It’s Not Funny Anymore

One of the inevitabilities of living in New York City and being from New York is that someone you know will go into standup comedy. Or improv, which is arguably worse these days as ac cultural movement because it’s a mutation of that dreaded species, the “theater kid”. You’ll run into college kids working on the street to give away promotional tickets to comedy clubs as a job (a thankless-looking one that plagued the streets when I was in college wandering around…I almost maybe fought one once but that’s another story), you’ll be reminded of Jerry Seinfeld, of Saturday Night Live, of UCB, all that. Earnest-looking guys writing about or talking about their witty observations of life around them, about their overbearing or long-suffering girlfriends, about their exploits, all that.

And it’s a shame to be exposed to it, because most of it sucks.

I…do not like standup. Pretty much at all.

The last time I went to a standup comedy show was the only time, and it was to watch comedian and actor Rob Delaney perform (he was great). He was great in particular because he didn’t rely on what even back in like 2011 was getting to be hack material, sexism and tryhard-edginess, the sort of stuff that the late 90’s/early 2000’s had used as material for comedy (it seemed like to me thanks to cable TV finally) as some sort of evolution of standup after the counterculture approach to it of the 1980’s blew up in a big way.

But I don’t like standup. Going onto my Netflix account (because I no longer have cable TV), I’m inundated with it, specials and routines from people who more and more either aren’t funny or all look and sound the same.

It’s 100% a personal thing. I just can’t stand new guard, old guard, listening to someone feign modesty and plumb self-deprecation to create this facade of incompetence and immaturity, an approach to comedy and storytelling that a lot of male comedians seem to use, is pretty boring. Female comedians can be better, but there is still this huge divide, a chasm in my head between “people who think they’re funny but shy away from admitting it as an act to seem humble” and “this person is funny” in my mind.

The only exception I made to this rule for a long time was Nick Offerman and his “standup special” AMERICAN HAM, mostly because it wasn’t presented as one normally might do standup comedy, more a dry-wit experience (something that I think a lot of people try but can’t do right, instead falling into sarcasm, which isn’t the same thing). I’ve written about my love of Offerman before, but how he framed his show (and now knowing he didn’t come from a standup or improv background initially) made it feel not like someone was trying to make me laugh, which I appreciated.

Then also last year \ we watched BABY COBRA, a standup special by Ali Wong, who also had another show this year called HARD KNOCK WIFE, both of which were amazing. Wong presents herself not as a self-deprecating or emotionally-stunted person stumbling through life. She’s fucking ferocious, and openly unapologetic about that rage and wit and I fucking love it. Again, there was no attempt to mask or apologize for any sort of perceived or pre-sculpted artificial awkwardness, simply a desire to talk and express ugly emotions.

The idea of being emotional and of that emotion not being expressed in any sort of elegant or “beautiful” way is so weird and new and raw, when we experience it, it’s so off-putting. We expect to call emotional honesty “refreshing,” but in reality, actual emotional vulnerability is ugly-crying. It should make us feel a little uncomfortable in just how much a person is trusting us to see this very not-pretty and hypersensitive interior part of themselves. It’s a series of anxiety attacks that feel like micro-strokes in your brain that lead to a petty reason to self-sabotage.

It’s something that is thoroughly lacking in a South Park-inspired comedy field, where dumb nastiness passes as criticism and no one really thinks about just how bad that makes us look, how it makes us look at and think about other people as fodder. Because that’s what it does, it makes us look at other people as fodder, suckers, marks, material. We devalue our relationships in that way, the far other end of the relationship spectrum, opposite over-romanticizing.

The reason I’m trying to find a way to vocalize all of this is because we watched Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix standup special NANETTE, and it’s breathtakingly-amazing in showcasing her ability to tell stories and compose a long cohesive narrative that at first, really appears to just be random threads of thought. Those threads ended up becoming a serious look at telling jokes and using joke-telling to deal with personal issues and how that can actually be a deeply broken thing. I don’t want to “spoil” the whole thing for you per se, so I won’t go any further, but it’s a really unique take on and criticism of standup and the culture of standup and comedy overall. How Gadsby expresses all of this is so great, because she manages, through her own traumas and her real fears and rages, to convey it so eloquently that the way we treat trauma and cynicism as fuel for humor is not necessarily that good for us in the long run.

When I started college, Cartoon Network launched their [adult swim] block for the first time, and I loved it. At one point,t hey needed up getting the syndication rights to a Simpsons-esque “adult humor” cartoon called Family Guy, and boy did they run with it. The shift since then, which coincides with South Park and a dozen other shitty sarcastic empathy-killing pop culture bits, is a huge part of why I just don’t care, why I think people who latch onto these sorts of humor outlets are annoying, and why I’m OK saying that most comedy and standup is just bad. It’s not boundary-pushing or groundbreaking, it’s just mean and dumb and tells me more about how lazy you are as a storyteller and an emotionally-honest person.

I do like NANETTE though. I think public performance and storytelling could learn a lot from it, and hopefully it does. I’m sick of sarcasm having a higher social currency than empathy, and I’m glad I stopped giving a shit about how ugly and dumb I look and feel trying to express deep emotions and fears. I think we all should.

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With The Means At Hand

So I’m starting a new nonfiction writing project, “The Means At Hand.” It’s a web publication/blog, a conversation about the definitions, roles, rules, inspirations, and impacts that mystery/crime, noir, and detective fiction (all the same but also different, something we’ll be touching on actually) have had and continue to have as both a popular but historically-maligned literary genre.

I love “genre fiction” and thinking about most of my best nonfiction writing, it’s about the impact that it’s had on me and how important those genres (crime, mystery, horror, fantasy, sci-fi) and I want to be able to keep continuing to make the conversations around different genres that basically get shit on historically grow.

