But Can Zalenskyy Hit a Curveball?

Have you ever seen somebody ruin their own life?

The Hamilton lyric has been running through my head like crazy the past couple weeks. Each morning, each midday, each nighttime, as  horrifying details emerged from the far-flung locations of Kyiv and Jupiter. Two sets of men with an inability to read the room, that room being the rest of humanity. Forget the Titanic failing to swerve in time, these guys diverted their ships from safe equatorial waters in search of an iceberg to blame.

No, I’m not saying the invasion of a sovereign nation and the canceling of some baseball games are the same severity. Obviously one only affects the free time of a small contingent of the world, who really ought to find better things to do than watching grown men scratch their asses. Meanwhile, the other affects baseball!

I kid, of course. The Ukraine situation is abhorrent in every way. Baseball is a minor distraction. And yet, the slow-motion trainwrecks seemed to develop along frighteningly similar tracks before the eyes of a horrified public asking the same question over and over. “They’re not really going to do this… are they?”

To be clear, I wrote the vast majority of this before the players (or possibly the owners?) caved on Thursday afternoon. But that doesn’t really change the calculus on much.

In the weeks leading up to both announcements, the main adversaries (the West, in the case of Russia, and the sports media in the case of MLB) announced, “This is what they’re going to do, this is the bullshit excuse they’ll use, and these are the facts that prove it’s bullshit.” Then both sets of magalomaniacs went ahead and did EXACTLY what the watchers predicted and were somehow surprised by the world’s response.

The really frightening thing about both situations is that neither instigator seemed to have an exit strategy (nor, really, victory conditions) in mind. In the end, the baseball owners finally decided they like making money. I don’t know how Putin saves face at this point, and it really sucks when the nuclear option includes an actual nuclear option.

Seriously, what the fuck is a vacuum bomb? I guess I can figure it out via context clues, but how is that a real thing? Like, we developed and tested it? I kinda thought all the things the Geneva Convention banned were shit already used in war, then after the fact we looked back and said, “Yeah, maybe let’s not use the mustard gas anymore.” How bad is something for us to go, “Wow, we’ve never used that before, and let’s make sure it stays that way”? Assuming this was developed during peacetime, maybe we need to rethink the whole “permanent standing armies” thing.

Of course, the only reason I know a vacuum bomb exists is because Russia moved oneinto Ukraine, so we announced we know it’s there and that they better not use it. Their response is a shrug. What are you talking about? We’re just here on vacation. Our Airbnb said we were responsible for vacuuming.

That’s pretty much been the m.o. in Ukraine over the past month. “Stop building up troops on the border.” “What troops?” “Those ones on this satellite photo.” “Oh, they’re only there because of all the Ukrainian bombs.” “What bombs? We’ve detected no bombs.” “Ukraine, our enemy, will set off bombs in three… two… one…”

Seriously, their first objective was Chernobyl? Really?

Allegedly they were entering Ukraine to protect the “breakaway” republics in the east, so naturally they invaded from the north on a beeline straight for Kiev. Ignoring the fact that those republics were only breaking away because Russia had been sending people (and those “Ukrainian” bombs) across the border for the past decade.

The baseball lockout progressed along a similar trajectory. After spending all November signing or re-signing over two billion dollars worth of free agents, the owners announced, “Whoa, we’re damn near bankrupt! If we don’t lockout the players, they’re going to strike.” They used the fact that the players union hadn’t negotiated with them on a new CBA proposal, despite the minor technicality that the owners hadn’t made a proposal yet. 

That first proposal wasn’t sent to the players for two months. Two weeks later, the beginning of Spring Training was delayed. After another two weeks, they canceled the first week of the season. The commissioner laughed when he announced the cancellation. At least Putin has the decency to keep his poker face on when getting exactly what he wanted.

And yes, canceling part of the season is exactly what the commissioner and owners wanted. Allegedly attendance is shitty in April, especially in areas where it’s cold. The settlement tacked that canceled week onto the end of the season. I guess ticket sales are better the first week of October than the first week of April. We all hated the sixty-game season caused by Covid, but I guess the owners loved that shit. If they could have a season that starts in July (plus fans paying for hotdogs this time), they’re in heaven.

As with Russia, the baseball owners made their real intentions all too obvious. Nobody believes Putin feared the tiny country next door, just like we knew the owners were trying to break the union. In my original write-up, I wrote “I half believe that if the players agreed to everything the owners asked for, they still would’ve canceled games on general principal.” That’s pretty much what happened with the international draft bullshit at the last minute. 

Similarlyt there ain’t a damn thing Ukraine might have done to avoid the invasion. Short of, I suppose, hoisting the ol’ hammer & sickle. Or letting the Russian army march through en route to another satellite state. I’m looking at you, Belarus.

In Putin’s defense, I was kinda surprised at the world’s reaction. I expected some finger wagging and furrowed brows, maybe a half-hearted sanction of non-essential goods. That’s what we did in Chechnya. And Georgia. And the last time Russia invaded Ukraine. But holy hell, the rest of the world certainly came with some gusto this time, didn’t they? 

I didn’t even know these weapons were in our quiver. Italy seizing the oligarchs’ chateaus was my personal favorite, but up and down the line, countries are going against decades of precedent. Germany’s re-arming. Nothing bad can come from that. Sweden and Finland are lending their support to Ukraine and talking about joining NATO. 

Holy shit, even Switzerland is taking sides? You’ve got to know things aren’t going to plan when the Swiss don’t want your money.

Who would have guessed that, after over seventy years, we would finally figure out how to stand up to a nuclear power. Putin certainly didn’t. Forget seventy years, this is pretty much the first war in human history that is being waged without the intent of killing as many as possible on the other side. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, Russia didn’t get the memo. They’re getting it now.

I also prefer the general backseat the United States has played in this, too. Let those most affected lead the way. Germany and Poland  (there’s an ahistorical pairing for you!) seem to have a good idea of what’s at stake, and how they can stand up to Russia. The United States should be the supporting role in this particular Academy Award.

I know there are a lot of people freaking out that this is the start of World War III, but I’m not so sure. That 141-5 vote at the United Nations doesn’t look like there’s a lot of allies on both sides. The entire world rallied against one nation does not a world war make. Nor does supplying weapons and troops to a country that’s fighting off an invasion. If that was the case, we’d already be up to (at least) world war six, after Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan (Part One).

Then again, if one of the five countries supporting Russia is China, all bets are off. I notice they abstained from the vote. That’s disconcerting. My guess is they might’ve supported Russia before the world responded. Hell, if the West had done nothing more than its normal hands-on-hips posturing, I think Taiwan would already be assimilated. China might not give a shit about their own citizens, but they want the rest of the world to like them. And keep buying shit.

One group that didn’t seem concerned about winning hearts and minds was the baseball owners. I’m not sure they care about us buying from them, either. At least not tickets. I assume hats and jerseys are still selling. Maybe they can become a new Nike and survive on marketing, only. Then again, they’re shitty at crafting a message.

Let’s see what the players gave up in order to get a cost-of-living adjustment. Earlier free agency, more money for young players, minor-league pay higher than the federal minimum wage. Instead, they agreed to expanded playoffs without extra pay and to let the owners change rules whenever the fuck they feel like it. Including in the middle of a season. Who are we facing next week? Mariano Rivera? Quick, let’s ban the cut fastball. 

The owners countered with five percent off hotdogs. 

If they could figure out a way to make the entire season playoffs, and only allow the games to be shown on tv, they’d be all for it. Fans in the stands are such a hassle because you have to hire hotdog vendors and beer men. 

Speaking of those in-stadium workers, they were set to be out of work, too. Only they hadn’t been putting all their endorsement money aside for the last five years. So the players, those greedy “millionaires” who weren’t willing to agree to a contract they were never given, set up a fund to pay those hourly stadium employees. About five hours later, the owners pulled a “that looks bad” move and set up their own fund. Granted, the owners are their bosses so they could have, I don’t know, just continued paying those workers instead of setting up a separate pile of slush money that I’m sure had all sorts of legal ramifications and hoops to jump through. As a general rule, if your employees think to pay your other employees out of their own pockets, it’s hard to paint them as greedy sonsabitches.

And at the end there, the owners took one last dick move. The players agreed to bridge the gap on the financials. They were only about $60,000 apart on the minimum salary and $30 million apart for the luxury tax (hard to believe three months of acrimony over a disagreement over $760,000 or $700,000 for rookies, huh?), so the players more or less agreed to the owners’ demands. But hold on! The commissioner wanted to see if he could get through a cancellation without snickering. He might never be able to feel real human emotions, but can we give him one more shot at pretendsies? Otherwise the A.I. will never be able to evolve. 

So after the players agreed to give up money, the owners threw in a new negotiating ploy. Now they wanted an international draft, because dangit, they have to spend money on stars like Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto! Wouldn’t it be better if they could just “win” the rights to these players and pay them the same minimum wages they pay the American minor leaguers? Heck, do you know how far $7.25 goes in the Dominican Republic?

I don’t even know if the international draft was in the final agreement. It doesn’t really matter. The only reason it was sprung at the last minute was so they could cancel more games. They could call the players greedy one more time, because they didn’t agree to something that hadn’t been discussed prior to that day. Then when the owners uncanceled those games the next day, they look like heroes. But only in the owners’ own minds. The rest of us saw through the bullshit all the way back to December. 

Not to be outdone, Russia and Ukraine agreed to a momentary ceasefire for the sole purpose of evacuating noncombatants from a few cities in the warpath. Then, wouldn’t you know it, the Russians started firing on the civilians as soon as they were out in the open. Then they made a second agreement and shelled them again. After the third ceasefire attack, they set up new “evacuation routes” that led to Belarus instead of Poland.

I know Bond villains are supposed to act Russian. I didn’t know Russians were supposed to act like Bond villains.

His poor wife.

Snow Camping

After multiple fits and starts, years after the initial idea crept into my brain with the perseverance of syphillis, I finally headed up into the mountains and camp in the great white, frigid tundra of the Sierra Nevada, facing harrowing white-out conditions, a la Jack London lightsabering open his Tauntaun, relying on only my MacGyver wits and those innate survival skills harkening back to caveman days.

Okay, a couple slight misrepresentations there. Jack London had no lightsaber. Other than that, it’s all legit.

Plus the fact that I was in Yosemite Valley, where there are park rangers every other square foot. Not to mention grocery stores. And bars, in case I forgot to pack enough beer, the ultimate survival sin.

Oh, and the weekend in question, the temperature was only a few degrees cooler than down in the flatlands.

This was my second planned glorious freezefest marred by temperate conditions. Two years ago, my outdoor curling bonspiel, held at one of the coldest spots in the lower 48 states, resulted in a high in the mid thirties and a low in the twenties. Don’t get me wrong, that’s cold and all, but that same competition this year had highs in the single digits.

Yosemite camping, in comparison, was closer to what I assumed it would be. Yeah, that high temperature wasn’t substantially lower than back home, but the high temperature doesn’t tell the whole story. In the valley, you probably get three to four hours a day near the high. In Yosemite, if you walk into a shadow, you’re losing ten degrees. The only time I felt truly miserable was 2:00 pm, returning to campsite after hiking to the Vernal Falls bridge, only to find said campsite completely shaded, and realizing that sweat cools very quickly. The sun teased us way up on the mountains, but it was gone for good from down below. Even though the temperature dropped another twenty degrees by nighttime, we were acclimated by then.

Actually, the most miserable I felt was when 28,000 steps at elevation combined with carnitas and beer. The bus that takes you into Yosemite is called YART, for Yosemite Area Rapid Transit. Yart is also what I did inside my tent.

Speaking of which, the shuttle busses are back! After two years of destroying the environment in order to stop the sniffles, they finally decided to let our feet and exhaust pipes rest. The only weird thing about the busses was the time and date posted inside were wrong. We rode around Saturday afternoon, but the busses through it was Sunday morning. We thought maybe if we rode the busses long enough, we could find out who won the Super Boal and make a bet on it. Alas, at 5:00 pm Saturday, it was still only reading 8:00 am Sunday, and I don’t think the shuttles ran at midnight when we could listen to the game. Damn you, time travel paradoxes!

