A sharp knock on my door, seconds before it opened. The assistant director poked his head into my dressing room and told me they were ready for me on the stage.
I closed my book. “Here I go!”
We walked into the stage together, and I continued on into the set where we were rehearsing this particular scene. Kaley and Johnny were already on there when I sat down next to them.
“You should never take that hat off,” Johnny said to me.
I looked at him to see if he was being sincere, or giving me the business. Before I could figure out which one it was, he said, “it looks really good on you.”
I smiled. “You are one of my fashion heroes, so that really means a lot to me.”
Inside, I secretly felt cool for almost three whole seconds.
“I mean it,” he said.
“Thank you. That was very kind.”
Kaley dramatically put her script down. “WOULD YOU TWO GET A ROOM ALREADY?!”
I gave Johnny a sly look that he did not return. “Do you want to just sit on that couch together?” I asked.
We all laughed together, and the director called for quiet.
We ran the scene, and I killed a joke*. We ran it a second time, and I nailed the beats I needed to nail. I felt calm and focused and — for the first time I think, ever, since I started working on the show — like I really and truly deserved to be there. I’m not gonna lie to you, Marge: it felt really good.
I thanked the director for the notes he gave me, and returned to my dressing room where I waited to be called back to the stage, to bring Evil Wil Wheaton (who is decidedly less evil than he used to be) back to life.
Later, I saw Melissa and Kaley waiting to run one of their scenes. “Let’s take a picture for the Internet,” I said.
“I really like that hat on you,” Melissa said.
“Thanks,” I said, “I was just lazy this morning and didn’t want to do my hair, because it’s just a tiny bit too long and I can’t get it to behave. But I’m getting compliments, which is pretty awesome.”
I held out my camera, and we took a silly picture that I put on Twitter.
The writers all came into the stage, and we ran the entire episode for them. Everyone laughed really hard in all the right places, and it’s pretty clear that this episode works. I can’t wait for the audience to see it on Tuesday, and I am so grateful that I get to be part of this wonderful experience.
*Note that this means I wrecked the joke, because I delivered the line poorly. This can be confusing to normal people who hear us talk about comedy, because when a joke works, we say that the joke “killed”. So: killing a joke is bad, but making a joke that kills is good.
Comedians are obsessed with death, I guess, or at least dying on stage.
The second song on the Kill Bill Volume 1 soundtrack is a fantastic rockabilly number called That Certain Female. It has this great thick guitar riff with a lot of echo and delay and, for me, it conjures up images of Route 66 under a new moon, windows down and radio blaring as a ’58 Chevy puts miles between its mysterious driver and Chicago as fast as he can lay them down.
This music fills the dark and bug-spattered spaces between Amarillo and Tucumcari, staccato white lines flashing by in the headlights, the smell of exhaust and old tobacco swirling with dust.
Is he running toward something or away from something? Or is it a she behind the wheel? What’s in the trunk? What’s in the backseat? When we see the driver’s eyes in the rear view mirror, briefly lit by the glowing cherry of a cigarette, are they determined? Resigned? Afraid? Tear-stained? Vengeful?
Maybe they are all these things.
The road goes on.
So the JoCoCruiseCrazy IV was amazing. I have many feelings and memories and pictures to share, but I’m in this sad little bag of post-cruise ennui, and until I can get past it, here’s a video that the amazing Molly Lewis shot on the cruise.
This is both a plug and a confession. Wil Wheaton is back on dry land, so I’ll make this quick. I’m terrible at interviews.
Almost ten years ago, at the foot of an unfinished Atlanta high-rise, I interviewed architect Turan Duda for Atlanta magazine. My assignment was for a one-page spotlight on creative people doing exciting work in the ATL — one page including a picture of the skyscraper. So it was more like one column of text.
I kept Mr. Duda trapped in that interview for an hour.
We talked about spatial design, about his history and his vision, about Atlanta in general. It was a good talk for the first 35-45 minutes, before I realized how long we’d been talking. Before I realized, I didn’t know how to end an interview. (Spoiler: It’s easy. End it like a conversation, maybe.)
Mr. Duda was very generous, obliging, and impressive to this newbie interviewer. I learned a lot that day about architecture and interviews … and almost none of it helps me when I’m interviewed myself.
Interviews with me make me nervous, whether they’re in person or in text. I’ve done a few interviews lately for my new tabletop RPG, Dark. (The Kickstarter ends today!) I talked online with the Misdirected Mark podcast and I was interviewed via email for this piece at The Escapist. I ramble and I talk too fast and I’m concerned that I’ll say something — something insipid or casual or thoughtless — that will undo or overshadow a work that I’ve spent a long time crafting.
John Updike once put it like this to Terry Gross:
Once you’ve put yourself on record in an interview, and you’re sort of thinking fast and saying the first thing that pops into your mind, basically, anything to fill up the air time or the reporter’s time, it’s a little disconcerting, when you’re younger than I, to realize that these remarks which you toss off, once they’re in print, have an equal weight with all the words that you’ve labored to polish and make come out exactly right.
Part of it, for me at least, is my Impostor Syndrome. Why should anyone be listening to what I think, right? Who the hell am I?
Here’s what helped me out: the live-lit storytelling scene. I co-produce a show in the Story Club series and we have an open-mic component to our events. It’s never been wasted. Everyone has stories to tell — I’ve known that for a long time — and I think everyone should get a chance at a mic to talk about their passions, their projects, their past, and their plans. Some of these mics are mics, some of them are blogs, some of them are Twitter, some of them are cameras — whatever.
If you get the chance to tell your stories, take the chance. And if you get a chance to interview someone, to help them tell their stories, try it out. Ask your friends friendly questions. When you meet people, politely ask about them. Let’s get more stories told, more perspectives shared, and more voices at the mic.
It’s like what Wil did this week. He invited people to speak in his absence. He shared stories he might not have been able to tell on his own. Thank you, Wil.
Speaking of which, he’ll be back any minute and I’ve got to clean up. Think he’ll notice if I use his 3D printer to replace all the beer we drank?
Ryan Wheaton is an aspiring fiction writer and graphic novelist. He’s been trying to grow a beard too. So there’s that.
(This piece was written in response to a prompt “about a lost balloon.” Part one appears here.)
“Fiona, please,” her mother said. “We’re already late and we don’t want to upset your Grandf—,” a trumpet cracked over an unseen intercom.
“Well, would you look at that,” a voice called out. “My, my, my, my, MY what a beautiful girl. You’ve grown up quite a bit my little Potato.” Fiona’s eyes widened in utter confusion.
“Honey, look up there,” her mother crouched down and pointed at a factory window. A dusted silhouette of a man waved frantically.
“My word, you’re even more majestic than I remembered. Please, please, come in, come in.” The trumpet sounded once more as the man disappeared from the window. Not a second later, a small hatchway swung out from the middle of the monstrous steel doors. Fiona stepped back as her mother dropped her hand and rushed forward. A balsa-framed man shuffled under the half-sized door frame and popped upright.
“Hello, hello, hellOOO,” he said, spinning in place.
“Oh, Grandfather. It’s been far too long,” Fiona’s mother said, bent halfway down, and embraced him. Her shoulder smashed into his nose and jostled his small spectacles.
“Oof,” he said.
Fiona hadn’t moved an inch forward and, in fact, had been slowly tip-toeing her way back to the car. She hoped that the displacement of her Grandfather’s glasses by her mother’s clumsy shoulders would allow her to flee beneath the cover of temporarily muddled vision.
“Fiona,” her mother said. “Fiona, get over here this second and give you Grandfather a hello and a hug.”
Fiona stopped mid-tip and set her toe back to the earth.
“Excuse me, young lady.” It was once her mother resorted to florid address that she knew any objection led only to public abjection. “Fiona Loreli Lawst, you turn right around, march over here, and give your Grandfather a hello and a hug immediately!”
Fiona grumbled before contorting her furrowed face into a plasticine smile.
“Hello Grandfather!” She curtsied before skipping toward him with a stomach full of molten disdain. Despite requiring a pink and purple step stool to reach most anything, Fiona’s Grandfather needn’t kneel nor crouch to greet her. Rather, he bent slightly at the waist and patted her head.
With his eyes squinted and a contented grin he said, “A happy hello to you, my sweet Potato.”
The blurred frantics of her mother’s hand signed, “hug hug hug!” Fiona begrudgingly leaned forward in the hopes this singular hug might suffice for any future expectations of expressed affection, but she groped only air. He had walked away.
