On Sexism and Gender Bias

This isn’t a blog about writing and it’s not fiction. This is a blog about gender politics and I am implicitly allowed to write my thoughts about it here because I want to and because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected.

That I am implicitly allowed to write my thoughts about sexism and post it on the internet and not really fear significant reprisal for it is the definition of toxic male privilege. Honestly, as a middle class heterosexual white male I’m pretty sure I’m implicitly allowed to write my thoughts about anything I want and if anyone objects to it I can get righteously angry about being excluded. I probably won’t get rape threats emailed to me. I probably won’t get harassed on Twitter. Even if I do, I don’t imagine I’ll find them very intimidating. I’m a middle class heterosexual white male – there’s a pretty big infrastructure of support for me to lean on if anything gets scary and even if that infrastructure fails me, I’m a big guy and no one really threatens me. It’s not that I’m a bad ass pugilist that can drop kick my way out of any confrontation – it’s that I’m physically tall and physically big enough that usually no one confronts me. I walk around bad neighborhoods at night and I scare other people without meaning to. I can write whatever I want and no one can say anything about it. Superman is cooler than Batman because Batman is dumb and traditional masculinity is a systemic virus that needs to be confronted.

It’s not bold for me to point out toxic male privilege because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected. But I’m not done pointing out what I want to point out and I get to go on as long as I want, so sit tight, dear reader, because I’m backing up the knowledge truck.

I don’t think most people see a woman and immediately think misogynistic crazy things anymore. Sure, there’s a vocal subsection of trilby-wearing M’lady “nice guys” with creepy Asian culture fetishes and YouTube channels about why the new Ghostbusters movie is a pogrom against men, but most men and women are less overt about the bias. Then again, I’m a middle class heterosexual white male and if men are immediately thinking crazy misogynistic thoughts about women still they aren’t telling me about it because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected. Anyway, what I think is far more insidious than the cretinous knuckle-draggers that see a woman and think “LADY MENSTRUATION FEMINAZI BAD”, is the way that traditional masculinity has so dominated our culture that even feminism needs to be more masculine to be taken seriously.

Somehow as a society we’ve determined that these traits are the traits of a a straight-shooting go-getter that’s probably honest and competent : boldness, brashness, loudness, anger, aggression. These are, not coincidentally, traits often associated with masculinity. These are also the traits on clear display with some of our current US presidential candidates. The opposite traits are traits generally associated with a docile 1950s housewife: demureness, politeness, quiet, gentleness, willingness to compromise. These are also the traits we consider signs of weakness and of someone that’s easily manipulated even if we don’t consciously admit it. We’ve been programmed to believe that someone yelling his opinion with conviction without reading from a teleprompter is genuine and someone cautiously exploring nuance and allowing for compromise is wishy-washy. A funny grammatical note here – I had to use his as a pronoun in that last sentence because male gendered pronouns are the standard and when you use a “hers” in place of a “his” it’s a political statement. I also used his because let’s be honest, that first example is almost certainly a dude or maybe just a man-hating lesbian that really needs to lighten up. The second example should probably shout some more or just let her husband shout for her so she doesn’t seem shrill. If I seem glibly angry and cynical here it’s because I am and I get to be because I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected.

Here’s the takeaway, folks – masculine behavior is so much the implicit norm that just by consciously or unconsciously supporting these behaviors and discouraging their counterpoints we are perpetuating toxic male privilege. We are perpetuating sexism. If I have a conversation with another man and he doesn’t get angry and isn’t bold enough and if I tell him that he’s weak I’m being a fucking sexist even if there isn’t a woman within 100 miles. It’s not that masculinity is bad or that these traits are bad it’s about balance and it’s about accepting that traditionally masculine traits and traditionally feminine traits are not inherently better or worse than each other. Men, especially online where toxic masculinity is endemic, should endeavor to be more demure, more polite, more willing to compromise and women should feel empowered to be more bold, to be express anger in whatever way they want without fearing reprisal. When a  man shuts up and listens, it’s sexist to dismiss him as “stupid SJW” and when a woman stands tall and speaks her mind it’s sexist to tell her #NotAllMen because sexism is both about literal gender identity and the gender identity that’s coupled with gendered traits.

I don’t think we need to eliminate either set of gendered traits but we need to equalize them and create space for men and women to be both when appropriate without the toxic masculine infrastructure smacking down anyone that steps out of line. We need to celebrate traditionally feminine behaviors much more and we need to maybe reconsider our Pavlovian response to demagogues and straight-talking macho bullies. Anger should not be conflated with sincerity and loudness should not be mistaken for righteousness any more than politeness should be conflated with docility or willingness to compromise dismissed as spinelessness.

As a writer and a former editor, the saddest and most predictable thing I encounter when I talk to other writers is that women are all too often too self-deprecating, shy, and insecure and men are all too often cocksure and overconfident and neither have any honest correlation to the work. I take it for granted that I write well. I’ve always been told I write well. I work hard at it and I’m a middle class heterosexual white male so I’m implicitly going to be given the benefit of the doubt from a lot of readers. Just like how when I was in college and raised my hand during writing workshops I was absolutely confident that my contributions were going to be essential to everyone else. Just like how I get to write this blog and have confidence that it’s pretty smart and I might get some high fives. I might even get the link retweeted and go viral and that’s not scary – it’s awesome because nothing bad can really happen to me on the internet. That confidence and validation is sexist. I have the direct and undeniable benefit of toxic masculinity both because of my biology and because I, like a lot of men, really embody those traditional masculine traits we were shown in comic books and Arnold Schwarzenegger action movies at formative ages while the girls were being told not to interrupt and to not dress too slutty or drink too much at parties.

I think the internet makes it worse and I think it’s because this technology really favors men. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and the comments sections of everything reward controversy, brevity, and volume. While not implicitly made for men these online socially spaces definitely favor boldness, brashness, loudness, anger, and aggression over demureness, politeness, quiet, gentleness, and willingness to compromise. It’s built into the algorithm. Facebook hides long posts because if you’re not LOUD and BRASH in your opening couple lines, who cares? There are tools to engage in longer form discourse that embody some of those counter traits for sure – Tumblr and personal blogs like this – but these spaces are kept effectively separate and to get people outside of these communities they must go through Dudetown. It’s not that Twitter and Facebook and Reddit need to shut it all down and remake themselves more aligned to these traditionally feminine traits, it’s that we need to recognize the impact of gender bias implicit in these tools and try to be better people when using them.

In a just world, I should be shouted at by men and women for my presumptuousness, for having the arrogance to interject my point of view about sexism from my lofty man throne while women are being harassed for reporting news, or criticizing video games, or drawing comic books wrong, or wearing the wrong clothes. And I certainly shouldn’t be gloating about my inherent masculine power while women are still being sexually assaulted behind dumpsters by promising young athletes that used to eat so much more steak before being caught digitally raping unconscious women. But arrogance and presumption are traditionally masculine traits and I’m pretty confident no one is going to be call me out on it – and if they do, just one last reminder, I have toxic male privilege and I’m protected.

