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No More Creative Writing?

July 21, 2018

For the past several months, I’ve been spending time putting together my horror short story collection, Fear the Darkness, Shun the Light. Horror is one of my favorite genres in which to both read and write, right up there with fantasy and crime. The collection is available on Amazon for Kindle, and hopefully the print-on-demand version will follow suit before much longer. What I’ve been wondering as I put this collection together is whether this is the last feature-length fiction project I’ll ever publish. It’s been upwards of a year since I’ve done any creative writing. I’m burned out on it. I worked so hard writing fiction for so many years, and I self-published so much, but I never saw the financial dividends that I wanted from it. I always had to support myself in other ways. This past week I turned 37, and I feel like I’ve missed my chance. The spark that I had for it, the drive, the desire, has burned out.

I know that it was always a long shot that I would succeed as an author anyway. There’s just so much competition, and while I’ve liked some of the stuff I’ve written over the years, very little of it ever reached the high standards I set for myself. Any lit agents or publishing houses I queried seemed to feel the same way. It’s true that many of my short stories were published, but I wanted more than that, and it felt like I had a window of opportunity to get noticed in a big way, and now, with me pushing 40, that window is closed. I’m not as bitter about it as I thought I might be. I just don’t care as much about succeeding as a novelist as I used to.

Perhaps part of the reason is that for approaching a year now I’ve been making a living through my writing. Granted, it’s not writing creatively, at least not in the sense that I always envisioned. I’ve been working mostly as a blogger and a copywriter, things of that nature. It’s steady, and I get to work from home, which automatically makes it one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, if not the best. Since there’s no commute, I don’t have to worry about driving through the snows of a harsh Rochester winter to get to some job where I don’t even want to be. But since I write now for many hours every week, my desire to make up stories that nobody seems all that interested in reading is almost nonexistent. Meg compared it to a chef who cooks every day not wanting to come home and having to cook dinner for their family. I think that she’s on to something. If you do something professionally, you seldom desire to do it creatively in your spare time.

It’s okay that I didn’t make it as a novelist. It was a nice dream to have for a while, but I’m at a different stage in my life now. I’m more content than I ever remember being. I have pretty much everything else I ever wanted. I’m in a healthy, loving relationship, I have pets, a house with no mortgage on it, a lovely back yard, and it’s all on a quiet street where there’s virtually no crime or shady characters anywhere nearby. It’s as close to the American dream as I ever thought I would be, and it’s perhaps more conventional than I imagined when I was younger. It’s unexpected, but delightful.

Will the horror collection be the last fiction I write? It’s hard to say. I have another novel that I wrote, the sequel to Transitional Period, but I don’t know if I like it enough for it to ever see the light of day. It goes back, again, to the tough standards I set for myself. Perhaps when I’m older and I retire, assuming that day ever comes, I will return to fiction writing as a hobby. Maybe my writing will even be better for all the living I’ve done in the meantime, all the experience that I’ve compiled. I’m glad that I wasn’t so fixated on becoming a successful novelist that the failure depressed me too badly. It was something that I wanted very much at one point, but the older me is a different version of me, and I’m fine with it.

My thanks goes out to anyone that ever bought one of my novels, or story or essay collections. I know that there weren’t that many of you. I guess it’s nice just to think that maybe one or two people out there who I never met read something that I wrote, and enjoyed it. That was just as important to me as the financial gain ever was. Perhaps you might see something new from me down the line. How many years might pass between now and then, I couldn’t tell you. I feel like I’m in semi-retirement as a fiction writer. I took my chance, I did the best I could, and now there are other vistas that have opened up for me. From where I sit, it’s a damn fine view.


Celebrity Suicides

June 9, 2018

Within the past week, celebrity fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain both committed suicide. Early reports indicate that they each hung themselves, so there was no doubt that it was intentional for both of them. Bourdain left a note in which he spoke about his reasons for making the choice that he did. It seems that he struggled with demons in his life; at one point he gave an interview where he talked about being addicted to heroin and cocaine at some juncture, and although he seemed clean in recent years, he often ruminated about the pushing of boundaries. He said at one point “I also do feel I have things to live for. There have been times, honestly, in my life that I figured, I’ve had a good run- why not just do this stupid thing, this selfish thing…jump off a cliff into water of indeterminate depth.” It seems clear that ending his life by his own hand was something that he had thought about before.

Both Kate Spade and Bourdain were celebrities, and because of that, they were forced to spend some portion of their lives in the public eye. Maybe that adds more pressure to a person’s life; not being a celebrity myself, I don’t know. But there are plenty of people who lead quiet, unassuming lives who also kill themselves, so I don’t think that fame can be the single determining factor. No two people have the exact same reasons for killing themselves, I suspect, but everyone has pressure in their lives. Many people suffer from depression, whether they are clinically diagnosed or not. Many more of them have down periods or black moods, and I would certainly categorize myself among them. But I’m one of those who eschew therapy, so I’ve never been told exactly what’s going on with me, nor am I on any drugs to treat it.

I’m not suicidal. There’s a lot in my life for which I’m thankful, and being in a happy marriage and living in a nice house that I own outright are at the top of that list. I have a dog and two cats that I love, and within the past year I’ve been able to get out of an industry that I despised and start supporting myself exclusively through my writing, which is what I’ve always dreamed of doing. And yet, when I hear about someone committing suicide, all I can say is that I understand. I get it. Val Kilmer was quick to call Anthony Bourdain selfish for doing what he did, but who is he to judge? Nobody knows what it’s like to walk a mile or even an inch in anyone else’s shoes, and some people are just miserable. Life is no longer for them.