“Come now, we have a few things to see, some things to do, and much, MUCH fun to be had. Now,” the double-steel doors howled on their hinges as he continued. “Now, I know it may not appear as ample in amusement on the outside,” his voice trailed a bit as he swung into a shadowed recess on the left wall. Fiona heard crunching gears and clacking buttons. Her mother stood beside her, clapping with anticipation. “… but, aren’t we taught never to,” he trailed off once more. Blue and red lights spun against the furthest wall while whistles and horns screeched and bonked. Her mother squeaked as she bounced in place barely able to keep herself contained. “… a book by her cover,” Grandfather bellowed. He cartwheeled out from behind his magic curtain cheering and dancing as the ceiling almost thirty feet above shattered into thousands of balloons that cascaded onto them in a kaleidoscopic hail storm. The stone wall they faced groaned as it began tottering and teetering. Fiona vaulted back as the immense slab slammed into the ground enveloping her in a cloud of soot and sand. Her mother wailed in delight. Tears sprinted from her eyes as she collapsed in ecstasy.
“It’s… it’s more wonderful, more exquisite than I recall,” her mother choked through tears. Her Grandfather rested his hand on her trembling shoulder. She whirled about, still on her knees, clasping his hand in both of hers.
“May — may I please,” she begged.
“Of course, my dear. There has never been a time you weren’t welcome to come back,” he beamed. She rose, still clutching his hand, “Thank you, oh thank you, Grandfather,” she stammered. “Fiona, Fiona, oh my sweet Fiona. You must come see. You must,” her mother’s eyes were shiny with hysteria.
“Go on, my dear. Fiona and I will only be a moment.” Grandfather removed a handkerchief from within his jacket and handed it to Fiona, “Here little Potato, wipe the dust from your eyes.” She gratefully took it and rubbed with ferocity. Through the cloudy sting and wobble of teardrops, her eyes refocused just as her mother vanished into the mass of dancing, flashing, laughing, singing, and spinning that had revealed itself. It was a golden-glazed paradise. It was in that moment Fiona understood that any prospect of happiness fate had attentively and thoughtfully laid out for the remainder of her life had been stomped out, extinguished, utterly ruined by comparison to the raw bliss that now ensnared her.
Her Grandfather rested his chin on her shoulder and whispered, “Breathtaking, isn’t it?”
Shane Nickerson is a father of three and a TV producer. He occasionally writes at Nickerblog.
At night, my dog slinks into the living room and jumps up on the couch with me. He’s a whippet mix that we adopted from a rescue fair in 2005. Max. He came with the name.
He’s a gentle dog, eternally happy that we saved him from a lonely life lived, abandoned and sleeping underneath parked cars in South Central Los Angeles. He showed no signs of abuse, but he was found with no tags and covered in dirt and oil stains. When we met him, we immediately liked him. My two year old ran up to him before we could stop her, and he licked her face gently. In the hectic hot sun of a park filled with excited dogs waiting for new humans to please take them home, he was panting and scattered; flitting back and forth on his leash, desperately trying to make sense of the unusual crowded mixture of people and animals around him. We struggled for a moment, still grieving the loss of our previous whippet mix, but his gentle spirit and perpetual smile won us over. After some discussion, we took home our new friend.
It’s become more difficult for him lately. He has arthritis in his right hind leg, and the boundless energy we used to curse has become a casualty of his age. He still gets after the squirrels every morning, but in the same way an old man tries to keep up with the grandkids. The desire is still there, but the pep is waning.
He liked me best, almost right away. We lived in a two bedroom rented beach cottage in the South Bay, and he’d lay with his head on my lap every night as I fell asleep watching TV in our tiny living room. The back yard was an exceptionally large one for Manhattan Beach, and there was nothing he loved more than chasing the tennis ball on a rope that I’d throw endlessly across the yard. When I ran out of energy, he’d stay outside and race around in the overgrown thicketed lot until panting exhaustion. A single abrasive bark was my cue to come let him back inside. It’s one of those barks that’s impossible to ignore. Grating. Unpleasant. It’s incredibly effective at getting me off of the couch.
These days, he goes outside to sniff the air and do a quick patrol around our much smaller yard in the Valley, but within a few minutes, he’s at the back door firing off that same annoying bark. Old man Max.
My kids want a puppy.
(All kids want a puppy.)
They put together a presentation for us on why we should get a brand new puppy. It was cute, but I had to pass on their proposal.
“Max is our dog,” I told them, “and if he could talk, he’d tell you he’s not interested in a new puppy roommate.”
“But puppies are so cute,” they persisted, “and Max is old and stinky!”
A fair point.
“We can talk about a puppy after Max dies,” I mistakenly told them.
“So we can get a puppy after he’s dead?” they asked eagerly.
“We can TALK about it,” I said.
“Yay! As soon as Max dies, we can get a puppy! As soon as Max dies, we can get a puppy!” they sang.
I’ve inadvertently made my children excited for the death of our family dog. Great work, me. Pretty glad Max can’t speak English.
He’s old and stinky, it’s true. But he’s the most loyal, gentle, patient dog I’ve ever lived with. He’s endured three children in all stages of their mayhem. He’s been colored on, had his hair pulled and eyes poked, had his tail yanked and ears gouged, and he’s never so much as nipped at them. He still sleeps with me on the couch for as long as he can endure the discomfort of his arthritic leg. When I come home from work, he’s still as excited as the first day we brought him home.
So yes, maybe someday we’ll get another dog.
But for now, this old stinky one is the only one we need.
When I was in grade school, we played outside at recess. Hilldale Elementary had a small playground and a forever-scape of dirt and grass that we turned into our warzones, dragon lairs, and Super Bowl gridirons. A dormant but deep sinkhole sat on the north edge near Highway EE, and that’s where I was headed when the lightning cut out of the clouds. It was one of those bolts that carried its thunderclap on its nose, and for the noise it made, a bomb might as well have dropped on my head. Instead, because I was a pre-teen doofus, I jumped in the air, pulled my knee to my face, and knocked my nose sideways. My nose is still crooked, and I still know lightning doesn’t have to strike on target to hurt like hell.
Something looked different about Linda.
It’s been more than a decade since she started handling my finances. We handle most things online. I see her this time every year to settle my business and personal taxes. When I went to her office yesterday, I was struck by a niggling suspicion that something was wrong. She’d stopped coloring her hair. She looked tired.
I was distracted, worried about how much I was going to have to pay, whether I could get in a run before dinner, and every other silly thing that goes along with life as an adult. She asked if my family was planning any big vacations for the year. I babbled about my finances, and then asked her what she trips had planned.
“We usually go somewhere after tax season, but I don’t think we can this year,” she said. She drifted off and looked at my returns on her dual monitors.
“Why not?” I said.
I heard the words leave my mouth just as my brain figured out what was different about Linda.
She had no breasts.
“Oh, Linda,” I said.
Three months ago, she went to the doctor for an ear infection. Something seemed off, and her doctor sent her to a cardiologist. That doctor found a mass, and together they elected for the surgery.
“Don’t go to the doctor for a ear infection,” she said with a half-smile, and then went back to working on my K-1.
MONSTER IN THE FIELD
Last week, police say a man named Craig Wood snatched a ten-year-old girl named Hailey Owens from a neighborhood street on the west side of Springfield, Missouri. Wood, a stranger to Owens, then allegedly shot her in the base of the skull, put her in a bag, and hid her in a plastic tub. When I wrote about it, I took a modicum of comfort in the fact that such crimes were exceptionally rare. I called them lightning strikes without a god to blame for them.
The crime shook the Springfield community in a way few have. Thousands of people took to the streets in the hope of finding some peace in the kind of rare crime that will haunt a city forever.
When you have a career in news, desensitizing yourself to tragedy is a survival skill. You learn to turn off your heart to the daily earthquakes humanity inflicts on itself. I don’t know how many dead bodies I saw in my day, and I’m grateful for that. I moved away from Springfield more than 20 years ago, and I still felt my stomach clench every time I saw a new part of the Hailey Owens story come out.
As children, we feared bogeymen who would snatch us off the street. As adults, we fear what might come up from our guts, attack our insides, and confuse our brains. The rest of the time, we think about how those same invisible creatures might take our friends away from us.