On Writing: Kill Your Tokens (Diversity and the 21st Century Writer Part 2)

damthatswhack

It’s been a while since the first part of what I knew was going to be a series of posts about diversity in writing. This isn’t a topic I want to rush or schedule so if you’ve been waiting for this follow up, my apologies for the delay.

In this post I want to write about tokens. I’m not talking about coins that you put into cheap nickel arcade machines but about token diverse characters that are often plunked into cheap creative machines with similar consideration. Below is the definition of tokenism in this context taken from Wikipedia (emphasis added by me):

Tokenism is the policy and practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of members of minority groups. The effort of including a token employee to a workforce usually is intended to create the appearance of social inclusiveness and diversity (racial, religious, sexual, etc.), and so deflect accusations of social discrimination.

Now, I’m talking about a story and not a workforce but otherwise that hits the nail right on the head and highlights a common and really problematic continued trend in media content. To be clear it’s not that a minority character in a story is automatically a token but only when that character exists as a transparent effort at faux diversity. These token characters are often either homogenized or “translated” to the presumed mainstream (white, male) audience or have their Otherness played up to such a ridiculous extent that they become parodies of real people, more like exotic props than fully realized individuals. Token characters in this way are also frequently inessential to the primary narrative. They serve as lightning rods, drawing strikes away from the main character (and the creator) to solidify the protagonist’s heroism. Basically we can tell that our hero is such a great guy because he even has a colored/gay/lady friend and it’s totally not a big deal, you guys!

pieface_2

Green Lantern and his token Eskimo friend named Tom.

Back to Wikipedia for a finer point:

In fiction, token characters represent groups, which vary from the norm (usually defined as a handsome, white, heterosexual male), and are otherwise excluded from the story. The token character can be based on ethnicity (Black, Hispanic, Asian, et al.), religion (Jewish, Muslim, et al.), or be fat or otherwise unattractive, homosexual or a woman character in a predominantly male cast. Token characters usually are background characters, and, as such, usually are disposable, and are eliminated from the narrative early in the story, in order to enhance the drama, while conserving the “normal” white characters.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to think of say, fifty examples of tokenism in popular media from the “urban talking” black friend to the predictably catty gay one. Tokenism has become so pervasive in our media that it’s easy for content creators to fall into the trap accidentally and for audiences to ignore it. So many popular franchises are so shockingly monochromatic, masculine, and heteronormative that the one or two outsiders immediately stand out in contrast.

In the first part of this series I made a case for why modern writers should take diversity into account when creating a story. It might seem paradoxical then that I’m also decrying tokenism as it seems like it’s natural solution to increase diversity in your content. There are two huge problems with using diverse characters as “accents” in your work in the service of diversity though. First, tokenism is a post-narrative device. That means it’s a device creators add-in after the narrative has already been established. Tokenism happens when you have a story nearly completely finished and then someone says, “hey – maybe there should be a black guy in the Star War?” A character introduced in that method frequently feel like an afterthought and often ends up a token. This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes a creator asks “hey – what if this character was different?” and that spins the whole story in a new and interesting way or sometimes the inclusion of diversity just isn’t a big deal. Laurence Fishburne is the master of being cast as a previously white character (Jack Crawford, Perry White) and being perfect and awesome at it because he’s a great actor. In these cases when a character has nothing that makes them inherently not diverse, it can be effective to open things up a little and bring in a different kind of character background but this doesn’t mitigate the bigger problem that can come up with tokenism.

You guys should watch Black-ish because Fishburne

You guys should watch Black-ish because Fishburne

The second big problem with tokenism is that it creates scarcity of character types. This is a huge problem in modern content and it can be an issue for non-token diverse characters as well as tokens. By including just the one featured diverse character that character naturally can be interpreted as the representation of all members of his/her background. Going back to Laurence Fishburne for a moment – he’s great as Jack Crawford and Perry White but he’s also one of the very few people of color with a significant role in those properties and there’s nothing about his characters that reflects his identity as a black man. It’s a different kind of silly ignorance to assume that the black experience means that Perry White would need to be from the ghetto or that Jack Crawford would be defined as being a constant target of institutionalized racism. Those stories wouldn’t be served by Fishburne’s character constantly talking about being black in America but when those roles are the only representations of modern African American identity they have a gravity to them. The thing is, it’s not fair to make Jack Crawford or Perry White the standard bearers for the modern black experience but with a scarcity of options it becomes harder not to. Yes, there are plenty of examples of Perry Whites and Jack Crawfords that are 100% authentic as shown on the screen and there are also plenty of real world examples of diverse people acting just like the stereotypes that have been lazily used to define them (the fabulous gay friend, the sassy sistah, the sanctimonious white male writer dude in Portland, etc.). That’s not the point. The point is, when you have just one diverse character, that puts a spotlight on your character and that character will be judged by his or her proximity to and similarity to assumed stereotypes.

Everything on the Internet needs more Lando.

Let’s talk a tangible example of the impact of scarcity. There’s a TV show I really like called the 100. I’m not going to go on a geeky rant about why I enjoy it but I’ll let Devin Faraci do it over at Birth.Movies.Death.  Anyway spoilers, you guys), in a recent episode of the 100 a fan-favorite character died in a way that evokes the Bury Your Gays trope and this has created a significant schism between the show creators and fans. The thing is, characters are always dying on the 100 but this death hit fans especially hard because of two reasons; first, the character was much beloved and fans don’t like to see beloved characters die and two, the character that died was a rare LGBT character on TV and one of two significant characters on this show -the other being the character’s surviving lover. If there were 7 LGBT characters on the 100 and the creators killed one of them, fans would still be upset but because of the scarcity of representation both on the show and  in all media, the blow is amplified. When content creators just use token or Laurence Fishburne diversity in characters they are going to create poorer stories and alienate some of the audience.

Alright, so how do you make sure to avoid tokenism in your content? Well, character authenticity is the first place to start. The characters should feel real if they look like you or don’t look like you. They should always have a core of truth. Avoid the bland and the fetishistic Other. Be aware of these concepts. But that’s not enough. It’s also necessary to include more diversity in stories. Maybe a particular story doesn’t allow you to include a completely diverse cast – that’s okay. That happens and that’s true to life. But in the next story or the story after that, look for different types of truth that do reflect the modern, diverse world we live in. Maybe none of your stories support the kind of diversity I’m talking about. Well, I would encourage you to imagine some different stories for a variety of reasons (if nothing else because of audience expectations and desire) but even then – that’s okay. Not every story needs to, not every writer needs to. BUT if you’re not going to be including more diversity in your content I think you should support others that do.

