Stinkin’ Thinkin’

There was a point this year when I felt good about the amount of prose I was reading; I might even have written about it here. Through luck or happenstance, I was averaging a book a week, although that was including nonfiction I was reading for work — so many academic retrospectives on popular culture and the comic book industry! — and my secret pleasure of short story collections, which I can speed through effortlessly. (Perhaps my most recent favorite of the latter is Donald Westlake’s Thieves’ Dozen, which collects his short Dortmunder stories. Consider it highly recommended, if you like snappy, sneaky fiction.)

I’m not entirely sure when my reading streak finished, or how. Was it that period where I’d basically make it to the end of the day by dragging my tired ass across the finish line, slumping into bed with barely enough strength to turn out the light and lay my head down? Probably; I know that, during those few weeks, there was a pile of unread books on my bedside table that just wondered what the deal was and when I’d make time for them.

The result is, though, that I’m back to feeling self-consciously uncultured again, as if all I can manage to keep up with are comic books and television shows. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, mind; but I want the time and brain power to juggle some prose in there too, dammit.

There’s a solution to be found here, somewhere, but I’m not sure what it actually is — my workload isn’t lightening up anytime soon, and I barely get enough time to spend with Chloe as-is, so it’s not as if I can magically make time to sit down with a good book. And even then, I need to find the right good books, something that’ll keep my interest but let me dip out when necessary, something to make me obsessed but not too obsessed. Dear reader, I want to be a dear reader, if only I could find the time, thought power, and subject matter to make it happen.

What You’re Doing

I still think there’s something amusing about my missing the 20th anniversary of my arrival in the US as a permanent resident. It happened back in March sometime — I can’t remember the date offhand, but it was somewhere in the center of that month — and, although I was aware that it was coming ahead of time and casually, aimlessly, told myself that I should probably do something to mark such a momentous occasion, I missed it entirely when it actually rolled around. I was too busy with the day-to-day of life, and making sure that more important things were taken care of.

Putting it like that suggests that there was something else of great import happening at the time, some kind of event that was distracting me. Surely, after all, I could only miss the 20th anniversary if another Big Important Thing was taking up my headspace instead. That’s not true, though, to the best of my admittedly faulty recollection; March was simply another month, like so many other months in the last year or so, where the everyday is so packed and busy that things that… well, aren’t really important fall out of your head to make room for the good stuff.

That, at its core, is why I’m so amused and delighted by forgetting the me-getting-to-the-US anniversary. There was a time, and there was a me, not that long ago that would have hyper-focused on marking the date as some truly important, necessary thing to pay attention to, something meaningful. Now, though, I’ve become someone who’s too busy just living life — loving those around me, taking care of them, doing work that makes me happy so I can help support them — to reliably keep track of such things. I am, ironically, doing the really meaningful stuff so much that I’m forgetting about the self-indulgent faux meaningful.

Ernie

There’s no way to say goodbye to a pet, not really. Everything feels emotionally overwhelming, and you try your best in the moment, wishing that they understand on some level, hoping that your very presence and the physical affection you’re offering is, on some level, reassuring and enough to bring them some level of happiness at the end.

Ernie’s death came quickly, thanks to the vet’s skill, but it was the last part of a week that had been more difficult and, I suspect, more stressful and upsetting for him than he could have imagined.

He’d had oral surgery on the Tuesday, to have 25 teeth removed; they’d rotted in his skull over the years, under the gums, and were causing him pain, so it was decided that they had to come out; he went in nervous in the morning, and came out doped up and drooling that evening. The surgery, they said, had been longer and more extensive than anticipated, but they expected a full recovery.

I did, too; after all, his brother Gus had something similar happen last year, and he was back to normal in a day or so. That wasn’t the case for Ernie, however.

He spent hours on the Wednesday whining and crying and vomiting; there was so much vomit. He sounded so unhappy, on a primal level. I called the vet, and was told this was normal the day after a major surgery, as bad as it seemed, and that I should call the next day if he hasn’t improved. By Thursday morning, he couldn’t stand up and was still refusing food and now refusing water. The vet agreed to take a look.

Everything after that is a blur, really; multiple discoveries of bad news — his kidneys seemed to be failing, his blood sugar was far too low, his stomach distended, the nodules on his liver — and no real understanding about why or what was the reason for the sudden, shocking downward turn. I felt helpless and heartbroken with each new call. As he was checked into a hospital for constant care, I knew on some level it was the end even as others told me that he could still get better.

Friday morning, 6am, I got the call that nothing had improved and that they still had no idea what was happening. I asked if he could survive without this level of constant medical intervention, with IVs and anti-nausea medications and everything, and was told that he still hadn’t tried to eat or drink anything at that point. “If this was your dog, what would you do?” I asked the vet.

Two hours later, I was in a small room with him. His tail wagged when he saw me, the first time his tail had wagged since Monday. I held him on my lap as the vet offered the three injections, and told him that I loved him, that I’d miss him, and that he was a good boy. I hope he knew, somehow, that all three were true.

