Getting Laughs

“Heh heh, I’m funny.”

I don’t think it’s a wild assumption to think most of us have uttered those words at one point or another while spending time with friends or family. And if you think you are, you are. There will be different styles, different audiences our humors are best suited for, different approaches, but most folks have a good sense of humor.

And there’s a reason people pursue comedy as a way to make a living. When a joke hits, when it really hits, it can make you feel like SUCH a SORCEROR.

The first time that comparison really settled on me was at a live performance. My fiance Amanda had scored tickets to the Oddball Comedy Festival down in Mountain View, CA in the Fall of 2016. One of the performers that night was Demetri Martin, and if you don’t know him, he’s almost more of a comedic-one-man-show performer. He uses props, posters, instruments, and one-liners a lot, but this night he delivered a pure stand-up set.

What draws out the sorcerer comparison was his posture. He stood on stage without any props, any music, or much energy at all. He had on a pull-over hoodie, jeans, Vans, and hung out with his hands in his pockets. Straight up, I don’t remember his jokes, but I remember their impact. Whatever he said was so f***ing funny that my body contorted in on itself. You know what a spider looks like when it dies, the way it just withers and its limbs curl in towards the center? My abdomen hurt so much from laughing that I looked like that, only spasming with laughs, too.

I have no interest in being a stand-up performer. Not really much interest in the being The Funny Guy in the group, either. But I enjoy having a sense of humor. And like Mr. Martin demonstrated to me five years ago, when properly sculpted, words have power. Like Friggin’ Magic levels of power. And while I get a good, solid joke to land from time to time that starts a chuckle fit, I recall two moments where it made a palpable difference. On the outside looking in, the moments may not have appeared to be much if anything, and maybe their significance didn’t extend beyond my own perception of them, but…

Well, maybe you’ll see what I mean.

The first time was at an office job I held a few years ago. There was a woman who worked at the company who for the purposes of this we’ll call Olga. Only way I’ve ever found myself able to describe Olga was that she was just…Winter. It sounds overly poetic, and it might be, but it’s fitting, trust me. She was beautiful, for one thing. Her complexion was fair, but light, which isn’t to say “pale.” More like someone with fair skin who’s just come in from the cold. Her nose had a gentle point and was a shade or two more pink than her cheeks, really lending to the cold weather look, and her eyes were a deep, lapis blue that shone against her brunette hair the color of wood bark.

More to the point was her demeanor. She was a quiet person, muted and soft like fallen snow, but there was an icy…hardness to her expression at the same time. She didn’t look mean in that way or unfeeling, in fact it was a bit serene, actually; just a little cold and unreachable from the outside. Like a layer of frost, keeping with the theme here. And reading all this as I lay it out, it almost sounds like I’m making up a person or something. But you have to believe me that a lesser description wouldn’t do Olga justice.

Anyway, already-long-story-shorter, she was walking around the office trying to find something or someone I don’t remember now. I happened to be nearby and mentioned I had recently seen who or whatever she was looking for and offered to lead her to the person or place in question. I’m not always great with silence between myself and a stranger, so I took to small talk. Again, it needs to be noted that to this point we haven’t shared more than a tiny handful of words between us and I’ve never seen her expression break from a gentle neutrality.

Then, I made some joke. I don’t remember what it was about at all, but I remember the impact: Olga chuckled aloud. And not the polite, spare-your-feelings chuckle. It was genuine. (Believe me, I’ve bombed enough attempts at humor to smell the difference a mile away). It was brief, and her expression relaxed into neutrality again some seconds later, but for a moment winter had grown warm.

Like I said, magic.

The next was with a contractor I met while working on my mom’s house a couple years back. For this, we’ll say his name was Richter, because it sounds cool. In short, we had a few items around the house that needed seeing to so that it would clear a pest inspection, dry rot removal, mostly, then some stairs to build and a couple of doors to hang. Richter was similar to Olga in that his neither his expression nor the tenor of his voice rarely broke from a neutral mask. If Olga was Winter, then Richter was Stone: eternal, unmoving, silent.

And to boot, he wore reflective sunglasses.

All. The. Time.

Between his unflinching manner and his literally unreadable eyes, it was a nigh impossible task trying to relate to the guy. And in fairness, I understand. He wants to get in, detail the job, do it, and leave. The bummer is that he ran into me, and if we’re talking, I’m gonna glean a bit of humanity off you, goddammit.

And boy, did I try. Any hobbies? Nope, doesn’t have any. Interest in sports? Doesn’t touch ’em. Been doing construction long? Yeah. Period. What’d he do before this? “Nothing interesting.” Jesus Christ, travel much? Townie, born and raised. I threw jokes at him, and could watch my words glide past or bounce off him with as much impact as a ribbon on damn boulder.

But like the river carves away rock, or like the seasons will sunder stone, one of my jokes got through.

Again, I don’t remember what it was I said, who I ribbed, or the subject matter, but I got him. It wasn’t an out loud chuckle like I’d pulled from Olga, but one of those sharp exhalations through the nose followed by a lasting smile all in lieu of a proper laugh.

With words alone, I had cracked stone.

So there we have it at the end of the day, by the use of Words of Power now long forgotten, I achieved the impossible tasks of bringing warmth to winter and sundering solid rock…just if it didn’t look quite like that from the outside. The borderline between making a genuine human connection through humor however brief and being an annoying asshole can be perilously thin at times, but if the prize for managing that razor’s edge is legitimate magic like the acts heretofore described…

Worth it.

Faith: More Advice from a Wizard

Sup, y’all. Been a second.

I took my pedal off the gas a bit lately when it comes to making scribbles (my term of endearment for the time-honored art of literary practice), handling a move, job change, usual life drama, and all the rest have just gotten in the way. Those, and I’ve kept chugging along with this reading binge I’ve taken on this year.

