The Dog-end of a Day Gone By

To call 2016 challenging is to undersell it. It was certainly the most difficult year I’ve endured, and that’s just on a personal level. Caring for a 1 year-old while managing a career as a writer is no easy task. There have been frayed nerves, sleepless nights, and the ever-present worry that this is pretty much it for me and my career; that I can’t do both those things without failing at one of them. And yet, I’m still here, you’re still here, and we need to be because 2017 will probably be worse. It’ll take away people and things we love, the bad guys will keep winning. This is the beginning of the winter George RR Martin’s Stark family keeps telling us is coming.

But it’s important not to give into that despair. You have to fight, you have to strive, you have to marshal resources and press on. Because capitulation is not victory. It will feel like it for a while, but those things you’re trying to hide from will find you eventually.

Think of it this way; we all have some sort of comfort food. Some meal that you love, less because of what it is than what it represents. For me, it’s the traditional roast beef diner my grandmother used to make. The roast was always a little dry, the gravy a little starchy, but I’ve spent the last twenty-three years trying to re-create. But that really isn’t the point; the point is when I do make it, I get a minor taste of what that meal represented; the closeness of family, the smiles, the laughter of people now long gone. There’s warmth to it, and sadness. It’s nostalgic, the comfort meal.

As Michel Houllebecq wrote;

Nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics — it’s not even connected to happy memories. We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we’ve lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful.

That’s comfort food; and art can be comfort food for the soul. Books, movies, TV, music … those perennial works you return to over and over again, not because they remind you of happier times, but because they remind you of a time in your life that you survived. So in the spirit of the season, here are some of my artistic comfort foods.

  1. Bond. James Bond.

bond

I grew up with James Bond; the Roger Moore ones specifically, because they were the first ones I saw. I remember how a Bond movie would often be the ABC Saturday night movie; the World Premiere of Moonraker or something Over the last month and a bit my wife and I watched (in reverse order for some reason) the Moore Bond series, and the Dalton ones. We’re now into the Brosnan era. There’s just something about them that gives me a warm feeling, and that, I think, has been their success; by offering us what we want while tweaking the formulas ever so much. From Octopussy on I saw every Bond in the theater, including Never Say Never Again, though I shamefully confess I missed Spectre, being a newly minted parent my movie watching was pretty much impossible. To this day remains difficult – last I saw in the theater was … actually, I legit can’t remember. It was summer, I know that. Maybe X-Men Apocalypse (which was terrible by the way). Did I mention the year that was has been rough? Well, yeah. No time for movies.

2. High. Degrassi Jr. High.

degrassi

Not much time for TV either, though one seminal series turns 30(!) next year. Yes, on January 18, 1987 a little Canadian TV series called Degrassi Jr. High made its debut on CBC. My friends and I all mocked it, for its cheesiness, for its obviously plotted by adults for kids aesthetic, for the Canadian-ness of it (growing up in Canada in the 1980s it was anything but cool). But we still watched it – I know I did, mostly because it was filmed in, and set in Toronto, which I loved, and I would just groove on the scenery. When the final TV movie “School’s Out” aired five years later, I think everyone in school must have watched it because the next day all people could say was “You fucked Tessa Campinelli?” Over the following years it aired in reruns, was relaunched as an enormously successful show called Degrassi that’s still going strong. But now, 30 years on, it’s become comfort TV, for me anyway, because of the cheesiness, because of the plots, because of the amateurish nature of using non-actors. It even makes a brief cameo appearance in my next novel. Those kids are all in their 40s now – and I’m sure the ones who grew up not watching it but actually watching in secret still remember the theme song.