One of the (hopefully?!) best parts of it is that I’ll be opening up the site to submissions by others as well as my own writing, so if you’ve got anything related to what you see on the site, be sure to dust it off or finish it up.

There’s not much but I do have a welcome post up, and the CONTACT and SUBMISSIONS pages are up as well, so do me a favor, be cool, and check out themeansathand.com and stay tuned.

Disintegration

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We finally got around to watching Annihilation (2018), and holy shit.

In the same vein of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, both of which I really loved, I can 100% see why people struggled with this film and that it struggled (apparently) to find some kind of conventional sci-fi Hollywood release. It’s vague, it lacks a cohesive struggle or conflict that can be easily described or laid out, and the ending is such a non-ending that it ultimately leaves you sitting there actively wondering what you watched.

I absolutely loved it, mostly because it actively works against these demands of cohesiveness that gets places on horror, fantasy, and science-fiction rather than accepting the power of these genres. In this sense, Annihilation is probably a more “pure” science fiction film than say, The Cloverfield Paradox (the only sci-fi movie I could find that came out in 2018, gimme a break, I know it was awful).

Because I end up tying so much back to it constantly, I feel odd making the comparison again, but the nature of “the Shimmer” in Annihilation and the realization of other-ness and very non-humanness attached to its presence reminds me a lot of the AI’s Neuromancer and Wintermute in William Gibson’s book Neuromancer, one of my favorite novels of all time. In the book, there’s a specific notice about how despite our ideas on how an artificial intelligence is “alive” like a person, they are very much not people, both in a literal but also existential sense. It’s exceedingly difficult in Neuromancer (as well as the follow-ups Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) to talk and get anything out of an AI, and not because they’re purposely-obtuse or malevolent. Rather, their senses of existence and drive and desire are so radically different from our own that they (ironically, drawing that line right to Annihilation) are almost alien to humanity. Mona Lisa Overdrive ends with these new AI-born lifeforms finally finding someone like them…in freaking outer space.

Ultimately Annihilation‘s underlying these is that time and life and the world move on without us, marching forward for better or worse, but marching forward regardless. Often too, that forward movement really has no care for, or even awareness of, us as human beings, which firmly puts it into the category of existential dread that permeates horror as much (if not arguably moreso) as sci-fi. Annihilation (which from what I understand actually deviates quite a bit from the novel its based on) covers both the small personal forward movement of mourning death as well as directly connecting it to the larger forward movement of recognizing that humanity is in fact not the central tenet of anything on Earth.

Anyway…

Like I said, I can see how this is not a science-fiction story that people would want to see in film, despite how incredibly beautiful and dreamlike the film is, how amazingly-well done the sound is, and how the surrealness of the visuals matched the minimalistic surrealness of the story, where so much is about interpretation and acceptance of non-linear storytelling. In a way, it’s more like an experience than a story to follow, which is great and works like literature, creating an experience for the reader to immerse themselves in and come out of with interpretations of their own. The codification of so much of lore and information dumped through exposition into genre storytelling is almost completely absent here, and I feel like more storytelling should take those risks.

In a similar fashion, I just finished reading RS Belcher’s book Brotherhood of the Wheel, a library find. It’s kind of boilerplate “urban fantasy/horror,” drawing on a lot various classic folklore, religion, myth, and urban legends in building its world and story. 52362052Basically, the Knights Templar didn’t found the Illuminati, but rather a variety of other smaller fraternities in the wake of its death, including “the Brethren,” a collection of truckers, bikers, and other perpetually-traveling ne’er-do-wells who protect travelers on highways and interstates from both human and supernatural threats.

There are some weak points that made me cringe, but overall it was a fun read and I felt like it had a lot of interesting points. One of them is something that I actually saw in a review of the book (I think it was the Kirkus write-up on the book but I can’t remember) about how the book’s “mythos” required on a lot of slap-dash mushing of pagan and proto-Christian beliefs and theology alongside modern Internet-based urban legends and classic horror movie monsters.

And yet, that honestly is something I actually really loved about it, that so much of what we consider concrete “lores” were just interwoven and loosely-defined ideas that were more than capable of adapting to the modern world (and to the needs of the story). In the same way, there’s a few bits of dialogue in the Steve Niles (and various artists) supernatural horror/mystery comic Criminal Macabre, featuring semi-supernatural PI Cal McDonald. Cal comments on how so much of what people think about when it comes to vampires, werewolves, etc. is just junk built up by movies, disinformation, rumor, and human desire for some sense of order. In a way it’s a writing loophole to justify the story using lots of guns and explosives to kill vampires and werewolves and ghouls and goblins, but it also highlights (and makes fun of) the ridiculousness of lore and a reliance on it.

I love lore and the depths to which some of it can go when it comes to creating amazing fantasy worlds, but honestly, it can bog down a story, and the complications of assuming that a story will have an understandable lore is the root of so much misreading and misunderstanding of fiction. It ended up tainting people’s expectations in regards to Annihilation and I think it’s overall a problem that taints people’s reading and watching experiences.

There’s no real solution here, because this is basically the end-result of so much (fan culture, fan entitlement, a degradation of critical reading and writing as acceptable and easy things to take it, disingenuous “takes” being take seriously rather than laughed at, etc) and it’s incredibly hard to get through a lot of it. Like the Shimmer and the Road though, it might just be about accepting that some things can never fully be controlled, because they don’t exist to be controlled. Things exist simply to exist, with out without what you think.

“Oh, uh, you’ll still be here when I get out?”