Last month, in the span of a few days, the following things happened: a person I know committed suicide. A guy who went to my high school was arrested for murder in a Texas ghost town. Two of my friends died of cancer. It felt like a veritable field of lightning where every strike tore holes through my eardrums and shook the ground at my feet. It made me wonder which was worse: the fear of losing someone to a monster, or the sadness that inevitably follows.
And then I went to finish my taxes.
Linda is worried about the chemo. Six years ago, her mother struggled through it.
“I don’t want that,” she said, shaking her head.
The doctor has convinced her the chemo treatments have improved and that they could save her life. It’s tax season, though, and this is when she has to work. She literally can’t afford to be sick.
“I’ll do chemo on Fridays,” she said, but then as if just thinking of it herself, “but I do returns on Saturdays sometimes.”
She nodded again, as if saying to herself, “I’ll get through it, because I have to get through it.”
“I’ll be thinking about you,” I said when I left. Linda smiled and thanked me. I haven’t stopped thinking about her since. She was handling her cancer with a southern woman’s strength and poise that I couldn’t help but admire. It was like the lightning had struck, and she had managed to grab it with her hand and hold it tight.
There is a certain freedom in being a child. You’re expected to run with abandon, be careless, and live like tomorrow is as sure as today’s sunrise. That’s how it should be, no matter how dark the sky gets.
As adults, however, we know the dark skies mean more than hidden sunshine. We know they’re going to slam down on the people we love, and then eventually crush us, too. It scares us, this existential indifference and inevitable end we’ll all meet.
We leave the playground, and as adults we bandy our responsibilities while keeping a close eye the rolling gray in the sky. We worry about taxes, careers, schools, mortgages, and retirement plans. When something starts to look odd, we pretend like it’s something else, sometimes until it’s too late, and, too often, we do it alone.
I think about the people who’ve been struck around me: Frank check-raising with a weak flush draw, Texas Scott donning a tiara and laughing like a loon, Chris clipping coupons and proudly getting 60 cents off on chicken breasts. They were people I played with beneath the clouds. Their deaths have shaken me, but they also remind me of the power of childhood. Maybe life is not so much in its potential or its end, but in how much of its games, music, art, and friendships we can harness. Maybe that’s the only shield that can protect us.
Back on the playground at Hilldale, we grabbed hands and pulled each other into the field. Even as the teachers yelled at us to come in from the storm, we sprinted and laughed and dared the sky to explode. It was a child’s courage, but courage nonetheless. Maybe that was how it was meant to be.
Linda believes she is going to be okay. I’m going to believe that with her. To not would be to disrespect the bravery she’s discovered in a place I’ve not yet found.
* Linda’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
This is a guest post by Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse. Stepto currently works at HBO and is the former banhammer at Xbox. He is an author, comedian, and leader of The Steptos.
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among the members of my tribe who are my age. We really know how to hold a grudge. Especially if it’s borne out of the Internet or Internet culture. I’m seeing more and more people refusing to forgive even in situations where they should and I wonder if we’re setting a bad example.
I should pause here and let you know up front, I’m going to have to be a little vague in providing good examples for my opening sentence. This is Wil’s blog and thus (through no fault of his own) functions as a sort of orbiting Ion cannon for focusing opinion. I don’t want to name any names or provide concrete descriptions. So please bear with me as I navigate this topic with a tad less specificity than I might my own blog.
Here’s how the situation usually goes:
Person says or does something either on the Internet or at a con or industry event that’s objectionable to about 99% of normal people. In the grand scheme of crimes, “objectionable” isn’t high on the list. However the Internet allows us to elevate and publicize. For many topics that’s good! Because those topics are often ignored or normalized and thus need the shock value of a large mass of people saying “That’s not OK!”
Occasionally this out-sized reaction results in the person who committed the original offense saying they are sorry. Not “sorry you were offended” but “wow. I had no idea I was being that bad. I’m sorry.” Maybe they got fired from their job. Maybe they got hounded or received death threats. Maybe they lost sponsors for their YouTube channel. Whatever the reason, justice was served (sometimes way past the original crime) and they realized what they did was wrong.
Then the geek tribe welcomes the person back, pats them on the back, says ‘that’s OK glad you learned your lesson, maybe you should hold a panel or something on what you learned?” and everyone just gets on with their lives.
Oops that last part doesn’t happen.
Instead many of us assume a bizarre mantle, that of “Well they apologized but I simply can’t accept a person who would do or say such things to begin with!” I know a person who actually keeps a list of all the Internet people who have done something that offended them. They simply refuse to interact with those people ever ever ever. The list is at last count three dozen people, at least four of which I know personally who are not bad people at all just made a mistake and atoned for it.
I’ve carried a lot of hate or grudges in my life and let me tell you something true and strong: they are heavy. You don’t realize it when you pick them up, because the initial umbrage or anger gives you a kind of emotional +15 to STR. But forgiveness is like being morbidly obese then dropping 100 pounds at a go. Not to mention one crucial fact: there can be no salvation without forgiveness.
I want to be clear I’m not saying you have to forgive everyone, I’m not even telling you who to forgive. My fear is that people my age, those of us that grew up before nerd and geek culture resulted in number #1 rated prime time TV comedies, back when we were getting punched in the throat for drawing a dungeon on graph paper by Joey McJockBully or teased for being a girl who liked Super Mario by Susie McEasyBake, we formed an early skill at seething hatred. Sometimes we create a bad example for the younger set who are perhaps no less tormented but far more ingrained in the general culture.
Again, this is merely a concern of mine. I see it, and hey maybe I’m blowing it out of proportion. But what I have learned to do when I see the latest Twitter outrage is I might join the conversation or I might not. But I will watch like a hawk to see how the perpetrator reacts. I watch for actual contrition and regret. And I’m starting to see a lot more “An Open Response to X’s ‘Apology’” then responses to those responses then responses to those responses etc. etc. when maybe, just maybe, we pat X on the back and, if we truly believe it, say “try not to do it again, and share what you learned.”
Everyone says and does something stupid or hurtful at some point. The Internet allows us to do it in front of the Earth. If we’re going to set the bar for forgiveness as high as “some words on a forum or a hurtful comment on a panel are unforgivable crimes even in the face of true contrition*” then I fear for the future of our tribe.
Wil says don’t be a dick, my corollary is to steal from Bill and Ted and that we also should be excellent to each other. Some things really are unforgivable, it’s true. And it’s up to each of us to decide the baggage we want to invest in carrying. But I’m old enough to have inadvertently perfected the art of being a jerk, forgotten it, then reinvented it only to regret it all over again. For that, I am sorry. I have to forgive myself, because that’s what comes with age.
So there but for the grace of the flying spaghetti monster go I.
*While we’re at it let’s define contrition by intent not execution. I watched a guy apologize for his apology because his apology wasn’t apologetic enough (even though it was accepted by the original aggrieved party) and he still ran into the Internet umbrage buzz saw.
Ryan Wheaton is an aspiring fiction writer and graphic novelist. He’s been trying to grow a beard too. So there’s that.
(This piece was written in response to the prompt “Write about a lost balloon.”)
Fiona was only 4 years old when she first met Grandfather Lawst. When her mother pulled her out of the car seat and set her on the parking lot gravel, she was immediately concerned that maybe they had arrived at an abandoned brick factory, or perhaps a textile warehouse. Certainly, a balloon factory would be more cheerful, brighter, made of rubbery spires and bouncy drawbridges. But, having only just learned to read, she labored through the flaking chiseled banner’s words and mouthed to herself in confusion.
“Mommy, what’s a Last Allin Elteedee,” she asked.
“Sorry, honey, what? Oh, no dear, that says Lawst Balloon,” she replied.
Fiona hadn’t experienced much in the way of disappointment in the 4 short years she’d been alive, but when it came to balloons, there was a specific expectation she had come to rely on.
“But, why is it like this?” she asked.
“Like what?” her mother asked, crouching down.
“Well, um. Why is it old?” she asked.
“Papa’s family has had this balloon factory for over 6 generations,” her mother said as she unrolled her fingers to count. “And when you have something for a long, long time, it changes. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s not as fun.” Her mother smiled.
