Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

“American Vandal” and the Art of Parody

Look at all the dicks indeed.

Netflix’s American Vandal is a good show, a pitch-perfect parody of both true-crime documentaries in the vein of Serial and Making a Murderer and mysteries in general. It’s also kind of hilarious. This is a show, after all, that concerns itself with an act of vandalism that sees bright red penises painted on 27 cars. This is a show that uses WHO DREW THE DICKS as a catchphrase, hashtag, and secret handshake.

Here’s what American Vandal does 100% right: It comes from a place of affection for the very things it’s making fun of.

The Right Way

A lot of parody gets this part wrong. A lot. People tend to parody stuff they despise, because they need to channel that rage somewhere, but that sort of parody is rarely funny. It tends to go for the jugular with a viciousness and blackly humorless violence that simply doesn’t translate into anything entertaining. Look at all the Trump-centric parodies out there; you might agree with the sentiment, but they are rarely actually funny.

That’s because the authors of such parodies don’t actually like what they’re trying to mock. But American Vandal does. You can tell from the fantastic attention to detail; not only do they get the rhythms of these documentaries exactly right, they also get the rhythms and tone of high school life, the varied look and feel of different Internet services, and the way a mystery works right.

And that’s the key to it’s success, really; it offers a well-constructed mystery, populated by interesting characters, and it takes its universe seriously. When characters are funny, they are funny because of their personality traits and quirks, not because the creators are just mercilessly mocking them and making them into strawmen and caricatures. The fact that every charcter in the Vandal universe takes the mystery and its surrounding subplots seriously is why the show clicks. This is best demonstrated by the simple fact that they demonstrate real stakes: The accused dick-drawer, Dylan, faces being held accountable for $100,000 in damages, likely felony criminal charges, and the ruination of his college ambitions. Dylan is bit of a dick, it’s true, and in the early episodes he’s played for laughs as this dumb, self-absorbed prankster (we all knew a Dylan in high school, seriously). But as the show goes on his predicament is shown to be really terrible. Being accused of drawing the dicks could ruin his life (and kinda does, anyway).

Those stakes are key. It shows that everyone in the show is taking it all very seriously, and so the mystery works, and so the parody works. Coming at a humorous subject with disdain isn’t a recipe for hilarity. You have to come at it from a place of affection.

“Halt and Catch Fire”: The Beauty in Failure

Spoilers, because fuck spoilers. You been warned.

The fourth and final season of Halt and Catch Fire, the show least likely to make four seasons in the history of all shows, has gotten a fair bit of attention for sheer simple quality. Of course, part of the reason there have been so many love letters to the show this month is the unlikely nature of that quality; the first season of HAFC wasn’t exactly terrible, but it was decidedly meh, to use a technical term. And so a million Think Pieces were born this year when the unlikely fourth season turned out to be a pretty fantastic story about characters that fans have come to enjoy, against all odds.

Other people have written persuasively about how this show, so mediocre in its beginning, came to be so highly regarded among the very, very small audience it managed to build. For me, though, what I came to really appreciate about HACF is simpler: Everyone on this show was a failure, and the show decided to find the beauty in that.

Beautiful Failures

The fake-out of HACF is that it presented its characters as brilliant, and we as the audience were well-trained to accept that even if we didn’t quite buy it. After all, most characters in prestige dramas are presented as special, and the audience is supposed to go along with it (see Don Draper, Walter White, literally everyone else).

The main characters as presented in season 1 were all primed to be secret geniuses: Joe MacMillan, the tortured mystery man modeled so obviously on Don Draper, who has an audacious plan to manipulate two companies into building a market-defining personal computer; Cameron Howe, brilliant but socially-screwed young programmer; Gordon Clark, brilliant engineer simmering with rage at the compromises of his life and where they’d landed him; Donna Clark, brilliant engineer frustrated by the limitations of being a woman in a tech world dominated by assholes.

It should have been the story of these eclectic geniuses as they conquered the world. Instead, it’s the story of people failing upward and ultimately letting go of their dreams. And that’s the genius of the show.

