Last Month Of The Year

It’s December again, a fact that feels particularly hard won this year. (It’s been a good year, just one filled with trials and effort on a number of fronts; thankfully, I’ve been able to face it with loved ones and friends, and that makes a big difference.) The final month of the year has always, for me, held some magical resonance. I buy into the Christmas thing a lot, if not entirely, and in my head, it starts as soon as December does.

Helping that considerably are advent calendars. I can’t not do advent calendars at this time of year; it’s been a tradition since I was a kid. I remember distinctly that they would be hung right beside the front door of the house I grew up in, with door-opening duties shared, round robin-style, by myself and my sisters. We’d open the doors on the calendar as we left for school when the month began, and as it got closer to Christmas and therefore more seasonal and exciting, I’d become more and more impatient and start opening the doors when I came downstairs every morning. (Only when it was my turn, of course.)

My favorite advent calendars, to this day, are the ones with chocolate inside. It’s that small bit of sweetness that appears at the wrong time of the day — I think we can all agree that chocolate is a second half of the day treat, right? — that thrilled me then and thrills me now, and makes any advent calendar seem that little bit more magical. (Now, with added snacks is a hard thing to disagree with, surely.) But, no matter what, I’m happy opening cardboard doors daily for a month to countdown to a day off and some goodwill and, yes, some presents, too.

Last year, the start of December saw me move, and start to try to settle into what is now somewhere I genuinely consider a home, instead of a house. We got here with truckloads of boxes and nowhere near enough furniture, and everything seem scattered and unsettled and unfinished for weeks. But there was an advent calendar, and despite everything else, doors were opened, as the countdown to the big day took place. It was a tradition unbroken since I was a child, and something that proved to be grounding and peaceful even when the rest of the world was unpacking and unsure.

Maybe 40 Hours A Week Is Enough

Traditionally, I don’t like to take time away from work.

I mean, that’s not entirely accurate; it’s more that I don’t feel comfortable doing that for a number of reasons — really, just a big one called insecurity surrounding my sense of self-worth and a misguided belief that I can become more valuable as a person if I simply just work harder, but I go to therapy for a reason, thank you very much — but it’s certainly true that, historically, I don’t tend to take time off if I can help it. It makes me uncomfortable, antsy. I feel as if there’s something I should be doing instead.

(Mixed In with this is traditional freelancer panic, of course; the feeling that saying no to anything puts my livelihood at risk, which is an obvious no-no.)

My usual disinterest in time off is so usual that three different people have commented on it in the past week, in fact, each expressing something akin to sarcastic concern over how I’d deal with the four-day weekend that comes with the Thanksgiving holiday.

Reader, I craved it. Heading into that break, I felt this intense need, a hunger, for that time off. I almost resented everything that stood in its way, the deadlines and requirements and the everything that traditionally helped me keep working. Even after the holiday itself, I dissembled and found reasons to stop myself from doing work that, in theory, I felt as if I “should” be doing. From out of nowhere, I discovered and embraced the joy of relaxing.

I have feelings about why this should be the case, but I think the truth is simply that I’m at a point in my life where — say this quietly for fear of upsetting people, not least myself — I’m not hiding from my life by working anymore. Indeed, I might even enjoy not working, but instead just living.

It’s a new thing I’m trying, as surprising as it’s going to be to everyone around me. I hope you’ll all be patient with me during this obviously trying time.

Can’t Somebody See, Yeah

While everyone (including myself; I’m writing this ahead of time) is on Thanksgiving break, here are another couple of weeks’ worth of graphics from the THR weekly newsletter. Remember when that Terminator movie came out, and no-one really noticed?

We Don’t Need No Education

It’s strange, sometimes, thinking about the things I’ve learned while making a living as a writer. I have no formal training as a journalist — a fact I think is occasionally shockingly obvious — yet I have, somehow, managed to make it as a professional writer for more than a decade by this point. (And as an unprofessional one for years before that; some might claim that I’ve never fully stopped being unprofessional, of course.)