Fiona puffed her cheeks up in protest; without a bouncing drawbridge there’d be no way to get inside. She might’ve been taught the realities of a balloon factory before they had turned down the dirt road some miles back, and even before they had left the house, but she wasn’t ready to accept them and assumed that her stubbornness had some sway. “But…” she paused. She let go of her mother’s hands and turned to face Last Allin. It was gray. Very gray. Even the sun that shone behind her seemed to sink from a vibrant yellow to a flat gray, very gray, as it neared the factory. There was no way it housed balloons. No monolith of apathy so dusted, no facade distraught with shattered glass eyes and rusted, broken-teeth gates could keep an iota of the summer-blue sky caged. It was outright paradoxical, this notion that such happy creatures were birthed within the belly of this brooding behemoth. Then again, Fiona was only 4 and her understanding of the principles underlying the conception of balloons had not yet fully formed.
“It’s scary,” she said.
“Come on now, Fiona, Grandfather has been waiting long enough. I’m sure he already knows we’re here. We don’t want to be rude.”
Fiona struggled against the tide of her mother’s pace, but a quick glance unfastened her knees. She dropped her eyes to her feet and watched as the dust rose and fell with each defeated kick of her toe. The daisies on her dress had already started to fade as they neared the double steel doors of the Lawst Balloon Factory. If she had ever before seen the frown of a child that had just been given a gray balloon, she wouldn’t have to wonder how sad she looked at that very moment.
Shane Nickerson is a father of three and a TV producer. He occasionally writes at Nickerblog.
“We will miss the crying days,” I mumbled to my wife as she crawled out of bed to accompany our three year old back to her room after a bad dream. “Someday, we’ll wish we could come back to right here.” She grunted at me with what I’m sure must have been a, “You’re right honey. You’re the best!” I fell back asleep and woke up several hours later to find her already making the kids’ lunches. Halfway through cup two of coffee, she had a significant head start on Monday. I walked to the coffee cabinet of our kitchen and pulled down a silver bag of Tonx beans. I pulled out a scale, and carefully measured 30g of beans for my 16 oz. cup of morning coffee. I dumped them into the hopper of a burr grinder, pulverized the beans into a grainy pile, then savored the perfect aroma before adding the grounds to the chamber of an AeroPress. The AeroPress is a flawlessly designed re-imagining of the French Press. It makes a great cup. This is my coffee ritual.
“I’ll miss these days,” I tell myself.
My kids are up by 7:20. By then, I’m usually checking the news or twitter or stocks or Facebook or Reddit or all of them over and over while I drink my coffee. On the couch. In the same spot every morning. I am a modern version of a parent. My newspaper has been replaced by a Macbook.
Shower, choose a pair of jeans, a pair of Jordans and probably an American Apparel Tri-Blend tee in grey or charcoal, put on a watch and go to work. I am 42, but I dress like I wish I wasn’t. In the car, Howard Stern is mid rant. He has become my driving companion over these last six years. A constant voice drowning out the monotonous short drive down the 101 to the 134 Freeway. It calms me.
Routines creep up on you. For so long I resisted them, desperate to stay fresh and chaotic. Lately, I realize how much I savor them, depend on them, and create them. Calm within the chaos.
Exit Buena Vista and make a left. The construction on the overpass is finally over. They fixed it or moved it or widened it or whatever. I can go left again. My drive is back to normal. Stern hands it over to Robin for the news.
Everyone is alive. My parents are healthy, my siblings are healthy, their families are healthy and mine is healthy. My friends don’t feel old yet (although their grey hair is moving quickly from a few strands towards “the battle is lost”), and most of the people I’ve known for a long time are alive and okay. I will miss these days, my routine mind reminds me. These days are numbered. We’ve always known that.
My last ten years blinked by. All of my years have blinked by. I have lived so many lifetimes, each grouped under a banner. High School. College. Actor. Producer. Father. All of it together. None of it possible.
I arrive home at 7ish. My wife has the thousand yard stare from her day long battle against routine, and I hand her the bottle of pretty good wine I picked up at Ralph’s on the way home (she texted me). My kids are happy to see me, partly because I’m their dad and partly because I’m a new face after a day of the same 4 faces. I hug them. They tell me about Minecraft and what they built and the mods they want. I play their games and chase them and hug them and read them books and catch up and try my best to cram a day into an hour. “I need more time for them,” I think. “Cats in the Cradle,” my brain bleats. “Not fair,” I bleat back. That song is my weakness. A constant warning against making the wrong choices.
They finally get in bed and go to sleep and my wife and I watch an episode of House of Cards. I struggle to keep my eyes open, and it’s only 9:30pm. We are turning into parents. That’s what the parenting books don’t tell you. For ten years, you’re a kid pretending to be a parent. And then suddenly, you’re a parent wishing you were still a kid. The chaos you once thrived upon has been replaced by the deep appreciation for those valuable moments of wonderful and calming routine.
I find my place on the couch and open my computer.
At night, the world stops.
I’ll miss these days.
Let’s just deal with the elephant in the room right from the start, because it can get stompy, and I don’t want anything to get broken. I can hear you muttering at your screen, “Brad Willis? Who the hell is this guy? What’s he doing here?” This post should go a little way toward explaining how a guy Wil once watched eat Keno crayons (for money, of course) is guest-posting alongside so many familiar faces.
If you’re reading this, you likely know Wheaton’s Law (if not, he explained it here). You know it tells you exactly how not to act. What it doesn’t say outright is what you should do next. Wil Wheaton knows the next part, and it’s how he has quietly changed more than a few lives, mine included. Wheaton’s Law will fit on a t-shirt. The next part takes a little more space. My part of the story begins with a dead man.
When the coroner unzipped the body bag in the middle of the interstate, there was only half of a person inside. A couple of hours earlier, he had been a 19 year-old man on his way to college. Now, he was half of a charred skeleton someone had pushed into a sack and left on a patch of hot South Carolina asphalt.
I spent ten years staring at some of the worst things fate dealt people—sickening twists of happenstance, soulless and selfish pride, unbelievable depravity. All of it is stuck in a place in my brain I try not to visit too often, but that sticky August day in 1999 comes calling more often than most. It’s what I think of when I think about my life before 2005.
See, I spent most of my life wanting only to be a storyteller. The goal has always been to write books. Somewhere along the way somebody convinced me it would be a lot more practical and meaningful to become a TV newsman, so that’s what I did for a decade. It was a fine profession and it let me do what I wanted, but the business was changing in way that didn’t necessarily suit me. What’s more, I’d seen enough dead people.
What happened in those intervening years isn’t so important as what happened almost exactly ten years ago when Wil Wheaton changed the direction of my life.
In 2004, the online poker company PokerStars wanted Wil to go down to the Bahamas and write about an annual poker festival the company hosts at Atlantis. Wil couldn’t make it, and though he’d never met me, he had been reading my stuff.
I started blogging in 2001, and some of my poker writing caught Wil’s eye. He recommended me for the Bahamas gig. It was meant to be a week of writing about poker in the Caribbean. It turned into a second career, one that’s allowed me to tell stories, support my family, and travel all over the world.
This story makes sense to very few people who hear it. Why would a man I’ve never met go out of his way to recommend me for a gig? Other people would’ve simply said, “I’m unavailable” and hung up. Wil didn’t do that, and that’s the part of his raison d’être you can’t necessarily divine from Wheaton’s Law. Apart from actively working to not be a bad guy, he quietly works as a life-changing good one.
THE HOLLYWOOD REFRAIN
Harold Ramis died yesterday leaving a lot of folks more than a little sad about the new laughs we’re going to miss. I read one bit from him in which he talked about how creatives—especially those from Hollywood—often don’t think about people other than themselves. In the process, they can miss out on some partnerships that would’ve made their art better.
“How am I doing? How am I doing? Which is kind of a refrain in Hollywood, you know,” Ramis said on American Storytellers. “People are desperately trying to make their careers in isolation, independent of everyone around them.”
Wil’s life and career have evolved several times in the last 30 years, and he could’ve been forgiven if he had fallen victim to that Hollywood refrain. Instead, when he was square in the middle of a career shift of his own, Wil kicked open a door for some guy three time zones way.
I’ve thought a lot about that in the ten years I’ve known Wil, but his stealth kindness has felt more pronounced since my dad died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. When Wil called with his condolences, it occurred to me he was cut from the same cloth as my old man. Dad made sure people he cared about had jobs, no-interest loans, or advice when they needed it. When he died, everyone had a story about a quiet favor my dad did for them. Of all the wonderful things Dad did, his legacy is that selflessness attention to helping people for no reason other than he could.
If the lead on the poker gig had been the only kindness Wil offered me, it would’ve been more than enough. Instead, he became a friend and confidante. He introduced me to his treasured family. And one night, he helped me cross a line in my head that I couldn’t have crossed on my own.
