The Men’s Man


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).

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.

Android Dreams & Eclectic Sheep


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.


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.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 4; THE CARDINAL OF THE KREMLIN by Tom Clancy


Hey, we’re back!

This is such a “parent book.” Of all the books and authors I as a young teen I swiped from my parents to read, Tom Clancy books were the most “parent”-y. The cliche is of course that Clancy books are the only fiction books that suburban (white) dads read because everything else they consume is nonfiction about WW2 and the Cold War, which is partially true. I mean, think about what it is that they embody ultimately, which is American exceptionalism. It’s the veneer of extralegal operations in the name of greater “good” that inevitably always reflects and reinforces American interests both at home and abroad, and a general disdain for structures that stand in the way of “the right thing” like soft indecisive liberalism, corrupt politicians that are inevitably portrayed as hiding behind some kind of faux-populist veneer. Of course, being a stupid moron at that age, I ate them up. And as a 30-something now critically wading his way through nostalgia whenever the mood strikes, I still…sorta look back on them fondly?

I wrote about Tom Clancy’s impact on me and my family briefly when he died in 2013. I think out of all the writers that I was exposed to because of my habit of filching my parents’ books as a kid, Tom Clancy was the one I immediately remembered and recognized as “famous,” because there were also all the movies. About the time I first read his stuff, like The Cardinal of the Kremlin, stuff like Clear And Present Danger and  Patriot Games (starring Harrison Ford as Clancy’s creation of Jack Ryan) was in movie form and on TV, so I was watching Clancy on the screen too. Because of all this, it was so strange to find out he’d actually passed away, and then having to actively come to terms with the fact that he was probably the first writer I’d read that would make me think about the “separate the writer from the writing” dilemma (what with him being a fairly notorious neocon pro-military type and me being a godless liberal red scumbag).

But, like baseball and making fun of my aunts at family gatherings, Clancy books like this one (which involves the torture and interrogation of someone using sensory deprivation to make them think their body is paralyzed so they go into an existential crisis and spill state secrets, which at the time was one of the most depressingly-scary things I’d read at the time) are one of the things that I have that connect me to my dad.

My father and I have a weird relationship (which I struggle to try to describe because I’m not entirely comfortable talking about it in terms of what should be private and what I should talk about to try and get off my chest), in that he was the “cool” parent (compared to my mother the lawkeeper), and the older I get, more and more people tell me I’m like in terms of humor and mannerisms. I don’t think he’s ever really understood his older son, who grew up quiet and kinda wimpy and emotionally stunted, preferring to read and skateboard and be alone. Also, I’ve never really done much more talking-wise with him other than casual conversations about work, school, and bills. But we’ve had baseball and movies, and even though we’re not necessarily a family that “discusses what we’re reading” (despite being a family of voracious readers…we’re people who read for fun, not for dinner-table or party conversation), we’ve had books.

I think my dad’s openness with letting me read any of those books of his the closest bond we’ve ultimately had, because even beyond just Tom Clancy, my dad is the one who ultimately let me me know it was OK to read “adult” books, stuff with  nudity and explicit violence. He also gave me some Indiana Jones novelization the was very much in the vein of the pulps that inspired it (Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils by Rob MacGregor, after a quick Google search) that I remember 12- or 13-year old me being initially mortified at discovering having sex described in it.

Those shift moments when you go from “kid stuff” to “adult things” are intensely subjective and personal, honestly. It’s also hard to talk about them at times if you’re uncomfortable with discussing seemingly-taboo topics like sex, sexual attraction, and the shallowness of our attractions to those topics (i.e. reading books just for the dirty parts, which is coming up in this misshapen excuse of a “series”, I promise). Who wants to admit that some of the books you remember fondly from your childhood or teenage years are the ones that finally introduced you to graphic violence, or to depictions of sex that were early forays to masturbatory material for those who didn’t immediately have access to porn?

