Sunday, October 13, 2019

The First Evil

Like last year, for the month of October, I’ve opted to shift some key elements of this blog. I’ll be paying homage to my favorite television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer by dedicating each post to reflections on specific episodes of the show. Moreover, to cram in more BtVS ramblings, I’m foregoing my typical every-other-week posting schedule in favor of posting every weekend.

If you’re a fan of the show, I hope you’ll enjoy these looks back, and if you’re not, maybe I’ll incentivize you to give it a shot. If you find yourself someplace in between—e.g., you’re currently watching the show, please note that these posts will include spoilers about the episode(s) they discuss.

And, if you’re just not interested in Buffy, apologies, but this just isn’t your month. I will be back for a more typical blog post around Halloween, and resume the routine going into November.

This week, I’m looking at “Conversations with Dead People.”

As the seventh and final season of BtVS got rolling, I, for one, feared the bloom had come off the rose. I was still a loyal fan who liked the world of this show and its cast, but the early episodes meandered a bit, feeling more like the fall out from season six (which, as I’ve written before, I didn’t love at the time) than a new story. Dawn felt over-featured as the show grasped at its high school roots, and Spike with a soul looked increasingly like the pitiful vampire that that character used to make fun of Angel for having become.

“Conversations with Dead People” turned things around.

Cassie Newton, one of the more striking one-off characters from earlier in the season, was back. So was Joyce Summers, in a manner of speaking. This episode was all about characters literally facing the ghosts of their past, followed by the revelation that these heart-wrenching moments weren’t about ghosts at all. They were about evil.

One of the premises that made Buffy so successful over time was the ability to constantly generate new “big bads” or featured villains who lasted most of the season before Buffy and company overcame them. Sure, the Master felt immediately dated, and Adam and the Initiative were lame. But Angel and Willow as big bads offered up wonderfully complicated personal connections to balance while saving the world. The Mayor was a perfect blend of overwhelming force and comic relief, and a fine balance to Faith as Buffy’s more personal rival. Glory was a god.

While its debatable that the threats truly escalated season by season, each was impressive in their own scope. For the last season of the show, it made sense to unveil the greatest antagonist of all, The First--the original, all-encompassing force of evil. (And for those quick to comment, yes The First was introduced as far back as season three, and we’d seen hints of it we couldn’t quite make sense of in preceding episodes—I stand by the assertion that this episode properly introduced the rest-of-the-season's primary threat.)

That The First launches this campaign against the slayer via attacking her friends and family through people they once knew strikes a brilliant personal chord (while also establishing its ability to occupy the dead). This big bad doesn’t view its rivalry with Buffy as so much incidental to a master plan, as it is a core tenant; The First intends to wipe out the slayer line, and Buffy first and foremost, en route to bigger things.

In a show tinged with horror, “Conversations” actually feels scary, for the personal touches, the manipulations, and, sure, the better special effects than the show benefited from for most of its run. It’s debatable how well the season held up from this point (while I felt the storyline was a little over-extended, I stand by it, and particularly its conclusion, on the whole). Nonetheless, “Conversations” remains, in my mind, one of the most captivating single hours BtVS ever gave us.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Season Two Finale(s)

Like last year, for the month of October, I’ve opted to shift some key elements of this blog. I’ll be paying homage to my favorite television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer by dedicating each post to reflections on specific episodes of the show. Moreover, to cram in more BtVS ramblings, I’m foregoing my typical every-other-week posting schedule in favor of posting every weekend.

If you’re a fan of the show, I hope you’ll enjoy these looks back, and if you’re not, maybe I’ll incentivize you to give it a shot. If you find yourself someplace in between—e.g., you’re currently watching the show, please note that these posts will include spoilers about the episode(s) they discuss.

And, if you’re just not interested in Buffy, apologies, but this just isn’t your month. I will be back for a more typical blog post around Halloween, and resume the routine going into November.

I’m going to kick off this Buffy month with a look at the two-part season two finale, ”Becoming” parts one and two.