Several years ago, I sat with Wil and his family at a Hibachi joint. While the chef chopped and pounded on the grill, a man sharing our table asked Wil what he did for a living.
“I’m a writer,” he said.
The man turned to me. “What about you?”
I couldn’t finish the sentence, because I didn’t feel like there was any honest answer. I’d spent years and years getting paid to tell stories, but I hadn’t achieved what I wanted, and I certainly didn’t know how to answer the guy’s question. What was I? A blogger? A poker reporter? An aspiring novelist?
Wil looked at me, waited a second, and then turned back to the man.
“He’s a writer,” Wil said. And that was that. Back to the onion volcano, shrimp gymnastics, and knife juggling.
For reasons that still don’t make a lot of sense to me, Wil joined my closest friends and family in believing in my writing and championing me to people he knows. It confounds me to this day.
Now, not only have I spent the past ten years telling poker stories, but I’ve also managed to finish a novel and begin work on another. I’ve not yet gotten to where I want to be, but I’m a closer today than I was ten years ago when a guy I didn’t know changed my life. What’s more, I feel comfortable calling myself a writer, and Wil is one very big reason why.
Yeah, Wheaton’s Law may be Wil’s best-known axiom, and it makes for a fine meme. But this is the part that stands out for me: Wil can give a half-hour keynote on how not to be a bad person, but he’ll never tell you about the small kindnesses that make him who he really is. If there is a take-away for the rest of us it’s that we could all do a little better at lending a quiet hand when we don’t have to.
Now, if Wil had just stopped me from eating those crayons…
This is a guest post by Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse. Stepto currently works at HBO and is the former banhammer at XBox. He is an author, comedian, and leader of The Steptos.
Try to imagine this conversation:
Brain: Man. I am getting kinda worried about the fact I’ve had this incredible cold and have not slept but 10 hours over the past 5 days.
Heart: Roger that Brain, engaging the engine at 110%
Brain: No wait I…
Chest: Heart? This is the Chest we’re gonna need to tigthen up a bit here to handle the new load.
Brain: No guys that’s going to make it worse because…
Heart: Make it worse? Roger that! Upping to 120%
Chest: Chest copies! cranking up pressure.
Lungs: Engaging gasping.
Brain: no guys this is going to make this bad because he’s going to think he’s having a heart attack–
Skin: Hey guys, we have the go ahead to go flush and get all clammy just FYI that’s what we’re seeing across the board here.
Lungs: Uh Heart, we’re pushing up respiration to 130% to help move this racing oxygen around. This triggers shortness of breath mode just FYI.
Heart: Brain we can’t keep this pace up how long were you needing this?
Brain: I never asked for–
Eyes: Guy’s I’m seeing some crazy stuff on Webmd regarding heart attacks and I know we have a family history so…
Brain: All right I’m getting angry here, let’s calm down immediately and–
Heart: Angry? Got it, crank it up another 30%.
Chest: Roger that cranking up the tightness.
And this is how I ended up calling 911 with racing heart, intermittent chest pressure, rapid breathing, anxiety etc. All of which had lasted off and on for a couple of hours.
My father’s side has had heart issues, most of my paternal grandfather’s siblings as well as himself died from heart related issues. So when, late Friday night, I began to feel what I thought were ever increasing and clear symptoms of a mild heart attack, I called 911. 911 sent a dispatch team out to the house while I laid down and Rochelle penned up the dogs and got me ready to travel if needs be. My anxiety level began to skyrocket when I realized I had just called an ambulance, sirens and lights blazing, into my “so quiet you can hear someone drop a coke can in another house” neighborhood at 4am on a Saturday morning.
Brain: Jeez I hope they don’t use the siren…
Heart: Aye sir cranking up to—
Brain: SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUTUP
They arrived (sans siren) and hooked me up to all manner of bitchin’ equipment to scan my heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and a field EKG. while they shouted scary numbers to each other (“210 over 120″ “96!” “6.0221413e+23″) I got to become increasing agitated while I answered a ton of questions about where did it start, how did I feel etc. All while wearing enough leads and wires that I felt like one of the trees in Avatar.
After a scary few minutes the tech calmed me down. Started asking the “have you been getting sleep? Under stress lately etc.” They reassured me I was in no immediate danger looking over all my vitals and my EKG’s were normal. My heart rate was through the roof so they wanted to go to the ER.
The view through an ambulance was surreal and I guess an experience I have the good fortune to scratch off my bucket list without kicking the bucket. The techs told me all about the various gadgetry and we all geeked out over my iPad mini retina which they allowed me bring. In the interests of their privacy I didn’t want to tweet photos from there since it would be hard in the cramped quarters to remove any distinguishing characteristics but they did a great job in calming me down.
Once at the ER, a crack team of people informed me they would not need to crack open my chest. They ran a blood panel, took X-rays, and ran several EKG’s. About the only disappointment was the X-ray, where the technician put a lead cloth down to “shield my privates from being irradiated” and I complained it was OK, I wanted Hulk privates.
Everything came up Milhouse. I was given an IV of Lorazopram and that niftily settled my brain down. They explained my blood panel was fine, my heart was ok, the EKG’s were fine and that I did not, in fact have a heart attack. Instead I had a very sustained panic attack brought on by a variety of factors, not the least of which was an extreme case of sleep deprivation.
Now, I told you all that to tell you this.
My family on my father’s side as I mentioned has a huge history of sudden heart related death experience, an experience you only get to have once. I quibbled for a few minutes over bothering to call 911 until I remembered that. On the heels of Wil’s post about getting healthy, I wanted to throw out that assuming the presence of insurance (or even not), DO NOT SCREW AROUND with symptoms like the ones I had. It’s always better to know it’s not a heart event than it is to drop dead being so very thankful you didn’t wake your neighbors with the ambulance siren.
On one of his spoken-word records, The Boxed Life, Henry Rollins talks a bit about being funny or happy all the time. If you could be funny or happy all the time, which would you pick?
I’ve been thinking about this since 1995. I first heard Boxed Life in 1995 and I’ve been thinking about this since then. I’ve been thinking about other things, too, but still. The question, it vexes me.
“I’m funny all the time, I’m not happy all the time,” Rollins said. “So, okay, but that’s all right, because I’d rather be funny than happy … all the time.”
Historically, I’ve found it easy to answer this question … but hard to shake it. If I had to choose, I’d choose to be funny.
“There’s not a lot to learn from being unfunny,” I used to tell people when I’d talk about this. That idea is plainly bullshit — there’s plenty to learn from bombing on stage or mucking up a joke — but it’s what I would say. People who are happy all the time irk me.
In part, I believe the lessons learned from being unhappy are valuable. I have to believe that. I have to believe that the time I spend feeling miserable will pay off somehow, maybe by informing my work, maybe in insights or wisdom. I want to believe that misery isn’t a waste of my time because I only have so much time and I don’t want to think that I’ve wasted so much of it.
The trouble is, I’ve cooked the question too long. I reduced out a lot of the nuance and the flavor and I’ve sometimes forgotten that the heart of the question is in that phrase “all the time.”
I think it’s easy to breeze through happy times without learning anything. Happiness feels easy even when it’s not easy. If you’re like me, good times can feel sustainable when you’re in them.
They’re not sustainable. Nothing lasts forever. And here’s the thing about misery: it doesn’t have to make sense.
This has been a great month for me, creatively. My new tabletop RPG, Dark, is doing well at Kickstarter. The new online storytelling game I’m working on, Storium, just entered a new phase of alpha testing. I’m designing a series of new Fiasco playsets I can’t tell you about yet. Lots of fun work happening at once.
Things are, measurably, good.
Last week, I couldn’t see that. Something grim settled over me like a glum fog, blocking out the light. I wanted to do good work but I couldn’t see straight — I hated everything I wrote not because it was bad, but because I wrote it. I put off work I wanted to do because I didn’t feel like I had earned the right to work on it yet. It was a dessert-and-vegetables thing, I told myself. But that’s bullshit, too. When I’m that miserable, I fear and resent happiness. I feel like I owe it nothing, like it’s betrayed me, like I have to learn how to function forever without it because I may never be happy again.
That’s the inherent, fascinating, dangerous fallacy inherent in the funny-or-happy equation. It’s in that phrase: all the time.
Happiness is impermanent. So is misery. What’s fleeting is often beautiful.