I’m a sucker for New Years Resolutions. Like the rest of us, I’ve abandoned my fair share, but managed a doable list of items this time around for 2021. One of them was that I wanted to read/finish ten paperbacks before the years was up…

…I’m halfway through #23.

Of those, a fair share have been from the Dresden Files series of novels by Jim Butcher, stories about a Chicago-based wizard and private investigator. They’re fun. Well written, paced well, exciting, imaginative, and just plain good. From time to time, it gets deep, too. There come points here and there where the narration reflects on aspects of the human experience that resonate frighteningly well. We covered one life lesson a couple of months ago, and I’d like to share another excerpt from his work today about faith as he sees it:

“But there were some things I believed in. Some things I had faith in. And faith isn’t about perfect attendance to services, or how much money you put on the little plate. It isn’t about going skyclad to the Holy Rites, or meditating each day upon the divine.

“Faith is about what you do. It’s about aspiring to be better and nobler and kinder than you are. It’s about making sacrifices for the good of others – even when there’s not going to be anyone telling you what a hero you are.”

-Harry Dresden, Changes, pg. 251-252

Self-improvement, at the end of the day. You obviously can’t give all of yourself away, you can’t help everyone on the planet, you have to take care of yourself, but it’s a good compass heading, a good reminder of our shared responsibility to help those around you when you’re able.

Aaaaaand now I’ve gone and made it sound a bit preachy. So here’s something dumb to balance it out: “Why did the baseball stadium get so hot after the game ended…?”

Because it lost all of its fans.

Have a good night everybody!

Ciao.

Dorian Gray is Awful…(but we might have something [else] in common)

When I first entered the adult world and started taking college classes, I went on a big reading binge of classic literary works because I was leaning into feeling smart and sophisticated. I’m not saying that that worked, but it was a good journey. I now know why ‘Frankenstein’ was terrifically tragic, how ‘Dracula’ was somehow both lamer and way cooler a tale than I’d thought it would be, and that Dorian Gray is a massive douche.

I’m serious. It’s a decade later, and despite the hundreds of stories I’ve taken in since then through the different mediums – books, movies, television, video games, etc – I haven’t found a character I vehemently despise with a greater fervor than I hold for Dorian Gray.

Now, first off, I recognize that it’s a little ridiculous, and I’ve cooled my jets some. Kurt Vonnegut has a great quote about hating fiction:

“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

Well for a while, I bathed my armored boots in the sugary blood of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” for the simple reason that the protagonist is an utter shithead.

I rant about it now a lot less often than I used to, but I hold to the opinion that Dorian Gray sucks. That’s probably a good thing, though, since I think he’s supposed to be disliked. If you haven’t ever read or heard of the story, it essential goes that a young nobleman, Dorian Gray, has a portrait painted of him by his meek friend Basil. He soon discovers that the portrait, rather than he, will bear the marks of things that ought weigh heavily on the soul: stress lines in the face, silvered hair, wrinkles that come from a Liar’s Frown, etc. He struggles a bit with whether or not he’ll lead the kind of pure life that will render his portrait forever perfect and unblemished, or live wantonly since the picture will foot whatever ethical tab he runs up.

Spoiler, he opts for the latter option, like a total dick.

*RANT INCOMING*

(I’ll keep it short, but) What I can’t stand about him isn’t that he’s selfish, conceited, arrogant, smug, and manipulative, but that he whines, bitches, and is so spineless too. Whenever he’s in a position of power or leverage, he’s completely mad with whatever little power that may present him, but the moment the tables are turned even slightly, he moans, complains, begs, weeps, and mews. Then, if he gets his leverage back, it’s right back to being an insufferable ass-hat. Like, if you’re going to be a conceited, villainous asshole, at least be sure of yourself in that. At least stick to your damned guns. But to flip flop back and forth between villain and victim is SO gross, and I’m SO happy when he *spoiler* f__kin’ dies at the end.

I forgot where I was going with this, but- oh! Yeah, my car.

Right, trust me, it ties in.

I realized earlier today that my car, Phoebe, is kind of my own portrait. I took great care of her a few years ago. Got her regular washes, got her oil changed ahead of time, maintenance and check-up’s before things had a change to break, and she’s served me well for it.

Then, life got sort of topsy-turvy and difficult, I’ve really had to realign my financial priorities, and that meant Phoebe couldn’t get the same kind of treatment. At the end of the day, with everything I’ve been through and continue to work against, I try to keep my head up, shoulders back, eyes forward, and a bit of smile at the life I’ve got. Almost like you wouldn’t know things have been rough.

But my car looks like total ass now.

I’ve said from the beginning, that as my first car that I’ve had for over a decade now, I’m going to drive it until it dies. She’s in her twilight years, and BOY does she look it. But until lightning strikes her outright dead, I’m going to act as though she intends to roll on.

It’s just created a funny bit of imagery and comparison wherein it’s like I’ve endured some rough stuff, but maybe you wouldn’t know it, and meanwhile my car is bearing all the telltale signs of hardship instead of me.

And I think that’s worth a larf.

Have a good one, everybody.

Ciao.

Thoughts on Pain (from a Wizard)

I’ve been binging paperbacks hard this year, and a fair amount of those have been The Dresden Files series. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a series of novels by Jim Butcher centering around a private investigator in Chicago who’s a wizard. Or it might be more appropriate to say he’s a wizard who works as a private investigator. Either way, it’s great. I had friends recommending the series to me for years until one of them just bought me the first five (there are seventeen so far) and I’ve been cramming them almost constantly ever since.

They’re fun reads.

But you ever have one of those moments with a book that sits you down? That can either mean sits you down on your ass because it took you off your metaphorical feet, or it could mean that it sits you down, puts a hand on your shoulder, and has a talk with you. It’s one of those moments where, for a brief minute, you set aside the story the book is telling you and audibly thank the author by their first name like you’re on that kind of basis with them.

This was one of those.