A lot of that is down to luck, as much as anything. I really do have a career that has owed a lot to being in the right place at the right time, and from making connections accidentally, because I thought I was just making friends and then they asked if I’d want to help them with something in exchange for money. The lack of forethought and planning in my career is genuinely impressive, and similarly embarrassing; if my career had a theme song, it’d be Big Star’s “Thank You, Friends” on a loop, with extra emphasis on that “Thank you again!” refrain at the end.

But there’s also been more than my fair share of learning on the job, both through direct and intentional teachings — at Time, I had an amazing editor who taught me all kinds of things, not least of which how to structure and rework thinkpieces so they weren’t just me going “Oh! And!” over and over again — and from picking up on context clues left out by accident in the middle of a conversation.

One of those was a conversation before taking a regular gig at a site, when I learned the definition of shortform web versus longform — of course, this was in itself six or seven years ago by now, and the goal posts have shifted more than a little in that time. But I remember having to mask my feeling of, oh, now I get it, I didn’t know that, thanks when the prospective editor told me that he wanted multiple shortform pieces from me daily, no longer than 400 words. “You tend to write around 600, and that’s just too long for people reading quickly,” he said, a fact that got filed away and sticks in my head when writing professionally even now.

Most of these posts here, by the way, are between 300 and 400 words. Anything longer, and it feels like I’m taking up more time than a random thought deserves.

It’s Based On A Novel By A Man Named Lear

As genuinely unlikely as it seems to consider, I once almost had a career in television. This was decades ago now, around 1999, when I lived in Aberdeen still and was relatively active on what was becoming the internet that we know it today, an important part of this whole story.

I was on a message board, as it was called at the time, devoted to Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles — “Barbelith,” it was called eventually, although it was “The Nexus” when I signed up; it was the ‘90s — and although I wasn’t very vocal there, scared of seeming stupid beside a bunch of far smarter people sharing their wisdom, it was an important part of my window into the rest of the internet, guiding me to people and places I couldn’t have hoped to have found any other way.

Because of those people and places, and because it was so early in the internet of things that no-one else around me knew this stuff, I gained somewhat of a reputation for being “the internet person.” I was asked to give a talk at the art school I was teaching at, at the time, about the potential of this brave new world (I did, and it was horrible, me stumbling through things I only half knew about awkwardly), and I was asked if I’d consider being on a new TV show to talk about what was hip on this world wide web thing, too.

The invitation came circuitously, I remember that; a friend of a friend was tasked with putting the show together for the local TV station, and I got tapped basically because I was local and, as a novice, would be cheap. I remember being told I would be one of three hosts, and that one of the others would be — dramatic gasp — an American, something seen to be a plus that automatically gave the project a continental cache.

It didn’t go far beyond that, sadly. The project was mothballed for reasons I don’t remember, although I do recall how relieved I was not to have to be on camera when I found out. Every now and then, I wonder what it would’ve been like had the show made it to pilot, or even air. Would I still have left Scotland for the US? Would I have become a writer? Or would I be presenting shows at 3am on Grampian TV, desperate and grateful just to still have a job onscreen…?

Five For Tom Spurgeon

I wrote something for The Beat‘s collective tribute to Tom Spurgeon, but somehow it got utterly screwed up by the time it ran. Here’s the original.


In no particular order:

1. The thrill of recognition when I was starting out and realized that Spurgeon was reading me. He was the real deal, even then. (I’m old, I can say that.) To this day, I feel like he was being too polite when we’d talk and he wouldn’t just tell me to stop wasting his time.

2. The kindness he showed me when I had to bail on doing an interview with him because of my father’s death; I remember extremely clearly, more than a decade later, how much his down-to-earth reminders that what was happening was far more important than talking about comics helped at a time when I was, basically, a complete mess who thought that I couldn’t let anyone down about anything, no matter what.

(I did the interview on the plane home after the funeral; it was shitty because of where my head was at, and I’ve always felt bad that I wasn’t more entertaining or interesting; Spurgeon was pleasantly dismissive of such thoughts.)

3. His response when I told him that he and I were both on a Prominent Comic Creator’s private list worst case scenarios for comics journalists, along with a third I’m-not-naming-them-here journalist, as told to me by a mutual friend. The best word is probably “tickled”; he thought it was ridiculous and funny and confusing that the three of us were on the same list, but decided that it was probably a badge of honor for all three of us, somehow.