And it makes so much sense to me…life is just so tiring. It’s exhausting sometimes. In my case, approaching the age of thirty-seven next month, I never imagined that I would still be here. I don’t want to pile on the melodrama, but I was quite sure at one point that I was going to die in my late teens or early twenties. I don’t know if I was exactly suicidal at that point, but I thought about my death nearly constantly during that time. I did an incredible amount of drugs, and I put myself in situations where I could have been seriously harmed, where I could have died. I was so angry and despairing because of my parents’ divorce and the disintegration of the family that it made me crazed. I got through that time, mostly due to the incredible resilience that a young human body possesses, and now I’m staring down the barrel at middle age. I’m better mentally, but I feel on some occasions like I’m living on stolen time, a sentiment that was echoed in certain comments made by Anthony Bourdain.

I don’t have any plans of killing myself, but because I’m the morbid person that I am, I wonder what I would do if Megan died. If she got killed in a car wreck today, would I mourn for a while and then pick up the pieces, perhaps start dating again? Or would I start looking into the direction that Bourdain or Kate Spade took, or uncounted others since humanity began? Would I just say enough is enough, I’ve had a good run, and I can let go, because I don’t feel like I have anything to look forward to anymore? That’s not something that I could know unless that situation came to pass, so it’s pointless to speculate…and yet I can’t help it sometimes. It’s just the way my mind operates.

I don’t know what it was like to live as Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade, or anyone else but me. Each human experience is perfectly unique. But I would never call someone selfish for taking their own life. Living is hard, and if you don’t agree, then that’s bully for you, but it’s hard sometimes for me. To Bourdain and Spade, wherever you are now, maybe you just didn’t want to deal with the bullshit anymore, and if so, I completely get it. I understand.


A Family Interlude

April 22, 2018

This past week, Megan and I had several visitors. My mother was here from Cincinnati, as well as my father and his wife. My sister and her partner were here from the West Coast, along with Ezra, my nephew. The break in the routine was welcome, but it also felt a little odd. We don’t entertain much. I had the opportunity to cook a big elaborate dinner for the group, which I enjoyed, since I don’t have any friends or family nearby for whom to prepare meals. There was warmth and fellowship; everyone got to meet the new dog, who acted protective of Megan and I at first, but soon enough calmed down and behaved himself. Food was consumed, and everyone spoke well of my pumpkin bread, a new recipe I’d never tried before.

They were here for a few days, and during that time we went to the Strong Museum of Play, which Ezra enjoyed. We went to a trampoline park, which he also liked, and I must say that Megan and I enjoyed it too, though we were sore for a couple of days afterward. Closing in on middle age, our bodies aren’t as flexible and durable as that of a four-and-a-half year old.

All in all, it was a nice visit, though by the time it was over, I think everyone was ready to go back to their own homes and resume their own routines. Ezra was a good barometer for that. The last day of the trip, he was fussy. He fretted and seemed irritable, and he said in his own limited vocabulary that he was done with vacation; he wanted to go home. Now he’s gone back to Berkley with Ann and Brian, and he’ll resume his California upbringing.

It was nice to see my nephew, as he is starting to develop his own personality. At his age, his vocabulary is growing, and he is learning more about the world. I’ll see him again in July, and we can continue forging our own relationship. It seems evident, though, that he is a little wary of me. It’s understandable. I’m a large physical presence, taller than either of his parents. My voice is deep, and I’m heavily tattooed. I don’t know if he finds any of that intimidating, but there’s more to it. I think that I’m not able to identify with young people very well. Not being a father myself, I’m seldom around them. When I am, I try to be as friendly as possible, but it’s hard for me to get back into the imaginative, playful frame of mind that children seem to occupy so easily. I’ve been in the adult world for too long, and it’s made me rough and cynical.

Whenever I see Ezra, who at this point is the last of the Finkelstein bloodline, it makes me think about the decision by Megan and myself not to have children. It’s not one that I’ve ever regretted, but I’m glad that my parents have a biological grandchild with whom they can play, and on whom they can lavish affection. I don’t know if I would have made a good father, or if Megan would have made a good mother, but I feel like, each time I see Ezra, that our decision is validated. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a perfectly lovely boy, energetic, full of that spark of life that makes one feel confident that there’s hope for the next generation. But at the same time, after a few days I’ve had my fill, and maybe that sounds bad to say, but it’s the truth. If Megan and I were parents, then we wouldn’t be able to ever have a significant respite from the responsibilities that Ann and Brian have shouldered. It’s nice that my sister is so engaged with being a mother. The thing about kids is that once you have them, there’s no putting them back. You have to deal with them till they turn eighteen…and beyond. I’m glad that she hasn’t regretted her decision to make such a dramatic change in her life.

As for me, I’m fine with being Uncle Steve, and I’ll see the youngster soon for the family vacation. And for now, I’ll go back to the routine, blissfully free of children, unless you count our canine baby that’s intent on digging as many holes in the lawn as he can. More soon, true believers.