One final caveat: diversity in storytelling is a complicated and nuanced topic.  You see that photo of Lando? Lando is arguably a token but he’s also one of my favorite characters of all time. Some of that comes down to Billy Dee Williams’ natural charisma and some of it is the character itself but good things can come from questionable creative origins. I grew up in a really small town that was overwhelming majority white. But I had Lando and I had the X-Men and eventually in my teenage years I had every movie Samuel L. Jackson would ever do at the video store and, along with a lot of other fictional and real-world experiences, those characters populated my earliest conceptions of diversity in the world. My older brother has been an out gay man since high school, something that was not easy to do in our tiny Southern Oregon city. I remember movies and stories that featured gay characters that followed (the Birdcage, In & Out, Will & Grace), narratives that I hated as they represented stereotypes that didn’t reflect the reality of my brother, the reality of our lives. My brother wasn’t comic relief. He was my brother. He was a million things and those narratives were maybe three. But the funniest thing happened. Those narratives that I despised for being overly simplistic helped some people, even in my own family, connect to the gay experience. Nathan Lane in the Birdcage, over the top drag queen stereotype that he was, mattered. There’s a lot to think about with representation, tokenism, privilege and the power of stories to open or close minds. There is no simple right way to deal with it as a content creator – or a good person. The most critical thing we can do is talk openly about it and, more than that even, listen intently.

On Writing: The Five Minute Reader

pornhub audience

“I wonder what’s on pornhub, you guys!”

Back in January the popular porn site Pornhub reported that roughly 4 billion hours of pornography were consumed by their 21.2 billion visitors in 2015. Meanwhile, some studies estimate that the average American only reads about 19 minutes every day with those 25-34 averaging closer to 8 minutes. Oof. Do you feel that? A whole lot of discouraged writers just threw up their hands and said, “*&%$ it – I’m going to pornhub.” pornhub ad

Those are really discouraging numbers and they bear out from my anecdotal experience. I asked some friends how many minutes they spend just reading every day and got numbers between 5 and 10 minutes. You see one of the advantages pornhub has over reading (aside from the SEXOMGSEXNAKEDNAKEDSEXSEX) is that you can just queue up some light to medium core pornography on your iPad while you’re making coffee in the morning and checking up on Facebook notifications. Visual and audio media are tailor made for the modern multitasker. Reading a novel or a story or a blog post is a different value proposition.

Friends don't let friend read blogs while juggling chainsaws

Friends don’t let friend read my blog while juggling chainsaws

Sure, you could be watching three-quarter-core porno while you’re reading my blog but I think we all know that’s probably not happening. My blog kinda kills the porno mood, I’m afraid – unless you find insights on the publishing industry and creative content generation real steamy. No, if you’re reading this blog, or one of my stories or books, that’s probably all you’re doing. And if you are reading this and also doing pilates or chainsaw juggling or watching double decaf mocha core porno – you’re reading my work wrong. In fact you’re reading any author’s work wrong if you don’t give it your undivided attention. I don’t mean that you, dear reader, dear, awesome, click-my-link and tell your friends, reader, is wrong. No, you’re my favorite. But there’s a right and wrong way to read and just like it would ruin your pornhub experience if you paired it with my cogent literary analysis, it ruins my cogent literary analysis when you pair it with slappy slappy ding dong chicka chicka bow wow video taped naked stuff.

He’s more of a Franzen guy.

This is a really challenging time to be a writer of long-form fiction. There’s still a devoted reader base that reads a lot. I know several folks that are reading a book a week. But it’s not mainstream like it once was. You can be reasonably sure people have seen House of Cards on Netflix and make some passing reference to it during a dinner conversation but try bringing up the latest Michael Chabon book and you’ll probably get blank stares. I mean, obviously this isn’t true for every dinner table but in a country where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to be famous and could make a respectable Jazz Age living selling short stories, we’re now in a place in our history where reality TV stars get bigger book contracts than Pulitzer Prize winners. The written word is not as valuable as it used to be on a large scale.

All right. The end. Wow, that sure was a bummer.

But I'm totally rocking the haircut tho

But I’m totally rocking the haircut tho

Alright, here’s the silver lining: reading is coming back. It’s not roaring back all once but younger people are reading more than their elders. Digital readers and social media has changed things. There are 40 million members of Goodreads – and it keeps doubling. Now, that’s not 21.2 billion pornhubbers but it’s nothing to sneeze at. Where there’s a culture of reading there are readers and the culture of reading is increasing. Readers are finding and sharing new books with thousands or hundreds of thousands of readers in minutes. The average number books Americans read, skewed of course by voracious readers, is about 12. If you extrapolate from that – there are over 300 million people in the US and if you squint and look on the bright side of life you could take that 300 million times 12 and ignore a lot of complicated statistical considerations and yadda yadda algebra and end up with OHHEYSOMEONEMIGHTACTUALLYREADTHISAFTERALL.

The death of reading has been pronounced since before most of us were born. Radio was going to kill it. Then motion pictures. Then TV. Now it’s pornhub. And pornhub is a fierce opponent but storytellers are still here and readers are still reading. It’s really easy to be daunted. I can get 5 minutes? Is that all? We have to earn reader’s loyalty and attention just like we always had to. It might mean the stories have be better or different than they’ve been. It might mean that we have to write for a smaller but more passionate demographic and forget our delusions of being F. Scott Fitzgerald. It might mean changing the expectation of what long form fiction is to the modern reader. It’s a challenge but what’s one more impossible set of odds to overcome? It’s still a hell of a lot easier than chainsaw juggling.

On Writing: Writing the Revolution

I’m a pretty big political junkie. I follow the news for both parties pretty closely and I like to talk politics. Politics being politics those conversations often turn into (hopefully) civil debate and I enjoy that. I don’t think it changes many peoples minds when we debate an issue in person or on Twitter or Facebook but, if the conversation goes well, I think it changes the perspective on our “opposition.” It’s really easy to imagine that people that don’t agree with you are crazy fanatical “others” but in most cases people that don’t agree with you are just your neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family. They want similar things you want. They just think there are different ways to get there. I think some of those ways are completely wrong ways but I try, like I hope a lot of us try, to see some common ground between us, even if the only thing we have in common is that we seem to enjoy debating politics.Cthulhu2016

2016 being an election year it seems like a lot more people are interested in the stuff I’m interested in pretty much all the time. There are memes and hats with stuff written on them and hashtags and people wearing very serious clothing talking very seriously on television about very serious things. This happens every four years. People get really engaged because the presidential election is like a super-sized edition of American Idol where the winner gets the nuclear football instead of a record contract. I’m not dismissing the presidential election. I’m not dismissing any elections (did you guys know they happen more often than every four years?) but I think that political engagement and revolution happens every day not just Election Day. Voting is not the only act of civil engagement you can and should engage in. It’s only just a little bit about what being a citizen is all about.