Sorry, that had nothing to do with snow camping, just a Yosemite/Covid aside. 

As for the temperature thing, it did get pretty chilly overnight. Somewhere in the mid-twenties, I’d surmise, although one of the wives saw a report of 18. Nothing that a tent, sleeping bag, and about five layers of clothes. 

Oddly enough, my feet kept getting cold around 3:00 am. I’d think my feet would be the warmest, buried deep in my sleeping bag. But I suppose they’re also closest to the edge of the tent. Plus the whole distance-from-heart thing and only one layer of socks. On night two, I threw a hand warmer down there, but it had burned out by the time I needed it. I opened a second one, but I don’t know if I didn’t shake it right or if it was a dud or whatever, but it never seemed to warm up and I was too fucking tired to reassess. 

Yes, I’m talking about those little iron oxide packets. As I said, roughing it like our forebears. 

But dammit, there WAS snow on the ground, so I’m claiming victory over snow camping.

Honestly, I was a little worried. We had huge storms in December, but the last four weeks have been dry, and I wasn’t sure what impact a month of fifty-degree days might have on tobogganing conditions. I knew there’d still be snow up on the mountains, but the valley only sits around 4,000 feet elevation. Fortunately, there was plenty of snow to go around. Considering our campsite was in full shade from 2:00 pm on, I think the snow will stay there well past the equinox.

At least it wasn’t last year. We originally booked our snow camping for last January, but Yosemite canceled it due to the first, or maybe second, Covid surge. Back before we started naming variants, because they didn’t start naming variants until after got vaccinated and weren’t living in fear of plain ol’ vanilla Covid.

While I complained about Yosemite shutting down, because it’s not like we were going to be exchanging lots of saliva with strangers while outdoors in January, perhaps it was a blessing. Our first (and only) storms of the 2020-21 winter didn’t arrive until two weeks after our reservations. Without snow, it isn’t really snow camping. It’s just cold camping, which doesn’t sound nearly as fun.

Aside from the length of time it’s near the high, want to know the other difference between forty degrees at home and forty degrees camping? The latter doesn’t have central heating.

I figured forty was no big deal. I regularly walk to my classroom in shorts when it’s sub-40 in the morning, and half the times I’m wearing shorts because it’ll be 65 by the time I walk out. Except on the way to my classroom, I’m only outside for 500 paces or so. When it’s forty degrees at a campsite, you better be sitting your ass by the fire. Then your front. Then your ass again, like a goddamn rotisserie chicken.

I’m mostly exaggerating. Weatherwise, it was more or less what I was looking for. Cold and crisp, enough to require layers and bundling, but nothing bone-biting. Not sure I would’ve wanted to run around naked at midnight, but nothing a fire in the morning and evening, and a little walking around during the day, couldn’t accommodate. 

Although we did a hell of a lot more than “a little” walking around. In addition to those 28,000 steps, my Fitbit clocked me at 130 floors on Saturday. We did Mirror Lake AND Lower Yosemite Falls AND the Vernal Falls footbridge. I’ve become so used to camping out in the middle of nowhere where the biggest exertion comes from sitting by a lake and playing cornhole, that I forgot camping can include some rather aerobic exercises.

It doesn’t matter if I’ve done Vernal Falls twenty times in my life, I still fall for that sign at the beginning every damn time. “Vernal Falls Footbridge,” it reads, “0.8 miles.” How hard can a trail be if it’s less than a mile? 

Except for the fact that it’s 0.8 miles straight the fuck up a mountain. I tried to explain this to the two Yosemite noobs with me on this trip. We’d done Mirror Lake already and it was getting close to lunchtime. I really only wanted to see if Happy Isles was open. I didn’t need to prove anything.

But it’s less than a mile, they said. There ain’t no pain in the world we can’t withstand for one measly mile. Twenty minutes up, twenty minutes down, and we’ll be right and ready for lunch. 

Then I suddenly forgot a lifetime of experience. I’m older now than I used to be, I reasoned. My legs are longer. An hour car ride used to be straight torture, and now I do it on a daily basis. Based on that logic, the NFL would be filled with fifty-year-olds. 

Holy shit, Vernal Falls is a brutal fucking hike!

There’s one stretch, only fifty yards or so, that appears to cross the surface of the sun at something like a seventy percent grade. No, I don’t care if that can’t exist. This entire stretch stands only as a reminder, after hiking ninety percent of the way under a beautiful tree canopy, that nature is an asshole. On a summer hike, you rest beforehand, drink your body weight in water directly afterward, and then become a druid so you can fuck the nearest tree. 

I thought maybe it would be a pleasant respite in the middle of winter, but nope. Because when you’re hiking in forty-five degree shade, you’ve got layers. I contemplated stripping off my flannel and sweatshirt in order to cross the threshold in my skivvies, but that would’ve taken way too much effort.

When we returned to the campsite, now with no sunlight, my friends remarked it was a deceptive 4/5 of a mile. I felt like reminding them I tried to talk them out of it. But instead I only shivered while cold wind buffeted my sweaty undergarments.

The Mirror Lake trek was more pleasant. The only drawback to that slow, paved incline was some slippery-as-shit batches of ice. Not so bad on the way up as the way down. My curling skills came in handy. Walk like a penguin, low center of gravity. My friends didn’t do quite as well. Four tumbles between the two of them. 

Speaking of ice, I was surprised the actual lake was iced over. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. Ice and snow don’t form the same way, and if it’s regularly dropping into the twenties and teens at night, it doesn’t matter if it’s been a month without a cloud in the sky. But still, Mirror Lake is pretty shallow. Not really a lake at all so much as a slight egress, a Thanksgiving belt unbuckling, of a fast-moving stream. In fact, the pool just beneath Mirror Lake, which I always considered more or less a part of Mirror Lake, didn’t have a speck of ice despite only a fifty foot elevation change. 

And yeah, I totally wanted to curl on that shit.

The Yosemite Falls hike was pretty much the same as it is in the middle of summer. Almost as crowded, too. For the most part, the park was serene and, from the perspective of a regular summer day, sparse, but the Lower Yosemite Falls bridge was still ass-to-elbow.

The only other place that felt crowded was, ironically enough, the campgrounds. Only one of the seven or eight valley campsites is open in the winter, and it’s only half open, all of us jammed into a hundred or so campsites. So even with decreased demand, we’re still right on top of each other, especially for guys used to camping somewhere remote enough for home run derby and throwing butter at trees. Maybe Yosemite knew what it was doing when it canceled my reservations last January. I thought there was no way we could spread Covid to strangers while outside in January. Turns out it’s about as private as a cultish orgy.

They didn’t, however, close Yosemite Falls last January. I assume that’s what caused every single surge and variant of the past twelve months.

Even the village store was a ghost town. I didn’t even know it was possible for the parking lot to only house a handful of cars. On a summer day, you’re idling for ten minutes until one of the two hundred cars leaves. In January, they don’t even bother plowing half the parking lot. 

Or maybe it was just that people bought their shit during the day, not wanting to drive over icy roads in the dark like a couple dumbass city slickers rolling into town twenty minutes before the store closes.

Which leads to the biggest issue with my snow camping adventure, the biggest switcheroo from my comfort zone of summer camping. 

Did you know that the days are shorter in February than in June? Who woulda guessed?

I knew there was no way in hell we’d make it there before the sun went down, but couldn’t fight that niggling hope at the base of my spine that I wouldn’t be blindly groping in the frozen dark like a freshman trying to unclasp Elsa’s bra. We discussed grabbing dinner on the way into the park, but didn’t want to lose time. So no stopping at the Pizza Factory or inviting brewery in Groveland. Because… well, I’m not sure why. It’s not like 8:00 would’ve been darker than 7:00. Once you hit nighttime, you’re setting up camp blind. The only difference is sloppiness caused by hunger pangs.

In the end, after fumbling around with some persnickety poles that seem to go together perfectly fine when I don’t have to worry about my fat ass blocking the lantern light, we finally boiled some water and had ramen for dinner that first night. It was almost PB & J sandwiches, but the other guy realized he threw some packs into his camping gear back in the Bush administration and that stuff can withstand a nuclear winter. Or a Yosemite winter. 

Not as good as the brewery or pizza in Groveland. Then again, had we stopped for dinner, the store might’ve been closed when we got there, meaning we could only burn the wood we brought with us. Ramen and fire beats pizza and no fire.

Who says I’m irresponsible while camping?

Next year, Polar Bear Challenge!

Recipes for Writing

I make a pretty mean gnocchi. 

By which I mean really nice gnocchi. The only thing it’s mean to is your waistline, because everyone grabs seconds. There are plenty foods I make that people say are good but then politely push the plate aside when they’re finished. What, you don’t even want some for leftovers? That’s tantamount to those idiots who stand for the entire bow line at the end of the play. They think they’re supporting all the actors, but in reality, they’re giving equal feedback to the chorus line and Jean Valjean. 

Come on, people, I’m an aspiring writer. Show, don’t tell.

Not so with the gnocchi, however. 

I’ve got three solid “outside the norm” dishes. I mean, I’m no slouch when it comes to staples like hamburgers and barbecue chicken, and with a seven-year-old in the house, I’ve perfected every mac & cheese this side of the Andromeda Galaxy. But nobody asks how I make my hamburgers. People don’t rush back to the table to split the last drumstick.

My ravioli, jambalaya, and gnocchi, however, bring ALL the milkshakes to the yard. Yet every time I make them, somewhere halfway through dishes I’ve made countless times, I think they’re fubared. 

In the writing world, they call that imposter syndrome. 

Starting with the Jan Brady of the three, I discovered my jambalaya recipe in my mid-twenties when I became obsessed with New Orleans and all things creole. I went to Mardi Gras at the age of 25 and spent the next couple years hunting down the secrets of gumbo, etouffee, and various colored beans and rices. It seemed an easier experience to transport home than random women flashing me in return for cheap plastic trinkets.

Please note, I wrote creole, not Cajun. Creole food is a wonderful fusion of textures and flavors, foods and spices, into a rib-sticking umami. Cajun, by contrast, is crappy food, like catfish, they mask by drenching in spice and charring the shit out of. All the nuance of a ball-pein hammer.

Of all those NOLA recipes I tinkered with in my twenties, the jambalaya stuck out. Other than that one time I tweaked crawfish bread into scallop bread because, even though crawfish are readily available in Sacramento, they’re a pain in the ass to get the good stuff out of. Scallops accomplish many of the same profiles with much less hassle. If anything, they’re juicier, and scallop bread was fucking divine. Even better than crawfish bread, if I dare say. But I never made it again because it was messy as hell and scallops have become friggin’ expensive.

Damn, I might need to bust out that scallop bread again.

But yeah, other than scallop bread, jambalaya’s become my jam. I’ve probably only made it ten times or so, although more often in my thirties than more forties.  Having a child lessens the likelihood I’m having drunk friends over for Mardi Gras. Add to that the fact that Wife doesn’t care for red peppers or Andouille, plus shellfish inflames my gout like a motherfucker, and it’s much easier to just throw a pork roast in the oven or something.

Jambalaya isn’t tough to make, but it’s easy to mess up. You basically make a broth and then cook rice in it. It’s sometimes confused with gumbo, which is also rice in a broth. But the gumbo retains soup form, with the cooked rice being added at the last minute, whereas with jambalaya, the rice absorbs the broth, so it’s a rice dish, not a soup. 

Unlike other rice dishes, you don’t just throw a cup of rice into two cups of water then walk away for twenty minutes, it takes a few hour, stirring regularly, to absorb at a low simmer. The first time I made it, I burnt the shit out of the rice. It’s not a dish you can adjust on the fly. One of the recipes I based mine on tells you to taste the liquid before you add the rice with the caveat, “If it doesn’t taste right, it’s too late to do anything about it. Taste it anyway.”

Cooking jambalaya runs in the same lane as the “pantsing” method of writing. For those unfamiliar, with pantsing (meaning “seat of your pants” writing), you have no particular story in mind. You think up characters, throw them into a setting, and see what happens. Maybe the writer is a step or two ahead of the characters, but not always. Sometimes you write yourself into a corner. Sometimes a plot point simmers too long without stirring, and end up with some stale char. But the good news is that you can taste of the broth from time to time and adjust as necessary. Just don’t drop the rice in until all the characters have arrived at the dead man’s mansion. 

