I’m up to my neck in revisions to two separate manuscripts, and a non-fiction book proposal at the moment so there won’t be any major updates this month or possibly next. But my new short story “THE SUMMER KIDS” will be available to read on this website on July 1st so mark the date.
In the meanwhile, here’s a quick breakdown of 3-Act structure using STAR WARS Lego sets for your reading and viewing pleasure:
It’s hard to believe three years ago we were living in a much different world.
This is no exaggeration, for life in 2023 is a lot different than it was on March 13, 2020 when the first of the Covid lockdowns began. A world before masks, before social distancing, before Zoom meetings, before antivaxxers and trucker convoys all became part of the lexicon.
Or, as Galadriel said in the beginning of The Lord of The Rings;
The world has changed.
I see it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.
Much that once was is lost.
For none now live who remember it.
Well, that last bit may not be completely true, but it’s hard to recall a time before all that happened actually happened. Even going to the movies has changed. I have been back in theaters, but nowhere near the frequency I used to. Going through last year’s receipts for taxes revealed to me that after seeing Top Gun: Maverick in early July of 2022, the next time my butt planted itself in a movie theater seat was to see Avatar: The Way Of Water on December 31st of the same year. That’s roughly six months time in-between movie showings.
I used to go to the movies once a week, more or less. Sometimes more than that.
So that changed.
And it seems change just keeps on coming. Rapid change. Everyone in my business is talking about AI and Chat GPT rendering huge swaths of the creative business unemployable. But while I do worry somewhat, until an AI is capable of yanking the pencil out of my hand* and writing something that doesn’t sound like it was written by a computer I can comfortably hold the line.**
*Though if I were say an editor, an agent, or a development executive I would be VERY worried.
**and if you really want to know what I think about CHAT GPT/AI, let me just say the general rule of thumb for me is if Silicon Valley tech bros backed by their hedge fund vampire overlords are for it, it’s bad for you and should be avoided at all costs.
At the beginning of the pandemic I wrote this popular entry on this website about how to cope with working from home. The rules I outlined were pretty succinct. I’d also add that part of what helped me successfully navigate the pandemic with only a few rough anxiety-filled months in total, was following those rules … and one other thing …
That’s right; I’m going to talk about Lego.
Specifically what this modular brick building system taught me about life.
It began, interestingly enough, with this set;
It was a Christmas gift given to me in 2017 – the last Christmas I spent in NYC. It promptly went into the closet because I told myself I didn’t have time to build this set, and nowhere to display it where a toddler couldn’t reach it and thusly return a 1,969 piece set back to its component parts. I received it at Christmas 2017. It accompanied us from New York to New England in 2018 and remained in the closet storage space until March 2022 when I saw it there, confronted myself with the fact I wasn’t going to be going anywhere anytime soon because everything was closed, and decided there was no time like then and there to start building the thing.
It was probably the most fun I’d had sticking little bricks together.
It took about two weeks to build. I didn’t rush things. I opened one bag of pieces a day (12 bags in total – this thing is huge). And at first it barely resembled its finished product. But as I sat there piecing white and black bricks together I entered what I would call a Zen state. Maybe not Zen but I reflected on the past, on my life. My trip to Cape Canaveral to see the Challenger on its launch pad less than a month before it exploded shortly after takeoff in January 1986. Two separate trips to Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama. I think of repeated viewings of The Right Stuff. I thought of a lot of things and when the rocket was constructed and put on display I had been well and directly bitten by the Lego bug.
It happened slowly from there. We spied a Hogwarts Express set on sale at Target and as our child was very much into trains back then, decided to buy it and assemble it for him, and thus provide him with countless hours of playtime. More sets followed; mostly for him, some for my wife, some for me. Lego City trains and construction equipment, Jurassic Park and Jurassic World sets, a Lego Creator London Double Decker Bus, multiple Star Wars sets, and so on …
I think a line was crossed when, after the lockdowns had subsided and we were at one of the local malls, after browsing their Lego store for a bit, I ended up spur-of-the-moment-ing a purchase of this nice Batman 1966 set:
But what has all of this Lego building taught me?
That it all starts with one piece connected to the other. It can be the first two pieces of a 200 piece set or the first two of a 2000 piece set.
That’s probably my favorite part of the journey with every set I’ve built. However big or small the set is, it all begins the same way; that first small step.
Like any writing project, home improvement project, like any task to complete that sometimes seems unsurmountable, it all begins with that first connection. Small wonder my favorite parting is frequently the first page or so, when it’s just beginning to roll forward.
It also has taught me a lesson more people could stand to learn.
Here’s an example. At the beginning of the previous month, Lego released this;
In case you don’t know, this is Rivendell, the Elvish refuge from The Hobbit and LOTR. One of my favorite books, possibly my favorite movie trilogy (sorry Star Wars). It’s beautiful. 15 minifigs, impressive design, interiors and exterior. Detailed in every way you could imagine. An iconic location from one of the great novels of the 20th century.
It’s also $500.00
I can go admire it in the box at the store, but I can’t spend that much on a set. Not that I don’t have the money; I don’t have the space either.
And you know what? That’s okay.
Life is frequently about not getting things you want. You can be upset by that fact but believe it or not it’s actually a good thing. It’s not unjust or unfair, it simply is what it is.