The first season of BtVS simultaneously feels quite different from the rest of the series, and lays a template for what the show becomes. On the not-so-positive side, it’s the season with the clunkiest special effects, the least consistent acting, and the most acceptance of clich├ęs like Cordelia starting out the generic mean girl, or The Master feeding fervently into old arch-villain tropes. On the other hand, it also establishes most of the core cast, and lays the foundation of this being a show that works on season-long narrative arcs, and that will pay off with a meaningful conclusion in its final episodes.

The start of season two threatens to undo that last part, with the threat of The Master being brought back (un-)life. The scheme fails however, and by the time we’re three episodes deep into the season, the Anointed One is gone, too, thus eliminating the last of the season one regime and establishing that this story will continue moving forward with new villains looming.

Season two is still a little rough around the edges when it comes to production and deciding how much Buffy will be a show for teens or a show that just happens to be about teens at that stage. I’d suggest that a lot of the more melodramatic moments of this season come down to the show working out those pieces. But while most of the show’s characters still have another year of high school to come, “Becoming” feels like a graduation on multiple levels.

In what would arguably become an over-used device--particularly on spin-off series Angel--“Becoming” includes a deluge of flashbacks, bringing us back to how Angel became the vampire he is at this point. I’d argue it works here to lend the show a greater immensity of scope, and make it pack all the more punch when Buffy ultimately has to send the guy to hell.

On the point of graduation, this is Buffy having to make her first genuinely hard choice. Sure, defeating the Master in season one was challenging, but there were no mixed emotions from Buffy nor the audience about the fact that he had to go. But here she is a year later, sacrificing her lover to save the world, and foreshadowing elements like her conflicted feud with fellow slayer Faith in season three, being pressed to choose between her sister and the world in season five, and Willow turning out to be the “big bad” of season six. We also see Joyce commence the much fuller realization of her character, not oblivious, but rather quite suddenly aware of her daughter’s battles against undead forces. We see Spike tease that he might fight for the forces of good, too (if, to start out, only in a self-serving way).

Season two's final episodes thus brings the show's concerns to a head like no episode before it. While Angel will be back, the threat of an evil version of him is subdued for BtVS purposes. The Scoobies are beaten down and look the worse for wear in their final frames, while Buffy is leaving on a bus out of town.

I didn’t watch “Becoming” when it originally aired, but watched the two episodes back to back when I caught up on the second half or so of season two over the summer after it was originally broadcasted. It’s an understatement to say that these episodes connected with me. At the time, I’d have readily proclaimed them the best hour and a half of television I’d ever seen, and certainly my favorite episode(s) of Buffy. I’d have carried on telling you that for years to follow, as I dug in my heels that while season three was more polished, season two was better; if I remember rightly, season five finale “The Gift” was the first episode to challenge my placement of “Becoming” on top.

While I will still engage in esoteric thought processes that go with ranking BtVS episodes, and all too readily challenge articles that claim to have a ranking down definitively, I’ll also acknowledge how silly and arbitrary such an enterprise is now. For while I have a deeper connection to and appreciation for “Becoming” than “Surprise,” “Innocence,” or “Passion,” I nonetheless recognize it wouldn’t have worked to nearly the extent it does without those emotionally rich episodes to precede it.

“Becoming” is less a two part episode that should be compared and ranked than it is an ultra-satisfying last chapter to season two that actualizes so much of the potential established for the show up to that point, besides setting up so much of what works about the show to follow, in Buffy needing to mend fences with friends and family, Willow showing glimmers of the witch she’ll become, and Angel needing to leave town (after he makes it back from hell). This is Buffy clicking on all cylinders, and it was thankfully just the beginning.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The One With...

Like many young people from my generation, I loved Friends.

I got hooked on the NBC sitcom mid-way through its first season and, in the style of the day, caught up via reruns, TV Guide articles, and synopses from friends (real life, actual ones) in lieu of the ability to stream episodes or, at that point, even go online to read episode summaries.

The show lasted for ten seasons, and I can’t claim to have watched the last few in real time. Leaving for college, and a drop-off in the show’s quality--all but inevitable for how long it was on--meant I caught episodes here and there, and followed the big plot points, but didn’t follow the last two or three seasons faithfully.