A Writer Indeed

April 1, 2018

I’ve been writing seriously for approximately the last twenty years. In 1999, while attending my freshman year at Point Park College in Pittsburgh, I wrote an essay contest for the school paper which I called “The Essay on Pharmaceutical Disobedience.” It won the top prize, which was forty dollars. I used it to buy acid. I’ve come a long way since then. Twenty years is a long time in anyone’s life. I’ve worked more than a dozen jobs, lived in five different states. Now married, I live in upstate New York, with two cats and a dog sharing my house alongside my wife, Megan. I don’t know that I necessarily mapped out my life years ago to get to this point, but here I am, and I’m enjoying myself.

In 2009, when I moved to New York, I got into the security industry. I wrote blogs about it: the monotony, the lousy pay, dealing with inconsiderate businessmen, homeless people, and perverts. My memoir “You Never Know Who’s Crazy” captures that time in my life pretty well. I was in the security industry close to ten years. I took a security gig here in Rochester when I first got here, because it was what I knew, I had my license for it, and I didn’t know any other viable ways to support myself. But this past October, I quit. I’d had enough…more than enough. The security jobs made me miserable. I had an aptitude for it, but that’s doesn’t mean I ever liked it.

In the meantime, of course, I had been writing. I’d been doing it the whole time, on the side. Or maybe the shit jobs that I was working were on the side, and the writing was what actually took precedence…it was hard to say sometimes. When I was introduced to someone for the first time, and they asked what I did, sometimes I would say “I’m a writer,” while knowing that wasn’t my primary source of income. In point of fact, I was a writer, whether I was in Cincinnati working as a parking attendant at DuBois Bookstore, in North Myrtle Beach working at Applebee’s as a line cook, or in New York City working a variety of security jobs. Yes, I was a writer, but it came off more like a hobby if it wasn’t how I was putting food on the table. I was a writer, but I was also a bouncer, or a fire safety director, or whatever else was paying the bills. It was like that for a really, really long time.

But late in 2017, it finally happened: I went pro. I quit my last security job, and I do mean my last security job, because I never intend on getting another one. I’ve been a novelist for years, and I’ve had several of them published, though I’ve had to handle their publication myself. If you’ve followed my work over the years, you already knew that. But now I’m a freelance writer, and I’m being paid for it. I’m being paid consistently, and hired consistently too. The reason I’ve been able to make the transition fairly smoothly is because I’m a good writer, and once my employers see that, they usually want more of my work. I’ve signed up and created a profile for myself on a freelance writing site, and I’ve done about ten gigs since October. Some are for less money, some for more. Some are for longer periods of time, some shorter. I get paid by the hour for some of them, or by the gig for others. But I’m in demand, and I don’t think it’s at all likely that the work will dry up. I seem to have found a niche for myself: writing professionally. Who would’ve thunk it?

It’s true that in these gigs, I’m often writing things that it wouldn’t be my first choice to write about. I’d still like to make my living creating the fantasy, horror, and crime stories that I love so much. Maybe that will still happen some day. Never say never. But in the meantime, when I meet someone new, and they ask me my profession, I can proudly say “I’m a writer.” There’s no caveat. I don’t also have to mutter “But I do security work to make ends meet.” I’m a writer, and that’s my sole means of income. At the age of thirty-six, it’s the first time in my life that I can say that. And that’s pretty cool, don’t you think?

I wanted to close with the news that my new horror story collection “Fear the Darkness, Shun the Light,” will be out soon for Kindle and in print-on-demand format. More information on that will be forthcoming. Till next time, true believers, this is Steven, professional writer, signing off.


The New Baby

January 29, 2018

I’ve never wanted children.There was never any kind of uncertainty for me. It’s lucky that I fell in love with a woman who felt the same way, or it probably would have proven problematic at some point. I guess that if Megan had really, really wanted kids, then I might have acquiesced. I don’t know…it’s hard to say, and luckily, since we feel the same way about it, it’s never going to be an issue. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a parental streak, and that’s why we’ve had cats for more than ten years now, and why we got the dog, Jimmy Bagels, back in September.

The name Jimmy Bagels was given to the animal by Megan. It was her turn to name the next pet; we take turns, and at one point, while we were living in Brooklyn, there was a big mob bust that netted over a hundred members of organized crime families. They all had nicknames like Jimmy Bagels and Tony Pizza, and I guess she thought it would be cute to have a dog with one of those as his actual name. We originally thought the name Jimmy Bagels would be good for a bulldog, but we weren’t looking for any specific breed. We were looking more for a medium-sized dog who wasn’t a purebred, since purebred dogs tend to have more health problems than mutts.

We’d wanted a dog for more than a decade. We didn’t think it was right for us to have one in Brooklyn, living in a small apartment. It was hard enough with the two cats who don’t get along. But once we got out of the city, once we bought the house with the back yard, and once we put in the new deck last year with the gate, it was finally time to get the dog we’d wanted for so very long. We went to an adoption event that was about a twenty-five minute drive away, and on the way there, we talked about how we would only get the dog we were going to see if we felt like he was a good fit. Privately, I knew that the chances of us not getting the puppy, who was five months old at the time, were remote. Unless it had three eyes, or had some other visible deformity, that animal was going home with us. We had waited for so long, how could it have been otherwise?