I’ve been down this road before. A couple years ago my Lego holy grail was this Star Wars set, the Mos Eisley Cantina.
It was a more reasonable amount of money, but again, space considerations killed that dream. Sure I could buy it, I could build it, but where would I put it?
Of course if I had a much larger home I would have the space for Mos Eisley, and Rivendell, and maybe this Titanic set. But I’d also have higher monthly costs, for heat, for electricity, property taxes, mortgage, all the adult stuff.
I’ve since scaled back on my Lego builds, preferring smaller sets, like this nifty Aston Martin DB5 from No Time To Die that includes a Daniel Craig as James Bond minifig.
Though I did splurge for this BTTF DeLorean time machine for sentimental reasons. If you’ve read my Celluloid Heroes series you’ll know why. If not you can do so here.
In the end, while we can all aspire to greater things, I think far too few of us appreciate what we do have. You can complain about the cost of Lego sets. Or you can just find something in your budge (that Aston Martin cost only $22.00).
It’s like steak; tasty, but expensive and really, maybe not being able to afford it every day or week is a good thing. Healthier too. My anxiety has dropped substantially and I credit both Lego and appreciating the smaller things in life to be a factor.
Building Lego also taught me some lessons about work. Well, maybe not taught but certainly reinforced. For if a Lego set begins with one brick connected to another, so too does writing begin with that first word, then the next, connecting letters and words to sentences and paragraphs and thoughts and ideas.
Writing takes a long time to do, and a lot longer to get right. but a little patience and perseverance goes a long way. Sometimes the only way.
Our journey through this life proceeds in one direction; forward. How you spend that journey is up to you. But if there’s anything the pandemic, that Lego, that life has taught me it’s that the view ahead of you looks a lot more appealing than the road you’ve travelled. Behind you is accomplishment; before you is the promise of something else. Something new.
Being a child of the 70s puts me squarely in Generation X territory. Those kids born between 1965 and 1980. The ones who grew up with TV, a single landline telephone, and playgrounds of steel and concrete and concussions. But the Generation X experience is not uniform. Not indeed is any generational experience for that matter. A Baby Boomer born in 1947 likely had a much different experience growing up versus one born in 1962. And so an Xer born in 1967 had a different experience than one born in 76 or 77. The early Xer grew up watching Banana Splits and The Incredible Hulk and CHiPs. They grew up with Led Zeppelin and Foghat, with the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, with The Jam and The Clash. A child born in the mid 70s would have grown up with Duran Duran, U2, Culture Club, MTV, Spielberg movies, Freddy Kruger, and the earliest days of the internet.
Point is, that early X-er era had a much more 70s upbringing than the ones born in the 70s. Their brains were developed enough to come home, grab some fresh-mixed Freshie from the fridge, click the TV dial over reruns of Gilligan’s Island and Batman on the local affiliate, or go to their bedrooms and and tune their radios to the local rock or disco stations while they half-assed their way through the day’s cursive homework and consulting textbooks printed and in circulation since 1946. For those of us born in the 70s, the 70s were and would remain terminally uncool through the 80s and into the 90s. The 70s were tacky and tasteless and kitschy, with bad hair, bad fashions, and bad music. A punchline, along with hippies, greasers (outside of Arthur Fonzarelli- he did jump a shark after all), The Village People, and 8-Track cassette.
And to talk about why, we need to talk about Quentin.
Compared to the 1980s, the 1990s are regarded as a golden era for American cinema. gone was the schlock excess of the worst of 80s cinema. this was the era of the indie film, of Miramax and New Line, Artisan, of bold new voices in film like Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused), Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging), David O. Russell (Spanking The Monkey), P.T. Anderson (Hard Eight), Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), and many more. Some made a big splash, others faded into the wood-work. But I would correct that belief, and say that in the 90s movies didn’t necessarily get better compared to the 80s but they did sound better. This was when old theaters were retrofitting with THX and Dolby Digital sound, new theaters were being build with stadium seating and state of the art sound systems. And the movies responded with aggressive sound mixes that really took advantage of having a 24 track playback system to blow the roof off of.
I saw this when I worked at a video store in the Toronto suburbs, full time in the summers, part-time during school to help pay for my college education, this towards the tail end of that time when you could pay for a semester plus of schooling, rent, and food, on a part time job (I still graduated with student loans to pay off but nowhere near to the amount classmates did). This was one of the only stores in the city that rented and sold Laserdiscs, a creaky format now but at the time state of the art.
And so you’d have these guys coming in to buy or rent movies that … weren’t particularly great. Stuff like Anaconda and Species and that Charlie Sheen skydiving movie. Not good movies, but the sound mix was spectacular. And these were guys, always guys, who’d invested in the big screen plasma TV set, the surround sound Dolby Prologic AC3 THX sound system, and they wanted to show it off. They invited friends and family, made popcorn, and had a movie night in the comfort of their own home.
So nom 90s movies weren’t necessarily better than 80s ones. And I would argue that today, the movies of the 80s hold more of the imagination than 90s cinema does. They were more varied, more diverse. There were more companies making movies that actually got into theaters. Orion, Carolco, New World, New Line, Canon, Vestron; those companies that went under or were bought out. They were scrappier, the movies were quirkier. Starting in the 90s that all changed, the smaller companies disappeared and we were left with the big studios. Fox, Universal, Paramount, Warner’s. Columbia Tri-Star. United Artists in name only.