This past weekend we had a three-year memorial for the passing of my grandfather on my dad’s side, which to Greeks and Greek-Americans basically means getting the priest to mention their name during the Sunday service. Greek Orthodoxy, the faith I grew up in, is probably best-defined by the wild sliding between Old Testament fundamentalism and real-world lackadaisical enforcement of the tenants.

As a surly teenager visiting Greek churches outside of the big modern-looking US ones, I was pleasantly-surprised to discover I didn’t actually have to go inside, because so many of them are so small and cramped and old that only the hardcore followers and the priests tend to fit inside. Most people just gather outside to talk shit and smoke cigarettes before the “end,” when the clergymen come out to do the final blessings or whatever with the incense.

Look, our version of Sunday school was a long time ago, alright? There’s incense and that’s all I can tell you. Men wear robes and hats and everything smells like an old person’s home.

Anyway it was, to be perfectly honest, boring and sorta pointless, but we indulged my grandmother in wanting to do it. Of all the oddball Greek names, this parish’s priest never pronounces ours right, and I’m fairly certain at the viewing we had for the old man he forgot my grandfather’s name. It’s boring, it’s tedious, and honestly the only thing that kept me going was the promise of grilling some meat and eating some pecan pie afterwords.

That’s how I always prefer to think of and commemorate my grandfather, to be honest. He wasn’t a churchgoing guy, mostly using it as the social event it actually was for Greek men of a certain age and time. He played cards and watched movies and documentaries, he ate food and enjoyed it.

I joke that I’ve been hit in the head a lot to justify my shitty memory, but…it’s just shitty. And when it’s shitty, it makes me feel like maybe just the mannerisms and the habits are all that I’m going to have from him, because when I was a little kid my paternal grandfather terrified me. He was loud and bellowed, he seemed like he was always picking on me (I was just, in hindsight, being an obnoxious and sensitive child who was too smart for his own fucking good), and I was unsure about what he wanted. My grandma doted on me and my baby brother though, especially me. Being the first grandchild, the first boy, and named after the old man himself has its perks. But my grandfather? I didn’t want to play cards or watch old movies with him (the card-playing did happen later on though, but that’s another thing), so we didn’t really have much in common.

There are a few things that I always remember about him, though. My brother and I would get dumped at my grandparents’ on Friday night or Saturday morning by my parents and we’d watch movies on TV, camp out in a “tent” made with sheets and old sleeping bags from the 70’s and the ironing board. My dad’s brother lived with my grandparents then, and he’d let us (mostly me) read from his sacred stash of old 70’s and 80’s comic books, the horde we ended up inheriting years later. We’d eat a fuckton of candy and cookies, and in the morning my grandma would make us breakfast while we watched cartoons and ate in front of the TV.

Some mornings though, my grandfather would be roused out of bed and take his weird grandsons to the holiest of holies, an actual church, the International House of Pancakes, one that’s still there, one that I don’t think has been updated that much since it first opened. It’s big, it always smelled of steam and coffee and slightly stale bread. We’d sometimes go on Sunday mornings instead of Saturday morning and the post-Church crowd meant a long wait, but oh man, it was where I first got to try blackened bacon and big pancakes (not the silver dollars my dad made at home), where we could sip some of his coffee instead of have a glass of milk.

Those trips on weekends to IHOP when we were kids were, now that I think about it, my fist exposure to diners in some sort of weird roundabout way. If you think about it, everything about an IHOP is basically an elevated diner experience, including the fact that some branches are open 24/7 and even places in the US that have never had a real diner can have a Perkins, which is basically IHOP but for Midwesterners. It was fucking magical and I think about him and those weekend mornings any time I’m in an IHOP, eating butter-fluffed giant pancakes for dinner and generally just feeling bad about myself as I eat this most delicious of garbage food and just enjoy the coffee and bizarre and exotic syrups to their fullest.

Later on in life, I was a teenager and living with him instead of my parents, and my grandmother wasn’t really around. It was…weird, for reasons I may or may not get into later on (probably not), but a huge thing that I remember about this period of my life is that A) I had my first girlfriend and, like all teenage boys, was a complete and utter fucking dumb emotional horndog about it, but also B) we ate at diners a lot because my grandfather couldn’t cook.

One time he made boxed beef noodles stroganoff, and it was good, and he never shut the fuck up about it for the rest of his life. However, he took it as a sign to get inventive with cooking, so one time he tried to make some sort of oven-baked fish, which…whatever. He left too much water in the pan so the fish half-broiled and half-boiled in the oven and tasted both wet and entirely chalky. He, my uncle, and I tried to eat it before the old man just threw his fork down and said “this is disgusting, huh?” My uncle laughed and we all went out to a diner, one of the dozens in Queens where somehow, my grandfather knew the owners or managers.

This is before I was fully aware of just how true the cliche of Greeks owning diners actually is, so it was crazy to walk into a place and with a words, the weird language we spoke at home became a key to getting a dude from the back office to come out and shake my grandfather’s hands, smile, give us pie on the house, make sure we got a booth.

Then there was the time I turned 17 and he took me out for a steak dinner for my birthday, which was actually very cool. He rushed through his steak so he could go outside and smoke while my uncle and I laughed at this weird kabob grill his meal came in. I ate tongue for the first time that night, and I bragged about it for months.

That, more than any church visit, or any sacred memory of anything being done together, is how I remember him, I guess, and it’s just a manner of, three years on, getting OK with that.

The Men’s Man

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c/o offermanwoodshop.com

Sometimes I think too much about stuff, but sometimes, I realize that it’s not so much overthinking as it is a “taking stock” sort of thing. 