It was a perspective on life that I realized I’m going to be loosely quoting, paraphrasing, and otherwise referencing in deep talks with others for a while, if not the rest of my days on this earth. And I won’t lie, I had expected something like that to come out of ‘The Art of War,’ or ‘The Book of Five Rings,’ or ‘The Alchemist’ (which is also good), or something. Not necessarily a novel about wizards, zombies, vampires, angels, warlocks, and all the rest.

I’m going to put the excerpt here, in all its glory. It’s out of the ninth book in the series, ‘White Night,’ pg. 307-309 if you nab the edition published by ROC. (I don’t know if there are other “editions,” it just sounded fancier to say that way.)

“The wisdom, maybe, was still in process, as evidenced by her choice of first lovers, but even as an adult, I was hardly in a position to cast stones, as evidenced by my pretty much everything.

What we hadn’t known about, back then, was pain.

Sure, we’d faced some things as children that a lot of kids don’t. Sure, Justin had qualified for his Junior de Sade badge in his teaching methods for dealing with pain. We still hadn’t learned, though, that growing up is all about getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you’re just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something.

Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point you realize that there are more flavors of pain than coffee. There’s the little empty pain of leaving something behind – graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There’s the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans and expectations. There’s the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn’t give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life as they grow and learn. There’s the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bear their burdens.

And if you’re very, very lucky, there are the very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realize that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth which at the same time cannot possibly last – and yet will remain with you for life.

Everyone is down on pain, because they forget something important about it: Pain is for the living. Only the dead don’t feel it.

Pain is a part of life. Sometimes it’s a big part, and sometimes it isn’t, but either way, it’s part of the big puzzle, the deep music, the great game. Pain does two things: It teaches you, tells you that you’re alive. Then it passes away and leaves you changed. It leaves you wiser, sometimes. Sometimes it leaves you stronger. Either way, pain leaves its mark, and everything important that will ever happen to you in life is going to involve it in one degree or another.”

God. Damn.

Thanks, Jim.

Little Red Rock

One of the hardest things to do as a writer, it seems, is to handle the crippling loneliness that constantly threatens to drown you like the black waters of a high tide you don’t notice until their chill is constricting your chest and-

Ahem.

What I meant was, one of the hardest things to do as a writer, it seems, it to do just that: Write. Finding a place to start. Staring at a blank page. Making the dream theater in the your brain real on the page. Like, it doesn’t seem that hard, but there’s some strange paralytic element to the act of…just doing. It’s a skill that takes time to cultivate, and the bummer is that there’s no real trick to it. The way to do it is to just friggin’ do it; and the more you do it, the more momentum you build and the easier it gets.

A byproduct of that is you wind up writing a lot of crap. And not in the sense of how much content you create, though that’s true to. I mean a lot of the ideas you have, flesh out, and bring to life through effort and time will inevitably suck. But what’s cool is that the more you do it, the more crap you generate, the more gems in the rough you come across, and the more stuff you have to look back on and go, “Hahaha, wow. Once upon a time, I thought that was a good idea. Geez.”

Like this one.

Technically, the story that follows was the result of a drunken New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago. There was a deadline approaching for a magazine that held a call for cheesey, sci-fi/horror taking place in space. This totally fit the bill, but…it’s…just not real good. I’ve kept it in my folder for manuscripts I’ll pitch to open calls for stories and sling it at anyone asking for something like that: cheap horror set in space, but I definitely recognize that I rushed the story to a conclusion I thought was funny and then have never since bothered to edit it or fix.

So, if you have ten minutes you’re looking to burn on a piece of bad sci-fi/horror fiction that ends in a badly told “Tell me about the rabbits, Lenny” joke, I present…

Little Red Rock

Mars.

A tiny, copper light among the stars that inspired priests, storytellers, and astronomers for millennia. Does it have water? Did it have water? Or little green men with ray guns, flying saucers, and big heads?

The first Mars rovers and probes sent back images of bare rocky expanses. They were boring but at the same time so exciting because they reminded us that Mars was a place, a very real and reachable place. These boring pictures were lauded as an awesome expanse of the frontier. They kept news cycles around the globe busy for about two weeks before the latest and greatest political scandal stole back the headlines. The pictures almost fell into comfortable obscurity when the rover sent back new images, interesting ones, the ones the world was really waiting for. December 18th, 2021, the Mars rover sent back images of a large, angular structure, embedded into one of the planet’s innumerable rocky, red cliffs.

Right on time for Christmas.

In a brand new, cooperative Space Race, efforts mounted to get boots on the red planet and, just four incredibly short years later, the Ares mission launched. On board was a team of six international specialists. Head of Linguistics and Communications Anthony Gomez, Chief Technical Officer Tanisha Roberts, and Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Thompson made up the team’s military arm. Chief Geologist Makoto Tanaka, Chief Medical Officer Victor Andrade, and Chief Biologist Sonya Manesh comprised its civilian science wing. Together, they represented both the world’s best and brightest as well as Earth’s attempt at a potential diplomatic contact with an extraterrestrial.

Initial reports from the Ares mission began as they would go on: short and usually upsetting.

Six months into space flight, Officer Andrade succumbed to an illness, allegedly resulting from a previously undisclosed or unknown serious food allergy to peanuts. Then, stemming from a course deviation and near miss with Phobos, a miscalculation put the shuttle’s landing off its mark by some forty-eight kilometers. To follow, a hard landing left Officer Gomez with injuries to his leg and spine. He was stable, but after it was deemed necessary to take the shuttle’s Ranger to the site of the structure, it was voted among the crew that Gomez was to stay behind.

The Ranger departed the shuttle January 23rd, 2027, at 16:00 Earth’s time. Its last transmission was received at 17:43 of the same day as it approached the structure. The crew described a mountainous, angular facility with strange runic markings about much of the face of its walls and thick cables which were woven into the rock like roots from a tree. The transmission was broadcast live on Earth to a global audience which hung greedily on every detail and set thousands of historians immediately to work on their dissertations. The excitement peaked as the transmission described an even stranger sight.

