Agatha

I was one of the few who really enjoyed Wandavision and was looking forward to the follow-on with Agatha Harkness, but it’s been so long in the offing that I approached the trailer with little enthusiasm. A lot of water has gone under the Marvel bridge since that weird, offbeat show debuted — looking it up, holy shit — THREE years ago.

I have stopped caring about Marvel and Star Wars in that time. One bad show/movie after another made sure of that. But there must have been a little bit of intrigue left in the base of my brain, enough at least to get me to click on the link to the trailer and I have to say, I’m in.

Trailers can be deceiving, but it looks like it’s going to be fun, funny, and frightening, the three spices that make any cinematic salsa better.

Dropping at Halloween is a nice touch, too.

And another favorite thing is coming our way, as well: a Time Bandits remake. Yeah, I thought the same thing when I heard. Why remake a perfect movie? I have great memories of watching the original on its first run in a theater in Austin way back in 1981. It opened my mind up a little bit about how weird a story could get without losing the audience as long everything made sense within the world you’d created.

I didn’t even know who Terry Gilliam was at the time. Five years later I would discover him when I watched Brazil in the middle of deep, hallucinatory nicotine withdrawal.

But! This one looks good and if anyone could remake a Gilliam movie it’s Taika Waititi. Also, much love for Lisa Kudrow, my favorite friend.

Structure

I got my horror novel back from the editor. It comes with a lot of good news (there’s nothing wrong with my writing, I have a definite style, my characterizations are solid, dialogue is on target, and storytelling is compelling) and a suggestion on how to fix the one thing that’s wrong with it: story structure. As individuals, we may prefer not to believe in things like the four act structure but, as the editor commented, we actually crave it. Surprise me, yes, but do so in a form I can comprehend.

I understand this very well through the revulsion I feel for wandering, slice-of-life films from directors like Robert Altman and Jim Jaramusch. Now, before anyone gets mad at me, that’s my reaction to those films not an objective judgment. At the end of Nashville or Broken Flowers, I scratch my head and wonder why I invested all that time and money for a story with no payoff.

Also, I was well aware I had structural problems with this book which is why I paid the editor to help me smooth them out. You see, the way it was written, it would have been a perfect project for Altman or Jaramusch.

The key takeaway was that it doesn’t appear to be any one character’s story. My first defensive thought was to bring up The Stand by Stephen King which appears to be the story of a whole bunch of diverse characters. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, no, it’s Stu Redman’s story. And if you stretch it a bit, it could even be the love story between Stu and Franny.

The book is also too long. The original draft came in at 150,000 words, very much a Stephen King sized tome. But you don’t get permission to publish a book that long until after you’ve achieved his status. Extra length is often a sign of amateurishness because coming up with the idea isn’t the hard part, and writing the book isn’t the hard part, rewriting the book is the hard part.

For instance, I need to cut 35,000 words from this story. That’s close to 20% of the total. I’ve been banging my head against a wall for a year trying to figure out how to cut that much without making the story unreadable. Deciding whose story it is opened the way for those cuts because it reduces the burden of the other characters to carry the story. When you have two primary characters (or in my case four) each one has to act like a primary character and that takes words, lots of words. When they get demoted to supporting character, that burden is lifted.

The other part of “structure” is the ending. One thing that hits me wrong about Altman and Jaramusch films is the way that they just tend to stop. Some people love this and that’s fine, but it’s not for me and it’s not the kind of story I feel comfortable telling. Unfortunately, that was exactly the kind of ending I had come up with for this book.

Part of that was thinking ahead to the next book in the series. That’s a big mistake. Focus on getting book one published or there will never be a need for book two. The other part of the problem goes back to that central question: whose story is this?

Now that I’ve answered that question, I know how a satisfying ending would look and I can now work toward that in the rewrite.

Acting is reacting. Writing is rewriting. It’s the hard work that often goes unremarked upon that makes the shiny product everyone loves in the end.

Experiment Day 1

I’ve decided to try fermenting vegetables to add more power to my salads. This is the experiment, jalapenos and cucumbers, day one.

To be clear, this is an experiment because I have no idea what I’m doing except what I learned on YouTube which is a hilariously dangerous path to chart.