Four Times The Fun

Like most people on social media, judging by my feed, I fell for the siren song of Wordle some time ago. How could I resist? There’s just something about the appeal of a quick, daily, word game that lets you think Oh, I’m so smart, I guessed “rouge” on three attempts on a regular basis while also giving you the space to ignore the pure luck factor of it all. (Look, if you start off with the wrong word, sometimes you’re just fucked.)

The problem with Wordle, though, is that there’s just one word a day. That’s not enough for the truly obsessive need for distraction that lives inside my brain, dear reader. I needed something… more. I needed Quordle.

As the name suggests, Quordle is Wordle, but you’re simultaneously guessing four different words at the same time; you get more passes to make that happen, of course — nine instead of six — but that’s not the only change that’s important. No, with Quordle, there’s a “practice” setting that lets you play as many rounds as you want, instead of just one round a day. And that, let me tell you, is a game changer.

Quordle has become what I do if my brain is feeling restless, but I’m not ready to handle anything particularly requiring true focus just yet. If I have my iPad to hand — for some reason, I only play it on my iPad, which feels like a sign of true obsessiveness — then I’ll just play a quick round, and then almost certainly play a second before remembering I should probably be doing something else instead. It’s something that happens almost every day.

Moreover, it’s something that in a strange way has made me… slower and more methodical outside of the game, perhaps? For the first three passes, I’m throwing out whatever words I can think of to get letters on (and off) the board, but then I stop and start being analytical and deductive; I become a consonant Sherlock Holmes, trying out combinations in my head, however unlikely they seem. It sounds ridiculous, but Quordle has taught me the value of doing something similar in my writing and self-editing, as well.

I’m aware that the game is, perhaps, a timesuck and something I could and should pass up in favor of more worthwhile pursuits. Eventually, that may even happen. For now, though, I just need to figure out if any word could start with an X and then have a U as the next letter.

FYI, FYI

By this point, I’ve been doing the Comics, FYI newsletter for close to six months; it’s not something that’s necessarily turned out exactly as I expected, but in ways that have been more rewarding, and in entirely different ways than I’d anticipated.

The origins of the newsletter were somewhat diffuse: I missed writing regularly about comics, and in a relatively self-directed fashion. (At THR, I’d basically had my druthers to pursue what interested me, as long as I could sell my editors on it; Aaron and Erik were particularly good at helping me pare down what was, and wasn’t, interesting in the end.) I’d spent much of 2021 promising myself that I’d start a comics website of my own, only to hold off for the simple reason that, deep down, that wasn’t really something I felt ready for; a newsletter, though, felt like it could be fun, if done right.

Throughout the whole process of thinking about it pre-launch, I kept remembering a conversation I had with my friend Lucy (Hi, Lucy!), wherein she joked that she didn’t really pay attention to comics news and just needed someone to summarize the important things for her every now and then. That was always the North Star, when I was working out what I wanted to do. If I could basically write about what seemed important to me, and explain why in such a fashion that anyone could get it, then I was doing something right.

And, of course, I wanted it to earn money for me. After all, paid newsletters are a thing, now. Surely, if I got enough readers, then I could make money from it, right…?

Spoilers: I’m still not charging for it. By this point, I probably never will. The newsletter has become rewarding in its own right, and my career has picked up elsewhere, so I don’t feel the need to charge for it anymore, per se. Doing so feels almost the opposite of the “information for everyone” mission that the newsletter has evolved, and almost self-indulgent and greedy at this point. Maybe my thinking on that will change again at some point, but for now, the newsletter is my version of comics journalism public service, being curious in public and inviting others to join in.

It’s become a highlight of my week, every week, even when it’s stressful and not coming together in time. It’s something I can’t imagine not doing, anymore.

Watch This Space

It took me until May to realize that I missed the rhythm of this site from the days when I was doing the THR newsletter, still; the way that, every second week, I’d spend the Friday with a post containing the graphics I’d done during that period for the newsletter.

It’s not that I was always so proud of the graphics that I’d done that I just had to share them — sometimes, I wasn’t proud of them at all; things get created on tight deadlines and they’re not even that good, but there’s something to be said for that “perfect is the enemy of finished” dictum, and something more to be said for the value of accepting imperfection and deadlines as valuable factors in and of themselves — but there was an appeal for me in the rhythm of posts it created here: five posts of writing, then images, five posts of writing, then images, over and over.

Of the many things I’ve missed about not working regularly and primarily for THR, the newsletter is a big one, and the graphics a big part of that. The lack of having the “five posts of writing, then images” rhythm here, in turn, was a big part of that.

All of which is to say, every second Friday, I’m just going to spend that day’s post on images, starting next week. I spent all of May on image posts, created out of necessity — my brain was too full of the writing I was doing for paid work — but, I like the creative process behind those random images. If I like that, and I miss the regularly scheduled image posts that the newsletter graphics used to provide, then surely there’s an answer to the problem staring me right in the face all along.