3. God Save the Queen
queen_band_members

If you know me this will come as a shock, but I grew up listening to Queen. First instance was when we moved to Scarborough Ontario in 1982, and at my new school, had to participate daily in a thing called the Health Hustle. Let me back up; by Age nine I was used to starting over in a new school. I’d lived in Mississauga, in Vancouver, in Edmonton, and now Scarborough. First days in a new school were always weird. Being the new kid, for one, being the kid who had no idea in hell what he was in for was another. So on my first day at North Bridlewood public School, around 11am an announcement came over the PA telling the children it was time for today’s Health Hustle. This was an initiative from the Ontario Public School board dating back to the early 70s, to include mandatory physical activity for school children (recess twice a day was not enough apparently). So when the announcement came we were marched to the gym, where a teacher led us through the health hustle routine of jumping jacks and running in place. I had no idea what or why it was, but there was music on the PA, and that year the music was Queen. We Are the Champions, and We Will Rock you in particular (along with some other songs and bands I’ve forgotten, though I think bad Leroy Brown was one of them). That was my intro to Queen, though they would pop up periodically through my life in the next decade, especially as Much Music arrived on the airwaves. I even remember the day Freddie Mercury passed away. They were always bigger in Canada than they were in the US, which is why when Mike Meyers paid tribute to them in Wayne’s World the next year, Bohemian Rhapsody climbed the charts once again. Incidentally Meyers grew up in that same Scarborough neighborhood, and was a friend of one of my friends’ sisters. To this day a Queen song takes me back to those years and memories.

Just don’t ask me to do the Health Hustle.

4. Stand By Me
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People ask me who my favorite author is, I typically say Joe R. Lansdale because he’s awesome and everyone should read his books. But for various reasons Stephen King holds a special place in my heart and it was seeing Stand by Me in the theater that summer that prompted me to seek out Stephen King’s books – specifically the novella The Body, which the film was based on. I remember the surprised gasp that tremored through the theater when “Based on a novella by Stephen king” appeared on screen as the end credits rolled. That Stephen King? It bore some investigating, and I did, scoring a used paperback of Different Seasons the novella collection containing The Body (and Apt Pupil, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and the lesser-known The Breathing Method). I read The Body first, and was shocked by how dark it was. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was mournful in a way the movie wasn’t. The sadness at lost friends, and lost years, suffuses every page of The Body, and in the years since I think I may have read it every year or two. I get older with each read, but Gordie LaChance, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio remain the same age I was when I saw Stand by Me. As a father to a young boy, it resonates even deeper now. Revisiting The Body is like revisiting old friends; ones you’ll never forget.

5. The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of …

sandman-covers

Of course I can’t leave 2016 without mentioning comic books. My career as a comic book creator has been on hold ever since our child was born, and I descended into the world of Magicians Impossible, but I hope to get back into making comics in 2017. To prepare for that I’ve been rereading several seminal titles, the greatest of which, to me, remains Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Everything’s been written about Sandman, its influence, its importance, over the last twenty-five, almost thirty years so what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Nothing. But for me it’s as unique as it was when it first appeared; both cosmic in its scope and intimate in its reach. I’d read periodic issues of it when they first came out, but it wasn’t until 1999, when I became a screenwriter by trade, that I had the money and the time to collect the trade paperbacks, and read them from start to finish. Maybe it’s the fact that it told a complete story. Maybe because every turn of the page felt strangely familiar. Reading it now it’s like an artifact from an earlier age, where my career as a writer was just beginning. But mostly because this story, like all stories, mattered to me, and had the power to change myworld, starting from the smallest speck of dust.

So, as we close up shop on 2016, I encourage each and every one of you to indulge in a little comfort food over the holidays. Listen to that album. Watch that movie. Re-read that book. Get some rest, see some family and friends. And when 2017 arrives, be prepared to fight your hardest for those people and things that mean the most to you.

UPDATE:

January 12, 2017 (Addendum)

There’s one more bit of comfort food I have to add, and it’s this …

Netflix has every Star Trek series available to stream, and I’ve begun what looks to be an epic re-watch of the Original Series. It’s been years since I watched any of these episodes, and i’m reasonably certain that, despite it being my favorite of the Trek series, I actually haven’t run the entire series. There’s episodes I’ve seen, ones I remember vividly (working a summer at a Star Trek exhibit in the mid 90s will do that to you), but many I have never seen or have no recollection of – mostly season 3 episodes, natch. So It’s going to be a fun little ride the next while. Lord knows I’m going to need the distraction.