So I read Nick Offerman’s 2013 “memoir” Paddle Your Own Canoe, his first book, and while a lot of the more casual humor has Offerman’s obviously best-known for being the comically-stupid libertarian (redundant) city bureaucrat and hypermasculine Ron Swanson from TV, but a lot of that character is elements of himself wrought unto flesh, though reading about his college and early 20’s he definitely comes across far more like a punk/stoner-type who threw himself into theater and liberal arts with abandon, reinforcing the latticework of his own almost-cliche homespun machismo/masculinity with support beams of humor, love, drugs, art, and culture. He’s such an interesting person to read and listen to (I like having his casual interviews and book readings queued up because of his tone and personality, it’s just…fun…to listen to).

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c/o my family’s basement photo collection in a shoebox

Offerman’s sort of created this persona that nowadays seems to have created (or at least validated in pop culture eyes) a model of masculine that embraces not only art and open-mindedness, but also allows space for what might be considered conventionally-masculine and “macho” things, the kinds of things you’d see almost eschewed by people who are bucking against conventional and conservative masculinity.

I gotta say, I dig it a little.

If I try to think about my own models for being a man, it’s hard. My father and I have a relationship both very complex but also sorta surface, in that we care deeply for each other but never show it. We can always rely on each other, but most of the time our interactions are about baseball or how work is going. I’ll more easily admit to being a momma’s boy and going to her first most of the time growing up, even though she was traditionaly the disciplinarian growing up, so I always saw her as running the ship, so to speak.

Of course, throwing myself into punk rock and art and music and rebelling against a family rooted deeply in being a very traditional one to remember its immigrant and refugee roots, I hated dude stuff. I hated that I sucked at physical stuff and hated doing it because it felt so “macho,” like sports in school, helping family fix stuff, any kind of physical labor. It was a weird and stupid combination of self-loathing, laziness, and a conscious decision to not be “a jock.”

What the fuck was wrong with me?

Anyway as I’ve gotten older and shed all these dumb notions about what teenagers and young men in particular should or shouldn’t do (partially as I grow to hate dumb absolutes of subculture and partially because I’m lazy and it’s hard to maintain) I’ve been developing my own sense of and definitions around what it means to be a “man,” which is a weird precarious thing, being that I’m white and straight and so much of masculinity is awful but also works hard to be catered especially towards me. I’ve comfortably been settled into my own skin finally in the last couple of years (hitting my 30’s was amazing) that allows me to indulge in traditionally “macho” things I enjoy but still maintaining my own interests in very non-macho stuff, threading a path through masculinity to hit the good stuff on the map and avoid the toxic traps that I feel like, honestly, I skirted against dangerously as a teenager (like the whole “nice guy” trope was a thing I indulged in as a body-self conscious teenage boy who was shy and anxious around the opposite sex…until I learned better).

It’s a model that I’m proud of, a model I’m comfortable in…and a model that because at times I know appears conventionally traditional, can sort of not scream “I’m not a conventionally masculine male” in public, or even in the circles in which I’ve run growing up (or even now). So it’s interesting to see someone relatively famous (at least to me) be so open about it and how their acceptance of that as being an acceptable standard of masculinity and a celebrated one, nevermind a celebrated model of humanity in an arguably classical humanist way*.

I’m married now, we just got back from our honeymoon two weeks ago, and while I know that honestly it didn’t really change anything about my relationship with my significant other, myself, and the world, it did make me think about being “a man” and being “a husband,” simply because as a man, shaking off the burden of having to be the strong one, and as a husband having to be the “provider”, is rough.

It’s real rough, and despite all my self-identified liberalism and nonconforming ideas about self, about society, and about gender roles’ danger to personal mental health, it’s hard to not be hard on yourself about that kind of stuff. Thinking back, I probably, honestly, beat myself up about something related to that every couple of months. It’s just a moment, a bad day, a rough week or a stack of bills just coming out of nowhere. It’s realizing that maybe the plan the two of you were aiming for has to be adjusted, which is fine because logically that’s how life goes, and just feeling a little bit gutted because maybe if you were “more of a provider” it wouldn’t have to be like that, it’d be one less thing for your partner to have to think about, nevermind worry about. I don’t want her to worry, and I don’t want her to have to take on more burdens.

I’m getting better though at recognizing that life isn’t just a series of burdens for a man to shoulder. It’s a hiking path to explore, and a path that works better when you don’t have to carry most of the gear yourself.  That’s my model of masculinity.

We split carrying the sandwiches.

*) I hate discussing personal beliefs and religions, with my own in particular being such a nebulous thing that retches at modern atheism but still was emboldened by agnostic thought…mixed with the inevitable theological education classic literature ends up instilling in you almost by accident. Humanism has ultimately been the best way to describe it, though in recent years that term has been transformed for the worst through chronic and at times, deliberate misuse…which again brings me back to a place of not being able to actually have a way to describe myself. Ugh…

I Against I

I briefly ranted about this on Twitter recently, but over the past week or so I’ve  been thinking a lot about this weird era of indie/alternative culture online, a crossing over webcomics, blogs, and subculture message boards that took on lives of their owns outside whatever they were meant o be attached to. I was brought back to it all thinking a lot about that bright and bustling no-man’s-land era of early-2000’s webcomics, though of course it ended up also encircling blogging and comics/music communities online.

I used to have an office job before I taught, and while I took full advantage of having a lot of time being left alone in a room with no windows in a cubicle to write and freelance, I also fucked around A LOT on the Internet. I’m pretty sure I was on a ton of message boards dedicated to webcomics, early podcasts, comic books, and punk rock bands, and I’d basically follow links and read comics and blogs all day sometimes. It was before the heavy implications of what “shitposting” turned being an asshole on the Internet into some kind of racist faux-political movement (this is 2002 to 2007 or so I wanna say), so we (and I definitely include myself in all this) vied heavily to be sarcastic assholes following other sarcastic assholes, all the while immersing ourselves in the lives of the creators we were spending all day reading and re-reading and debating, in the open of the forum that is the Internet.