The Rabbit Hole

Anyone who knows me (and how my brain works) would expect that I’ve been a longtime YouTube user but they would be wrong. I have assiduously avoided that site for two reasons, the horrifically awful user experience and the well known 3CTN rule. What’s that? You haven’t heard of the Three Clicks To Nazis rule of YouTube? Then I’m guessing you’ve stumbled onto quite a few videos by someone with a swastika face tattoo.

It’s called 3CTN because the algorithm quite often provides you with a brain damaging recommendation after you’ve watched three to four videos. These can be of the unhinged conspiracy variety or the aforementioned swastika face type, or even one that refers to the majority of American voters as “Demoncrats.”

And the purveyors of this nonsense have gotten more clever over the years. The videos start with something reasonable and then about ten minutes in they swerve hard into the weeds. I accidentally watched one recently that started out talking rationally about nutrition and then sprang “EMF sensitivity” on me. Rather than cover myself in Reynolds Wrap, I decided to bail on the video. I later found an actual scientist, a medical doctor and nutrition researcher, who provided a specific fact check for that video. It turns out the “nutrition expert doctor” was a chiropractor.

So how did I end up spending so much time on this awful but, as it turns out, helpful site? Last October, I had a come to Jesus moment about my digestive problems, problems that had been so bad that in 2016 my doctor sent me for an MRI, CAT scan, and numerous other more intrusive tests only to pronounce me problem free. It turns out medical doctors spend all of six hours on nutrition in school.

I was googling my symptoms when a video came back in the results that looked intriguing. Normally, I would have ignored it, but this was a speech before the London Royal Institute. No chiropractors there. So I watched the whole thing and then watched it again four more times. From everything this research scientist said, it became clear my problem was a destroyed gut microbiome. Years of antibiotics and a brown diet had allowed the really good bugs in my system to recede into insignificance and the bad bugs, the ones who cause depression and make you crave shitty fast food, had taken over completely.

The reason all this started last October was I was about to fly across country to attend a wedding. I was trying on my suits to see which one I would wear when I found I couldn’t get them on. Now the really disturbing thing about this was, I had just bought these suits a few years before because I was too fat for my previous suits. I couldn’t fit into my fat suits.

I weighed in at 225 that night. Thirty-five pounds above the top recommended weight for my height. Eight months later, I’ve just broken the 200 barrier. This morning I weighed in at 199. That’s twenty-five pounds in 3/4 of a year or less than a pound a week without dieting or macro counting or giving up bread or eating only fat three days a week or anything else extreme. And the buried lede here is that I’m still on this “diet” eight months later. I have never made it more than two months in the past.

And this is all because YouTube was there serving me up video after video of real hard science about nutrition and how it affects the gut. Along with “9/11 was an inside job”, “White Genocide”, and “Aliens live among us.” It’s a very libertarian site. There are no guard rails so it’s up to you to be careful and to always crosscheck with a second opinion from a trusted source to make sure that really was a chupacabra in your back yard last night.

Since then I’ve veered off into “Walkable Cities” as I mentioned in a previous post, The Hot Ones challenge (I now own the middle five spices for this years lineup including Da Bomb Beyond Insanity), and so many cooking shows. Part of my recovery has been to cook for myself instead of eating out all the time. Probably my favorite deep dive was into burger making with a man named George Motz who travels around the country trying all the regional burgers, learns out to cook them, and then presents them on The Burger Show YouTube channel in the “Burger Scholar” sessions. Here’s a link:

I’ve now made several of his burgers, most importantly the Oklahoma Onion Smash Burger which may be the best the burger of them all. Wait. How do I lose weight eating burgers?