The trap I fell into was thinking that unhappiness, misery, and depression were somehow more revealing, more authentic than happiness. As if there’s less to learn from happiness than from misery. Look around and you’ll see people tripping on this idea all around us.
(It’s an easy mistake, I think, because misery ruminates, obsesses, and stares at itself. Depression warps time, pushing us to dwell on things that still exist when we’re happy — things that we just don’t fret about so much when things are good.)
We have a lot to learn from happiness and contentment and while it is sometimes harder to pause and glean the insights when you’re busy laughing and dancing and making merry, let’s do that more. We don’t have to be happy all the time (because, seriously, ugh) but we shouldn’t mix up happy with oblivious, either. I did that for too long.
Anyway, I still don’t want to be happy all the time because I think I’m ill-suited for that. I want to learn from happiness and misery, both. And if I could be funny all the time, I could bring laughs and joy to others and that would rebound back to me. When other people laugh at my jokes? That makes me happy.
In a few hours, Anne and I will step into a metal tube in Los Angeles, and emerge from that metal tube in Florida. Tomorrow, we will get onto a boat, and we will live on that boat for five days and twenty-three romantic nights, plus two nights that aren’t romantic, but involve an intense discussion of curling.
While we are away on JoCoCruse Crazy 4: The Fouthening, I’ve invited some of my friends to come back and guest blog, SO THAT YOU MAY BE ENTERTAINED!
Please welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends…
Meet Stepto. Stepto is probably best known as the leader of The Steptos, and as the former banhammer at Xbox Live. Stepto is a wonderful, thoughtful writer, and once pulled a man’s finger in Reno just to watch him fart. He’s the author of A Microsoft Life, and last year released a comedy album called A Geekster’s Paradise. He blogs at stepto.com and is @stepto on the Steptos.
Will is a writer, graphic artist, game designer, and better at all of these things than he gives himself credit for. If you’ve ever played a game from White Wolf, you’ve probably played something Will put his filthy hands all over. If you’ve played the Fiasco playset we played on Tabletop, you’ve played something that Will and I wrote together. If you’ve read Memories of the Future Volume 1, you’ve seen a cover that Will designed. He blogs at wordstudio.net and is @wordwill on the twitters.
I’ve known Shane for mumblecough years, ever since we did shows together at the ACME Comedy Theater. Shane is the executive producer of Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory and Ridiculousness. Shane is one of the funniest people I know, and that’s saying something. He’s also an incredible father to three kids, never uses Comic Sans, and has paid me off exactly the right number of times in poker games. Shane blogs at nickerblog.com and is @ShaneNickerson on the twitters.
And please welcome, for the first time…
Ryan is my son, and is a wonderful fiction writer. I started raising Ryan when he was six, and when he was nineteen, he asked me to adopt him, which I totally did. Ryan is a deadly good Tabletop gamer, a clever Twitter hacker, a MENSA member, and one of the three most important people in my life. He doesn’t know how to look for things in the fridge, and is the Tweetybox as @SirWheaton (and occasionally as @wilw, dammit).
I first became aware of Otis’ writing back in the poker days, when he wrote magnificent narratives about the game in the style of Alvarez and Holden. Eventually, we worked together at PokerStars, and we have spent many regretful evenings together playing Pai-Gow. He’s one of my favorite people to put on tilt, and is a genuinely talented writer and storyteller. He’s @bradwillis on the Twitters.
Please welcome this team of talented, funny, smart, and interesting people to WWdN, and make them feel at home. I’ll expect a full report when I get home from my trip, and don’t even try to replace the fish if they die. I’ll know.
Today, I have the honor of presenting the last episode of our second season of Tabletop.
It’s Lords of Vegas, with my friends Miracle Laurie (who you probably know from Dollhouse, but you should know from her band Uke Box Heroes), and Angela and Aubrey Webber of the delightful band the Doubleclicks.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed season two as much as I did. As proud as I was of our work in season one, we learned a lot from it, and I’m extremely proud of the improvements we made (on camera and off) during season two. If we get funding for season three, it’s going to be uh-mah-zang.
Until next time … PLAY MORE GAMES!
Ryan and Nolan came over for dinner last night, and for the first time in far too long, I ate dinner with my entire family.
While we sat at the table and ate, Anne told us that she is thinking about getting a Mini Countryman when she pays off her Cooper S.
“I like the way it handles, and I like the extra space that it has. It sort of feels like my Mini, but there’s just more room inside,” She said.
I said, “Oh! So that means that maybe I can get the little two-seater Mini when my lease is up?”
“Isn’t that a mid-life crisis car?” Ryan said.
“No,” I said, “A mid-life crisis car is something you buy so you can drive around and try to pick up twenty year-old girls.”
Without missing a beat, Nolan said, “Oh! Can I have a mid-life crisis car? That sounds like something I could use.”
He’s twenty-two, and clearly has my sense of humor.
I’m super excited to announce this today, because it’s one of those things that’s been in the works for almost a year, but I had to keep secret.
I’ve partnered with Northern Brewer to design and release some homebrew recipe kits this year (and hopefully beyond, if people like them enough). I don’t get into business partnerships with just anyone, but I’ve been a fan and customer of Northern Brewer for almost two years, and I am delighted to partner with them because they have high quality ingredients, incredible customer service, and genuinely love the homebrewing community.
Some of the marketing language in the announcement is a little much (I don’t think I’m a master brewer, yet), but I love how excited and enthusiastic everyone at Northern Brewer is to work together with me.
Our first kit is the #VandalEyesPA that I designed for my wife, about a year ago. It’s a big IPA with lots of hops aroma, but a big caramel malt backbone to balance it out. Think of it as an IPA that drinks like a double IPA, I guess. It’s available in extract and all-grain versions.
As the year goes on, I’ll release more kits. I’m thinking about doing a sage saison, a coffee stout, a nice pale ale, and maybe a #w00tstout clone.
I’ll be blogging about my homebrewing adventures at devilsgatebrewing.com, and when you make these for yourself, you can even check in on Untappd because I’ve been entering Devil’s Gate brews there since I started almost three years ago.
I got my hands on a Makerbot Digitizer, so I can scan 3D models of all the things (that fit inside ~512 cubic inches) and then do stuff with them.
I don’t have a lot of scanning experience at the moment, and I haven’t done any serious 3D modeling since I was using Lightwave 3D on the Video Toaster 4000, so right now I’m just scanning solid objects and printing them out, because of reasons.
Over the weekend, I scanned a lemon from my lemon tree…
…and then I printed a copy of my lemon. Because, as so many people have observed, when life hands you a lemon, you scan it and print a copy of it.
Then you put it with its original and act out an imagined scene from a spy thriller.
One of the things I like about Maker Culture is how all the Makers I know aren’t jealous with their knowledge, expertise, and experience. Every Maker I’ve ever met or interacted with has been happy to help anyone who asks her questions, and the spirit of sharing and cooperation is inspiring as hell to me. I love that objects that are uploaded to Thingiverse are intended to be remixed and modified by other Makers, and that those things can also be remixed.
When I uploaded my stupid lemon scan to Thingiverse, I made it an Attribution-Non-Commericial-Share-Alike object, because I figured that, somewhere in the world, someone may be able to do something useful with it. Well, little did I know that, just a few hours after I uploaded the object file, someone would graft two beefy arms onto it, creating the Trogdor of lemons.
It’s nice to know that the same technology that lets people create actual, useful things lets me amuse myself with stupid things like this.
Also, speaking of useful things, I present to you the 3D-Printed Tabletop Trophy of Awesome!
This model was created by Joseph Larson, who goes by Cymon on various 3D printing forums. As it turns out, I’ve made a bunch of his objects, including his Minecraft Creeper remix, and I had no idea that he was a fan of my show.
At the moment, we’re keeping the .stl to ourselves, but we’ll probably release it into the world in some form or another in time for Tabletop Day.
And speaking of Tabletop Day … you have signed up for an event, haven’t you? I really want you to play more games.
“I’ve seen so many ‘I choo choo choose you pictures online today,” I said to Anne, while we walked through our neighborhood yesterday. “I think that’s one of those things that is going to be a generational touchstone for us, if it isn’t already.”
We came to a red light, and stopped. I hit the walk button and it chirped happily at me.
“Like, you can say that to just about anyone our age, and they’ll know instantly what it is.”
My mind wanders to weird places when we walk.
The light changed and we crossed the street. “I can’t believe how hot it is,” Anne said.