I wrote one of my books using the pantsing method. Most of my flash fictions are written in the pantsing model, and plenty of them end up burnt to shit. Blog posts, too. I know, who woulda guessed these bits of brilliance are nothing more than, “Fucked up on the gnocchi again, this reminds me of my writing” somehow morphing into 3000 words of drivel. 

The problem with pantsing is figuring out where to go with it, when to make stuff happen. You’ve got a premise and a hook, but if you don’t know when to add the rice, you spend five hundred pages circling the drain and never coming in for a landing. Allegedly Stephen King is a huge pantser. Most of the time he pulls it off, but he has a few books where the premise is way cooler than the payoff. I’m looking at you, Under the Dome.

The staple I’ve cooked for the longest is my ravioli. This is a family recipe that the kids “assist” on as early as five or six. I was in college the first time I made them on my own. You know you’re a badass when you’re asking for grooved rolling pins for Christmas at the age of twenty. In my defense, video games were at a low ebb in the mid-1990s. 

The problem with ravioli is the prep work. If I get a good groove going, and don’t get distracted by the television or the family, I can finish in a weekend. Yes, a full weekend. Including Friday night, when I cook the twenty or so ingredients that go into the stuffing. Then I need most of it to cool before I put it together into the food processor. Then back to the fridge to ensure it’s coalesced enough to hold some sense of form when I put it in the dough the next day. 

The dough takes all day Saturday and Sunday. Make a big ol’ batch, cut off one slice at a time and then roll, roll, roll, stuff, fill and fold, roll with the other pin, then slice. Layer them with wax paper in a Pyrex dis and throw them in the freezer, because they’re still liable to stick to each other at this point. Then start on the next Pyrex and by the time it’s full, you can take the other one out of the freezer and transfer all those frozen ravs into a freezer-safe Ziplock. Repeat the process for 36 hours or so. Ugh.

And yeah, my family recipe that’s been “passed down for generations” requires food processors, Pyrex, and freezers. Not sure how it was done back in Piedmont. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that the most important ingredient in my grandma’s “timeless” pasta sauce recipe was a packet of Lawry’s seasoning. 

Don’t scoff. It’s still my secret recipe.

Note you don’t actually EAT the ravioli the weekend you make them. This is a “make in October to have at Christmas” kind of meal.

In that way, they’re similar to the “planning” writing style, the opposite of pantsing. Should be self-explanatory, but planning entails plotting the whole thing out, knowing all the nooks and crannies, the pitfalls and prat falls, long pen hits paper. Or fingers hit keyboard, since we’re living in the age of Pyrex. 

The good news with planning is, if you do it right, there’s less danger of writing yourself into that corner. Spackle the plot holes before they turn into cervices.  Some people even plot specific conversations ahead of time and, allegedly, if you do it right, the book is easier to write by the time you get around to it. Sounds boring to me. 

That’s the problem with my ravioli, too. Who the hell wants to work on food all weekend, sending their back into apoplectic quivering, and douse the entire kitchen (and living room and bedroom and shower drain) with flour, so they can just drop it in a pot of water three months later? Not me. Especially when the accolades I receive as reward are about the same, possible a skosh less, than I get for my gnocchi, which only take a few hours.

I was well into my thirties by the time I started making gnocchi. I don’t even remember gnocchi existing in my youth. Nowadays, every Italian restaurant has them on the menu, but I was close to twenty years old, on a family trip to Italy, before I discovered these scrumptious pillows. My grandma was damn lucky I let her back on the plane after she shrugged and said she used to make it a lot but didn’t anymore. 

At least that meant she had a recipe somewhere. 

I still didn’t make my first gnocchi until close to a decade later. I assumed it was difficult, and ravioli was the Official Family Recipe(tm), so why waste time on something becoming more and more ubiquitous at every Italian joint? 

Turns out they’re pretty simple. Sure, you still need to spend a few hours doing the never-ending roll, slice, shape, freeze cycle, but the first part of the process only requires a couple mashed potatoes. It’s not like I’m going to bust it out on a weeknight or anything, but I can bust out a batch on a Saturday afternoon and still have time for college football. So much nicer than sirloin steak in a food processor.

Somewhere in the middle of pantsing and planning lies “plantsing,” which seems to me to just be how 80% of normal humans write. Or really, do just about anything. How do you put up Christmas lights? Do you draw out a bunch of schematics ahead of time? Do you randomly go up the ladder, hang some lights, then go to the opposite side of the house for one inflatable? Or do you pull all the shit out, inventory the basic things that need to happen, then try to figure out the most logical course, all the while ready to adjust the plan if, say, this string of lights needs a replacement bulb or that character needs a better back story? 

There’s always a spot in my gnocchi making, and in my writing, where I think I’ve fucked the whole thing, that I don’t know what I’m doing. Even when I know it’s coming, I still convince myself that no, this time is far worse, there’s no way to return from the sticky morass I’ve gotten myself into. 

With gnocchi, it happens when I add the egg and butter to the potato and flour dough. Grandma’s recipe says to add “most of the flour” to the mashed potatoes before this step, then add the rest to dry it out after this step. When I make it, there’s not enough flour on Earth to return the flour to a dry enough texture to roll. So I add a quarter cup, then another quarter cup, then fuck it, throw the other half in. Okay, one more cup. Another? Why is it still the consistency of pudding? I can’t even get it unstuck from the cutting board,  much less able to be cut and rolled. Wife, can you go to the grocery store for another bag of flour? I can’t touch anything.

I keep telling myself that Grandma’s measurements originated before GMO crops, so the ratio of one potato and half an egg to one cup of flour is off. Modern potatoes are one pound a piece, and I highly doubt great grandma coaxing an egg out of her Genoese chicken was opting between large, extra large, and double-x. So when I’m heading past six cups of flour to counter two eggs, yet still the dough sucks it in like a x-wing into a black hole, I’m always convinced I’ve fucked up. 

The recipe says the dough should be dry before slicing and rolling. Instead, I wait until it is barely malleable before starting the next step. Then I dust both the dough and the board before rolling it out. And dip the knife in flour before cutting. And the fork before shaping.  Yet still, every time I’m convinced this is the time, this is the batch my extended family and guests finally take a few bites and say,  “Thanks I’m stuffed. Can I have some more salad?”

I’ve recently quit two novels. The first I “temporarily put aside” to attempt a serialized story on Amazon Vella. But in reality, I knew the story was going nowhere. Two characters who had basted in my mind for years fell flat, their trials and tribulations pedestrian and predictable, once placed on paper. So if I could jump to an exciting new idea with a baked-in excuse (“Kindle Vella will make me a millionaire, but only if I’m in on the initial launch!”), then it won’t be the time-old story every writer faces at 25,000 words.

But boy, howdy, if I thought a character’s growth arc felt boring and predictable in standard format, imagine writing one as a serial! Good lord, episodic stories sure are episodic. Get in and out of a hairy situation in 2,200 words, then rinse and repeat. All the while knowing that character, not plot, is what brings people back to a series. But how much can I delve into character if I have to wrap up and restore the status quo before word number 2,500? 

I guess the good news was that I gave up the serial a little earlier. Fifteen k instead of thirty. Perhaps that means I’m growing as a writer. 

Or maybe that means I’m getting lazier. 

The bad news is that I didn’t go back to the abandoned project. Much better to go rewrite the first chapter of the finished project that I’m currently querying. Or working on the second draft for my other manuscript. And I hate editing, so that tells you something if I’d rather edit than write fresh. At any given time, I’ve usually got 2-5 completed blog posts, but I still only post twice a month. Why? Cause it’s easier to write something shitty than polish my previous turds. And by the time I get around to fixing them, I have to rewrite half of it. Shit, Obama isn’t president anymore?

But at least those completed novels are going somewhere. They were solid enough characters and stories to carry 100,000 words (which need to be edited down to 70,000). They’ve got backstories and foreshadowing, a twist nobody sees coming. Despite the fact that I was absolutely bored with them at 30,000 words and was absolutely convinced I couldn’t get them where they needed to be in that one scene.

I don’t give up on my gnocchi, despite being 100% sure, each time, that my best option is to throw the gunk into the trash and starting from scratch. All the writing advisers say don’t abandon your project. The fancy “other” story will always entice you from afar, but it’s a mirage. Once you start writing that one, you’ll bog down into the mushy middle the same as where you are right now. Ignore that siren’s call. 

Then again, all those advice people say they’ve had to abandon projects before. Whether it’s a “fatal flaw” in the story or a plot hole the size of an iceberg. Crystal clear writing advice: never give up on a project. Unless, you know, it’s worth giving up on. Kinda like four potatoes equals four cups of flower. Except usually not.

Truth be told, I should’ve abandoned my last batch of gnocchi. Even after six cups of flower, it was still as moist as the Mekong Delta. It was a pain in the ass to roll out and half the time when I tried to roll one off the fork, it remained on the fork. The end results were larger than usual, and even after an hour in the freezer, they weren’t frozen enough to transfer to a Ziplock. We transported them to Grandma’s house still in the Pyrex and rolled them straight into the water from their parchment paper.

Nobody complained, though. They still went back for seconds. And honestly, even if they weren’t up to my standards, they were still fine. Now that I think of it, I didn’t need to start the batch over. What I had was fine, it just needed more flour. I was just sick and tired of adding flour after a couple hours. But I’ve plantsed my way through this recipe enough times to know that I always reach this point. This batch might have been worse than most, but it’s all variations of the same problem. The best way through is forward, not some magical new batch that will behave better.

Maybe there’s something to be said for powering through. Not giving up on a batch or a story midway through. 

Now if only I could figure out how to add a little more flour to that plot hole.

Family and other F Words

My family occasionally reminds me why I moved to the other end of the state.

That “occasion” is every damn time I have to interact with them. 

Christmas this year was no exception. Is it too soon to wish for the good old days of 2020 when we had baked-in excuses to avoid travel and gatherings? Sure, that excuse still exists. It’s just sounding more like an excuse.

The Boomers who have ruled my extended family with an iron fist since the moment they clawed their way out of war-weary wombs are dragging everyone into their self-centered black holes. They never doubted their infallibility over the last seventy years, why should they start now?

My parents generation wrested Christmas and other holiday celebrations from their own parents in the so-called Greatest Generation while in their thirties and forties. Meanwhile, I’m pushing fifty, but so far they’ve allowed ONE member of my generation to host ONE holiday. And it’s Easter, which no one gave a shit about. You can take Charlton Heston’s gun easier than we can take a Certified Family Gathering(tm).

I mean, come on, if they were the “Greatest Generation,” why would they let other generations take things from them? Don’t they know that greatness means grabbing everything and holding onto it with a death grip? Otherwise the fascists win. Not that the Greatest Generation would know jack shit about standing up to fascists. They didn’t have Facebook OR Twitter in 1941. How could one possibly stand up to fascism without changing the font on their profile picture? “Greatest.” Pfft.

For the past thirty-ish years, Christmas dinner has shifted between my mom, my aunt, and their cousins. As negotiated in the Great Treatise on Holiday Celebrations reached during the Clinton Administration, right up there with the Good Friday Agreement and Oslo Accords., my mom and aunt hold the Christmas festivities in even years, while the heathen side of the family got the odd years. 

Not that they’re heathens. With an Irish last name, you might think I’ve got a protestant/Catholic thing going on. The two sides of my family, descending from my grandpa and his sister, are quite agreeable. It’s the generation gap that gets a bit hairy. In case you hadn’t noticed.

As with everything, Covid kinda fucked up that whole arrangement. Nobody held Christmas in 2020. There was quite some consternation, and many negotiations back and forth, as to whether 2021 should go to the person who was skipped in 2020, my aunt, or the original 2021 designee, a cousin. I can only assume both sides sent pawns to a neutral location with missives and salvos before going to the mattresses.