They don’t build that incredible computer; instead they build an adequate machine that sells well enough to make some money, and destroy the company they work for in the process. They go on, in subsequent seasons, to be smart enough to anticipate the Internet, social media, and the World Wide Web, but they’re never able to move quickly enough or be brilliant enough to actually invent the amazing things. Someone else comes out with the Macintosh. Someone else builds AOL. Someone else builds Netscape. Our lovable losers are always a day late and a dollar short.

And the beauty of the final season is that they all accept this, to a point. Now, none of these people are failures in a conventional sense; they all participate in enough startups and product launches to be relatively rich and well-known by the end of the show’s run. Donna is a very successful partner at a venture capital firm. Joe has had a piece of several lucrative businesses that were bought out by bigger, better competitors. Cameron had a career as a game designer and is more or less widely regarded as something of a genius in the field.

Gordon, of course, is dead, but he was head of a successful if not world-changing company and had a fair amount of money.

But none of them had accomplished what they most wanted: Change the world, come up with “the thing” that changed everything. Their ideas always curdled into semi-success. Money, sure. Some sales. The sort of resume most people would love. But not the thing. As the show ended, Joe becomes an educator, finally realizing that this is what he’s wanted all along, to shape and mold the future. Gordon, as I mentioned, is dead, but before his death he’d achieved a quiet dignity in realizing his own limitations as a person, growing less angry and more giving as he gave up trying to assert himself as a genius. Donna and Cameron are about to embark on a new venture, it’s strongly implied, but they’re doing so out of a sense of excited connection, not because they think they’re going to change the world. They know they probably won’t, but they’re excited to work together again, a small-scale ambition.

That‘s what this show got right: Most of us, we don’t invent, or write, or compose the thing. We might have success, and we might do all right financially, but we don’t get the thing. Almost no one does. And HACF is one of the few shows to ever understand that a story about people not getting the thing could be great.

Because that story is almost universal.

Be Prepared

You have no idea what men of power can do.

After Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed the bottom half of my house and cost a bazillion dollars to recover from, I went on a small-scale preparation tear. You always prepare for the last war, or in this case the last natural disaster, so no doubt all my efforts are in vain, but I figured the only thing worse than not being prepared for an unknowable disaster was not being prepared for a disaster you knew full well was possible.

So, my disaster prep was more or less dictated by our experience during Sandy. We bought RTE food because the grocery stores and restaurants were closed for a week. We bought battery-operated water alarms in case the flood came while we were asleep. We bought flashlights that double as lanterns. We bought jugs of water. We bought a huge 7,000 RPM generator because the power was off for a week. I got a propane model with an electric starter because pulling that fucking ripcord is for people who have some level of physical fitness, and I don’t need to be out in the rain crying because I’ve been pulling that fucking cord for three hours and my hands are bleeding.

I realize that other folks suffered much worse—and other folks are suffering much worse right now in some areas. We were lucky, even if it didn’t feel that way at the time.

Of course, I’m generally speaking an incompetent man. Despite being an Eagle Scout, I am not very good at the whole be prepared schtick. Or I should say I’m very good at being physically prepared in the sense of having the tools and materials you’re supposed to have, but not very good at making those things work in an emergency. It’s like when I was in the Boy Scouts: I technically knew how to build a shelter out of leaves and branches, how to make a fire. But any time I had to actually attempt those things under pressure, it was what scientists call a shitshow. Much like my entire Boy Scout career, ha ha! (bursts into PTSD tears).

And so when the power went out at the Somers Compound in Hoboken recently, I began to sweat. Because I was going to have to use the generator.

The Leviathan

I live in an attached rowhouse with 0 ground-level outdoor space. That’s right, 0. No yard. We do have a second-floor deck that is quite nice, but the house is 100% lot coverage as a result of 1970s/1980s-era Hoboken wheeling and dealing; this town used to be the Wild Fucking West when it came to zoning and work permits. So when I ordered our generator I figured we’d put it on the deck, NBD. Except the generator weighed like 5,000 pounds and appeared to be made of solid pig iron, or possibly be merely a habitat for several dozen incredibly dense beings of pure energy. A friend of mine helped me carry it up to the deck, but I was already sweating the Judgment of The Duchess.