And the movies followed, more corporate, less independent. For all their considerable crimes against decency it makes you miss Miramax and Dimension Films, whose track record was more miss than hit, but they were still chipping away at the studios. The 90s saw growing consolidation, the smaller scrappier production companies and studios fall by the wayside. It was the movie version of the Telecommunications Act doing the conglomerates’ dirty work. Like the great indie radio stations that broke Hip Hop and Alternative Rock and Grunge were subsumed by Clear Channel and I Heart Radio, the sharp edges filed away, those quirky unique voices stifled and buried beneath mounds of corporate newspeak.
[Not just in the US mind you – Canada has always followed the path trod by its older sibling. Canada and Toronto of the 80s and 90s had Much Music, YTV, and a host of independent TV stations. Now? Well, They all exist in some form but they are not the same.]
This is why Reservoir Dogs was such a lightning bolt for me and my film school friends. Toronto in 1992 felt like what San Francisco and Berkley must have felt like in 1966 going into 1967, or what Greenwich Village must have felt like to a NYU Freshman in 1961 – the epicenter of the universe. Reservoir Dogs premiered at TIFF the year I began film school. The musical revolution we were all seeing as Generation X asserted itself sonically was making its way over to the film world, and indie film, not studio films, were where things were exciting. Heck, the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series prompting thousands to pack Yonge Street, then two whole blocks from where I was living.
While technically a late stage boomer, Quentin Tarantino’s story is the prototypical GenX story. The latchkey single child of divorce, raised on TV in the wilds of LA while mom worked. A troubled youth, struggling in school, whose education came in watching movies over and over again. Working as a video store clerk in the now infamous Manhattan Beach Video alongside up and coming filmmakers Roger Avery and Craig Hamann.
Much of this is detailed, by the way, in Tarantino’s non-fiction book CINEMA SPECULATION, which I recently read. If you ever wanted to hear Tarantino opine on the legacy of his favorite era of film (the 70s) and some of those films – The Getaway, Bullitt, Taxi Driver, The Funhouse, Daisy Miller, Rolling Thunder, and more, I’m told there’s also an audiobook.
My tangential connection to QT came through my manager, his former manager Cathryn Jaymes. She helped usher him into the Hollywood system, beating the street and pounding on doors and putting his screenplays in front of producers and execs. Of course, once he was a certified star he dropped Cathryn because he didn’t need her to open doors. Yet despite all that bad blood to her dying day Cathryn still spoke highly of his work, once offering me a copy of his Inglorious Basterds screenplay a few years before the film came out. He had talent, she said, but he was an asshole. I can’t disagree. I do like his films despite the crappy way he treated people I liked. But that’s hardly the only case in my checkered career.
But to paint a picture of those early 90s years means painting a picture of my life circa 1992. Being in Toronto at RU meant being within close proximity to what must have been forty movie screens. Eaton Center, Uptown and Backstage, Plaza, Carleton, Varsity, that one on Queen. Those were walking distance. Beyond you had rep theaters The Bloor, The Paradise, The Royal, The Roncesvalles, The Revue. You had the Chinatown theaters, you had screenings at U of T and Ryerson. Toronto was a movie town and still the best movie town I ever lived in (and I’ve lived in NYC).
[It was also a music town. Don’t believe me? In my first four months of college alone I saw The Beat Happening, Grasshopper, Henry Rollins, Ministry, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains, Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Lowest of the Low, hHead, Mudhoney, Malhavok and probably a whole lot more musicians than I can easily recall now. Subsequent years would have me see Nirvana, Soul Asylum, The Breeders, Belly, Juliana Hatfield, PJ Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins, The Beastie Boys, Jesus and Mary Chain, Primus, Rage Against The Machine, Alice In Chains (again) and several consecutive years of Lollapalooza]
Now you have barely half that number of movie screens. Of the aforementioned The Varsity and the Carleton are all that remains. The rest were bulldozed and turned into condominiums. Downtown excitement was once just footsteps away but they paved paradise and put up a high-rise. Even the Yonge-Dundas epicenter died out. The big record stores like HMV, Sam the Record Man, A&A Records, the video arcades and head shops are all gone now too, replaced with bubble tea and vape shops. Everything has this grey paint wash on it, the color has been drained from everything. The busiest intersection in Canada now resembles any number of box stores. yes there’s street life, but it’s more a case of you getting from one building to another.
We were a different breed – Generation X. No way would we buy into the mainstream acceptance the way Gens Y and Z seem to want to. We hated being marketed too. Now it’s taken as an insult and a micro aggression when you’re not. We got old, we got sadly conservative. I recently read a poll saying more than 53% of currently registered Republican voters* identify demographically as Generation X. That is what really blows my mind and simultaneously bums me out. That people my age, who grew up on Star Wars and Steven Spielberg, who rocked out to The Cars and U2 and Nirvana and Lollapalooza, who were the first to go online, who snarked their way through South Park and Beavis and Butthead could becomes so mainstream and middle-class. Watching concert footage of those punky kids with the nose rings and hot pink hair-dye and trying to mentally age them up to forty and fifty-somethings with a suburban house, two SUVs and three kids, watching FOX News or whatever the Canadian equivalent is and letting the hatred algorithm drive them further away from the person they wanted to be.
