There On The Stair, Right There

Watching It’s A Sin has unleashed a wave of unlikely 1980s nostalgia in me, and not because much of the show’s period soundtrack turns out to be surprisingly great; instead, what I was reminded of was the way in which the decade felt, at times, like the end of the world.

I remember, for example, the AIDS crisis becoming mainstream, and the panic and misinformation that brought with it — everything from the apocalyptic adverts on television and in newspapers, made by the government, that basically said, there’s this illness, we’re not sure how it’s transmitted, but don’t get it or you will die, good luck, to the rumors of how you could get it from using public toilets. There was a sense that it was an almost Biblical plague and, as such, it was incurable, so the only option was to surrender to it and accept its spread as unstoppable.

(I half-remember some of the context that It’s A Sin provides, but I wish I’d known more at the time; I was just a kid at the time, sure, but nonetheless, I wish I’d known more.)

It wasn’t just AIDS, though; I remember the free floating feeling, almost a certainly from many, that we were almost guaranteed to die in an imminent nuclear war. I remember hearing discussions about the US Navy base at Holy Loch, just across the river from my hometown, and how that was almost sure to be one of the first targets if and when war broke out. We were, I learned, pretty much assured to be vaporized when the US and Russia went to war, which I was all but assured was going to happen any moment.

Again, I was just a child during all of this; I was five when 1980 started. I never really stopped to wonder whatever that must have done to me, growing up with a background certainty that the end was nigh, but I’m sure the answer isn’t “nothing, that kind of thing is good for a developing mind.” It makes me wonder, not for the first time, what this COVID era is doing to kids today.

That might be the thing, though; maybe it’s always the end of the world for kids, and it’s just we adults that learn to tune it out.

I Remember How It Used To Be

For reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about my art school days recently. Not so much in the sense of the social aspect of it all — traditionally my go-to when feeling nostalgic about that time of my life — but the work-related parts of it all: what we were expected to do, and how we were expected to do it.

At the time, the studio structure of school was something we didn’t really think about. It felt like a classroom, after all, and that was something that the majority of us were all too familiar with; in fact, for most of us, it was all we’d really known to that point. The idea that we’d all sit at tables crammed next to each other in relatively sizable rooms just made sense, because that’s what we did, as a matter of course. You sit down surrounded by other people and you do the work.

Coming almost a year into lockdown, and multiple years into freelancing from home, I can’t help but wonder how the studio shaped the work I was doing, and the methods of working I had in general. I wasn’t in a bubble, just the opposite; I was literally surrounded by people struggling with the same things I was, and all our ideas were cross-pollinating, intentionally or otherwise. We were teaching each other as much, if not far more than, any of the lecturers were teaching us. How could we not?

I think back, and I can identify ideas I discarded or approaches I abandoned based on the people around me — either because they were doing something that felt better (or easier, or ambitious in a way I wasn’t, or vice versa, or…), or because I felt self-conscious doing so in comparison to what they were doing. I can think of times when I approached problems with solutions that were entirely based on what I’d seen others do in previous projects.

Working in a studio was, in a way, like having another teacher in the room at all times. (Or multiple teachers.) I mean that as a positive and a negative; after working in relative isolation for so long, it’s something I miss to a degree, but also something I wonder if I was accidentally constricted by, without realizing it.

And Now I Holler

I got news last week that an old friend had died unexpectedly, and in somewhat mysterious circumstances. I hadn’t talked to him in at least a decade — we lost touch awhile after I moved to the States, following the death of a mutual friend who was good at making sure everyone was checking in on each other — but his death has shaken me, left me pondering my own mortality and thinking about our shared past.

He was younger than me, although in my head that’s far more true than reality; he’s locked at the age he was when we spent most of our time together, when we were both studying for our post-graduate degrees. I know, intellectually, that he was actually in his early 40s and working in the art school we both studied in, but to me, he’s still the early 20s kid he was back then, making his death somehow even more tragic.

He was, back then at least, astonishingly kind and effortlessly selfless — to a fault, almost. He wouldn’t think twice about trying to do whatever it took to help out, even if it was inconvenient or downright difficult to him; it was something his parents had ingrained in him. I met them a few times, and they were the same — kind, loving even, to a relative stranger they’d only just met. Apparently, he was living in their old home at the time he died, a detail that felt unsettling to discover; I can remember eating dinner there, talking to all three of them together. All dead now.

We spent a lot of time together, during that intense post-graduate year — it was one of those courses where you do two years’ worth of study in a compressed 12-month period, and it wasn’t uncommon to work late nights, or all through the night entirely. I think of the nights where the school was empty except for us, and we’d be playing music loud as we tried to express whatever the hell was in our heads at the time. He’d be goofy, silly, enthusiastic about his random obsessions — Chris Morris, the Pixies, movie opening titles — and I like to think he was still like that to the end.

But then I think about the fact that there was an end, and I hope that he was, at the very least, happy.

Gift Horse, Mouth, etc.

I can still remember, oddly, the circumstances in which I got invited to join THR. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising, but my famously shitty memory plays a significant role here; I can’t remember where I was when I first was brought onto Wired or Time or almost anywhere else I’ve ever worked; I have a vague recollection of what happened when I was asked to be a full time staffer on io9, but that’s mostly because it happened during a meal where the food wasn’t particularly good. The memory, it works in strange ways, I guess.

Nonetheless, I can remember what happened with THR with unusual clarity. I was back in the UK for my nephew’s christening — I was (am) his godfather, so it was a big deal for me — and it was a strange, somewhat surreal trip for me. It was the first time I’d been there since my father’s death, and that alone made the whole thing feel different; that I was staying with one of my sisters and keeping odd hours because I was still working on Pacific time during the whole thing just added to the strangeness. I’d be awake while everyone else slept, typing away and struggling with WiFi that seemed almost archaic in how bad it was, and how often it would cut out.

The first email I got was a polite, would you be interested from Marc Bernardin, who I knew through Meredith Woerner at io9, and I remember the sense of excitement and disbelief I got from it — it sounded far too good to be true, especially considering the way the gig was described, and I was partially convinced it was either a mistake or a joke. I said yes, of course, because I knew better than to do otherwise. I was convinced that, at the worst, it was flattering to be asked, and I might get a good story out of it. Even if I got the job, I told myself, I’d probably only last two years or so.

That was eight years ago.

Through Vale and Field, You Flow So Calm

I don’t have a lot of special New Year’s memories, mostly because New Year’s is a bullshit holiday that exists for entirely arbitrary reasons that owe, I suspect, to the desire for everyone to have some more time off around Christmas by hook or by crook.

That’s not to say that I don’t “believe” in New Year’s as a concept — it sure is the start of another calendar year, I know that to be true — or that I’m not entirely susceptible to the idea that there’s something special, even magical, about the idea that a new year can mean a do-over, or at least the chance for a fresh start. (Really, though: who would have a problem with that? Who doesn’t want to start again and do better?)

Nevertheless, when I think of New Year’s, I find myself remembering one New Year’s Day from when I was a young kid — young enough that the fact that I was awake early on January 1, and no-one else was up yet aside from my mother, almost disturbing in how unusual it was. Normally, the house was filled with people and noise in the morning, and things were unsettling in how quiet they were, everyone else having stayed up until midnight the night before, if not later.

With the house, essentially, to myself, I did what any kid would do: I put on the television and watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was inexplicably playing at the time. It wasn’t the first time I’d watched it, and I knew by this point that it was boring and slow and not what any movie with the word “space” in the title should be, but there wasn’t anything else worth watching, so I switched it on, anyway.

It had already reached the point with all the psychedelic colors and stargates and oh boy were these guys on something, and I can remember sitting there, watching it and thinking to myself that it was too bright and sunny outside for that time of year. All of a sudden, it felt as if something strange and unexpected was happening, as if the weirdness onscreen had somehow crossed over and altered reality.

I sat there, feeling as if something had changed in some significant and indescribable sense, and I remember feeling very clearly that this was what the start of a new year should feel like.

Here’s to a year that feels like that, only less disturbing.

Christmas Is A Joyful Day

It’s not really been about Christmas Day, for me; the whole December 25th of it all has, for decades, felt more and more like an anti-climax than an exciting end to the holiday season, with me mostly wishing that everything could go on for just a little while longer, if only…!

I wasn’t always like this, of course; as a kid, Christmas Day was everything — a bonanza of gifts and goodwill that was worth the countdown, with all the ingredients, from early morning toast and tea while unwrapping your presents to sitting down with the rest of the family for roast beef, roast potatoes, and Yorkshire puddings (and the crackers, the paper hats, and the bad jokes), combining to make something that felt truly special, something worth waiting an entire year for.

When that changed, I’m not entirely sure. The season has always been important to me, but at some point Christmas Day itself faded more and more in any internal ranking of what I loved about it. It was only one day, after all, and the day when the anticipation ended, the Yuletide fever broke. Why look forward to that?

Perhaps it’s that I stopped really getting excited about getting presents. (Now, giving them, that’s another story; I love giving gifts, especially at this time of year.) Perhaps it’s that I moved away from family, and didn’t get to go home each year — something even more impossible since the death of my parents, and the sale of my childhood home, the latter meaning that it’s literally impossible to return there. It could even be that I spent many Christmas Days lacking something that I didn’t realize…!

(Occasionally, I think back to The Worst Christmas Ever, a few years back — a day spent cleaning someone else’s house to prepare for a visit from people I didn’t really care for, with any notion of it being Christmas Day being marked by exhortations to work harder to make other people’s lives better. It was a cartoonishly Cinderella-like experience, and a sign something had to change in my life. Thankfully, many things did.)

All of which is to say: Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, Happy Holidays, to those who don’t. But this one day is not really the focus of things, not at all.

After The Fact

I can remember, as strange as it sounds, the point when I realized I wanted to be a writer as a career. Or, at least, a point when I realized that I was going to write as part of whatever the hell I actually wanted to do for a living.

It was in the final year of my Bachelor’s Degree at art school, oddly enough; by this point in my life, I’d actually been writing for some time — as a kid, like everyone else, I’d been writing the comic strips that I was eagerly drawing, telling myself that the words were really just there to give me something to draw. Unlike everyone else, though, I kept doing that until my early 20s, and I started doing that in public, writing and drawing comic strip and other things for the university newspaper.

Even with that, though, I hadn’t thought, oh, this writing thing, I think I want to keep at it. The university newspaper stuff was successful enough, and brought with it a small amount of recognition, or what passes for it at that level. (Really, it was my partner-in-crime Andy who got more of that; he was the more talented, and the more recognizable, of the two of us.) It still felt like a diversion, though, and so I quit before my final year of study, promising myself that I’d buckle down and take the actual school work more seriously. No more writing; I’d just work on the illustration part, instead.

And then I realized that I wanted to have something to illustrate.

Again, initially, it felt like when I was a kid; the words were there to back up the pictures. At some point, that changed. I can’t remember exactly when, but I can remember making my pitch to the teachers in charge of selecting who’d get into the Masters degree program the following year, and telling them very clearly that I’d only just scratched the surface of what I should be doing.

“I’ve been doing it all backwards,” I said. “The thing I can do well isn’t the visuals; I can do that well enough, but it’s really about what the visuals are there to support. I think I need to write more and see what happens.”

I didn’t know what I wanted to write, or what I would write. I didn’t think I’d become a journalist, but I also didn’t think I’d become a fiction writer, or essayist, or anything else, either. It really was as simple as I put it at the time: I needed to write more, and see what happens. I still feel like that now, more than two decades later.

Don’t Appear On No Stamps

This isn’t my first attempt at having a personal website; it’s closer to my… fourth, I think…? And that’s not counting the various blogs I had before they were called blogs — yes, dear reader, I did post for two years on a site actually called Diaryland, because I was young and the internet was younger, and collectively none of us knew any better. (I had a .blogspot site for a handful of months after Blogger launched that, I seem to remember, but I cannot remember the name of it for the life of me. File under thank heaven for small mercies, I suspect.)

I started thinking of having a personal site way back when I was still writing on Diaryland, because it felt as if it would be something that would say to the world “I’ve arrived!” I had no real experience of the internet at the time, but it was 1999 and, let’s be honest; no-one really did, back then. More to the point, however, I had no experience about what it would take to actually build a website, and the various WYSIWYG tools that make that possible now didn’t even exist back then. (This site would not be possible without WordPress making everything easy on the back end, I have to shamefully admit.)

Nonetheless, I knew exactly what the front page of my 1999 website would look like. I could see it clearly in my mind, so clearly that, even 21 years later, it still comes to mind as if it actually existed.