My wife, The Duchess, is a sweet and lovely woman who long ago accepted my incompetence as part of the Price of Loving Jeff. My cheerful inability to manage simple tasks just amuses her, these days (there was a brief period of trying to shame me into competence, but it was a long time ago and I emerged as cheerfully useless as ever). A side effect of this, of course, is that anything I claim will work she immediately assumes will not. It’s that simple. And so she took one look at the generator and assumed it would either a) never be needed, making it a waste of money or b) never actually work, making it a waste of money.

Years go by. The generator sits there. I fire it up every now and then and let it run a few minutes. But I’m haunted by all those fires I couldn’t start as History’s Worst Eagle Scout (aka the Eagle Scout who Smoked and Drank a Lot and Faked His Way Through at Least 50% of His Merit Badges), and I knew someday the lights would go out and The Duchess would suggest that it might be time to run the generator … and I worried I wouldn’t be able to get it going.

And then the lights went out when The Duchess had a huge project to finish that required the Internet.

Dead Squirrels

The lights went out due to two adventurous but doomed squirrels who blew up two transformers on the block within a few days of each other. The poor things were splattered everywhere, and the lights went out for about four hours. The Duchess began to freak about her project, and so I went to fire up the generator just to get the Internet back up. Every step made me nervous, because this was the pattern of my life: A decently reasonable idea about how to stay alive during a non-emergency like a few inconvenient hours without Netflix magically transformed into humiliation. I opened up the gas line, adjusted the choke, and hit the starter button.

And nothing happened. I knew then I would have to simply climb down from the deck in my bare feet and start walking, starting a new life wherever I happened to find myself. My new name would be Derek, I thought, and I would live a simple life without any sort of electricity as a sort of penance for this. I would certainly never be able to face The Duchess again. She would force me to carry the generator down the stairs by myself while she taunted me with cruel insults.

I adjusted the connections to the battery and tried again, and the generator fired up. Five minutes later we were the only house on the block with electricity, and I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway when he makes fire for the first time.

What does this prove? Nothing. I didn’t engineer the generator, extract and process the propane, or do anything except press a button. But believe me, pressing a button is so often beyond my capabilities it was still a momentous occasion, and I wondered, briefly, if maybe I did, after all, deserve this Eagle badge.

Probably not, but a man can dream.

SKIP INTRO is Why I Live in the Future

If you have a Netflix subscription (or are borrowing someone else’s), you’ve likely noticed the new “Ship Intro” option whcih allows you to, say, not watch the goddamn credits sequence for Friends for the 5,000th time. There have been some think pieces about this new feature that lament the loss of credit sequences, noting that a few such sequences (Bojack Horseman is mentioned as an example) actually make watching the intro worthwhile.

Hogwash. The SHIP INTRO feature is the greatest thing invented this week.

I grew up in the era of Awful TV. I had four channels as a kid, didn’t get cable until I was 14, and our primitive VCR was a top-loader. If you don’t know what a top-loader is, or what a VCR is, or what cable is, you are one of the blessed, move along. My point is, when I was younger I not only had to watch the fucking credits, I had very little control at all over what I watched. It was pretty terrible.

The people who think SKIP INTRO is a bad thing are the same people who wish Times Square in New York City was still filled to the brim with prostitutes, drug dealers, porno theaters, and garbage. I remember taking a bus into New York while in high school and being propositioned by male prostitutes, so people who have affection for the old-school Times Square are idiots. I don’t care how awful the modern version is (and it is awful) I still wouldn’t go back.

SKIP INTRO of course still allows you to watch the damn intro if you have a reason to. It’s just that now you have a choice. You don’t have to watch the same scenes repeated over and over again, endlessly. It’s a glorious time to be alive, and I for one am very happy that the world’s greatest technical minds aren’t wasting time on cancer cures but rather finding ways to make my streaming video experience slightly more pleasant. More of that, please.

Room 104 and Bad Writing Decisions

Psychotic Breaks for Everyone!

I’m okay with the Duplass Brothers. I don’t love everything they do, but they’re interesting, usually surprising, and always kind of smart about their projects. Even when they slum in crappy movies or TV shows, they’re interesting. So, okay.

Room 104 is an anthology series created and largely written by the Duplass bros. Anthologies with conceits like this—every story takes place in the same nondescript motel room, at different times and eras—usually wind up being quite a mixed bag, but since it’s the Duplasses I figured, let’s check out the first episode, Ralphie.