As far as why Gen X made its mark when it did I would argue that it all boils down to demographics. While technically a late-stage Baby Boomer, Tarantino came of age in the 70s and early 80s so by the time the 90s rolled around he and filmmakers, storytellers, and musicians of his ilk with the similar shared cultural experience of Saturday morning Cartoons, Drive-In theaters, MTV, quirky syndicated TV stations and independent rock radio had “matured enough” to the point where the money-holders realized there was an untapped audience of young adults out there who grew up with the same touchstones. In other words, there’s a reason the 18-34 year old demographic is so favored by Madison Avenue ad companies.
Generation X was the first generation to grow up in a world with TV and music videos. Gens Y and Z had those same things, yes, but they had the internet as well, and it was the internet more than anything else that took what was once a shared cultural experience and splintered it into a thousand little subcultural pieces. In other words once MTV and Much Music stopped playing music videos, once YouTube and Spotify and streaming services became the norm, the idea of mass-media as a unifier died and was buried.
Reservoir Dogs felt like a signpost telling the world that things were going to be different. The Hollywood mainstream pap wasn’t going to cut it with GenX anymore. We were Smells Like Teen Spirit, not Teen Spirit the deodorant.
We were so naïve.
Because a few years later Cobain was dead and Tarantino next film, Pulp Fiction, won the Palm D’Ore at Cannes and became a genuine box office hit. A mainstream hit. He wouldn’t make a film like Reservoir Dogs again (though The Hateful Eight came close). But there was still that brief moment where it felt like we were taking over. That things would change.
The intervening thirty years have been good for QT. The rest of us not so much.
Every generation wants to change the world, especially when it is young. But the world is what changes us. It gives us experiences, it imparts its hard, sometimes harsh lessons upon us and one way we wake up and realize just how much time has passed. We seem to live in this state much of our lives where things like death and decline, aging and disease, occupy this almost abstract place in our minds. We’re aware of them but they seem nebulous, difficult to nail down or contextualize, until friends and family begin to pass away.
That’s the place I’m at right now. Depressing? Yes, but it is what it is and I can’t change that.
I feel increasingly distant from the world I once grew up in. Visiting Toronto last summer was a humbling experience. The city looked the same, the streets looked the same, but everything had changed. Towers stood where corner stores once sat. My muscle memory of being a Torontonian remained, but it was like I was walking and driving streets that were erected upon the ghostly remnants of my life. Close but not close enough.
You realize as you get older how temporary everything is. Your life, those milestones. The people whose lives you intersected with for only a brief while. old friends and family now gone. The old neighborhood restaurant hangout you once frequented is now condominiums. This can be depressing but in a way I feel liberated by it at the same time. That those things you fret and stress about turn out to be nothing. The part time job that made your life hell goes under, goes bankrupt, whatever.
In my mind the most important film of Tarantino’s career after Reservoir Dogs would be his last, most recent film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Here’s a film set during Tarantino’s childhood of 1969 (he was born in 1963) that must still hold the same romance, the same nostalgia, as those early Toronto years of the 1990s now hold for me. A film told from the older, wiser perspective compared to the young angry man of 1992. A eulogy and an elegy to an era that was here for a moment, consigned to history the next.
For me those years and Reservoir Dogs‘ place in my memory were were a very brief moment when the world seemed a much more unknowable place. Where it felt like the big adult journey of my life was beginning which, in a way, it was. There’s a very long thread connecting the here and now to the way back when. But each year it gets a little more frayed, those years a little more distant before eventually fading altogether.
And so, as Nick Caraway said in The Great Gatsby, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
One of the many things I dislike about getting older (besides everything) is how boring and mundane my dreams have become. As an adult you sometimes forget how vivid, how epic your dreams were in your childhood. That age when the veil between what’s real and what isn’t is a lot more diaphanous than it becomes in the ordered, structured, logical everyday of the 9-5 life of the adult. Our child is still in the former age, where shadows lurking in the corners of his bedroom at night take on a malign, malevolent presence.
However, every now and then I do have one of those vivid, deep dreams where everything feels so real despite all signs of it not being so. One such dream I had last summer, not long before we took our end-of-summer vacation to Toronto, Canada.
It was in this dream that I found myself standing on my old street in my old Toronto neighborhood growing up, standing in front of the house I lived in from April 1982 to the end of June,1985. It was nighttime, and all was dark except the street lights. Most of the houses on my street were dark, except for ours, where warm, inviting light blazed from every window. The front door was closed, but somehow in that dream logic I knew it was unlocked. I knew I could walk up the driveway, mount the front step of the front porch, and open the door and I could step inside.
This also being a dream, I was performing these acts as I was thinking about them. I went up the step and found all the little details I had forgotten over the intervening years still there. The creeping ivy, the door to the garage, the doorbell.
So I opened the door and stepped inside the house, standing there for the first time in nearly forty years, and found it all exactly as I remembered it, save for the fact it was completely empty. The rooms were all where they should be but there was no furniture, no furnishings, no pictures or artwork, no signs that a family – any family – lived there.
I wandered through the house like I was some ghost, silent and unseen. I threaded my way through the main floor, the living room, the dining room, the kitchen. I moved down the hall to the living room, where I looked out the patio doors to the backyard and swimming pool we would spend the next three summers enjoying (now filled in by earth, if Google Earth is any indication).
