performers ever, and the volume just gets cranked way up because he plays off both Pegg’s and Wright’s talents. Not to mention all the other fantastic people involved. Writers, actors, crew, etc. It takes a village to make comedy gold. I guess what I’m trying to say, in my hamfisted way, is that these sorts of people are great on their own, but as part of a team they’re amazeballs. A very specific, particular, mind-blowing brand of amazeballs.

Not to change the subject and/or make everything all about me, but that group dynamic thing makes me kind of sad that I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of right now. I miss my writer’s group. I miss my friends. I miss people who get my jokes. Shit, I even miss copyediting bad term papers. I’ve put everything but the blog on hold because there’s just no way I can do this on my own. It’s sad to admit, being that every writer of my generation holds those venerable recluses of old as the highest standard. Kerouac, Bukowski, Thompson, Hemingway. Those guys didn’t need anyone to be a sounding board for them. They just sucked it up and did what they were going to do, and criticism and teamwork be damned. Also, healthy livers and mental stability be damned, too, I guess. That’s probably not a great tradeoff. Whatever.

Why can’t I do that? I don’t know. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong, but it does make me feel weak, I’ve got to tell you. But, I do what I can. Maybe it’s good enough. Maybe it’s not. I do it anyway. One day I might find a team of like-minded weirdos who can help me be my best. I hope I can do the same for them. (Which is not to discount the folks I can email or call on the phone, obviously. Because I love all those people. But I need friends in meatspace who I can drag out for a cup of coffee and hand a stack of paper and squirm while they read it right in front of me and then have a conversation about it. You see the difference? It’s an important difference.) I’ll keep you guys posted. Of course I will. What else am I going to do with my time?

Wow, I took a weird hard turn there, didn’t I? Maudlin. Sorry.

Anyway, go watch Spaced. Or Shaun of the Dead. Or The World’s End. But do not spoiler this movie for me! I’ll be so, so mad. Let’s give it a few months until we’re sure we’ve all seen it, and we’ll revisit this conversation. And while you’re at it, go read Simon Pegg’s book, Nerd Do Well. It’s a smart, hilarious, articulate read. Worth your time, for sure.

“The livin’s easy…”

I was having some blog-related writer’s block this week, you guys. We’ve been busy and I haven’t really had time to find any new, cool things to geek out on. There are a lot of political things happening that I could babble on and fucking on about, but we all know how that gets old pretty quickly. But yay for gay marriage! Ok, I’m done, I promise. So I asked Twitter what I should write about. My buddy Luther (who is also my web guru – everybody, all together now: Thanks, Luther!) tweeted: “I say you go way out in left field…baseball.” See what he did there?

And I thought, Shit, I don’t know anything about baseball. I actually kind of dislike baseball. But, turns out, so does Luther, so it doesn’t really matter. I guess I prefer my sports a little more…what? Smashy-into-each-other-y. That’s not a thing. You know what I mean. Point is, when I think of baseball, I think of summertime. Summertime in America, to be more specific. And then I realized that this post will go up on the Fourth of July. Holy shitsnacks, kids. That there’s some writertastic serendipity.

What is it about summertime that’s so wonderful? The weather? It couldn’t just be the weather. Because tornadoes. I think a lot of it has to do with the structure of our school year. Those twelve to twenty years we spend getting an education trains us to want to fuck off for three months at a time, give our brains a break. Makes sense. But most of us can’t do that once we’re done with school. When I was working at the Giant Evil Bookstore, the summer was absolute torture – kids run rampant, haggard parents, too much air conditioning, tourists everywhere. Bleh. And all I wanted to do was sit in the sun with a beer and read a good book, you know? Because I love summertime, and I felt like I was wasting it trapped in a corporate box. That’s no way to spend a summer. But what is?