Well, okay, I should probably explain this further. I get two meals a day. First meal can be anything I want, though I do try to do as healthy as possible and make the amount reasonable. No double burgers with extra cheese, for instance. The second meal revolves around a salad with as many plants as I can manage. For protein, I add sardines or a couple of chicken nuggets drenched in hot sauce. Then I don’t eat again until the next day. So I have a natural 16 hour fast nearly every day.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. When you pay attention to what you eat, you naturally eat better
  2. Cook your own food. The pandemic was a real gift in this aspect. We stopped going out so much and started making stuff at home instead. When you make it yourself, you control portion size and ingredients. You probably don’t have polysorbitatemonosagittariusglutenol in your pantry but don’t worry, good, fresh food doesn’t need it.
  3. You can eat “bad” foods if you eat high quality and not all the time
  4. Instead of removing things from your diet, at first, add things that are good for you. Then gradually push out the bad stuff as you replace it with good stuff.
  5. Don’t eat things you don’t enjoy. For instance, I’m not a big fan of salads so I put all kinds of stuff in there and then drench it with Blue Cheese or Caesar dressing. Adding hot wings makes me crave the creamy salad after every bite.
  6. Eat as many different plants as you can manage. Try to consume 30 different plants a week. It’s not possible as far as I can tell unless you’re a vegetarian. My best is 15. But those fifteen plants have done more to rehab my gut than I can convey here.
  7. Fermented foods whenever possible. I drink Kefir in the morning and Kombucha in the afternoon. They taste good and they’re far more powerful probiotics than yogurt. I only eat naturally leavened sourdough bread and my new YouTube inspired hobby is fermenting jalapenos to add to salads.

And that’s it. You won’t get a huge drop in weight immediately, but it only takes about two weeks to start feeling better. My IBS disappeared about three months in. And since your gut biome is responsible for making the pyschotropic chemicals that control your mood, you’ll also be happier. At 3/4lb per week it does take a while to notice changes in the mirror, but since you’re not suffering on this “diet” you don’t feel aggrieved, either.

As always, your mileage may vary.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my plan to remove all the cars from Austin so I can move back there.

Car Guy

I lived outside of town in high school so the day I got my driver’s license was the day I found my freedom. No longer forced to associate with the mouth breathers who happened to be geographically colocated near me, I branched out to expand my social circle and forever branded into my brain the idea that car ownership equaled freedom.

I spent the next ten years driving all over the country. I moved like the Devil was chasing me. From Virginia to North Carolina to Texas to California to New Orleans and back again, I became the “just throw your shit in the back and get moving” guy.

It wasn’t until I began commuting for work that my disenchantment with driving started to blossom. My first thought was, “Wow, they need more lanes. Why don’t they keep up with the traffic demands?” I also developed an unlovely attitude toward cyclists. And people with old cars that broke down and caused traffic. And bad drivers who caused traffic. And basically anyone in front of me. But in my defense, I was perfectly fine with anyone who was behind me as long as they weren’t trying to overtake.

Then they built more lanes and the problem just got worse. After that, they built even more lanes and that solved the problem 100% for about six months. Then I decided the problem was just too many people on the planet (which is true but is not the cause of traffic).

Even though I had lived and traveled widely in Europe where a car is often optional, I never quite put it together that the problem with traffic is the cars.

Then I saw a YouTube video in my feed that was called, “Why I Hate Houston.” Being from Austin, hating Houston isn’t just my hobby, it’s my passion. So I jumped right in only to find out the video was actually about the narrator’s attempt to walk two blocks from his hotel to a store. It was a risky and uncomfortable venture that sometimes turned dangerous because there were no trees and at one point no sidewalks.

As Americans we’re all used to this, but seeing it from an outsider’s point of view opened my eyes. You’re walking around in Texas with no shade, right next to a high speed stroad* that stinks of exhaust and every destination lies across a sea of hot asphalt. This is not the promised land, friends.

We all hate Houston, but this specific reason will open your eyes to why also hate all other American cities.

Watching this, I remembered the little Italian town where I had once lived. I used my car to leave and return to Carovigno. While in town, I walked everywhere. When we visited Germany, we left our cars in the hotel garage and took public transportation or taxis. In Rome, we went everywhere on scooters.

I fell down the Not Just Bikes rabbit hole on YouTube and then branched out to the general topics of “Walkable Cities” and urban planning. The reason he calls his channel “Not Just Bikes” is because he’s not an avid cyclist. He just wants to be able to get around without a car. His last resort is a bike. As mine would be.