At the time, single-use disposable camera were very much a thing, pre-smartphones when people still took photographs on film and had them developed; Boots, the chemist, made a disposable camera styled after the colorful plastic look of iMacs of the era, and I loved them as much as I loved my iMac. I collected them, unwittingly; I’d have multiple camera around me, unused — or, worse, used and never-developed — at all times, it seemed like, because as much as anything, I just liked the way they looked.

The front page of my 1999 website would have been two of those cameras placed on a light table to make them glow against a brilliant white background, with the text “Neville Brody was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me” in bright orange Helvetica placed over the top — a paraphrase of a certain Public Enemy lyric about Elvis Presley referencing a beloved graphic designer whose work had been often referenced during my art school days, to the point where I’d grown sick of him.

The site was never built, the front page never existed. I should probably be grateful for that, as much as I am embarrassed about that imaginary front page. Instead, though, I find myself nostalgic for something that didn’t exist, and imagining what might have been different if it had.

Read Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me

Recently I’ve been thinking about the strange way in which I interacted with stories as a kid. When I was about, say, five through seven or eight years old, there were often small details of stories that I’d assign far too much importance to, to the point where they’d utterly change the message I’d take away from the story. It wasn’t that I would miss the point, per se, because I was a precocious enough kid to recognize what the writer was trying to say on multiple occasions — hold your applause, though; we’re talking about very simple stories because I was pretty young at the time — but, instead, I’d read a story and go, wait, but what about…? and completely stray away from whatever direction I was supposed to be headed.

To give a very specific example: there was a Battlestar Galactica comic strip that I’d return to regularly, in which Apollo had to save to save the day, and the water supply of the entire fleet, by fixing a pipe by tying his jacket around it to prevent leaks. The punchline to the story was something along the lines of, “Why so glum, Apollo? You just saved the lives of everyone in the fleet!” “Yeah, but that was my favorite jacket!” Cue the laugh track.

Except, to me, that was a tragic story. I couldn’t get past the fact that Apollo had lost his favorite jacket. I got that he’d saved everyone’s lives, so the jacket had been sacrificed for a good cause, but it was his favorite jacket, so surely losing that was really sad, right…? Why was everyone laughing on the page? Were they just being really insensitive to poor Apollo?

I had this response to all kinds of stories. I’d be completely derailed by an emotional consequence that literally no-one else seemed to notice, never mind care about, aside from me. I don’t know where it came from, and more importantly, I’m not entirely sure where it went — whether I just learned to not care because no-one else did, or something else — but, every now and then, I wonder what the reader I used to be would make of the stories I read nowadays.

Look Around Leaves Are Brown and the Sky Is a

I’ve been craving the fall a lot lately. (The season, not the band, as much as “Free Range” is a seemingly permanent musical addition to my internal playlist.)

Perhaps it’s simply a response to the oppressive heat this summer, which feels as if it’s topped 100 more often than usual even though I know objectively that’s not actually true — I’m pretty sure that I’m just feeling it more this year because there’s no air conditioning, just small fans and an aging body that doesn’t deal well with heat — or maybe it’s simply my body sensing that the change in seasons is just around the corner and wanting to head towards it, like a homing pigeon speeding up on the final stretch. I don’t know the reason, only that I’m thinking about the fall fondly more and more often lately.

It’s a feeling helped by the fact that I’m continuing to wake up before 6 these days, but the sunrise is getting later and later; there is a curious thrill to waking up before the sun, one that does make me more and more excited for the mornings when it won’t get light until after seven o’clock. There’s a nostalgic magic for me about those mornings, as I remember the brief period when I walked to the local train station to get to school each morning, catching the 7:19 train in the dark with my breath showing. Those, somehow, were the days.

But now, I crave the fall for all the things I remember it bringing. Not just cooler weather, not just darker mornings (and darker evenings! I am surprisingly, ridiculously, excited for nights to get darker earlier again), but everything, it seems. I want the sweaters, the hot chocolate in the evening. I want the trees turning red and brown and the crunch of leaves underfoot as they fall from the trees. I’m ready for the rain and the weather turning shitty in general. I’m Scottish; shitty weather feels natural to me.

Maybe that’s the key to it all. I’m not used to good weather, and too much of it makes me nervous. No wonder I want the summer to end, and for things to get  “worse.” It’s in my genes.