Enter my niece, who graduated college in December. Because no story about obtuse Boomers is complete without a it’s-all-about-meeeeeee Zillennial. I’m not sure whether she was demanding a graduation party or whether my mom, her grandma, insisted. Probably a bit of each. Grandma uses any excuse to throw a party, not because she enjoys company, but so she can prove she throws better parties. But niece was the one who didn’t want to wait until spring or summer for her party. Granted, it’s taken her seven years and at least three locations to finish said college career, but now that she’s finished, dammit, gotta throw the party ASAP.

Seems a simple pickle, yeah? Just cancel Christmas and throw a graduation party instead.

I wish I was being facetious. 

Step one. Niece can’t make it to Grandma’s house for Christmas because of, I don’t know, work or friends or bong hits. So they planned her graduation for the middle of January. What’s better than one Awkward All-Family Shoutfest over the Holiday Season? That’s right, two.

And okay, not to throw everyone else under the bus without acknowledging the grenades I lobbed. Because if we’re lumping people into their generations, then how does Gen X play out?  “Yeah, I ain’t fucking doing that.”

Did I mention that my students asked if I was a Boomer? I was incensed. After I explained I was Generation X, they responded that they had never heard of that. So right on par.

In this family issue, I feel I made many concessions. In fact, I was willing to fly to Southern California for both events, Christmas and the graduation. What I refused to do was make my daughter schlep her ass across the state twice in a two-week period. Especially with one being the day after Christmas and the other being at the end of her first week back at school after two weeks off. To say nothing of the $500 I spend each round trip. 

I thought the most logical trade-off was both of us come for Christmas but then it’s just me for graduation because, honestly, why does a 7-year-old care about college? Like most 7-year-olds, she has a natural aversion to festivities where everybody’s gushing over someone else instead of her.

Naturally, nobody gave two shits if I was going to be there. If I don’t bring Daughter, then I might as well sit my ass back at home and save five benjamins.

Regardless, I set out the plans. Both of us would pack everything up the day after Christmas to come visit for a few days, then I would fly down solo in January. 

As an aside, I’ve hated with a passion, since my earliest days, the whole visiting grandma after Christmas. Even when we only lived an hour away, the trip to Grandma’s house lasted from 10:00 am on Christmas morning through at least the 27th, usually the 28th. What’s more fun than opening a bunch of gifts then leaving them behind for three days? And sure, I could bring some of the new stuff, but it’s torturous when you get the hot new video game from Santa, but Grandma doesn’t have an NES. Some years I brought the case and read the instruction booklet.

One “Yeah, I ain’t doing that shit” I carved out years ago is not flying down until the 26th. Of course, we spend most of the 25th at Wife’s family, so there’s still an element of never getting to play with your new shit, but welcome to the holidays.

Except not this year. Cause my mom told me that if we were only coming to one of the two celebrations, she’d rather it be the graduation. She talked about how everybody I’d want to see at Christmas would also be there at graduation. And they’d cook the same dinner, if that’s what I was worried about missing out on. And the baby (there’s a baby in the family) might not be there the day after Christmas but would definitely be there at graduation. 

The first thing I asked before deciding was if my aunt was okay with it. After the prolonged negotiations, this year’s Christmas was gifted to my aunt, who missed her turn last year, instead of her cousin, who was originally slated for this year. I wanted to make sure she was okay with me not showing up for Christmas. My mom thought this was an odd request, because who gives a fuck about other people’s ideas and emotions? But she acquiesced and (allegedly) got clearance from my aunt, and then we were set.

Well, not really set, because now that my mom has us all coming down for a graduation on a Saturday in January, why not stick around all day Sunday to open presents and eat quiche and drink Bailey’s, basically the full Christmas bacchanal. Then jam all those presents into an extra suitcase that we pack for a 36 hour turnaround and hope it isn’t over fifty pounds on the return flight.

And again, maybe I’m the asshole here, but I said no fucking way. If you want us there for the graduation instead of Christmas, you get us for graduation, not Christmas. You know what’s great about opening presents on the 26th or 27th? I don’t have a brand new term, with new subjects and new students the next day. So sorry, but I’m not flying down on a Saturday in order to do a full extended family party followed by a present orgy the following morning in order to fly home late on Sunday to get both Daughter and I ready for school the next day. If you want us there for Christmas, we’ll come for Christmas.

That’s an asshole hat I’ll proudly don.

Not that I went scrooge or anything, I bought everybody gift cards I could easily hand to them during the festivities so as not to take the focus away from the graduating Zillennial. I sent presents to those who wouldn’t be at the graduation.

Who wasn’t going to be present, you might ask? After all, one of the selling points was that “everybody who would be at Christmas” would also be at the graduation. Except for my aunt. 

Could you guess that was coming? Turns out my aunt wasn’t quite so thrilled at her sister telling people to skip her party for the much cooler one in January. My uncle thought my mom was trying to replace their Christmas with the graduation which, of course, “never entered” my mom’s mind, except for yeah, that’s exactly what she fucking did. So whether to placate my mom or stop hearing about it from her husband, my aunt finally canceled Christmas. 

Well, she didn’t cancel Christmas. Hallmark wouldn’t allow that. But she tapped out of the family bullshit and gave the annual celebration back to the cousin who would have been scheduled to have it during this odd-numbered year if not for 2020. So all is right with the world. And my mom was happy to note that none of this drama would happen next year, because it’s her scheduled year. And if my aunt goes six or eight years between hosting, who the hell cares, right? Seventy-year-olds regularly wait around eight years for shit to happen. Just ask Joe Biden.

So fine, I’m staying home for Christmas, Aunt is miserable, but Mom gets her precious all-hands-on-deck celebration. All is right with the world and if it’s not, at least the repercussions shouldn’t last longer than a decade anyway, right?

If only someone had asked Mom to clear it with Aunt first. Oh right, I did.

Except don’t forget, these plans are being made in the joyous 2020-2022 corridor, so you know Covid is going to rear it’s ugly head. Earlier this week, I got a text that, due to the recent Covid spike, the graduation party is canceled. Postponed until spring or summer when we can festivate outdoors. It was surprisingly thoughtful for my mom, until I inquired further and one of those “spikes in Covid” was her husband. Had it not affected her household personally, I’m sure she would’ve thrown caution to the wind.

But wait, there’s more. Don’t cancel your flight yet, Mom implores! Maybe I can still fly down and we can open Christmas presents. In mid-January. Because I skipped Christmas at her request. For a graduation that isn’t happening.

Just so long as Mom gets her “Christmas” photo of all her grandkids and her one great-grandkid. Except one of the grandkids and the great-grandkid won’t be there, because husband of said grandkid (and father of said great-grandkid) just got Covid. Oh, and the one other cousin near my daughter’s age won’t be there either. Her mother has Covid.

Far be that from convincing my mom to put a cork in her fantasy of creating a holiday celebration better than her sister’s holiday. And if we all catch Covid from each other, than maybe that old “I’m in my seventies, this might be the last…” will come true. 

So now I’m schlepping my ass t Southern California for no reason other than to open presents. And I’m not giving presents, I’m only handing people cards.  Like a typical self-centered Gen X’er.

Present at this function will be my mom, my sister, the niece who just graduated college but isn’t getting her party, and my aunt. 

Yes, my aunt. Because my mom’s husband has Covid, these festivities have been moved to my aunt’s house. 

In economics, we call that an equilibrium.

A miserable, pain-in-the-ass equilibrium. And just like the ones in economics, the only ones who it benefits are the Baby Boomers.

Piss Off, 2021!

What to say about 2021?

This time of year I’d usually reflect on the travels and travails of the previous twelve months. I used to post year-end concert reviews, but that was back when concerts were a thing. Maybe I could post about something as benign as the smiles on people’s faces, but somehow we’ve now been convinced that masks are more effective at stopping germs than vaccination is, so it’ll be another decade before I see someone’s smile again.

It’s been at least two Novembers since I’ve written about what I’m thankful for. Ironic, huh? When the world is on fire, it’s harder to focus on the things that keep us sane. Maybe we’re too afraid that by naming them, they’ll drop into fuck-up mode. I think if you say family three times out loud, then Bloody Mary’s going to come through the bathroom mirror and give us the omega variant. 

So fine, here’s the story of 2021: You only have to wear the masks until the vaccine gets here. Hah, hah, just kidding, keep wearing the masks. And that vaccine? Yeah, even though it’s working, it might not be working, so get the new one. Well, you don’t GOTTA get the new one. It’s approved, but not recommended. Or is it recommended but not required? This shit’s worse than iPhones. Steve Jobs says all the cool kids are swapping their Pfizer for a Moderna.

I’m not saying 2021 was worse than 2020. Sure, I haven’t seen a concert in two years, but at least in 2021, I was able to see a few movies. But I’m supposed to wear my mask while eating popcorn, even though the closest person is five seats away and probably vaccinated. We’ve known the virus doesn’t travel via touching the same object an infected person touched for a good eighteen months now, but we’re not acting like it. 

2020 was pure chaos. The entirety of human society was touch and go for a few months. It was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, kiss-your-hand-and-slam-it-on-the-car-ceiling-through-the-yellow-light kinda year. We pulled out ALL the metaphors in 2020. 

But 2020 gets a bit of a pass. “Unprecedented,” one might say. Right before you punched them in the mouth. From six feet away.

2021, by comparison, was torture.  Without a fore-ordained excuse. One might call 2021 precedented. 

Not that you’d know it by how we acted.  

Honestly, I’ve been fully vaccinated since March (or at least what was once considered fully vaccinated), but I still have yet to travel or go to Happy Hour or allow my students to see my mouth. 2021 was supposed to be different. 

And don’t get me started on the motherfucking omicron variant. We’re all aware that omicron is, like, ten letters after delta, right? What made this carriage sexier than the last nine? It might be a little more contagious, but less deadly. Many epidemiologists are saying we need to focus on hospitalizations, not pure numbers. My scant understanding of virus biology is that “contagious but not deadly” is where we want our viruses to be for long-term stability. Flus and colds are contagious but not deadly. Viruses don’t like killing us their host.

It feels like the pearl clutching over the omicron nothing burger seems suspiciously tied to the children’s vaccine being approved. Because the last time we thought we were in the woods, and people stopped clicking on every media clickbait, they reminded us that the kids still couldn’t get vaccinated so make sure you keep coming back and seeing our advertisements. Once we got our kids vaccinated and could finally say, “Everyone who wants it is vaccinated and the rest deserve what they get, I’m going to stop following the clickbaits,” they come back with, “But wait, here’s OMICRON!”

It could also be explained by the media people wanting an excuse when they knew it would be spiking in places like California and New York after they’d been blaming it on dumb rednecks all summer long. They know it spikes when we go inside. The south is really hot in the summer, so people go inside. In New York and California, we go inside when it gets cold. But OMICRON gives us an excuse.

My favorite Herr Kommandant out of all the Herr Kommandants, Monsieur Newsom of California, recently re-implemented a mask mandate throughout the state, which was an ironic turn of events considering we never really got rid of the mask mandate in the first place. But he has to do that because, wag finger, we’ve been “spiking” since Thanksgiving. 

Also because poor Gavin’s name has been out of the news recently and he’s got to run for re-election next year. When the first omicron patient was found in San Francisco, he couldn’t roll out the press release fast enough. Slick back the hair and grab some tv cameras, baby! Like Navin Johnson when the new phone books arrive. “The new variant is here! The new variant is here! I’m finally somebody!”

But this new mandate isn’t a statewide mandate. It only affects every single inch of the state outside of San Francisco. Because, I shit you not, San Francisco been “taking the virus seriously.” So I guess the other 39 million Californians are all dumbasses. Including Marin County and Santa Clara County, which both have HIGHER vaccination rates than San Francisco, but somehow are not exempted from the mask mandate.

Any guess where Herr Kommandant was spending his holidays? Had he only declared the French Laundry a “Covid-free location,” he could have avoided the whole recall election. So glad he’s learned from his mistakes. 

BTW, I just checked the numbers. Want to guess which location is leading the state in cases per 100,000? I’ll give you a hint: they’re taking the virus very seriously. 

Sorry, this was supposed to be a post about 2021 and here I am taking about variants and mask mandates. And I’m breaking my rule, talking about case numbers instead of hospitalizations. And using the numbers to prove I’m better than people I don’t like.