“There’s…what, it looks like a door,” said Officer Roberts’ voice over the radio. “It’s opening! The door to the facility is opening and- what in the? It looks…there’s someone there. Two legs, arms, my God! It looks human- well, humanoid. But blue, like it’s made of light. A hologram of some kind maybe? It looks like it’s…waving to us? Yes! It’s greeting us! Contact, I repeat, we have made contact! Holy crap, this is incredible! Approaching the door now!”

With no word since then, Officer Gomez and the rest of the world were left to wonder what it was the rest of the crew of the Ares mission had discovered inside.

*

“Duck! Duck goddammit!” Thompson slammed his hands against the viewing glass. “Above you!”

“Now on your left, Sonya!” Tanaka shouted. “Fuck, Roberts, can’t you shut this thing down?”

“I’m trying! He’s locked me out!” Tanisha pushed a button and her voice rang out of a speaker in the chamber they were all watching. “You have one more wave, Sonya. Get ready.”

Things were not going well.

On the other side of the glass where the three crew member stood, Sonya Manesh gave a weak thumb’s up. She was in a blank room with featureless chrome walls. She was dressed in an orange and white jumpsuit, drawing heavy, gasping breaths, and her hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. She had a deep cut on her left arm and various singe marks on her other arm and legs.

“Final commencement agility testing,” came a voice with a thick Russian accent over the speaker. “Will now begin. I am wishing you good luck.”

“Fuck, come on Kestrel! That’s enough!” Thompson shouted.

“But the testing must be beginning soon. These are rules.”

“Can’t you just rip out the wires or something?” Tanaka whispered to Roberts, who was frantically searching the console in front of them.

“You want me to just start ripping things out?” she hoarsely whispered back. “We barely understand what this place is, let alone how it was built. I do that, who knows what would happen?”

“I do,” came the Russian voice over the speaker again. “Also because I am hearing you. Your whisper is very bad.”

“How about instead of these tests, you just let us-”

“Anyway, testing starts now!”

A red light on the wall beside them turned green. Inside the room, dozens of small nodes began to emerge from hidden creases in the walls. A light hum filled the chamber as beams of light shot across the room and connected between the nodes, forming something of a fractured grid of lasers. Sonya spun around, wildly taking note of the several new deadly lines of burning plasma. She began to panic.

“Guys? Guys, there are way too many! This is so many more than last time!” she cried.

“Keep your head on straight,” Thompson shouted into the microphone on the console. “That’s an order!”

“You can do this, Sonya. Just stay focused,” Tanaka followed.

The nodes began to move slowly across the walls, shifting the lines of light with them. Sonya ducked out of the way of one, dove off to the side of another, and flattened herself against the ground to avoid a net of more. Seeing another line descending on her, she rolled out of the way, and then narrowly missed another beam that slid under her with a quick hop.

“She’s doing okay,” Roberts breathed to herself, her thumb off the microphone’s button

“She isn’t out of this yet,” warned Thompson. “But she’s doing alright.”

“See?” A blue figure statically phased into being behind them. It appeared to wear a jumpsuit and an ushanka hat with a hammer and sickle symbol just above the forehead. Its arms were crossed and it wore an exaggerated smirk on its flickering face. “It would not be test if there was no winning. You were all worried.”

“It shouldn’t be a test at all, you son-of-a-bitch,” Tanaka shouted.

Sonya rolled out of the way of another beam, but caught her foot on yet another. It cleanly sliced off a portion of her shoe and she howled, fell to the ground, and held her foot. In her moment of stillness, a third beam twisted in her direction. She threw herself out of its way, but too slowly. It passed through the peak of her bent knee and after a stunned moment she let out an agonizing scream.

“Turn this off, now!” Thompson shouted at Kestrel. “Do it or I swear to God I will tear this place apart. Discoveries and exploration be damned, I will hunt your Commie-ass down if you don’t let her go!”

With an unnerving precision of movement and suddenly grave expression, Kestrel’s head turned towards Lt. Colonel Thompson. “It sounds to me like someone is volunteering to be going next.” The two held a hard gaze for a long moment, before Kestrel suddenly smiled again. “But! You are correct,” he said, facing Tanaka. “It is no longer test. With leg like that, test is failed. I will proceed with the deactivating of the testing equipments.”

Kestrel’s blue form flickered and then dissipated entirely. The crew members turned around and saw that, one by one, the nodes in the testing chamber were deactivating. When they were all again recessed into the walls, a door on the far end noiselessly slid open. A door in their own viewing room also opened and Roberts held her thumb to the microphone’s button.

“You’re done here. Kestrel’s letting you out, you won. We’re coming to get you, hon. I know it’s gotta be hard as hell, but get yourself out of that room. Crawl if you have to and we’ll meet you back in the anteroom. Okay?”

Sonya Manesh just lied on her back and cried for a long moment, but with heaving sobs managed to get herself to her feet and began walking with support from the wall towards the newly opened door.

“Alright, she’s moving. Let’s do the same,” said Thompson.

They made their way out of the room, but as Roberts was about to step through, something caught her eye. She turned and saw a small dot appearing on one of the walls. A shock pulsed in her heart as she realized what it was and ran back to the console. She jammed on the microphone’s button as the beam shot from the node whirred across the room towards the limping scientist.

“Sonya!” she screamed.

“Oops,” the speaker crackled.

*

The remaining crew members of the Ares mission were gathered into a small, dark room, lit only by four small light emanating from the floor’s corners. Roberts was slumped against one walls with her arms around her knees, Tanaka leaned against another with his hands in his pockets, and Thompson paced back and forth like a boar.

“Okay,” Kestrel said, slapping his spectral hands together. “You are having questions?”

“You’re goddamn right we do!” steamed the Lt. Colonel. “She passed your test, why in the hell did you kill her anyway?”