And so, while I got in on certain shows from my youth like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and My So-Called Life--buying the DVDs and re-watching every episode periodically, Friends most slipped from my consciousness for a period of years. It aired in syndication with enough regularity that I couldn’t help but see it here and there in those latter days of channel surfing, or in waiting rooms, but in thinking back on the show it felt sort of quaint, and best left in the past.

More recently, however, Friends came to Netflix. First, I read articles about the show’s discovery by a new generation of viewers—teenagers and early-twenty-somethings fascinated by this relic of an era largely before cell phones (let alone smart phones), online dating, or streaming video services (bear in mind, the final episode of Friends aired in May 2004; YouTube first launched in February 2005).

There came a point when Heather and I re-indulged. We’d both liked Friends a great deal in our respective youths and thought it might be a fun trip down memory lane.

We’ve now watched the full series twice through and large chunks out of sequence on top of that.

There are parts of the show that don’t hold up so well. Ross’s sense of entitlement and insistence on being a nice guy don’t translate well to a contemporary context, and the whole gang is awful quick to make homophobic quips.

All the more so, on the second viewing, it clicked to me why the show resonated so much with my teenage self. Despite playing twenty- and then thirty-somethings in the big city, despite Ross boasting a PhD and the lot of the Friends characters working grown-up jobs, they otherwise conduct themselves like teenagers.

Particularly in the show’s middle to later years, Chandler’s stories tend to revolve around variations on the idiot’s plot--simple miscommunications that, if simply clarified up front would resolve all complications. Ross’s pining after Rachel and over-eagerness to commit his life to women with marriage proposals? Totally the awkward melodrama a teenage boy like myself would rush to. There’s Monica’s body image issues and the running gag that it’s funny she used to be fat, and Rachel’s avoidance of responsibility. Joey eats like a teenager and scarcely demonstrates the emotional maturity of anything but one. Phoebe--despite my dismissing her as an airhead in my youth--may actually be the most adult member of the core cast, though her flights of fancy don’t exactly make her a reassuringly grown-up figure.

And maybe this was the magic of Friends--a show with a teenager’s sensibility, featuring a more adult cast in superficially adult situations, such that grownups could watch it to without a sense of guilt at their own immaturity.

I write all of this from a place of love. For as much I can’t in good conscious call Friends a great TV show, the way I would have in high school without any sense of irony, I still do have a soft spot for it. I don’t doubt I’ll watch the show straight through again, nor that I’ll do so multiple times. Like Mountain Dew or Skittles, it remains sweet, associated with external memories, and appealing after a certain late hour of the night. I’m not proud to be a fan of Friends--an overrated show that over-stayed its best-by date by at least a couple years. And yet Chandler waving his finger from inside a wooden box on Thanksgiving, Phoebe singing “Smelly Cat,” Rachel fumbling with the Central Perk locks before Ross gets in to kiss her for the first time--for better or for worse, these moments stay with me, as warm and nostalgic as plenty of times from my real life.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

My First Book

My first book, You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue, officially drops today from Duck Lake Books. This project has been a long time coming, full of false-starts, re-dos, crises of faith, and at last, today, fruition.

Particularly for those of you follow this blog but don’t do much social media, and to gather some material in one place, today’s post compiles some odds and ends related to the book release.

You can order the book online directly from the publisher, via Amazon, and through Barnes & Noble.

The book got its first review in Kirkus Reviews and its second from Lori Duff. I was pleased to do interviews about the book with Chuck Augello from Cease, Cows, Elizabeth Gaucher from Longridge Review, and with Elaina Curci from The Lamron, each largely focused on the book, and to similarly get a blog post up with the good folks at Orson’s Review.

In the month leading up to release, i recruited eight super-talented writer friends from across the country to join me in recording a “Virtual Release Party” video, shared below.

If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering what you can do to support me and the book. Perhaps it’s too obvious to bother mentioning, but I would love for you to buy yourself a copy and read it. Beyond that, here are some other ideas:

-Share the book on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. are the new word of mouth—it’s an effective, no-cost way of getting the book’s name and links out there. (If you’re reading this post close to the release, you may notice I’m also running a promotion in Twitter, complete with a give-away or two.)