But that’s what’s so frustrating! We shouldn’t still be talking about variants and mask mandates in December 2021!

Last year, we took Daughter for a picture with the Grinch instead of Santa. Seemed fitting for 2020. While there, we bought a couple of funny Grinch masks. “Six feet? I prefer sixty.” Ha ha, way to thumb our nose at 2020. But I remember saying at the time, “This is silly, because I’m only likely to wear it at Christmas time, and by next Christmas, masks won’t be a thing anymore.” I should’ve known better. I ain’t saying shit about 2022. 

The worst part of this entire story? The mall didn’t having a Grinch’s Grotto this year. Santa was the only option.

2020 was unprecedented. 2021 is just an asshole.

Fine, you want a concert review? Let’s return to New Orleans, where I was scheduled to go see Vampire Weekend in October 2020, before it was canceled. In October 2021, I tried again.

The Jazz Festival, which I’ve always wanted to go to, was postponed from May to October. That’s how 2021 rolled, or was supposed to. Instead of canceling outright, we merely postponed, as if the light at the end of the tunnel was not some decades-away illusion.

This postponement worked great for me. Normally the Jazz Fest is in May, which is a really bad time for me to take an extended weekend. AP Tests and finals and students who have slept in my class for five months magically “finding” all their “late work” to turn in. But in October, my school gets one week off in between first and second quarter. That’s why I was planning to see Vampire Weekend last October. Even without concerts, it’s a great time to travel because nobody else has it off. 

But Vampire Weekend is no Jazz Fest, and this particular Jazz Fest seemed poised to triumphantly announce, with the trumpets of Jericho (or at least Trombone Shorty) our return to the living. The lineup included Elvis Costello and Stevie Nicks and Jimmy Buffet! I even convinced Wife, who has a substantially lower impression of the Crescent City, to accompany me. I don’t understand her negativity on the subject. Who DOESN’T want to deal with their husband pissing himself after his seventh hand grenade? 

In the end, it didn’t matter. The postponed 2020/2021 Jazz Festival was canceled back in ye olden days of the Delta wave. That light at the end of the tunnel was an approaching locomotive.

The irony was that they canceled the concert, scheduled for October, because New Orleans were spiking in August. Had we not already lived through seventeen waves of this bullshit, such a decision might be understandable, but don’t we know by now that a place spiking in August will be fine by October? 

Spikes usually last about four weeks. We start changing our behaviors in week two. We cancel shit late in week three, so by the time the event would have happened, the surge has moved on to some other locale.

Sure enough, when they canceled the concert in August, the Louisiana 7-day rolling case count was hovering just under 6,000. By the time the concert was scheduled, in mid-October, it was below 700. As anyone who’s paid any attention over the past two years could have predicted.

Again, if this came to pass on 2020, I might give it a pass. 2021 has no fucking excuse. 

Unfortunately, we only like to focus on surges when they happen in locales belonging to the other political party. Then it proves that they’re doing everything wrong and we’re doing everything right. Then we like to ignore it when it hits our party’s part of the country. If the only pattern we’re looking for is red or blue, I guess we’ll never find that subtle nuance of four-week surges. It’s not like we can find them ad infinitum in the statistics.

Such is life here at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties. Make your plans, have the plans change, then after you’ve adjusted to round five of the bullshit, they just cancel it altogether. Take the vaccine but then act like the vaccine doesn’t work. Who are the real anti-vaxxers, the people who refuse to take it or the people who take it and then ask all the other vaccinated people around them to wear triple-ply masks?

So yeah, 2021, it’s time you move the fuck on. A sequel is supposed to switch things up a bit, using the same characters in different contexts, maybe try a different theme. But this Covid sequel is just marking time, retreading the same tired plot with promises that some special guest star might excite us here and there. If the writers can’t nail Empire Strikes Back, dare I ask what drivel is coming in Return of the Jedi?

Or Superman III.

Let’s at least hope this is only a trilogy. If it’s Fast and Furious, schedule my aneurysm for 2023.

Huevos de Awesome

Beer: Not just for breakfast anymore.

No wait. This post isn’t about beer. For once.

Let’s talk about eggs. The great cornerstone of all cooking, the barometer against which all kitchen staples compare themselves.

The only legitimate reason for chickens to not live long enough to provide me more buffalo wings.

The only aborted fetuses that both sides of the aisle can agree on.

Heck, you can even use them to determine if you’re taking good drugs.

Who doesn’t love going out to breakfast? We don’t go often, but once or twice a season, almost always on Saturdays, not Sundays with the plebs, mind you. But bow howdy, plant me in front of a plate dripping with sausage gravy and hollandaise sauce, complete with the same number of calories I usually ingest over a full 24 hours, including that twelve pack of beer I’m probably burning off from the night before, and I’m in for a golden day. 

At least until 10 am, when I’m headed for an hour on the shitter.

But seriously, how hard is it to make those eggs over medium? It’s the kryptonite of every line cook. Over easy comes out like snot, while over hard is a brick of chalk. Over medium is named thusly for a reason. Cooked whites, runny yolk. Instead, they overcook it before the flip, making the yolk about 70-100% hard. On a good day. The other day I had a rock-hard yolk with snotty whites. How the hell does that happen? Medium means BETWEEN hard and easy, not 50% hard and 50% easy.

I could make it myself, after all. I’m paying you because I’m hungover. Or I’m about to be.

I can’t do poaching. Or hollandaise. Although I could’ve come up with a better name than Eggs Benedict. Greatest traitor in American history gets a yummy breakfast treat named after him? Cause it’s got Canadian bacon in it, and he tried to turn West Point over to the Canucks? 

Corned beef hash is about 50/50. I could probably do it, but damn, that’s a lot of effort. Better to get it at a restaurant. 

That’s what I enjoy most about eating breakfast out. So I can get something that’s a pain in the ass to make at home. It’s not like dinner, where they’re probably using better ingredients than I’ve got at home. The eggs and bacon and potatoes, I could do at home.

Some people order scrambled eggs out at breakfast. I cannot fathom such a thing. Why the hell would you pay ten or twenty bucks for something with such minimal effort? O By the time I get in my car, drive here and twiddle my thumbs, I could’ve scrambled eggs for ten people. h, and a sausage patty on the side? You mean the thing that you throw in a pan and flip once? Done!

While I technically can make a proper over medium egg, I’ll be honest and say it’s not 100%. The yolk ruptures on the flip, or sometimes on the initial crack. Sometimes I even do the overcooking that I malign the line cooks for. Then again, I make it once a month, not five hundred times every Sunday.

But scrambling? They take five minutes and are impossible to mess up. 

Most of the time, the scrambles I make at home are better than whatever they’re offering up at Breakfast R’ Us. It’s usually called “Whatever Leftovers We Have Scramble/Omelet.” Taco beef or fajita chicken? Throw it in. Pork chops and apple slices? Absolutely! Mac and cheese? Tator tots? You’re skeptical, but it all works, so long as you have some shredded cheese. 

Such is the majesty of eggs.

I have similar issues with pancakes and waffles. Pancakes aren’t tough, so if you want me to purchase them, you better jazz it up, make it something better than I could make at home. Coconut? I’d love some. Nuts and oats and shit? Sure, sign me up. 

Although probably not shit. Not that I see it on the menu often. Probably at Denny’s.

Waffles, on the other hand, are a pain in the ass to make. Even worse, I have to dirty a different dish than usual. A cooking device that I only use for one thing, so it’s way the hell in the back of the cabinet. Pull out the slow cooker, pull out the InstaPot. Move over the popcorn maker. Then I’m probably going to have to clean it once BEFORE I even cook with it. There’s a reason no menu features a dust-layered waffle. Not even Denny’s.

Then the waffle maker’s going to sit out on my counter for five days until I get around to its second cleaning. Probably right around the time I need the counter space for the slow cooker. 

But even when I order a waffle at a restaurant, it ought to come with an egg on the side. I’ll even allow scrambled.

Eggs (non-scrambled) belong with biscuits and gravy, too. Runny yolk mixing with sausage gravy together is the closest mere mortals can come to understanding the divine. The fact I usually have to order the egg on the side is criminal. I know the biscuits and gravy have a million calories, so they don’t want to add more, but come on! 

The point is that eggs were made for breakfast and breakfast was made for eggs and never the twain shall meet. Scratch that. Always the twain should meet. As long as I have substantial bathroom time, and maybe a twenty-mile jog, blocked out the rest of the day. 

You know where eggs cease to be wonderful? Recipes.

Eggs become such bullies, such persnickety little divas as soon as you start combining them with flour, milk, and oil.

I’m sorry you’re no longer the headliner, Mr. Egg, but must I really separate your whites from your yolks? Then whisk one whilst folding the other? Who the fuck died and made you Queen Bee? Just because omelets are French doesn’t give you the right to live high and mighty like Marie Antoinette!

What’s that? She was Austrian? And was executed? Huh. Maybe not such a fun life. The parties were fun before the whole execution thing, though. But aside from THAT, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

My biggest problem with eggs in recipes, however, is how poorly divisible one egg is. We have these wonderful measurement increments that can be doubled or halved, tripled or quartered, at will. My measuring cup has notches down to one-eighth of a cup and everybody knows that one-sixteenth of a cup is a tablespoon. Super easy. 

Yeah, yeah, metric system, blah, blah. How easy is it to cut your ten deciliters into fourths. I can sort of be talked into metric when it comes to distances, but in the kitchen, give me imperial units, because it’s very rare I need to cut a recipe in tenths. 

Although I’ll be the first to admit that three teaspoons per tablespoon is stupid. It completely defeats my argument about factors of two.

It doesn’t matter, because if the recipe’s got eggs in it, you ain’t dividing that shit up by anything other than the number of eggs. Recipe makes fifty cookies but only requires one egg? Then you better call some friends over – you ain’t making less than fifty.

Like the banana in the smoothie, that egg is a bastard of a bully. 

The pancake recipe I use calls for three eggs. Halves and quarters I can get behind, even tenths if I must sully myself with the metrics, but, like with teasponns and tablespoons, thirds are an abomination. You can’t even write them as proper decimals.

My family requires two-thirds of this particular recipe. So when it calls for a 1/2 cup, I now have to stretch the limits of my math prowess, carrying various numerators and denominators. Two-thirds of one-half? That’s like mixing hockey and football. Let’s see, one half of a soccer game is 45 minutes, 2/3 of which is 30 minutes, which is 1/3 of 90 minutes. Carry the seventeen and 1/3 of a cup is easy enough to measure. 

Or, you know, they could’ve written the recipe assuming 2 or 4 eggs.

Where this recipe legitimately catches me, every fucking time, is the milk. The recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups. Want some fun figuring out two-thirds of 1.25? The best I can figure, being a history teacher instead of a math teacher, is to cross multiply 5/4 by 2/3, which gives me 10/12. Sure I can simplify that down to 5/6, but I’m still going to have to eyeball that one. Measuring cups might have a 1/3 on there, but they’re not adding smaller gradations. 

Because recipes aren’t meant to be divided by 2/3!

Perhaps I should be more skeptical of this recipe. It also calls for one tablespoon of sugar, but three teaspoons of baking powder. Why two measurements for the same amount? Would the metric version of this recipe read. 15 mL of sugar as opposed to three 5 mL of baking powder? 

It’s like a test you’re destined to fail. 

World War II ended in:
a) 1945 
b) the year after 1944

Wait, European theater or Pacific theater? And do we have to convert the year to metric?

At least this recipe doesn’t require separating the yolk and the whites. The recipe I use for waffles does, and I swear I did the math once and it required 13/12 of a cup of something. And that’s on top of unburying the waffle machine.

Go fuck yourself, egg. You ain’t all that.

Unless you’re properly poached on top of an eggs benedict. Then you can surrender my fort to the British any day of the week.

Schrodinger’s Sink

There’s a sink outside my classroom. Or maybe there isn’t. 

Depends on how you define a “sink.”

And that’s just how my district wants it.