“Whoa, whoa. It was technical malfunction. Facility is old. These things have bad luck of happening.”

“Why?” Tanaka asked softly.

“Why, what, comrade?”

“Any of this? We still don’t know who you are, what you are, or why any of this is necessary.” He slumped his shoulders defeatedly. Thompson and Roberts both looked to the Russian ghost.

“Ah, well, that is long story. But is short also, because most of it I am not remember. I was, long time ago, cosmonaut, part of Red Eagle mission, 1967.”

“Wait, what?” asked Roberts, rising to her feet. “You were part of the Space Race of the sixties? But that was to the moon.”

“Ah,” shook Kestrel. “You Americans wanted moon. When you Americans got moon, U.S.S.R. figured hey, what is better? Moon or Red Planet? Red planet made better symbol for win over you western capitalists. Figured, eh, ‘go ahead and keep moon, we have Red Planet. Fuck your moon.’”

The crew members of the Ares looked to one another with what was either astonishment or utter disbelief. Tanaka was now the one pacing and Thompson was leaning against one of the walls.

“Wait,” said Tanaka. “Then what are these tests for? And how did you guys build all of this?”

“Well, two are sort of same,” replied Kestrel. “Firstly, big head boom discovery-” the hologram made an exaggerated motion with his hands of his head being blown up, complete with a cartoonish face expression, “-is that this was already here. Whole building. We wanted to radio back and tell of discovery, but landing was bad.”

“So then what did you do?” asked Roberts.

“We did what could do. We explored, saw what station building could be use for, what Kremlin would want station be use for. Training. Mining. All things to win next big war. Then, we found strange room, I fell asleep in strange bed and when I woke up, comrades were dead and I was like this…blue. Bleh. Blue.” The image shuddered as if in disgust.

“You wanted,” began the Lt. Colonel slowly, “to start up a war base on Mars?”

The spectral Russian nodded proudly.

“That’s about the stupidest fuckin’ thing I’ve ever heard!” The barrel-chested military man began howling. Roberts and Tanaka looked at each other uncomfortably, and Kestrel faced Thompson with a stern look on his holographic face.

“Sir, I wouldn’t egg him on.”

The Lt. Colonel continued to laugh. “And what’s he gonna do, huh? He wrapped us up into one of those death gizmos already. He ain’t nothing’ but pixels, anyway.” Thompson moved to walk through the projection that was Kestrel but stumbled back, finding the man of light to be surprisingly solid. “What the hell?” was all he could utter before he was lifted up by the throat.

“Sir!” Tanaka shouted.

“Leonard!” followed Roberts.

“Wait.” Kestrel stopped suddenly and set Thompson back on his feet, whereupon he immediately fell to the ground gasping and coughing. “You are named Leonard?”

“Yeah, what of it?” he coughed.

The ghost that was Kestrel giddily jumped and pranced around the room. Singing incomprehensibly to himself as the three others shared unnerved glances. When he finally stopped, he walked up to Thompson, stopping just short of the man’s nose. “Your turn, Lennie,” he laughed. The wall behind the Lt. Colonel slid swiftly open and closed behind him again as Kestrel kicked him through.

“Hey, what the hell is this?” they heard the military man’s voice faintly through the wall.

“It is last test,” replied Kestrel, his back against the wall Leonard had just been pushed through, facing the others. “Tell us what you are seeing.”

“I ain’t tellin’ you shit!”

“What do you see?” Kestrel’s voice boomed and they could hear a whirring on the other side of the wall.

“Is this really necessary?” Tanaka asked, almost pleadingly. Roberts just shuddered quietly. The two looked at one another. Without words, the glance they shared said all that needed saying. Whatever mind was trapped inside the projection they called ‘Kestrel’, whether it was from time in isolation or from frayed wires elsewhere in the facility, it was a mind that was cracked and broken.

They weren’t leaving this place.

“Eiyah! Okay, okay. Jesus, put that thing down,” came Thompson’s voice again. “It looks…ah, it looks like there’s a screen in here?”

“Yes? And?” Kestrel appeared to be silently chuckling to himself. “What else is there, comrade?”

“Ah, hell. Um, looks like there’s a farm house, maybe? A lake too, or a pond? What the hell is this supposed to be about, anyways?”

“What else? Is part of visual acuity testing and for communication skills. Very important.” Kestrel leaned forward, whispering over the others’ shoulders. “You know,” he said quietly, “I never actually hated you Americans. In fact, I was always big fan of proud American work ethic, grit much like Russia, and your American literature. I was big fan particular of your ‘Of Mice and Men’.” He winked at the two remaining crew members of the Ares and back to the wall he called, “What about the rabbits, Lennie?”

“Yeah, looks like some fuckin’ bunnies too. What of-”

There was a muted bang and dull thud on the other side of the wall. Kestrel chuckled silently into his hands, but then suddenly stopped as though his ears had just pricked.

“I’m sorry comrades, but that is all for the testing. Thank you for time and the participating, but now is time I go. Wish well and things.”

Just like that, the blue figure of Kestrel flickered once, twice, and then ceased to be. Tanaka and Roberts both silently looked at one another, each shaking, as one by one, the lights in the corner of the room they were in slowly dimmed and went black.

*

Communications Officer Anthony Gomez lied on his cot feeling the medication he’d found in Andrade’s station. The unbearably sharp pains in his back and leg, a slipped disc and fractured femur he was certain, had been reduced to dull aches for the time being. He stared out of the shuttle’s port window at the setting martian sun. It was funny, he thought, that this was truly the most lonely he had ever been, but he was alright with it. Whether it was the morphine talking or not, he couldn’t help but find the last rays of sunlight that splayed out over the canyons of that barren waste to be the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

“Where the hell are you guys?” he whispered to the ceiling.

Just then, a light flared to life at his station. He groaned, but slowly rolled off of his cot and limped over to the console. Fortunately, at little over one-third Earth’s gravity, he only stopped at a spasm in his back once on his way there. He slumped lightly into the seat, grimaced, and answered the hail.