It seems like this year there’s a lot of division between pragmatic versus idealistic ideas. Candidates either have status quo shaking new plans to fix America or more centrist establishment-reviewed ideas. I was talking to a friend of mine about that divide the other night and I was talking about what defines my political idealism. I consider myself an idealist. I’m a big ol’ sappy optimist that believes we can change the world if we come together fifteen times before coffee. I’m a Superman guy, not a Batman guy. I believe that my fellow Americans, and really all of the citizens of the world, are inherently capable of good works and understanding. I think we can save the planet, feed the hungry, house the homeless, hug the bears, treat the sick, and have a really good Star Trek television show with Bryan Fuller as the show runner even if CBS thinks it should go on some silly digital subscription service that no one wants to have to get. And I think we should do those things and believe in those things even if they are hard or improbable. I think we should do impossible lofty insane-sounding things for no better reason than because we’re sincere decent people trying to do good in a world that doesn’t always make that easy. So that’s me, the idealist.

Lex2000All that said, I don’t believe any of the presidential candidates can do a thing to really change the world for the better alone. I think that any movement that depends on a popularity contest of a single person is a movement that I can’t get behind 100% because it’s a game show between candidates pretending through strained smiles that they’re perfect in every single way and their opponents are evil. Sure, some candidates are more genuine and some are more fake but the same mechanism that picks a prom king and queen is what we’re working with as a baseline. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a candidate that I don’t wholeheartedly support now (or haven’t, historically) and it doesn’t mean I’m cynical. It means our system of government requires a majority of over 600 people to do anything of significance. That’s not cynicism – that’s high school civics. Our founding fathers didn’t want a monarchy. They divided government on purpose. They didn’t want one person with their name on the currency telling us how it’s going to be. They wanted checks and balances and yeah, some of the rules and ways those checks and balances exist are convoluted at best, but that’s the USA and bumper stickers and tweets aren’t going to change that. I see and I read so many of my peers getting very excited about THE candidate that can change Washington and I want them to be excited. I don’t disagree that their candidate has some smart ideas. But I want them to stay excited and stay engaged every day after November 8, 2015. I want the citizens of my country to vote and put that little “I Voted!” status thing up on Facebook and keep voting and going to rallies and donating if that’s what they want to do and then still not be done.

VoldemortVaderSo, how do you stay engaged in politics outside of our election process? I think the answer is to create. I think creation is the ultimate form of revolution. Telling stories, making art, these things aren’t partisan. They’re not covered by CNN as events but they matter more than another in a series of shouting matches between people standing behind podiums. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the way a lot of people thought about civil rights with words, not a ballot box. Star Trek showed us a future we could aspire toward where old conflicts of race and religion were overcome in favor of a brighter, more optimistic future. Will & Grace showed Middle America that gay people are nothing to be afraid of. The idealism I talked about before, it sneaks into those works and into our minds. I said before that I don’t think civil debate or political rhetoric changes most people’s minds but I do think that stories and art can open them. Stories and art cut straight to our shared humanity. They appeal to our better angels. They inspire us and reassure us. They relate to our anger and to our hope. At a time when politics splits our country in half, there are still stories and art that we all connect with and through that connection to the work, we are connected to people we are so sadly divided from the rest of the time.

I create as an act of idealistic rebellion. I create to entertain and to educate and to challenge. I create because I have too much energy and engagement that one presidential election isn’t nearly enough to sate my passion for making the world a better place.

If you can’t create or don’t want to create yourself, support creators you care about, that you know, that speak to you. And support creators that haven’t created anything before, young people, or disaffected, marginalized people. Reach down past the vitriol and the slogans and feel that idealism, that sense of possibility, and give into it. Explore different worlds as a prism to see yours differently. This doesn’t preclude or replace supporting your favorite presidential candidate. It just makes our world better or at least more interesting every single time.

On Writing: Stories About Tacos, Chihuahuas, and Just Not Feeling It

If you look at the post chronologically before this one you’ll see that it’s months old and that’s the longest gap I’ve really ever had posting things on this site. Which prompts me to tackle the question of why in this ever-so-brief return.

I haven’t been neglecting this site (and my also in arrears podcast, Rough Draft Out Loud ) because I’m not writing. I’m always writing. I’m always working. I’m a happy workaholic. When I watch TV with my wife and strange co-dependent chihuahua freeloaders, I’m thinking about stories. New stories. Old stories. Stories about tacos. Yadda yadda yadda stories. I’ve got a few novel-length things I’m picking away at, some older manuscripts I’m editing, and other sometimes non-sequitur plots and schemes. Nothing I want to post about right now. Which is the pivot to why I haven’t been blogging much lately:

Freeloader.

Freeloader.

I haven’t felt like blogging much lately.

Creative work is different than other kinds of work. It requires a deeper level of honesty and engagement. A good creator doesn’t create because it’s been X number of days/weeks/months since the last creation. He or she creates because it’s time to create. There’s a funny balance between creating when the fickle muse comes to you and only then and creating so you can monetize your creation and pay for tacos but that balance is for the creator to figure out. It’s not for the audience. One of my favorite films of 2015 was Max Max: Fury Road. That was a pretty good movie right? It was good because the people making it put good work and energy into it. If they were just putting it out to fill a production schedule, I’m not sure it would have been all that great.

I’ve thought about this especially regarding my favorite old beardy writer man named George RR Martin. Martin isn’t done with his new Song of Earth, Wind and Fire book yet and the popular HBO series is now going to move past where the books are. This is disappointing and challenging to his devoted reader-base and I think that’s understandable. But do you want a new book or do you want a good book? Ideally you want both but Martin isn’t a factory and you can’t hire more people and make it go faster. He’s can create when he can create and he’s done when he’s done.

I’m not comparing my blog to Martin’s books and I know I have a much smaller base of people really clamoring for my nonsense (hi Mom!), but it’s a concept that not just readers need to understand – I need to understand it too. There have been times that I have put out blog posts (or podcast episodes…) that I was less than 100% engaged in because I felt like it was more important to have regularity than it was to have quality. Now, in our year of the Blade Runner replicant 2016, I see the error of my ways. Half-baked blog posts just to get views and trending lines burned me out a little bit and it led to material that didn’t live up to my standards.

So, when you or me see that I haven’t post on my blog for a few months and you or me wonder why that is – the answer is that I didn’t have anything to blog or say. And that’s okay. Now, I suggest you look at my pet chihuahua, and go back to my previous blog posts if you still want some good quality nonsense. I’ll post more but like LL Cool J says, don’t call it a comeback.

 

 

On Writing: Break the Cauldrons and Sink the Boats

In 207 BC general Xiang Yu of the insurgent Chu told his army to cross the Yellow River and destroy any means they had to get back as they marched toward a decisive confrontation with the Qin armies in the Battle of Julu. The Qin army greatly outnumbered the Chu but, like a lot of famous battles between upstart forces and the entrenched army of the status quo, the Chu were victorious and the Qin Dynasty, the first of the great imperial Ancient Chinese dynasties and the etymological source for the European name “China”, became a foot note in the history books.  Xiang Yu’s order (“break the cauldrons and the sink the boats”)  became a legendary proverb about committing everything toward a set goal and not allowing retreat to be an option.