My school was built when small learning communities and “academies” were all the rage. My school wasn’t built to house any of those academies, mind you, but the cheapest option was probably to let the construction company use the same plans they’d built elsewhere, so welcome to pod-land. 

Each set of classrooms surrounds a meeting area where teachers can congregate to talk shit about students and other departments. My social science department uses it as a makeshift lunch room in lieu of the mythical “teacher’s lounge.” Those don’t really exist at the high school level because, you know, if they let teachers congregate together, we might realize we have stuff in common with each other. Camaraderie begets humanization. Classic anti-Marxist strategizing there. Let the history and English departments fight over precious copy paper lest we realize we have more in common with each other than not. Before long we’ll, I don’t know, band together and ask for raises. Or copier codes.

The pod has our printer and a couple cabinets where we keep the few supplies we’re granted. Red pens, Expo markers, and whatnot. Number two pencils. Other extravagances, like mechanical pencils or black and blue pens, we’ve gotta purchase ourselves. The good news is we can deduct them from our taxes. But only up to $500 a year, a number that hasn’t changed in the twenty years I’ve been teaching despite inflation roughly doubling the price of most goods and services. Don’t start buying books or a Netflix subscription for use in school and expect to deduct those.

We did get electronic hole punchers, despite not asking for them, from Covid funds. Because we all know that hole punchers are the number one transmitters of disease. I assume the porn industry will start requiring its actors to electronically hole punch any day now.

We also have a mini refrigerator in our pod. It’s against code. We’re only allowed to have Star Authorized appliances, which means they use less of the district’s energy. I mean, technically the mini refrigerator uses less energy than a full-sized refrigerator, but it uses more per cubic inch. The district doesn’t care about wasting money, they care about making things difficult. Because mini fridges cannot be designated efficient. So yes, if you’re following the logic, we can only have an appliance that doesn’t exist. At least the district isn’t being unreasonable.

We also have a microwave, similarly unapproved. Again, if teachers start thinking they’re worthy of heating up their lunches, what’s next? Getting paid for running clubs after school? I mean, if Mr. Scopes Monkey Trial taught without a microwave, we can, too. But no using chalk like in those days, as the chalk dust is hazardous. Oh, and the Expo pens need to be non-toxic. No getting high in front of class! Gotta wait till we’re proctoring those clubs for free before you get lit.

Our pod also contains a kettle for brewing coffee pour-overs. I think an actual Mr. Coffee might be against code. Damn, us teachers are rebels. Good thing the district never follows through with any of its initiatives. We might as well throw a keg in there. At least it wouldn’t catch fire.

There’s also a sink. 

Sort of.

Not sure why there’s a sink in the pod. We are a social science pod. Maybe they’re hoping it’ll form the basis of an epic history vs science conflagration. Unfortunately for our future science department warlords, the sink doesn’t work.

Technically, I suppose, it works. Depends on your definition of what a sink is for. If we turn on the spigot, water comes out. We’re just not allowed to.

The sink leaks. After some contemplation, we alerted custodial. It wasn’t an easy choice. They don’t take kindly to being notified that something needs custodializing. They’re busy emptying our trash cans once a week and sweeping our floors once a month. And really, teachers, you need ANOTHER roll of toilet paper? That’ll come out of your pay raise. 

So something along the lines of “There’s a puddle forming under the sink here” gets met with a hefty round of “Well, what the fuck do you expect us to do about it?”

We should be happy they responded at all. Even if it was just placing a bucket underneath the s-curve that was leaking. Problem solved?

This was back in the Obama administration.

Sometime during the Trump administration, that bucket overflowed.

The water was nastier this time. Brackish, miasmatic, the attack of the black mold! So glad I’m eating my unrefrigerated, unmicrowaved leftovers in here. 

Perhaps we shoulder some of the blame for round two. We could’ve stopped using the sink. Anyone who thinks a bucket is a permanent solution to a leak has never sang any kids’ songs. We could claim ignorance about what happens after five years of standing water. It’s not like we let the science department this close to our supply rations. But we are government teachers, so we should’ve known with perfect certainty that the custodial staff would never return to fix the problem after hours or anything. 

This time, fortunately, they came up with a more long-term solution. 

Let’s see how many of you can play “school upkeep” properly.

We could a) empty out and replace the bucket. Or b)…

Actually, a is pretty much out only option. If you thought a $5 run to Home Depot to get a new s-bend was an option, then you aren’t playing the school repair game. A new pipe today and those rascally teachers might ask to control their own thermostats next. So emptied bucket it is! 

Unless… unless…

The pipe only leaks when there is water going down it. If we could prevent water from descending the pipe, then the problem might solve itself. Like fixing the glitch in Office Space. 

Et voila…

For a while, we thought this was temporary. Until the work order got fixed or something. Escalator out of order, please use stairs. 

Then again, the sign doesn’t mention anything about a timeframe. It just says to not use the sink. The only thing that leads us to doubt its veracity or longevity is that it’s written on a flimsy sheet of paper, adhered via Scotch tape. But what other option did they have? A permanent sign might require a trip to Home Depot. On the aisle next to the sink pipes.

Note, however, that the sink is not “out of order.” We are simply instructed not to use it. 

And you know what? It’s worked. For five-plus years, we haven’t used the sink. And the bucket is almost dry. How’s that for government efficiency?

After a few months, we put money on it. Over/under when will the sink be fixed? We’re well past Price is Right rules. Even the guy who humorously picked a date four years out was wrong. There are no students at this high school who has ever attended while the sink “worked.”

Although maybe we’ve been looking at this the wrong way. We keep waiting for the problem to be fixed. But it already has been. The problem wasn’t the sink not working, it was the pipe leaking. And that pipe hasn’t leaked in close to six years! Mission accomplished. We assumed some work ticket was hanging in the district office stamped with “Waiting for part” hanging in the district office. In reality, it’s was stamped “Completed” and stabbed on the little rod back when the senior class was still in elementary school.

All it took was a piece of paper and tape. Even better, those supplies came from our cabinet, so it comes out of the social science budget. That’ll teach us to complain. My globe’s so groovy it’s got TWO Germanies for the price of one. 

Who says schools can’t think outside the box and find edgy, twenty-first century solutions to problems? It’s like the new SAT policy. Too many students are failing the SAT? How about we stop taking the SAT. Problem, solution.

Shit howdy, that custodian deserves a medal. I think you can find some at Home Depot.

If we wanted to rebellious, we could turn that sink on and to hell with the consequences. Except the consequences will be more black mold creeping across our linoleum floors. And we all know what the district’s response will be if we complain about the bucket being full again. “You didn’t follow directions. We aren’t liable for your medical bills. And is that a non-Star-compliant refrigerator I see?” 

So now we’re faced with a dilemma. The problem is fixed. The pipe is not. As long as we never use the sink, the sink is no longer broken.

We are now faced with Schrodinger’s Sink. 

I never really understood the whole Schrodinger’s Cat thing. Something to do with some fourth dimensional, Quantum Leap shit, where Jesus and Hitler are still alive, sipping Mai Tais in a secret plane on the moon. Or maybe that was a Weekly World News headline.

While I know it’s a physics experiment, it is usually explained as a philosophical question. The cat is both alive and dead until the door is opened. Cause it was alive when the door was closed? It’s what happens when you invoke Einstein to answer the old “Does a falling tree make a sound?” 

But now, I think I finally understand Schrodinger. While the water is turned off, our sink is both fixed and broken.

Turns out the poison that killed the cat was slimy water.

Connery vs Craig, the Finale

I thought about naming this post “A Good Time to Die” or some other play on the recent Bond title, but didn’t want to freak anybody out. Or, worse, make you think this was a review of the late-1980s thriller Flatliners. Nice and timely.

A few years ago, I ranked the best James Bond actors. At the time, I ranked Daniel Craig two, or more precisely 1a. The jury was still out on whether he could eclipse a certain Scottish knight. Well, now that Mr. Craig has finished, it’s time to reassess my rankings.

So, you know, spoilers and whatnot ahead. The movie’s been out for a month, so if you wanted to see it, I assume you have.

But, you know, while I’m letting you think about if you want to hit the back button in lieu of forging on. Assuming you’re one who wants to wait six months to see a movie but also avoids spoilers. But, like me, you also want general reviews, so you click on the tantalizing links promising you some, but not too much, of a preview. Give yourself a few paragraphs. Above the fold, as we used to call it. I guess it’s above the scroll now. So I’m giving you a few more paragraphs before I get into James Bond’s gender selection party where he and Blofeld have a glorious three-way with Desmond Llewellyn’s reanimated corpse. Bond will come again.

Even before this film, Daniel Craig had two of the four best movies. Note, I didn’t say “my favorite,” but “best.” I’ll broker no debate nor discussion here. The four best Bond movies, in no particular order, are Goldfinger, Goldeneye, Casino Royale, and Skyfall. Okay, that was in a particular order, but it was chronological. But it should not be construed to imagine Goldfinger is better than Skyfall. 

And really, Goldfinger only holds its spot on this list if you skip the rape scene. The wrestling in the hay is fine, but then hit “forward fifteen seconds” twice and assume it was consensual. 

The fifth best movie is a tie that stretches on for decades. I could make a reasonable argument for From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, or The Living Daylights. If I wanted to be magnanimous and throw a top-ten bone to Roger Moore, it won’t pain me too much to say The Spy Who Loved Me is tolerable. (And I also secretly like For Your Eyes Only, but that admission causes physical discomfort).

No Time to Die doesn’t belong in the upper echelons, but it fits with that other group. Certainly the first one to avoid the “last movie curse” that afflicted every other Bond actor with more than one title to his name. If I were to compare it to any specific movie, it would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which they even acknowledge in the movie itself with the “We Have All the Time in the World” homage. More on this later when I can be sure those spoiler-free people aren’t snooping around. 

The other two Craig movies weren’t enough to supersede Sir Sean. Quantum of Solace, everyone can agree, was terrible. Blame it on a writer’s strike if you must, but it belongs squarely at the bottom of the heap with the likes of Octopussy, Moonraker, and Diamonds are Forever. Spectre was mediocre. Indistinguishable and forgettable, especially for a movie that’s supposed to reintroduce the franchise’s biggest baddie. In fact, I spent a good portion of No Time to Die wracking my brain to remember what the hell happened in Spectre, because the previous movie plays into the current movie. In fact, it’s the same Bond girl. I feel like that’s a first.

Speaking of Bond girls, Ana de Armas was phenomenal. And underused. Stop the search for the new Bond right away and just give Poloma an entire franchise. 

Under normal circumstances, ie for the first twenty-ish films in the franchise, not remembering the contents of the last movie made little difference. I’m pretty sure every Pierce Brosnan movie after Goldeneye was the exact same movie, loosely named The World Dies Tomorrow Not Enough. But Pierce Brosnan’s Bond never (are we alone now? SPOILER!) had a child with the Bond girl from the last movie. Even Denise Richards’ dingbat of a “physicist” was smart enough to be on birth control.

And okay, now that we’re into spoiler territory, let’s delve into the biggest spoiler that wasn’t even really a spoiler if you’ve been paying attention to the five-film Daniel Craig arc. Right around the time the first trailer came out, which was back in 2019 because the movie was supposed to come out in May, 2020, I made the bold prediction. If, for the first time, they were treating an actor’s movies as sequels instead of stand-alones, and if they started the run with Bond’s first mission, then it stood to reason that they’d end with his last mission. And there’s only one way you stop a guy like that from coming out of retirement. 

I mean Craig, not Bond.

Can’t wait to see how they pull the Daniel Craig version of Never Say Never Again. But I have the feeling that, whoever becomes Bond next, they’ll pale in comparison and we’ll be clamoring for just one more go. Maybe make him a zombie Bond? Or how about a clone? Blofeld held onto his DNA and….

Oh right, they killed off Blofeld, too. Then how about his good friend Felix…

Wow, they went all scorched earth on this bad boy, didn’t they. No time to die, unless you’re any Bond character outside the office with the padded door. Then you’ve got all the time in the world.

