What The Hell Did I Just Watch: Hostages

Good morning. I hope you’re enjoying your Saturday. I totally was, until I watched Hostages.

Now, this isn’t a review blog or anything by any means, but I admit that I do watch television with an eye on the writing. I know what you’re saying, that writing for network television is a totally different animal than writing a book, and I agree (else John Rogers will appear on my twitter feed and remind me of this, in intense terms), it’s just that bad writing is not limited to medium or genre. And I love to talk about bad writing, and how it could be made better.

Hostages is a new show on CBS, a network that has a few things I like (Person of Interest, Elementary), and a whole spate of things I cannot stand (all the CSI procedurals and variations). I miss Murder She Wrote. Watching this new show this morning made me miss it more.

So here’s what I knew about the show before I pressed ‘Play’: A doctor is taken hostage and has to kill the President of the United States during surgery. That’s all I knew. I didn’t knew who was in it, who wrote it, or anything else. I’d like to point out that an American television season is anywhere from 10 to 22 episodes, and requires a through-plot (a big overall plot that covers the whole season from beginning to end) you can divide up across a whole season. The premise of this show seems at best like it’s a Movie of the Week, or that it should be like a miniseries divided up into: Family Gets Attacked, Doctor Has To Perform Surgery, Doctor Either Does or Doesn’t Perform Surgery, Attackers Either Kill Family or Family Fights Back And Saves The Day. What’s that, like four parts? Maybe two parts if you use big chunks of time?

A weak premise is a hallmark of poor writing. When someone asks what’s your fiction about, you should be able to express the idea broadly (Sherlock Holmes solves crimes in modern New York; Government agents save the world from evil superheroes; A master criminal helps the FBI catch other criminals; etc), but when you can tell me the whole active premise as “A Surgeon has to kill the President or else her family dies”, that’s like … an episode. In fact, that WAS an episode of Person of Interest in the first season. They wrapped that whole sucker up in 43 minutes, and the surgeon wasn’t even the focus of the show.

I will disclose that after watching it and before I started writing this, I did go online to do more digging, and found out that this is an American version of an Israeli show that will be out soon. That fact, that this show is based on a show that isn’t out yet, was the red flag that jump-started this writing.

Generally, when you have an American version of a show (The Office, The Bridge), the original show has been out, and you can find enough material to compare the two side by side. And you can say things like, “In the original…”, because there’s time between the source and this version. Here though, we’ve got some Time Lord, Doctor Who chicanery because this show is based on a show that isn’t even out yet. This is a lot like me saying my new game is based on a game I’m releasing in five years. How does time work again?

That aside, let’s get into the meat of the episode.

The Characters

The Surgeon – I don’t know a lot about her, other than she’s a surgeon, and apparently good at her job. At first blush, she doesn’t seem to be clueless or a poor parent, though she doesn’t know about some of the things her family is doing, but not in some way that she’s completely out of touch or in denial. I also found out that this character has some kind of brain inflammation or tumor because she has random outbursts of really inexplicable behavior, and there’s no rational explanation.

The Husband – He’s a real estate broker or corporate guy, I know this because he has an office and a secretary. He’s played by the guy who I remember as the guy who played all kinds of sporty jerks in the 80s and 90s. I think at one point he was on Matlock as a tennis player who killed someone, and I think he was a jock bully in some bad movies. Either way, this actor is familiar to me, and that’s kind of comforting, since I know so little about this show.

The Son – I don’t know who this is, I don’t like this character. He’s way too into his dog, he’s got a weird poorly defined B-plot (a plot that’s parallel to the main story, often centering around a single character’s growth or actions), and the kid can’t act.

The Daughter – I kind of like this character. She’s got a clear B-plot, and she’s at least able to show some emotion. But I don’t know much else about her.

Dylan McDermott – He’s Dylan McDermott. He’s been in other shows (there was that show where he was a lawyer, and as an unconventional cop), but I always get the sense that he’s always going to play Dylan McDermott. Like if you’re writing something, and you need a guy with stubble who squints a lot, just get Dylan McDermott. He has the most confusing arc out of all these characters, but hey, he’s Dylan McDermott.

The Show Breakdown

00:01 We’re shown suburbia at night. Night is frequently used to show mystery or danger, because there’s still something primal in us that makes us afraid of the unknown in the dark. Sure, it’s a little cliche, but whatever, it’s an opening shot.

00:19 The camera pans across a family on the couch. We see the mother, and the son, both are looking down and away from the television playing in the background. That’s weird, you might think, why aren’t they looking AT the television, or at each other? The camera continues to pan to the husband, WHO LOOKS UP AND AT SOMETHING CLEARLY ABOVE HIS EYELINE. This is the first clue we get that something’s wrong, and also the first clue that the husband is the one who can act.

00:33 Surprise! There’s a group of four masked people surrounding the family on the couch at gunpoint. One of them, clearly the ringleader, even does a dramatic slow-walk to the middle of the couch after turning off the TV and we see he’s a white dude, with stubble. This makes me wonder: Has ski mask technology not advanced in forty years? We know the bad guys are bad because (a) they’re in masks (b) they’re in black and (c) they’ve got guns. Any two of those elements would be sufficient, but CBS tends to be really aggressive in the “We Want You To Understand What’s Going On” department sometimes.

My rewrite – The show opens in surburbia, at night. The camera tracks in through a big window or glass patio door to a family about to eat dinner. We see a mom at the table, laughing with her kids, a teenage daughter and maybe a younger son, and in a nice reversal of trope, the dad dressed casually in an apron bringing dinner to the table. They appear happy, enjoying each other’s company and everything seems great. Until the dog starts barking. And until the door gets kicked in. Two mooks in masks with guns come in, and order the family to freeze. Once one of them yells “Clear!”, two or three other mooks in masks with guns arrive, and finally an unmasked man strides into the room, and sits himself down at their dinner table. He fixes his eyes on the family, and maybe the camera pans to show us their reactions, and he says, “Hello Doctor [Family’s Last Name], we need to talk.”  CUT TO TITLES. 

01:04 We’ve flashed back 12 hours, because the titles told us so, and we’ve seen a motorcade leave Washington DC, because we’ve seen the Capitol building, but we’re taken to a press conference at “Maryland College Hospital”. Now, don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it, because it’s not real, but that’s only one of the problems in this opening.

Before we dissect the visuals, let’s talk about some basic facts.

Presumably, the motorcade is carrying the President. We have to assume that, since the show is about the President’s surgery. But doesn’t the President either (a) have a hospital that will take care of him (Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) or (b) have the ability to go to ANY actual hospital we the audience may have heard of? Like, can’t the dude pick up the phone and say, “Take me to Johns Hopkins, I want the best” or something, because he’s the leader of the free world?

And why are we holding a press conference on the front lawn of this fake hospital? Isn’t this something that the White House Press Secretary should be announcing from inside the White House? You know, from like inside a safe place? (you’ll see why I say that in a second). I suppose we’re holding it at the hospital so that we can see that Surgeon-Mom is a big deal and that we remember she’s a surgeon.

Here’s the shot.

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Here’s what we can see:

1. The guy in the dark suit and purple tie is likely the President.

2. That’s the Surgeon-Mom at the microphone.

But let’s look at some problems (aside from the fact that we’re at a fake hospital)

i. The white dude and the black dude who are book-ending the shot (no, this is not a subtle metaphor for race relations), I guess they’re supposed to be Secret Service. But they’re facing AWAY from the crowd, or at the very least facing a crowd we can’t see. If the attack came from somewhere we couldn’t see, the audience would be deprived of a sense of danger to the President, and that’s really sloppy writing and shooting in a fixed-camera shot to have an attack leap-in from off screen. That’s like amateur hour filmmaking class.

ii. Look behind the group. There’s one guy with his back turned, over on the left. I don’t see that guy’s counterpart on the right. So there’s this big open space BEHIND the President of the United States, and there’s literally a whole side of the shot unprotected. I think I know where I’d attack from.

iii. Who the fuck are those people in the background? Sure, the two people in labcoats must be doctors (remember costumes = characters), but what’s up with the Tommy Wiseau-looking guy dressed a little like he’s an extra from a Russian submarine movie? And why is there a haggard woman in a green coat behind our Surgeon? Is she the tired Queen of the Hospital? Is she the Ghost of Surgeon Future? Who staged and blocked this shot?

My rewrite – We flashback now, 12 hours, to the White House Press Room. The Press Secretary is speaking to a room full of reporters about the President’s condition. The Secretary announces that Doctor-Surgeon-Mom will now answer a few questions. The Press Corps goes nuts as Surgeon-Mom walks to the lectern and nervously answers questions in a very textbook, medical and technical fashion. The reporters hound her again as she retreats to a different room. Waiting for her is an aide who says the President wants to see her. She’s nervous, but is escorted to the Oval Office. The President is there, and he introduces his Chief of Staff, THE SAME GUY WE SAW IN THE OPENING AS THE ONE WHO CAME INTO HER HOUSE WITH ARMED GOONS. The three of them talk about the surgery and what needs to be done, and eventually Surgeon-Mom leaves, but not until the camera lingers a little too long on the Chief of Staff who eyes her as she exits. 

01:15 JARGON! We know the Surgeon-Mom is good at her job because she’s using medical terms. And doesn’t the President have his own doctors? You know like people who are incredibly vetted? And why is the Press Corps so quiet? Wouldn’t they, like have a lot of questions like “Who’s gonna run the country while this happens?” and “What’s the chance for survival?” and “What the hell does thoracoscopically mean?”

01:32 The President wouldn’t end his own press conferences. That’s what he has a Press Secretary for.

01:53 “Glad to know you care so much …” The President is in the limo with “generic staff guy”, and the camera hangs out a little too long on him. That’s basically TV code for “THIS GUY IS A BAD GUY”, although the dialogue should have telegraphed so the camera didn’t have to. So let’s call him BAD GUY, because I have no clue what his White House job is.

02:03 We’ve cut to a ‘Hostage Situation’, as though the snipers and armed cops surrounding a building couldn’t tell us that. The cut from the limo to over the shoulder of a sniper was crazy jarring, since the color palette doesn’t match, there’s no audio transition and there’s nothing to clearly link any of the first part to the second part. This is like taking a section break in your chapter and moving us from a scene about puppies to an elevator repairman in an office building.

02:42 “I did. I’m the Agent in Charge now.” This whole terrible scene reminds me of this. Also, I want you to get a good look at this face:

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This is the squinty face of Dylan McDermott. You are going to see this face throughout this episode, This is how you know the man means business, but plays by his own rules. The only way this could get more irritating would be if it somehow turned into this.

04:39 “What if you’d been wrong?” “I wasn’t.” Dylan McDermott has ended the hostage negotiation, not by squinting, but by shooting the hostage taker who traded clothes with the hostage. Because he forgot to change his shoes (something the camera didn’t show us until after the guy was dead), Dylan McDermott dropped him with two shots to the chest. The fact that shoe reveal came post-shooting deprives us of connecting to Dylan McDermott, and the fact that he quips and exits the scene makes me think that Dylan McDermott’s job in this show is to be the loose cannon hero, who might save the Surgeon’s family by disregarding the rules. In a show called “Hostages”, this is a guy who rescues hostages, so THIS IS OUR HERO.  This is further told to us because there’s a BITCHING GUITAR RIFF THAT UNDERSCORES HIS DEPARTURE.

My rewrite – We cut to a police or FBI office, where we hear someone yelling at someone else before we see them. A boss figure, let’s make her a woman, is yelling at and ultimately suspends Dylan McDermott for “an incident that costs lives”. She makes it sound more like an expense, that the people didn’t matter, but we can see that Dylan McDermott is clearly haunted and not wholly paying attention to his suspension. We don’t know what the incident was, just that it was bad. This ambiguity will let our minds wander. He is ordered to take a month off, with no pay, until the investigation clears him. He tosses his badge and gun to her just before he silently exits. Dylan McDermott hasn’t said a word in this whole introduction scene. 

04:54 We are reminded again that Surgeon-Mom is really good at her job, because she talks to Generic-Black-Lady-Doctor-Friend about how her boss resents her being picked for this assignment. With all the clarification of how good she is at her job, was I supposed to doubt it? Should I be doubting it now?

05:04 Surgeon-Mom who we learn does have a first name (Ellen), sees a bald maintenance guy, who I’m pretty sure was either a skinhead in Breaking Bad, or a backup Nazi in American History X or maybe an Observer on Fringe, exit her office. This is suspicious, because she has paused to stare at them, then she rushes to her office to see what’s up. No, wait she doesn’t do that. She doesn’t immediately check to see what’s up. She sighs, picks up the phone and calls her husband. Her husband answers, saying he’s got a big deal (that surprise! goes south on him midway through the conversation, but he doesn’t tell his wife — intrigue or just decision-making?) and lacrosse practice tonight, so the two of them hang up the phone, not feeling very satisfied in this conversation. She does notice FINALLY that a photo from her desk is missing.

Good news everyone! I wasn’t satisfied by this conversation either. If two characters talk to each other, they’re supposed to be conveying their emotions to each other about what’s going on in their lives at that moment. She maybe should talk about the maintenance guy, or the missing photo, or how, I don’t know, she’s nervous about Presidential surgery. And he should, I guess, reveal to her that the deal fell through, or maybe go the other way entirely, and stay upbeat and supportive, and then have gotten the news post-phone call. The lack of satisfaction on the end of this call means that I’m supposed to see their marriage as troubled. But since this is the first time I’m seeing their marriage, I don’t know how to feel about it. This is why context and SHOWING (rather than telling) are critical when you’re trying to express a relationship to your audience.

My rewrite – Surgeon-Mom is on the phone already when we cut back to her, the phone is ringing and finally she gets to talk to her husband, who is at the center of a really busy office, making all these deals at his big corporate job. But rather than play it like he’s an oblivious corporate dad, the minute she starts telling him how nervous she is, he zeroes in on her, and supports her. During this conversation, she realizes that a family photo is missing off her desk, and she tell hims so, before nervously hanging up. 

If you’re following along at home, we haven’t had any action beats. Sure, Dylan McDermott shot that bank robber, but that’s not relevant to the Surgeon-Mom plot. The family hasn’t done anything other than talk to people or be surrounded by bad guys. Something needs to happen, else I’m going to either go play GTA V or read random Wikipedia pages.

06:30 “This will be an in and out operation.” This line is said by a guy in an electrician’s van. So you know he’s not an actual electrician, but you don’t know who he is. The fact that he’s using the word ‘operation’ might suggest he’s a leader of some sort, but we know from the opening that the hostage-taking leader is a white guy. So maybe this is his second-in-command? He’s talking to an attractive woman who’s complaining about her code name, humanizing her, which I guess is going to pay off later, otherwise why introduce it.

06:52 “You trust this guy we’re working for?” The attractive woman says this to the black leader guy before he exits the van and breaks into a house, which I guess we’re supposed to see is the Surgeon’s house, but the angle doesn’t match up, and in daylight, that jump in logic isn’t clear. But come back to the line, and what it means. So she and the black guy are working for someone else (a guy), and she doesn’t know anything about him and doesn’t know if she should trust him. She’s asking the black guy, suggesting that he knows “the guy” and that based on whatever response she gets, she’ll trust him too.

What does this tell us? That’s she’s new to whatever endeavor she’s working on. That’s she’s a new team member. That she doesn’t have a whole lot of contact with the actual guy in charge. That’s she’s not directly affiliated with whatever group other people are. Maybe she’s a terrorist-temp. Maybe this is Take-Your-Kidnapper-To-Work Day. If you were going to do something nefarious, would you recruit inexperienced people? And would any of those people be new or unknown to you? What if they’re idiots? What if they’re moles or spies or narcs? Who the hell arranged this ‘operation’? Clearly they’ve never seen a heist movie or played Night’s Black Agents.