When I was younger, I was a bit of a juvenile delinquent. Who would’ve guessed, right? Just a touch, just in spirit. Perhaps “rebellious” would be a better term. Or “nightmare.” I never got sent to jail or anything (well, except for that one time). Anyway, combine that rule-ignoring with my obsession with Jack Kerouac and having all summer to do whatever I wanted, and chaos ensued, my friends. Utter chaos. Several years ago, I was actually thinking about compiling and fictionalizing some of my best summer stories, changing the names to protect the innocent (or the guilty, as the case may be). I spent a whole sweaty July just writing writing writing down every story I could remember that smacked of summertime shenanigans. And then autumn came and I fell into a dark pit and gave up on it. Seasonal affective disorder can go take a flying fuck off a high, rocky cliff for not letting me write between September and November. But the fact remains that there are some things in life that can only happen in the summer. People seem more laid-back, more willing to do something they wouldn’t normally do, more adventurous, more reckless. It’s a really weird quirk of the species, but I use it to further my theory that we’re really hibernating mammals. So there.

Like, for example, have you ever hitchhiked across the country? I’m sure some of you have. In fact, I’m absolutely positive that some of you have. I was there. One can most certainly hitchhike through this great land of ours in the winter, but it seems like that would be more of an arduous slog and not so much a fun adventure, right? That’s the thing about summertime: it’s finite. It’s the Breakfast Club of seasons. I had to get back before fall because I had shit to do. Spending a couple of months just wandering, just experiencing, just absorbing, with no money and nowhere to be? Worth it. This country is like Never Never Land if you have the right mindset and the appropriate gear. Second star to the right and straight on ’til Boise, walking down the highway like Sal fucking Paradise, meeting interesting people, seeing all the weird stuff that’s on the back roads of America, loving every minute of it. I wrote some of the worst poetry in the history of mankind that summer, and the one after that, actually. Back when I still thought anyone could be a poet. But I got to see a rainbow at sunrise while it snowed in the middle of July in Montana. And that’s worth every horrible line of verse I’ve ever put to paper.

(At this point I should issue a small disclaimer: hitchhiking is dangerous. It’s cheaper than driving, but it does have its drawbacks. NEVER hitchhike alone, or pick up hitchhikers when you’re alone. Lot of psychos out there, y’all. Be aware. Protect yourself. Do NOT drink the kool-aid. For real. And pack light.)

Summer isn’t just about these little adventures, though. In the South, as soon as it starts to stay warm all night we call it porch-sitting weather. Some of the best times of my life have been just sitting in a chair, chatting and sweating all night long on someone’s back deck, usually while somebody murders a bad song on an out-of-tune guitar (it’s the humidity, seems like every guitar is out of tune in the South in the summer). Or when the small neighborhood bars open up their patios after a long winter of drinking indoors. Man, that’s the best. Here in Northern California it gets cold at night year-round. I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around needing to carry a sweater every single day. It’s not right, I say! When I went to visit my mom a couple of years ago it was ninety-five degrees at her house at midnight. She had to drag me inside and make me go to bed. I miss that. Porch-sitting. I really do.

Oh, and the Fourth of July. My favorite holiday (also my baby sister’s birthday – everybody, all together now: happy birthday!). It’s like the outdoor version of Thanksgiving, but with explosives. That’s another thing I miss here in Cali. It’s forest fire season, so fireworks are absolutely verboten. But I used to love blowing shit up. (Juvenile delinquent, what? Pyromania, who?) Hot dogs and beer and sticky little kids running around screaming their fool heads off and spiked watermelons plus bonus explosions. What more could you ask for? What’s more American than that? I mean, I guess hot dogs are technically German, but whatever. And fireworks are Chinese. Who cares? That’s not the point. Melting pot, guys, melting pot. Standing barefoot in the grass, watching my idiot friends shoot roman candles at passing cars, belly full of recombined meat food product. Damn, that’s about as summertime as it gets, right?

Anyway. I suppose I’m just musing. This post is not very goal-oriented. That’s fine. It’s a holiday. I can muse and ramble all I want. Maybe one of these days I’ll drag out all those old stories, though, and start working on them again. There’s hope for them still. Because everyone knows those rooftop of summer moments. There’s just something about them. It’s intangible but unmistakable. Something in the air. Possibility, maybe. On a hot summer night anything can happen. Love, madness, bad poetry, cool breezes, fireworks. Even baseball. Anything at all.

Patton Oswalt, I hate your tiny little guts.

Okay, that was mean. I’m sure his guts are normal-sized. Sorry.