SPOILERS. Oh, so many spoilers. I’m gonna, like, completely discuss the entire plot. So if you care about spoilers (you shouldn’t though) and want to watch this, stop reading … now.

The Story

These episodes are only 30 minutes, so the stories are going to be short and sweet. In Ralphie, a single dad calls a babysitter to Room 104 to watch his son, Ralph, while he goes on a date. The babysitter makes awkward small talk with the Dad while he gets ready to leave, Ralph won’t come out of the bathroom, the babysitter offers to show the Dad her references but he’s like, no need, babe, you look totally sane and cool.

After Dad leaves, the babysitter coaxes Ralph out of the bathroom. He’s a sleepy kid with a flat affect, and he warns her that Ralphie is in the bathroom and will come out and mess everyone up if they’re not careful. The kid is creepy, and when he claims she “woke” Ralphie, he runs into the bathroom. A moment later a kid who looks just like him emerges from the bathroom, shirtless, wearing a yellow cape, and screams I’m gonna get you! as he goes apeshit on the babysitter, who runs in shock and terror. Then Ralphie goes back into the bathroom and Ralph comes back out, all innocent and asking if she’s okay—did Ralphie “get” her?

Things calm down, and babysitter tries to coax the kid to go to sleep. Ralph wants to tell her about the time his mother committed suicide, which freaks her out, and then Ralph says that was a joke—actually, Ralphie totally killed his mom, and now he’s terrified Ralphie will kill him. Babysitter is totally freaked, then Ralph claims Ralphie woke up again, goes back into the barthroom, and then … two kids emerge. Ralph, and Ralphie. Ralphie proceeds to go apeshit and strangles Ralph to death, then comes for the babysitter, exhibiting superhuman strength and nearly killing her before she gets the upper hand and strangles him.

Then Dad comes home, and there’s only one kid, and the babysitter totally murdered him. Except, the bathroom door suddenly slams on its own.

The Problem(s)

Stories are hard. And half an hour of screen time isn’t much. And sometimes you have a great idea for an ending or a premise and you lose sight of good storytelling to get there.

Based solely on the quick mention of her “references” that the Dad’s too horny to bother looking at, I think we’re supposed to assume that Babysitter is delusional, imagines Ralphie, and kills the kid for her own reasons. The problem? The show does no work to get us there. Babysitter is presented as nice enough, concerned, responsible, and timid—after all, when a small boy in a yellow cape attacks her, she doesn’t throw him across the room. She cowers behind the curtains.

Or perhaps there’s a supernatural element, but again there’s no work done to show how it affects Babysitter—she goes from kind of freaked out and unhappy to choking out a little boy in no time flat.

There are practical concerns, too. Ralphie apparently sleeps in the bathroom when he’s not murdering folks, which, okay; I can see a crazy kid coming up with that sort of “Superman” solution to his secret second identity. But didn’t Babysitter have to go to the bathroom at some point? Was there a kid in there or not? Or did she not hydrate at all that day and so sat for three hours without once needing to pee?

Nice Touches

This isn’t to say the story wasn’t entertaining. The tone and mood were creepy AF, and there were some nice grace notes—like the aforementioned references, the way the episode opened on the Dad sitting on the bed of the room with his head in his hands like he knows he’s living a nightmare, the mileage gotten from a closed bathroom door. This isn’t terrible, but it’s sloppy. It’s all sizzle and no steak.

Luckily, anthologies offer something new every week, so let’s keep watching and see what happens.

On Strike Against Blackouts

The time has come to make a stand. There are many possible stands I could take. I could decide that flavored whiskies must be destroyed in the marketplace. Or that haircuts are a form of oppression. But the stand I have chosen to make is to protest against the Blackout Ending.

What’s a Blackout Ending? It is often referred to as The Sopranos Ending. You know, where everyone was on the edge of their seat waiting to see if Tony was going to get shot in the head while eating onion rings with his family, and then the screen cut to black and David Chase basically stuck his thumb into your eye? Here’s a screenshot:

I especially love the blocking in this shot.

This should also forever be known as the only time anyone will ever be allowed to do this in the age of Prestige Television, by dint of being the first to do it. And also because I believe Chase did the heavy lifting in the editing and construction of that final sequence to earn his Blackout Ending. You can sift through the cuts and actually make a case for what happened, so I am inclined to give him a Mulligan on this and allow it.