To see the animal in the flesh, a stumbling, bumbling, brown-and-white creature of indeterminate breeding, didn’t seem like an emotional event to me at the time. He seemed nice enough, happy to meet us, but also happy to meet everybody else around. What I’m getting at is that it wasn’t like he went right up to us and claimed us as his owners, as you sometimes hear about dogs doing. But we were there, and he was there, so we went ahead and signed the papers and took him home. It was only when we had driven back to the house, and we had taken the little guy into the back yard, so he could sniff around and start to learn his territory, that I unexpectedly found myself tearing up. I think it was just that we had talked about that moment for so very, very long: having the house, two cars in the driveway, the back yard, with the puppy running around in it. We had been talking about it, literally, for many years, and usually in the context of how, while we were living in New York and busting our asses to get by, we wouldn’t ever be able to have those things. But life is funny, sometimes. It giveth and taketh away, as they say, and when I put my arm around Megan and watched the dog frolicking in the back yard we had done so much work on over the spring and summer, it really felt like a special moment. It felt like a time to count my blessings, if there ever was one.

That was four months ago, and since then, the dog has basically destroyed that same yard. He chewed up the rosebushes, despite their having thorns. It didn’t seem to bother him one bit. He’s shit everywhere back there, and they’re usually these liquid puppy shits that are impossible to clean up, so going back there, you have to expect to step on a fecal landmine at any moment, and then, of course, you’re going to track it back into the house. He chases the one cat around, the more passive one. The older, more aggressive cat, chases Jimmy around…and sinks her claws into him any chance she gets. I try to get between them, and usually it’s me that winds up getting scratched. Even as I write this, there’s a nice new gash on my thumb from this morning. Jimmy farts any time he feels like it, his breath stinks, and he refuses to chew the Dent-a-bones we got him to improve it. He barks at the neighbors. He understands the commands we give him, but he’ll only obey if he knows we have treats for him. He rings the bells that we hung on the doorknob for him incessantly, and usually it’s not because he needs to use the bathroom, he’s just bored. He’s chewed strips out of the carpet in the guest bedroom, he’s chewed patches out of the carpet on the landing of the stairs. He tries to eat the cats’ food, he tries to eat the human food that more than likely would just make him sick, and he usually needs to go outside to use the bathroom at least once or twice during the night. That’s just the stuff I can think  of off the top of my head.

Of course, we got him young. He’s still less than a year old, and he’s going to calm down a little bit eventually. But it’s going to take a couple of years, probably, for there to be anything resembling the equilibrium we had in the house when it was just the two humans and two cats. The house feels very full, now, with the addition of this new canine personality. He’s only getting bigger, too…he’s probably approaching fifty pounds, and he could get up between sixty and seventy. Do I regret getting him? No, I don’t. This is what we wanted. And when he’s sleepy in the mornings, and he looks up at me with those big, trusting eyes, I do understand all the “man’s best friend” stuff. When I say the magic word “walk” to him, and he gets all excited and starts jumping around like a fool, it makes me smile. Yeah, like I said, I do have a little bit of a parental streak in me, and the responsibility of having a dog is the perfect amount. Having a human child would have been way too much. As for destroying the house and yard, yeah, it irks me a little, but I don’t care that much. It’s just stuff. It’s nice to have, but it doesn’t matter that it’s in pristine condition. This was part of our dream, and our lives feel very complete, now, but in a good way. It took a long time to get here, but I’m glad we finally did. A big thank you, once again, to my mom, Kathy, for the financial boost that helped get us here. And as for our dog, Jimmy Bagels, for whom we waited for so long, I’m glad you’re a part of our lives, even though you’re a holy terror. Welcome to the family, little buddy. Here’s hoping you don’t get fleas again.


I’m Still Here

January 19, 2018

It’s sad when a dream dies. It’s not usually like the death of a person, when there is a group of people, perhaps large, perhaps small, depending on how much of an asshole the deceased was, who stand around for a while and mourn. They’re able to mourn together, to be there for each other, and it helps with the pain. The death of a dream is a small and private death. It occurs in a person’s mind, and perhaps in their heart a little bit, too. That’s kind of what I’ve been feeling lately in regards to the dream I once had of becoming a professional writer. I first conceived of being a writer around 1999 or 2000, and hard to believe, that’s almost twenty years ago now. Since then, I’ve written several books, and many short stories and essays. I’ve liked some of them, others not so much. I think, more than anything else, that what I’ve discovered about myself are my limitations as a writer. If I try to judge my own abilities objectively and fairly, then I would say that I’m not a total hack, and I’m able to write semi-convincingly in certain styles, or genres. However, I’m never going to be as good as the writers I most admire, be it a Tolkien or a Stephen King, an Elmore Leonard or a Brian Lumley, a Lovecraft or a Cormac McCarthy. Compared to them, I just don’t have it. They’ve achieved success commensurate to their abilities. Now, approaching the age of forty, I have to face the fact that I probably have too.

It’s always possible that I might still write something that takes off and becomes popular, but the fact is, I’m burned out. When you’ve been pressing and striving as a writer so hard for nearly twenty years, and you don’t have much to show for it, the constant rejection after rejection by lit agents and publishing companies gets to you, no matter how tough you are. When you’ve been told “no” dozens or hundreds or even thousands of times, it has to take its toll. I’m only human. Any author is. Being burned out, and not even having the urge to start any new projects, is a new sensation for me. It’s been a very long time since I wasn’t somewhere in the process of starting something, working on it, finishing it, shopping it around, getting turned down a bunch of times, then moving on to the next thing. That’s been my life for nearly two decades. Since the writing hasn’t been paying the bills, I’ve had to work day jobs, and I’ve hated all of them, without exception. The only difference has been the degree to which I’ve hated them. The food-service jobs were all uniformly awful. Grocery store jobs, a bookstore, working in a costume/party store, and the many years of work in the security industry…there’s probably some that I’ve forgotten along the way, but they all served the same function, keeping me afloat. Since I got married, almost eight years ago, they’ve been helping to keep Megan and the two cats and myself afloat, and now, the family dog as well, who we got back in September.