My rewrite – I cut all of this out.

 07:19 “The chemo is hard on your wife.” This line is said by a nurse (Delores) to Dylan McDermott, who still hasn’t shaved, but at least changed his clothes. My problem here is that Delores has said “your wife”, which I know is supposed to tell the audience what’s going on in the scene, but if Dylan McDermott’s been coming to the hospital regularly enough that he can ask how “she’s doing today” and that he knows the nurse’s name, then she would presumably know him and his wife enough to call the wife “HER”, BECAUSE THAT’S HOW HUMANS SPEAK.

This is why you should read your dialogue aloud, and make sure other people read it too – it should sound like actual people saying actual things. The conversation should go like this:

“How’s she doing today?”

“Chemo was rough on her this morning, but there was a little improvement. Go on in. She’d love to see you.”

Because in that conversation both speakers have a pre-existing relationship with “her”, and the writer is trusting the audience enough to get what’s going on – that someone has cancer, it’s rough, but that both characters care for the sick person.

My rewrite – Suspended from his job, Dylan McDermott arrives at the hospital to see his stricken wife. She’s weak, but conscious, and smiles when he walks into the room and holds her hand. He kisses her on the forehead before a doctor pulls him out in the hallway. The doctor delivers some bad news: maybe she needs another surgery, maybe this round of chemo isn’t working and she needs something more aggressive. He takes it in stride, then goes back to his wife, all smiles and happy. She tries to make him tell her what the doctor says, but he lies and says she’s doing great, that her test results look promising and he’s really proud of the progress she’s making. She looks relieved and asks about work. He again lies, saying everything’s fine and that he talked today to his boss and he thinks maybe he’ll get promoted real soon, and then, when she’s feeling better, they’ll go on that vacation they always wanted. She smiles at this fact and closes her eyes to rest. He wipes tears out of his eyes and gives her hand a squeeze. 

08:03 Surgeon-Mom returns home, just as Black Guy and Attractive Woman are wrapping up the installation of surveillance equipment. Given the premise and the opening scene, the amount of premeditation here is staggering. I mean, it’s nowhere near Skyfall, Loki’s Avengers Plan, or The Dark Knight for levels of complexity and coincidence, but still, if you were going to hold a family hostage and make someone do something, wouldn’t it be far easier to piggyback their internet traffic, bug their phones, track their cars and stick armed guards on them? Do we really need a near-Truman Show camera setup? Is this going to be regularly intercut with footage, the way CCTV is used in Person of Interest (a touch I really like on that show)?

My rewrite – Collapse this scene into a later scene when we cut back to present time and show the family with the masked people. Show the masked people doing this work then, not in advance. 

09:13 The first introduction of the Daughter.  This scene doesn’t do anything for me.

09:25 The first introduction of the Son. I actually got up and got a cup of tea here. It’s 10 minutes into the show, the pacing is glacial, the tension was all the way back about eight minutes ago, and I’m busy thinking about what I want to do for dinner tonight.

10:11 Dad confronts the team about a large bag full of cash he found. His Son and a Teammate lie about what its purpose is, and after Dad departs, Teammate and Son argue about the lie being told. This teases the Son’s B-plot, without actually saying what it is. I’m still bored, unless the kid was getting bribed to take a dive or (I can only hope, but I doubt) that the kid was in on the hostage-taking by giving up the family’s schedule.

My rewrite – I’d either make the son younger, like elementary school age, or I’d remove him entirely. One child (a teenager) and their B-plot is more than enough. 

10:40 Dylan McDermott is a bad (?) father. He’s got a daughter that has some kind of custody arrangement with his wife’s father. I have no idea if the daughter is really tall for her age, or somehow disabled, but she’s clueless as to her mom’s condition. This is annoying trope that does not make me care at all about Dylan McDermott’s arc. She’s whiney, and she goes from “I don’t want to go” to “OMG Grandpa!” took quickly.

My rewrite – Cut this.

15:08 I’m skipping ahead because I want to bail on this show, but I’m writing this blogpost. I feel like I’ve been watching this for easily 40 minutes, but no, we’re FIFTEEN minutes in. All the B-plots have been brought up: The money Dad found, the money Son owes, the Daughter have teen pregnancy problems. Also, she’s got a boyfriend on the side that I thought attractive woman was going to shoot, but that doesn’t pan out. Dear sweet deities, please let this episode end soon.

15:41 “I’ve got the dog.” The family dog runs afoul of the hostage takers now surrounding the house. Now we’re led to believe that they’re going to kill the dog, as if I needed another reason to stop watching the show. It’s not that I care so deeply about dog shooting (kids, don’t kill your dogs), but because it’s really corny to shoot the dog to prove either you’re a bad guy or that you’re thorough in your actions.

Also, I’d like to point this shot out:

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This is two hostage takers talking. In the dark. Wearing black. At night. I don’t know who is who, or which one is speaking. I’m not entirely sure that there aren’t three people in this scene. I have no idea what’s going on.

19:15 Finally we’re back to the same timeline as the opening, where the family is together on the couch and the leader has turned off the TV. He unmasks, and it’s DYLAN MCDERMOTT!

Holy shit. Not like “Holy shit, I didn’t expect that” more like “Holy shit are you kidding me?”

See, because up until this moment, we thought he was a hero. He saved those hostages. His wife has cancer. But, no, he’s the badguy. We just spent about half the show following the badguy, not knowing he was the badguy. That’s supposed to come off as crafty or clever, but instead I’m confused. Because when you have a badguy, you’re also supposed to have created enough of a hero to oppose them.

When we reveal Moriarty, we’ve already spent time learning and siding with Sherlock Holmes.

When we reveal Loki, we’ve spent other movies with the Avengers.

In this case, we spent all this time learning about Dylan McDermott, seeing him do his job, seeing his family life. And who’s our hero? The Surgeon? We know more about how good she is at her job than her family life. Her conversation with her daughter is mundane. She is pretty silent when she’s told her son is going to buy alcohol with a stack of cash. She’s pretty tepid about her husband. This is our hero? Where’s her toughness? Where’s the evidence of her strength or courage or cleverness?

When I ask the question, “How is the hero going to overcome the opposition?”, I should be able to at least see the possible avenues for this to happen. Maybe she’ll poison them. Maybe she’ll turn one against the others. Maybe she’ll alert the cops. The obvious solution here is that she’ll not botch the surgery, because we’ve spent so long hearing how great she is. But if she doesn’t botch the surgery, wouldn’t that mean the hostage takers kill her family, and doesn’t that mean she loses?

Oh good grief, we’re only about half way into this show.

My rewrite – Back to the “present”. The Chief of Staff informs the Surgeon that she’s going to kill the President, else they’ll kill her family. And if any of them alert the authorities, guess what, they’ll kill the other family members. The Chief of Staff further monologues to inform them that they’re going to be watched 24/7, and then orders Attractive Woman (who is still masked!) to collect their phones and then bug, tap, or clone them. He orders the family to finish dinner, that his team has work to do and when the Surgeon asks “How am I supposed to kill the President?” he slides her an ampule of some liquid, a contact poison derived from concentrated blah-blah-blah, that’s untraceable, etc etc. He then says that he’s posting guards in every room in her house, including her bedroom, and that they should sleep tight. He exits, leaving the masked guards to watch the family quietly and nervously eat. 

In my rewrites, I’m nearly done this episode. I could care less what happens in the actual show, because I’ve set up all the tension of the procedure, without actually doing it. I don’t want the procedure to happen just yet, because that’s the high point of the plotline – once the surgery happens, the hostage takers will either have killed the President or the Surgeon and her family, and then the show should be over. And I wouldn’t make the procedure happen TOMORROW, I’d schedule it for down the road, so that I could keep this show going more than just two weeks (pre- and post- surgery).

But no, I’m not writing this show, so on we go with the breakdown.

34:55 The hostage takers learn all the B-plots, because now we’re just filling time. We’ve had some standoffs with armed gunmen, but basically you can summarize all the scenes with “Family starts to fight back or argue, and then voluntarily backs down.” Because the kids confess their plots (debt and pregnancy, respectively) and because the husband accedes to blackmail (he’s been having an affair, or he had one, it’s unclear) and because the wife won’t cut off her finger (??), the hostage takers are still in charge.

There’s a strange moment here where Dylan McDermott, who’s gone a whole two minutes without squinting, calls his wife’s father to inquire about his daughter. They have a weird conversation, where it’s revealed that the grandfather is either being held captive by the President’s Guy (from the Limo!) or they’re partners who also happened to be the real masterminds behind killing the President. I kind of want them to be masterminds, But this is CBS, and I doubt they’ll make a gay couple over 55 who isn’t either flaming or comedic. Sigh.

35:32 One of the family members (I wasn’t paying attention) says, “What about school?” implying that if the kids are forced to stay home and be hostages, that the school will get curious. The response is given that. “It’s been taken care of.” And now I know I’m waist-deep in sloppy writing.

You know our old friends SHOW vs TELL? Here, I just got TOLD that a major plot hole (or what could be a possible plot hole) has been resolved and that both the character (and the audience) shouldn’t worry about it. I didn’t see the school get told this. I wouldn’t have really given it much thought, but since it was introduced, it had to be dealt with, and since the writers didn’t really want to deal with it, they hand-waved it away.

Writers – It’s not bad writing if you don’t address everything. No one talks about the bullets cops fire, or the paperwork after they arrest someone. No one shows the CSI labs getting cleaned by janitors. No one is going to ask when action stars stop to eat meals or shower or pee. It is bad though when you introduce something (like kids needing to go to school) and rather than make a point of it (that might further show how thorough the badguys are), you handwave it away. That’s where the bad writing happens. If you don’t want to deal with something, don’t introduce it.

41:04 It looks like Surgeon-Mom is going to go ahead and kill the President, having switched the drug with the vial of McGuffin Dylan McDermott gave her about six minutes earlier. We see her make the switch while she’s explaining (the typo I had there was ‘expaining’, and I thought it was really accurate) AGAIN that she’s really good at her job. Now the last line of the scene is “A nurse will right in to start your IV”, and for a brief second, I hoped that maybe she’d frame the nurse for killing the President (making her partially less guilty?), but NO.

Because the next scene is the Secret Service arriving en masse and the Press Corps saying “I heard something’s wrong.”

HOW. What sort of security leak would allow a journalist outside a building, surrounded by agents to somehow discover, intuit or be told something is wrong. The Secret Service wasn’t even told anything was wrong!

So that line is there to tell the audience that things didn’t go according to plan, which is nice information, if the goal of the show is to deflate our enthusiasm and tension.

41:54 We find out the rest of the tension-wrecking along with the characters, who get TOLD this via newscast. The Surgeon double-crossed the hostage takers and gives a press conference about how she’s not discouraged and “doesn’t give up that easily.” A line which makes ZERO sense in the context of a press conference (it just makes her sound arrogant) and only works as a warning to her hostage-takers that’s she’s going to be the heroine who will stop them, even though we have no idea how, and while she’s being all brave, her family should be catching bullets with their faces, as per the earlier threats.

So we’re lead to believe that either she doesn’t really care about her family, or that somehow between switching vials and walking outside, she gathered all the bravery in the world to stand up to people who may or may not have killed her family.

Thankfully, the show goes to credits after showing us one more squint for the road.

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Yeah, I’m so glad we got one more in there.

My rewrite – The Surgeon returns to work the next morning, and discovers that people she normally sees – the guy at the garage, one of the orderlies, the security guard, have all been replaced by people who give her a knowing nod – they’re all in on it, and they’re watching her at work. She goes into her office, and find a camera wired to her computer. She turns her computer on and gets an email with a video in it – her family is still held at gunpoint, and one of the masked gunman, maybe the leader says, “We’re watching you.” the video goes black, but we hear a gunshot before it ends. Surgeon looks horrified, and sits back at her desk, and the camera cuts to CCTV footage of a webcam in her office, showing that she is being watched. CREDITS. 

One thing I forgot. Remember when someone was going to shoot the dog? The son discovers this —

HOSTAGES05

 

and we’re led to think “Wow they did kill the dog, that’s cold.”

But later, his assigned guard reveals to the kid —

HOSTAGES06

“The drugs will wear off by tomorrow” (32:23) … wait, drugs? What drugs? Are the hostage-takers using tranquilizers and not bullets? So that all these guns we’ve seen are just for effect and at best dispense knock-outs? Is this supposed to humanize them?

I’m calling attention to this because if everyone is humanized, who are we supposed to root against? I know the trend is all for blurred lines of sympathy, but in a premise where people want the President killed, it’s okay not to like them.

Final Thoughts

Nope. There’s way better things to do with my time, like patch holes in socks, watch infomercials and play amazing games with my friends.

I sincerely hope that whatever you’re writing and creating is better than this show. And frankly, it wouldn’t be that hard.

 

What Did I Just Watch: Agents of SHIELD

Today, I’m starting something new on the blog – let’s call it What Did I Just Watch, or when something’s really awful: What The Hell Did I Just Watch. I’m going to take a show, a movie or whatever, and break it down into its parts and talk about what worked and what doesn’t, and try to be clear about the craft behind the work, rather than just say something was good or bad generically.

Kicking things off, I’m going to talk about Agents of SHIELD, a show I was really looking forward to seeing, saw the episode twice now, and now I’m not really as dazzled as I wanted to be. There will be a chronological breakdown of the episode later in this post, but for starters, I’m starting with the characters:

NOTE: FROM HERE ON OUT, IT’S ALL SPOILERS. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THINGS, MOVE TO ANOTHER POST.

The Characters

Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) – The only previously established character I know of, and frankly, the reason I’m watching this series. I’m coming to this strictly out of affection and enjoyment in the character I saw develop through the Marvel Cinematic Universe and because although he “died” (more on that in a minute, including nerd-speculation) in Avengers, it’s good to see him back. Also, I follow the actor on Twitter, hoping one day he’ll retweet me.

Now, I know in the movies, the dude is dead, and my personal speculation is that somehow he’s going to be resurrected (thanks Doctor Strange!) and SHIELD/Stark tech is going to make him VISION, but that’s a bit of a nerd spiral. Back on point, he’s alive in this show, so that’s something to explain, unless the show is outside movie continuity and no one told me.

Generic Hunky Not Quite Jeffrey Donovan Character – See, immediately after Coulson, I’m in trouble, because I know ZERO of the other characters. I consider myself a fairly savvy and well informed comic book fan, and I can count off a few SHIELD people from the books, but at no time do I remember this guy. He’s a little bit action, he’s a little bit smarm, he’s a bit tough guy with a sensitive funny core. Having only seen him in this episode, I’m left to guess as to what tropes his character involves. Let’s go with: (a) Trouble with the Ladies (b) Sensitive (in Secret) Man (c) Parents Dead, Or At Least One Doesn’t Like Me.

I expected voice-overs like “Fighting off three attackers can be tough, you have to rely on training, accuracy and a hope that (freeze frame) someone else is a klutz.” I didn’t get them. I care so little about this character.

Tough as Nails, Rawr, I’ve Seen So Much and Don’t Want To Go Back Woman (Bonus points for making her Asian) – Here’s a trope I loathe with great intensity. You make a character and decide that in order to make this character compelling or novel or appealing to audiences, you have to give her a few cracks in her facade, and problems. This basically amounts to: “This character would be totally perfect and flawless, the best fighter or worker or doer of things, or they’re the smartest, but we don’t want that, we want to give them an air of mystery and/or possible room in the plot-stream to have some growth or resolution, so let’s make them extra nerdy, troubled, or haunted or worse yet, give them a mental disorder, because people with mental disorders are practically mutants themselves.” (See: River Tam, Buffy Summers, Fred from Angel — hey wait, those are all female Joss Whedon characters … hmm, isn’t that interesting? That’s not going to be important later is it? Hmm.)