As I write this  from my shiny red IKEA desk in Portland, Oregon, I don’t have a lot in common with Xiang Yu but the proverb credited to him is something I think about a lot. There are a lot of similar stories about crazy generals doing crazy general things involving burned bridges and burning boats and then there more contemporary examples of crazy football coaches bloviating that “winning isn’t everything …” – well, you know the rest. There’s a whole world of Glengarry Glen Ross style business self-help affirmation that wallows in this imagery and reduces these concepts down to buzzwords and platitudes.

BurningBoat

To make your sales team effective you have to be like Hernan Cortes and scuttle your ships (and come to my airport Hilton seminar)!

Macho invasion stories (that contain more genocide than I’m comfortable with) used to inspire white dudes in a white shirts with black ties “conquer” their sales quotas isn’t usually the same place I look for creative inspiration but there is a resonant truth in these proverbs that’s maybe better represented by a scene from the 1997 science fiction movie, Gattaca. In Gattaca, if you haven’t seen it or if you’ve forgotten about it because it’s almost 20 years old, Ethan Hawke plays “Vincent Freeman” (sci fi isn’t known for subtly), a man born without heavy genetic modification in a world where everyone is perfected in utero. Freeman wants to take a rocket ship up into the stars but the genetic tests they run would disqualify him. So, he devises a movie’s worth of clever tricks to fool the system and show that all you really need to succeed is gumption (and lily white skin – apparently melanin is one of the things they can prevent in the future). Anyway, the big emotional uppercut toward the end of the movie comes when Vincent explains how he’s always managed to do more than people expected from him – he doesn’t save energy for the return trip. I haven’t seen this co-opted by the business bloggers yet but I’m also not looking too hard for it.

 

I want to give Shankar so many high fives, you guys

I want to give Shankar so many high fives, you guys

My favorite new-to-me podcast is NPR’s Hidden Brain, a truly remarkable social science podcast by the coolest social science guy in – well, are there any other cool social science guys? – Shankar Vedantam. The episode from this last week about backup plans is what got me thinking about Xiang Yu and Gattaca and specifically how it applies to creating. In the podcast Vedantam introduces a lot of awesome social science goodness about how having a backup plan can not only hinder you in pursuit of your ultimate plan but can also make you more reckless. The idea is that having a backup plan, boats waiting for you get back across the Yellow River or a whole continent not filled with Aztecs just hanging out and not being genocided or a list of potential lovers if your relationship doesn’t work out, might seem safer but it also makes you more likely to need a backup plan.

So, here’s how I bring it back to writing and to any creative venture you’re ever going to do. You cannot create anything without risk. You have to risk that you can realize your vision, that people will understand and like your vision, and that you can take that vision and convince people to come listen to you talking about your vision at a bookstore or a comic book convention or the airport Hilton banquet room. Risk requires faith – or at least cocky disregard for consequences – and things that can help you retreat at best just undermine your confidence and at worst can actually drag you down.

ChristianBale

Lassie! Batman and a bunch of extras fell down that well again!

Think about what Christian “Weird Batman Voice” Bale learned when he was at the bottom of that totally not ridiculous giant well in the documentary Dark Knight Rises – if you have a rope around your waist you can’t jump as effectively to little Nintendo video game ledges. Yeah, he had a broken back and needed a knee brace 30 minutes ago but it was definitely the rope that was the problem with that climb.

It’s November and a lot of you are in the middle of your NaNoWriMo 30 day to 50k novels. I’ve been there. I’m cheering you on even as I work on my stuff in different ways. The best way to finish your first book, or your second book or your thirtieth, is to not even let not finishing it exist as an option. If you hit a snag, you find a way through/around/over it and keep going until the next snag because there will be a lot of snags and precipices and doubts and head colds. Even if it takes you more than 30 days – especially if it does – you just don’t stop. And after you finish your NaNoWriMo novel if you try to publish it and it doesn’t work? You don’t go back to your boat. You never go back to your boat. Eventually – and don’t be naive about it, it might take a LONG time – you will get to where you need to get if you’re stubborn and resilient enough. You might need to change directions and you might need to fall back a little bit toward your boat but when you do retreat, you only retreat so that you can march forward again. Burn your boats. Break your cauldrons. Cut your ropes. Forget backup plans. Write.

Costumes Required (Short Fiction)

(Author’s Note: this story is read and discussed on the current episode of Rough Draft Out Loud – check it out at http://www.roughdraftoutloud.com)

The invitation to Mark and Helen’s Halloween party was specific. No children. Costumes required. Mark was a borg. He set up a black hose that came up his arm and neck and could go in his mouth. When he put the little hose in his mouth he could sip from his cocktail just like a borg would. Helen was Helen Ramone, complete with a black wig and the seminal punk rock band’s iconic black leather jacket. They decorated with cotton spider webs and bowls full of plastic spiders and plastic fingers. Helen replaced several of the lights with black or red bulbs. They made Jello shots and put on a Halloween music mix that included Werewolves in London and at least seven covers of Monster Mash. Then they waited.

“Someone’s going to bring their fucking kid,” Helen told Mark as they sat on the couch and watched the front door to the house expectantly. The party flier said the party would start at 8 and it was five minutes til.

“Well,” Mark told her. “If someone brings a kid we just kill them both and use their insides for extra decoration.”

Helen smiled.

“DINK powers activate,” Mark said and put out his fist for a marital fist bump. Helen bumped his fist.

“No babies,” Helen said.

“No babies,” Mark agreed. “Hookers and blow instead.”

Helen nodded. “Or just vacations and grown-up parties.”

“Alcoholism for the win,” Mark said. He took a sip from his beer. He put out his fist for another bump.

“I’m not fist bumping alcoholism,” Helen told him.

“You and my parents,” Mark said and shook his head. “You never support me.”

Helen grabbed a candy from the dish on the table and unwrapped it but didn’t eat it.

Mark put his borg hose in his beer and sipped. “Mmm,” he said. “Tastes like plastic gloves and face paint.” He looked at his watch and sighed. He put his feet up on the coffee table.

“You know Adam is going to show up without a costume,” Helen informed her husband.

Mark turned to her. “I told him it was required.”

Adam,” Helen said Mark’s old college friend’s name like it was enough to end the discussion.

“Nah,” Mark replied. He sipped more beer. “This is really, really terrible,” he confessed.

“Stop drinking through the stupid tube then,” Helen suggested.

Mark shrugged. “It’s Halloween,” he said. “I don’t make the rules.” He pointed at the candy in her hand. “Are you going to eat that piece of chocolate or are you holding onto it for moral support?”

Helen threw the miniature chocolate bar at her husband. It bounced off his forehead and fell into his lap.