But goddamn it! He’s just too fucking funny. It ain’t right. I’ve got angst.

Oswalt’s been all over the interwebs lately. First with this piece he wrote about the Boston bombings, and then with this little nugget of awesome. Yeah, that’s right. It is a nine-minute improv performance about combining the Star Wars and Marvel universes into one uber-movie. (Since they’re both owned by Disney now, it would be totally possible. And amazing. Let us all hope that J.J. Abrams takes note.) Oswalt’s done a ton of weird little parts. You may not know you’ve seen his stuff, but you probably have. I recently saw him in Young Adult and I think he was the heart and soul of that movie, even if he wasn’t in it that much. I think I first heard of him when I watched The Comedians of Comedy. Bunch of brilliant, crazy weirdos, those people. Love it.

Anyway, I just read Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt’s book. Mind. Blown. I knew he was funny on stage and great on screen. This book, though, is a whole different kind of funny. I really like the way he uses a bunch of different formats: essays, poetry, scripty bits, comics, greeting cards, and (probably my favorite) a wine list. Even the list of “other books by this author” at the beginning is a joke, and a good one. He doesn’t just play around with format or genre, he plays to them, uses their tropes and conventions, which makes everything even funnier.

One thing Oswalt talks about in great detail is the intricacy of surviving nerdism in the 1980s. He’s about the same age as my sister, who is *mumblemumble* years older than me, and through whom I lived an early, vicarious teenagerhood. Bitch made me watch all the Freddy/Jason slasher-type movies and listen to Metallica when I was six, is what I’m trying to say here. It’s probably why I’m so twitchy. And so delightful. Anyway, point is, I get a lot of the references in Oswalt’s book, but there’s definitely a little bit of a generation gap as far as group enjoyment or cultural appreciation of those things goes. My generation didn’t get that stuff when it was new and being hyped in the media, so we had to discover it later on our own. Much like we did with Star Wars or Led Zeppelin or chat rooms. His R.E.M. experience was my Nine Inch Nails experience. Either way, there are so many references to books and music and movies here that I’m going to be busy for quite a while looking them all up. Good times.

The book is simultaneously memoir and pop culture commentary. It’s interesting, and very well done. He talks a lot about being a nerd and nerdy stuff, but all that stuff? That’s life stuff. Those books and movies and games and people made him what he is. It’s all inseparable, it’s all one thing. Seamless. And where he could have gotten angsty or whiny about it, instead he seems to really value all that stuff, all those experiences, and it comes across as pure enthusiasm. It’s pretty touching. His putting a positive spin on these potentially bottom-of-the-barrel moments is fucking impressive. “At least I learned something” or “It made me want something better” or “It could’ve been worse, so I wrote a script about the worst possible scenario and made a ton of money.” Dude’s an inspiration, whether that was his intention or not.

And it makes me raging jealous.

I was talking to a friend the other night and she said something about how what I write on my blog makes me seem like I’m just this one thing. Like it’s a character I’m doing or that I’m cherry-picking aspects of my personality to show here. And to a point, that’s true. Mostly for the sake of the writing. Picking a nerdy pop culture thing to talk about and then expanding that conversation into a bigger idea gives me something to nail the bigger idea to. It gives me an in, a reason. Maybe that makes me a hack or whatever, but it also keeps me reined in so I don’t go off all half-cocked about every little thing. Could I talk about non-geek stuff here? Well yeah, it’s my space. But I think putting bigger issues into the context of these small cultural things makes both more interesting, doesn’t it? All art is just a reflection of the culture that created the people who made the art, and then that art becomes a part of the culture, so the people change and grow, and then we get new and exciting art. It’s a vicious, beautiful cycle.

Sure, I could wax philosophical about something else. I find a lot of things interesting. Politics, religion, gender issues, economics, abandoned mental hospitals, etc, etc. Could I talk about, say, the war or socialized health care or right-wing theocracy on the blog? I could. It would probably be boring. Whereas if I put it sideways, tell it slant, maybe slip it into an analysis of dystopianism via scifi or horror, you’ll already be paying attention and when I get boring and ranty, perhaps you won’t notice quite so quickly. But I guess assuming that I have to have some nerd bait to lure you in to my discussion trap is pretty shitty of me. It underestimates you as an audience, so I’m sorry if it seems like I do that. I should be able to just go off about whatever for no reason, even if it is boring. And if you don’t like it, it’s only a thousand words. You can click away and come back next week. It’ll be ok. No hard feelings.