Now yes, this character is in the comics, though not in this form. And my distaste for the character is not her gender, although I do find the convenience of Whedon making another female character to be a touch lazy and not special. We get it, women can be tough too. I’ll just be over here pointing out that physical combat skills and battle trauma are not the only ways you can make a female character empowered, strong, popular or “equal” to men. In fact, the idea that she needs to be equalized at all is baggage you bring to the show, because to me, every character regardless of race or gender is equal at the start of the show, book, story or thing. So chalk one up for generic girl power and let’s move on.

Spunky Rebel Female Character – She’s our audience surrogate, meaning she’s the civilian fish out of water, and it’s through her that we’re going to experience a lot of the SHIELD world, and through her lens that we’ll draw our opinions. Now having said that, that premise works great if we knew NOTHING about SHIELD, and it was supposed to come across as some big, imposing, unknown force. But the problem is that we have Coulson, and all the expectations and history that character brings along. So, let’s find a new facet for her. Ooh, I know, let’s make her a hacker, because mainstream media audiences know so little about what hacking is, and it’s a chance to write lazy dialogue with computer terms and fast typing gibberish on keyboards. Can we go one further and make her a counter-culture character? Sure, poof, now she’s part of a dissident group and she’s the voice of this movement. Wait, doesn’t that make her the bad guy? Why isn’t our bad guy, um, bad? That’s not important right now, we have to move on.

Female Science Character & Male Science Character – Here’s what I imagined happened in the Writer’s Room.

Writer #1: I have this great quirky science/tech character. He’s —

Joss Whedon: He?! No no Writer, don’t you know that I’m known for creating female characters of great virtue and strength. YEARS ago I made Buffy and Firefly, and that put women in charge, even though they weren’t actually in charge, but anyway, I need women to tentpole my writing so that not everyone realizes that without a strong theme, I can’t really write anything of length. But, quirky you say … (strokes chin, looks away)

Writer #1: Um, yeah. He’s foreign, but still white, and he um talks fast and is nervous.

Joss: Is this Asperger’s? That’s really popular over on Hannibal. I like Hannibal. They tell a tight story. Too bad Hannibal’s not a woman.

Writer #1: Well no, not Asperger’s. I don’t really know enough about it to sound informed, so I didn’t want to impose, or open us up to scrutiny that we’re misrepresenting a segment of the population that’s already stigmatized and perversely glamorized. I don’t really know what to do about it.

Joss: (springing to his feet) Aha! I got it! We’ll split the character into two. A male AND a female, so that we can also create this platonic relationship, just like Xander and Willow back when I was still new and could push an envelope that’s now so overdone that I can rest on my laurels because people have this expectation I’ll just always do it well, so that I can write glib friend-talk, and you can just keep all that quirk you think you wrote well. I mean after all, you’re no Joss Whedon. [INSERT OTHER POP CULTURE REFERENCES HERE SPOKEN AT HIGH SPEED AS THOUGH HE’S REHEARSED THE EXACT RIGHT THING TO SAY TEN TIMES]

*Note – That may not have actually happened.

See, this character is two actors. Not in a cool BBC Jekyll kind of way, but they just took two actors (one of whom looks shockingly like Louise Brealey from Sherlock and the other sort of looks like Neville from Harry Potter) and tore the sides apart with the instruction that you say this stuff, he says that stuff.

And they’re quirky, which remains a buzzword for funny/awkward/nervous/nerdy/not action-oriented despite all great protestations that you can’t keep segregating people along the jock-nerd battle lines of the 80s. And it’s not like the Marvel universe has any smart tech guys who also do action right? There aren’t any wealthy geniuses who fight the forces of evil, or brilliant scientists that take on enemies right? It’s all lab geeks and battle studs, isn’t it? (Apologies to Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Peter Parker, and Hank McCoy)

Special Guest Star – The black guy from Angel who I really wish was in more things – Okay, a couple problems here. First of all, the cast is pretty white. And they’re hailed as the heroes of the piece, who are going to fix all the wrong things and monsters of the week. So this week’s problem? A black dude.

But it’s alright, you say, because it’s not a racial thing, it’s an economic thing. He’s in a bad spot financially, and he’s got some Extremis in his arm, and I saw that in the last movie, so that’s what it’s about.

If he’s in a bad spot financially, why isn’t he robbing banks? If a need for money is his “Trouble” (the thing that makes his life difficult), why do we care about Extremis? Couldn’t he be a mutant? Or a guy with some stolen tech that he tried to sell but couldn’t?

Oh, Extremis isn’t his problem? He’s got some inner conflict about being a good person and a good father? But aren’t we introduced to him saying that he’s going to help people? And didn’t he say he’d get some money and buy some Avengers toys for his kid? Isn’t that what good people do?

Wait, it’s not about him being poor or Extremis, it’s about him needing a job? And they couldn’t make him have a job he’s ashamed of, where maybe his kid is embarrassed that his dad is like a janitor at his school so that we can have a nice father-son resolution arc where by the end of the show the kid is proud of his father and they hug while other people smile?

Just so we’re clear, the white people are going to help the minority character who becomes inexplicably evil because his son wants a toy and because he’s jobless and because he’s the first adult character we see, we have to follow him.

If I forgot any characters, I’m sorry, literally no one else made an impression on me.

The Show Breakdown

Note: I’m watching this show in 720p, without commercials. I’m going to pause this at irregular intervals, but I will always note the time.

00:01 The Marvel logo I’m familiar with starts up, and my first thought is – I wonder if this series takes place before, during or after the Marvel movies? I mean, Coulson is in it, so like, it can’t really be after, right? Anyway, I’m sure they’ll answer it. Also, isn’t this a Joss Whedon show, shouldn’t there already be an internet petition to bring it back on the air after it gets canceled?

00:10 The first line in V.O. (voice over) – “The secret is out.” and BOOM, we’ve established that this show takes place POST-Avengers. I immediately start to question Coulson being alive. Also, was it really a secret? I mean, the movie made it seem like all the New York fighting stuff was either covered by the news stations or publicized. And wait, Iron Man wasn’t a secret. He told everybody who he was at the end of the first movie. That’s the opposite of a secret. But okay, they want to say that regular people had no idea what’s going on. Except those people in New York. Or the people who watch the news.

00:14 “For decades, your organization stayed in the shadows.” Okay, so we’ll later learn that this is an internet message to SHIELD from The Rising Tide, the purported badguys of the episode. We won’t learn that for like another ten minutes or so, but that’s not the important element. Key here are the words “your organization”, which suggest that someone (the speaker) knows who they’re talking to and knows that there is an organization that existed in secret, but doesn’t anymore (because the verb of the sentence is in the past tense). So the speaker is basically saying “I and the rest of the world know who you are.” It’s now clear that this show doesn’t grasp what a “secret” is.

00:22 “They’re among us … heroes.” Okay, so the speaker has created an Us vs Them situation, where there are Heroes and there’s everyone else. And the visuals we’re paired with are familiar Avengers elements – Iron Man blurrily flying, Thor’s hammer, etc etc. I’m flagging this because here’s a key theme for tonight’s episode – that heroes are separate from everyone else, and that by and large, people aren’t heroes. (If regular people could be heroes, the sentence wouldn’t have been “they” or “among us”, it would have been something like “We’re heroes” or “We act heroically.” and they show firefighters or cops or EMTs saving people. Okay, so heroes are special and different and apart from us, and we should take note, and somehow, speaker, you’re suggesting something about how heroes pair up with the organization you already mentioned.

This is an info dump by implication. If this were explicit, likely Coulson would be talking to us, giving us the history of SHIELD, and showing us Nick Fury and the helicarrier from Avengers. But that’s like a show about, say, the White House, cutting together an introduction where we have each character say their name and their job title (hey there West Wing!), and that can be too on the nose for a modern audience. Also, that explicit case is a man talking, and our coastal audiences (California and New York) would run to the internet in feminist droves to grouse over the fact that yet another show has a white man not checking his virtual privilege and telling us, the uneducated masses, what the deal is. Rawr patriarchy. Yawn. Stretch.

Let’s skip the fact that there are plenty of other outlets for that discussion. Let’s skip the fact that this, by and large, is a show about a comic book. Let’s skip the fact that not everything has to be a damned fight about gender roles and we can just make it about well-written and poorly written material, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Let’s further skip the fact that it’s a first episode and maybe this show will find its footing later on.

00:32 I’m sorry, I don’t mean to keep pausing in the first minute, but let’s just look at the framing here.

Image

Okay, so here’s the opening post voiceover. That ‘E’ is part of the opening location tag, that will tell us we’re in East Los Angeles, and in no way on a studio back lot. So let’s skip that. Let’s talk shot framing.

See how the kid is in the center of the picture? See how the kid’s head is framed by all the Avengers toys? This is an awesome and beautiful picture. It draws us toward the kid, it gives us the sense that the kid wants the toys and it reminds us, as if we were clueless, that Avengers are awesome.

Other Nerd Moment – I’m pretty sure the guy on the far left is a comic book guy. I want to say that’s Joe Quesada,

Wait, here’s a small thing. Look again at the toys. I think the figures are posed on top of fake buildings, see the windows under Captain America? Wait, LOOK AT CAPTAIN AMERICA. HE’S FRIGGIN’ HUGE. What the hell’s up with the scale of that display? Okay back to the show.

00:38 “Ace, come and get it.” This is the second or third line of dialogue spoken by a character. It teaches us that the kid’s name, or at least what the kid responds to, is ‘Ace’ and that he’s being taken care of/parented by a male figure, presumably a father or elder sibling. We know because the cart was labeled HOT DOGS that he’s about to eat a HOT DOG.

Just for a second, let’s talk about names. Ace? Really? This better be a nickname or some sign of affection because ‘Ace’ is what you call someone when you don’t know their name, right up there with ‘You’ ‘Buddy’ ‘Sport’ ‘Chief’ and ‘Pal’.

00:55 Okay, so we’ve established some more character details. We know that Ace’s birthday is in a few months, we know he has an Aunt Mindy and a cousin, that both of them can swim, and judging by the look the adult gave, that money is an issue. We are further clubbed in the face by the fact that the camera now pushes in and the yet-unnamed adult character takes a serious voice and talks about the lack of job prospects.

TO A CHILD. He is explaining his shortcomings to the child he is supposed to be taking care of. Way to burden the kid for looking at toys, parental figure/sibling. But, we the audience, need to know that he’s jobless, because that’s the arc the character is being set upon. (Also, I’d like to point out that the kid, I think only has like 7 lines in the whole episode, and he’s said 2 already … count along at home.)

01:05 “We’re a team.” This is a line that’s supposed to endear us to this relationship, and show that two characters are close. This plays slightly with our vernacular knowledge about superheroes and by extension Avengers, but it has the added advantage of putting both these characters on our side and making us like them, in theory. Now, maybe I’d see them as a pair of people struggling against the world if the kid wasn’t acting like someone told him to eat artichokes. Glad to see the guy from Angel doing decent familial work. Note that after that moment, the shot is framed so that we see them in the foreground but there’s a big building (yes, you can be like my brother and point out that there’s a big WHITE building drawing our eye away from the struggling black characters) we have to look at.

01:08 KABLAMMO! The building explodes! Oh thank heavens something has happened. I was starting to think I was going to have to spend 42 minutes giving a damn and learning about these characters. Let’s take a look at the scene, there’s a critical visual element.

Image

The building is blowing up, which is cool. But, look at our characters. The adult is in the middle of ducking away, like you would do if a building across the street exploded. What’s the kid doing? STARING RIGHT AT IT. Good job child-actor, way to sell the illusion.

01:39 Okay, so the building’s toast, and our “hero” has left his kid to be watched by the hot dog guy, and he’s run past the rather small crowd of bodies and the dubbed-in sounds of their panic. (East Lost Angeles / studio backlot looks pretty unoccupied this particular afternoon). He’s just punched a building, and we know that’s a big deal because (a) people don’t spear bricks in burning buildings and (b) there’s an orchestral swell. He’s got some sort of ability other people don’t have!

Going back about six seconds, while he’s running through the extras to this really clean alley, we’re suppose to get the sense that he feels compelled to help, that he can use his powers to aid others, and that it’s a good thing to do. This plants him pretty firmly in the “hero” camp, and I want you to remember that as the episode goes forward.

01:56 Okay, so he scales the side of the building, and reaches this open window. Granted, he scaled the building pretty effortlessly, but has now gasped and had difficulty reaching the ledge. But he’s still a hero, and he’s going to be jumping into a dangerous situation involving fire and smoke BY PULLING THE HOOD OF HIS SWEATSHIRT OVER THE TOP OF HIS HEAD. Because, you know, that’s where we breathe from.

We’ll talk more about his sweatshirt disguise in a second, but seriously, we’re going to let a character go into a burning building without covering the lower half of his face? Even if he has super climbing powers (which is all we’ve seen him display), is he not bothered by smoke?

02:15 Our hero has jumped out of a burning building carrying a woman, thanks to blurry CGI powers (!!). And because this is a nod to how things are in the world, the previously panicked extras are filming it with cameras. You know, the way we do. I’d also like to point out that a building EXPLODED, and there’s a distinct lack of debris and dust on things. But we know this guy is abnormal because he jumped out a building, landed on his feet, and cracked the pavement doing so.

02:30 Okay, he’s covered his head with his sweatshirt, not to ward off smoke inhalation, but to hide his identity. He’s doing such a great job making sure no one sees who he is …

Image

No, no he’s not. He’s both completely exposed AND he’s looking off-camera, directly into the face of a woman taking a video. That is the opposite of hiding your identity.

The thing about disguises, the thing that makes them work is that they conceal who you are. Sure, we in the audience, know who he is, we watched him buy a hot dog for a poorly named other character and we watched him CGI his way out of danger. It’s not a secret to us. BUT IT IS A SECRET (OR SUPPOSED TO BE) TO EVERYONE ELSE. So wouldn’t the better writing to be his actually hiding that? If we’re to believe that this world has people who hide their natures, why isn’t this dude hiding the fact that he is a hero?

Was someone worried we would think a different character did the rescuing? Was someone in production concerned that we, the clearly uneducated audience, who didn’t spend MILLIONS of dollars seeing The Avengers in theaters, wouldn’t know who was doing what on screen?

Also, we’re 2 and a half minutes into the show called AGENTS OF SHIELD, and there’s no AGENTS or SHIELD. I mean, it’s not as bad as Birdemic, where I have to wait 47 minutes before a bird demics, but c’mon, how much shallow backstory are we going to get here?

Shorter, more intense version: Camera swoops over a cityscape. People go about their day. BOOM, building goes up. Sirens blare. People gawk and panic. We follow a blur through the crowd. We frame a man standing in an alley, he sighs, then scales the building. The first line of dialogue: “Don’t worry!” he shouts, “I’m coming to save you!” He rescues the trapped person and jumps out the building. The only video pedestrians take of him is from behind, as he escapes back into the city. Cut to the same man, now holding his son’s hand in the crowd. He looks at the rescued woman, now receiving medical attention, and he smiles. Someone takes his photo. CUT TO TITLES. 

03:08 Finally. we get SHIELD. Only they’re not in the same backlot as our burning building and rescued woman, they’re on location, I think in that spot either where the Highlander TV show took place in later seasons, or that spot where Vin Diesel was XXX. And we’re treated to a heap of cliches – agents in dark suits, speaking to other agents on walkie talkies about spy stuff.