Like a Child

Well, I’m back. To what though, is the real question. Had a glorious 10 days in Canada, crisscrossing the GTA as far north as Muskoka and as far south as Niagara. Saw friends, saw family, and introduced our child to his Canadian heritage. The weather was pleasant and comfortable, and made me question why I live in the humid blast furnace that is NYC June-September (and sometimes May-October). Plus, there’s the whole America Collapsing Under Generations Of Racial Hatred thing. To be honest at one point in our travels my wife joked about not coming back at all, and I was sorely tempted to say “no problem.”

Okay maybe that’s an exaggeration but a year that began with the death of Bowie and continued thru the death of Prince seems hell-bent on taking away everything good and leaving everything bad.

In other words, I’m here to talk all things Pokemon.

Pokemon Go to be exact. Amidst the shitstorm that has been the daily news the past year, it was a bright spot. What’s not to like about people leaving the confines of their home and, phones in hand, tracking down the anime characters of their childhood on their own neighborhood streets?

Well … I hate to be that guy, but someone has to be.

Look, I get it; it’s a game, it’s fun, and what’s wrong with fun? Absolutely nothing. But Central Park has become a mecca for Pokemon Go and it’s absolutely cluttered with slow walking I-Zombies hunched over their phone searching for these characters. They’re looking into their phones when they could be looking at the stars, and that’s the problem isn’t it? Not a Pokemon problem but an overall one with my generation and the generation following unable to give up their childhood. We’re in our 30s and 40s, reading comic books, buying action figures, watching old cartoons, watching movies based on those cartoons. We’re looking to the past and missing the present.

I am as guilty of this as anyone. I mean, look at my cork-board above my desk:

IMG_2457 (1) (1024x768)

Yes, those are 2 GI Joe figures in their packaging – part of the line’s 25th anniversary re-release. No I have no intention of taking them out of the package. Why do I have them there above my writing space where I can glance at them anytime I want? Nostalgia. that momentary thrill I got every time I hit the toy section of whatever department store I visited with my parents back in the 80s. Rounding the corner and seeing all those glorious action figures on pegs, row after row of them, waiting for me to convince/beg/plead with my parents to let me have just one. It’s a silly thing, but the microsecond I get of re-experiencing that thrill fills me with a tiny sense of well-being.

Getting nostalgic is a thing that happens when you’re older. It’s a natural part of growing up. The more serious and complex life gets, the more inclined we are to seek comfort in the past. The past is knowable. It’s predictable. It’s safe. When I was in Toronto did I make sure to swing through my old neighborhood and grab a burger at my favorite burger joint, for old time’s sake? Of course I did!

Also Mike Meyers' favorite burger joint

Also Mike Meyers’ favorite burger joint

But I also remember when my childhood ended. Not by year – when you’re a teen you can’t really call it a childhood, but you are still a child. No, ended when I started college; not being in college, but at the end of my first semester when my parents announced they were getting divorced. I was an adult then, but wasn’t until that news dropped that I realized there really was no going home ever again. And I never did, really. That’s a theme running through much of my work; the character in search of a home. I have one now, with my wife and child but there’s a small part of me  that would trade all I have now to experience those years that were far from golden and only seem that way through the gauzy filter I’ve slapped on my formative years. Even the mid-late 1990s when my life kind of sucked has taken on a mythic tone. There was good stuff nestled amidst the bad, but there always is.

So yeah, the day I found out the future would never be the same as the past I wanted that past back, more than ever. I dug deep, into comic books and movies and TV – not the new stuff but the old stuff. Because it was comfortable. Because it was there. Because unlike my future, I knew how the past ended. Only years later did I realize those entertainments and memories associated with them were my life preserver. But then, when I got on top of my shit, accepted the new reality, and forged my own path those toys were put away.