Plus, who knows? Maybe the process of giving myself a deadline to come up with images could prove as creatively and psychologically healthy as the newsletter graphics did, once upon a time.

Simply Nowhere To Be Found

The cat had entirely, utterly disappeared. There were three of us looking for him, running through the three-level house and checking all the rooms as quickly as we could, and he was nowhere to be found.

We were preparing for an inspection of the house by the landlords, and already relatively excited, by which I mean stressed and exhausted; although we were pretty confident that everything would be fine — we take really good care of this house! We make small repairs ourselves, without complaint! —there was just a feeling of, listen, you never know when things can go south unexpectedly, that made us nervous. Both Chloe and I have become suspicious of relying on good feelings and good fortune over the past year or so.

With the landlords due in thirty minutes or so, the plan was for her mom, visiting from out of town, to take the cats during the inspection to ensure an orderliness and calm that wouldn’t otherwise happen; but one of the cats had utterly vanished. He’d been around for a first attempt to go in a crate to be carried out, but he’d resisted and run upstairs; we watched him go… but he was nowhere to be found upstairs. Nor, it turned out, was he downstairs, either.

We searched the house maybe four, five times with no luck. He was simply gone, but that was impossible, too — he couldn’t get outside because doors and windows were shut. Things had reached the point where we were starting to find it simultaneously funny and genuinely insane-making; how can a cat disappear so completely? Did he even exist in the first place, or have we been hallucinating him all these years? Was this the end of a cat version of Fight Club? All the while, the clock is ticking down and the landlords’ arrival is getting closer.

Reality was restored when he was discovered inside a box spring, having burrowed himself in there at some point without anyone noticing. The inspection went well, and all was good in the world, but for the rest of the day, I kept remembering what it felt like when he was simply nowhere, as impossible as it was.

Mah Stories

As has become de rigueur in recent years, there’s been no shortage of shitty reality television being used as decompression material for our overworked brains in the last few weeks. After the thinking-too-hard workday, I’ve developed an almost-need for a certain level of schlock to marinate in before sleep, before returning to the grind the next day. All of which is to say, I’ve very much been appreciating the current Golden Age of Camp Reality I think television has entered in the last couple of years.

The joy of streaming means that, currently, Chloe and I can enjoy episodes of Love Island Australia, RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars, Legendary, or Below Deck shows — that’s shows plural, not episodes, I point out, because as I write, both Below Deck: Down Under and Below Deck: Sailing Yacht are running new episodes simultaneously, which is crazy to me — in addition to any new discovery that we might make. It’s a joy, and a necessary mental balm, to have these pieces of trash to marinate in while trying to slow our brains down from that day’s work. It’s the most restorative viewing I could imagine at this point.

This sounds like sarcasm, but it’s not, I promise; there really is something impossibly relaxing about enjoying the histrionics and cliches that you can almost guarantee from any one of these shows, not to mention the schadenfreude of being able to look at almost any single one of the people onscreen and go, well, at least I’m not as bad as all that.

(If there is one thing in reality shows that I genuinely love more than anything else, it’s reality shows where everyone is over the top and overly emotional with the exception of one person, who gets to basically watch everything unfold and then make snarky commentary to the camera after the fact; it’s the ultimate audience stand-in, and when done well, it’s irresistible.)

Occasionally, I stop and think to myself that I should, perhaps, be reading more books, watching more highbrow cinema, and spending my decompressing time in more productive ways. And then I hear the low energy techno throb of the Love Island theme and such thoughts get pushed to the back of my head as I wonder whether Mitch and Tina will get it together tonight after all.

The Right Length

One of the things about having been an online writer for as long as I have is the number of white hairs in my beard. No, wait, that’s not what I meant to say at the start of that sentence. (I do have a lot of white hairs in my beard, though; I guess the last year has been particularly stressful?) What I meant was: After doing this for close to 20 years now, it’s strange to be able to recognize trends and attitudes towards particular things change, evolve, or simply upend themselves for whatever reason.

What’s brought this to mind is, simply, word count. As part of my new work reality, I’m writing a lot more long form pieces than I used to; at THR, the majority of my work was in theory short news bursts with the occasional long form op-ed or explainer. In terms of word count, that would translate at something roughly 300-400 words for news, and 800-1000 words for long form.

Nowadays, I’m seeing long form expectations start at 1000, and go up to 1500-2000, depending on outlet and story. Initially, it was a significant shift in thinking — I was used to compressing everything down to its tightest, most abbreviated form, after all — and something I really struggled with; I felt as if I was filling time aimlessly and trying to find something, anything, to fill the space.

What’s surprising, though, is how quickly you do adapt, though. Your rhythms change and you find the way to work through the space you have, fast enough that when presented with the old limits again — Wired still asks for pieces around the old definition of long form — that that becomes the struggle instead. I’d just gotten used to going on at length, and now I have to be brief all over again? Heavens to Betsy, who has the brain space to juggle all of this on an ongoing basis?