The danger with cliches is that while they’re easy to write, everyone knows them. And expects them. And that amount of expectation breeds boredom. Two things of note:

“They posted the coordinates online.” Ooh, that’s nice and vague. That’s sort of like the villain in Skyfall wanting to post the MacGuffin to Youtube. Online where? How? To whom? To terrorist websites? Craigslist? Why and how am I supposed to care that something is online? Lots of things are online.

“If the job was easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.” This line of dialogue tells us about the speaker, that he enjoys risk and danger. But pay attention to HOW it’s said. This isn’t a weary statement of “Oh shit, I gotta do this one more time, and I hate this.” this is a quip. This tells us that either (a) he doesn’t care about the danger, and he’s a loose cannon (another cliche) or (b) that the danger really isn’t dangerous either because the hero won’t ever be at risk (inept bad guys from the Stormtrooper shooting range) or because he’s so super well-trained there are no obstacles for him (super duper spy syndrome).

This is also the moment where I rolled my eyes for the first time and began to note how watered down this show was going to be. Lots of quips and cliches, and if I see people in lab coats, this might as well be another CSI clone.

My rewrite – Our spunky rebel character took the man’s photo pre-titles. While she took his photo, SHIELD Agents took hers. They play it more clandestine. She plays it obvious, more like a bad investigative journalist. They disappear into the crowd, maybe one of them speaks into a device, “We have another one.” 

04:06 So our hunky generic guy has impersonated a waiter, used a cool piece of tech to lift a whole palm print (Objection your Honor, the guy wouldn’t have held a small glass like that with his whole palm) and then uses a different piece of cool tech to X-ray the walls and find the vault. He retrieves from this vault a baggie. No it doesn’t matter what’s in it, it only matters this is our introduction to a SHIELD guy, and we’re supposed to learn that he’s a badass. He’s just a badass who kinda looks like he should be playing the sensitive sporty boyfriend in a romantic comedy who has to learn that he can be intimate with his ladyfriend in public and not upset his bro-tastic friends. Or that ballet is cool or something. You know, bad Katherine Heigl shit like that.

He gets attacked by people while an eye candy blonde watches, you know, like attractive women in their underwear always watch burglars defeat armed gunmen. In fact, as I write this, attractive women are somewhere in their underwear. And clothes.

05:25 Our hunky hero has escaped and is now talking to Agent Maria Hill, our first visible link to the Marvel movies. He’s explaining what SHIELD is, because you know, the audience won’t know. And he references the contents of the bag, a Chitauri neural link.

My god! You must be exclaiming, that’s an item from the Avengers, because I watched that movie intently and remember the aliens in the third act were called Chitauri. And the neural link, that’s …. wait, that’s not something noted in the movie. But it’s Chitauri, so like, that’s close to the movie, right? And close enough is good for TV.

My rewrite: Hunky hero breaks into the apartment, but the armed gunmen are waiting for him. They wrestle, he defeats them. Everything looks serene, and he opens the vault using cool tech, only to have the eye candy attack him next. He gets stabbed in the calf or the shoulder and escapes with the baggie o’ stuff before the eye candy can shoot him. We cut to a man recovering from injuries, maybe in a sickbay of some kind, explaining how the baggie o’ stuff ended up damaged in the fight. This would show the man is a little reckless and inconsiderate of the costs for getting the job done, showing him to be a little bit of a maverick who needs to work together in a team. 

07:03 “I know Agent Coulson was killed in action.” Okay, see, they now outright say it. This is a definitive moment for the show, establishing where it sits in the whole continuity of movies and television.

07:07 Coulson appears out of the shadows, (even quips about it) and isn’t dead. Right, so this creates a problem. He’s supposed to be dead (and a little internet digging says he’s not in the Avengers sequel), but isn’t. This is a great moment for Coulson, and leaves the audience wondering how he’s not dead.

07:30 We’re back to our hero and spunky girl. He’s staring at the newspaper and she’s following him.

08:13 This is Coulson’s explanation of his recovery post-Avengers death. It references Tahiti. It also establishes that the Avengers aren’t cleared to know this knowledge, so we’re establishing some adversarial or combative distance between SHIELD and the big name players. I’m curious to see if this carries into the next movies.

08:21 “A superhero, Agent Ward.” Okay, this is the first use of the term in the show, and I’m curious to see if that word shows up in ANY of the movies. (I don’t think it does). While Coulson says “superhero”, it’s Hill who says, “an unregistered gifted” which is a nice nod to the idea of registration and Civil War (comic book plotlines), as well as point out their ideological differences – Coulson remains a fan of them, Hill is suspicious.

09:48 Hey look, it’s the guy from Firefly.

10:33 “Tahiti. It’s a magical place.” Right, yes, here’s confirmation of my theory. ‘Magical’ place. Magic is a thing in the Marvel Universe. Magic is also a great way to bring people back from the dead. In order to do magic, you’d need, say a sorcerer. Does Marvel have one? Oh right, Doctor Strange. Ooh, and isn’t there a movie or something planned for him? The pieces get further tied together when Firefly guy and Hill talk about Coulson “not knowing” and “[he] can never know”, so clearly something happened, and the audience is left to speculate what.

12:12 Mutant guy and spunky girl get coffee and she sales-pitches him on the merits of brand identity. This is a pretty typical back-and-forth Whedon dialogue scene, and I still argue that he peaked with Firefly and that he had a stronger cast there.

We also get our hero’s name “Mike”, only we’ve had to wait only 12 minutes for it (it’s a 42 minute show, do the math). And we know this because spunky girl both has his license (somehow, I guess I’m to assume she lifted his wallet and he didn’t notice, despite him motioning to pay for coffee) and says his name after the license comes up on screen.

Now normally, when you take a license, the critical bit is the address, You want to know where someone lives, so that you can imperil him or his loved ones later, so that you can have a scene in a new location or so that you move the pacing along. If I wanted a character’s name … couldn’t I just ask?

13:59 We meet the tough as nails but haunted female character at a desk job. The foreshadowing of the fact that she’ll have to go back into action despite WAY TOO MUCH PROTESTING is heavy and dull.

My rewrite: Coulson isn’t dead, he’s somehow survived, and he’s handing out dossiers, assembling a team. People cut him a wide berth, because he used to be dead but isn’t. He’s not trusted entirely, people are scared or uncertain, and in the face of this adversity (maybe led by Hill), he builds a team and goes back to work. He gets a text message from a doctor, suggesting maybe he needs a “check-up” (it could be Strange), but avoids it, showing the audience something is wrong but he’s putting it off. One by one the cast of characters comes meets Coulson, maybe over coffee to complain about this new assignment. The maverick who works alone, the angry combat vet who wants to work alone, the scientist who’s never left the lab. They’re surrogates for the Avengers – people who have never worked together, but again, through Coulson, they are brought together to resolve a problem – our lady-saving hero is also a bank robber. We see him on one hand as a savior, and another as a villain. Hill orders the team to stop him before he gets out of hand. Coulson objects, saying their job is to help him, and the team witnesses the tension. 

18:20 Spunky Girl meets SHIELD. She’s in the middle of calling them out, and they just sort of arrive. It’s a nice comedic beat, and while I enjoy it, it tells me this show is going to play light on tension and action. I kind of blame Disney influence for this, since the show airs at 8pm.

The fact that she’s taken on-board and looks to be interrogated is a nice touch, but things go way off the rails when Coulson truth-serums hunky hero guy. Why? There’s no motivation, and we’ve seen/heard no explanation as to why Spunky Girl is worth turning into an asset. Yes, Coulson’s plan was to “use them”, but this seems more like you’re taking her to lunch rather than prying secrets out of her.

My rewrite: The investigative journalist tracks down more leads, and tries to get Mike to reveal himself, he declines, and she keeps digging. Her research uncovers SHIELD, and she runs into Coulson and the team, who bring her to the office, but Hill orders them to interrogate her. Again, the tension between Coulson and Hill is played up, as is the tension between Spunky Girl and Hunky Hero. There’s chemistry there, and just before they get close to one another (maybe Spunky plans to seduce her way to an escape), Scientist tranquilizes her. Spunky wakes up back in her apartment with a cell phone and a note from Coulson, “We’ll be in touch.”

20:55 “Listen, doctor, people saw what I can do.” When this line is delivered, Mike is holding a notice to vacate. if I were holding a notice to vacate my home, I wouldn’t be calling my doctor. I’d be calling my bank. You know, the people who can actually kick me out of my house.

This lack of balance makes it really hard for me now to sympathize with the character, and this is the moment where we’re supposed to see Mike go from hero to villain.

My rewrite: Mike is staring at bills, and the eviction notice. He’s on the phone with his bank, and they’re not being helpful. He’s getting angry, and we see something flowing through his veins. We see the rig on his arm. Clearly, these super powers of his are grafted on. We follow the camera to his wall, we see his military decorations and photos of him meeting dignitaries. We cut back to the desk, and we see a file folder labeled “Extremis: Patient XYZ”. The bank hangs up on Mike when he starts getting angry.

The agents and Coulson are meanwhile reviewing footage of the explosion, they survey the scene as well, and find evidence of Extremis. With some research, Scientist finds a list of test subjects, Mike being one of them. Combat Vet finds evidence of Extremis as well, and hearing Scientist say it made soldiers even better, steals the Extremis to use later.

26:00 Mike is arguing about his job at the factory and inexplicably, and against the character type that earlier expressed heroic tendencies, kills his old boss. He’s gone from hero to villain, and he’s not even a sympathetic villain, he’s just made a monster, a raging killer. This is the moment where I seriously consider changing the channel or playing GTA V.

There’s not enough evidence to support his change to villain. An eviction notice and no job? Two facts only told to us through dialogue and by one piece of paper? How big an implication are we to make that things are bad?

My rewrite – Mike storms to his bank, one he hasn’t robbed to support his family, and creates a scene. He pulls the vault door off, he uses it to barricade the front doors. He takes hostages, and at the end of his rope, threatens to kill people if his demands aren’t met. He just wants to keep his house. He just wants his life back. The police arrive, but are powerless against him. They contact SHIELD. Coulson and his untested team are thrown quickly into the fray.

28:25 JARGON JARGON JARGON. Here we see the two tech characters toss a ton of BS around, all buzzwords and vocab trying to solve the problem. Of course the actual solution to “Where’s Mike?” is provided by the civilian, who is now being treated like an unofficial team member of this secret organization and no one is objecting. And if the one-woman (girl power!) hacker army is smarter than the government, are we supposed to say that she should be on the team or that the team sucks?

Why couldn’t the super awesome government with the awesome tech have solved this already? And why do we need the civilian character at all in an ensemble show? She straddles too many roles (tough chick, smart scientist, love interest for hunky guy) and if the show is called AGENTS OF SHIELD, why isn’t she an agent?

Also note, that in my rewrites, I’m up to the climax and action beats, with about ten minutes to spare. In the actual show, we’ve got about ten minutes and the only action beats we’ve seen are a CGI guy jumping out a window and a man being killed in a factory.

29:33 Mike confronts (?) the lady he saved, revealing her to the Extremis scientist who promised him the world and all he got were these lousy superpowers and a crappy life. Also, for a woman in a hospital bed, she’s really spry. I don’t know how much time has passed, I thought maybe it was two days, but if she’s rocking smoke inhalation and internal injuries, she’s pretty mobile. I guess maybe she’s got some Extremis too? Or a healing factor? I don’t know enough about her. I also don’t care. Her job is to push Mike further, to show he’s hopeless. Which is good, because after that rage outburst, I didn’t think he was hopeless. Wait, was she the doctor he was calling before? That doesn’t make any sense though, because he brought her flowers and she’s in a hospital bed, and why would you bring flowers to a person who just frustrated you?

32:13 “Let’s head back.” Combat Vet and Spunky Girl have retrieved all the data, after Spunky Girl steals her own work and keeps it secret (??), and Mike appears and throws Combat Vet against a wall. He then tells Spunky that she has to help the two them. See, cause he just dropped down behind Combat Vet like he was Batman, but he pulls Ace next to him like he was standing by the van this whole time. So that means Ace just watched his dad throw that Asian lady against a wall. But Ace is cool with it, because as of 32:32 Ace delivers his third line of dialogue (We’re a team) which was the same as his second line.

Now because Spunky is supposed to be a member of the team, her capture clearly is a problem for the team and means Mike is absolutely a villain. Right?

Nope. If we agree with Coulson that she’s “an asset”, then she’s expendable. At best they can get pissed at Mike for knocking out Combat Vet who should have defended herself, but oh right, she’s so tired of all the violence she couldn’t even fight off her attacker. That’s cool. Maybe next time she’ll quip first.

And if you’re curious, my rewrite is already at the climax that the actual show is just getting to.

33:47 “Don’t ever tell me there’s no way.” This is a great line from Coulson, it just has ZERO place in the scene. This is delivered with frustration, and highlights the team’s low confidence and Coulson’s commitment to keeping heroes heroic. This is the sort of thing that gets said after the team has exhausted a variety of strategies to succeed, not before they try anything.

My rewrite – SHIELD arrives at the hostage standoff, with Mike hurling desks through second story windows. He’s scared off the SWAT team, who are afraid a conventional sniper can’t kill him. Coulson orders the snipers to stand down, but the cop in charge gives the nod to tell the shooters to stay alert. They try negotiating with Mike, who by now is consumed with rage. Coulson and the team think of a few strategies, but all involve body counts or severe problems to keeping SHIELD out of the press. The team panics, and then Coulson delivers the line, not yelling, but as a rallying moment. “Don’t ever tell me there’s no way. Not every hero needs super powers to do what’s right.” or something gets said. He sends Combat Vet to keep an eye on the snipers, orders Hunky Guy to keep the peace on the ground and tells Scientist to develop a strategy, and when asked what he’s going to do, he says, “I’ve got an idea.” He reveals his sportscar and we see the Stark logo on the back as it speeds across town.

37:23 The I-can’t-make-doors-work scene. So Mike is tearing up the train station (Because I guess he doesn’t have a car or they can’t do this in an airport), and Spunky is running away. She’s screwing around with a door that I guess I’m supposed to assume is locked, but there’s no reason for double doors in a public place to be both unlabeled and locked. If they go outside (the rest of the scene has them going to another place in the station), why are they locked?

Further screwing with this is the cop with the shotgun. The cop with the shotgun? That’s right, the scientist lady from the hospital is sitting outside and she’s informed some sixth-rate Henry Rollins looking goon to go take out Mike. There are a few problems with this:

(a) I have no idea why all of a sudden SHE’S the bad guy. She was the victim of an explosion. She was complicit in powering Mike up. She wasn’t a member of the Rising Tide, who we were told were the bad guys (that’s just Spunky Girl). And she’s got no additional affiliations to her. No HYDRA tattoo, she doesn’t communicate with some badguy offscreen. No, she’s just a beat up woman in a lab coat, clearly the height of evil.

(b) The goon has a shotgun. Are we to believe that a shotgun slug is going to take down the guy who can throw people around with ease? That just one shotgun slug is going to drop a guy with super powers? is it a super shotgun?

(c) Why kill Mike? If he’s going to explode (like the guy in her lab did), won’t that kill him too? And clearly, ordering a mook with a gun into a crowded place, she doesn’t care about collateral damage, so why not just wait for MIke to go boom?

We button this scene with, “Where’d they take my son?”, which is supposed to sound like Ace is the most important thing in Mike’s world, despite that fact that Ace has spoken THREE times in this episode (and only two different lines – “Sure” and “We’re a team”) and we have only 2 scenes of them interacting (at the beginning and when Mike kidnaps Spunky). Yes, Ace is a HUGE deal to Mike.