But does childhood even end now? When 40-something bitch about an all-lady Ghostbusters, when people who are actual adults are running around with their phones to find Pokemon characters, when we’re splurging on toys and trinkets that make us think of a simpler time, are we short-changing the present and future by holding onto the past?

I’m as guilty of this as anybody. I listen to 70s-90s alt rock exclusively, though I do listen to my share of newer artists as well. if I really want to go down the rabbit hole there’s YouTube, which has vintage toy commercials, old After School Specials, music videos, documentaries, home movies. Last year as we prepared for our child’s birth I marathoned my way through The Wonder Years and the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose on Netflix, YouTube, and Crackle; both for completion’s aspects – I missed huge chunks of both series, but because watching them as an adult transported me back to a time I was a child. Mixtape trades on Gen-X nostalgia for the music of its youth. Hell, my next novel, a sci-fi/horror thriller called Underneath, is set in 1988 and features everything from MTV and video stores to mix tapes and John Hughes. You can’t fully leave your past behind. My parents were nostalgic for the Beatles, Woodstock, and their lazy days at the cottage when they were in their 30s and 40s, and more so now that they’re in their 70s. Life moves fast – faster the older you get. Summers used to drag endless; now they’re far too short.

But as my time becomes more precious, I find I have less time for childish things. Having a child is part of that, but I still managed to unload my old Star Wars, GI Joe, and Transformers toys on eBay without so much as a tear shed for those pieces of plastic that provided my childhood with so many fine memories. The time I have not occupied by work and day-to-day maintenance of house and home is spent with my wife and son, creating new memories for all of us.

Though I did hang onto a few choice items for old time's sake

Though I did hang onto a few choice items for old time’s sake

So I hope you enjoy Pokemon and comics and toys and games; I really do. I hope you find them a salve for the struggles of your day-to-day life because while I don’t know your struggles I know they can beat you down and leave you broken. But I also hope they aren’t becoming substitute for new experiences, new joys, and even new sorrows. My son started walking on his own while on our trip, and I’m happy I was able to see it unfold in real-time, not thru the screen of a phone surrounded by Anime characters. I’m only going to get one chance to experience these things for the first time and I don’t want to miss any of them.

I often joke the worst “life flashing before your eyes” would just be your POV of your phone screen. But it’s no joke – I see it in the playground when pushing my son on the swing and I’m the only adult not staring at their phone while their child tries to get their parents’ attention. When my son rolls his ball across the floor to my desk while I’m working, I feel a sense of shame that he’s trying to get my attention while mine is focused elsewhere. That’s why I turn the computer off and get down on the floor with him; because while work will wait, if you wait too long for it, life will pass you by.

Haunted When The Minutes Drag

I moved around a lot as a child. By the time I was 12 years old I’d lived in 8 different cities and two different countries. I got very used to (and very good at) making new friends and even better at saying goodbye to them. In fact, my entire childhood is pretty much compartmentalized, with memories tied to a specific place and time, and those memories extend to TV, music, movies, comics and so forth.

For the longest while I thought this was normal; that everyone moved with the frequency we did. Then I later realized that my life was the exception; my friends were kids born in their city or town and grew up there and would very likely remain there for. They were lifers; I was just a face and a name passing through, staying put for a short time, then one day I was gone and my face and name would fade from their memories. I doubt many, if any of the people I went to school with in Vancouver or Edmonton or Greensboro remember me at all. I was the anomaly, not them, and while I once liked the excitement of new cities, new homes, and new schools, over time I came to hate those moves. I came to hate having to say goodbye. I wanted stability. I wanted a sense of place. I wanted a home, not a house.

Pictured: the writer as a brooding young man

Pictured: the writer as a brooding young man

I bring all this up because I’m at work on my next project, a novel largely inspired by the years I lived in Brockville, Ontario (roughly 1986-1992). While wholly a work of fiction – it’s a horror/sci fi/mystery hybrid – it’s still drawn from the reservoir of memories of my years in that town. It’s about many things I experienced there, and after I left. Mostly it’s about saying goodbye.