They, like so many adult things you gravitate towards, are hidden, secret at times, the books I’d hid in a corner of my bedroom as I read them. To get that “Yeah, it’s OK” when I (for some stupid guilty reason, who knows) asked my dead if it was fine for me, a kid, to be given stuff like this to read, it was life-changing, honestly. I’d been encouraged to read controversial work before (both my parents encouraged me to read the usual spate of 70’s/80’s/90’s “controversial” young adult Newberry Medal winners, stuff touching on death, bullying, and racism like Maniac Magee, and of course classics like Huckleberry Finn and Where The Red Fern Grows), but this…felt different. This wasn’t serious stuff for kids, this was an Adult Thing.

Ultimately, the more I think about it the more I realize that my dad never really treated me like a little kid, and was more than willing to let me completely fuck up to learn a lesson, which is just as good as anything I’ve gotten from anyone else as a gift. It’s just taken me a bit of time to figure out what it was there, and that it was something to appreciate.

“a ride home and a couple days of sleep…”

So I’ve been writing recently about the impacts and memories of specific books from my teenage years, in particular the various paperbacks I tended to read a lot that were borrowed or swiped from my parents and other older family members. It’s odd though because, as someone mentioned online recently in a casual question, it made me think about why I’m choosing those books at all. A lot of them are not that great, or I just haven’t read in a long time and honestly don’t know if I ever will.

The question I saw floating online was what was one of the first books to truly make you fall in love with reading and…I can’t say. I honestly don’t remember, and I don’t know if it’s just because my brain can’t stretch that far back, or if it’s because I don’t think there was one book that “made” me a reader. I’ve always been a reader, and I think it’s because of narratives. In particular, it was about how I saw my own “narrative.”

We tend to view our personal narratives as the stories of our lives, but in a way we’re also thinking about how we make decisions and end up with experiences in those narratives. Our narratives are so intensely personal, but also heavily molded by our experiences, creating this symbiotic relationship where we test the limits of our control of that narrative, compared to the subconscious influences on it from outside forces.

Honestly, I don’t think I ever felt that as a kid.

I don’t think that, as a young kid and later on as a teenager, that I actually had any sort of control of my narrative. I had friends but not a lot of them, and mostly in a casual way, I had interests but not ones that made me “me” in any way (except probably for punk rock, which is more of a thing of seeking out your tribe, but who wants to hear another white guy talk about that over and over although I’ve been reminded that since I’ve been thinking about him again, Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned is the best expression that I’ve been able to relate to), and I felt like I was a constant state of anxious uncertainty in terms of what I could do, what I couldn’t do, what I couldn’t bring myself to do, and where I was even going. There’s a very specific memory of being 16 or so and realizing that the low-grade gut pain that I associated with uncertainty was gone and that I couldn’t remember when I’d last felt it but that I’d somehow been feeling it for years almost constantly.

Being 16 was an interesting year.

Books though? Books already had a pre-defined narrative. It was a narrative that I could immerse myself in and, temporarily, not have to worry about my own. I didn’t have to lament about the state of my own direction because I was so heavily invested in the direction of someone else, a whole cast of other people at times. Maybe it was some sort of early pre-aware appreciation for metaphor and symbolism in literature, but more likely, it was just what I tend to tell people when we talk about the love of reading;

As a kid, I read to escape. I didn’t seek or particularly appreciate work that had to do with people similar to me (young adult work, books about teens aimed at teens, etc) because I already knew, deep down, about stuff like that, even if I wasn’t particularly aware of the minutiae of my parents worrying about work and bills, about bullying being symptomatic of other things, of what my own struggles with fitting in meant. Hence my immersion in fantasy, science fiction, and horror, to get to stories that addressed things that could take me away from my own lack of control over my own story.

In reading, I knew that I didn’t have to worry about my own anxiety and awkwardness about figuring out what I needed to do in order to not come across like a weirdo desperate for friends and peer approval. I was both above that in being the viewer of the narrative, but also had that-preset awareness by following the protagonist, written by someone with (to my mind) far better expressive capacity and also, better social skills.

I’m sure this isn’t a unique feeling, but until recently I don’t think I’ve ever been able to really articulate it before, a problem I’ve noticed when it comes to trying to talk and write about WHY certain things resonate for me. This tends to make me oddly-cranky when coming across others’ explanations for why they like or connect with the same things I do, and finding that their connections either don’t make any sense to me, or just seem to be trite and too-perfectly framed in their explanation, even though thinking that just makes that uncertainty and anxiety flare up again, a fear that I’m just too hard on others who are expressing their love for things in far more eloquent ways than me. After all, a lovely side-effect of this fear surrounding your own narrative is imposter syndrome.