I quit my most recent security job in October, and since then, you may notice I haven’t been writing here on the website much. I said a few months back that I wasn’t going to be posting here on the site as much as I used to, and I’ve lived up to that. The reason is that what money I’ve made in the past three months has been coming through freelance writing jobs that I’ve done online. I have a profile on a sort of online marketplace, a site where freelancers list their qualifications, and potential employers post jobs. The writers and employers connect, and the work gets done. Usually, it doesn’t pay very much. It’s not glamorous. And yet, with all that being said, I’ve still made more through my writing in the past three months than I have in my entire life prior to this period. The work is monotonous, repetitive, and doesn’t require a lot from a creative standpoint, but at least I’m being paid for my writing. It’s not writing bestselling novels like I always wanted to, but at least it’s something.

Of course, the other aspect of freelancing is that sometimes, when the work dries up, there’s downtime, and sometimes it’s extended downtime. That might sound nice, but it isn’t. I don’t like being at home during the day, at two in the afternoon, while my wife is at work, like most normal people. I don’t like not making money. It makes me frantic. I wish that money wasn’t so important, so that when I wasn’t making it, I wouldn’t feel so down on myself. But as I’ve said before, the world is how it is, it’s not how we wish it could be. Money is important, and when I’m not making it regularly, I’m still going to feel down on myself. I am and will always remain my greatest critic, and I’ve never liked myself very much, so it’s easy to speak ill of myself and take my words to heart. That’s another thing that I wish was different, but probably never will be.

I figured if I wrote this post that before long it was going to get all mopey and sad, and sure enough, here we are. The thing of it is, I don’t do therapy, and I doubt I ever will, so putting my thoughts out there on paper (or onscreen) usually remains the best way for me to get things off my chest. Therefore, you would think that with my not having work, I would have been posting more regularly again these days. But that hasn’t been the case, and the reason for it remains the same as my reason for not posting more regularly for the past year. I’m tired of writing things…anything…for which I’m not being paid. I’ve been doing it for far too long. That’s why, even though my work life is uncertain at the moment, it’s unlikely you’re going to be hearing from me much these days. But as I sign off here, I ask the same question that I have been for the past couple of years, as it relates to this blog. Who am I even writing these things for, anyway, if not myself? I don’t have any fans, or at least, I don’t think I do. That’s the entire point of all this: if I had fans, then it would mean that my writing, most likely my books, had been selling, so I wouldn’t feel like my dream was dead to begin with. But I don’t have fans, at least none of which I’m aware, which is why I’m in such a fix for work, and why nobody should expect more regular blogs from me, even though I certainly have the time to write them these days. But just in case I do have one or two fans out there, by accident, or whatever the case may be, I am still here. I just wouldn’t expect to be hearing much from me, in any form, anytime soon.


Enough is Finally Enough

November 15, 2017

For many years, I’ve been a big, big fan of the T.V. show The Simpsons. I think you could make the argument that it’s the best show that’s ever been on television. The humor has always spoken to me…there’s the physical comedy that is only possible with a cartoon, there are tons of references to literature, popular culture, you name it. It can be crass, it can be crude, but it can also be intelligent, thought-provoking, and touching. There have been literally dozens of classic episodes, and I’ve been going around quoting some of the more memorable lines for years. There have been other shows, both cartoon and live action, which have echoed some of its better qualities, but there’s never quite been anything to rival it. When I see that it’s on, it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to want to turn the channel to anything else. It’s like a balm to me. It’s been a part of my life for close to thirty years.

Because that’s how long it’s been on the air, now…twenty-eight years, if I’m not mistaken, I think upwards of 600 episodes, or maybe it’s 700. It’s survived not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of other shows being cancelled and taken off the air, and it’s still going strong. I could certainly continue watching new episodes on Fox every Sunday, as I believe the latest season debuted a short while ago. And yet, even though this is my all-time favorite show, and you’d think I’d be thrilled to watch new episodes, as I do for all the other shows that enjoy, I just can’t do it anymore. I can no longer watch my favorite show, and there was a time when I believed that could never, ever happen.

So, what was it that led me to stop watching my favorite show? What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? The answer is simply this: I can no longer stand to watch Homer and Marge fight anymore. Now, that might seem like an absolutely absurd statement. Homer and Marge, the father and mother in the titular cartoon family around which the show revolves, are cartoon characters. They’re not real. Yes, you could say that, and it would be accurate. But have you never cared about a fictional character, whether on T.V., in a movie, in a novel or a comic book? Did you never have a crush on Jon Hamm in Mad Men? Did you never care what happened to Frodo on his quest to destroy the one ring? Did you never wish to hang out with Holmes and Watson, or swing through the jungles with Tarzan? If your answer to all of these was no, it’s okay to stop reading now. If you don’t care about fictional characters, then what I’m saying is going to sound like gibberish.