I avoided the basement because, well, come on right? But I went upstairs, breezed through my parents’ room, my sister’s room, the spare bedroom, and finally stood in my old bedroom.
That was when I knew I wasn’t alone.
There was someone else in the house. Someone downstairs, waiting for me.
I slowly descended the steps to the main floor and found him in the family room. he was an older gentleman, who resembled the Glad Garbage Bag Man. White hair, white suit, white toothy smile. Really, really white.
I can’t really recall details of his face. Frankly he reminded me a bit of the actor William Daniels who played Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere (also the voice of KITT from Knight Rider) with a bit of Efram Zimbalist Jr. from 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI (can you tell I watched a lot of TV as a kid?) thrown into the mix.
So anyway there I was, facing William/Efram/The GLAD Garbage Bag Guy. He told me that where I was standing was April 9, 1982. A Friday night. The next day was the day we – my family and I – would move into that house and live there for the next three years.
Okay, so far, so good.
He then told me I had a choice. I could stay there, and reset the clock, and wake up in my old room, my old bed, a fresh new day in April 1982. I would to my old school anew, I would meet my old friends again, I would live my life over again, from that point on, from then to the here and the now.
Every aging person’s dream, right? Haven’t we all, at some time or another, wished we could go back, reset the clock, and re-live our lives? To experience the things again that were gone to us now? Christmas dinners with family members no longer here. Amazing, transformative vacations and holidays? Seeing classic movies in the theater, for the first time again? To go through my teens and twenties and make smarter, possibly wiser decisions than I did at the time. Heck, even going to the video store to rent The Right Stuff or Robocop or Strange Brew on the day of their release would have been enough.
I have to say it was sorely tempting. But there was a catch. There always is.
William/Efram/The GLAD Garbage Guy explained I could have all those years back – all forty of them – but it would be the same life. The life I already lived. All the triumphs, all the pains, all the mistakes would be mine to make again. I would break my leg skiing in Vermont the following winter. I would endure a disastrous move to North Carolina three years down the road. I would witness the breakup of my parents’ marriage, I would have to endure those long, difficult, profoundly unhappy years of the late 90s-early 2000s again. I would end up in the same place I am now.
There would also be those moments of grace. Of profound happiness. Of meeting my future wife. Of the birth of our son. But those would be years away. Decades in some cases.
The most important thing to note, I was told, was that nothing would change. My memory of the future would essentially be wiped clean and I would revert back to that child again, and would live the next four decades identical to the ones that actually followed. I couldn’t change anything. I couldn’t make different decisions. All my mistakes and accidents and errors I would get to experience again for the first time.
All I had to do was go upstairs, to my bedroom. I’d find the furnishings from 1982 – my bed, my dresser, my desk. My Star Wars and Indiana Jones posters. My books, my toys, my games, all waiting for me. All I had to do was crawl under those covers and fall asleep and reawake in 1982 and reset the clock from that moment on. I’d have my bowl of Honeycomb or Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast, I’d head out the door for the ten-fifteen minute walk to my school.
I would learn it all over again. I would discover favorite authors again. I would make those old friendships again. I would get to experience birthday parties at Chuck E Cheese, day trips to Canada’s Wonderland, a return to the world of three major TV networks and a dozen channels on the dial. I’d go back to TV sets with dials. I would discover David Bowie, Duran Duran, Queen, U2, The Cars, the Miami Vice Soundtrack, Alternative Rock and Grunge. I could see it all then and there in that moment; the safe and the familiar.
I could see my grandparents again, alive and well. Aunts and uncles no longer with us. Friends and faces long gone, brought back to me.
The other choice?
Wake up. Resume my life in the present day of 2022. The dream would remain just that – a strange dream, nothing more. I would resume my life where I left it off the night before. I would continue on as I have been these last few months.
I thought about it. I thought about all my life in the next forty years, and experiencing it all again, the good times and the bad. It was tempting. Very tempting. For who among us hasn’t wished they could go back to a time in their lives when life seemed simpler and happier and overall better?
But then I realized it would mean nothing, that the memory of those years was already with me, locked away inside.
Yet what really baked my noodle was what happened when I told the mysterious figure that, as tempting as a return to the world of 1982 was, my place was in the present, In 2022, in the life I had created for myself. Good and bad, it was where I belonged. Not as some shade reliving his life over and over again, but as an adult moving ever forward as we all must.
The man smiled, and said:
“I’m glad to hear you finally say that. Because we’ve had this conversation before. Twice, in fact. And both times previous you chose to go upstairs to your room.”
That was when I woke up. In 2022. In my bed, my wife sleeping beside me. My son in the next room over. I took a breath in, I let it out slow, and laid there until sunrise.
The past is very much on my mind as of late, especially through what has been a very difficult year. I’ll even go so far to say 2022 has been the worst year for me in recent memory. Over the past twelve months many people I knew or have known in some fashion have passed away. Some were quite old, some were younger than I. Some were anticipated. Others were shocks. I’m entering that age when people begin to leave. A trickle at first but soon that trickle becomes a flood as an older generation passes on. In the last twelve months I wrote and delivered the eulogy at one relative’s funeral; I’m currently penning the obituary for another relative. The father of my oldest, closest friend passed over the summer. Two of my wife’s uncles also passed – one suddenly so just a month or so after we visited him in Toronto.