It’s been quite the experience so far. Like opening old wounds. Sure, you remember the good but to create real drama you have to zero in on the bad. I’m taking my mind places it hasn’t gone since, well, since those darker days. It hasn’t been pleasant, but it’s been necessary. Both the good and the bad have given me fuel, but so have the mundane moments; shooting pool, hanging out at the arcade, renting crappy horror movies form the local video store. Those moments that seem inconsequential at the time that take on mythic importance so many years later.

When I lived in Brockville I hated it, but I think every teenager hates where they grew up. It was boring, it was stale, and I felt trapped. Even when I got my driver’s license and my first car I felt tethered to home like I was attached by a big elastic. Just when I thought I’d achieved freedom there was something to snap me back. Had I lived someplace exciting like Toronto or New York I’m sure I’d have things to complain about them too, but age changes things. Your memories of that “miserable” time become more golden. You realize that, while they were far from what some would call “the best years of your life” they were special, they were meaningful, and they mattered because they made you the person you are now. Your work ethic, your personality, all of it formed in that blast furnace called High School. It was when you made the decision, conscious or otherwise, to be the person you wanted to be.

Unsurprisingly, if you know anything about me, music has been a great gateway to those years and memories. The infamous box of old mixtapes that inspired Mixtape have come in handy here, as have the assorted yearbooks, photo albums, magazines, notebooks and so on that have been following me around for almost 30 years. Unlike Mixtape, this new project has that element of the fantastic that hopefully means a wider audience than the ‘musical memoir’. It’s very different from Mixtape but shares a lot of its DNA. If you take the cast of my comic and all of a sudden dropped them down into Invasion of the Body Snatchers you essentially have this new thing. Like Mixtape, it has unlocked old memories and opened old wounds. Much of my dislike of those years is because that was the period my parents’ marriage hit the rocks. It was not a happy time. There was yelling and arguments at the dinner table, on outings, even on one infamous birthday celebration (mine). I couldn’t wait to get out of there and when I did I never looked back or went back.

For a while, anyway.

In college when people asked me where I was “from” I never had an easy answer. “Directly” you could say “Brockville” but it wasn’t where I was “from”. When you lived in 8 cities over 12 years you can’t say you’re really ‘from” a certain place. I still saw people from Brockville, and remained friends with them through some of college but we were all moving in other directions. New friends, new horizons; those old familiar faces reminded you of the person you were not the one you wanted to be. So for a very long time I buried Brockville and those years deep, until a good fifteen years had passed since I said my formal goodbye. That story has been documented elsewhere so I won’t bore you. I will say that once I started to plumb the depths of my experiences growing up I became a much better writer. I had a POV, I had a story, I had a voice that was unique yet familiar. My experiences weren’t so different from many others whether you were from Providence, Rhode Island or Buenos Aires, Argentina or Monroe, New York.

One of the great tragedies in life is that we grow up thinking we’re alone and that nobody anywhere understands our problems or what we’re going through, only to learn well after the fact that on every street, in every school, in every town small and large there were people our age going through the same things we were. You can’t help but be haunted by your past and the memories you have of that long ago and far away land. Whether you realize it or admit it, it’s a part of who you are. And I think by embracing the past, warts and all, you stand a much better chance of navigating the present.

If writing is therapy I suppose this new project is mine. Especially being a father now I’m trying to come to terms with the person I was versus the one I am right now and the one I hope to be. To teach my son how to be a better person than his father is. To show him that despite a world that seems dark that there are joyous moments to behold. That even when he’s upset or unhappy and wishing he lived anywhere but here (wherever that will be), that in time it’ll be a lot easier to remember the good moments than dwell on the bad.

So that’s it. Now take care of yourselves. I have a novel to get back to.

Pictured: that moody young man discovering his muse

Pictured: that moody young man discovering his muse