The other terrifying thing that becomes clear as you dive into this subject is how expensive it is to be car dependent. It reminded me of times when things were tight how I would wish I didn’t have a car payment and gasoline and repairs and maintenance constantly hanging over my head.

The average cost of car ownership in Texas is around $6,000 per year. That’s $500/mo. Or 70 hours of minimum wage work. And that doesn’t include the taxes spent on building all those jam packed, traffic inducing lanes.

By the end of this journey of discovery I realized the whole car culture thing isn’t about freedom. The car is an anchor tied around your waist. It’s the universal burden. And, worst of all, it’s a scam perpetrated by car companies and tire manufacturers who bought up all the trolley lines and shut them down to be replaced with stroads so you’d be forced to buy their products.

Oh, no! Not the bus! It takes so long! Yes, it takes so long because the bus is stuck in the same traffic as the cars. Where car traffic is limited bus speeds triple. Add trolleys for local transportation, a metro for cross-city trips, and a high speed rail system for intercity travel and not only do you not need a car, you don’t need to strap your ass into a creaky Boeing 737 built out of 100% corporate greed.

And once you’ve reduced traffic by allowing all the people who don’t want a car to escape the trap, the people who need or desire to drive will have a much better time of it. Doubt me? It’s happening in Holland right now.

This is the future we could have. There are solutions. We know what to do and how to do it. Unfortunately, there are some greedy giants standing in the way and they own most of our government so you won’t be seeing many positive changes anytime soon.

*A street is a low travel with restricted auto traffic that opens directly onto businesses and should be clear of automobile traffic or at the very least cars should be heavily restricted. Think of a walkable place like a European village. A road, on the other hand is for through traffic. Ideally, you should have to exit the road onto a street, but in America we just combine the two into a “stroad”. It’s stupid, expensive and a nightmare for traffic.

Baseline

I realized as I was updating my About Me section on this derelict website that I started this to keep track of my serious, hellbent-for-leather attempt to get a foothold in genre publishing. So, let’s start with where we were and then move on to where we are in that effort.

I began this drive over twenty years ago, but I had to overcome some serious hurdles to get to where I am today. The most prominent of which was how much I preferred writing to submitting my work. I love writing. I know some people say they love having written, but I actually love the process of writing. Add a strong distaste for rejection and you end up with a destructive cycle where I would write a book, submit it to twenty agents, all of whom would pass, and I would just start a new novel. As a result, I ended up with way too much product and no sales.

This year I came across tweet that mentioned an agent was starting a club for writers whose novel had collected 100 passes. I didn’t even know there were a hundred agents. Now with a better understanding of how the market has changed since 1979 when I got my first publishing contract, I decided this year I would submit my work to all the agents in all the countries. No more new work until I get a yes.

I had to modify that rule because I really do love writing and I had a great idea for a grisly horror novel that just couldn’t wait. Now I have to buy writing time with submissions. If I can get a submission out during the day, then I get my full writing time otherwise I have to make a submission before I start typing.

I have two novels completed, rewritten, polished, and sent to editors; one fantasy and one horror. The fantasy novel is back from editing with glowing reviews and I have started the submittal process. So far, I have around 70 passes — some of which were “good but not for me” and the rest automated responses of no value.

The horror novel is currently with a developmental editor, a NY Times best selling author, whose comments are due next week. Once I make the recommended changes (that I agree with) I will begin the same arduous journey with that one.

More updates as things happen.

Walking Backwards

I was having breakfast at our local diner (or is it a cafe? What is the difference? Okay, I’ll look it up later) when I noticed one family at a large table nearby had brought their son, a grown man with headphones on who was nonvocal and repeatedly stamped his feet on the floor in random bursts of nervous energy. Seeing this made me realize I had forgotten to put the emphasis on “high functioning” in regards to my Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis.

It’s a wide spectrum, folks. On one end are people like me who have spent their lives making adaptations so they can be successful round pegs in a world of square holes. That young man is at the other end. Which is why I try not to say, “I’m autistic.” I don’t think that communicates the situation correctly. “I’m on the spectrum with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs” is better.