It’s not as common these days but before webcomics had evolved into the behemoth that they appear to be nowadays (there’s definitely a tipping point coming if it hasn’t already happened in terms of saturation) but back then, webcomics were still la world drawing heavily on newspaper comics and comic books (design-wise for page or strip-style layouts), with the more popular website templates allowing for blog-like spaces at the bottom. This, combined with the natural tendencies of that era of the Internet to allow for oversharing or the implication by the author that they were oversharing, created this bizarro-world wide that not only were you “friends” with this person who let you into their very-private mindsets so publicly, but also you were foisting, often-unwillingly, a sort of figurehead status on this creator in the cult of personality that seemed to grow around them.

I can’t possibly imagine what it would have been like to be in my 20’s and have people hang on my every word and every piece of art I created or word I typed, knowing that it wasn’t even a conventional fame that came with a ton of money or whatever. Ultimately, I can now see how it was a slow mental breakdown by a lot of these writers and cartoonists as they were forced into the very-odd parameters of “Internet personality,” something we now see in 2018 as a toxic bullshit job, but then was something we craved, a personality we both revered and and wanted to emulate.

Finding out nowadays, almost a decade later, about the state of a lot of these blogs and webcomics and the people from these online communities, and how a lot of them have moved on drastically from he online lives we’d built is depressing sometimes, but it’s also incredibly invigorating and refreshing. It’s nice and heartwarming to see people not allow themselves to remain trapped and break free from these imposed ideals and limitations set upon them to constantly be “on” by morons like me in 2004 on the Internet.

Most of this was ultimately trigged by seeing the newer and more personal (and sporadic) work of a cartoonist I adored from this era who was online a lot, and how that person is no longer feeling confined by the limitations and expectations put on them to constantly be “on,” and to constantly perform as this persona, and to constantly have to engage with people in an intensely-personal way. That implication of constant interaction that social media has taken hold of, spawned from the necessity of interaction through commentary and an assumption of having go to reply to every single response born out of interaction being an option on the Internet, makes a lot of assumptions about what people want to do or are comfortable doing. So many of these people that we the collective readership and “community” followed were basically having slow-motion realtime breakdowns, personal crises of faith, of work and inspiration, if not full-blown mental health issues all while we watched, commented with platitudes, and assumed through us “closer” to this person like some kind of bizarre one-sided friendship.

I think a lot of this is part of a larger and growing train of thought, a reevaluation about how much influence we want the Internet to have on our lives. For me personally it’s also been about not caring about what “known” names say or do online, recognizing just how little of the world at large these names and faces actually represent. It’s a struggle as I’m also one of those ones who created work to put out there for others to consume, enjoy, and judge on their own terms, which means that to an extent I want people constantly and actively engaging with my work. Maybe though I’ve learned my lesson in the way that I hope a lot of others did, in that the work being engaged with doesn’t mean I have to be engaged with, and that I shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of that necessary engagement.

Also, the term “engagement” is loaded and sometimes bad when it comes to art and content.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 5; THE MAMMOTH HUNTERS by Jean M. Auel

Oh hey, yeah, I still do this…

I’m so rarely embarrassed by what I read or used to read, because A) I maintain I’ve got impeccable taste and B) I feel like people should’t be embarrassed by reading habits, it’s a 6c0908457071ffe60f4b7e1399c24dcc--jean-auel-read-booksweird byproduct of a culture that artificially draws lines between “genre” and “literary fiction” and…anyway.

I’m not really embarrassed but in hindsight, thinking about Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters and how it has  a place in my memories of reading makes me wonder just how much “focus” I had (or didn’t have) as a young man immersing myself in escapist literature. Was there any real focus, like a love of murder-mysteries or modern (at the time) takes on pulp and spy adventures? Or is that some historical revisionism of my own reading past?

Jean M. Auel’s series (that started with The Clan of the Cave Bear, which got turned into a movie in 1986 starring Darryl Hannah) is an installment in a series about a young Cro-Magnon woman who’d been raised by Neanderthals and travels through the ancient world, making friends with animals and other people, looking for her tribe, inventing things like crossbows and advanced medicine or whatever (I’m exaggerating a bit here obviously but Ayla, the protagonist of these books, is noted for basically inventing a bunch of modern stuff. She invents saddles for the horses she tamed and invented riding on, for example.) In this one, she and her buddy/boyfriend/travel partner find a society of people who, as the title of the book suggests, circle their lives and spirituality around giant wooly mammoths, and they spend some time with them.

Then the fucking begins…

Oh yeah, there’s a lot of sex in these books and I have a vivid memory of being a little mortified the first time I realized that.

I was a young teenager, maybe 14, who spent a summer in Greece visiting family hanging out with an aunt at times and helping basically babysit her small daughter once in a while, because she’d moved from the US to Greece with her husband, so not only was she one more person to talk to in English, but she also had a stash of English-language books that she let me borrow, and as I’ve written about a bunch of times, I’d read just about anything. Even this SUPER-smutty caveman historical fiction, basically a different take on bodice-rippers.

It’s sort of fascinating to think about these books (this is the first one I read but like the third in the series I believe) being so immensely popular and having created this fairly-large social impact in terms of readers and on genre fiction. Like, I remember them being in hindsight really trashy, but at the same time it’s such a dense and heavily-researched world that also appeals to the escapist pulp sensibilities I so desperately-craved at the time.