Everyone else who’s done it since? Fuck you, you lazy writers.

The Lady? Or the Tiger?

The ending that isn’t an ending, or the Anti-Ending, isn’t new. The most famous example is probably The Lady, or The Tiger? by Frank Stockton, published in 1882. Anyone who attended at least one decent school probably read this story at some point. If you didn’t, it’s time to reflect on the terribleness of your education. But, that said, it’s not a good story. It’s well-written, but its fame comes from its non-ending, when Stockton basically asks the reader what they think just happened. It cuts to black. It’s bullshit. It was ever bullshit, and it ever remains thus.

Since The Sopranos, other shows have tried this trick, most recently Fargo on FX, which ended with the villain and the hero sitting in an interrogation room, arguing over what was going to happen next. Cut to credits, and we never found out. There are a lot of arguments that this is a perfectly acceptable way to end a story. That it encourages people to come up with their own endings, to study the episodes before and decide what happened.

This is what Literary Scientists call bullshit.

Yes, those arguments are valid enough. And some people like these sorts of endings, arguing that anything the writers came up with would be disappointing. And certainly a lot of endings are disappointing—most notably endings that just cut to black like that. But

  1. The Sopranos gets a pass because it was the first TV show in the modern era to pull this trick. Points for surprise.
  2. The Sopranos gets a pass because, as mentioned, Chase put the work in to seed that sequence with clues that, taken together, point towards a reasonably certain conclusion

Every other show since then is just giving up and saying ¯\_(?)_/¯ as an ending. Listen, I have approximately 5,001 unfinished novels on my hard drive. If this is what we’re doing, I can publish about 5,000 of them immediately. I’ll just cut off the last chapter mid-sentence and let you all bastards figure out what happened.

Why I Haven’t Watched the New “Twin Peaks”

It’s 1989 all over again.

I can only assume you all spend about 104% of your time watching entertainments, because otherwise I have no idea how you’ve all already watched everything. I mean, seriously: These TV shows require hours and hours of your time. Are people really bingeing through 10 hours of a show and then shuffling to work at the Emergency Room, where they sew a few sponges into my abdomen and nod off during lunch?

When I was a kid, I was a huge Twin Peaks fan. Yuuuugggggee. I can still remember the moment Dale Cooper had his first dream vision, and I was god-damned mesmerized. I can also remember watching the Season Two finale with some friends in a rented house at college; there was a storm raging outside and I was white knuckled terrified during that ending sequence. Twin Peaks was ridiculous and overwrought and deeply silly, but damn it was good stuff.

I haven’t watched the new version on Showtime. Because life is short.

Down to My Final Trillion Seconds

As far as I know, I’m going to die someday. And based on my functional alcoholism, that time is likely much closer than I might like to think. Which means I have to use my time wisely, which means, put simply, that I no longer make time to watch things live. I DVR them, I order them on-demand, I download them from the Internet. And I only do that if the reviews and think-pieces make it seem worthwhile.

So, maybe the new Twin Peaks is great. Maybe it’s terrible. Time will tell, and I’ll be waiting until it does, because I only have so much time to spend on fictions and entertainments. And considering that we have this power—to vet our entertainment before we spend/waste time on it—why don’t we? Just seems foolish to commit 2 hours to Twin Peaks Mark 2 before I even know if it’s any good.

I could be spending that time drinking, is what I’m saying.

It’s Not Impostor Syndrome if You’re Actually Faking It

Jeff, I think you know why we’ve called this meeting: You absolutely must start wearing pants to the office.

AS AN author, I hear about Impostor Syndrome a lot. This syndrome, if you have somehow lived this long without encountering it, is when perfectly capable, competent people believe their own success (or lack of failure) is the result of sheer luck and circumstance—that they are, in fact, frauds.

Writers are easy marks for this kind of corrosive self-doubt; no matter how successful you are as a writer, of course, there will be a group of people who consider your work to be terrible, and most writers wind up in that Twilight Zone of mid-level success: A few publishing credits to your name, but no significant sales breakthrough, meaning you make a few pennies and get some recognition, but you’re still working a day job and still hustling every minute of the day instead of lounging by the pool of chocolate pudding in your tropical estate. Or something; your fantasy of being rich and wildly successful may vary.