Mark looked down at the chocolate. “I see you went with option three.”

“I always go with option three,” Helen told him.

Mark picked up the chocolate and ate it. “What the fuck is nougat actually supposed to be?” he asked, smacking his lips as he finished the candy. “Does it come from a tree or a bean or something? Is there nougat fruit?”

“No,” Helen said. “There’s not.”

The doorbell rang and Helen jumped up to her feet.

“You don’t know there isn’t a nougat tree,” Mark told her.

Helen gave Mark the finger and opened the door to her friends Lisa and Corey. They were both dressed in sheer silver gowns with gossamer wings attached to the back and held matching silvery wands. They both had colorful makeup around their eyes and spikey moussed up hair. Corey had glitter in his beard and the chest hair that came up from the gown.

“You two look awesome!” Helen told the couple.

“I know, right?” Lisa said as they came inside. “If I knew Corey looked this good in drag we would have had some very different wedding photos.”

“I’m a sexy fucking fairy princess,” Corey agreed. He did a little twirl to show off the wings.

“Somehow, I’ve always known that about you,” Mark told Corey. He got up from the couch and walked toward the kitchen. “Beer?”

“I would not say no to seven or eight beers tonight,” Corey said. “Who’s got two thumbs and isn’t the designated driver?” he asked and pointed two thumbs at himself.

“I don’t remember agreeing to that,” Lisa told Corey.

Corey took a beer from Mark quickly and took a long drink. “What’s that?” he asked. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you.”

“I was designated driver for nine months,” Lisa retorted and pointed at her no-longer pregnant belly. “Twice.”

Corey kept drinking his beer and staring back at his wife. He had no come back for this.

“We have Jello shots with little bits of fruit that look kind of like eyeballs,” Helen announced.

“Fuck it,” Lisa said. “We’re taking a cab home. Gimme an eyeball shot.”

Mark turned to Corey. “Did you take the girls out trick or treating in that?”

“God, no,” Corey replied. “Becks isn’t old enough to even register Halloween yet and Daddy playing princess dress up is not an expectation I need Libby to have. Besides my mother-in-law thinks it would irreparably damage their little brains if they see Daddy in a dress so she insisted that they stay with her for the weekend. I did not argue with that.”

Helen and Lisa both took eyeball Jello shots and struggled not to grimace.

“These taste like cough syrup mixed up with pixie sticks,” Helen told Mark.

Mark nodded. “Yeah. That sounds right.”

“So are you a Star Wars character or a Doctor Who character?” Corey asked Mark.

“Go fuck yourself,” Mark told Corey.

Corey cracked a big smile. “You want to tell me all about your costume, don’t you? You want to tell me about the Star Doctor and his adventures. You need to tell me about it.”

“Star Trek,” Mark replied.

“There it is,” Corey said. “Let the dork flow freely, my friend. Let it all out.”

The doorbell rang again and Helen went to open it. She opened it and then closed it immediately. “Mark,” she called out. “It’s Adam. I was right.”

“Dammit, Adam,” Mark cursed under his breath. “I got it.” He walked toward the door and picked up a box of spare Halloween masks. The box was dubbed the “Adam Box” by Helen. He opened the door to his friend, standing in jeans and a hoody. He thrust the box toward Adam. “Pick one,” he said.

“What?” Adam asked looking down at the box.

“This is a costume party, dude,” Mark told him. “Pick a mask or you’re not allowed to come inside.”

“Oh, I’m wearing a costume,” Adam informed Mark. Mark waited for the explanation. “I’m a guy that’s not buying into the whole bullshit Halloween industrial complex. I’m a free thinker.”

Mark nodded. “You’re dressed as a guy that can’t come to my Halloween party if you don’t pick a mask out of this box.”

Adam looked in the box and then back up at Mark. “Are there chips and alcohol in there?”

“So many chips,” Mark told him. “So much booze.”

“Fuck,” Adam sighed. He fished out a crazy zombie killer mask and put it on. “Happy now?”

 

***

 

Guests showed up over the next couple hours. Eventually there were people crowding the living room, dining room, and kitchen. Old friends, neighbors, work friends. Karen, the woman who sat in the cubicle next to Helen was there with her girlfriend, Mandy. They were dressed as old people. Two guys from Mark’s office were pirates and spent most of the night passive aggressively complimenting and insulting each other’s pirate choices when they met near the chips. Remy, the drug dealer that lived down the block was dressed as a bong and gave out joints and his contact information to anyone that asked. The party was going well. The Jello shots diminished and empty bottles and cans of beer covered many of the tables and counter spaces. Monster Mash played for the hundredth time and Mark ate a pound of bite sized candy.

“They were in one of the movies even,” Mark told Corey for the fifth or sixth time.

“I haven’t seen any of the new Star Wars movies,” Corey replied.

“Star Trek!” Mark repeated. “Star Trek! Star Trek! Star Trek motherfucker! You know it’s Star Trek! You’ve know it the whole time!

Corey laughed so hard he couldn’t catch his breath.

“He’s fucking with you, husband,” Helen breathed into Mark’s ear.

“I’m gonna assimilate his bearded ass!” Mark shouted loud enough it got everyone’s attention at the party.

“Maybe you should switch to water for a little bit?” Helen suggested.

Mark scowled at Helen and Corey and headed for the kitchen.

“I love the costume,” someone Mark didn’t recognize told him as he got into the refrigerator and fished out another beer. “Resistance is futile.”

Mark smiled and turned to the guest. He had a hood up from a black jacket. Beneath the hood Mark could see small horns and gray makeup. He was some kind of devil. “Thank you,” Mark told him. “I don’t think we’ve met…”

“Ah,” the devil said. “Sorry.” He put out his hand. “I’m Tim,” he said. “Helen’s friend.”

“Cool,” Mark said and shook his head. He looked down at Tim’s hand and saw he had gnarly yellow fingernails and gray almost scaly skin. “That’s commitment,” he commented.

Tim looked down at his hand. “Halloween comes but once a year,” he said. “I maybe go a little overboard.”

Mark nodded. He looked at the makeup detail under the hood. “It looks really, really good. Like professional good.”

Tim smiled. “I wish,” he said. “Sure would be less boring being a special effects guy than what I really do for a living.” He motioned to Mark’s costume. “I love the detail in the circuitry. You could have just done the face and worn all black but you put a lot of work into the costume.”

Mark nodded. “I’ve been working on this since the summer and I spent over a hundred dollars on it.” He looked around. “Don’t tell Helen.”

“My lips are sealed,” Tim told him.

“Beer?” Mark asked and opened the refrigerator again.

“I’m good,” Tim said and picked up a bottle next to him on the counter. “Thanks though.”

“Yeah,” Mark said. “Good to meet you.”

“Definitely,” Tim agreed. “And that bean dip is crazy good.”

“Homemade,” Mark told him.

Tim gave him a thumb’s up.