38:27 The Mook fight scene. Okay, so here we get to see the shotgun wielding goon get taken down by the woman who all episode did everything short of telling us “Hey I’m really good at fighting” by telling us instead that she didn’t want to fight. This trope annoys me because it supposes that I’m stupid, that I take a character who protests that much is actually sincere in their complaints, and that I’m supposed to believe Joss Whedon can do a whole show without showing a woman is just as good as a guy, as if we didn’t already know this and we needed to beaten near to death with it.

Look Joss, can I call you Joss? ANY CHARACTER IS CAPABLE OF AWESOME. You don’t need to reserve it for the ladies to show you how make them “as good as the men”, because that just says you’ve got the women starting at a deficit. And don’t think I haven’t noticed that aside from Coulson, the majority of women are doing the heavy lifting emotionally, scientifically, and narratively, freeing up the men to be quipsters. Tell me again how you’re espousing equality? Are you saying quips equate to plot work?

So she drops the goon, and of course she ends in a combat pose, because we all know that when you get into a life or death situation, your training so precisely kicks in that you end in a flourish. You can’t just kick the guy and punch him. Or maybe that’s just what a dude would do.

Mike gets taken down, safely, thanks to Team Nerd Science coming up with a tranquilizing dart TO THE SKULL. Image

That is one tranquil guy. And the fact that Coulson flinches when it happens, and he looks up in surprise at his team, that tells me it wasn’t part of the plan. But Coulson’s not angry.

41:27 We don’t know if he’s alive or dead, not until Science Nerd Woman appears and smiles at Spunky Girl, because that’s how we confirm life – we show slow mo shots of people relieved that something worked.

My rewrite – Coulson returns to the bank, and brings Ace with him. Because the bank vault is sealing the front door, they have to go in through the back. Coulson and Ace slip inside and just before Mike is about to kill the bank manager, Ace screams, “Dad! Don’t do it!” and they launch into a back-and-forth about how Ace has always thought Mike was a hero, and it doesn’t matter where they live, so long as they’re together … as a team. Mike and Ace hug. Mike agrees to go into SHIELD custody and Coulson escorts Mike outside to a waiting SHIELD team. Ace makes Coulson promise to take good care of his dad, and Coulson says, “Heroes deserve second chances, right?”

42:09 “I told them his father is coming home.” We’re into the resolution now, and Spunky is walking with Coulson away from a house that I presume is some kind of foster care for Ace, since there were other kids and some other lady. Maybe that’s supposed to be his aunt and cousin from the beginning, but it doesn’t really matter, since Ace said his three lines and Mike’s been shot in the head.

Coulson and Spunky are by themselves, which suggests they’re close to each other, or that Coulson has an affection for Spunky that’s different (and more special) than the rest of his team – otherwise, why couldn’t the team all be there? They talk some more and Spunky says she’s not a team player, despite spending this whole episode helping other people, and then two of them take off in a flying car towards their next adventure.

My rewrite – Mike and Ace are led off by SHIELD scientists, and Scientist tells Coulson and Hill (who arrived on scene) that he’ll receive excellent care. Hill starts to chew Coulson out for being reckless and not following protocol, and reminding him that they’re unregistered, not boyhood heroes anymore. On Hill’s orders, Spunky is taken away as well, for causing this whole situation. Hunky moves in to arrest her, but doesn’t actually lock her cuffs. He lets her escape. We cut to Combat Vet, toying with the Extremis. We cut to Scientist looking over files but looking back at Hunky, thinking maybe fieldwork isn’t so bad. Coulson’s phone buzzes again, it’s the doctor, reminding him about his appointment. He texts a response saying he’ll stop by tonight, but is interrupted when Hill gets a phone call – there’s another emergency, and it’s time for the team to roll out. Coulson is given one more chance to get his people in gear, and to follow protocol. He promises he will, telling Hill that she needs to believe in him and them, and she needs to have vision, dons his sunglasses and leads his team onward. Hill says, “Vision.” as he drives away. 

So, did I like the show? Ehh. I was pumped for it. I love the Marvel film universe, I am excited about how it’s going to be going forward, and yeah, I’ll watch one more episode to see if it rebounds. But my hopes are no longer up, and I’m only really watching it for Coulson.

Did I like this new blog format? Yeah. I think I might do another one of these for another show, Hostages.

The Writer and Suicide

This post is heavy with trigger warnings for a variety of things: suicide, depression, abuse of various persuasions, self-harm, body dysmorphia and mental illness. Please know that I am writing this post not to upset or cause harm or hurt to anyone, and that this post is meant to be a part of the on-going discussion surrounding mental health, well-being and society. I’m sure the list above is by no means comprehensive, so consider this sentence to be a list of all other triggers I am unable to articulate at this second. 

I promise you we’ll get back to talking about writing and things soon. But right now, we need to have some realtalk.

When I shave, I use a safety razor. I didn’t always, I used to use a variety of Gillette and Schick products, found them to be satisfactory, but ultimately, I wanted the ‘old-time’ classic appearance of warm foam on my face and a single blade doing the work. Do you know why it took me nearly 20 years to commit to one?

Because I was afraid that having a box of five thousand sterile razor blades around my home would be motivation or temptation enough for me to one afternoon, get restless and bored, and cut my wrists.

I do not hide from that statement. I no longer feel shame to say that it crossed my mind on nearly a weekly basis for two decades. I no longer back away from telling you that it is, in fact, a real challenge for a lot of people to not harm themselves. This is not me on a soapbox, where I will melodramatically beg you to reconsider, this is me standing next to you, sitting in the room with you, saying, “I have been there. Maybe not exactly. Maybe not at this moment, But some of what you experience, I have experienced. And you are not alone.”

My arms are riddled with small scars from the times I went at myself with a razor blade. Either to end it all, or in some manic sense of “I need some control, so let’s control a flesh wound.”

My legs are scarred from traumas suffered as a teenager. There will likely not be a post detailing that, ever. Suffice to say that I tend to cover a lot of things up.

I have, thanks to poor diet, loads of drinking and a stack of medications that screwed with my metabolism, a beer gut, that despite all efforts, I have the worst time shedding. I have considered surgery. I tried once while high and depressed to “drip the fat out of me”. It didn’t work. I think I had the idea that I’d drain it out like I’m tapping a tree for maple syrup.

Because of all these things, I cover up. In the physical sense, my shirt seldom comes off unless there’s something intimate occurring or if there’s no one around. I don’t wear anything that doesn’t have some kind of sleeve. I wear things that are one size too large, knowing that both they’ll shrink in the wash, and they’ll mask my roundness. In the mental sense, I build a barrier between myself and the world by way of my ability to think, reason and help others. I’m a smart guy, and that can buy me a buffer.

You see, I do this, because, and quite simply, I cannot trust what I’m told or what I see in the mirror. I don’t see me that you see.

People say a variety of nice things about me. I have nice eyes. A good smile, A loud and joyful laugh. When I was younger, and lighter, they would say I have a nice back, strong and defined.

Do you know what I see when I am forced to look in a mirror? I see the troll from the Mines of Moria. I see a bipedal hippopotamus who has to be smart and witty so that no one will recognize that “Oh shit, who let that ugly thing into the room?!”

This is why there are only six mirrors in my entire house. And in part, the reason why I don’t wear ties – you have to look in a mirror to put one on.

And in that mirror, I don’t see me. I see the lunatic, the actual insane liar and cheat who broke hearts and promises, who stole and left wreckage in his wake. The guy who thought he’d never be good enough, so “Fuck love and fuck everything.”

He’s there, across from me, screaming, “You piece of shit, You might try to be the smartest and the best, but how many of them know the truth? How many of them were there to pick up off floors and pull you out of beds and away from ledges? Why is it that the people who were there and did those things are gone? No one loves you, you genius fuck. No one’s going to. Try all you want. Do whatever, go be passionate, but in the end, you’re alone. Oh, and don’t forget, you suck at reading peoples’ signals so those people who you think dig you, no they’re just friends. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget, you don’t like dealing with new people because they’re germ factories and so many of them are slower than you and so many things bore the living snot out of you, and you’re tactless … so good luck getting along in society. Come back to this side. Come back to the afternoon planning sessions on how to die. Come back to the sad place you’re running from. Come back, because no one else stands with you. It’s just me and you.” (I realize that’s a lot to scream, but you know what I mean.)

To date, I have tried to kill myself (obviously without success) 31 times. It’s at least twice a year for the entire time I was in full-blown mental illness. Sometimes it was hanging. Sometimes it was razors. Or jumping off roofs. Sometimes it was pills. I never wanted to deal with the bureaucracy of getting a firearm, and I didn’t want to suffocate.

Now I should point out here that I’ve gone two years without an attempt, something that I am more proud of than any professional accomplishment or personal milestone.

By now, when I say this sort of thing out loud, people have already tried to interject into the conversation,

” — oh John, you are handsome. You are good looking.”

or

“But why would you keep trying?”

or

“You have so much to live for.”

I don’t know if you know this, but hearing someone tell me that I look good only sometimes makes sense like when I’m twenty seconds from giving a panel or when I’m out to dinner. Then yes, in those moments of calm zen understanding, I will agree with you – I do look good. Or at least okay. Not as built or ripped or suave or tanned or bearded or whatever’d as other people, but hey, at least I put pants on and haven’t spilled any food yet.

Why did I keep trying? Because I felt my life was so devoid of merit, so absent of good things, that at least I could get one thing right, and conveniently that correct act would keep the screw-ups from occurring later.

I have so much to live for? I’m now 35, I have no children. I’m not married. I have never spent a day in a corporate setting. If we’re looking at the broad spectrum comparison between what I do and how I live (the lack of contact, the seclusion, the hand-washing, the whatever) and everyone else, I am very much an outlier.

It has been a long road to get me to accept that I now do have something to live for. I get up everyday and I get to see the sun and try to help some other person or if I’m lucky, more than one person do something they didn’t think they could do. I get called on by companies and people to help them solve problems, create new things and develop amazing material that gets praise all over the place. That’s so very much worth living for.

But if you really want to know why, if you really want to understand why this all seems foreign and ephemeral, then I need to talk to you about Pain.

For many of us, living hurts. Maybe that’s a physical malady. Maybe that’s a chronic condition. Maybe it’s a suite of sensitivities that impair. Maybe it’s something we were born with, and maybe it’s something developed over time. But there is Pain. And I’m not talking the kind where you take two Advil and a hot shower.

Your joints ache. You can swear you feel your bones floating in your muscles and skin and they feel dull and filled with concrete instead of marrow. Your mind races, or worse, sometimes crawls. You maybe live in a constant fog, or you live maybe at three thousand miles an hour.

And this is all before we even bring other people into the picture. Talking to them, mustering the words and the courage and the patience to stand or sit there and engage them. Participating in conversations, sharing opinions, these activities hurt. They hurt because you have to endure them, and they hurt on a mental/emotional level because there is this idea, one that you believe everyone else has agreed to, and you’re just late to the party, that your thoughts count less than others. That when we measure peoples’ worth, they will have vastly more than you do, no matter who you are or what you do. You are forever looking up at a mountain that other people climb with ease and proper tools, and you’ve brought old rubber bands and a beach shovel. And you’re wearing flip-flops.

I tell you this, not because this is the definitive explanation of all Pain. But that’s my Pain. I know it. I have been in a battle with it, and some days I win, and some days I lose. On the days I win, I can laugh and move through the day. On the days I lose, I want affection, attention, praise and comfort, and not always in that order.

That Pain will weigh on you. It will invade your thoughts and soon you start making choices not because activities sound fun or that you’ll get something from them, but because doing A will hurt less than B. Or maybe if you do C, you can ditch the Pain for a few hours (only to have to redouble its efforts when it returns).

That’s the Pain I fight with a mouthful of pills every morning. That’s the Pain I fight every time I eat at a scheduled time, don’t shake hands with untrusted strangers and wash my hands the minute I hear someone cough. That’s the Pain I fight by choosing not to sit at the bar and socialize.

You’ve made it this far in the post, and I applaud you. I feel like I’m rambling, but really I’m just following my thoughts along. If you’ve never had Pain in your own life, I hope I have thus far given you a peek into it, so that maybe when you see it in others, you can be more compassionate. If you’ve had before or have now Pain all up and through your life, please, please, know that there exist people who will listen. There are services you can engage. Phone numbers to call. Emails and chat rooms. You don’t have to go to your friends if you’re afraid they’ll be weirded out. You don’t have to hide it because you think someone will say “Suck it up.” No more hiding.

I broke a ceiling fan once trying to hang myself. I saw it in an Indiana Jones movie. I didn’t count on a shitty install or a crappy belt. It is my great hope that no one has to experience that moment where a family member walks in on you, laying on the ground, rubbing your throat under a busted fan.

That’s not a war story. That’s not the one I dust off when I want a laugh among friends.

In that moment, I think everyone involved knew that what I was going through was real, that my feelings were at odds and still legitimate, that I needed help and that being told to “man up” or “suck it up, get a life, and move on” only made me want to find a new belt and a new fan.

Help saved me. The people on the end of the phone. The people in support groups, in-person and digital. The doctors. The counselors. The nurses and orderlies.

But see, I thought that when I got help, the Pain would go away. That all of a sudden, I’d walk out of a mental health facility and there’d be no more anxiety, no more anguish, no more shame and that I could look in mirrors and see “John”.

The Pain doesn’t go away. It just stops being so loud, and it stops being in charge. The screams get muffled as you learn coping skills. Structure and organized living combat the anxiety. Pills patch the chemical holes in your head, while therapy helps you patch the non-chemical.

I don’t want to die. I do want to live. I want to love. I want to love without having to hide that some days I really want to lay in bed, not because there should be marathon humping sessions, but because I’m afraid that once my feet hit the floor, my phone’s going to ring and I will get fired from every job I have. I want to give a damn about someone when I’m not fueled by selfish panic that within thirty seconds of there being a problem, be it that I spill water or that I miss an appointment, that the other person is going to leave.

I’ve come close to that since I’ve been stable. And sometimes I thought I was close when I wasn’t. And other times, all this transparency and intensity drove people away. I don’t hate anyone else for that. That’s their choice. That’s their path and while it hurts that I don’t get a front row seat to their awesome, I can still keep looking for someone saving a seat for me.

About two-thirds through this post, I shaved. Hot foam, New razor blade. Feels pretty good. I let that blade drag over my skin, and I didn’t hear the voice say, “Push it in deeper.” (Truth be told, the voice was all, “Oh shit, what the hell can I make for dinner?”)

Am I in Pain? Yes. Am I subordinate to it? No. I fight on. I tell Death “Not today.”

All that other stuff – the loneliness, the heartache, the guilt, the concept that I’m unattractive, I’m working on it. I exercise. I eat well and pretty healthfully (though I did go to In N Out, and that was AMAZING). I do my best to treat people as best I can, and be honest with them about anything and everything. I do my best to give a damn about others. Not so that they feel forced to reciprocate, but because the world isn’t about me all the damned time, and being nice to people actually feels good.

If you’re hurting, get help. Find people to talk to. Do your best not to expect or assume they’ll judge you or think less of you. If you need more than talking, go get that help. Seriously, it’s a pain in the ass, I know, but it’s actually a lot easier to drive to an ER and ask for help than it is to have your loved ones clean up your corpse.

All this goes beyond writing and publishing, I hope you see that. I don’t give a damn what avenue you want to pursue or what you think about other avenues and the people on them. I don’t care what sort of entitled, selfish, dickbag you may be. Just for now, in this moment, let’s put all that work shit to one side and let’s promise each other that no matter who we are, what we believe or how we live, we can help someone if they ask.