Ultimately it always comes back to that with me, escapism. It is in a sense the truest and rawest thing I crave in literature, microcosms of other lives and worlds that I can safely slip in and out of to distract myself, to calm my own thoughts, and to experience rapid highs and lows without the stresses of reality that come with those scenarios. Some kids read because they wanted to see themselves, but I (and I perpetually acknowledge this is due to my own privileges) wanted nothing more but the luxury of escapist fantasy. What’s more escapist than life in the Upper Paleolithic era about 72,000 years ago?

Also, there’s something to be said about the power of suddenly being given all this softcore literature  at a time when the Internet was nonexistent as a source of porn, especially to some kid suck in the sticks  for the summer. Magazines? Forget about it. Movies or the foreign version of scrambled cable porn? Man, I didn’t even have access to a TV, much less a single on the rabbit ears. It was a bit of an eye-opening experience.

I’m not saying I treated this book like pornography, but I was a shy teenage boy who had little access to anything remotely titillating, zero luck with the opposite sex for a long time, and parents who for the most part didn’t really seem like they were going to be plopping down a copy of The Joy of Sex for me to read so I could learn. So in a way, these kind of books filled in for that in terms of introducing sex to me. I mean I knew what sex and romance and relationships were in an abstract sense, but…you know what I mean, right? It was the first time I was exposed to what it was supposed to ideally “sound” like, in as much as prose can convey that.

Every time this book comes up in my radar in some fashion nowadays, I ultimately think of it as one of those “I need something, ANYTHING to read” moments, as well as thinking about helping my aunt out with her little girls, who are teenagers now, and I feel so old. I don’t know if it’s some level of subconscious shame or maybe just an acknowledgment that it was a moment in a particular period of time in my life when I needed this book, but I’ve never felt any real desire to ever go back to it (or any of them). It happened, I consumed a fascinatingly-weird caveman sex novel when Iw as a teenager that turned out to actually have been really famous and popular, and now, at 34, I can safely say you should probably read one of Auel’s books too, just so we have something to talk about.

Also, on a somewhat-related moment, I think this book was one of my first exposures to wraparound covers, a thing that paperbacks used to do a lot but nowadays you almost never see thanks to to the proliferation of hyper-simplified book covers. The edition I found a picture of is the one I read twenty-odd years ago and the spine and back continue to the front’s illustration, of a group of Neanderthals stalking a herd of mammoths. I looked up more modern editions and they’re way more boring, a thing paperbacks and books in general have lost that I don’t think you can ever really get back on the huge scale they used to have…but that’s another thing for another time.

Turn On the Lights

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So…I finished the cinematic campaign mission of DESTINY 2 over this past weekend, after getting the game back in November. This isn’t the first “AAA” (big name studio) video game I bought or played since getting back into playing games regularly, but it’s the first one I finished through.

I put off the end of the game for a while because I discovered while playing (I’d never played the first one) that the game, ostensibly a sci-fi FPS (first person shooter) is more like a large fantasy-style RPG world that you travel through in a first-person view. That basically means that there’s tons of stuff to do on the side without being bogged down having to do the main story first (though obviously some stuff isn’t accessible until certain main story stuff is done).

What this basically means is that four months of casual play in (not counting me sometimes entering the player-versus-player “Crucible” matches from time to time), and I’m still not really sick of anything in this game, and I know there’s the expansion “Curse of Osiris” to maybe eventually get to (and another one coming soon, “God of Mars” I think?). There’s still so much to do and find, win, and explore. I’m glad I’m getting my money’s worth because games like this aren’t that cheap.

I’ve been trying to figure out just what it is that I like so much about this game, and what drove me to want to try it besides the people I know who crowed about it so much. I finally figured it out though;

It’s the lore.

As a kid I loved reading about various fantasy RPG games (like Warhammer 40k in particular) lore in bits and pieces in the backs of gaming magazines (even though my connection to playing those games/being a part of that fandom is minuscule at best), and the best sci-fi that I loved growing up had lore elements that were basically fantasy. I adore Star Wars, and the line between “planetary fantasy” and straight fantasy (as opposed to science fiction) is tenuous and rooted primarily in being a dweeb about wordplay. I think a lot about something a fellow writer and Twitter bud said (though I don’t know if he said it first, I feel like I heard it from Matt first, so he gets the attribution) about how all science fiction is fantasy, just a different kind. It’s a lesson I wish more people embraced at times, because the rambling allowance of the world of Destiny makes it, despite being a very shoot-y game (that tries really hard to make you play in communities/groups online), a great game for exploring and messing around, relaxing on alien worlds under alien skies, representing the light against the darkness.

So much of science fiction’s “lore” works almost in overtime to try and find ways to justify and explain the mechanics of just about everything in the world, and oftentimes, that expectation that every little tinkering toy, every single being, has an in-depth (true of lore) and “realistic/explainable” (ugh) set of rules for how they function or work or even just live…it drags a story down. It drags a world down, especially when you’re engaging in that fiction for the escapist elements. Sometimes it just DOESN’T MATTER how a thing works, you have to embrace that it does and if it’s magic or technology or a little of both, as long as you enjoy yourself, that’s ultimately what matters here. That’s what, to me, the world of Destiny does so well to have sucked me in.

Best part? I first started playing as a Titan, one of the three classes of player types. Titans are big armored “space knights” in full armor, for smashing and heavy defense. I still have two other classes (the scout/sniper-type Hunters and mystic space-Jedi type Warlocks) to create characters in and run through the whole thing all over again. I can’t wait.

Android Dreams & Eclectic Sheep

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We watched Altered Carbon on Netflix and honestly, it’s hitting all my buttons.

What can I say, I’m a cheap date.