Despite not being religious I am not so arrogant to believe in an absolute certainty such as death. None of us know it’s what comes next, if anything comes next. Wiser men and women have debated this since the beginnings of human civilization. But it’s a question we all find the answer to eventually.
But in reflection I have been looking back at my life a little more than I used to and I have done that a lot these last dozen or so years. The nostalgia of the past holds a much greater appeal because the past is there, it’s safe, and the people who are gone in the present are still alive back there.
I realize I have been fortunate and cursed by the fact that death has spared its intrusion into my life over the last 30-odd years. My grandparents both passed in the early 90s. An aunt and uncle passed in the early 2010s. And now this year. That’s where the difficulty come in; I know I won’t be spared such a lengthy period again.
I think the significance of that aforementioned dream is a reflection of that, because of the time and place. People will often talk about the best years of their lives. That time and place where they were – or at least felt were – their happiest. For me it was those years, 1982-1985, that house, that street, that neighborhood. I don’t think I was ever as happy as I was in those years, and that includes the time I broke my leg in a ski accident. Even now with all I do have – which is considerable – I find myself reflecting more on that time and place when I was happy, when I felt loved, when life was full of hope and promise. I look to the future with much less hope of things getting better than I did five, even ten years ago. I do the best I can, I put on the best brave face I can but it’s not something I can say I look forward to.
It’s funny how the big changes in life happen without you realizing it. Weirdly enough I was thinking about malls and mall culture and how they’re fading away, a temporary blip in the human landscape. Malls were a retail location, but they were also a meeting place. A place your teenage self went to be seen, and went to see others. A place where you worked your part-time after-school job. A place to to tell the world – or at least your very small part of it – that you exist.
[God, I can’t believe I’m actually nostalgic for shopping malls, but it’s 2022 and here we are.]
Social media and smart phones have eliminated that need now because now you can send out a photo of yourself, what you’re wearing, what you’re doing, to a wider range of people and places. But the interactions are a lot more shallow online; I’m talking a mile across and an inch deep here. Not that the food courts at the local shopping malls were the Algonquin Round Table, but you could sit there eating fries and run into someone you knew, and the trajectory of the evening or afternoon changed. Even if it was just a conversation, one party coming, the other going. Now it’s all by design, managed and algorithmic.
That’s why I subscribe to the view that loneliness is the challenge of our age, mental health wise. The pandemic exacerbated what was already an endemic problem for many of us. This sense of longing, a need for connection. Social media and smart phones in particular do a better job of driving us apart than bringing us together. Ask yourself, do you have more “friends” online than in real life? Think of the online friends you do have, how many do you also know in the real world and know well. What social media has done is given us the illusion of closeness. And it is an illusion. It’s made us susceptible to bad actors, bad influence. It’s given us a skewed, funhouse mirror version of reality presenting itself as fact.
I have found the best way to alleviate that loneliness is by strengthening the real-world/real-life relationships I do have. More one-on-one time with people, less screen-time and phone-time. To get out into my community more frequently, to not be in such a rush to drop my kid off and pick him up from school. To take pause from all that the 21st century tries to continuously shove down our throats.
That is why I’m stepping away from this website for a spell. Ditto the remaining social media I still use. I gave up Twitter in 2019 (well before Elon Musk dropped in to finish the beast off), my wife runs the Facebook page, and I have a small private Instagram page to keep me distracted with photos from travel and art accounts, and to keep up with friends I’ve made over the years. But I think going forward into 2023 my focus will be on two things; writing things that actually matter, and living my life in The Real. The hard truth of it is I have more miles behind me than I have remaining in front, and that just makes me want to spend what time I do have left going all in on what I want to make my priorities.
So those are my thoughts as we head into 2023. There will be no December or January updates to this website as I plan to take a hiatus from posting through the holidays and likely will not be returning until spring. I do have more content planned for 2023, including a couple more installments of my surprisingly popular “Celluloid Heroes” series, and a new short story that will drop just before summer. I may also take a deep-dive appreciation of another favorite album from a favorite band, and probably some surprises as well.
So on that note, good-bye for now, happy holidays, and if you happen to have a dream of standing in your childhood home with the GLAD Garbage Bag Guy who offers you a chance to go back and live it all again, think very carefully before you decide.
October is my favorite month of the year. The month where the blast-furnace heat of summer has finally departed, where the days are shorter, the air crisper, the autumnal colors exploding everywhere. Where I can wear that jacket that makes me look cool.
And of course, October is Halloween month. Not day – month. That’s when I turn my personal preferences in media – film, TV, books – changes to the strange, the dark, the unusual. Halloween is the one holiday-that-isn’t that everyone is free to celebrate in his/her/their own way.
I would argue that to know the truly inherent kindness of people, look to Halloween. That one night of the year where people will decorate their homes and give out candy to children with promise of nothing in return other than spreading about a little bit of magic and wonder before the long, dark onset of winter. Unlike Christmas and Easter and the religious holidays Halloween is for everyone. There’s no agenda, no moralizing – well, except for the religulous (NOT a typo) types who loudly – always loudly – proclaim we’re going to hell for giving some snack-size M&Ms to a kid dressed as Peppa Pig.