“Finally, you guys. I thought you’d forgotten about me.”

Silence.

“Hey, you there?” Gomez ventured again, more nervously this time.

“Evening, comrade.”

END

PS – Holy crap, I just realized I set the date for news of a structure discovered on Mars for a few months from now. Let this also, officially, count as me friggin’ calling it, if that happens. Because I wrote this almost two years ago before the rover touched down, for the record; and yes I do expect to be hailed as a damned prophet for my abilities…if it pans out. Otherwise, ahem, y’know, I’m just kidding.

A Few More Things I’ve Learned in my Time as a Tradesman

Anthony Bourdain has a great quote that floats around the internet from time to time, saying how you can tell a lot about a person who has worked in a restaurant. There are, he goes on to say, a lot of soft skills that kitchen experience teaches a person, like the ability to accept criticism, to be punctual, to handle the dual role of servant and provider and all the subtle dynamics that entails.

Put a pin in that for a moment, and bear with me.

Earlier this year, I continued a recent reading binge by tearing through Musashi Miyamoto’s ‘Book of Five Rings.’ I’d had it recommended to me for years, told that it was a tome of ancient teachings and great wisdom and all the rest, blah, blah, blah. What I found was that, so much more, and not quite that at all – all at once. In it, the author states pretty clearly that the book you’re holding is a manual for his particular view on swordfighting, and it stays very true to that.

But one thing that he emphasizes in the Ring of Earth (if I remember right; don’t take me to court over that) is how alike all things are. He draws the distinction in terms of weapons, but extends the principle throughout: a sword may seem heavy and unweildy at first, but it’s that way for everyone; a bow may seem difficut to pull at first, but everyone gets stronger with time and practice; even a halberd is complex and tricky, but with training one learns the in’s and out’s. The point being that that trend continues for everything: pottery, painting, serving food, making shoes, carpentry – everything. Whenever you’re new at something, it seems difficult and nebulous, but the more you immerse yourself in it and learn about it then the more you are able to navigate it; and the more you realize that’s what everyone in the world does with everything. The only thing that separates you from an expert (or a novice from a master, in other words) is time and devotion of study.

Coming back to my point with Bourdain, there’s a TON of sh*t you pick up working with folks in the trades, some of it I’ve touched on before, and not all of it is as direct as how to cut a miter or fit a stud. There are a number of valuable soft skills and observations that come with it, and here are what I think are a couple of the highlights.

  1. You learn to tell the difference between a joke that has venom in it, and one that doesn’t.
  2. You learn to take pride in your work, if for no other reason than the things people will say about it when you don’t.
  3. When you see someone’s work around town and you get that “Hey, I know that guy” mental ping, it comes with a reminder that we’re all in this together. Sometimes we forget that our cities are just collections of people that work somewhere.
  4. (I’ve done this for years, but) Talk about people like they’re standing behind you. Keeps you considerate, and bad gas gets around.
  5. Patience pays off. It just might take a while.
  6. That said, swearing makes you stronger. Use that power.

Anyway, thanks for letting me rant. Get back to your day.

Ciao.

Skyrim-itis: Fighting Addiction

If you’re reading this, then the odds are good that you have a pulse. If you have a pulse, then the odds are weirdly even better that you’ve at least heard of Skyrim. In that way, Skyrim is a lot like the TV show The Office – almost everyone on the planet has at least some kind of run-in with it, and to say you like it nowadays is like admitting you have the intellectual palate of a goat. An especially dumb goat. It isn’t that the game is bad at all, but it’s aged a fair bit and its fans are pretty ardent ones that have a hard time shutting up about it, which is a rough recipe for newcomers or the indifferent.

Skyrim also has the irresistible force of a whirpool, sink hole, sand trap, or any other kind of thing that pulls you in and won’t let go.

Black holes! Like a black hole! Way better example.

Anyway.

I guess all of that means I’m mostly speaking to fellow Skyrim fans with what follows. Because what I’m going to describe is a problem that plagues those of us exclusively, it seems. There was a point where I sunk so many hours into that game, I walked by a fern and had the reflex to reach out and try to harvest it for Spikey Grass pods for my alchemy. I did the same thing when passing an agapanthas and thinking it was Death Bell (I have poisons of ‘Slow’ to brew, after all).

I’ve played through that game, 100%, at least a dozen times. There isn’t a quest of any tier that I haven’t played through multiple times, any NPC’s I haven’t met, any random encounters I haven’t encountered randomly, or any new dialogue I can’t recite alongside the one who says it.

So why the F*CK do I feel a compulsion to fire it up again?

In an interactive medium like video games, the whole point is for emergent storytelling. In other words, not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. But in this case, I know exactly what’s going to happen. In fact, I know I’m barely going to make it through Helgen before I start wondering why the hell I’m burning my minutes on this earth with this again. I’ll counter myself by brewing excitement over trying a new build, but then that will fall flat when I remind myself that I’ve done every possible build fives times over.

There will be nothing new.

But I still kinda want to be a Bosmer archer, communing with mammoths and shooting bandits in the eye with my trusty bow. I want to ignore the Dovakiin story line entirely and roleplay as a hunter that takes down elk and sells the skins in the Hold capitals for petty coin. I want to “fall in with” the Thieves’ Guild of Riftin and ignore the sh*t out of the Stones of Barenziah because finding all twenty-four of them is duuuuumb. I want to complete dungeons, sidestep traps, ambush draugr, and collect treasure.

But I KNOW I’ll get bored thirty minutes into all of that, and rightly so.