So when you sell a story or a novel, it’s easy to think you just got lucky, and many of us do just that. I often have that urge to mutter joke’s on you, suckers! as I sign a book contract, so I’m no stranger to Impostor Syndrome. The thing is, while I’m not an impostor as a writer, I certainly have been an impostor throughout much of my adult life, because I am a firm disciple of the Fake It Til You Make It religion of sleeping in and not doing the research.

The Miracle 18

Up until a few years ago, I had a Day Job. In a sense, I still do; I’m not a full-time novelist, I’m a full time writer, which means a lot of what I write I do in order to earn a living. But writing as a Day Job is a perfect fit for me, because I’m good with the words. What I did for 18 years of my life in a professional capacity was not a good fit, because it required three things I do not possess: Attention to detail, organization, and the ability to wake up in the morning.

So, if I was terrible at my job, how did I keep it for nearly two decades? Here’s a timeline of events that hold some clues:

  1. When I got my first job in the industry, I was a chubby, tow-headed kid of 23 who wore enormous glasses and whose clothes were always 2 sizes too large (that is not a joke) and so I firmly believe my bosses during the first 3 years or so simply took pity on me.
  2. Over the first 5 years or so, the company I worked at went through several mergers and re-organizations, and I had about 6 bosses over that time, so no one ever had the chance to appreciate my incompetence and apathy.
  3. At some point my bosses realized I was the only person in the office who could write a Visual Basic script, and I had a shadow career creating toolbars and widgets . At one point, despite this having nothing to do with my actual job description, I probably spent 75% of my time doing this.
  4. By the time I was forced to actually focus on the core work my job demanded, I’d had a decade to more or less memorize the basic shortcuts, which meant that as long as the other people I worked with were competent, I could fake it.

Eventually, of course, the whole house of cards collapsed. Looking back, I’m impressed that I was able to fake it for as long as I did, and I have to say that making a living doing something I’m actually good at is an incredible feeling. Some people have been feeling this their whole lives! That seems incredible, but it’s true.

What’s the moral of this story? Sometimes that creeping feeling that you’re not very good at something isn’t Impostor Syndrome, it’s reality knocking on your door. Of course, I was lucky that my incompetence applies to something I didn’t want to do in the first place, and that sheer luck or the power of my charm (which is potent) kept me employed.

Or possibly the moral of the story is that if you work hard enough you can in fact earn a living without wearing pants.

Breakin’ the Law (in D&D)

FRIENDS, I have never claimed to be cool. I was a portly kid with thick glasses, and so I was doomed to be the mascot of every class (spiced with occasional good old-fashioned bullying) until I hit college, when somehow my combination of sarcasm, bad hair, and even thicker glasses alchemically made me, if not cool, at least not uncool. Still, despite my chronic uncoolness at every stop along my journey through life I’ve managed to do two things: Have a lot of fun and toss all the rulebooks out the window.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that I’m some sort of brilliant iconoclast or rebel. Far from it; I’m the sort of guy who gets mildly upset if I don’t get my coffee at the same exact time every day, because what this world needs is MORE ORDER; in other words, I love following rules in general. But I am that classic jackass who looks at a book of rules and thinks, jeez, that’s a lot to read and so I don’t read them and I just sort of wing it and make shit up as I go. This is why all my Ikea furniture looks like torture devices from Isengard, and why I spent six years lost in Canada, refusing to read a map. Yes, I’m that jackass.

A Level 35 Demigod

12-year Old Jeff Said HOLY CRAP ITS GOT A DRAGON ON IT, DUNNIT!

Back in my grammar school days I played a bit of Dungeons & Dragons, although I’ll admit I only glanced at the rules. I probably read the Basic Module, or mostly read it, but as we got deeper and deeper in I could never be bothered to read the more advanced rules. D&D had a pretty neat system there, starting off simple and then adding in layers of complexity, but this seemed an awful lot like work, so my friends and I just sort of absorbed the basic concept and then set about just making up whatever we wanted.