I’ve got minor squibbles with No Time to Die. Safin was utterly pointless, a throwback to the boring Pierce Brosnan bad guys. I think at least one of those guys had a messed up face, too. Not sure what the disfigurement added to the plot. The fact that he was the only survivor when the rest of his family was murdered might give him plenty of vengeance points without fucking up his face. I heard England was contemplating a law that disfigured people couldn’t be shown as evil in movies anymore. Not sure it needs to go that far, but fucking up their looks for no reason seems pointless. Unless you’re hoping for a makeup Oscar.

At least Safin’s plan to destroy the world was great. No, not great. What’s the word I’m looking for? Oh, right: Horrifying. Don’t go checking my Google history or anything. 

But seriously, poison tied to your DNA, so it can be released into a population but only kill certain people? That might be one of the most Bondian villain plots of all time. Way more intriguing than media moguls with stolen nuclear bombs. Or space lasers. 

So again, why did his face need to be all pock-marked? While we’re at it, why have Safin anyway? You’ve got the definitive Bond villain of all time in the movie already, just to kill him off? Have Blofeld break out of prison and put the plan in motion. Then the final confrontation in the pool would bring a stronger catharsis. Given their history, Blofeld seems like the one who would, upon realizing he wasn’t going to survive, would release Madeine’s DNA, thus bringing Bond down with him. Nothing about Safin’s story made me believe he’d pull the “Well, if I can’t win…” move.

The American who kills Felix also seemed bland. He’s a badass mastermind in Cuba, then only shows up one more time when he drives into a totally obvious trap. What’s the point? Combine Safin and Ash, give the denouement to Blofeld, and maybe you could’ve had a run-time less than the average bladder size.

So some good and some bad, but overall, No Time to Die hits its mark, breaeking the curse of final Bond movies (Diamonds are Forever, A View to a Kill, License to Kill, and Die Another Day are usually listed among each actor’s worst films). It works primarily because it was approached as a final Bond movie. I hope this doesn’t become a trend. Please, please, please don’t turn this into every new actor getting a four-movie arc to show his first and last missions as Bond.

In fact, maybe we could use a cleanser before we get another long-term Bond. Maybe it’s time for another George Lazenby. I’ve heard Idris Elba was in the running but he’s too old. Nonsense. Have him be Bond, but only for one movie. Then give one to Tom Hiddleston. By then, maybe I’ll be ready to invest in another long-term Bond.

So yeah, I guess you can figure out where I come down on the whole Daniel Craig vs. Sean Connery debate. It’s not entirely Sir Sean’s fault. We can do more with movies these days. Moviegoers can be expected to follow from one movie to the next. We waited thirty years for a sequel to Star Wars and were still able to pick it right up, debates over midichlorians and all.

In the 1960s, you couldn’t pull Goldfinger up on demand for a rewatch before seeing Thunderball. It’s hard to believe, but even TV shows had to be episodic, not serialized. You couldn’t expect your viewers to stay home at the same time every week and there was no way to catch up on missed episodes. 

Plus, you know, consensual sex is wonderful.

What Craig does get credit for, however, is playing the character as he should be played. No, I’m not talking about true to the Ian Fleming character (although he probably is), I mean truer to life, truer to reality. James Bond would be one fucked up individual in real life. Vulnerable and raw. The cool, quippy murderer who never thinks twice always rang hollow. Sure, that’s what was so great about him. But in the long run, Die Hard lives on longer than Commando because of how raw, how prone to mistakes, John McClain was in that first movie. All his choices had consequences. By Die Harder, he’s turned into Rambo.

Rambo, who started out as a visceral, psychological thriller about PTSD and the systemic failures for our Vietnam veterans. 

Bond pretended to go this route before. Good old George Lazenby showed a more human, more humane Bond. Complete with his new bride dying at the end, with the final line of, “We have all the time in the world.” It’s almost like they could’ve had a grittier Bond fifty years ago, but opted to go full schmaltz, first by ruining Connery’s legacy then prat-falling into the lap of Mr. Moore.

In the end, I don’t know if Daniel Craig is the “Best” Bond. Lazenby is still the only one who never had a bad movie. Think about that before you poo-poo my idea of having a few one-offs before giving the keys to the franchise to another relative unknown.

What Daniel Craig represents now, though, is the definitive Bond. He’s played Bond’s entire career, he’s shown us beginning and end. He lost a lover, he lost an M and ushered in a new (acknowledged) one for the first time in the franchise. And in the end, he sacrificed himself for the world, as we knew he would. Just didn’t expect it to happen with his daughter’s stuffed animal on hand.

Prior to last weekend, when I closed my eyes and imagined a generic Bond, when I read something from Ian Fleming or John Gardner or whoever the hell is writing them these days, he was still a lanky brunette with a comically long gun barrel, speaking with a Scottish brogue. Now he’s a gritty blond with piercing blue eyes.

But seriously, regarding Flatliners. Kiefer Sutherland in a trench coat? Really?

Why I’m Skipping The Eternals

For the first time in a long time, I’m not planning on seeing the next Marvel movie in theaters. 

Really, I don’t think there’s a Marvel movie I’ve set out not to watch since the Incredible Hulk, which precedes the MCU but is still somehow counted in it. And nobody who had seen the original Hulk, with its horrible opposite of uncanny valley CGI, was hot to see if Ed Norton could pull it off. We were pining for the return of the quality special effects of Lou Ferrigno.

With The Eternals, however, I think I’ll take a pass.

Granted, I don’t actually see them all in the theaters, but the intent is always there. Sometimes real life gets in the way. Wife and I can’t coordinate schedules. To say nothing of a child who probably doesn’t need to see half the superheroes dissolve into dust. 

Or maybe she should see it, based on the Halloween costumes in our neighborhood. Are this many kids really watching shows like the Mandalorian? Sure, Baby Yoda’s cute and all, but I’m steeped in forty-plus years of Star Wars lore and even I found some serious snoozefest episodes. I can barely get my kid to watch anything non-animated. Not to mention the violence.

And was that kid dressed from Dune? I feel like I have to watch it three more times just to figure out what the hell’s going on. Are you telling me this eight-year-old figured out the entire caste system?

Squid Game? Come fucking on.

You know what costumes I didn’t see? Ikarus or Athena or, wait, is that Hyperion in the ads? Is Marvel actually trying to sneak their Superman rip-off into a movie and think we won’t notice?

Okay, I just checked IMDB and no Hyperion character is listed. Perhaps that’s Ikarus shooting lasers out of his eyes. Does he have that power? As a lifelong Marvel reader, I couldn’t tell you. I figured he just flew on wax wings that melted on hot days.

Now that I think of it, maybe they should put Hyperion in a movie. Marvel has the Squadron Supreme, which is a knock-off of the Justice League. Not only does it contain Hyperion, but Nighthawk (a rich guy whose hawk looks suspiciously like a bat), Dr. Spectrum (who has a prism that shoots out multi-colored energy beams like the Green Lantern), Princess Power (from Utopia Isle), and the Whizzer (who either runs really fast or has the power of urination). How great would it be for the MCU to finally bury the DCEU by making a better Justice League movie using only the cheap knock-offs.

So long as they don’t make that movie like Eternals looks to be. 

Not that they need to stick with the obvious choices all the time. Shang-Chi was hardly on anybody’s list of Marvel properties, but the movie was solid. Of course, everybody was skeptical when they went from the Big Four (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk) straight to the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy. That skepticism lasted about as long as it took to watch the first trailer. That’s when we realized how much fun they can have with more obscure characters. We don’t need to show origins or stick close to a well-known character archetype. Nobody knew who the hell Star Lord was, so might as well make him obsessed with late-1970s pop music and a Walkman.

Guardians of the Galaxy, in fact, laid the groundwork for the rest of the MCU. Sure, there had been quips and comic scenes in the first few movies, but Thor: Dark World is true to the comics character and boring as hell. Thor: Ragnarok is not, and it is not. Marvel movies before Guardians were more fun than funny. Or maybe I have that reversed. Regardless, post-Guardians, they’ve mastered the sweet spot between the two.

My skepticism returned when Eternals was announced. They’re effectively gods, except not those fun Asgardian gods with their personal foibles and tendency to self-sabotage. More like those gods who have no weaknesses. Or interest.

One of the big draws of superheroes of old, particularly those of the Marvel variety, is their weaknesses and humanity. Human Torch is a hothead, Iron Man is an obsessive alcoholic, Spider-Man always gets in his own way. It got even better, even darker, with the X-Men. Storm can’t be in enclosed places and Rogue can’t touch anybody without potentially killing them. Yikes. 

The DC heroes have their drawbacks, too, but they aren’t as integral to their characters as most of them were added after the fact due to changing societal norms. And better Marvel writing. Flash is always late to everything. Superman, like Captain America, is unwavering and overly optimistic. And Batman, of course, is an asshole. So is Green Lantern. 

It’s no crippling claustrophobia, but it helps move the story along.

Newer heroes don’t tend to have the pronounced weaknesses anymore. And a lot of the old ones don’t crop up as often anymore. Thor never gets stuck in human form for being unworthy anymore. Iron Man kicked the booze close to fifty years ago. Storm never manages to find herself in closed areas and even Rogue has managed to get married and have sex. The only character who seems destined to never lose his weakness is Cyclops, because if he could control his eyeblasts, he wouldn’t need the visor anymore and would cease to be Cyclops.

Oh, and Batman’s still an asshole.

Origin stories seem to be lacking these days, too. No more gamma explosions or radioactive spiders, no more exploding alien planets or parents killed in crime alley. While the X-Men have been great for diversifying the Marvel Universe, but for a thirty year span, whenever they wanted to make a new character, there was just a general shrug about how. Make them a mutant. Mutant, mutant, mutant.

Then Marvel sold the movie rights to mutants and stopped making new mutants. Then came the Inhuman push, which was even worse. At least with mutants, the powers usually manifested during puberty. So you might not get an in-depth “how they got their powers” story, but you’d still get the occasional “how awkward the first manifestation was.” Remember when you popped that awkward boner in the middle of fifth grade and didn’t know how to hide it? Now imagine that boner was starbursts of light that knocked out half the class.

The Inhumans didn’t even get that origin story. Instead, a mist covered the entire Earth causing some people to go into a cocoon and come out with powers. No awkward classmates, no stand-in for systemic racism. Just wake up one day with powers and everybody’s cool with it. 

The new Ms. Marvel is one of the characters introduced during this glut. A lot has been made recently about a promotional photo for her upcoming Disney+ show implying she has a different power from the comics. I’m more curious as to the origin story. If she spends the entire first episode in a cocoon, not sure I’ll be coming back for episode two.

Come to think of it, Inhumans was the last major MCU flop. They might claim it’s not a flop because it was a tv show, not a movie, but make no mistake, the intent was for that to become the flagship property of the future. They released the first episode or two in IMAX theaters, but the plug was pulled before they made it to episode six. 

The basic problem with the Inhumans tv show was that it was based off the Inhumans characters, which are pretty friggin’ boring. Their “leader” can’t speak and the queen’s power is prehensile hair. The only interesting character is a dog. Plus they live on the moon, so they virtually never interact with supervillains, or Earth and humanity in general. These are the main reasons, when they realized Inhumans were the only way to introduce new characters that were eligible for the MCU instead of Sony, they knew they had to make a slew of new Inhumans.

In the end, Disney bought out Sony, which was much more feasible than making Crystal a worthwhile character. 

Unfortunately, Eternals seems to be doubling down on most of the mistakes of Inhumans. Uninteresting characters, far removed from the rest of the Marvel characters. Uninspired powers. If I wanted a bunch of Greek mythology, I’ll watch Wonder Woman.

Seriously, is their only flaw that they’re arrogant a-holes who don’t get involved with humanity? How is that fun to watch. It’s made even worse by the fact that, according to the trailer, they sat on the sidelines through the whole Thanos snap and Endgame. But they’ve decided that now is the time to make their presence known? It’s like watching a History channel documentary about aliens who showed up the day after the Egyptians finished the pyramids.

That trailer was the clincher. Unlike Guardians, the Eternals trailer didn’t make me any more inclined to watch it. If anything, it verified all my skepticism. Is there a single joke in any of the three trailers? Do we get any glimpse of characterization other than “attractive”? It feels bloated and confusing and, worst of all, boring.