Halloween month for me is always a magical time. It always has been, from when I was a young tyke in a home-made Darth Vader costume cobbled together from Glad trash bags and a store-bought mask, to a teenager whose Halloween night meant watching horror movies with friends, to the now parent of a child who anticipates Trick or Treating with almost as much delight as his father does.
Yet October represents another seasonal moment in my life, recurrent since I was around twelve going on thirteen, as October is the month I will inevitably drag out my old paperback copy of this book for an annual reread:
Something Wicked This Way Comes is the book I’ve read more than any other. Something Wicked may be my favorite book solely because it’s had an outsized influence on my own writing. Not directly (though it is referenced in Magicians Impossible) but thematically.
Looking at my work (Mixtape in particular), Something Wicked is the one that’s left the deepest mark. Not for the magic and mystery, nor the terrors of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, its hall of mirrors, its Dust Witch, its cursed carousel.
No, it’s for the central relationships in the novel.
I’ve been thinking of Something Wicked a lot lately for many reasons, not the least of which was a trip back home over the summer that saw us driving through the small town where I lived out my teenage years (the same town that became basis for Garrison Creek – the town where Mixtape is set). There’s something about revisiting the places of your youth; the places you couldn’t wait to leave, only to now wish, in some small way, you could return to. As Teo Stone in Magicians Impossible described, “You spend half your life trying to run away from home and the rest of your life trying to run back to it.”
Seeing my old stomping grounds was an experience. A sad one in some ways. The old town hasn’t done so well in the years since I lived there. Factories closed, people moved. Indeed it is one of a select number of small-to-mid-sized towns in that part of the country that experienced negative population growth. When I lived there in the late 80s and early 90s its population sat at around 21,000 people. Today in 2022 its population sits at … around 22,000 people. That’s thirty years of negative growth. People grew up, they moved away, and the aging population just … left. Some relocated, some moved, some passed away.
In a way I wish I hadn’t visited it at all. I wanted to preserve the memory of what it was, not what it had become. The same feeling carried itself with me when I was able to reconnect with some high school friends during that same holiday, the six of us convening at a patio in Toronto’s west end. It had been years since I’d seen any of them – one I hadn’t seen or spoken to in nearly 25 years. The last time that group had all been together at the same time in the same place would have been the night before we all left that small-town for the big city, for college, for the beginnings of our adult lives. THAT particular night had occurred almost 30 years earlier to the date we met again on the Danforth.
It was a fun gathering but again, a little sad. Thirty years ago we were all teenagers at the beginning of our adult lives. Thirty years from now, well, the odds are good we won’t all be here anymore. Hard and sad but true. The fact that over the past year a good half-dozen people I’ve known or known of have passed away really hits hard. People I went to school with. Spouses and parents of friends and colleagues, and people even closer than that
Something Wicked is about that impulse as stated by Teo Stone – that we spend half our lives trying to run away from home and the rest of those lives trying to run back to it in some fashion, right down to those childhood touchstones – the movies, the books, the music – that got us through those sometimes difficult times. It’s about looking past the borders of your home, your neighborhood, your small little piece of the world, anxiously stepping over that threshold, only to look back and see that single step has carried you miles from there. In distance. In years. In experience.
On the surface, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story principally of two thirteen year-old friends, Jim and Will, and their harrowing experiences with the mysterious and enigmatic Mr. Dark of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. However, the novel also touches on several of the townsfolk of Green Town, Illinois, who all must struggle with one of the oldest conflicts known to humankind; a deal too good to be true. A devil’s bargain. It’s the story of Faust, set in Depression-era America. A place that, at the time of Something Wicked‘s publication in 1962 was as far removed from that present day as the 1990s are today. No doubt there were some in the early years of the space age who looked back on the 1930s with a wistfully golden nostalgia; Rod Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone in particular demonstrated this in stories like “Walking Distance” (my personal favorite TZ story) and “A Stop In Willoughby”. The shanty-towns, dustbowl, and Hoovervilles of the dirty thirties never made an appearance. In Bradbury’s case he both looks back at those childhood years with fondness but also acknowledges the darkness of an insular small-town upbringing. It’s the flip-side to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, and the current waves of nostalgia masquerading as content we see today on Disney Plus.
That’s the premise. The story, however, is of these two friends, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, both thirteen, both unaware that life is already pulling them apart. Will (whose last name – Halloway, recalls both Halloween and “away” meaning he’s destined for greater things) born just before midnight on October 30. Jim, born just after 12:01am on October 31st is the Nightshade; the Dionysian opposite of his friend. the troubled kid. The kid who’ll never amount to anything but trouble (and yes, the kid knows this). Yet these two are friends for life, but life is, as always, far too fleeting and much too brief.
Second, more importantly, is the relationship between Will Halloway and his by then middle-age father Charles. The book is written as a reflection from an adult Will, meaning by the time of its telling Charles is no doubt long in his grave. Charles is old for a parent to a thirteen year-old and knows it, like Will knows himself. He’s janitor at the local library (the so-so 1984 film adaptation starring Jason Robards – a movie which led me to seek out the book – re-cast him as the town librarian, presumably because janitors couldn’t be heroes in the 1980s). Charles mourns his youth, and fears the coming years of his health failing while his only son is still young. Charles of course, is the real hero of the tale, which becomes as much about defeating the insidious Mr. Dark as it is in Will saving Charles, and Charles saving everyone else. Something Wicked is about the end of childhood, and the realization that not every friendship stays with you. It’s also about the realization that your parents will someday pass on and make you truly an orphan.