And yet, for those that are still reading, I’ll assume that you understand that characters can be important to people, regardless of the medium through which they are conveyed. Since The Simpsons has been on the air for so long, I’ve gotten really, really fond of the characters. I’ve watched them through their ups and downs, their trials and tribulations; I’ve watched them laugh and cry, and, while I might not have literally laughed and cried along with them, it would be accurate to say that what happened to them had a lasting, even a profound effect on me. And the character with whom I associate most is without a question Homer Simpson. That has been especially true as I gradually have crept closer to the age at which the character has been portrayed. Being a cartoon, of course, Homer never ages. He’s always pushing forty…and now, so am I, thought I first started watching the show at the age of nine.

I’m similar to Homer in certain ways, but different in many others. Homer is a creature of the id. He’s overweight, is constantly finding ways to stuff the most fattening and sugar-blasted food down his gullet, and he’s a compulsive drinker. There are been many episodes that deal with his gluttony, and his presumed alcoholism. I’m not a glutton, nor an alcoholic, but I recognize Homer’s base impulses. They’re my own, too. I’d love to be lazy and work and still somehow draw a paycheck, stuff myself and sugar and fattening foods with no serious repercussions, and go through life demonstrably drunk. Who wouldn’t? Homer is more animal than human in some ways, a creature obsessed with and attracted to the creature-comforts. But while all that is true, he feels, too, truly and deeply, in a way that resonates with me as a viewer. Since the show has been on the air for so long, there have been many episodes where Homer has felt unloved by a number of the other characters, including but not limited to all three of the children, and Grandpa. But never is Homer more miserable than dealing with Marge, his spouse…and that’s what has always been the trouble for me.

Since the show first came on the air, the writers (and there have been many, many writers, over the years), have pounded it into the viewers brains that Homer and Marge aren’t well suited for each other. You can go all the way back to Season One, and the episode where Homer gets drunk and ogles Maude Flanders, leading he and Marge to go on a couples retreat. Homer would rather go fishing and attempt to catch “General Sherman,” the legendary catfish of Catfish Lake. Homer catches the fish, but then releases him at Marge’s insistence rather than taking him home and frying him up for supper, thereby proving his love for Marge. All’s well that ends well…except then these two would go on to fight another five hundred times or so over the course of the next twenty-something years.

I don’t like Marge’s character. I never did. She’d depicted as a wet blanket. She’d the worrier of the family…she’d the one who would be the least fun to hang around with of the principle family members, while the most fun would undoubtedly be Homer, the party animal. It’s clear that there’s love between the two of them, but Homer, with his impulsiveness, with his alcoholism, has a hell of a time keeping things going smoothly with her. The fault is by no means entirely Marge’s, either. Who would want to be married to a guy who has changed careers on a dime dozens of times over the years, who is unable or unwilling to curb those impulses that are so much a part of him. Going back to the previously referenced episode, there’s a part where Marge is listing to Reverend Lovejoy and the rest of the couples all of Homer’s faults…he gambles, he forgets all holidays, both personal and secular, his body makes strange noises…this is not the ideal partner, but any stretch of the imagination. Yes, Homer loves Marge, and vice versa, but love is not enough.

The two of them have never actually gone through with the breakup, though, despite how poorly suited they are for each other. The show has teased it many times, with mini-breakups, but they’ve never decided to pull the trigger and make the split permanent. I guess they thought it would alienate the audience, that it would be too dramatic of a change to the show to break up the nucleus of the family. And so, the family has stayed together, and Homer and Marge have continued fighting…and fighting…and fighting.

I watched one of the most recent episodes a few weeks ago, one I’d never seen before, and it happened again. And it was just enough. My own parents didn’t make it. They split; it messed me up something awful, and it was many, many years before I felt myself to be entirely over it. With Homer and Marge, it’s almost worse, because I really care about the character of Homer Simpson, big dumb goon that he is, and I can’t stand to see him hurt anymore. I just can’t. Maybe I feel things too deeply; maybe I care too much about fictional characters. You could make that argument, and you’d have a valid point. But I’m a Cancer, and I’m a person who feels things deeply, for better or worse. That’s what leads me to most identify with Homer’s character, and if that’s ridiculous, so be it. The bottom line is that I just can’t watch these two go at each other anymore, and I won’t watch any more of my all-time favorite show because of it. Maybe, if the writers would swear that they’d never have the two of them fight anymore ever again, I’d be willing to start watching once more. But I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Much like the writers’ unwillingness to pull the trigger on a Homer-Marge permanent divorce, or separation, these two fighting just seems to be a fact of the show. If that’s always going to be the case, I’d just as soon they pull the plug. It took them almost thirty years to lose me as a viewer, but they finally accomplished it.


The Reality of Mass Shootings

November 8, 2017

Recently, the U.S. was rocked by another mass shooting, this one in Las Vegas. As of this writing, there were 58 confirmed dead, and at least five hundred injured from gunshots and other wounds inflicted during the panic and stampede that was triggered by the gunfire. Those assembled were there for a country music festival. The gunman was identified as Stephen Paddock, a retired accountant. Paddock had a stockpile of 23 weapons inside his hotel suite overlooking the Strip, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Las Vegas hotel windows don’t open, but Paddock smashed his in order to begin firing. He’d also set up cameras inside his suite and outside in the hallway, presumably to monitor anyone who might be approaching before he began his slaughter of those gathered below. When cops approached his room, he killed himself with one of his own weapons.