You don’t have to be quiet about Pain anymore. Not that you needed my permission, but I got your back.

I’m going to go find some food. Thank you for listening.

The Post-WyrdCon Post

Over the weekend I was lucky enough to attend WyrdCon in beautiful Costa Mesa California. Southern California, where I’ve been twice now, once at the height of mental illness and again now stable has always been a combination of comfortable and abrasive. I can’t really go further into the post without explaining that. 

When I was sick, I went with my girlfriend on a business trip to Anaheim (her business, not mine). I was totally lost in paranoia and anxiety, completely at given over to it, and when combined with being a poor flyer and oblivious to my feelings and needs, it was not the best travel experience, and admittedly, I was a poor companion. 

Now healthy, I manage all my moods, feelings and needs with a transparency that makes so many things vastly easier to deal with. Still not a great flyer, I’ve found enough ways to cope – pay a little extra for better airplane seating, avoid crowds by using car services, that sort of thing. This is sometimes a financial issue, since flight upgrades aren’t cheap, but worth it if I can stave off panic attacks and the need to sequester myself in a hotel room for hours afterward until my heart stops racing, the waves of terror abate and in really intense moments, I can distinguish between what is and is not around me. These sort of coping mechanisms and strategies help me preserve (and I don’t say this too melodramatically) sanity, and I will not eschew them out of social pressure or expectation. They’re tools in the toolbox, and I need to use them. 

So, back to WyrdCon. I have a quiet flight to Orange County, I get picked up at the airport by a Russian guy missing fingers, and I make it to the hotel. Now, the hotel and convention have been covered as part of a Kickstarter, so there’s no social pressure about money, but there is the expectation that having a room on “the Executive Level” affords some sort of perk or premium. You know, like a penthouse or large suite or something. 

This was not the case. 

The room was a single box, with an adjoining bathroom where the door didn’t close properly. The “patio” advertised on the website was a concrete ledge maybe wide enough for a person to stand on and maybe move, if they shuffled sideways. 

An aside for a minute about traveling with me – I value space, and while this often gets mistaken for valuing privacy, what I really like is room to move, room to arrange things in a not-upsetting way, room to compose myself without worry of tripping over other people or suitcases or whatever. And room in a more abstract sense, that my routines aren’t going to interfere with other peoples’ routines. Deviations (and I don’t mean like waiting an extra five minutes to shower, I mean like skipping meals, being late to things, and slacking on responsibilities) lead me to give the mental floor over to Negative John, and nobody wants that to happen. 

So this room, this concrete box, if I was by myself, I bet I’d be okay with it. I wasn’t by myself though. My two dear friends and frequent companions were with me. I enjoy being with them, I enjoy how we make each other laugh, and most especially, I enjoy how accepted I feel when I am with them – not freakishly distant or on display,  not overlooked or fragile, just as a person. 

The three of us, in a room maybe twenty paces long by twelve paces wide, for four days and three nights. Manageable, right?

Shall we up the difficulty by adding that the two of them keep schedules absolutely polar to mine? I’m a morning person (I enjoy throwing open curtains and seeing blue skies and sunlight) and I do my best to get a good solid seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Any less, and I retreat further into an inflexible (and grumpy/crotchety) structure. 

I bet we can make the difficulty even greater if we add in that hotel pillows are bags of awful.

So that’s the scene. Granted, this is the hotel room, this is where I would go to retreat and recover. So after that first night, I knew I’d need other places to retreat, that the hotel room was too little space, too many people and too many intersecting routines. 

Enter the “Executive Lounge”. Imagine a large living room with a few refrigerators stocked with free beverages and packed with good breakfasts in the morning. Okay, you might be saying to yourself, that sounds like a good thing – you can eat a substantial breakfast in a comfortable chair. 

Yes, the food was a frequent salvation. 

What’s the wrinkle? Imagine a fickle key to access the room, and that it’s often crowded with loud people, many of whom talk with their mouths full, clank silverware and generally want to invade your private space. So sometimes, it’s a haven, and other times it’s a weird balancing act of “hey this food is good” and “oh shit I have to slap on the politest of social faces and pretend like I don’t feel like I’m the city under attack in Missile Command”. 

No, I don’t think they’d aggress me. But they would want to talk. 

Yes, I’m a morning person, and I am happy to talk. But meals are … special. They are somehow intimate to me, and over meals I prefer either productive business conversations or something stimulating. Lacking that, I usually eat with music. 

Over breakfast I was struck by how alien this convention and people were to me. I consider myself an editor and game designer, not an academic or game theorist. So it was isolating, confusing and even a little upsetting to be in a room where a pack of people discuss games I’ve never heard of or experiences I can’t even fathom, and I can’t contribute. Really, when six people are discussing a shared emotional experience about something they did in Norway, and the closest comparable story I have starts with, “So I tried to slice my wrists once …” you tend to sit quietly and do a lot of polite nodding. 

Also, they touched me. No, not like that. I mean in those allegedly friendly gestures of hands on arms and shoulders. Small note – This next sentence may be trigger-y for people. Skip down a few lines if references to physical space or germs might be a problem

I don’t know if it’s the social climate, that they people are just tactile, or if it’s the locale, that people in Southern California are particularly expressive, but everyone seemed to want to shake my hand or put a hand on me while saying something nice. 

Look, I don’t know where your hands have been. And since I’m not dating you or feel particularly safe around you as to predict that you’re not going to attack me, you can keep your hands over in your area. 

John-Fact: If we shake hands, I am conveying to you the depths of my trust towards you. You are my friend, and I appreciate you. All others get fistbumps. And for the love of holy fuck, I hug maybe like SEVEN people on the planet. Also, if we do shake hands, I am making a beeline for the bathroom to wash my hands

Okay, everyone with me? If you’re keeping score, the hotel room is small, not as advertised and crowded, with people on totally different schedules than mine. The Executive Lounge is comfortable, but often crowded. People want to be all up on me, and not in fun ways or in ways I feel comfortable. What’s next?

There’s the pool. The blissful pool in the California sun. And the hot tub. Here, I find my refuge. Next to no one goes there, maybe a kid or two, maybe a pair of teenagers who want to toke and make out, but that’s about it. Here I can soak and float and lounge in the sun with my iPod on and get some downtime. 

Oh, did I not mention that the only WiFi for the whole building is on the convention floor, so it’s not like I can check my email or stream music or feel productive? Bear that in mind for the next section. 

Armed with a sanctum, I can do something about the Convention itself. The interactive storytelling convention where I don’t enjoy LARP. The storytelling convention where I know a total of FIVE people, two of whom sleep four feet from me. 

I went to some panels. They were interesting. They got me thinking. But I noticed that there’s a lack of information – where were the panels about how to actually write these things? Where was the editing panel? When did people get past the academics and the war stories and talk about construction? How can you have a storytelling conference that doesn’t talk about how stories are physically crafted? 

Oh, right, in this crowd, the story is crafted by costumes and foam things and player actions, not paragraphs and note cards. 

WIth the absence of game-playing (more on that in a second), and with a scarcity of panels that didn’t come across as insular clique masturbation sessions (Remember that time we did this? tee hee), I had loads of downtime. Where I didn’t have internet access or a car to reach places outside of the hotel. 

I did the best I could to manage this. I took my pills. I read my books. I listened to a ton of music. I did a ton of game-based thinking. 

Maybe you’re saying, “John, why did you stay? Why did you even go?”

I promised my friends I would. I promised I would help them run a LARP I helped write the system for. The LARP that ran on Sunday. I only had to make it to Sunday. 

I have no doubt, paranoia aside, that I got a lot of looks from people as I sat in a crowded hotel restaurant, lost in my iPod, not drinking, eating a steak. I could care less. It hurt that people didn’t really know who I was, it hurt even more that so few made an effort to find out. It triple hurt to find out that what I do wasn’t seen the same way as what they do. 

So how was my convention? Lonely. Taxing, but it didn’t break me. Would it be telling that my greatest moments were times when I was either in a pool/hot tub or out of the hotel? Seriously, I finally had In-N-Out, went to an Asian food stall and ate tongue, had a wasabi disaster, and talked to more maids, bellhops and waitstaff than anyone else. 

It’s good to be home. It’s good to be back in familiar structure. It’s good to be able to be exhausted within comfortable rooms where I have internet access and my space and music and books and peace and quiet. I can spend today reading my notes to myself and play with the dog. I can spend today updating files and making plans to dive into work the minute my energy levels get back to a tolerable level. 

In my mind, I went to an alien planet, and came back to tell the tale. 

A Man Out of LARP and Space

Tomorrow I spend much of the day on an airplane. But thanks to time zones, I won’t notice most of it. I have a cache of books to read and listen to, and ideally a few movies to watch. I’m hoping the flight goes smoothly and the whole airport rigmarole is easily managed. 

But that’s not what I’m talking about today. I wrote at length about my flying issues prior to GenCon last month. Today I want to lay out some thoughts about where I’m going this time. 

I am attending WyrdCon. This will be my first time to the “Interactive Storytelling Convention”. And I can already hear what you’re saying.

“John, why are you going to an Interactive Storytelling Convention? Isn’t that like, not your scene?”

And you’d be correct. I am not an interactive storytelling guy. Sure, I play games and work interactively with other people to tell stories, but that’s usually around a table with papers, pencils and dice. Sure, I make a fair share of my living in gaming as an editor or creator of content, but again there’s far more structure to it, and I don’t consider it the same as what ‘interactive storytelling’ conjures up in my head. 

No, I’m going because my friends are going. And because I contributed to a Kickstarter that had some swanky rewards. And because we’re running a session of a Dresden LARP where I wrote the system. 

I hope my friends will forgive the ego that this next few paragraphs will conjure. 

I get the impression that sometimes my friends (not all of them, just a few) have a hard time believing “they’ve made it”, that it’s difficult for them to realize or accept that in fact they ARE having professional conversations and ARE being taken seriously and as experts about things they know. I guess they’re waiting for the Professional Fairy to leave this recognition under their pillows. I guess they’re waiting for an award or placard or membership card to some organization, union or guild. I tend to roll my eyes at this, because while they counter, “John I don’t want to ever take these experiences for granted.” I’m confident they never will.

So I continue to help put them in more and more situations where they will be visible to other professionals, where other people can benefit from their expertise, and where they can stand up and say, “Yes, I can contribute.” This often leads to them getting hired for jobs, getting to work on amazing projects and generally increasing their recognition. I am in no way a celebrity for doing this, I don’t even really want anything more than a thank you for whatever I do. 

But that whole circumstance, that whole situation is now reversed when we move out of tabletop gaming or publishing and come to LARP or interactive storytelling or whatever theatrical experience is at hand. I have done a slightly more than cursory reading on the subject, I’ve contributed things to certain events – mechanics here, a plot there, but my knowledge and experience is dwarfed by theirs. 

It took me a good long while to come to see that at this convention, the tables were turned, that I was not the person who connect them to others, and that I am, as of tomorrow, completely out of my element and nearly my comfort zone for a few days. My friends have been gracious and patient with me about this, and I now look forward to this convention not because “Ooh, I get to LARP!” (because it has no interest for me other than in an observational or mechanical way) but because here I get the privilege and honor to see the roles reversed – they get to be a big deal, and I can just hang back. 

Man, did my ego and inner monologue so not like the idea of not being a big deal. Granted, I’m no industry celebrity, my name isn’t known as quickly or as easily as others. I’ve never been a Guest of Honor. Crowds do no part or clamor for me. But people know who I am, and I have a great number of people I can draw upon for friendship, work opportunities and even favors. This is a good feeling, knowing that in some places, I get recognized for my efforts and my ego gets stroked. I would consider myself a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond. 

And for a few days, I get to be a tiny fish in a whole new medium-sized pond and, armed with my best coping tools, plans and trusty bags, I’m going to make the best of it. I am going to try at some point and write a blog post from WyrdCon, though I make no promises. Your best bet would be to stick with Twitter

Have a great Wednesday. Happy writing

Put Your Soul/Self On The Page

It’s a delightful Saturday afternoon, and I am less than 22 hours away from tearing into a roast pig. But that’s not important right now, since I woke from a nice nap in my hammock to put together this post. 

It’s important. And for a lot of you, this is going to be really incredibly dense information, and I will do my best to keep it digestable for you. I’m going to use the words “soul”, “self” and “essence” interchangeably here, and I don’t mean to connote any religious dogma or belief system, since this is not a measure of piety or doctrine and instead is a simple but powerful instruction to all the writers and creators who read this blog and draw inspiration, help and interest from it. 

When we write, no matter what it is, no matter how intensely researched or casual, no matter how fantastic or practical, no matter the genre or the scope or the characterization or the exposition or any term you can think of, each word, and by extension, each tap of a key or scratch of a pen is the impression of ourselves creatively. 

We have talked and hinted earlier that there’s a little bit of the writer in every character, that it’s all just different facets of the same greater whole. This remains true, but I would like to pull back to an even wider plane and examine this. 

You remember how one of my favorite editing comments is, “Why did you choose this word for this spot in this sentence in this paragraph on this page in this chapter in this book?”, well here’s the reason for that – because I want you to be as authentic as possible to yourself, to your love of creating, when you put words down. 

No, not authentic to the story, because we’re lucky enough to have dozens, hundreds and thousands of stories within us, and stories change. I mean be authentic to yourself – show who and what you are, show what you believe it, put it out there on display proudly, as if you’ve spent all morning polishing and cleaning and getting it ready. The paper, blank screen or page is your stage, and when you stop worrying about other people or strategies or what is or isn’t successful, and you just embrace the joy of creating because YOU want to create, when you put yourself out there, you accept the stage for what it is – just a space to make a thing, not some tower where you sit and look down on others, nor some pillory in the town square where you are subject to scrutiny. 

Authentic to yourself, to tell the one story we always tell, through characters and books and novellas and tweets and videos and games and cookbooks and all that – the story of YOU, the creator. 

It doesn’t matter what your gender is, what you identify as, what your race is, what your preferences are, what software you use, how old you are, who or what you love or hate, how you spend your Saturday afternoons, or all that, because it’s just … ephemeral. People age. Relationships intensify and wax and wane. Love builds. Skin wrinkles. Leaves fall off trees. The sun rises and sets. But you and your stories remain for as long as you want them to. You can get up every morning and write, you can write into the wee hours because you’re a night owl, you can follow whatever schedule you like, or not. Walk away. Do something else. If that’s what you want to do at your core, at your heart, and more than anything else in the world, do it and do it happily. 

I can hear it now, people lining up to tell me, “John that’s so great but this isn’t how the world works. We have jobs and families and debts and responsibilities. And writing is hard. And scary. And we have all these expectations.” 

Yes, we all have those things. Let’s, for a moment, agree that they exist, but just for a second, just for this paragraph, put them to one side. I’m not ignoring them. I’m not belittling them or you. You’re awesome, and brave and strong and capable and brilliant, and you are not defined by these things, but rather how you accomplish them. You are wonderful. Have you noticed, though, that when you are doing the things you love, whether that’s writing, or being with your partner, or cooking, or enjoying your hobby, or listening to great music, that you just don’t feel the negative tug of “the way the world works”? In that moment, when the song hits, when the show reaches that good part, when your partner looks at you, when the cake comes out of the oven perfect, when you realize that you can in fact build a roasting device and roast a pig and it won’t be the death of you, you are at your most potent, your most creative, your most overjoyed. That’s the authentic you. That’s where the stories come from. 

