Trying To Find A Radio

Every now and then, I remember that I co-wrote a successful column for my university newspaper for two years, and think to myself, “how did that happen?”

The answer, realistically, came from the fact that they had open submissions and were desperate for new material, but more than two decades later, it still seems unlike me to have submitted anything in the first place, and I genuinely can’t remember how I managed to convince Andy, my best friend at the time, to do it, either. Maybe we should just chalk it up to the confidence of youth.

I was underselling it before; it wasn’t just a column — we had that, sure (“Gubbins,” it was called, which was either Andy’s suggestion or the editor’s), but we also had a comic strip wholeheartedly ripped off of the Kyle Baker and Evan Dorkin collaboration from the early 90s where they reviewed shows together, a series of fake horoscopes, and a regular How-To guide to dancing like your favorite Britpop icons. We were astonishingly productive on a biweekly basis for two 20-year-old art students.

And, perhaps most surprising of all, it was a success, to the point of people recognizing us when we were out, which was an entirely surreal experience, and the byproduct of putting our likenesses in the comic strip in the first place. (Suffice to say, it was a small enough city we were all in for this to happen.) It was an odd brush with almost-fame that flattered our egos enough to be enjoyable, but was small enough to keep from being unpleasant.

We did all of this for two years, our second and third years in art school. By the end of the second year, we were pretty burned out and devoid of material, as well as all too aware that we should probably buckle down and be serious about course work in our final year, so stopping seemed like a good idea. I’m pretty sure our shtick was getting old by that point for other people, too.

I wonder, sometimes, how this all set me up for what I do for a living now; it was the first time I wrote about pop culture publicly, and in what I considered my own voice at the time. It was the first time I dealt with deadlines and audience response and… well, everything that my job is now, it feels like. Perhaps it was my secret origin.

Season’s Greetings

For the name of this post to make sense, I guess you have to know that crying in Scotland is called greeting. (I feel as if I should spell it “greetin’,” because that last g is never pronounced.) Which is to say: This is as much about sadness as anything else. How festive.

Every Christmas, I feel like I should write something about the death of my father. And every Christmas, I realize that I don’t know what to say, beyond, “It happened, and it broke my heart.”

It’s colored every Christmas since it happened in 2007, for obvious reasons. One of those reasons is that it happened on Christmas Eve, capping off a month of staying by his bedside and having what will hopefully be the most emotionally turbulent holiday season of my life; I have extremely vivid memories of staying overnight at the hospital in his room, half-watching a nativity play on television quietly next to his comatose body, not knowing what emotion I was feeling at the time.

It was decided by my family not to actually tell my nieces and nephews that their grandfather was dead until the day after Christmas, so as to not ruin the day for them. A kindness, definitely, but one that made everything surreal and difficult for the two days we were trying to be jolly and seasonal for them before the truth came out. Even more surreal and difficult when giving them gifts that came from their grandfather, and pretending he was still in hospital. Everything was grief and pretending to feel joy.

For the first few years afterwards, Christmas was a muted holiday on Christmas Eve, at the very least. I’d try — and often manage! — to get into the season earlier in the month, because I’ve always loved Christmas and all the trappings, all the lights and the music and the schmaltz and the everything, but come December 24, my mood would get colder and darker. How could I celebrate, after all?

That’s faded now, thankfully. Over the last few years, my feelings about the holiday have changed for a number of reasons — not permanently, always shifting, it felt like — as reality intruded and got in the way of what I’d want the season to be. (There were a couple of years where I barely got a Christmas at all, because of who I was with the circumstances of that; I look back on that now in disbelief, at what I allowed to be okay.)

Now, this year, I feel this has been the Christmas that I’ve longed for for years, despite the delayed start to the season because of the Brazil trip, and despite getting sick this morning. Yesterday was a good day, relaxing and in the company of people who love me, and whom I love; today will be the same. Really, it’s the only present I could need from the whole thing: Joy to the world, joy from the world, joy of being in this particular world right now. Merry Christmas, for those who celebrate.

Black and White and Read All Over

Reading Now You See It and Other Essays on Design by Michael Bierut the other week, I was reminded of the first time I was “published,” the thrill of it all; it was high school, and for some reason I don’t properly remember, our high school had two pages in the local newspaper to fill. (It was some scheme to promote journalism, I think? It wasn’t just our school, the other high schools in the area got two pages as well, spread out across a number of weeks.)

I wasn’t writing back then; I was the artist of the group, the one always drawing with big ambitions that involved drawing but were somehow entirely formless beyond that. I was going to go to art school, then there was an undefined Step Two before we hit that “Step Three: Profit” part. So, when I was asked to contribute an illustration for someone else’s story, I said yes with the mixture of ego and arrogant well, of course you were going to ask me that speaks to the teenage experience.

I then proceeded to psych myself out about it for days after.

I don’t remember what the story was that I was illustrating, but I do remember that the illustration was to be a deer riding a sledge down a snowy hill. (Why? I genuinely wish I could remember.) I drew that deer on that hill multiple times in multiple ways to the best of my meager ability — cartoonishly, realistically, from different perspectives — and none of them were right. I just knew it implicitly; this could be my big break (into what, I had no idea, but still), so I had to not fuck it up and everything I was doing was fucking it up. Nothing I could do was good enough.

In the end, I submitted this terrible, lifeless painting — yes, a painting, counterintuitively — that was the closest I could come to acceptable by deadline. I hated it, and felt like I’d let myself, and everyone else, down. When the piece ran, the illustration was a blurry mess and I was suitably embarrassed, but I remember being okay with it, because even though it was shitty, I was in print. It was still a rush, still this feeling of, “I’ve made it, I’ve arrived.” I was, in my head, real at last.

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.