So, really, in the end, maybe this is just a lesson, the Great Lesson that Todd Howard has been trying to impress upon us all for the last ten goddamn years in his refusal to progress The Elder Scrolls series into its sixth installment. Maybe the wisdom here is to learn to let go, to recognize the futility in hanging onto what’s normal, what’s comfortable and familiar. To learn to grow beyond those familiar things and seek betterment and change. To accept that good things in life are meant to be savored and then release to the flow of time…

Or it could be that Skyrim can be ported to a refrigerator and still print butt-tons of money, and I’m drastically overthinking it. Maybe I just need to move on and try something new rather than re-playing all the same stuff. Either way, I think it should meet the criteria for some kind of official condition.

Skyrim-itis?

Tamriel Syndrome?

‘You Cannot Run, You Are Overburdened’ Disord-

Actually, wow. That last one hits. Life…might just be a bit busy, and we seek refuge from its obligations in a realm of fantasy, and what we really need to do is some house-keeping of our priorities rather than blaming the…video games…we…distract ourselves with…

Gosh. Look at us. Learning. On the fly and in the moment.

Heh. And they say video games don’t have anything to teach us.

I’m gonna go clean the living room.

Never Challenge an Exhausted Nurse to a Duel: A Childhood Lesson

A friend of mine is going to school for nursing, and part of her college path was a sociology course. One of her assignments was to survey some people she knew with a little questionnaire they’d given her. It was a list of nineteen items, each describing some sort of transgressible action; stealing money from an old woman’s purse, for example. They ranged in severity from cheating on a math quiz to blowing up a hospital for religious reasons. The goal of the exercise was to have those surveyed rank the items on the list from Least Severe to Most Severe, One being nothing and Nineteen being top of the chart, and then give their reasons for their rankings.

It was really insightful.

The gist of the results seemed pretty much what you might guess: We ranked things higher on the list depending on the amount of impact the action had and/or how negligent the action was. For example, we pretty much all put ‘blowing up a hospital for religious reasons’ high up on the list, but her father had it lower than us, and when we asked why, he cited the religious motivation as the factor for lenience. Similarly, when we compared our rankings of ‘murder for hire,’ her mother ranked it a little lower than us because “at least it was just a job, y’know, it wasn’t personal.”

The item that jumped all over the map between us was ‘hitting a child.’ The friend who was enrolled in the course had it somewhere floating around Fourteen, its peers being things like ‘stealing medication’ and ‘committing a hit-and-run.’ I gawked and asked her to justify it, and she did so by explaining the way violence against one so young can have very far-reaching consequences. Then she asked me how I’d ranked it.

Like, Three.

Then came the million dollar question. “Did your parents ever hit you?” I asked. To which I remember her scoffing and saying something to the effect of “Of course not. You?” I laughed an nodded emphatically. I had two such occasions to share, specifically.

The first, no matter how you slice it, was funny as hell. My mom was a lifetime Labor & Delivery nurse that worked nights. That meant that she was in the room where babies popped out into the world. It wouldn’t be until I’d become an adult that I was even halfway able to appreciate how bone-achingly difficult and exhausting that must have been to do while also raising a child and caring for an abusive husband. Yikes.

But I was an energetic little brat at times, an only child, and had very few friends growing up. So in the summer time, I mostly lived in an empty house by myself that had to remain quiet so my nocturnal mother could sleep. That didn’t keep me from craving attention and play time when I was about ten, though, and so one morning in particular she comes home and collapses in the living room recliner (like you’d do), and I start bugging her to hang out. I have a couple plastic lightsabers, the kind you hold a button and flick out with your wrist, and keep tapping her foot to have a duel with me.

Again and again, she waves me off, saying “Not right now” and such, but I just keep tapping her foot, asking, aggravating her, and saying “C’mooooon.”

Eventually, she springs to her feet, and I excitedly toss her the blue one. After all, I was about to have a duel, and I’d been practicing. We were about to have an awesome fight like there were in the movies: striking, parrying, fancy footwork, dodges, all the the rest. I guess somewhere in my excitement, I forgot that jedi have to be careful in their duels because their swords are actual plasma whereas mine were plastic.

Exhausted, cranky nurses don’t give a shit about your plastic swords or your fancy footwork. She walked me down, just raising and lowering her lightsaber in vicious blows with all the grace of a Bionicle action figure, until I was in a corner calling mercy. She dropped her lightsaber to the ground and walked off to bed saying, “There, I win.”

To this day, it was one of the biggest G moments I’ve seen out of another human being.

The second (which was actually the first – I’m telling them out of order, sue me) was a bit more serious, but is a story I tell more often. This time, I was nine, and my father had just passed away. It was maybe a few weeks to a month or so after his death, and we were still working out the dynamic in the house. She was no doubt totally spent, and I was a bit frayed, too. We were having an argument about something assuredly stupid, but what was important was how and where we were. She was sitting on the living room couch by the left arm rest, and as I think on it, I think she might have been crying. I was standing right beside her on the other side of the arm rest, and I was screaming over whatever the fight was about. I was throwing a tantrum, in short. Of course, I don’t remember at all what was being said, but I finally hit the right note, struck the right nerve, and her hand suddenly snapped back with all the quickness and automatic un-intention of a mouse trap being triggered.

She hit me right across my face, and there was just a stunned silence for a good five-count. Tears welled up and worked their way down my face, and I ran off to my room. Later, I came back out and apologized and we’ve been terrific friends ever since.

So, am I advocating for that kind of thing? Hell no, of course not. BUT I’m simply sharing that in my particular case, a lot of good came out of it.

I’ve also had this idea for getting middle school teachers to learn muy thai to settle unruly students, but so far it hasn’t really caught on more than getting me weird looks.

Maybe one day…

Why (I Think) Writing Should be Hard – A Rant

Not saying that’s what this is at all, but I get into about one online fight a year. I do them annually. I keep it to that, because otherwise I’d go insane, since they all go exactly the same way: I see something I disagree with, I look into it to see if I stand to learn something, after which I tell the person I disagree and why, they disagree back, I cite sources and supplemental arguments, they post a picture and call me dumb, I explain why that’s insufficient, whereupon they say that I’m insufficient, and I close with a final argument, a plea that they improve themselves, and a promise to myself to never do that again because it’s fruitless as hell.