-Request a copy at your local library. Doing so will sell a copy (and enable you to read the book without having to buy if you’re strapped for cash). Besides that, it can help the book reach more readers in your local community.

-Review the book. Reviews can drive a book’s visibility at online vendors like Amazon (e.g., not only more sales, but more reviews even if you didn’t buy the book there, or haven’t read it yet can make the book show up more often in Amazon’s suggested items and as a higher search result). Reviews are also great for getting the word out there in personal blogs or, if you’re feeling really ambitious, in literary journals.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

In My Life

My grandmother always said her favorite song was “In My Life” by The Beatles. So it was that, for years before I heard it in any other context, or recognized that it was a famous song by the most famous band that ever played—the kind of song many people know, and just about everyone has heard at one time or another—I associated it all with Grandma Jean.

I’ve written about Grandma Jean here before, but to recap she was, bar none, my favorite figure from my childhood. A kind woman, retired before I was born, transplanted from the bustling streets of New York to a raised ranch situated in quiet Upstate New York neighborhood. I remember her as genuinely interested in what my sister and I had to say; she was the best gift giver and the one to spoil us with too many sweets at Christmas time.

In connecting “In My Life” and all of its inveterate nostalgia to Grandma Jean and her life, I accessed an empathy for what it was like to be old, and to have most of the people who had made up your life situated in your rear-view mirror (an imperfect metaphor, because Grandma had never did learn how to drive a car). Moreover, though my grandmother didn’t pass away until I was twenty-four, I understood mortality through her—an example of someone so old such that it was clear she’d pass before me, and an example of someone whom I would miss wholeheartedly when she was gone.

There are these lyrics:

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

I always took these lyrics to reference someone who came before, due a greater, almost reverential kind of love that no other memory could compare to. I outgrew the sentiment—still very much putting my grandmother on a pedestal, but not so quick to assess that I love her more than the closest friends I’ve now known longer than her, my sister, my wife. My understanding of the song didn’t change, but my ability to identify so readily with that heart of it did.

Then there was Riley.

When my son was born I felt a love unlike any I’d experienced before. The kind of love that gets you up for middle of the night feedings, has you wear spit-up on your shoulder in public, and has you wipe away feces without resentment or even so much a sense of obligation as a desire to take care of someone you feel so fortunate to have around.

I know there’s a risk of over-sentimentalizing a baby. He’s not formed enough to hold anything against him, or to have developed opinions I disagree with, or to have done much of anything with a sense of agency or intent.

Still, though I’m past the point when I’d pay any meaningful thought to ranking people in my life, when it comes to my son, I understand “In My Life” as not entirely nostalgic, but also assessing its present and gazing toward the future. After all, it’s right in the song that these memories lose their meaning when I think of love as something new.

And though I know I’ll never lose affection for Grandma Jean, or any of a cast of others whom were closest and dearest to me at different points in my life, when I think of them now, I imagine less reliving what we would do long ago, or telling them about my life since we were in each other's and asking about theirs. I think, first and foremost, that I wish they could know Riley. Just as I had them in my life, I wish Riley could have them in his life, too.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Eighteen Years Old

Dear Eighteen Year Old Me,

Greetings! You’ve just started college—that first taste of freedom out from beneath your father’s thumb and I know you have a lot of people telling you a lot of things. You’ve got college professors who come across as old and wise, and RAs and administrators explaining rules throughout orientation. You don’t necessarily want another voice of advice at this point, but given I’m you and I’m now just about two times your age, I think I’ve got some ethos here.

There’s eighteen years between us, so let’s boil this down to eighteen points.

1) Keep up the writing. Trust me when I say that a lot of things in your life will change, but writing is one of the few endeavors that will consistently give you pleasure, and even professional enrichment. Don’t have such a big head about your talent, though. You’ve got a lot to learn, and you’d be better served to start listening sooner to your writing professors, in particular, instead of thinking they don’t understand what you’re going for. Sometimes they don’t, but they’re mostly right anyway. It wouldn’t kill you to build up better karma for when (spoiler!) you’re teaching writing to college kids yourself down the road.