A lot of the criticisms I’ve been seeing of it are pretty valid in terms of how the visuals are, at times, drawing away from the narrative, although my counter to that would primarily be in that, being a very by-the-books noir mystery (again, my jam), the story’s sorta wild and thin by default. Chandler stories aren’t the most linear and he’s the gold standard as far as I’m concerned. There’s also the criticism of the sexualized violence as well, though for that I tend to default and defer to this essay that talks about similar things in TV’s GAME OF THRONES, on the sad inevitability of sexual violence in settings that are built upon patriarchal structures.

I will concur that there’s a huge untapped field to play with in a critical and narrative sense around the story’s usage of body-swapping in both a dysmorphic and racial way, because so much of Altered Carbon is touching on the hell that capitalist posthumanism has ultimately created. It’s not the wild fantasy elements of sci-fi, but rather the mind-numbing mundanity of it as your reality, another standardized but (for many) out-of-reach-financially aspect of everyday life. Ghost In the Shell in its various incarnations (barring the recent live-action movie, which I refuse to watch) does a great job with this, personally. I wish Altered Carbon did more with the elements we’re seeing here in terms of how people adjust to and struggle with their new and/or unfamiliar bodies, sometimes when put there seemingly against their will.

Ultimately, a lot of the sci-fi falls away in this in favor of the murder-mystery aspects and the overall attempts at noir, which works in a variety of ways;

  1. It’s really messy. I love older classic murder-mystery stuff but the narratives tend to be secondary to the storytelling/language, which means that you end up with scattered and messy stories. Altered Carbon embraces this with a completley-ramshakle and bonkers story that ties a minute thread from the beginning of the story to the ending as a lichpin to the whole thing, in a way I’m still thinking about. I feel like I have to go back through the story to make sure I got it all, because the symbolism (albeit heavy-handed at times) replicates the written language, forming an aesthetic and impressions rather than a tight linear narrative.
  2. The violence and casual prejudice is awful, subversive, and entirely necessary. The big complaint I’ve seen about the show is how it treats women, with most of the victims of violence in this story being female and/or sex workers. However, a big element of cyberpunk/sci-fi that I find important to maitnaining the genre’s definitions is to highlight the cornball but necessary “the more things change, the more things stay the same” trope. No matter what, and especially moreso in a Westernized world where physical is secondary, arbitrary cruelness to women will be inevitable, if not moreso magnified.

It’s not perfect, by any means. A lot is missing that could have further fleshed out some interesting points about the “post-racial” implications of a world where bodies can be swapped, and there’s the quest of the AI hotel to understand humanity and to make actual deep connections, something that “Poe” seems to struggle with but doesn’t quite get why until right to the end, tragically. I’d have loved to see more of the AIs considering the immense implications of their existence and their seemingly-ultimate dismissal as a fad in the face of physical immortality.

I’m also a little fascinated at the implications of the “Meths” as being characters right out of a Dan Simmons novel, post-humans on the edge of godhood and the implications of that. Still, as a down-n-dirty cyberpunk story that hits a lot of William Gibson buttons in my brain, I really enjoyed it. It’s one end of the cyberpunk spectrum in fully throwing itself into the visual aesthetic that’s rooted heavily in posthumanism, issues regarding authoritarianism and violence, and how little the world seems to change no matter how far forward we go, which to me is an important element of cyberpunk and science fiction.

And then…there’s Blade Runner 2049.

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I haven’t watched the original Blade Runner in a very long time. I first saw it after I’d read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the novellas that inspired the film, albeit-loosely, back in high school at some point. However, going into this I vaguely knew that there was no real need for that, because (in this weird case sort of ironically) the film uses cyberpunk in the same way that the original one did, an arguably unique lens that’s at an intensely-far spectrum spot;

Blade Runner 2049‘s cyberpunk dystopia, similar to the one of the original, posits not an overrun and exaggerated version of our present world (the model a lot of cyberpunk borrows from in taking basic surface pointers from William Gibson’s early work) but rather, a dying one. The world of 2049 is a dying one, and human beings are simply going through the motions of a former “golden age” (if anything like that ever exist for them), the planet inexorably crawling towards death. It’s highlighted a lot more in the original book, but the obvious implications are that the Earth is unsaveable and that colony/extra-solar life is the only way that the species can sustain itself long-term. While the neon of the signs is just as bright, rather than act as a smokescreen, it’s a glaringly-obvious reminder of the frailty and futility of pretty much anything.

Altered Carbon, for better or worse, is noir-ish through andt hrough, but Blade Runner 2049, to me, hinges less on that and more on an understanding that it’s a film about a conversation relatedt o existence. Existential dread is arguably a more Lovecraftian struggle, but science fiction has a great viewpoint to examine the fears and ideas that consume us when we aren’t even certain of our own selves. K, in BR2049, exists in a constant state of the razor’s edge over his own physical existence and ownership of self, because (and I didn’t know this going into the film) he’s a replicant that hunts and kills other replicants. He lives in a state of actively knowing how limited his life is, conscious of the blocks and barriers that keep him from actively lying, as well as the overall state of how precarious his existence is due other humans (and also in comparison to what seems like the touch of power that other replicants have brushed against as either rebels with higher senses of purpose…or as the brute-physical manifestation of the will of the humans who are after the hybrid. When the challenges form cracks in his odd state of not-quite-dread (something the film depicts well, a sense of sadness but also, in the beginning, nihilistic acceptance), it’s ground-shaking.