Now, the questions will begin, as they always must when something like this happens. It appears that Paddock acted alone, though obviously the authorities will continue to probe into his personal life to see if he had any accomplices or aid from known terrorist groups. In the early going, nothing at all had been turned up, and that’s one of the weirdest things to be taken from this. Paddock does not appear to have been overtly religious. He didn’t have an extensive criminal history, or a history of mental illness. His brother described him as “just a guy,” and, barring some new revelation, that seems to be the crux of the matter. Here we have “just a guy” who built up a cache of weapons and seems to have meticulously planned wholesale, indiscriminate slaughter. The amount of guns, ammunition, explosives components found in the hotel room, and the camera setup clearly indicates that this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment type of thing. This person knew what he was doing. His seemingly unobtrusive lifestyle and lack of any obvious motive almost makes this more awful and infuriating. Why did Paddock do what he did? What makes “just a guy” into the latest worst mass shooter in U.S. history, eclipsing the 49 killed at the nightclub in Orlando a couple of years ago?

I’ve written before about how mass shootings and acts of terrorism, whether for religious reasons or seemingly for no obvious reason at all, are just a part of the modern fabric in the America of the 21st century. It’s a grim thing to think about, because it lends just a little extra uncertainty to life. It can seemingly happen anywhere, at any time. Attacks at schools, churches, or sporting events…murder by explosives, guns, bladed weapons, vehicles driven into crowds…it’s real, and it keeps right on happening. Nor is it restricted to the U.S., of course. Europe has been getting hit particularly hard in the past decade, but it really does seem to be anywhere, anytime.

My previous conclusions regarding this matter haven’t been particularly decisive, because there doesn’t seem to be any immediate and obvious action that can be taken that will solve the problem. Gun control seems like a good first step, but how would that have helped, when you’ve got a guy who had no history of mental illness, made no alarming posts on social media, and whose acquaintances describe him as having a benign personality? Besides, even if harsher gun laws are enacted in the U.S., it’s not like we can very well ban vehicles, or knives, or anything else that can be used to murder. I mean, hell, anything  can be used as a lethal weapon. You can jab somebody in the throat with a pen if you want to; you can brain somebody with a rock. Are we going to start outlawing rocks, now?

The unfortunate reality is that when there’s a crime on this scale, with no obvious cause, it seems as though it would have been impossible to predict beforehand. Maybe we’ll find some obscure motive for what Paddock did…maybe it will turn out he hated country music, or something…but as of right now, there are no answers, and even if there were, they probably wouldn’t be much consolation to the grieving families of those slain. In my opinion, I think humans are just bloodthirsty and depraved, and looking at history, they always have been. It does seem true that in this era, there is a certain brand of violence that seems to be manifesting itself a lot. Much of it is being done for fundamentalist religion, just as has always been the case. But some of it seems to come about for no easily identifiable reason, and when there is a “lone gunman,” as is the case with Paddock, the question of why can be asked over and over, by pundits and politicians, by family and clergy members, and there’s no answer that will ever entirely satisfy.

What’s truly frightening is how passé it seems to have become. Perhaps Paddock simply wanted some form of recognition, and he thought the best way to do it was to try and take the new high score as the biggest mass murderer in U.S. history. If that was his goal, he accomplished it. The saddest part is, in this world in which we’re all living, I doubt he’d going to successfully hold that title for very long. There will be a next time…the only questions are where the terror is going to strike next, and how much worse it’s going to be.


Weiner Behind Bars

November 1, 2017

What do you think of the title? Pretty good, huh? I’m referring, of course, to the latest development in the long and sordid saga of former congressman Anthony Weiner, the man who’s done about as good of a job of fucking up his life as anyone I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of the late Aaron Hernandez. Weiner received a sentence of twenty-one months in federal prison after his laptop was seized by law enforcement and it was determined that he had sent sexually explicit material to a minor, a girl who was fifteen years old at the time of their interaction. “This crime was my rock bottom,” Weiner said at one point. He was also apparently in contact with nineteen other women at the time of his correspondence with the fifteen-year-old.

Seldom in politics, or in the life of any public figure, has there been such a spectacular, and mortifying, downward spiral. It’s hard to even remember, at this point, back to just a few years ago, when Weiner was a fiery, outspoken member of congress. His name was spoken of in regards to a possible presidential run, and he did end up running for mayor of New York, though by that time, the first of his sexual misadventures had already come to light. From there, his whole life just continued sliding downhill at a precipitous rate. At first, his wife, the multitalented Huma Abedin, stuck with him, probably at least partially for the sake of their young child. But when it seemed clear that Weiner wasn’t learning his lesson, and had actually been sexting with a minor, Huma finally did what any sane person would do, and told him to hit the bricks. She can’t be blamed for that. The man needed help…and it seems he’ll be getting it from the inside of a prison cell for the next twenty-one months.

The public are voyeurs, and they’ve taken a lot of pleasure in the downfall of the man who once dubbed himself “Carlos Danger.” We all love to slow down at accident scenes on the highway, to view the skid mark of someone’s brains on the blacktop. There comes a certain point, though, when a story like Weiner’s drags on and on, that even those of us with the most contemptible instincts must turn away. I think a lot of people have reached that point, myself included. I hope Weiner get the help he needs, and since the loss of his dignity, his political career, and his wife and child wasn’t enough to show him the error of his ways, maybe some hard time will get the job done.