2) Read more. Not just the books you’re assigned and not just over the summer. There’s more good literature than you’re ever going to have time to consume, and the sooner you can put a dent in your personal to-read list, the better off you’ll be.

3) You had a lot of fun writing that novel, senior year of high school. You’ll learn a lot from revisiting it, too, and it’s not that it’s a bad story. It’s also a fundamentally flawed book. You may still take pieces of it to use for other projects, but trust me that you ought to let the project go. Seven or eight drafts, and you’ll know it’s true. Reinvest that time in reading, writing more short stories, or at least drafting a different bad novel.

4) Don’t go straight to grad school after you graduate. It’s the choice you’ll make in the end anyway, but you’ll be better off not getting hung up on the idea. All that advice you get about getting life and work experience, and saving up money first is right.

5) Stop worrying so much about getting a girlfriend. You have and will continue to expend more time and emotional energy in wide-eyed crushes on women you’ll be too awkward to really get to know--time and emotional energy that would be far better invested in cultivating real relationships whether they lead to romance or not. Remember last spring, when you asked a friend rather than a prospective girlfriend to prom, because you wanted to have fun rather than putting a bunch of BS pressure on yourself. More of that, please.

6) When you do make out with a woman (and, yes, it will happen this year—congrats!) know that that doesn’t mean you’re going to marry her, or even have a relationship with her that ought to expand past that night. And that’s fine. You need the experience.

7) While we’re on the topic of your relationships with the opposite sex, a pointed reminder: they’re people. I know you think of yourself as a nice guy, and in many ways you are, but you still have had some pretty messed up ideas embedded in your mind about what the world (i.e., women) owes you. Remember to be nice even when--heck, especially when--things don’t go the way you wanted for them to. Your realization that not every woman is worth the heartache marks personal progress, but it shouldn’t take you as long as it did to learn, too, that a woman who doesn’t want to sleep with you is not a bad person.

8) Stop drinking so much Mountain Dew. Real talk: I still like it and indulge more than I should, but like many things in life, it’s better left an occasional treat for a long drive or a holiday than something you consume a two-liter bottle (or more) of each week.

9) Don’t worry about people finding out you’re a devout pro wrestling fan. Yes, there’s a stigma with some people, but most of the people who wouldn’t like you for your fandom aren’t worth chasing after anyway. You’ll make some good friends in college, and later on in an office job for the fact that you love wrestling, and in each case, will wish you’d come out of that particular closet sooner. You’ll even find something of an artistic niche writing about wrestling down the line!

10) You’re going to hit what seems like a sweet spot, of your first (relatively) lucrative office job around the same time there’s going to be a boom in the release of wrestling DVDs. Indulge some. Those complete anthologies of WrestleManias and Royal Rumbles will legitimately bring you joy, so go ahead and treat yourself. A few years later, though, WWE is going to roll out a streaming service. I know you don’t know what a streaming service is yet, but the central thrust is that it’s going to make the vast collection of DVDs you’ll be tempted to invest in more or less obsolete. Have some restraint.

11) Don’t be afraid to have dinner by yourself sometimes, or to spend a Saturday night in watching a movie you like. Taking some time for yourself doesn’t mean you don’t have a social life, and you’ll have more energy after you do take that time a little more often. There’ll be times when you can’t be on your own—take advantage of it when you can.

12) Make the most of time with your friends, too, though. You know how you feel about your high school buddies now that you don’t see each other all the time? That’s your first big dose of that feeling, but it won’t be the last. You’ll have your college friends, too, and friends from your summer gig and from every move to follow. No, your friends aren’t perfect, and some will be closer than others, but they’re people worth knowing, and its in knowing people that you build a life. Don’t take them for granted.

13) Start waking up earlier. You may never be a morning person, but it’s a good habit to get into before you start working full time, and you might be surprised how much you can get done in the early morning hours.