“Surely they can express themselves better in their love of books because they’re better writers, they’re better educators, they’re more into it and truly love it, I’m just some dumb asshole who stumbled into this and perpetually lives on the benevolent blindness of others to not recognize my fraudulence”…or something like that. And while I tend to go through this cycle every couple of months when it comes to my job (“imposter syndrome” is fairly common in academia), it’s a weird feeling to have it rear its face when it comes to just expressing why I love to read.

Ultimately, in my mid-30’s nowadays I’m far more confident in my personal narrative in general, so this is just a collection of passing thoughts about how people seem to express their own influences and inspirations these days. This idea that there are singular moments or items/experiences that trigger these changes in personality surrounding media is just such an odd one for me, because in my experience and in the experiences of people around me, it’s both far bigger and far more opaque and hazy.

Every start of something in my life that’s made me me is a haze. A haze of books and reading experiences made me a reader, a haze of friends and musical exposure made me love punk music, a haze of so many things made me a fan of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy…it’s all a haze of mixed experiences in my narrative. Sometimes those hazes can be good things, and we just look back on them and figure out how to express it as best we can.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 3; THE CHAMBER by John Grisham

Who the hell let me read this book?md20482718725

Yet another “claimed from my parents” read, this was my first exposure to Grisham (I ended up working my way backwards into his body of work from this point) and it’s still a really odd work. Ignoring the kinda ridiculous movie that came out of it with Gene Hackman, The Chamber by John Grisham is an incredibly dark path to let a 14-year-old brain down.

Basically a young and naive lawyer who just graduated from law school allows himself to get drawn into the last-ditch appeals of a KKK member on death row, about to be executed for the deaths of several young children during a church bombing at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Grisham was, at the time to an impressionable young reader, incredibly good at capturing what I thought the South would be like (and my limited exposure has sort of reinforced) of being incredibly hot and intensely slow in a metaphorical and spiritual sense (in that the hectic thrum that I, a garbage northerner from New York, consider the standard of energy for a metropolitan area is far too much and all wrong in how one conducts oneself).

There’s the obligatory horrific family secrets and some level of odd closure about broken families you expect from sad books like this, there’s some action, crooked politicians, and what I identified as something Grisham held in a unique regard, lots of drinking.

Alcohol is so pervasive in this book in my mind. Everyone drinks constantly, and for some reason I associated it with being a lawyer, that the stress of this righteous job would make you dive into the sacred blur of alcohol to escape the harsh world you deigned throw yourself into willingly. Of course nowadays I can look back on those memories of reading that and realized it was just Grisham’s reinforcement of the white Southern moneyed “good ol’boys club” mentality where alcohol and complaining are the standards of behavior, rather than legitimate coping mechanisms.

Still, I’m pretty sure this was the summer I first tried alcohol. To get drunk, that is.

I’m the grandchild of immigrants, part of a large extended family with heavy roots in Eastern Europe. Alcohol’s a huge part of the culture, and letting small kids nip from the dinner table during celebrations is pretty standard. Summertime when you’ve got a family background like mine is basically being cut loose for the most part all day and most of the evenings, which means that young teenage Costa first started to experiment with getting drunk.

Honestly, there’s a lot I don’t remember, and not in a “ha ha I was so drunk” way. I just…don’t remember stuff, or remember it poorly (it’s partially why I’m so hesitant to do more personal essays). There’s a nice chunk between 14 and 16 that’s mostly a blur, honestly. It’s a lot of introduction to punk rock, reading books because I didn’t have a lot of friends, experimenting with drinking, and occasionally bursting into fights with other kids (fights I usually lost) because I kept constantly stuffing rage inward over dumb stuff I couldn’t tell what it was now. It’s strange to think about how some people can mine their pasts with such regular clarity and confidence in those memories. I honestly don’t know why I just can’t seem to remember certain times beyond just the vague impressions they left on me. Dates elude me, and the cloud of personal prejudices and perspectives also make me terrified that I’ll just never tell the “right” version of a story and be obviously corrected by someone. It’s honestly easier to just work on fiction sometimes, to write my own The Chamber rather than try to remember that specific summer I spent reading this book.

But I remember stealing beers at family events, and I remember a big public thing while visiting family in Greece for a whole village by the ocean, being drunk on the beach thinking everything was super-fucking funny. Who knows what I was thinking about? Maybe it was this book, and thinking in some way, that me being drunk and waxing poetic on the two or three beers I’d downed (I was a super-small kid and a skinny teenager so I was a real lightweight) made me just as deep as I thought the protagonist of this book was in that one scene where he thinks deep thoughts about his messed-up family or whatever was going on in the book or that particular scene. Southern gothic novels feel like they’re full of nothing but messed-up families and lots of drinking, so it’s possible that in his own way, Grisham was continuing the tradition?

Probably not. If anything, it’s probably just what I thought, the reflection of his own upbringing and his own background work- and social-wise as a liberal Southerner who worked in law but was still heavily-immersed in his own boy’s club world. Which isn’t to say Grisham is necessarily a bad person (from what I understand he’s fairly liberal, involved with stuff like The Innocence Project, workers’ rights, and calls for prison reform), but the characters in his books, in particular the legal thriller ones, clearly reflect his previous lives working in politics and law and the privilege that comes with those kinds of lives.

Still, for a teenager looking to try and bridge that weird wobbly bridge between being a kid and being an adult and really only had books to guide him, I have a weird place in my heart for Grisham’s books. This book and his previous work, A Time To Kill, are rife with racism, the history of post-Reconstruction Southern states, and the overarching theme of how dangerous but necessary things like digging up the past and pushing past the uncomfortable to get to the truth can be.

It’s odd to think that depressing legal thrillers read during sun-drenched summer afternoons about the legacy of the Klan are such a huge part of my youth. If anything though, I managed to learn a lot about how the death penalty worked in the US thanks to this book, which made me a big hit with punk girls at parties and outdoor stoops bumming cigarettes, trying to impress each other.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 2; “Mind Prey” by John Sandford


You bet I’ve got more of these. I was one of those annoying kids who raided their parents’ book stashes, after all.

I liked doing the last one of these because saying it out loud (or rather, typing it) makes me realize how bizarre so many of these kinda books really were, and how reading them as a teenager instead of whatever YA books my parents periodically got me, like Where The Red Fern Grows or whatever (which is a great book, but not the point here).

This book is kinda fucked up, the more I think about it.

John Sandford is actually writer/journalist John Camp, writing under a pseudonym. He’s another one of those glossy paperback mystery/cop thriller writers I picked up from my parents’ stashes of books. I carted this one back to New York from overseas to finish school in America. Or maybe I found it among my dad’s leftovers in my grandma’s house. It’s one in a series involving Sandford’s police detective character of Lucas Davenport (portrayed on TV by both Eriq La Salle and Mark Harmon, respectively), another one of the gimmicky Holmes-esque badasses that populate these sort of novels. Davenport is a gun collector, a crack shot, a scarred badass with a bevy of sexual conquests, and is somehow ALSO independently wealthy because he makes RPGs and runs a video game company (and from what I remember, Sandford/Camp actually did his research is knowing how to describe the terminology and mechanics of how stuff works). Davenport’s basically every nerd’s wet dream rolled up with the standard hardass cop of these types of books.

Liberal but not valueless in that way that neocons and people with pro-cop bumper stickers disdain, he’s a man of action. His vices are masculine and coded as cool. He represents law and order, but also bucks the system to both overcome bureaucratic red tape AND corruption (a prevailing theme in a lot of these sorta books). Yeah he makes video games and isn’t a raging racist, but his tolerance and empathy is limited because of the near-vigilantism that he tends to embody (that most fictional law enforcement tends to, in general), skirting with breaking the law because sometimes laws and social niceties just “get in the way”.

You know exactly what kind of literary character I’m talking about. While the root is older, the 80’s and 90’s are rife with these types, part of what’s now obviously a weird shift in how we depicted law enforcement in fiction to foster a positive “lone wolf” sort of vibe, making it “cool.” In a way, Sanford, like a lot of other guys, took Robert Parker’s Spenser to the next seemingly-natural stage (at least to me). Davenport is, for a large chunk of the books, a bachelor, and even in the author’s own words is kind of a sociopath with few real connections to the world around him other than the job. That is, in reality, not a good person, and definitely not the kind of person you really ant as an actual cop. In fiction, on the other hand? Especially escapist detective/neo-noir/suspense paperbacks?

Anyway this book, Mind Prey, is actually one of the first times I think I read a book that was really explicit in depictions of sexual violence (it’s about a serial rapist/killer kidnapping a woman and her daughter) and, thinking back on it, it’s kind of jarring and disturbing (though a lot of these books, not just Sandford’s, thinking back on it, cover a lot of horrific and very brutal crimes…William Diehl comes to mind). And what’s even weirder is that somehow, I ended up doing a report on this book in high school for my 11th-grade English class on “classic detective novels”.

The teacher for that class was the personification of the “cool high school English teacher” trope. His class was fun (I read Sherlock Holmes in his classroom), we got to laugh and joke but also do work that we (or at least I remember) liked. He was one of the chaperones for the senior prom (which I went to for some reason, and was miserable at, but that’s another story) and the common belief was that since he (and several other teachers) had been there for a couple of hours before students showed up, he was mostly drunk as shit (he acted it). He was a “cool teacher” (something my school had a bit of a problem with but…again, another story) For our final project, let us do weird reports about readings from class or that we’d found on our own. I, being a dweeb, used Mind Prey. I did some faux-profile of the antagonist and compared him to some other characters from some other readings we’d done in class. It wasn’t the best assignment honestly, and to this day I think I got by mostly because I picked a reading that wasn’t one of the in-class ones, which counts for a lot.

I wonder sometimes what happened to him. I occasionally have a dread feeling about trying to look up teachers I admired in high school, because there’s a part of me that is definitely thinking “shit, if it turns out he was some kind of abusive or predatory weirdo I’m gonna be sad”. I saw him once wandering around my old neighborhood near the school when I was 19 or 20, and was briefly tempted to yell out a hi, but of course, awkwardness and that perpetual fear he didn’t remember who I was kicked in. Sometimes too, I think about just how “cool” a teacher he was, and if it was just a mask for something worse that my privilege protected me from. I know that’s a pretty bleak outlook to have, but really, I feel like deep down it’s not an unfair assumption to have as a possible scenario.

A cursory Google search shows me that this teacher isn’t at that school anymore, and I don’t have a yearbook or anything laying around to get his first name and do a more thorough look (they, like a lot of my stuff from high school, is scattered around my parents’ house on bookshelves and in boxes). I still think about that class and that book though, and doing this half-ass project on a fucked-up detective book involving a cop who also made video games.

No Paperback Paradise, issue 1; William Heffernan’s “Ritual”


So I’ve talked before about being the kid who read a lot of mass-market paperbacks because A) I just read a lot and B) they were all we had around. I’ve been thinking back on those books as I’ve been browsing Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell, a humorous look at paperback horror novels through the past decades.

It’s a weird art form/subgenre that (I think rightfully) has started to again garner a bit of a spotlight in pop culture (not necessarily for the right reasons but whatever) again, but to me, Hendrix’s work is just one part of a much larger tapestry that I distinctly remember being a part of as a kid. I joke that I’m a book hoarder and the son of book hoarders, but my parents both read voraciously, and used to have tons of books of all sorts all over whatever home we lived in. Even now, with them wanting to have less and less stuff around, I know that in the attack are just crates of old paperbacks, waiting for a new life cycled out of there onto the bookshelves in the house proper for a tour of duty.