Since we were nearing full-on puberty, there were a number of pornographic adventures involving lots of lusty barmaids, witches, and female monsters. Things got … weird. After things got weird, we went full-on acquisitive; the rules for D&D were painfully slow. You started off with nothing, a Level One Thief or Elf or what have you, and you were supposed to slowly make your way through adventures where you would slowly gain experience and level up and slowly discover magic items that would augment your abilities and slowly, slowly, slowly.

One advantage to not reading any rules was the ease with which you could simply decide fuck that, let’s become demigods. So we did.

Acting as Dungeon Masters, we created adventures specifically designed to level up our characters as quickly as possible. We awarded experience points like candy, we littered the adventure with spectacular items gleamed from the Dungeon Master’s Handbook from the Advanced version of the game, and by the end of it we had characters who could basically do anything.

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty

Of course, the game was ruined. Once you have a demigod for a character all you can do is pit them against each other, rolling the dice to see whose obscure and ultra-powerful spell would shatter whose ancient magical shield. That didn’t matter, for me it was a teachable moment, because I realized something very important about myself: I love stats.

Statistics were why I got interested in D&D in the first place (that and the aforementioned pornographic possibilities of role-playing games), just like stats lured me into baseball fandom. The neat rows of numbers, all meaning something, all representing abilities and achievements—I loved them like children. I could calculate an ERA in my head and I instinctively knew the odds of my fireball spell working, and more than anything else I loved the back of a baseball card where a player’s stats were listed and I loved my D&D character sheets where their stats were all laid out.

The same kids who I played D&D with also played in a computer baseball league with me on our Commodore 64s. Microleague Baseball was a marvel; it ran on stats. It came with pre-compiled teams, but you could enter your own and then manage the team in real time. We played entire seasons, made trades, had playoffs and championships. And it was half numbers, half strategy, and not so different from D&D in some ways, although we didn’t cheat much in Microleague. We cheated a little, of course, but not much.

To this day, I don’t read the manual or work too hard to understand the rules. This is why many video games enrage me and also why the washing machine turns on when I play the radio—who has time to pay attention to electrical codes or wiring diagrams?

Writin’ Ain’t Easy

I’m sitting here on a Saturday evening with a glass of Michter’s American whiskey, a cat, and my keyboard. It’s hot and humid, and I’m sweating like a pig, but it’s okay, because it’s been cold for so long I’m kind of into sweating right now.

It’s been a decent writing day, but of course it wasn’t all personal work and fiction. I spent a bit of time looking for new freelance work and touching various freelance projects I’ve got spinning. Not a lot, I’m not saying my life is hard in any way, but one thing they sure don’t tell you when you tear off your shirt in a restaurant and shout YOU PEOPLE HAVE HELD ME BACK LONG ENOUGH, I’M GOING TO BECOME A FULL-TIME WRITER is that the phrase “full time” means fucking full time.

As In 24/7

Writing for a living can be exhausting. The fiction is fun. The fiction is me taking my ideas and putting them into coherent form and seeing a world emerge where there was only blank paper or white pixels. The freelance, which pays a big part of the bills, is a different story.

You pretty much have to be an idea machine when you write freelance. While a few of my editors do send me assignments, if I relied on assignments being sent to me passively I’d make about $100 a month. Which, as I discovered in my first, extremely painful year of freelancing, isn’t enough to live on. So you have to constantly send out new ideas, and then you have to badger people to get to you with a yea or nay on those ideas. And then when you get 3 acceptances out of six ideas, you have to start thinking of six more ideas to send.

And you write more or less every day. I’ve tried making weekends into My Time, I’ve tried designated Wednesdays as Jeff Writes Fiction Day, Yahoo and both have worked for short periods of time, but freelance writing creeps in. Someone can only be interviewed on a certain day, or you got day drunk on Friday and so forgot to look for new work, so you have to carve out some time on Saturday to do it. Or, simply put, your earnings on the month are on the soft side, and you need to find a few hundred bucks’ worth of work before the week is out.

So, you find yourself working at odd hours and when you should be napping. It’s offset by the aforementioned day drinking, the occasional afternoon movie, the ability to go hang out with friends and then work at 2AM to make up for it, and, sometimes, the ability to trade a few hundred dollars in exchange for doing absolutely nothing, because no boss can loom over your desk and ask why you’re playing video games.

But damn, it’s exhausting sometimes.