14) Invest in a GPS. The time spent not lost is well worth the investment.

15) You actually can grow a beard--who knew? Give it a few weeks, though, and until you have a few weeks to spend on it, out of the public eye, you’d might as well wait.

16) Start lifting weights, and don’t be embarrassed to do it in a gym. I know you think you should wait until after your metabolism slows and you fill out some, but you’re going to be waiting a while, and you can get stronger and more confident in your body a lot sooner than that.

17) Quit wearing the large and extra-large t-shirts. You’re swimming in them.

18) You like cats. Consider getting one.

Have fun and stay safe. But not too safe.

Yours truly,

Mike

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Revenge on Bullies

In the passage of John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries that most stuck with me, the protagonist, Juan Diego, recalls a boy who picked on him in adolescence, and the reassurances he heard as a boy. The essence of the lesson is that revenge on bullies rarely plays out like it does in the movies or on TV--in a crane kick that both humbles Johnny and earns his respect, your telekinetically empowered friend breaking the boy with the switchblade's arm, or in a dramatic tell-off that humiliates the mean girl in front of the whole school so that she withers and no longer poses a threat to the innocents.

No, Juan Diego learns that revenge is served over time. In overcoming such oppression and arriving as a successful adult while that mean-spirited jerk, cruel enough to pick on someone out-sized or psychologically ill-equipped for a rebuttal, struggles in both personal relationships and professional pursuits. After all, can a jerk maintain a marriage or be a successful parent? And who wants to hire or promote a jerk up the ranks of a company? (There are exceptions, I know--many a corporate executive who would be described as cut-throat before kind, but bear with me on the principle.)

Still, I understand this impulse toward a more immediate revenge. I still remember a group of older boys who hid in a hedge in Halloween masks, only spring out at my friend and I on a walk, push around, and chase us. I remember sophomore year of high school, changing in the locker room after gym class, when a muscular senior grabbed the back of my neck and the back of the neck of my friend and squeezed. I forget what he said in the moment, but remember the physical pain, and more so the wince of pain and fear on my friend’s face, and more than that the sense of helplessness. That somehow I ought to help my friend, but that there was nothing I could do--nothing, at least, that wouldn’t get one or the both of us pummeled for sure. And I remember daydreaming about that moment afterward. That I might have shouted after him, after he let us go. Threats of real violence. Not that I had thoughts of meaningfully hurting, much less killing anyone, but that I might make the threat, as much trouble as it would get me in, and might enter the fear into his consciousness. Make him lose sleep and watch his back in the hallways.

It’s a strange and ugly fantasy, this idea of psychological warfare. I’m embarrassed to have entertained the idea now, and yet, when I put myself back into a fifteen year old’s head space, I get it. The absence of power and desperate groping to access some. I don’t necessarily believe in the idea of the media, be it news or R-rated movies or first-person shooter video games causing violent behavior, but I do very much get the way in which it can plant seeds, or pose possibilities of what actions are available to fantasize about, let alone execute.

Out of all of this, there’s an unspoken corollary to what Juan Diego learns about bullies. That, sure, as Beyonce might suggest, “the best revenge is your paper,” but that there also might be those bullies who change over time. Heck, I saw it to an extent in my school years, in kids who were jerks in gym class and on the school bus, who, by the time we were in high school, were friendly, or at least indifferent toward us nerdier, un-athletic kids. And isn’t that an objectively better outcome--not so much revenge per se, but rather all parties involved legitimately becoming better people?

There are those boys I looked at with a mix of fear and envy, who found me on Facebook and sent me friend requests a decade or two later. More often than not, I accepted, not expecting to see that they’d failed at life, and I was the greater success--more often than not, I’ve found us on more-or-less equal footing. And I like to think this is how we all move along. In letting vengeance go and continuing to connect not out of spite but from a place of curiosity and maybe even care.

The best revenge, then, might be to forget those middle and high school bullies, and to forget myself as victim. To see us as people who have inevitably and profoundly evolved since those points in time.

That bully from the locker room? I thought to look him up as I wrote this post. The funny thing, all these years later, is that I can’t remember his name.