I think of this book at this time of year, every year. But this year in particular its bite is a little deeper. Death has been making more frequent appearances in my life. This year in particular has reminded me of autumn, of final goodbyes before winter’s onset. The older generation, my parents generation, the Baby Boomers passing away.
It echoes what I wrote about back in August, about the movie Stand By Me and the novella it’s based on. Stephen King’s work is full of Bradbury’s influence – note the blurb on the book cover further up – though perhaps a little less whimsical; the depression era Green Town Illinois, replaced by the vampiric ‘Salem’s Lot and the haunted Overlook Hotel. King, that master of horror, made a career of charting childhood innocence and the loss of it, in Gordy, Chris, Vern, and Teddy from The Body but also Danny Torrance from The Shining and the Losers Club from It. I started reading King because I was a fan of horror. I became a fan of King because of his writing so succinctly captured life’s little triumphs and tragedies. Of being young, and seeing the adult world encroaching like a freight train on a railway trestle. Of those four friends – Gordie and Chris, Teddy and Vern – and that one fateful weekend in 1959 and how it represented the beginning of the end of that once close friendship.
Something Wicked now reminds me of myself and my relationship with my son, who’s at that age now where he’s able to take his bike and go riding with his friends, to have adventures in our little suburban corner of the world. I watch him ride off and hope he’s careful and mindful of traffic, but also that he not ride his bike too quickly. To not make those wheels spin so fast that sooner than either of us realizes it he’s left home. The carousel at the heart of Bradbury’s novel can make the old young and the young old, but only on the outside; the mind remains the same. A child could age into an adult but posses none of the wisdom of adulthood. An elderly woman can return to their youthful self, though plagued by the loss of memory, the slowing of thought, the onset of dementia and senility. Bradbury’s warning here is to enjoy where you were in life, be you child, middle-aged, or elderly.
Being the older-than-the-average parent to a child still in his single digits weighs heavy on those 3am wakeups. At the same time I think of all the experiences yet to come and realize the key to remaining young at heart is to be in the presence of the young. The ones who still taking delight at the sight of a bird, or an inch-worm, who still believes in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, that this heartbreaking world of ours can still contain some magic.
I often wondered what became of Will and Jim. Will was clearly not long for Green Town. You could sense he was destined for greater things, and the fact that the book is written as a recollection an older Will is making of that fateful October many years before. Jim, however, probably stayed. Living, working, aging, and dying in that little patch of rural Illinois. Maybe he lived a long life, certainly long enough to see his town, his world change. Maybe he met someone, married, and started a family of his own. Maybe he lived old enough to see his children and their friends grow up, grow older, and move away. Left behind as one of those people who just stayed there, to age and watch the town he knew change, and the people he loved pass on and pass away. Living in a town and a time rapidly becoming another phantom, another shade of what once was.
And Will? Well, he clearly became a writer. He became Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, A Sound of Thunder, The Halloween Tree, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451. But I wonder if Ray too, in his later years, thought back to the friends he had, the people he knew, that small town of his that grew and changed so much it wasn’t his anymore. Just a place occupied by shades of memory.
It’s the same reason my old hometown still holds a piece of mental real estate for me. Not a grave, but a memory of what once was. It was shocking and a little sad to see and hear second-hand through an old acquaintance how the town had fallen on hard times after we all left. This friends’ mother was a teacher who witnessed first-hand generational poverty, in the faces of the kids she taught before her retirement, the off-spring of the children she’d taught at the start of her career. Still trapped in that vicious circle.
There’s a song by the Kinks (naturally) I keep coming back to, called “Do You Remember, Walter?” In the song Ray Davies’ narrator recalls an old school friend, wondering what became of him. Ray wrote the song at age twenty-three; quite prescient for a rock and roll song. But the lyric that jumps out at me is the one that goes —
Do you remember, Walter, how we said we’d fight the world so we’d be free? We’d save up all our money and we’d buy a boat and sail away to sea But it was not to be I knew you then but do I know you now?
Walter. Jim and Will. The Losers Club. Gordy and Chris, Teddy and Vern.
My old friends. Some still here, still friends in the day-to-day, but many more of them forgotten. Some not here at all.
The people you share that ride on the carousel with for a time, but eventually they climb off and resume their lives, the common experience of being together fading as you move off and move on with your life.
But memories still remain, whispers in the night reminding you that we’re all on the same journey. Unlike Cooger and Dark’s carousel there’s but one way forward; a journey every one of us takes. But what we do on that ride … that’s up to us.
So a commenter – hi Bailey – asked if I was doing the “31 Days of Halloween” Movie-TV challenge (in which you attempt to watch one movie or horror-themed TV show a day for the 31 days of October. As it happens this year was the first year I attempted it. But to make things more challenging I decided to watch only horror-spooky movies and TV I had NEVER seen before so it was all new. I did all of that, my reward would be a viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing on Halloween night (a movie I have seen and numerous times). As of this writing I did it – 30 never-before seen spooky entertainments in 30 days: