Where Do I Begin?

The strangest thing about my career, or what remains of it, is the fact that no-one ever seems to be entirely sure about the limits of what I can and can’t do in any particular situation.

For editors or those in charge of commissioning stories, there’s a feeling that I have complete control over sources or the events surrounding any particular story — or, at least, that I can pivot in almost any circumstance to get the desired outcome. The number of times I’ve been asked (or perhaps more appropriately, instructed) to get specific answers or statements that no-one wants to offer up is significant, as is the number of times I’ve had to patiently try anyway, before apologizing for my failure.

Worse, perhaps, are the times when the subject of a story believes that I have final say over the story. Just recently, I’ve had some of the more surreal experiences of my work life when people involved in stories have made demands after the fact of pieces they’ve been interviewed for or contributed to, in some way — up to and including asking for something that was printed to be altered, as if anyone had the ability to change what already existed in physical form days after it had been shipped to retailers. (It genuinely seemed a surprise that I didn’t have that power, when I explained that to them.)

At times, I make jokes about how such things are above my pay grade, to make light of the fact that, in so many of these situations, I’m actually pretty powerless. The reality of the situation is, especially as a freelancer, I’m a middle man, a service provider. I make connections and put things together in multiple ways, and a story comes out of that.

In reality, I have limited power in my situation, despite being central to the finished story. It’s an odd position to be in, which might explain why no-one seems to get how it works.

The Relaxation of 200 Movie Nights

Chloe and I have been pursuing what I, initially (and mistakenly) thought was an impossible dream, this year: Watching at least 200 movies together across the year, despite never going to the movie theater once. (That wasn’t part of the mission statement, admittedly, it’s just how it’s worked out so far. Yes, I know that movie theaters are open now, but so is my paranoia about getting sick and so, streaming and DVD rentals it is.)

When we set the goal at the start of the year, 200 felt like an unobtainable target: that’s more or less four movies a week! Now, as we near the end of September and the final three months of the year, it feels not only entirely doable, but almost pedestrian in terms of its ambition. Only 200? Why, we could have gone at least as high as 250, I think to myself. (I have, I admit, started to unofficially hope that we get to 240, at least. I don’t know why 240 in particular; the mind goes where it goes.)

We’re currently somewhere around 160. We reached that point this past weekend, ending a week where we somehow managed to get in ten movies, which isn’t even counting the two we started and abandoned because they were genuinely unwatchable. Given that we managed to complete the horrific Cruella, that might give you an idea of just how bad the two we abandoned were — considering both were relatively critically acclaimed, there’s no little humor to be found there for both Chloe and I. (Apparently, the bar is lower for musicals, I guess…?)

In the midst of all of this movie watching, it strikes me that we’ve managed to create a new tradition by accident, where we settle into movie nights (or movie afternoons, if we’re both not working, or even movie mornings, depending how lazy we’re feeling) and it’s this thing that just happens. Whether or not the movie is good, or whether or not it’s the result of one of us — usually me — wanting to work through an entire series of films, or whatever. I doubt we’ll be able to make it through another 200 movies next year, but at this point of the year, I very much hope we’d try.

It’s Just A Tickle

As the weather (finally) gets colder, I can feel the world shift from summer towards that time of the year known universally as “scratchy throat season.” You know the drill: it’s when the days get shorter, the temperature drops, and you start feeling that little tickle at the back of your throat that makes you feel as if you have to cough to clear it up.

This isn’t a new thing, of course. It happens every single year, and it’s always something that gets chalked up to the change in the weather. This is something that I’ve come to expect since childhood, with my parents explaining away any potential ailment as being due to the shift in the temperature and my body needing to come to terms with the new normal. (Well, almost any ailment; I’m pretty sure if I’d broken a bone or something that wouldn’t have been their reaction, although I couldn’t swear to it.)

The problem is, of course, this year, a scratchy throat is the one thing you really don’t want to have. If there’s one thing you really, really don’t want to be doing while out in public, it’s coughing or clearing your throat, after all. I know that firsthand after spending the last week or so having to discreetly do that, and then feeling as if I was going to have everyone turning around and facing me in shock, pointing and screaming “Diseased!” at the top of their lungs.

I get it. The paranoia is real; even when I’m out myself with a mask, I’m particularly aware when other people are coughing, or clearing their throats, or simply making any kind of noise that could suggest that they’re not 100 percent healthy. I am those paranoid types convinced that sickness is around the corner, so it stands to reason that I’m particularly conscious of when I seem like the sick one.

Perhaps I just need to make things easier; get a t-shirt made that reads, “It’s the change in the seasons, that’s all,” and point to it whenever necessary.

I mean, at least I’m still wearing a mask.

No Choice At All

There’s no denying that the choice to let the kid go back to school in school this year was a tough one. It also wasn’t a particularly difficult choice to make, at the same time.

To say that CDL — Comprehensive Distance Learning, aka “doing school through a laptop” as we’d been doing since March last year — was an effort was an understatement; it was understandably difficult to get him motivated about doing it, and if anything, more difficult to get him to concentrate on actually doing the work when necessary for all of that time, as well. (How could it not be? The rest of the internet was right there, after all.) Add to that, the feeling that we, as parents, felt having to keep him on task while simultaneously keep him quiet enough that we could do all the shit that we had to do, and… yeah; it was an effort, indeed.

So, the prospect of his returning to school in person was initially an exciting one for all of us. For him, especially; he’s a social kid, and lockdown left him adrift without his friends, with the exception of a few scant play dates. The idea that he could go back to school full time with all of his friends was something that almost made him cry with excitement and anticipation, with absolutely no exaggeration. On that side, it was an easy choice.

Even easier: it’s what the school system demanded. There was a CDL option available, but it was clear from all communication that it was seen as a poor Plan B. In-person learning was where it was at, as far as the local schools demanded.

But the Delta variant and the new wave of infections loom in the background, making everything seem dangerous again. These were kids, too; how successful could any attempt to enforce social distancing, or even appropriate mask etiquette, be with a building of hundreds of kids? It felt like lunacy to consider, even as the kid told us over and over again how excited he was. We said yes, nervously, hoping for the best, knowing that his heart would break if we’d done anything else.

His reaction after the first day made us all feel it was worth it; how could anyone be so excited for school? He was thrilled, glowing from the experience.  It was a relief that we hadn’t made the wrong decision, even as each morning brings new worry that someone, somewhere, would cough in such a way that the fear takes over again.

And Pains

It’s a cliche, I know, to complain about getting older and what it means to you physically; it’s one of those things that has become so rote, so unoriginal, as to almost become meaningless — as if a complaint about your mother-in-law had inherent insight or merit, or any kind of commentary about millennials and, well, anything, really. Nonetheless, dear reader, as I sit here and write this, I have to tell you, I am a broken man and it’s something I have decided to ascribe entirely to aging. Maybe some cliches have an element of truth to them, after all.

I am, simply, aching. I did some yard work — not even a lot, just an hour or so — and the price I’m paying for it feels entirely ridiculous and over the top: a day later, I just ache from head to foot, with particular pain attention being paid to my legs and, for some entirely unknown reason, the fingers in my right hand. Specifically, it’s my bones that are aching, as if to be even more cliched; I am literally bone tired. If nothing else, I should take it as a sign that I likely need to do far more exercise than I do… or, perhaps, less yard work.

As I ache, I find myself thinking things like, this didn’t used to hurt so much, did it? or is my body trying to tell me to take it easier? as if there’s one simple reason for the dull maladies I’m feeling all over. The feeling of, well, just being still but still feeling that throb of messaging from all over that you’ve over exerted yourself is something I’m putting down almost entirely to getting older, more than actually doing too much or treating my body too unkindly. It’s easier that way, almost; it’s expected, almost — the cliche is cliche for a reason — and unavoidable. If I ache because of aging, it’s not my fault. That’s easier than admitting that maybe I should take better care of myself.

Goodbye Summer

Somehow, it’s September. I’m torn between being surprised by this — honestly, didn’t we just start August? What happened to that month? — and being oddly grateful about it, because September means the end of summer, and that really couldn’t arrive fast enough for me.

My relationship to summer has been an ever-evolving one, I admit. It was only a couple of years ago that I was convinced that I’d finally gotten over a years-long aversion to the season, born of my dislike of the heat and being sunburned, as well as the events that the season traditionally brought out thanks to my previous relationship (too many garden visits, too much being outside in conditions that I didn’t enjoy). I had, I believed,  come to find, a way to enjoy summer on my own terms, from the long days to the cool glasses of lemonade it afforded me permission to drink. Finally, I could join that vast majority of sun-loving humanity!

And then the last couple of years happened. It’s not a COVID or lockdown thing, for once; it’s that there has been record heat in these here parts — 110 or thereabouts for an extended period of time, twice this year alone — as well as a significant drop in air quality due to wildfires just outside of the city. The combined effect of these two things have made for especially uncomfortable, difficult summers for the last couple of years, especially this year, and reminded me that, oh, that’s right: I hate summer. And I was always right to hate summer, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

It’s been oddly freeing to come to this realization, and not just because it makes me feel as if I had the early pass on having the right opinion all along. I’ve always been a fan of the fall, and suffering through such genuinely difficult summers feels as if it’s confirmation that it’s really not the sunny months that bring the most joy to people. Give me overcast days and chilly nights. Give me the sun setting when you’re eating dinner, and leaves crunching underfoot. Let’s say goodbye to that Beach Boys time of year and find something better to smile about.

Did You Hear That?

There’s a skill to being able to relax that, in the last year or so — thanks to such joys as a global pandemic, a social lockdown, and a collapse of my career as I once recognized it — I suspect that I’ve lost. That’s not to say that I used to be a master of the art, but I was certainly a skilled student, even if I do say so myself; I could find the mental space in which to happily while away the hours without too much effort, especially if it meant I had the ability to wander without purpose or simply read a book for an extended period of time. For all that was going on in my head, I knew enough to be able to leave it behind when possible.

These days, that’s not really something I’ve found myself able to pull off easily. There’s too much to think about and keep track off, whether it’s the numerous freelance gigs for different outlets — and who’s paid me for what and who I need to chase up, as well, sadly — or the latest updates about Gavin’s school and whether for not he’ll be able to attend in person, or if the Delta variant is fucking even more things up, or whatever. I try to drift off into my own head, only to be greeted with massive neon signs reminding me that I owe the ex-wife an email about taking care of the dogs and who’ll be taking care of them and when, or that there’s some bills due and maybe I need to take another look at my bank account just in case.

I’ve written before, I’m sure, about the value of silence when it comes to relaxation for me; the more complications that life likes to throw at me, the more I realize that they’re all versions of an uncomfortable sound interrupting that quiet. If there’s a personal goal I should be looking at for the near to mid future, it might simply be described as finding out how to create emotional noise cancelling headphones.

Who Wants To Be Neil Armstrong, Anyway?

I had the thought the other day, that I should have gone into music journalism when I had the chance.

To be clear, I’m not sure that I ever actually had the chance in the first place; unless I’m forgetting something, I’m pretty sure that I’ve never actually been paid to write about music or musicians, and I doubt that’s anything that is about to change nowadays. Who in their right mind wants a 46-year old who’s spent too much time in the last month listening to Damon Albarn and old Primal Scream albums to write about music? It’s a young person’s game, and I think that’s the way it should be, at least for neophytes; they’re the one still hungrily discovering new sounds.

Nonetheless, the thought occurred when I thought about the fact that music writing has a cultural validity that writing about comic books just… doesn’t. Music writers get more freelance opportunities, as almost every news outlet runs stories about music and musicians; there’s an established market for books based in music writing — so much so, in fact, that bookstores have actual sections just for that very thing. If you write about music, then there are possibilities available to you that feel far less possible if, like me, you write about comic books and comic culture.

I’m thinking about this wrong, perhaps; I should be embracing the challenge and opportunity of being a pioneer, of breaking the new ground that I have, that I’m still trying to do. There is something exciting about that, it’s true, in being one of the few people who’ve written so extensively about all this stuff at a time when it’s gone (and continues to go) mainstream. I can remember when we all thought this was a bubble that would pop; more than a decade later, it’s clear to everyone that it’s something else, and I’ve been there the whole time, writing about it. That’s not nothing.

And yet, looking at the failed pitches, the doors now closed because of budget cutbacks, my bank balance this year… I find myself wishing that I’d gone into music journalism, or anything less niche, when I had the chance.

Input/Output

There have been a number of times, increasingly so lately, where I’ve been putting less out into the digital world and, instead, paying more attention to what others have been saying. I hate it.

That’s a joke, to an extent; while I remain frustrated that I don’t have the kind of free-ranging journalistic outlet that THR was to me for so long — oh, the stories I would write, would have written, still want to write, if I had that opportunity again…! — the choice to stay so quiet online in other ways has been an intentional one, and something that I think has been pretty good for me overall.

I’ve been posting less and less on social media for any number of reasons, not least of which being an increasing sense of unease about the question of what I’m actually adding to the conversation — so many others are asking (and answering) more articulate, interesting questions, and in almost every instance, all I’d be doing is adding noise rather than signal. There’s no need for that, to say the least, so I keep my virtual lips shut. (Well, for the most part. Every now and then, I give in; I can’t always resist.)

As all of this happens, I get to listen and read, instead of talk and write; I get to be an audience, instead of an author. I get to learn, which feels like the ultimate goal, surely — at least, if you’re not looking to purposefully use the space to promote your own voice. (Which is, I should add, a valid thing to do on social media!) It’s been good, for the most part, when it’s not been frustrating or annoying to see malice or stupidity spread, rewarded for no real reason.

I have to relearn how to put myself out there at some point, and re-engage with that world; I think it’d be a healthy thing to not remain an audience forever. But for now, in the words of Frasier Craine: I’m here. I’m listening.

Don’t Look Down

I’ve had two conversations recently that have, independently of each other, been about the same thing: namely, the idea that 2021 isn’t any easier than last year, but may in fact be harder — but that our inability as a culture to accept that is something that’s ultimately going to leave us in a far worse position than we were last year.

It is, perhaps, a strange idea to echo between people entirely unrelated of each other. But it’s not an entirely alien one, I have to admit; this year has been considerably worse for me than I’d imagined going in, and I wasn’t the most enthusiastic of people at the start of it all. (There was, after all, a pandemic and disaster all around to deal with at the time, never mind the potential for political disaster in the dying days of the Trump presidency.)

Nevertheless, the year has been a curious mix of things going wrong — or, at least, not to plan, which isn’t quite the same thing, even if they can feel similar at the time — with occasional bursts of potential good news that, judging by the evidence to date, is more likely to fade into insignificance or disappear entirely than come to fruition. It’s something that, I know, should feel far more crushing than it actually does. But perhaps that’s the wrong attitude to have?

Then again, I’m not sure what the right attitude would be: feeling worse about things? Surrendering to the bad news and expecting more at any given opportunity? Those both seem like unhealthy options, even though I’m sure that pessimists would think that my optimism is closer to ignorance if not outright denial, and look similarly down their noses at the very notion.

The truth of the matter is, this year is harder than last year, with COVID on an upswing and my career prospects stagnant if not downright dying. It’s been rough, and I’m sure rougher is on the way before things change. But I have to hope that things will get better at some time. What else can I do?