I think I found this book (Ritual by crime writer William Heffernan) during the period when my family lived overseas and I was basically grabbing and consuming any and every English-language novel I could see to satisfy a desire for something. I must have been about 13 or so, I remember reading and re-reading it one summer, my usual habit since I didn’t speak Greek that well at the time, didn’t have many friends, and there was no TV or radio, so I had to ration the batteries for stuff like a Discman (and later, a Gameboy). It was my first exposure to Heffernan, just one of however many my parents had accumulated, being book hoarders themselves (especially my dad). Also, I was (and still am probably) one of those types who was really into weapons, like the budding sociopath I was.

As a kid I was fascinated with swords and axes and bows and arrows, so a book with a weird knife and crazy title on the front (I’m gonna say I read Relic by Preston & Child about the same time so the cool one-word titles were a thing) was almost custom-made to draw my attention in. Did it have some kind of fantasy elements to it? Was it scary? It gave it a sense of fantastic to the book, clashing (on the cover) with the policeman’s shield/badge. A lot of the Signet books (an imprint of NAL, the New American Library publishing company) had designs like this. It might have even been partially-raised, giving a cool texture feel to the cover too, I don’t remember exactly.

Why did we have so many of these kinds of books? My parents are not necessarily the types of people to seem like they’d be obsessed with mostly just crime-slash-mystery novels, they’re fairly run-of-the-mill middle-class types, the children of immigrants. Then again, you never really know about that, about what is going to appeal to people, or why it does.

Also, it’s entirely possible that as a family that travelled a lot at times, these types of train station/airport novels just turned out to be the perfect thing for travelers/commuters to grab and read regularly, and save because they were cheap and fun escapes to come back to once in a while. I’ve read a lot about the crime/mystery market and the whole subculture of straight-to-paperback airport novels, and how they’re a pretty natural evolution of dimestore spinner-rack cheap pulps. I’ve never not paused in a bookstore (even if I know I’m not gonna buy anything) in an airport or a bus/train station, unless I’m in a rush. The desire for a quick fun slab of entertainment with a semi-predicatable but still enjoyable twist is a strong one, maybe moreso than any sort of apparent higher literary calling. They’re so intensely American to me (while I do know the tradition isn’t rooted necessarily in anything uniquely American, it just feels like that), a literary field completely devoid of pretension and desire for anything other than wide readership so that the checks coming in can buy the fancy whiskeys.

Anyway, this is obsensibly a Heffernan book about his character Paul Devlin, but Devlin’s a secondary character compared to the Holmesian Stanislaus Rolk (at least he’s Holmesian in my imagination, I haven’t read this book in like twenty years). I think I really loved it because (SPOILER ALERT FOR A BOOK THAT CAME OUT IN 1990) Rolk turns out to have been the killer all along, and his tough partner Devlin has to be the one to bring him down. It was also gruesome as all fuck and moderately titillating, involving naked human sacrifices, decapitation with an obsidian knife, and the wearing of human skin like a cape. The intellectual detective let his dark side overtake him through his curiosity, delving more and more into obscure Toltec rituals and beliefs (this book is probably the only time the Toltec people were ever mentioned in pop culture), ultimately becoming the obsidian knife-wielding spree slayer. I don’t remember much else about the story, how it ends, how the twists and turns go. Part of me wants to find a cheap copy of this and re-read it, or maybe see if my local library can get me a copy, but part of me recognizes too that a lot of these books from that time of my life were probably not that great for a variety of reasons.

I read a bunch more Heffernan after this book, he’s incredibly prolific as a writer, my parents had a ton of them stashed around our home. A year or so ago When I got my short story “Hit The Till” published through Akashic Books, I found out that Akashic had also published some of Heffernan’s work and I almost hit the fucking ceiling. Those books, with their slick and raised covers, cheap paper pages fat in the glued paperback binding, with the ads and mail-order catalogues in the back, were some of my earliest connections to crime writing/mystery novels, and…yeah, it was wild to, in a tiny and very roundabout way, have my little short mystery story now in the same spider’s-web of publication as his.

Random aside to this whole thing; Looking for a picture/scan of this book’s cover, the cover I remember as a kid is pretty much the main one that comes up, compared to the searching I had to do for other books to find the covers of the editions I remember. It makes me think I wasn’t the only one who loved this cover and was drawn into the book solely because of it. Makes me think maybe I wasn’t as weird a kid as I thought.