But there’s also a bit of survivor bias in that (as there is with most things). I don’t know what the success rate is for people on the spectrum. That may not even be a known value even if you define “success” as being able to maintain relationships and support yourself because we’re just now starting to see more diagnoses like this as the stigma recedes to just that one part of the population that never yields their ignorance.

I’m writing this because I want to make it clear I’m not claiming a disability. The way this syndrome (I hate calling it a disorder in my case) manifests itself in me is with creativity, problem solving, an exacting sense of correctness, and a need to be doing three things at once to use up all of my attention so I’m not distracted. There were more downsides early on. Narcissism, intense self-interest, lack of object permanence where other people were concerned, depression, self-medication, destructive behavior. But it would be stretch to blame all of that entirely on the spectrum. Teenagers and twenty-somethings are all pretty much self-destructive narcissists to some degree. Or they’re not doing it right.

Anyway, now that I’ve cleared that up, this is the last I plan to talk about this subject as I would prefer to discuss the books and movies I’m enjoying lately. After all, we are living in a golden age of horror stories (although sometimes it feels like normies are invading my niche).

P.S. – It’s a diner even though they call it a cafe. Diners have full meals and waitstaff, cafes have light meals and no waitstaff. Since a server will bring me a chicken fried steak with an over easy egg on it, my place is a diner.

No, You’re Stupid

Most people will recognize the picture above as Ashton Kutcher, an actor most famous for dating a child, marrying his mother, marrying the child once she was of age, and defending a convicted rapist as being a really good person. This statement from him, you’ll also recognize as the usual AI bullshit.

My initial reaction to this was a version of the title of this post: Another stupid person said something stupid about stupid AI. But the truth is, his timing may not be accurate, but his point is valid. If you had told 1990s Hollywood stuntmen that computer graphics would be replacing them in thirty years, they would have scoffed — and rightly so. At the time, CG was far too expensive and low quality to be a threat.

We also have reason to doubt AI because this propaganda is arriving because a lot of people have invested an embarrassingly large amount of their greedy ill-gotten gains into AI and they’re desperate for it to show some kind of return. But that’s really just the reason they’re pushing AI as a solution prematurely. Yes, it’s not ready now. But it will be ready in the near future.

And I don’t think it will be an entirely bad thing.

As someone who has wanted to make a short film for the last fifteen years but doesn’t have access to the human resources required. How many people know the camera operator, sound person, lighting technicians, and actors required to make even a five minute film? Not to mention the sets, costumes, props, and special effects.

Being able to write a script and run it through an AI production process is an extremely attractive idea. Not for the final product, which I know would be substandard to the real thing, but to use as a calling card to get professionals involved in creating the real thing.

What’s scary about Kutcher’s comment is how easy it is to skim over his most important point: We have to raise the bar.

Because the corpse grinding capitalists that own Hollywood are only going to read the first part and what they’ll take away from it is this: Hey, guys, we don’t need writers, actors, directors or any of those other pain in the ass ‘creatives’. We can just tell AI the movie we want and make a billion dollars!

If you’ve ever watched a movie from The Asylum studios, you know the exact level of quality we’re going to get when producers got full AI:

That Explains A Lot

I want a t-shirt that says, “I’m neurodivergent, on the spectrum, with ADHD, give me a break.” Because the people who are astonished by our “brilliance” — Where did you come up with that idea? — are also frustrated by our “quirks” — You just started a conversation in the middle, go back to the beginning.

So, what’s it like to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD in late middle age? It’s pretty good, actually. Because it really does explain so much. And so now when I look back on things I was made to feel shame for, I can understand that I wasn’t lazy or a silly heart or unfocused, my brain was just working in the way it was programmed to work.

Yes, you sent me to the corner store for bread and I came back with milk, but in my defense, I dreamed up several exciting stories on the way there and several more on the way back. I also had a conversation with God and took some time to be embarrassed about something I had said to a girl in math class. I was busy. How was I supposed to remember what you asked me to do?

I wasn’t lazy. Your work was boring. I wasn’t unfocused. Your class was moving too slow for me. But I was and am, most definitely, a daydreamer. I can’t imagine living without daydreams. Are there people out there who don’t daydream when forced into a boring situation? If so, I feel sorry for them.