It’s dumb because it’s <sigh> too easy. And I’m not saying that at all in an “I’m so much smarter than so-and-so” egotistical way. I’ve gotten into plenty of online discussions wherein someone stakes a claim and backs it up with reasonable evidence and rationale, I try to do the same, and we both come away with an evolved view of our positions even if they haven’t necessarily changed. The problem is that those things are rare as a pink manta ray (look ’em up, biologists have found ONE that exists), and the remaining overwhelming percentage are folks posting pictures, regurgitating easy rallying cries, and slinging insults.

That’s because it’s way easier to do the latter than the former, and that’s so damn disappointing. Ideally, one should either take part doing it correctly, or not at all. Just because you can post an inflammatory picture or meme that’s supposed to summarize your point, doesn’t mean you need to. (Also, if your world view has so little nuance as to be completely encompassed by a rehashed picture and a joke, that may be part of the problem.)

I’ve been a longtime lurker on reddit, too. Always reading and surfing posts, but never posting my own or commenting much. Recently however, I’ve started getting a bit more involved with commenting at least. I stumbled upon the r/writingadvice forum, and that seems to be where I do most of my talking. It’s always great to spread and pick up tips and shared wisdom from other writers, and that’s as good a place as any. It also feels good to have your advice find some small purchase with another person and resonate with them.

That said, I found one bit of advice I’ve shared that never seems to get a positive response. I’ve dwelled on it critically, whether it’s sound advice or if I’m just being an asshole, but I earnestly lean toward the former (not out of defense, either; I’m down to be called out if it’s correct). In a nutshell, it goes as follows:

The OP says they know they’re a strong writer with a powerful voice, but they never find the motivation to finish projects or commit to anything. They have talent, those close to them praise their work and reassure them, but still the doubt remains. What can they do?

Whether it’s right or wrong, this is roughly what I try to share with you now as I have on those posts:

You can’t tell yourself you have talent. It may very well be true, but for the vast majority of us, it isn’t. It doesn’t always come easy, and it shouldn’t. There will be times when inspiration strikes and the words flow, sure, but you can’t just accept that your words will effortless spin gold because it’s natural. It takes effort over time, commitment, and exhausting levels of energy. “I don’t like compliments,” Jimmy Hendrix was once quoted saying. “They distract me.”

Be like Hendrix. Even if you are talented, don’t tell yourself that. Make yourself earn it, time and time again. Celebrate successes, absolutely, but don’t get lost in them. Live, strive, learn. You have to be your own biggest fan, but only while paired with being your own harshest critic.

Doubt, loneliness, some self-loathing, exhilaration, wonder, elation, and all the rest are part of the trade, it seems to me. Having wonderful ideas, observations, and tales to tell is something literally all of us do. The trick- the job is in building a bridge between that realm of imagination and fantasy into the real world.

Y’all, that takes work. Just like a bridge, it needs structure. It needs fittings, cables, hangers, bolts, sub-structural braces, decorations if you’re fancy, and maintenance. It needs all these things before it can work like you want it to. So just like with the aforementioned internet squabbles, it needs more effort than expecting it to come naturally and have people see it the way you do in your mind’s eye. The work is wondrous, lonely, heartbreaking, but uplifting and rewarding.

Can you do it? Fuck yeah. Please, Christ, share your story. But put into it tenfold the energy you expect to see out of it. Will some succeed and find it easy? Maybe. But even ninety-nine out of a hundred success stories you’ll hear about by very talented people are built with insane amounts of unseen work and luck. Enough patience and fortitude is what will make the difference for us normies.

If you’re looking to succeed at an art, at a project, or whatever else, that’s the secret. It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Great artists that seem untouchable are people just like us. The only difference between us and them is time spent. That means time spent trying, spent working, spent failing, spent regrouping, spent learning, and spent trying again. That really seems like the secret everyone wants, but doesn’t like. But if you’re looking for a sympathetic ear and a pat on the back, ask for those instead.

Or shoot, maybe it’s a diet rich with Vitamin A. Like, somehow fifty years from now science will find that’s the trick to creative genius and everything I’ve just said is malarky.

But it’s worth a try.

Ciao, y’all.

Another Trip Around the Sun

To each their own, obviously, but when I was about sixteen I learned one of the secrets to happiness.

I was about that old when my uncle had one of his birthdays and I asked him how he spent it. “Oh, took the day off to slept in a bit. Wife went to work, so I cleaned up the house some, then I took myself out to breakfast. After that, I got a haircut and went to go see a movie. It was nice.”

I don’t think I said it out loud, but the inside of my mind sounded something like this: “That…um, wow. That does sound kind of nice, actually. You…you can just-…you can just do that?”

To me, at that age, birthdays were something that had to have a bang. It was expected to have some kind of party, some kind of event or get-together. So when he said he’d quietly celebrated his birthday with an easy day with himself, nice, little tokens, and time without expectations, he might as well showed me how to turn lead into gold. In that moment, he was an alchemist and had just showed me how to craft the Philosopher’s Stone.

With the exception of my twenty-first, I have striven to live each birthday in the same easy fashion ever since, and it really is the key to happiness, I find.

If your thing is big ol’ shindigs and how-to-do’s, by God, go for it. Love it, the occasion, the time, yourself, all of it. But damn, being given the tacit permission to enjoy an easy day free from any obligation is…just, such a treat.

Slept in a little bit this morning, got some cuddles, finished a mystery novel I’ve been reading and started another, showered and got doughnuts. Now, I’m sitting in a coffee house writing to you guys, with plans to have shwarma later with my mother, and bet on UFC fights while scarfing tacos sometime after that.

And fuck me if that isn’t exactly how I want to spend the day.

Y’all have a good one. Or, rather, whatever kind of day you damn well please. Life is hard, and these little oases of downtime are…boy, they’re a joy.