Nihilism being challenged by existential questions are the root of the story and atmosphere of BR2029, which is why even though it’s just as (arguably moreso) cyberpunk than Altered Carbon, people felt more comfortable in the familiar embrace of future-version-of-mystery that AC offered, compared to the honest and deep er questions about the judgement of living beings as nonhuman, the usage of them as workforce against their own “kind,” and whether acknowledging they’re a “kind” and not a “tool” can make us guilty of forcing a people (replicants) to have to grapple with our own existential weight as we allow our surrender to slow extinction to taint us.

Young, Loud, and Scotty

The first time I taught was in 2010, during a summer session of a college where a family member worked and got me a gig. I was an adjunct faculty member, literally a month out of graduate school with an MA in literary theory, a thesis on science-fiction, and a few punk- and pop-culture-related publications under my belt.

It went terribly.

No one wants to be in class during summer sessions, especially for a 6-9pm class on Thursday nights being taught by an absolute first-timer. I’d kinda bullshitted about knowing how to do any “real” technical writing when I sat down for the informal interview with the department chair before the semester started (I’ve since done some actual real tech writing gigs…after that first class) so I was teaching Intro to Technical Writing. I got a stock syllabus, a faculty email address, a copy of the textbook, and a calendar of when grades were due. That’s basically it, no guidance, no tips or tricks, just…”You’ll do fine, email me if you have any questions!”

Incidentally, that was the inspiration ultimately for this project, but anyway…

I tried way too hard to be amicable and liked, I was barely a week ahead of them lesson-wise, and I constantly struggled to fill a three-hour block of time when I had almost no experience with the material. I was nervous, I tried to be the “nice teacher,” I just was not doing well at it at all. I don’t remember specifics but it couldn’t have been more than a dozen students, and I could barely manage it all.

And…here we are now, eight yeas later. Last semester I had around 150 or 160 students throughout six classes, and I have a similar number this term. I’m the unofficial faculty member covering classic world literature at one campus (I’ve done this class three, four times in a row so far?) and have been tutoring, workshopping, and lecturing to students on a range of stuff from literature, nonfiction, composition, and how to write research papers and essays at the college level for a living for a while now. I’ve had parents, soldiers, retirees, people right out of high school, people from where I grew up and people from across the planet as students, and all of them, in some way, have been interesting people. I had a crazy Fox News-watching mom who said she was related to Johnny Cash and was sad school didn’t allow her to open-carry on campus (this wasn’t in New York). One student took classes I was teaching 3 times, and every time he never remembered who I was, assuming I was new. There were people who pestered and harassed me over “owing them” a passing grade, and people who told me that I helped them understand and feel confident about building their communication skills. Even at their laziest and worst, they were and are, my students.

For a period of time I also taught middle and high schoolers, the youngest 12 going on 13.

That was a two-year trial by fire, because as I learned, teaching kids in high school and middle school is completely different from teaching people (even teenagers) in a college setting. I came out of that with a lot of baggage but also a whole new bag of tricks in terms of classroom management and lesson planning. Those kids drove me absolutely fucking bonkers, infuriated me constantly, tested every raw nerve I’d ever had, both through their gentle monstrosity and purposeful malevolence.

They were also, at times, some of the most unsure and sensitive kids I’d ever encountered, full of plans for the future, full of plans for that weekend, and even some of the legitimately-shitty ones had times when I was genuinely proud and happy for them. Some of them got letters of recommendation for colleges from me, and every single one of those letters were glowing. I even re-did one for a student who lost the first one I did for her the day it was due, because I knew how much it meant to her.

She got into the college of her first choice, and I’m glad. One of them caught me last year on the subway, and I was shocked to see this awkward shy boy I’d known having turned into a fucking confident young man over the span of a year away from me, singing my praises to my face (this was after I stopped teaching there, for a reason you’d have to get from me in meatspace). All of them, even the bad ones, they were my students.

This also the first time I started to get asked about what I’d do if “something happened” in the school. Or the classroom. You know…like a shooting.

It’s a depressing fucking thing to get asked by high schoolers with a head full of questions but also an extremely limited sense of just how blunt they can be. I don’t remember what caused it, or which particular class asked about it, but they did, and it put me on the spot.

Later on when I started teaching college exclusively again, it came up. Faculty, on our first day back one semester at the traditional breakfast, were told that the day’s meetings this year were being supplemented with a “special safety presentation.” It was some NYPD and Homeland Security-types, on how we should think and respond if a gunman stormed the campus going room-to-room.

I hated it. I hated the fucking necessity of it, I hated having to take notes, I hated having to pay attention because as much as I wanted to ignore it, I couldn’t. Because apparently, that’s the thing now. That’s the thing that we have to talk about. Not how little money people like me make compared to the amount of work we do, how we do this work that ultimately puts us either in the spotlight or on a problematic pedestal that’s a backhanded complement. Not how the industry is constantly attacked and belittled and treated like a joke, like those who do it are failures in any other field. But how we’re “heroes.”

No one should have to be a hero. No one should have to think about how quickly they can run across a classroom, hit the lights, get everyone to shut up, and try to silently slide furniture across the floor to barricade the door, and herd everyone into a far corner away from an angle of the window in the door.

By the way, most schools don’t let us lock a classroom door from the inside.

I don’t know what the point of this all is, really. I hate talking about these sort of events when they happen because it can create a weird sense of pointless rage in me, trigger-happy bad decisions by me, and are such minefields for students and teachers to talk about in the classroom. Then of course the debates surrounding “arming teachers” come up, the arguments about having armed guards, about how teachers who die are the real heroes, teachers who get shit on by parents and people criticizing how liberal colleges are or whatever, but now that the people who are in my field are dead, they’re martyrs, easy heroes who have no complex needs that you have to address.

I just don’t know. I don’t know what would happen if “something happened” to any of them, at any time, and I hate that people go out of their way so that I have to think about that sometimes.