Here are some of the questions this diagnosis answered for me:

Why do I treasure movies that most other people haven’t liked on release, movies that became popular much later? Why am I always on the hunt for a nugget that will blow my mind? Why do I curate offbeat entertainment for others? Why do I find boredom physically painful? Why do I dive into something, get a feel for it, and then abandon it as done? Why, of all things, did storytelling stay interesting to me?

I just got this diagnosis yesterday so I’m still working through my understanding of it, but I will say that I wasn’t a classic nonverbal child. I was hyperverbal. Making eye contact is uncomfortable for me, but I think it’s that way for a lot of people who aren’t on the spectrum. I’m not saying I remain unconvinced, there’s too much other evidence to deny, but I am still understanding which parts of my weird childhood and weirder adulthood are due to ASD and which are due to ADHD.

I’ll keep reporting my progress here, but the most important point I want to make is this isn’t a bad thing. When they say I’m “neurodivergent” they’re really saying I wasn’t made for industrial society.

And I’m fine with that.

5 or 7?

On the 20th anniversary of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer finale, I find myself returning to a central question about that series that I’ve come back around to every now and then since.

Was the season 5 finale better than the one in season 7?

First, let’s sum up the differences. Season 5 ended with Buffy sacrificing her life to save her sister and the world. “It just wants Summers blood,” she says to Dawn before leaping into a hell portal opening in the air next to a trash tower (a sentence one can only say with a straight face if one is into genre fiction).

And then that was it. At least for a few months that summer we didn’t know if Buffy was going to come back. The WB had cooled on their once prized show. Eventually, the production company signed a deal for two more seasons on the struggling UPN — which everyone knows was an acronym for “Uh…Paramount has a Network?”

At the end of season 7, Buffy and Willow activate the potential slayers around the world like vampire staking sleeper cells in their fight to defeat the first evil. After their victory, Buffy smiles enigmatically into a future where she well never again fight alone, but as one of many.

Originally, I thought the obvious choice for better finale was season 7 for the simple reason that we got two more seasons, one pretty good and the other extremely good.

But after a couple of decades of seeing this story on repeat in dozens, if not hundreds, of other books, films, and shows, I’ve grown extremely weary of chosen one stories. And that weariness has changed my mind about which finale I prefer.

Because, even though season 7 relieves Buffy of her mantle as Chosen One, those extra two seasons commit a story foul that has become more and more grating to me: The negation of a profound sacrifice.

Bringing Buffy back from the dead was the first time I noticed the after effect of this kind of thing, so at the time, I was just glad to see her again. I didn’t even stop to think that the most intensely emotional act on television I’d ever seen had just been yoinked back like a bad animaniacs punchline.

Since then, we’ve seen this crime committed repeatedly in genre entertainment. Star Trek is probably the worst perpetrator, often not even waiting for another season to undo a character’s powerful sacrifice. But Star Wars also has its ridiculous Force Ghosts and, more recently, the idea that Boba Fett could just climb out of a Sarlacc pit.

I guess this unhallowed tradition goes back to comic books killing off Superman and Batman every so often only to have them show up again with a reboot, retcon, or ridiculous off screen escape. Maybe it goes back further to the movie serials so beloved by Lucas and Spielberg, but I never noticed it before because I was never that emotionally involved.

When Spock gave his life to “sacrifice the few for the many,” I got seriously choked up, but Star Trek was pastime to me, not a religion. So when we started seeing articles pop up in EW a year later implying the next movie in the franchise would bring him back, I was fine with it. I liked Spock. Why not have more Spock?

It wasn’t until later when this kind of thing started happening with alarming frequency that I realized bringing him back negated the sacrifice he made. It literally undoes the most important moment in that film.

I can’t help but think most of this is driven by financial concerns. Killing off a beloved character can damage the fanbase. And we can’t have that, not until every last dollar has been drained from the corpse.

So, nowadays, I lean more toward the fifth season ending. If Buffy had ended on a sacrifice, freeing herself from the burden of being “the one” though her own action, and leaving the audience emotionally bereft, it would have been one for the ages. One that would probably never be repeated.