I can sit here on my patio, think about things as metaphysical as the expression of energy or as practical as how heavy that bag of charcoal was, and find that authentic me. No distractions. No pain. No screaming voices of doubt in my head. They don’t disappear but they just aren’t heard, like someone talking softly to you on the other side of a door. Muffled. And you can come back to them later. 

There are so many things, so many doubts, so much bullshit, so much drama, so much anguish and confusion, so many people and things that just clutter us up. That distract us. That encourage us to forget or worse, offer us a bullshit woo path towards remembering that when it’s just us and the page, or us in the kitchen, or us in the studio, we only need to do the thing in order to be amazing at it. 

Yeah, that’s right. You just have to do the thing. Not judge the thing as you do it. Not get lost in the “what if …”, just do. Just feel the joy of fingers on worn keys, listen to the story open up in your head. Breathe. See the characters clearly. Forget all the crap those shitty books taught you. Fuck all the snowflakes and axial models. Hell, skip software if you want. Just connect to yourself, then go make the ever-living shit out of a thing. 

Who cares if it comes in sputters? Is this a race? Who cares if you start and stop and start again? Why do you think it needs to be perfect? How are you defining perfect? Why would you let perfect get in the way of joy?

That’s you on the page, just like this is me on the blog (bonus points if you hear this in my voice), and that’s her over there on the phone or him over there in that email. Don’t you see that? You put words in a character’s mouth, that’s some part of you, in that moment, in that virtual place, saying or wanting to say those things. You tell someone how to roast a chicken, and you’re in the kitchen with them. You paint a picture and you’re with me when I hang on it the wall and every time I look at it. 

You have to put yourself out there. Not in some “fuck fear” place, although there is a place for that discussion. This is the “Stop carrying that stuff, put it down, catch your breath, and be joyful about sharing the greatest skills you have with others” discussion. 

You might not know HOW to write the best-seller, but you do know how to write sentences. This is good, because best-sellers are made of sentences (I’ve done extensive research). 

You might not know how to cook a dinner that will wow your significant other, but you do know how to use a knife and melt butter and boil water. That’s awesome, because most meals involve two out of those three. 

You might not know how to be “a professional”, but you do know how to be yourself. That’s ideal, because the best professional is YOU. 

You just have to remember that through all the crap, through all the worries, through all the hoopla and hyperbole, through all the fear and comparisons and competitions, there is at your core a you, a self, a soul, a whatever you want to call it that will burn hotter and brighter than a thousand million suns if you give it a chance. You won’t write books like King or Rowling or Fitzgerald, but you don’t have to. You have to write books like YOU would. You won’t make movies like Ford or Spielberg or Kurosawa, but again, you have to make the movie YOU would. 

You don’t even need my faith in you to do this, though I have tons, and I love you and I want you to do your best, and I want you to remember how amazing you are every step of the way, you just need faith in yourself. 

One word at a time. One second at a time. One whatever at a time. 

Put your self on the page. Go on. 

Deep breath. 

Happy writing. Joyful writing. Joyful expression

Inclusion: It’s important and you should be practicing it

Today, among the many things I accomplished, I got a chance to talk about inclusion. 

See, there’s this notion of tokenism, the idea that you’re putting something into your creation just because someone somewhere will have an expectation of it being there, or (as one person tweeted me) “to shut bitches up”. 

Yeah, not shockingly, I didn’t agree with the idea of shutting bitches up. So we as creators NEED to be inclusive. We need, as much as possible to make sure we’re using our best language to represent as many people as accurately as possible in our fiction. 

No, don’t shoehorn them in. Don’t do it just do it to shut people up, or think that if you do it in advance, you’ll head it off at the pass. That’s a terrible reason to do anything, let alone be socially progressive. 

I can hear you saying, “But John, I don’t want to disrespect the people I’m putting in my work. My experiences aren’t their experiences. They’re going to hate me/fight back/be offended/etc”

Stop. Wait there a second. 

You just recognized that you had a different experience in life than someone else. From there everything springs. 

Think about your experience. Whatever it is, whoever you are, can you be as open minded as possible to understand that other people, regardless of race, or sexuality or gender or economics or whatever, are going to have a different experience? 

And some of the things that came easily to you because of who or what you are didn’t, couldn’t or can’t (they’re all different words) come as easily to others. 

Here’s an example from my life, maybe that will help. 

I was small and sickly growing up. I didn’t break five feet tall until my junior year of high school. I was horribly coordinated. Thanks to some neurological impairments and cerebral palsy, I couldn’t do things like work a pair scissors or tie my shoes until the later half of elementary school. I wasn’t athletic, I wasn’t on any sports teams. I grew up not popular. Not hated, more … pitied. More ignored. More overlooked. And I’m a straight white guy who grew up in an affluent town and the product of brilliant parents. By every stretch of the imagination, I should have everything in life on lock. I should be coasting through.

And I’m not. Sure, you can say this is because from about the age of 10 until 33, I was an undiagnosed, poorly treated depressive with anxiety and hallucinations. But we’ll get there, give me another paragraph or two. No, I don’t coast anywhere because I know, to a degree, what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. 

Notice that I didn’t say “I know exactly”, because there’s no earthly way I can know exactly. I didn’t grow up poor, or of a different race or sexuality. I didn’t grow up on a farm or in some community where there was a limitation imposed on me. 

So I can only take what I know, that sense of ostracization, the sense that I can’t ever really trust what I see in front of me (talk to enough people who aren’t really in the room and you sort of lose that certainty), and that sense that there were always better choices during those formative moments in life, and I think I can understand something about what other people experience. 

And when I can’t? I ask. 

Fun fact: It’s far easier than you think to ask a tough question and admit you don’t know but are willing to learn, than it is to blunder along blindly. 

If we’re going to build a pro-active strategy for inclusion, let that be the first step.

I. Ask questions, without judgment, and without fixing people. So let’s suppose you encounter a group where you don’t have any experience or common ground. Maybe that’s a different race or sexuality. Maybe that’s a different gender. The specifics don’t matter. So what do you do?

Be upfront about wanting to be more inclusive. Do so without invoking any -ist words (racist, sexist, able-ist, etc) or any phobic language (homophobic, trans*phobic, etc), because you don’t want to ever sound like “I don’t want to sound racist/phobic but …” because we all know that if you start a sentence that way, you’re about to drop a seriously problematic second half of that thought. Let’s be better than that and cop to not knowing, but wanting to learn. 

So you ask, and you get an answer. During and after receipt of that answer, you are not allowed to judge the person talking about their experience. Just don’t. They’re not a bad person for sharing their experience any more than you’re a bad person for sharing yours. In short, JUST LISTEN. TAKE NOTES. 

You don’t have to fix them. You don’t need to offer solutions. They don’t need “saving”. They aren’t broken. They’re just different. And different never means bad or wrong. 

II. When you create, challenge yourself. When we make things, whether that’s fiction or tortillas or art or whatever, we all have comfort zones. Sometimes that comfort zone is a physical space. Sometimes that comfort zone is a box bordered by cliches, that you only write a certain genre or a certain type of character or climax or whatever. Sometimes that comfort zone is a set of thoughts that keeps you from looking for a new audience, out of fear they’ll hate you. 

Comfort zones, on the whole, aren’t bad things. We all need comfort zones. But when they become barriers and escapes rather than starting points, there’s a problem. 

See, if you’re going to be a creator of anything, invariably, you’re going to have to grow from whatever place you start in. You’ll gain experience, you’ll gain an audience, you’ll gain fans. All that. And a lot of that means you’re going to have to grow that comfort zone. 

Notice that I didn’t say jettison the comfort zone and never look back. I said grow it. Expand it. Expand it by pushing yourself while you’re still in it. 

a) Start writing characters you don’t normally. Don’t know that headspace or where to start? Talk to someone else. Get help. 

b) Take your existing characters, write their counterparts, with all their usual traits flipped. Write a lot of men? Go for women. Write a lot of heteronormative text? Try something more fluid and open-minded. Write a lot of one race? Try a different one.

But don’t do it offensively. Don’t just toss around stereotypes. Take your character, at your level of detail, and swap elements for others. See if the backstory changes (or has to). See if you’re comfortable with elements now that you’ve changed them. If you are, USE THEM in the original manuscript. 

c) You don’t have to write about the “bad stuff” to be inclusive. Let’s create two groups: A and B. A has a history of persecuting, minimizing, subjugating and otherwise relegating B to secondary status. With me?

Now it’s really easy to write about how B feels in this case, even if you’re not a member of B, because the obvious responses (anger, frustration, sadness) don’t require a lot of in-depth work. 

But let’s look at B for a second. Let’s look at B without needing to bring in A. Who are the pioneers of B? Who is big in their history? Who were their trendsetters and leaders? What advances in the arts and sciences did B produce that EVERYONE (A and B and C and D) benefits from? 

In this action, we make B more than just “the group that A suppressed”. And at least from my perspective, I see a lot of vitriol and attention being given to varying warcries of “A oppresses us! It sucks! Fuck A!” when I know for a fact that you change tack and present B as being just as diverse or developed (even possibly more so). 

It takes some patience, sure, but you don’t have to get all firebrand in order to start affecting changes within your work. You don’t need to heap on (or take on) the guilt or the anger or the whatever in order to get into some other group’s headspace. 

It takes kindness. It takes a willingness to listen, and accept what they say, whatever that might be (anger, frustration, fear, whatever) without wanting to fix them or make it go away. Let other people have their own experiences. Your job in this, creator, is just to be there to listen and then later translate those feelings into your work, so that you’re not just operating from within your own bubble from within your own comfort zone. 

III. Learn new lingo. Just like learning new adjectives and verbs can expand your writing palette, the language of inclusion can do wonders for your writing and life. Learn about cis. Learn about girlfags and guydykes. Learn about heteronormativity. Learn as much as you can. 

Yes, some of it’s not going to be really comfortable for you, because new knowledge is going to challenge old knowledge and old ways of thinking. It’s worth it.

I don’t know if you know this, but you don’t have to join some other group to have an appreciation for them. I’m a straight white guy. I have trans* friends, and gay friends and asexual friends. I know transvestites and transsexuals and androgynous couples and people of a variety of colors and loads of native peoples from all over the world. 

And not a single one of them, no matter how they’re different from me, has asked me to change who I am in order to join their group. The gay guys didn’t “convert” me. The black guys in drag don’t need to slap on a pair of heels (I don’t have the legs for it). 

They want me to be me. Just like I want them to be them. 

And when I say something that I really didn’t think through, or I say something where I didn’t entirely consider how it would be taken (more on that in a second), my friends know that I’m willing to be corrected and listen to new information. Hell, I thrive on that. Because it’s not scolding. It’s not condemnation. It’s a chance for me to gain more info. And with more info, I can keep doing way awesome things. 

You’ve made it this far into the post, and maybe you’ve just now had this thought, “But John, if I’m supposed to constantly think about what I say before I say it, or if like, I need to be all PC and not offend anyone else, when the hell am I supposed to speak? Why should I shut myself up just to give other people a chance to talk? If we’re all equal, don’t I get say?”

Okay, yes, you do get a say. And yes, from this point, this moment, we are all equal. But maybe just before that sentence, whether for a second or a lifetime or a geologic age, things weren’t equal. Now, yes, that’s not directly your fault. You didn’t specifically oppress every single person of a different culture, gender, race or sexuality for a few hundred years, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it going forward. 

So yes, we’re all equal. And that means we all get a chance to speak. And to let other people speak, you have to be quiet sometimes. 

You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to say things that rub people the wrong way. Are you doing it maliciously? I hope not. (If you are, I really think you should re-read this blog post and then do a lot of reading on different -isms in Western society. Oh and you should then effort to never engage with me, because I don’t talk to assholes.)

It’s our ability as humans, to admit mistakes and seek corrections (not restitution or penance) that define us. It’s the mark of quality to be able to say, “I don’t know about X, but I’m willing to be corrected when I’m wrong, and learn from my mistakes and then go forth and help others not make the same mistakes I did.” 

Include others. If we’re always talking As and Bs, you’re always somebody’s B. 

There will most definitely be more on this in the future. 

Happy writing

Quit Keeping Score

Okay, so yesterday was a rough day. We all know this. Well, you know it if you were following me on Twitter, and you double know it if you called, emailed or sent me a text. 

Today’s going to be a better day, because I’ll be damned if I’m losing a second day to horseshit. 

So, to be clear, I’m going to keep writing in the most transparent and open way possible, and I’m going to keep being aware of my feelings and my thoughts and I will keep being me. Not because I want to upset people, or really, not because it has anything to do with anyone else, I just feel better when I talk about whatever’s going on. And no, I don’t really need to explain or justify anything to anyone else. 

Now, onto today’s topic. 

I want everyone to quit keeping score. For anything. For everything. I think things, and by things I mean whatever particular endeavor you’re doing, would be vastly improved if “score” wasn’t tracked.

This will probably work better with examples. 

Example 1: You write a book. You work really hard and do your best, writing on weekends and days off from your day job and you decide to go the traditional route and you get a book deal and an agent and all that. You feel fantastic about your efforts, you’re really proud of yourself, you maybe even throw a little book party with your friends. Life is good.

And then someone, maybe a voice in your head, maybe it’s someone at this party, maybe it’s some offhand comment on the Internet, says, “Well [YOUR NAME HERE], only a few dozen more books like that one and you’ll have caught up to [NAME A FAMOUS AUTHOR].”

Example 2 – You are a member of a group. Maybe this is a social organization, maybe it’s a movement, maybe it’s a big circle in a Venn diagram. But your views on the particular issue that connects you to the group aren’t the same as those of other members of the group. Maybe you’re more moderate than they are. Maybe you’re more extreme than they are. Whatever the leanings of the group as a whole, you’re in the minority opinion, and you get ostracized or avoided because of it. 

Example 3 – There’s a big event planned. Bajillions of people attend this event, and loads of things are offered at this event to give the bajillions of people some entertainment or some opportunities for interaction. But, in this particular event, let’s just say that one of the ‘highlights’ (air quotes!) is that there’s going to be a big mosh pit where people are going to … kick puppies and old people, and event attendees start making blanket statements about how kicking puppies is the best and old people suck (or something). You find out about this, either by attending or just through the grapevine, and you get upset. You get so upset in fact that you start making blanket statements too, saying that if you go anywhere near the event (despite there being bajillions of people, not like six people in a backyard), you support and encourage puppy kicking and old person harming. 

In all three of these cases, someone is keeping score. In the first example, that person who made the statement is comparing you and your first work to someone who has multiple pieces of work, and has assumed that you want to be just like them

The second example has people of one opinion disregarding an equally valid but different opinion, all because it isn’t theirs, and then shunning the person who doesn’t conform. They keep score by creating homogeny. 

The third example has people using blanket statements to combat blanket statements, keeping score by escalating volume and covering other feelings with vitriol, putting calm and ordered discussion to one side. 

To keep score is to deal with judgment. Either making judgments, figuring out who or what is better or worse than you, so that you can see where you rank on some table, or to ensure that you are a member of a group with a like opinion. 

Absolutely none of this is different than the cliquish insecure behavior of a middle school cafeteria. 

I remember mine clearly, because I was very much the insecure kid. I had some friends, and we all sat together, but on the whole I felt very much isolated. I wasn’t athletic. I didn’t have girls hanging out around me. I was smarter than most of my friends, and I think that kept me at a distance. I was in the band, sure, but I didn’t have any of the teen experiences that other people did, and I fell outside most groups’ shared views. 

Comparison is hard to shake off, because so much of our culture is predicated on either fitting in or racing in some competitive way towards perceived rare or elusive spots on some list. It’s hard to get published, so you have to be better/faster/more predatory than others. It’s hard to be a person of a minority/other gender/other race, so you have to be more vocal, more angry, more guarded, more intense than others. 