Mark nodded one last time and drifted back toward the living room. He walked over to Adam. “Mask down, dude,” he told Adam. The mask was propped up on his head.

“Come on,” Adam said. “How am I supposed to drink or eat anything with a mask covering my face? I can’t even really talk.”

“Should have come in costume,” Mark suggested. Then he pulled the black tubing off of his costume and handed it to Adam. “There you go. Perfect.”

“Dammit,” Adam said.

Mark pulled the mask down over his face.

“I thought we agreed you were going to slow down on the drinking,” Helen said when she found Mark again.

“I think you agreed to that. Separately,” Mark told her. “While I was getting another beer.”

“Don’t throw up on our things,” Helen said.

“I won’t throw up on anything,” Mark said and took a drink from his beer. “Hey, I met your coworker Tim.”

“Tim?” Helen repeated.

“Yeah,” Mark said. “In the demon costume. Really incredible makeup job.”

“I don’t have a coworker named Tim,” Helen replied.

“Maybe not a coworker,” Mark said. “A friend? I don’t know. He was in the kitchen. He knows about borg.”

“I didn’t invite anyone named Tim,” Helen insisted. “You must have gotten his name wrong.”

“I didn’t get his name wrong,” Mark told her.

“You’re drunk,” she said.

“I’m not drunk,” Mark said. Then he thought about it. “Okay, I’m a little drunk but that doesn’t mean my ears don’t work.”

“Where is he now?” Helen asked.

Mark looked around the party and spotted Tim over by the chips. “There,” he said. “He really likes the bean dip.”

“I have no idea who that is,” Helen said. “I assumed he was one of your dumb friends.”

“I don’t have dumb friends,” Mark protested.

Adam,” Helen said.

“Okay, I have one,” Mark agreed. “Everyone has one. Anyway, I don’t know him. He said he was your friend.”

“That’s weird,” Helen said. “Because I don’t know him.”

“The make-up is really good,” Mark told her.

“So?” Helen asked. “I know who I invited. I know who people are, drunky. He’s not someone I know.”

“Weird,” Mark said.

“Maybe he’s a friend of a friend,” Helen suggested. “A tagalong.”

“Yeah but he said he knew you specifically,” Mark remembered.

Helen thought about it. “Maybe he thought you’d be weird if you knew he was a tagalong?”

“Maybe,” Mark replied. “Or maybe he’s a party crasher.”

“Yeah,” Helen said. “That seems possible. He just picked our Halloween party to crash out of literally a million Halloween parties happening in the city right now because our bean dip is that rad.”

“There aren’t a million Halloween parties happening right now in Portland,” Mark said. “That’s a blatant exaggeration. There are maybe a hundred thousand.”

Helen turned to her husband. “I love you so much,” she told him. “You’re a very strange man.”

“I love me being a very strange man too,” Mark said.

Helen stared at Tim. “I am a little creeped out about this now though.”

“It’s a little odd,” Mark added.

“We should just talk to him,” Helen offered. “Sort it out.”

“Who are you and how did you get in our house?” Mark suggested. “What are your plans? Are you going to rape us and then kill us later or in the other order?”

“Um, third option,” Helen said.

“Yeah,” Mark said. “I took that to a dark place. I’m sorry.”

“We’re going,” Helen said and walked toward the dining room table loaded down with chips. She stopped in front of Tim. “Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” Tim replied. “Great party.”

Mark hurried after Helen and stood submissively behind her.

“Tim, is it?” Helen asked.

Tim nodded his head slowly. “Yeah,” he said.

“I’ve never met you before,” Helen said.

“You haven’t,” Tim said and kept nodding.

“Is that a question or an admission?” Mark asked in a strangely accusatory way.

“Excuse me?” Tim asked. “I don’t understand the question.”

“Did you tell my husband you were my friend?” Helen asked Tim.

Tim picked up a chip and got some more bean dip. He ate it quickly. He made a sound that sort of sounded like “mmmm hmmm,” and kept nodding.

“Was that a yes?” Mark asked him.

“Kinda,” Tim said.

“Kinda?” Helen repeated.

Mark stepped forward and closer to Tim. “Are you some kind of Halloween party crashing psychopath?”

“Fuck,” Helen said and shook her head.

“I don’t know how to answer that question,” Tim told Mark.

“Adam!” Mark called out.

“Yeah, Adam is going to totally make this less all better,” Helen said.

“It’s a yes or no fucking question,” Mark said angrily. “Do you know anyone at this party?”

“Yes,” Tim said. “I know people at this party.”

“Who do you know?” Helen asked him.

Tim pointed over at Lisa. “I know Lisa,” he said. “I know her husband, Corey. I know their two daughters Rebecca and Elizabeth.”

“Did they invite you?” Helen asked.

Adam pushed toward them. “What up?” he asked Mark. His mask was pushed up again.

“Put the fucking mask down!” Mark shouted at his friend.

Adam pulled the mask down. “I feel stupid in the mask,” he said.

“Good,” Mark told him. “You should.”

“Hey,” Helen said to Tim. “I asked you a question.”

“Who’s this?” Adam asked, looking at Tim.

“I’m Tim,” Tim replied.

“We don’t know who he is,” Mark told Adam.

Adam looked over at Mark. “He’s Tim. You’re not listening, dude.”

“Not exactly,” Tim said finally.

“Not exactly what?” Adam asked.

“You’re interrupting a conversation here, Adam,” Mark told him.

“You called me over here, dude,” Adam reminded Mark.

“How did you find out about our party, Tim?” Helen pressed Tim. “Did you just walk in here?”

Tim ate another chip with bean dip. “Facebook,” he said.

“Nope,” Helen said. “Nope you’re lying.”

“That was a lie,” Tim admitted. “Yeah.” He ate a chip. “I’m sorry.”

Corey walked over to join the group. “What the fuck is going on here?”

“This is Tim,” Adam told Corey.

“Shut the fuck up, Adam!” Mark growled.

“Sorry,” Adam said and looked down.

Helen pointed at Tim. “You really need to hurry up and explain some shit before I call the cops.”

“I know both of you,” Tim told Helen and Mark. “I’ve known you both for years.”

“Nah,” Mark replied.

Tim nodded. “I know that hadn’t completely broken up with Andrew before you went out with Mark for the first time,” he told Helen. “You didn’t break up with Andrew until after your fourth date with Mark.”

“Well, that’s bullshit,” Mark said.

Helen didn’t reply.

“And I know that you spent hours arguing with people on the internet about that celebrity photo leak and how awful and sexist and terrible it was and then that night you searched everywhere on the internet for leaked photos and downloaded them,” Tim told Mark. “And you keep arguing with people on the internet about it. You have those photos stored in a hidden folder on your computer.”

“Which ones did you get, dude?” Adam asked Mark. “We should compare.”

Mark stared at Tim. “What the fuck?”

