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.

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…?

Looking For The Great Pumpkin

Hallowe’en — because I’m old and pretentious enough to add the apostrophe— wasn’t the big deal that it is now, when I was a kid. Oh, people dressed up and did trick or treating (or galloshing, as it was called in Scotland in the 1980s), and there was bobbing for apples or the closest alternative, but it was literally kids’ stuff as far as I recall. I don’t remember it being anything that adults really indulged in.

I often wonder if that’s an age thing, or a nationality thing; was America always a country that couldn’t wait to dress up at the end of October to make morning commutes and days in the office that little bit more colorful, and I just missed out growing up elsewhere? Even in art school, I remember Hallowe’en shenanigans being limited to the parties at night, rather than the all-day event it is here, these days.

(I also feel as if it’s something that gets a lot more attention in terms of decoration in the U.S.; I don’t remember houses going as all-out in the Scotland of my childhood, but that might be selective memory at play. At most, I think there were minor things on the night itself as a sign that a particular house had treats to give out to kids. Am I misremembering? Maybe.)

All of which is to say: I don’t get Hallowe’en, not really. It doesn’t hit the nostalgic notes of Christmas, and I’m not sure what the appeal is supposed to be unless you have a cosplay fetish. (If you do, though, go to town.) I am, I’m afraid to say, the Hallowe’en Grinch who’s waiting for his heart to grow, still. Perhaps this will be the year when the penny drops and I finally understand what the appeal is supposed to be. It’d be nice, if so.

Cheap Self-Awareness in Other People’s Misery

I saw at the end of a book review in The Guardian, a link to buy the book itself, along with the book’s price: £7.99. Immediately, unexpectedly, I found myself flooded with nostalgia.

When I first moved to Aberdeen to attend art school, I was 19 years old and devastatingly lonely; I was a shy person, completely lacking in confidence and convinced that the rest of the world wouldn’t want anything to do with me. I’d moved across the country to a city where I knew no-one and hadn’t built any new social structures yet, and I was lodging in the spare room of an alcoholic old woman who made me so uncomfortable that I locked my door as soon as I was home and tried to spend as little time as possible in her presence.

My safe space in those first months was the bookshop.

I’d love to tell you it was this quirky independent bookshop run by fascinating people with equally fascinating life stories, but that’s not true; it was part of the Waterstones chain, and everyone working there seemed somewhat bored by the job. But I loved it, nonetheless. On Saturdays, I’d spend hours in there, leafing through books I’d heard of and those I hadn’t, picking up random things based on if the cover caught my eye or if the title was strange and interesting. I remember the displays and the filled bookshelves with a sense of awe and excitement even now.

And this is why the review pushed all of this into my head: the books were under £10 for the most part — not the hardcovers, of course, they were a special occasion thing — and so seemed affordable and a reasonable cost of discovering new things. I bought so many books in that first year in Aberdeen, all because I was in love with the way that bookshop made me feel, and found out so much about my taste and myself in the process. It was a journey of small, affordable, self-discovery; just not the traditional one people experience in their first year of college.

There’s A Page Back In History

BIll Drummond’s 45 is one of those books for me; a core text, something I read at an impressionable age — the internet tells me it came out in 2000, which means I was 25 when I first read it, most likely — that resonated with me for reasons I still don’t fully comprehend almost two decades later.

It’s a series of essays, if you can call them that — in many ways, their length, their tone, their digressive nature, all makes me feel as if they were accidental forerunner for the way people, me especially, write online, but this was pre-internet as we know it now — all written around the time that Drummond turned 45, but almost none of them are written about turning 45. Instead, it’s a combination of half-remembered stories told in a charmingly shaggy dog fashion, and unfinished thoughts about all manner of things, including how to just live your life. It’s rambling, messy, kind and effortlessly charming.

It was a revelation when I read it. I’ll admit, I bought it initially not because of the writing — I’m not sure I’d even read anything by Drummond beforehand — but because I’d read a couple of positive reviews and because, more than anything, I liked the format of the original release in an art school fashion; it was called 45, and it was a 7-inch-by-7-inch release, like an old 45″ vinyl record. How could I resist? That the writing felt like a series of letters from an old friend was this unexpected, amazing, bonus.

I remember, upon reading it for that first time, the feeling that Drummond had started the book, was writing all of this, because 45 as an age was this significant milestone that denoted something in particular. After all, when I pictured my parents, they were always in their mid-40s in my mind. (At that precise moment in my life, they were both in their late 50s, but reality be damned.) 45 was the age, then, that I imagined being a demarkation point of some kind: the age when you were properly, definitively old.

I tell you all of this because I turned 45 last week, and aside from wondering if it actually meant something, aside from all the aches and pains from the exercise of the surrounding days (It happened during New York Comic Con), I can happily report that I just feel the same as ever, however old that happens to be.

Here I Am, Lord, Knocking At Your Back Door

As you read this, I’ll just have returned from New York and New York Comic Con for the year. It’ll have been the… fourth one I attended, I think…? Maybe the fifth; time and memory are weird that way. It’s a show I enjoy, but the reason for attending each year — besides the fact that I’m there for work — is that it allows me to fly to the other coast and spend time in New York City for a few days.

The first time I was there was in 1998, on a trip with art school. I was somewhere between student and teacher on the trip; I was studying for my MA and was unofficially helping the actual teachers keep track of all the other students, which basically amounted to being available in case of emergency. (The closest thing to an emergency was when a gang of students got in trouble for drinking out of open containers on the street; in the end, they apologized and promised to behave, and almost fulfilled that promise.)

I remember wandering the streets, listening to music a lot. I was listening to Primal Scream, David Holmes, that kind of urban sprawl of music and feeling very in tune with everything going on around me. The city felt alive, but unsettling, dangerous and filled with potential of anything and everything happening at any point. I’d search out bookstores to recharge and feel comfortable, I remember; they felt familiar and alien at the same time. It was thrilling.

I went back to New York a number of times after that, periodically, but the circumstance was always different. Last year’s NYCC trip was, oddly, the first time it felt like that 1998 trip again; two decades later, but feeling as simultaneously lost and full of potential as I has 20 years earlier. I walked the length on Manhattan the first morning I was there without realizing, thinking, this is how everything is supposed to feel, and once again listening to Primal Scream on my headphones.

What I Don’t Know I Don’t Know

I was talking to my therapist about the ways in which my brain forgets things to protect me.

Specifically, we were talking about the fact that I can’t remember the exact date that I moved out of the house I shared with my ex-wife. It’s something I could work out if I had to, if I sat down and really thought about it, but instead I identify it as if it’s a physical location I’m giving directions to to a stranger; I describe it in proximity to other landmarks that are more easily identified.

In telling her this, she asked if there was a reason I don’t pin it to a specific date, and I made the comment that my brain was stopping me from obsessing about the details; that, if I did automatically think of the date, I’d be unable to stop counting down to the anniversary, or thinking about it nonstop on the day itself.

It was one of those things you say in the moment that may or may not be true, may be a joke, but feels real, if that makes sense…? In the days since, though, I keep returning to that idea — that my brain knows the dumb, unhelpful stuff that it does, and sometimes steps in to prevent those things from happening.

Despite the fact that I even have a therapist — someone I now consider pretty essential to keeping me running, if I’m honest — I don’t really think too much about how my brain actually works, or the things that my subconscious (or, occasionally, conscious mind) does to get me through life. The notion that , on some level, my head is aware of how screwy and obsessive it can be on certain subjects, and has built a way around it, feels at once surreal and literally awesome to me.

It makes me very aware, briefly, of how little I truly know what’s happening inside me to keep me going, mentally and emotionally just as much as physically — the last of which has been a longtime mystery and marvel to me, this thing of continual aren’t bodies incredible? — which, in turn, makes me feel at once very small in the grand scheme of things, and also immense and amazing.

Thank you, brain. Thanks for all your work, I guess.

Secret Origins

When I was going through all my paperwork a few weeks ago, I discovered what was a complete set of thumbnails for a (seemingly complete) short comic strip that was part 1950s DC Comics parody and part loving tribute to 2000 AD. I have no recollection of writing/drawing it, nor do I have any clue when I would have done so — based on the fact that it was on paper from a particular sketchbook, I’d say that it’s more than a decade old, and from when I was still living in San Francisco, but that’s just a guess — but the strangest thing was reading it and going, “Oh, that’s right, I guess that was something I did once, I guess?”

There was a point where I wanted to make comics. To be exact, there have been multiple points where I wanted to do it, and in various ways; when I was a teenager, I wanted nothing more than to be a comic book artist, to the point where I even took samples to a convention and showed them to… someone? (I sadly can’t remember who, or even from what publisher. I do remember how nervous I was, and how I could not hear the encouragement being offered over the “You’re not quite ready yet” rejection.)

Later, when I was newly in the United States, I wanted to be a comic book writer, kind of. I actually had a few brushes with the possibility that didn’t happen for various reasons, but one of the recurring impediments was the fact that, deep down, I didn’t really want to be a comic book writer; I was convinced that I’d be no good and so never went the distance, despite those on the sidelines egging me on at various times.

(Sometimes, I look back at one of the opportunities available to me that I all-but-bailed on and want to eat my fist, but I digress.)

Which is what makes this thumbnailed short so surprising. I don’t know why I did it, or if it was intended for any particular purpose. Had I promised something to someone? (If so, I guess I didn’t deliver) Was it something I did just for fun? Was there some part of me, at whatever time I made it, that still wanted to do comics?

All I know now is, I’m tempted to go find those pages again and see if I could draw them now. Just to see what they’d look like.

Wandering (Never)

The other day, for reasons I can’t really comprehend, I found myself thinking about the streets of Aberdeen, where I went to art school. Specifically, I found myself thinking about the main commercial street — Market Street — and the way it would feel walking along it at night, on the way to or from something more interesting.

Perhaps it was the street — which was nothing special, really; a street filled with department stores and a bridge and that was about it, really — or more likely, the age I was at the time, the way that life felt in general, but I can’t think about Market Street without there being a feeling that, even though there was nothing unusual or unlikely about it, there was a magic to be found there. Or, perhaps, a possibility. Especially at night, for some reason.

Nights on Market Street, everything looked different. The streetlights turned everything orange, but flat, as well; what was traditionally three dimensional turned into a theater set, with background actors wandering around to try and make it feel authentic. I’d almost certainly be listening to music on headphones as I walked along it, and so my memories are always soundtracked by Blur, Primal Scream, David Holmes and, weirdly, Bernard Butler.  (It was the 1990s, and I was — am — a Britpop kid.)

It would, with the exception of a few weeks of each year, be surprisingly cold but I’d rarely notice. Seagulls would swoop down to steal people’s takeaway chips , periodically, but otherwise everything would feel still as I walked past. These are very specific sense memories that feel crystal clear, despite being almost certainly false. It’s odd to be nostalgic for something that never actually happened.

Birthday To You

This Saturday would be my father’s 78th birthday, if he were still alive. Instead, it’ll be another day of ghost feelings; one where the thought of him will linger but not stay ever present, and another year where I’ll struggle to imagine what life would be like if he were still around.

The idea of him being alive still becomes more difficult to conjure with each day, as potentially bad as that may be to admit. Nonetheless, it’s true; so much of my life now is entirely alien to how it was before he died. I wonder, often, how he would have dealt with my divorce, or, a decade earlier,  the move to Portland — he would have liked it here, I always imagine — or even just my day-to-day life. I didn’t become a full time writer until after his death; given his own ambitions in that direction, I often wish he could have seen that.

(I have many childhood memories of standing in the office, surrounded by piles of paper next to a typewriter that were explained away as my dad’s novel-in-progress. I never read them, which I regret more and more as I get older, but I also have no memory of my dad ever sitting at that typewriter and working, so perhaps the novel never actually existed…?)

As terrible as it is to say, I don’t actually think of him, or my mother, often. During big life events, or around their birthdays, or Christmas. (My dad died on Christmas Eve.) I feel guilty about that, as if I should be keeping them in my heart and mind more often, but I also know that both would find that idea suspicious, if not downright ridiculous.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute I can pay is just to do my best going forward, but every now and then, I find myself imagining if they’d stuck around, if things had been different.