To this type of thinking, we’re all just trying to fit in. With whom? What’s gained by putting your independent thought aside for the sake of conformity? What prize do you obtain by making blanket statements? Is there a really neat newsletter you get to read if you ostracize people who agree with you, but not to the same degree about something? 

Keeping score and determining rank is toxic. It’s lethal. It will chew through your guts and leave empty fruitless anger behind. It’s a mask for self-doubt sometimes, since you get all heated and become known as a firebrand and gain the expectation of being the person who fires statements at others, because offense is the best defense if you’re trying not to show that you’re vulnerable. 

What’s gained in comparing yourself to someone in the same field? Sure, you write books. I write books. That lady in the other city writes books. We all write books. We all sell books. Sure, that lady sells more books than you or I combined, or maybe you sell more books than I do, or maybe I speak to more people than you do, but what exactly is the point in having this data? Are you falsely extrapolating from it – are you under the misperception that volume of sales equates to superior personhood? Bigger numbers (be they sales or attendance or blog traffic or whatever) do not equate to being a better quality person or creator or mean that you have a better product. 

It’s no different than being the person who yells louder than other people yelling. The only thing that notes is that you have the ability to shout over other people, so good job on having an impressive ability to move air through your body and project your voice. It does not make you more witty or savvy or intelligent or superior. Volume is just a level. 

Ask yourself, why do I keep score? How secure or insecure am I in my actions or beliefs or production that I have keep referencing other people, places, things, movements, ideas or whatevers to justify my own quality or goodness or rightness? 

And the big one: What can I do to switch from an external comparison to an internal faith in myself? Do I need more education on things? Do I need to maybe learn to rephrase what I say? Do I just need to make better choices for myself? Or is it as simple as catching myself when I’m getting pulled into groups or discussions and ask myself what I’m getting out of it? 

Remember, we’re all awesome. So if we make things, we’re just as fantastic as the person who made a hundred things. And if we have opinions that differ from the majority, everyone benefits from a wealth of thoughts in a discourse. Blanket statements do not counter blanket statements. They discourage individuation while encouraging people to have to justify, rationalize or explain themselves to some “standard” they may not even agree to hold. 

Go have an amazing Wednesday. Different than mine. But still awesome. 

Happy writing. Happy creating. Happy being. 

I Don’t Get No Peace

My first thought when I wake up in the morning is, “Fuck. It’s today.” 

I don’t really admit that, but I decided today, after all the conversing I’ve been doing on Twitter and whatnot, it’s a good time to get this out. 

I am a morning person. I will totally get out of bed and throw up the curtains and take my pills and look at the sky and find something positive. The sky is blue. It’s not raining or snowing. I slept well. Something positive. 

Why do I do this? Because if I don’t, I’m not getting out of bed. 

“But John,” you say, “you’re all like super positive.”

Because I have taught myself to be so. I have built myself enough structure to make it easier and even more fun to be positive than negative. 

This wasn’t easy. And along the way I have fallen into a lot of holes. Misplacing feelings. Working with false beliefs. Making huge mistakes. Pissing people off. Burning bridges. Failing hard at things. Buckets of tears. 

Let’s go all realtalk. (Realtalk, if you don’t know, is when you just drop all pretense and have a person-to-person conversation, without varnish, sugarcoating or fluff.)

My brain is an asshole. Sure, I do a lot of great and amazing work. I am lucky enough to be a part of some of the greatest teams outside of the JLA and Avengers (and the Dream Team). I have a lot of great knowledge in my head. Lots of people think very highly of me, both professionally and personally. Sometimes, I even agree with them. 

But my brain will tell me things like, “Oh that person smiled at you, they dig you.” When in fact, they just smiled. Or “That email’s fifth sentence uses the word ‘really’, the author must not think you’re good enough to do what you’re planning.” when that author uses adverbs when they just want to fill space. 

See, none of that shit is true. It’s all my fears. It’s all my projections. It’s all the things I want to happen, but at some point, in some way, am afraid of happening. 

Yeah, I want X to happen, but if X does happen, I’m going to be freaked out, and it’s going to make me feel shitty about X, and part of me enjoys feeling shitty about X. 

Read that sentence like ten more times. Basically my brain will want me to want and create X, not so that it can have X, but so that I can skip right to the bullshit moping, because my brain loves moping. 

This want to be miserable SUCKS ON A LEVEL I CAN BARELY TOLERATE OR DESCRIBE TO YOU. 

It’s weird, and yes, I’m able to explain all this because when I write it out, it’s like I’m talking about this other person. Let’s call him Negative John.

Negative John thrives on things sucking. He’s selfish, immature, openly hostile and anything else he needs to be in order to create his favorite set of circumstances, a general sense of things-sucking-and-any-action-that-leads-to-feeling-all-woe-is-me. 

Negative John hurts. He wants to be happy, but at the same time, is totally used to sabotaging things because he feels he doesn’t deserve happiness. Happiness is desired, but it’s like Cibola – something in legends that’s never found. 

Negative John is lonely. First this is because it’s kind of hard to like a guy who’s a mopey asshole all the time. Second this is because he keeps people at arm’s length both so he can stay alone and because he expects people to hurt him. Again, because this is what he feels he deserves. 

Negative John is unsatisfied. Nothing is ever good enough. I mean, he’s just going to crash and burn it if it starts getting good, but that’s just to feed this hunger for things to implode and get back to that idea that he doesn’t deserve success. 

Get it? HE DOESN’T THINK HE DESERVES … I DON’T ALWAYS THINK I DESERVE SUCCESS SO I ACT IN SUCH A WAY AS TO MAKE IT FLEETING OR SHORT TERM BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE I AM SUPPOSED TO BE SAD AND ALONE WHILE EVERYONE ELSE IS HAPPY.

IN SHORT, I FEEL LIKE I AM NOT GOOD ENOUGH. 

And how do I know this? Because look at the lack of things. The lack of intimate relationship. The lack of wealth. The lack of being a household name. The lack of cool toys. Negativity looks at the lack. Thrives on it. Gets fed by it. 

This whole chain of thoughts generates so much pain. Agony. Paralysis. And it robs me of my peace. 

This is what I deserve. This is what we all deserve:

  1. Happiness
  2. People who love us
  3. To be treated fairly and valued for our contributions
  4. To be a part of supportive, loving healthy relationships
  5. A job that helps our soul shine
  6. Good food
  7. Clean water
  8. Fresh air
  9. Education (Academic or otherwise) that encourages us
  10. Freedom to be who or what we are, without persecution or hesitation

Now ask me how many of those things I actually have. And tell me to be honest.

  1. Happiness – Okay, yeah, I’m pretty happy. Like a 7 out of 10 by default. And bad days aside, I totally rock an 8. A 9 with certain people. A 10 if I get all that and get to do some work.
  2. People who love us – I have many people who love and support me, for whom I am very grateful and it is with that support and encouragement I have been strengthened to do all I have.
  3. To be treated fairly and valued for our contributions – Yes, I am. Work is the great equalizer.
  4. To be a part of supportive, loving healthy relationships – Having only recently figured part of this out, it’s still a work in progress, but for the first time, I feel like I could do this, and not suck at it.
  5. A job that helps our soul shine – I love what I do. It’s what I’m here to do. 
  6. Good food – This isn’t even an issue. I eat well, and I know it
  7. Clean water – Check. Thanks Brita filters.
  8. Fresh air – Check. Thanks HEPA filters and not living next to a factory or sewage plant or fracking strip mine.
  9. Education (Academic or otherwise) that encourages us – The discovery that I am my own best teacher, and that academia didn’t ever mesh was HUGE for me. But if that’s your bag, awesome, enjoy it. You deserve the best chances and opportunities, we all do. 
  10. Freedom to be who or what we are, without persecution or hesitation – I am me, always. No doubt. The same dude who blogs here is the same guy in the videos, in person, on the phone … wherever. I don’t apologize for who I am, and don’t put up some artifice (and when I do, I get called out quick for it). This one is more for my friends and family, who I want so badly to know the joy of openly being who and what they are, without judging. 

Writing that has been SUPER cathartic, and I really think you should go grab a legal pad and write it out as well. 

We all deserve peace. A still mind. Not like a mystical sense, although that’s pretty cool. I mean, a mind not under fire from itself, where good things bloom and negative things struggle to take root. 

Remember – we love ourselves as much as we think other people do, and vice versa.

So, Negative John, go fuck off. Yeah I know dude, it sucks that you got news this morning, and it sucks that there’s no one to hold your hand, and it’s unfortunate that you go to bed and wake up alone and that you feel uncomfortable around people sometimes and that you hate yourself for how you were a decade ago. It all sucks. 

But at no time, in no way, does that give you permission to shit on not-Negative Me. I’m the hard-working, positive, kind, even “dateable” by some accounts, John who busts his ass to not let you take over full-time. Because there is good in the world, there are people who love you, and yeah, somewhere, somebody is going to love you so very much. And until we cross paths with that person, it’s time to love ourself. 

It’s time to love what we do. It’s time to be okay with not being as good at is as other people. It’s time to be okay with the fact that your Twitter feed isn’t blowing up with messages from people who would love to talk to you. It’s time to be okay with being more than just the guy who cranks out 16+ pages a day of edits and gets praised for the work. It’s time to accept the fact that in our own way, we ARE the superhero we always wanted to be when we were 8, we just don’t have a cape. 

It’s time to find peace. Manufacture the situations that generate it, rather than seek the sabotage and unstable fragile constructions that perpetuate doubt. 

I am good enough. Or more accurately, I am good enough. #edited

Happy writing. I’m going to go write my book now. 

Rough Days & Battle Plans

Here’s what happened this morning. Let’s play a fun game of John’s Morning Routine.

Wake up at 7:30. Take a lightning-quick shower, since there’s an 8am call with a client, and there are pills to take and food to inhale before then. 

Call the client. Do some half-awake work. Finally come more fully to your senses about 85% into the call. 

Go about the morning routine. Check Twitter for relevant mentions and critical links. Check blogs for updates. Organize and prioritize the events for the day. Answer emails.

Oh Facebook, there you are, hanging all the way on the rightmost tab in Chrome. Sure, let me just look and see what meme people have posted or what faith-based quote people are spreading around, either in or out of context. Hey there reminders in the right margin of Facebook. Sure I’ll click you.

BANG. THUD. There goes my Tuesday, crumpled on the floor like a gutshot pimp

Thankfully I have a safety net. There are things I can do to reframe this and keep things intact. Write emails to people, stat. Start talking. Start expressing. Nuke the wallow before it happens. 

Now look at me. Did I do it, did I get past it? Did I just switch perspectives in this blog post? 

I can’t make it not be Tuesday. I can’t make it not be September 3rd. I can’t make it not be whatever this day means for you. I don’t know if this day hurts you, or pleases you or it’s just another day in the string of days. Maybe today’s a great day because you woke up and told people you loved them, and because you got time already to create something special and you had your favorite Tuesday breakfast (that’s a thing, right? I’m not the only one who has a Tuesday breakfast, right). Maybe it’s your birthday or your anniversary or your kid’s birthday. Maybe today’s the day you get promoted at work. Or you have a date planned. If today’s a good one, I want you to embrace the ever-loving shit out of it. Rock its face off. 

But maybe your today is a bag of weasels on fire. Maybe today’s the anniversary of when that job ended, or that person left, or something far more intense. Maybe today’s the fiftieth day you’ve been without work. Maybe today’s the day you have to have a tough conversation with someone. Maybe today can just go eat a whole buffet of sewage and rotten meat. 

If it’s a rough day, I still want you to embrace the day. Embrace it in a chokehold and make it cry uncle. Or aunt. (Let’s not be exclusionary in our playground language). Beat the bad day down with a battle plan. 

A battle plan is a set of strategies that you can employ when you need to steer the day back onto the road, and avoid the ditches of shitty thinking, paralysis by way of emotional pain and the hydra of “Fuck It All”. 

This is how I learned to build my own. 

1. Identify up to / at least 3 things you can do in the first 90 seconds that will keep you moving. Then do them. I don’t mean literally moving, although that might help depending on context. If you read something suck-tastic, can you go read something else? Can you get up out of that chair and go get something to drink? Maybe turn up the music? 

It’s harder to hit a moving target, and shockingly, a bad mood/bad day/self doubt has HORRENDOUS aim on a second shot. Doing something that isn’t sitting-there-and-staring-at-the-bad-triggering-thing-head-on is going to keep you from getting sniped and falling into wallowing pit. 

2. Put some distance between you and the bad thing. I learned this as, “When you walk into a minefield, walk out, not through.” Yes, there’s that great quote about going through Hell when you find yourself there, and there is a time and place for that quote, but this isn’t it. 

Walking through, suffering landmine after landmine, is just going to be an admission that yeah, you’re letting today go. Which might be a fantastic option for you, if the bad thing you’ve encountered is really very bad. Maybe a do-over is exactly the remedy. But for a lot of us, we can’t get a do-over. We’re in offices and away from our homes or beds or loved ones or the comfort food we’ve hidden in the third drawer in the kitchen. So what’s the move? Get some distance. 

Close the tab. Unless that email requires or demands a response, do you need to keep it? Hang up the phone. Don’t respond to the text messages that jerk is writing you. Excuse yourself from the uncomfortable conversation. You don’t have to stay in that space, mentally, emotionally or physically. 

3. Find positive buoys and swim to them. For me, that’s emailing some really supportive friends, Spotify playlists, getting proactive and vocal on social media (except Facebook, because shit, that’s where the bad news came from). When I was searching for these buoys, I made a list and crossed off prospective positives when they didn’t pan out. The ones that did work, I keep around. And go to them when I need them. 

4. Do something. Nothing takes your spoons unless you give them. There’s a decision at some point to raise the white flag. You might not feel like you’re in charge of that decision, but … you’re the one who raises the flag, so it’s totally your decision. You are in charge of you. And you don’t have to give up. I mean, you can, and if you do, it’s okay and no one truly awesome in your life is going to judge you for doing that, but giving up should not be your default move. It’s like always resigning from the chess match once you lose your first piece. Or throwing your Final Fantasy cartridge across the room when you lose a boss fight. (I may have said too much … )

There’s this great clip from Band of Brothers I would link to, but I couldn’t find it exactly and didn’t want to make you wade through a big thing to get to the meat. There’s a soldier who is overwhelmed by battle and goes blind, in this defensive action. He just curls up in a ball and gives up. (This is as close as I can find, but there’s a Nickelback song attached to it, so maybe watch this on mute)

But there’s a moment, when he’s able to see again, and the unit gets into this firefight. And in the thick of things, he freezes up again. But then, he doesn’t. Well, to be fair, his CO yells at him, but he still stands up, grabs his rifle and throws some serious lead at ze Germans. 

I like that clip because the CO has this one line, “That’s it Blythe, pour it on, let ’em have it.” 

We’re all Blythe at some point. We’re all going to be momentarily overwhelmed and go a little blind. We’re all going to just get knocked around by circumstances. But when we get a little bit of our senses back, and we find ourselves facing our opposition, sure we might freeze, but eventually, we need to stand up and fire back. 

Let ’em have it. 

It’s 9:30, and about an hour or so has passed since I got sucker punched. I went immediately to my support structure, fired up my battle plan and I’m pretty sure what could have been a dominating, crushing, overwhelming thought is now a pretty clingy nuisance, like running through mental thorns. (Actually I’m more conscious now that I chugged a can of Coke at 8:10 this morning than anything else. Seriously, I know better.)

Have a great day, you’re awesome. You’re in charge of you. I believe in you. I got your back. Let’s all have each others’ backs today. 

Happy writing.