I’m still left with the question, though, of exactly why Weiner felt compelled to make the mistake that he did, not once, but again and again and again. Some people at this point are going to say, well, sex addiction. Here’s the thing, though…I don’t believe in sex addiction. I scoff at the concept; I think it’s bullshit. People can be addicted to crack, or heroin. You know that they’re addicted to it, because if you deprive of them of it for a couple days, they’re scratching their skin off, vomiting, and shaking uncontrollably. That’s addiction. People who act like Anthony Weiner just have serious self-control issues. They need help, clearly…there’s some psychological compulsion that’s leading them to act in the way that they are. But any husband, or wife, who tells their partner that they just boffed their best friend because they’re a sex addict is the worst sort of scum, in my book. They’re trying to make themselves a victim. Weiner certainly wasn’t a victim in all this. His victim was the fifteen-year-old who was subjected to the underwear-clad “little wiener.”

The public loves a comeback story almost as much as they love a celebrity falling from grace, so maybe we haven’t seen the last of the former congressman. However, I think I’m not the only one who’s heard more than enough from this guy. He’d probably be better off staying out of the public eye when he gets released from prison, and trying to live some quiet, unassuming life somewhere. Though what exactly he’ll be able to do with himself is an interesting question. Not only will he be a convicted felon and a registered sex offender, but he’ll always be the guy with one of the most recognizable names, and faces, in America and abroad. It could be that going into porn would be his best bet. Maybe that’s something along the lines of what he was always looking for anyway.




World-Changing Writing

October 18, 2017

What is it that truly marks a writer as being successful? Is a successful writer one who is making a living exclusively through their writing, as I’ve tried to do for so many years? Are you a successful writer when you’ve hit the New York Times bestseller list? When you’ve optioned a book to Hollywood? When you’ve written what is considered a classic novel? There’s no wrong answer to this question, I think. It’s subjective. Some writers consider themselves to be a success when they’ve managed to publish a short story in an obscure online literary magazine for the first time. There are many different kinds of writers, and we all have different goals…some of us are much more ambitious than others.

There are some authors, though, who literally change the world through their writing. These are authors who are runaway success stories; they’re superstars. They’ve made it, regardless of what milestones one uses to define such things. One such author who I want to talk about today is George R.R. Martin. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series, better known by the title Game of Thrones, as in the long-running show on H.B.O., first appeared on my radar perhaps seven or eight years ago. I knew he was a fantasy writer, and that he was well known, but I hadn’t actually picked up one of his books before. The first several novels in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series had been New York Times bestsellers, but I don’t think I understood just how good this guy was. I saw the first season of Game of Thrones by pirating it online. I wasn’t exactly making a ton of money at the time, and I wasn’t about to add H.B.O. to my cable package. I couldn’t afford that sort of luxury, but there was so much buzz around this show that I felt like I had to check it out somehow. I knew that Sean Bean was in it, an actor I much admired. A big-budget fantasy series geared toward adult viewers, and one that was sure to feature plenty of sex and violence, since it was on a premium channel? Count me in.

The show was engrossing, spellbinding, better even than I’d thought it would be. And so it went from there…I found the entire “Song of Ice and Fire” series at secondhand bookstores, and caught up with what had become, in truth, a cultural event. Martin’s writing was probably the best fantasy I’d ever read, with the exception of Tolkien. It’s hard to say who’s better, between the two…I guess I would just say that their writing styles are very different, so it’s hard to compare the two. Tolkien is “high fantasy,” his prose more flowery. Martin’s writing has a more modern feel to it. One thing that the two share, though, is the ability to create unforgettable characters, characters about whom the reader grows to care. They’re both master storytellers, the difference being, I think, that Tolkien belongs to another era. Martin is getting up there in years, but he’s still alive and producing, and able to see the effect his creation, the Seven Kingdoms, is having on society. I would hope that he’s proud of his accomplishments.

Game of Thrones is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen on television. It’s production values are fantastic, which is unsurprising, considering it’s literally the most expensive show that’s ever been produced. It’s unparalleled in its time, just as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad were in theirs. It’s must-see T.V., it’s groundbreaking…call it what you want, there’s never been anything else like it on the small screen. The books, meanwhile, have had an equal impact. Martin’s creation, the Seven Kingdoms, seems to be the world in which his literary talents truly flowered, and I know this, because I’ve read some of his earlier sci-fi and horror efforts now, and they show promise, but it’s nothing like his fantasy. Just as Terry Pratchett created the “Diskworld,” and did his best work there, just as Brian Jacques created “Redwall,” and felt most at home there, so to did Martin devise the Seven Kingdoms, and, as a reader, I’m thankful he did. Lots of people are. Literally millions have read his books, and millions more have seen Game of Thrones.

That’s what I’m talking about when I mean real success as a writer. There’s a certain pinnacle that can be reached where the language of the books you’ve created has leaked into the popular vernacular. If you’re into Game of Thrones, you know the significance of the phrase “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” You know all about the Red Wedding. You know that “winter is coming,” you know about “bending the knee,” and you know how important it is to hold the Iron Throne. If you’re reading this and you’re lost by now, then you’re behind the times, good reader. Trust my literary recommendation, here…pick up the first novel of the “Song of Ice and Fire” cycle. You don’t have to be into the fantasy genre. If you’re a fan of just good writing, period, you’re going to appreciate these books. I won’t say millions of people can’t be wrong, because look at the success of the Fifty Shades of Gray series, or look who’s currently in the White House. But here’s one time that they got it right. George R.R. Martin is a master. His success is well-earned. Become a citizen of the Seven Kingdoms. Bend the knee.

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