“I know a lot about you,” Tim told them. “About all of you.”

“I think you need to find the curb, buddy,” Corey told Tim. He stepped closer and put his hand on Tim’s shoulder.

“I know you’re bisexual and you told Lisa and she said she was okay with it,” Tim said to Corey. “And I know she’s not okay with it. But she should be. They’re just fantasies, right, Corey?”

Corey stepped back. He was pale and quiet.

“Are you a stalker or something?” Helen asked Tim. “A computer hacker or…?”

Tim shook his head. “No,” he replied. He pulled the hood down. The make-up was really, really good. It was too good. There were cracks and seams in it in those cracks it looked like molten lava was glowing beneath. Tim had yellow eyes and yellow crooked teeth. His gums and his tongue were jet black. “This is pretty awkward,” he said and looked around. The whole party had gone quiet and everyone was staring at him.

“Are you the devil?” Adam asked. His voice sounded ridiculous coming through the crazy zombie killer mask.

“No,” Tim replied.

“That’s fucking crazy,” Mark said. “Obviously.”

“I’m just a devil,” Tim said. “A cog in the whole apparatus. Middle management.”

“Nope,” Helen said. “That’s a lie. You’re a liar. A crazy pants liar.”

Tim’s head burst into flames for a moment and then the flames disappeared. “I shouldn’t have stayed,” Tim said and shook his head. “I was just going to pop in, you know? Have a drink or and get some chips.” He grabbed and chip and dunked in the bean dip. “This is amazing bean dip. Seriously. Is there a recipe for this online somewhere?”

“Dude,” Adam said. “Your head was just on fire.”

“Who needs pot?” Remy asked the party.

Helen and Corey raised their hands.

“Are you here to kill us or drag us to hell or something?” Mark asked Tim.

“Is it because Corey thinks about dudes?” Adam asked.

“Fuck you, man,” Corey told Adam. “That’s private fucking information.” He fumed and shook his head and then looked up at everyone. “No, I’m not ashamed of it. It’s 2015. Gay marriage is legal. Sometimes I watch videos with guys. I’m bisexual. I still love my wife. I’m not ashamed of it. Fuck all of you guys.”

“Can I get some pot?” Lisa asked Remy.

Mark put up his fist for Corey to fist bump. Corey gave him the fist bump.

“I’m not here to punish anyone,” Tim said. “Come on. The devil doesn’t care about if you’re bisexual. We’re not in fucking Kentucky here.” He pointed at Mark. “But you shouldn’t download pirated comic books, Mark. Those creators barely make a living. That’s a little bit of a sin and it’s a real douche move.”

“…’kay,” Mark said and nodded uncomfortably.

Helen lit a joint and took a deep puff. She blew the smoke out and closed her eyes. “So, what exactly are you doing in my house?” she asked with her eyes still closed.

“I just wanted to hang out here for a little bit,” Tim said. He looked down at his feet. “I like Star Trek. I just rewatched Deep Space Nine. It’s a good show. We could talk about it, Mark. You know? We could just mingle. Have a couple beers and chill.”

“But you’re a devil,” Mark said.

“Yeah,” Tim said and shook his head. “This is why I don’t have any friends.” Tim looked down at his feet. “People judge me on appearance.”

Helen blinked her eyes open. “It’s a little bit more than appearance, Tim,” she said. “You’re a fallen angel or a demonic spirit or whatever the fuck a devil is. You eat souls and shit.”

“I don’t eat souls,” Tim said defensively. “That’s a fucked up stereotype. Some devils ate some souls in the middle ages and now we’re just all fucking soul eaters. I was a vegan for like nine or ten weeks over the summer. During barbecue season. I only eat ethical meat and organic produce. I’m not that different from the rest of you.” He make eye contact briefly with everyone at the party.

“You think you guys work with assholes?” Tim asked. “My coworkers are literally fucking demons. The guy in the desk next to me is a cloud of possessed flies. For lunch he takes rotten meat out of a plastic cooler. It’s disgusting.” Tim shook his head and gagged a little bit just thinking about it. “I can’t really meet normal people because they judge me and think I’m going to take them to hell. Try putting down on OKCupid that your day job is basically putting together spreadsheets and analyzing data for the Dark Lord and see how that works out.”

“Shit,” Adam said. “I mean, shit.”

“I don’t think I’m drunk enough for this right now,” Mark said. He quickly finished his beer. “Are there more Jello shots?”

“I took the last one,” Adam said.

“Fucker,” Mark told Adam.

“This raises a lot of questions,” Lisa said, handing Remy a wad of cash for a baggy of pot. “Does that mean God is real? Like the Judeo Christian man with a white beard God? Is there an afterlife? What about Jesus?”

“Fuck,” Remy said. He took a hit from a joint. “You guys throw an intense party.”

“I don’t know about God or the rest of it,” Tim told Lisa. “I just work in Hell. They don’t tell us everything. I don’t even know if there’s one Dark Lord. I think it’s a title. I think he’s just the CEO. The current Dark Lord is actually a guy from Texas with an MBA from Harvard. He’s not even a devil at all.”

“That… kind of makes sense,” Helen said and then chuckled.

“His name is Brad,” Tim told them. “The first thing he did was change the company insurance plan to a high deductible one. They say that it works out better if you get an HSA but I think that’s bullshit. I think they just don’t want to pay for better coverage.”

Helen continued to laugh. Lisa and Corey joined her.

“You’re all drug addicts,” Mark told them. “Tim is a devil, you guys. We need holy water and a fucking priest or something.”

“He seems okay,” Karen offered. She was sitting on the back of the couch next to Mandy.

Mandy nodded. “At least he’s not a Mormon or something.”

Mandy and Karen fist bumped.

“It’s okay,” Tim told Mark. “I can go. I don’t want to ruin your party. It’s just that there’s only one time a year I can hang out with people and they assume I’m just wearing a costume. And then we just chat and hangout without the whole devil thing getting in the way.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Mark,” Corey told him. “Let Tim stay.”

“How did I end up being the only person that’s uncomfortable with this?” Mark asked. He looked at the guests. He was hoping someone would chime in and say they were on his side. No one did. “Adam?” he looked over at Adam.

“Come on, dude,” Adam said. “It’s Halloween. Let the devil chill with us.”

Tim looked at Mark sheepishly.

“Wow,” Mark said. He shook his head. “Okay, whatever. You can stay.”

“Thanks, Mark!” Tim said. “Can I get you a beer?”

“Yeah,” Mark told him. “You better do that.”

Tim patted Mark on the shoulder and headed toward the kitchen.

“Hey!” Adam said excitedly. “I just realized something.”

Mark looked over at him.

“Tim isn’t wearing a fucking costume either!” Adam shouted. “Where’s that fucking box! You’re getting a mask dude!”

Mark looked at his wife. Helen just shrugged. “We wanted to have a crazy Halloween party in our 30s,” she told him. “This is just what happens now.”