“Yeah, it’s not even fun to troll my friends who are living through stormpocalypse, anymore. Like, all the jokes have been done.”
I took a drink of my water, and we walked for a few blocks in silence, not holding hands, but linking our pinky fingers, which is a thing we do when we go for a long walk.
We turned up a street that was heavily-lined with trees. In spring and summer, it’s one of the most beautiful places to walk, and yesterday gave us a preview of what the next few months will bring. Half a dozen squirrels ran around on lawns, burying and digging up acorns. Tiny finches chirped and whistled and sang as they hopped along the mostly-bare branches of a sycamore tree.
“Judging by the pollen in the air and the birds I hear every morning, nature thinks it’s already spring here, “Anne said. “If we get a real cold snap, they’re all going to be very upset.”
In my brain, the words “cold snap” and “very upset” joined together to form a key. That key slipped into a lock and turned, opening the door on a memory from 3rd grade that I’d forgotten lived inside my head.
“Remember how you’d go to school on Valentine’s day, and you’d make the little mailbox out of a bag?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I choo choo choose you, remember?”
“Right,” I said. “Well, at our school, the rule was that you had to bring valentines for everyone, which was the only way weird, awkward kids like me got valentines.
“So it was 3rd grade, and my mom took me up to the Thrifty on Foothill by the park to pick out that little box of valentines. I got some that had superheroes on it, like from Challenge of the Superfriends, and a little bag of those chalky candy hearts.”
“Why do I like those chalky candy hearts so much?” She said. She took a drink of her water.
“I don’t know, but I love them, too, which is weird because –”
“You don’t like sweet things. You’ve been telling me that for almost nineteen years.”
“I think it’s the texture, and the way they sort of snap in your teeth, and the fact that they’re not too sweet,” I said.
“Probably. Continue,” she said.
“So I went home with my valentines and my candy hearts, and I got out my class list, and I sat at the breakfast table and wrote out my valentines.
“And there was this girl in my class, and I had a little 3rd grade crush on her…” I paused for a second and that classroom flashed into my memory, almost like an old Polaroid snapshot developing and then instantly disintegrating. I could see the desks, the chalkboard, the cursive alphabet above it. The American flag and the cubbies in the back, by the bookshelves. I saw her name, written in the corner of the chalkboard, under “Line Leader” for that week: Mindy. She wrote her name with the tail of the “y” looping down and around and underlining her whole name.
“Her name was Mindy,” I said. “Mindy …” I thought for a quick second, “…Patterson*. Wow, I can’t believe I remember that.
“So I filled out my valentines, and I started putting the candy hearts into each envelope, and when I got to Mindy’s, I carefully sorted through them until I found one that said ‘kiss me’ or ‘hug me’ or something like that.
“So I had this perfect, foolproof plan to let her know that I liked her, in the one way that was … safe … I guess, for me. I put that heart into the envelope, and in the most sophisticated act of secret admirer genius, ever, didn’t sign it.”
“That’s so cute,” Anne said.
“Yeah, well, we did our little valentine exchange the next day at school. There was a little party thing that afternoon, with that sugary grocery store punch that’s so sugary it burns your throat, and one of the room mothers made cupcakes with little hearts on them. When it was time to pass out the valentines, we walked around the room, dropping them into the mailboxes we’d made the day before, that were taped to all of our desks.
“When I got to Mindy’s desk, I was very careful to make sure that nobody saw me, and I dropped her valentine into her mailbox thing.”
“You were quite the superspy in third grade,” Anne said.
“Yeah, I was James Bond Junior, for sure. So I finished delivering my valentines, and went back to my desk to open mine. While I did that, I kept sneaking little glances at her desk, wondering if she’d opened mine, and hoping that when she did, it would set in motion the Rube Goldberg machine that kids use in elementary school to tell someone they like them.
“But even though Mindy was really nice and sweet and friendly, she was friends with the Mean Girls.”
“Uh-oh,” Anne said.
“Yeah,” I said. “So I left out one crucial part of my foolproof plan, and didn’t realize that a little deductive reasoning could help even Ralph Wiggum figure out who handed out the only Superfriends valentines in the classroom.
“If I were writing this as a script or something, this is where we’d see the Mean Girls and Mindy gasping and then giggling and then turning around to face me, but all I remember is that the four Mean Girls and Mindy were standing at my desk, and one of them told me I was ‘gross’ and someone called me ‘Wil-the-Pill’, which was the delightful nickname I’d been given by the goddamn teacher in that class, and one of them said something about how she’d never kiss me.”
I realized that we’d walked a few blocks since I started my story, but had no memory of actually doing it, because my body had been in 2014, but my mind had temporarily ridden a wormhole to 1980. Anne said nothing, but squeezed my hand, and I realized that at some point during our story she’d traded hooking pinkies for actually holding hands.
“What did the girl you liked do?”
I looked as closely at the memory as I could, tried to reconstruct the semicircle of kids around my desk, to remember the smells and sounds of that classroom on that unseasonably hot February afternoon 34 years ago, but all I could get was this image of Mindy’s face, possibly on that day, maybe at some other time, her blond hair at her shoulders, her blue eyes and slightly crooked teeth, just looking at me with kindness. I realized that the reason I liked her was that she was so kind, and even though she was friends with the Mean Girls, she wasn’t one of them.
“You know, I don’t remember specifically. I was super embarrassed and super mortified, and I felt really stupid. I didn’t even try to deny it. I just sat there and waited for them to leave, and then I felt sad.”
“Awwww, that’s so sad,” she said.
“Yeah. Isn’t it weird, though, how you don’t think about something for thirty-four years, and then this seemingly unrelated series of words can click together and blast a memory into your face like a firehose that turns on and then off again in a matter of seconds?”
I felt a few seconds of sadness for third-grade-Wil, and a few moments of wistful nostalgia, too. Then, I looked at my wife.
“Anyway, I said, “I choo choo choose you.”
She squeezed my hand. “It says that, and there’s a train.”
*not her actual last name.
I was sitting in my office, listening to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on my turntable — I have it in mp3 format, but when you play vinyl, you play vinyl for a reason –, and planning to write a short post about how listening to that record is my earliest childhood memory. It came out one year after I was born, and my parents played it constantly in our tiny little house out in the San Fernando Valley, when it was still mostly farmland and wide, empty streets.
I remember sitting on the gold shag carpeting, leaning against our black and white checkered couch, listening to This Song Has No Title through giant headphones that probably weighed as much as I did, plugged into the stereo with a curly black cord that must have been fifteen feet long.
I was about to write about that, and explore some of the sense memories this particular album gives me, when Marlowe — who had been sleeping at my feet — jumped up, barked, and ran to the front door. Seamus and Riley followed, and I heard the familiar sound of the mail dropping into the mailbox. I got up from my desk and quieted them down, picked up the mail, and opened the front door to see if there was anything on the porch. I saw some junk mail and a medium-sized cardboard box, which I picked up and brought into the house.
I recycled the junk mail, and opened the box. Inside, underneath a bunch of padding, was the replacement FitBit clip I’d ordered last week, to replace the one that Marlowe thought would be really fun to take off my nightstand and run around with in the back yard.
I thought it was kind of funny that the packaging was so inefficient, and that the padding was proudly called EarthAware. I took a picture and put it on the tweetybox:
I know that there are economies of scale for companies like FitBit, so using one basic box to ship things probably makes sense for the company. It’s ultimately not the biggest deal in the world, but the ridiculousness of it tickled the part of my brain that appreciates that sort of thing.
A fair amount of people on Twitter wanted to know how I liked my FitBit, and if I thought it worked, so when I went back into my office, instead of writing about music, I decided to write about how I’ve lost almost 20 pounds since November.
In early November, one of my friends got married. His wedding was wonderful, and it ended up being a sort of reunion for a lot of us who used to write and perform together at ACME, a little over a decade ago. The wedding attire was “1950s Red Carpet”, so Anne got an amazing dress (I’m not exactly an impartial observer, here, but I think every dress she wears is amazing), and I went to rent a classic men’s tuxedo.
I gave my measurements to the lady at the shop(pe), and she got me some trousers and a jacket to try on. I took them to the fitting room, and … I did not fit into them. At all. Not even a little bit.
“I, um, think you need to measure me,” I said. I knew that I’d put on some weight over summer, but I didn’t know how much. I’m not a get-on-the-scale guy, and I’ve always felt like I’m in fairly good health.