4. An email I got from him after he’d heard that an entirely separate Prominent Comic Creator tried to start a fight with me at a comic convention. It’s very silly, but having him write, “I got your back,” felt like… validation? Having someone I respected to that degree say something as simple as that about something that I was feeling pretty embarrassed about meant a lot. Also, considering the creator involved, the mental image of the two of them fighting is utterly amazing, trust me.

5. This essay:

It’s such a wonderful piece of writing, when viewed through an analytic eye, sure, but it’s also a wonderful encapsulation of Tom as I knew him; the last section, where he writes about sharing his story because he hopes it will make people get check-ups again, and “embrace the inevitable fragilities of getting older with good humor and perspective,” speaks well of him as not only a writer, but also as a person.

I’ve re-read it a couple of times since learning of his death, and it’s overwhelming right now. I know if he was here to read this and I said that to him, he’d say something funny to try and put my mind at ease, but also take pains not to undercut how sad I am. That he’d do that for me, when we weren’t especially close, says everything there is.

All That You Do, All That You Say

More graphics, as we head towards a year of doing these newsletters and the graphics for them. It’s become a ballast for the week, a sign of nearing the weekend and a welcome break from being in Writer Mode. I can’t imagine not doing them, now. I’d miss it.

Pass the Biscuits, Please

I went through this period, recently, where I got utterly obsessed with this song. I’ve known it for years, of course; who doesn’t? But the version that was in my head wasn’t Bobby Gentry’s original — it was a cover by Sinead O’Connor that slowed everything down and made the tragedy in the lyrics ache through the every sound of the thing.

Gentry, on the other hand, did something different. Listen to her version and, if you can forget about what happened to poor Billie Joe, everything almost sounds deceptively upbeat. There’s a lightness to the fingerpicking of the guitar, a romance to those swooning strings — those strings, which swoop in and out of the song as punctuation, fascinate me; they sound almost too modern to fit with the context and era the song was recorded, to me — and, all told, a casualness to Gentry’s performance as a whole that’s utterly winning. It plays like the character she’s portraying, someone affecting disinterest over the dinner table, but inside, deeply affected by what’s happened.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the idea of song as method acting — I grew up in the Britpop era of Blur, after all — but “Ode to Billie Joe” wasn’t a song that did that, in my head. It was a slow, painful, melancholy thing. Hearing the original, actually listening to Gentry’s version, was a revelation that turned into an obsession, replaying it over and over to check I wasn’t imagining it.

Good Morning Good Morning Good

There’s something to be said for sunrises in fall here in Portland. This is what it looks like out of my window before I get up in the morning; I genuinely feel lucky to see this kind of thing, and also to wake up early enough that I get to see the sun rise each morning. (To be fair, up until last weekend, it happened after 7am and who isn’t awake by then?)

How Many Times Do I Have To Make This Climb?

One of the stranger things about having done this job for so long is that, sometimes, entirely accidentally, you repeat yourself. You have a thought that feels new to you and think, maybe that’s a story, I should write that. And then you google the topic and there you are, having written a version of the exact story you were planning to write some time earlier.

It is, I guess, understandable — you have to forgive yourself for thinking like yourself, if only because, what’s the alternative? — but it’s also a curious feeling when it happens, not least of all because, on the occasions it’s happened to me, I’ve genuinely had no recollection of writing the first piece at all.

Again, perhaps I shouldn’t feel bad about this; I generally write somewhere in the region of three to five stories a day, so it only stands to reason that I don’t have perfect recall of what I’ve written, especially when you think about the fact that I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. On the other hand, it’s just a little embarrassing to genuinely think I’m having a thought for the first time, only to discover I’ve traced this entire process down in detail previously, and then utterly forgotten about it.

(The Monkees start playing in my head: “Do I have to do this all over again…? Didn’t I do it right the first time…?”)

When such a thing happens, there’s no real recourse; you have to say goodbye to your new (old) idea and start over. Which explains why I’m here now, rewriting a post that I thought was brand new, but actually wrote a few months ago without realizing it. Secrets behind a writer’s life, revealed, fact fans…