Meanwhile, if you have a single comedy-loving bone in your body, check out Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. It’s incredible. And if you don’t know Patton Oswalt’s standup stuff, you should watch My Weakness is Strong! or No Reason to Complain. He’s a genius. An itty bitty genius. Damn it.

Scalzi vs The Bigots: Round One

I’m going to do something now which totally surprises even me: I’m going to recommend an author whose work I’ve never read. Gasp! He’s on my List. I fully intend to read his stuff. Stay tuned. I’ll keep you posted. Fret not. Meanwhile, go read John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever. I kept seeing his name pop up in other writers’ blogs. And his book Redshirts was a giant meganerdy bestseller. So I checked him out and he is awesome. Mostly because he’s brutally honest about pretty much anything. His work, his friends, raising a teenage daughter, politics, religion, the business of writing, ukuleles, and probably most importantly, churros.

Unfortunately, in the world we live in, being honest about things that matter, out loud, on the interwebs, with a huge steady following, means that you’re going to have haters. Fact of life in the Digital Age, and something we’re going to have to deal with until the end of time. (Should I be capitalizing those words? Digital Age? I don’t know. Imma do it anyway.) And thus we arrive at the Scalzi-centric kerfluffle, which I find simply compelling. The opponents: in this corner, wearing the red shirt of brutally honest nerdy writerdom – John Scalzi. In the opposing corner, wearing the icky grey robes of hateful trolliness – the Racist Sexist Homophobic Dipshit (hereafter referred to as the RSHD).

A while ago, the RSHD and his gaggle of mindless followers started making trolly comments on Scalzi’s blog and on the RSHD’s own website. Busy as he is, Scalzi still moderates all his own blog comments. Admirable. (On a related note, why don’t y’all comment more on my blog? I know you’ve got shit to say. Quit keeping it all bottled up inside. It’s bad for your liver.) So he started using “the kitten setting” on those comments, a practice which I adore adore adore. Formerly known as the Mallet of Loving Correction, the kitten setting is when a troll’s comment is edited to reflect a more fuzzy unicorns and puppies and sparkly rainbows sort of outlook. All the hatey things directed at Scalzi are turned into heartfelt expressions of the RSHD’s schoolboy mancrush on him. Feels like a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. Lots of fluffy bunnies. Takes the teeth right out of those comments, takes away their power. It’s fucking awesome. But, understandably, it further agitates the trolls.

Finally reaching his breaking point, Scalzi decided to put his money where the RSHD’s mouth is. Every time the RSHD does his asshat thing in 2013, he (Scalzi) is going to put five bucks in a jar, up to $1,000, giving the RSHD two hundred opportunities this year to say something hateful. And at the end of the year he’s going to donate it all to RAINN, Emily’s List, the Human Rights Campaign, and the NAACP, in loving support of everything the RSHD hates.

Brilliant!

But wait, there’s more. Scalzi’s fans started asking if they could get in on the action. Not wanting to take anyone’s money up front (in case the RSHD cools down and shuts up – unlikely), he set up a pledge system: the Counteract a Bigot Drive. At the end of the year, all the RSHD activity will be tallied and quantified into money dollar terms, and everyone sends their donations all at once. Here’s the breathtaking bit: the pledges rose to $60,000 in two days. That is a lot of anti-hater money. I don’t think I can say “fucking awesome” too often about this whole thing. It’s just…accurate.

Good on you, Scalzi and fans. Good. On. You. Many heartfelt hugs and thanks.

Besides being inarguably badass, here’s what interests me about this story. I’m wondering why it seems that nerds are, by and large, really, really nice. From my perspective, the occurrence of assholery appears to be generally lower among the geekier slices of the American cultural pie chart. For the purposes of this discussion, I will stipulate to the fact that I may have built myself a bubble of liberal, accepting, open-minded, lovely people. If I hadn’t I probably would’ve punched many a bigoted motherfucker in the mouth by now. Thanks, friends, for being decent humans. Also, I’m from an infected pocket of the world where people who appear otherwise normal throw around racist/sexist/homophobic terminology as readily as they do Nascar references. My nerdly homies who rescued me from high school suicidal tendencies were never like that, nor were the people that I later gravitated toward. All these people somehow or another reinforced in me the non-judgmental mindset that my parents engendered very early. Because they’re awesome friends and awesome parents. It’s really hard for me to be objective here, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, the easy answer is that nerds are nice because we got made fun of as kids or are lonely people or have the deck of mainstream media stacked against us. I take it for granted that that’s the case. However, I think the more interesting variable here might be the influence of science fiction and fantasy. For example, look at Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry populated the Original Series cast with people of every color and creed to make the point that in the future we’re all one. We’re all Terrans, and nothing else matters. In the mid-1960′s, that was a bold anti-racist statement, even if it was couched in such ridiculousness as Captain Kirk getting the hots for the green Orion slave girl. Hamfisted, perhaps, but important. Similarly, I recently heard Kevin Smith say that the X-Men comics are one big metaphor for homosexuality. I’d never made the connection myself, but it does make some degree of sense. You have this secret that could get you socially ostracized and you keep it quiet until you can’t anymore and then you come out of the mutant closet? Yep. That tracks. And while sexism is a hotly debated topic, still, among scifi/fantasy fans, I think there are more positive female role models in those pop culture areas than in others. I’ll take Princess Leia or Jean Grey or Trinity over Paris Hilton or Snooki any day of the fucking week (my burning hatred for reality tv obviously provides serious bias on this particular point).

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for prejudice in scifi or fantasy, though. It’s often in a futuristic setting where the social mores are so different from our own as to be unrecognizable (ie, The Handmaid’s Tale). Or, contrarily, there some sort of uber evil that must be defeated by disparate groups coming together against a common enemy (Hobbits and Elves and Dwarves vs the Orcs of Sauron). Consider, too, that our opinions of scifi and fantasy change drastically as we move along our own cultural timeline. I’m fine with Kirk boffing space tramps in every color of the rainbow, but I still get weirded out when Quark makes out with that Cardassian chick in DS9. Why is that weird? I don’t know. This whole thing might be a chicken-or-egg situation, though. Does scifi/fantasy make us nicer because it illustrates and exposes us to a prejudice-less worldview? Or are we nice because of environment and circumstance, and when we get a chance to make stuff we want to show the milieu that we would ideally create for ourselves?

I’d like to find a way to examine these questions with hard science, instead of just spewing my watered-down opinions at you. But it seems like there would be too many variables. Someone should at least try to do a study. Maybe I should take my anthropologist buddy to Comic-Con and set her loose.

No, that won’t work. Comic-Con tickets sold out last week. Also, bonus, she’d kill me dead. One can still dream.

Meanwhile, in the real world, we can all show the Racist Sexist Homophobic Dipshit how we roll, nerds and non-nerds alike, by pledging to the Counteract a Bigot Drive here. And if you’re a fan of scifi or social commentary, you should definitely check out Scalzi’s blog at whatever.scalzi.com.

The Unreliable Narrator

I was sitting in my chair, trying to figure out what to write for this week’s blog, staring blankly in the general direction of my stack of books (because my bookshelves are full – again), and my eyeballs focused on them without warning. I was somewhat surprised to notice that I’ve been reading a ton of biographies and memoirs lately. I’m not sure why that’s happening. Maybe it’s because I’ve been given a lot of books as gifts recently, or because I haven’t been around very many people, or just because my brain needed a break from fiction. That does happen from time to time, but usually I tend to swing toward weird history books or books about language or psychology, and I’ll read one or two and then dive straight back into the warm, comforting waters of scifi and fantasy. The nonfiction kick has happened before, but it always had some other accompanying obsession, you know? The books were a symptom of a bigger phase: the Beats, mental hospitals, heroin, punk rock, Buddhist monks, serial killers, teratology, 19th century circuses.

Hmm. There’s a weird pattern there. I don’t really want to examine that.

Moving on.

This biography thing is odd. And so sudden. Here’s my question: why are other people so interesting? I mean, I understand that people with interesting stories to tell should get book deals. That’s not what I’m saying. No, what I’m asking about is our fascination, as readers, with other people’s lives. Is it just voyeurism? Could it be that simple? Or, the more interesting possibility: do we turn real people into characters? Do we separate ourselves from them, through reading their stories, enough to convince ourselves that they’re not real, at least until the book is over? Do we make them seem like fiction, somehow, by tricking our brains with books?

It’s not just books, though. This is the same thing I wonder about reality television shows (which I firmly believe are the used band-aids of Satan and will destroy us as a culture). Obviously those shows are heavily edited and the people on them are poked and prodded by producers constantly. Which results in them becoming caricatures of themselves, right? The things that make them interesting aren’t the majority of the things that make them up as people, or even of the things that make up their day. No one’s going to read a biography about a normal guy doing normal stuff. But if you take out all the normal bits and stack all the weirdnesses on top of each other in a big 22-minute freakshow or 200-page pile, it becomes fascinating, doesn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me. This kind of over-analytical thinking may not be a problem that other people have. Could be I’m just wired in a strange way. Often I’m blind to my own quirkiness and assume that the things I do all the time are standard operating procedure for other humans. Like eating my cereal with a fork or insisting that there will always be a right and left sock in every pair. I swear, there’s logic there, even if it’s hard to explain. So when I tell you this stuff what I don’t want you to hear is that I have a hard time separating fact from fiction, real folks from characters. And I certainly don’t want you to jump to some extreme conclusion like “she’s delusional.” I’m not. I’ve been through all the appropriate tests.

When I was a kid we traveled a lot. Like, a lot. And I was a little twitchy, being precocious and bored, so my dad used to calm me down by having me tell him stories. Eventually it turned into a game, one only I could win. In the airport or the train station: “What about that lady in the red coat?” In the bar or a restaurant: “What’s the deal with that couple over there?” Sometimes it was more specific: “That guy in the hat is a spy, right?” And sometimes it was nothing at all: “What do you think the wind does when it’s not here?” So, to me, everyone’s a character, every moment is story fodder, a scene waiting for someone to notice it. It’s just operant conditioning. Edward Hopper, the artist, once said that he only painted lonely people. But you can’t assume that they were all lonely all the time. It was just that moment. One he took advantage of.

As I grew up and decided I wanted to write, I became a compulsive people-watcher and eavesdropper. I’d hang out in coffee shops and go eat dinner by myself just to write stories about the conversations I’d hear and the people I saw. This has also given me a hypersensitivity to detail. I call it “the cop eye.” You can tell so much about a person without ever having to hear them speak. Left- or right-handedness, type of shoes, what they keep on the table versus what they keep in their pocket or bag, the book they’re reading, mannerisms, tattoos, tics – all of these tell you something about that person, something beyond the thing itself. All that stuff? That’s story stuff.

I sometimes think about what future archaeologists will make of our history, of our stories. Who will be our primitive gods? Oprah? Bill Gates? Hitler? Queen Elizabeth? But right now they’re just people. And so is the lady in the red coat. Maybe that’s why I’ve been reading so many biographies. To get at those odd pieces of seemingly normal people. To dig them out. To see what makes them interesting. I’m sure this phase will be over soon. It doesn’t make for good blog writing. Although a few of them might be up your nerd alley. Some recommendations:

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Jenny Lawson (she’s my blogging hero)
Nerd Do Well – Simon Pegg (because he’s a true fanboy, and freakin’ adorable)
Just a Geek – Wil Wheaton (actor-turned-writer-turned actor again)
Magical Thinking – Augusten Burroughs (also check out Running With Scissors for utter familial madness)
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris (always hilarious)
The Age of Wonder – Richard Holmes (not really a biography, but has lengthy biographical bits about lots of amazing 17th century scientists who are way more interesting than you’d think they would be)

Check them out. Let me know what you think. And sorry this post is kind of rambly and crazypants and all over the place. I’m still not operating at 100%. But I’m not delusional! I swear. And I promise that none of you will end up in a story without your express permission. Probably. The odds are in your favor.

Writery thoughts

The weirdest thing happened to me this week, you guys. I wrote a short story.

Ish. Kindasorta.

I wrote a first draft of a thing. It wants to be a short story.

What’s weird about it is that I haven’t written any new fiction in almost two years. It’s a little daunting. I fiddled about quite a bit with my novel until the whole Doctor Who thing happened and took the wind out of my sails. But new stuff? There’s been nothing for quite some time. And that’s terrifying.

Oddly, what’s even more terrifying is looking at this new thing and thinking that it might be awful. What a fun quirk of the writer’s brain that is. And I wasn’t weirded out by the story at all, at first. What hit the panic button was asking someone to read it. The second I did that, I lost all momentum. The observation of the thing changed the creation of the thing. Heisenberg’s uncertainty short story. Or something like that.

And that’s really why I’m bringing it up now. Every week I spout some verbose nonsense and put it up here in blogland, where it is habitually read by fives and tens of people. That doesn’t make me nervous at all. Because these things I say are opinions, things that I can defend, things that are (usually) based on some objectify-able outside influence which you can absorb into your own satellite system of nerdiness, or not, at your will. My opinion doesn’t change your experience of a thing.

But when it’s something that I’ve created? Out of thin air? Out of my own tortured little brain? The thought of someone telling me it’s horrible? That actually hurts. I suppose it’s that juxtaposition of feely things that bothers me. I want to write but I don’t want to be harshly judged. But I write every week and throw it out into the interwebs for summary judgment. What hypocritical bullshit is that?

“Well, suck it up, furball. Criticism is an intrinsic part of art.”

Yes, yes, I know. If I want to be a writer (a fiction writer, an author, not just a small-time blogger) I need a thicker skin. And the only way to get a thicker skin is with scar tissue, I guess. Take the hit. The hit is necessary.

But taking the hit fucking suuuucks, man.

Why are they so different? Writing fiction and blogging? I’d like to ask a professional brain-poker about that. Am I using some other part of me to write fiction? That moment when I get a little seed of an idea, an image or a line, and I feel like I’ve got to feed it so it will go the hell away, that’s an amazing moment. Those are the moments that artists live for. Inspiration. And then, after you feed the idea and it grows into a thing and you work on it and polish it and make it pretty and it’s done? That’s amazing, too. I feel like it’s worth the fear. Isn’t it? I just think it’s interesting how nonchalant I am about the blogging and then the fiction writing gives me the creeping horrors.

Here’s the bottom line: I don’t know what else to do. If I’m not a writer, I don’t know why I’m here. Maybe I’m doing the wrong kind of writing. I’ll grant you that. But I had kind of a weird childhood and was trained from a very young age to value the written word, to take shelter in escapism, and that storytelling is one of the most important things that people can ever do. Fuck thumbs, stories are what make us human. And this fear, when it pops up, makes me question that. Makes me question my purpose on this planet.

I had a conversation with a very dear friend the other night. She’s nervous about applying to grad school, questioning herself a little. And I told her that she’s not allowed to quit until she tries. Being a failure is more noble than being a quitter. Being a failure means that you have gained the knowledge that you can’t do something. Being a quitter means that you’re ok with never having learned whether you can do something or not. And that’s cowardly. So she and I had this chat (and she’s still applying, hooray!) and then two or four beers later I was telling her about the new short story and the reader fear I have about it. All this existential questioning. And I realized that we were having the same conversation again, only backwards. And more slurring was involved. So what’s the difference? There is no difference. I just have to suck it up and be a big girl and do the thing I’m scared of. And that’s that.

So what have we learned? Probably not much. But I’m going to go ahead and give you fair warning: once I’ve gone through another couple of drafts of this story I’m going to post it on the blog. This may not be the right forum for my goofy fiction, but I’m comfortable here and I trust you guys. (Thanks for that, by the way. I owe you all a big fat lot of hugs and high fives.) And if I say I’ll post it, I have to. Hopefully that will take the fear away and make it just a plain old blog deadline. We’ll see how it goes.

Oh, and sorry for getting all deep and heady on you. Watch this and it’ll lighten your mood.