I was about to find out how wrong I was.
She grabbed her measuring tape, and put it around my waist. “How bad is it, doc?” I semi-joked.
“It’s, um …” she tugged and looked and tugged again and looked again. “It’s … 40.”
“Forty? Like, ‘hey, let’s bust a 40′ forty?” I said.
“Yep.” She continued to measure around my arms and chest and neck.
“Your neck is sixteen and three quarters, and your chest is thirty-eight.”
“Wow. I’ve really let myself go,” I said. I thought for a second, and said, “So get me what will fit me, and I’m going to start looking after my weight today.”
Before she could leave, I added, “I don’t know why I needed to tell you that. Sorry.”
“It happens all the time,” she said, not unkindly.
She returned with a tux that looked like you could use it to cover a piano*, and it fit me comfortably. I filled out the paperwork, thanked her for her time, and drove home.
“Did you get the tux you wanted?” Anne asked me, when I came into our house.
“Well, I got a tux.” I told her about my new measurements, and then resolved to lose weight. “I knew I was a little tubby, but I didn’t realize that I was incorrectly using the term ‘little’. I need to do something about it.”
“Your stomach has been looking bigger to me,” she said, “and your face is a little heavy. And I don’t care about how you look, but I do care about how healthy you are, and if you’re carrying extra weight around, that’s going to be hard on your internal organs and the rest of your body.”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” I said, and remembered an exhibit we went to at the museum years ago, that featured plastinated bodies. It was a fascinating experience, but something that stayed with me long after we left was a very obese body. This person’s internal organs were just crushed by fat deposits. I don’t recall the specifics, but it made an impression on me: if a person is carrying a lot of extra weight that you can see, they’re also putting a whole lot of stress and pressure on their heart, lungs, and other vital organs that you can’t see.
“So I need to think about how I got here, and how I’m going to get back to my fighting weight.”
“Do you know what you weigh now?”
I shook my head. “But I can find out.” I walked into my office, pulled a scale out of the closet, set it to zero, and stepped on it. The numbers spun around, shook a little bit, and settled down at about 182 pounds. I stepped carefully off the scale, like it would bite me or something if I moved too fast.
“I. Um. Wow.” I said. Last time I checked, I weighed 165.
“Okay,” I said with resolve. “I know what to do. It’s just math, right? Use more calories than I take in, eliminate junk food, and exercise every day. I can do this.”
I did an inventory of what I liked to eat and drink. I don’t drink sodas, I don’t like sweets, and I never have fast food. Those are the easiest things to cut out of a diet for a person who is looking to lose weight, and they were already out of mine.
But … boy do I like burritos, and boy do I like beer.
I did some math.
“I know how this happened, and I know how to undo it,” I said to Anne.
“Does it rhyme with burritos and beer?” She said.
“It does. And not just that, it’s also the midnight cheese.”
Aside: Midnight Cheese is a phrase Anne and I say to describe something that’s a very bad idea. For example, eating a lot of cheese at midnight may taste delicious, especially if you’ve had a few drinks and you’re staying up late to play tabletop games with your friends — just to cite a totally random example that I most certainly did not pluck from my personal experience** — but it’s not the best idea, ever.
“So I have to cut out the midnight cheese, literally and figuratively, and seriously cut back on burritos and beer. I also need to increase my exercise by, like, a million percent.”
Anne’s brother used this nifty little app on his smartphone that let him track how much he was eating, not just from a caloric perspective, but from a nutritional perspective, too. It let him input his meals and snacks, and also his exercise. It was free, so I downloaded it and installed it on my phone. (I’m not going to identify it, because I don’t want to sway people in one direction or another. Just know that there are a lot of them in the App and Play stores, and they’re incredibly helpful). I gave it some stats, like my age, sex, height and weight. I told it my target weight, and how aggressively I wanted to lose weight. It did some math, and gave me a simple plan.
So far, so simple, but this only works if I’m committed, and I think you have to do something for about a month for it to become an ingrained habit. I wasn’t sure that I could make it — one of the super awesome parts of depression is that it can suck all your motivation away from you — but I would just go one day at a time, one meal at a time, and see what happened.
I immediately cut down my beer consumption to one pint a day. I reduced #burritowatch to maybe once a week. I started to enter my meals into my app, and after a few days, I started to see that it really wasn’t that difficult to make healthy food choices, once I knew what was going into my body. Notably, there were things that I thought were okay, but turned out to have tons of sodium in them, or had way more calories than you’d expect. I started to walk every day. It was just a mile or so at first, and by the end of the first week, I was up to two miles a day. I started to notice that, if I wanted, I could do X amount of exercise, to earn Y amount of beer.
I was having a lot of fun, I was starting to feel pretty good, and — here’s the thing that blew me away — when I got back on the scale at the end of the first week, I’d lost almost 6 pounds. I’ve heard from lots of people that once you start watching what you eat and exercising, if you’re carrying weight that your body really doesn’t want, it tends to fall off pretty quickly, but I didn’t think that would really happen to me (Dear Penthouse …) but it totally did!
This gave me a huge motivational boost, and it carried me through to the end of the second week, which was good, because that’s when Thanksgiving happened. Boy, was it challenging to not go nuts at dinner, but when I started recording what I was eating, I felt pretty good about what I had eaten. And I also noticed another thing: I wasn’t overeating. By that, I mean that I wasn’t stuffing myself until I felt like I was going to drop into a food coma. I ate until I was full, but I ate slowly, and really savored my dinner.
I think it was around this time that I asked some of my friends about FitBit, and if it worked as well as people said it did. Every single one of them said that it did, and one of my friends told me that their digital scale was super helpful and effective. It also integrated with the smartphone app I was using, so I didn’t need to manually enter my walks. I ordered one, set it up with my goals the same way I configured the other app, and added my friends to my dashboard.
And this is where it became a game for me, and this is how and why I’ve been able to lose almost 20 pounds just by being smart about what I eat, and getting exercise every day.
I’d see that one of my friends had walked 8000 steps, and I was at 7200 steps, so I’d go for a walk and try to pass him. I’d see that one of my friends was catching up to me, so I’d make sure I parked as far away from the entrance to wherever I was going, so she couldn’t catch me. After a week of this,I saw that I’d walked close to 50 miles in seven days! One day, I was doing lots of stuff around the house and yard, and didn’t even realize that I’d walked close to two miles without ever leaving my property. Little things started to add up, and I started to look at every time I went somewhere as an opportunity to get steps.
And the badges! Oh, the badges. I got a badge for hitting 10,000 steps in a day, then 15,000, then 20,000. I got a badge for losing my first 10 pounds, and I got one for climbing the equivalent of 50 stories of stairs. I know they don’t really mean anything, but it’s fun to get achievements for things like that, and it’s incredibly motivating for me.
But I have to tell you what the best thing was. The best thing, ever, was getting a T-shirt out of my drawer that I loved but could never fit into because it was a skinny medium, and realizing that I could put it on without any difficulty. It was just amazing when I put on a belt, and instead of using the notch I’d been using, went all the way past it to the narrowest notch on it. A lot of my T-shirts and dress shirts are just too big, now, and boy does that feel awesome.
A few days ago, I went to get some measurements taken, because I’m having something special made to wear on the JoCo Cruise. I was pretty excited to find out what my waist was, and I may have let out a little yelp of excitement when I found it it was down to 35 inches, just about 85 days after I’d committed to slimming down a bit.
I don’t know if this will work for everyone. I don’t have emotional or biological issues related to my weight. I have a lot of freedom in my schedule to walk pretty much whenever I want to. I live in a place where the weather is usually pretty great, and I’m lucky enough to combine all of those things into something that works for me. I also have a fantastic certified personal trainer, who happens to be my son, who comes to my house three days a week to train me.
But, mostly, I have motivation, commitment, and a way to gamify fitness that works for me. This morning, I weighed in at 163.2 pounds, down from just over 180 three months ago. (And I can’t believe it’s been three months, because I really do just take it one day at a time.)
Anyway, since a lot of people asked, there’s my story. And because it’ll probably be a FAQ: I’m not going to add people I don’t know to my friends list, because that’ll be weird for me.
In the time it’s taken me to write this, I’ve listened to all four sides of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. Maybe I will write that story about being a little kid experiencing music for the first time after all.
But now I have to go get steps, because I checked my dashboard and Eric just passed me.
*this may be a slight exaggeration
**this may not be entirely true