You can tell by the casting that they knew it was a snoozer even before filming. Angelina Jolie AND Selma Hayek? Clearly they’re there for the mass audiences. But Kit Harrington proves they were worried about losing geekdom, too. Unfortunately, if the buzz I’m hearing is any indication, I don’t think it’s going to work. The only one of my geek friends who’s planning on seeing it has an annual movie pass that he’s desperately trying to get worth from before the end of the year. My non-geek friends aren’t even aware a Marvel movie is coming out.

I’m just glad that the first flop won’t be Shang-Chi. That was a worthwhile reach into an obscure character. Had it failed, we’d be in line for ten different Wolverine & Spider-Man buddy movies. If there’s going to be a flop, let it star big Hollywood names. Let there be no doubt that characters and story matter more than the name on the marquee.

Wait a second, isn’t the name of the movie on the marquee, not the actors? Meh. Story matters more than the name on the IMDB.

Don’t worry, though. I’m sure I’ll watch it once it’s out on Disney Plus. And the good news is Spider-Man is only a month away.

To Be Continued

I’m thinking of writing a serial.

Or maybe not.

Come back next week to find out.

Okay, fine. We can talk about it now.

With the exception of an occasional vacation description too unwieldy to fit into one blog post, my writing doesn’t really feature a “to be continued” vibe. First of all, hyperlinking is a pain in the ass, especially going back to edit part one. Secondly, it’s not like a Disneyland trip can end on a cliffhanger. We went up one side of Splash Mountain. Did we come out the other side? Tune in tomorrow. Same brer time, same brer channel.

Then Amazon invented Kindle Vella.

It’s not the first product catered toward serialization. Wattpad and others led the way, but it never seemed like a good fit for me. I’m not exactly a pantser (somebody who writes “by the seat of their pants,” as opposed to a planner), but my characters and setting definitely morph as I join them on their journey. No biggie if I can go back and fix Aside from the fact that I randomly change character’s names and attributes as my story progresses, only to double back and fix those inconsistencies on the second pass. But if those early chapters have already been published, then it’s going to be a little weird to have the guy who banged the hooker in chapter one now reveal he’s been gay since high school. 

Besides, who reads serials? Then again, if Amazon would be suckling up to the teat…

I heard about Kindle Vella back in the spring. I hmmed and huhed, checking in the nether regions of my brain from time to time, seeing if their was a serial book hidden there. Nothing jangled free, so I forgot about it.

Until the day Kindle Vella launched when, wouldn’t you know it, an apple fell out of my brain tree. Just like my students who have a week to work on a project, then “just need to glue on a couple things” the day it’s due, taking out a blank piece of paper and spending the next hour doing it. At least, unlike my students, I didn’t then rush to create crap in order to “beat the deadline” on Vella opening day. As of now, I’ve got about four chapters (sorry, “installments”) of a time traveling thriller.

Still not sure if I’m going to play the Vella game, though. I only started writing the serial because I was getting bored with my work-in-progress. But switching formats (say, blogging) isn’t the same as giving up on a project. 

Problem number one is the format. Vella is designed to be read in an app. On the go, as it were, which makes sense for serialized storytelling. There are plenty of times I’m sitting around with my phone, enough time to read a thousand words or so but not enough to bust out whatever novel I’m drudging through. 

Yes, I’m mainly talking about being on the shitter.

Maybe the Vella app is really nice. Fancy, even, Unfortunately, I’ll never know. It’s only available on iOS. Nothing says they want this thing to be successful than immediately precluding half the public from accessing it. Then again, iPhone and iPad owners have proven they’ll pay twice as much for the same mediocre quality, so long as it comes with the air of exclusivity. Maybe I should start charging for this blog? Apple fans only.

It’s not even an anti-Google thing. Have you ever heard of a Kindle Fire? Clearly, Amazon hasn’t, because the Fire doesn’t use iOS.

That’s right, you can’t access Kindle Vella on your Kindle. Seriously Amazon, if you want to know which customer set is willing to give you more money for content, shouldn’t it be the people who bought your own damn tablet, despite the fact that it’s missing most of the bells and whistles of its brethren? 

I should’ve known this was coming. When you buy a Kindle Fire, you can’t read books straight away on it. You have to download the Kindle app… onto your Kindle. Fuck it, I’ll just play some more Crossy Road.

So who knows? Maybe the Kindle Vella app is fantabulous and splentacular and everybody who downloads it spends bazillions of dollars going right into unknown authors’ bank accounts. Maybe it’ll be included on every iPad going forward and people will be drawn to it like I was with the Marvel Strike Force game preloaded on my android. Remember when Microsoft got sued for including Internet Explorer with Windows? Captive audience for the win!

The good news is that, even if you don’t have an Apple product, you can still read Kindle Vella entries. All you have to do is go the the Amazon website. On, like, a computer or something. I don’t know. Dial up? Then search for Kindle Vella, because they aren’t advertising it. Then keep strolling, because your first few results aren’t Kindle Vella titles, but third-party “guidebooks” on how to make money via Kindle Vella. 

I assume step one is buy Apple stock.

Eventually, I was able to navigate to an area of the website with actual Vella titles. Some of them already have 50+ entries, others have one or two. The reading experience on the website is underwhelming, like I’m reading a news story or a blog. Not exactly something I want to pay for. Good thing I don’t have to.

You can read the first three installments for free. Then you gotta pay. Except you don’t pay for individual items. You buy tokens, then exchange said tokens for access to chapters. The tokens are super cheap. The lowest amount is 200 tokens for $1.99 or you can buy in bulk, like 1700 tokens for $14.99. I think it then costs one token per 100 words, so you’ll always either be a few tokens short or have leftovers, like hot dogs and buns. That’s how they get you to buy more hot dogs. 

If my math is correct, buying your fiction in dribs and drabs seems to… have little effect on the price. Two hundred tokens equals twenty thousand words for two bucks. So a “standard” book with 80k-ish words will cost eight bucks. Hell, that might even be more expensive. If you like your epic fantasies, that fifteen buck draw will get you 170K words. Most of the Wheel of Time books run over 300,000 words and sell for $10.99. Even better, you can read it from the comfort of your Kindle or android device.

Not that I want to discourage people from Kindle Vella. Lest I lose a penny or two some day. I’m not being metaphorical. I don’t know what “regular” authors make on Amazon, but the pay scale for Vella seems miniscule. It’s also based off of how much the reader paid for the tokens. So readers that buy in bulk, the voracious readers, send less money along to the author. The ones who are probably only going to read Hugh Howey, and are thus only buy 200 tokens at a time, are sending more money their favorite author’s direction.

On the other hand, they do give the author 50% of what the reader spent. The example they give is a story that costs 30 tokens. If those thirty tokens came out of a $1.99 batch, the author gets 14.9 cents. If it came out a $14.99 batch, the author only gets 13.6 cents. Doesn’t seem very much for 3,000 words of content. Then again, I wrote close to 12,000 words on my Disneyland trip and didn’t get any money. Maybe 13 cents ain’t too bad?

Incidentally, they give you 200 free tokens when you join. I assume if you use those tokens, the author gets nothing.

Oh, and don’t forget, the first three installments are free. 

I might be misremembering, but it seems like when Vella was first announced back in February or March, the business model showed only the first chapter being free, then people would start using tokens on chapter two. I suppose I understand. You want to be sure the author isn’t dazzling you with a 200-word intro only to have you waste your money on some 5,000-word unedited drivel in chapter two. Now they must dazzle you with THREE polished snippets before hitting you with the balloon payment.

As you might tell from my blogging, it’s tough for me to describe even a bowel movement in less than 1,000 words. The story that popped in my head (the day the Vella went live, not the day it was announced, thanks a fucking lot, brain!) would’ve started, James Bond style, with an action sequence. Our intrepid hero narrowly evading Russian spies, complete with a cliffhanger to end it all. In chapter two, he escapes and makes it back to base, where his boss helps put things in perspective in chapter three. But I can’t very well have the last free chapter be an info-dump. Something needs to entice readers toward that first locked chapter. 

After 5,000 free words, I need my 13 goddamn cents!

I’m rearranging some stuff to start with a mini-mission, then the debrief in chapter two, and the big cliffhanger in part three. I could cut the debrief chapter, but that would only foster confusion about why the hell the characters have skipped from one random mission to another. Chapter 4 and 5 will go straight from one mission to the next, because “episodic” is what the iOS heathens demand! 

And yeah, I have a newfound appreciation for TV and comic book writers who manage to always hit the wrap-up or cliffhanger at the precise twenty-two minute or twenty-two page spot each time. In long-form fiction, you’re supposed to vary the chapter length, but if they’re paying for the length of each installment, I doubt readers are going to want to bite off Game of Thrones-esque 50 page chunks.

Is that other project looking any better now? Nope. Damn, hopefully this Vella shit works.

Of course, the fact that I’m four parts into something I’m nowhere close to publishing flies in the face of the spirit of serial. It’s designed to be published as it’s written, more or less. One of the guides I read said readers of serials were “more forgiving” of typos and other snafus, since it’s supposed to be published fast. 

Similarly, Kindle Vella is selling the interactiveness of the format. The authors will react to thumbs ups and other virtual cheese chunks to get us through the maze. I plan on allowing a certain “choose-your-own-adventure” elements to the story, polling my readers about which time period they want the characters to travel to next. But if nobody votes, what the hell am I supposed to write?

That’s the biggest drawback I see. Let’s say I publish the first three chapters, what happens if I get no thumbs ups? Do I continue on with part four? Part five? At what point am I publishing into the void? Especially if I’m waiting on them to vote on Berlin Blockade versus Berlin Wall.

Not that I can blame the readers. Why get vested in an unknown author whose project only has three or four installments? You never know if they’re going to follow-through. I used to play an online story-telling game, Storium, where everybody creates a character and writes out the story in segments. But virtually every game/story played out the same way: everybody’s gung-ho at the beginning, then after a week or two, there are only two players writing anything and the game fizzled out.

Even I, who have every incentive to make Kindle Vella work, found myself skeptical of the people who only have a handful of posts. Some posted once a week for four weeks, then stopped over a month ago. Why would I pass them a token when Hugh Howey is sitting at twenty chapters? Plus I know he can write.

On the flip side, why would I expect these writers to keep writing if nobody’s spending any tokens on their work? This circle of life contains a great disconnect in the circle of life. I have friends who refuse to watch a tv series until it’s been picked up for a second season. I know where he’s coming from, having been burned by countless unresolved series, but on the flip side, not watching a show increases the chances it will be canceled.

Especially when you add in that whole iOS-only bullshit. 

Not to mention you’re losing the rights to your work with each post. If I post five chapters and it flames out, I can’t pull the plug and put them up on Wattpad or my blog. They belong to Amazon. I can put them all together into a book, as long as it only sells on Amazon.

In the end, it seems to have all the drawbacks of self-publishing. On the plus side, you only have to provide a small picture instead of a full cover. That takes away one of the biggest headaches of self-publishing. Although I assume ninety percent of the pictures from the internet are copyright verboten. 

Still, I’d have to edit it myself. And if I’m editing my own, so is everyone else, which means there’s gonna be a lot of shoddy content out there. That would seem to depress the demand a bit more. Is it going to come across like fan fiction?

Even worse, I have to market it myself. How the hell does somebody with no name rise up against established authors? Also, as far as I can tell, it won’t link to your regular author profile. I just searched Hugh Howey on Amazon, and I got all his regular books, but only get the Vella one if I go to that portion of the website. And on his Vella book, I can’t click on his name to see his non-Vella books. They’re separate entities.

So I’m still on the fence. A lot of agents won’t look at you if you’ve self-published unless you’ve sold hundreds of thousands. Will they hold Vella authors to the same regard? Amazon implies no, that this is a fun Wild West where we can try new things.

Maybe, instead of posting my serial to Amazon, I can just post it to my blog. Sure, I’d miss out on tens of cents at a time, but at least I’d be able to look at the stats and see if anyone’s reading it. And if that answer is no after a few installments, I can go back to opining on COVID and flatulence. 

Or maybe I should just go back to writing the book I got bored with before.

Nah.