Archive for Deep Thoughts

Lucky

It was my birthday recently. At my age, you don’t really celebrate birthdays like you used to, especially those middle years between decade markers. So for my birthday, my family got chocolate cupcakes and ice cream.

My five-year-old had eaten his cupcake – or at least the frosting from the cupcake – and was working on his small bowl of ice cream. I asked him, “Is your ice cream good?” He licked his lips and gave me an enthusiastic head nod, “Yeah!” A moment later, he turned back to me and said, “Daddy, tonight we had cake and ice cream with M&Ms in it. We are so lucky!”

And you know what? He was right.

We are lucky. Not just because we had cake and ice cream with M&Ms in it. But because I made it another year with my family, who, in the big scheme of things, is doing ok.

We don’t have everything we want in life.

We have two used cars that we’re still paying for, both in desperate need of an oil change and a tune-up.

We occasionally find that our pantry isn’t as well stocked as we’d like it to be when there are still a few days before payday and not nearly enough money in the bank. We don’t go hungry, but there are quite a few nights where the entire family has peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner.

My wife has a few small health issues, like asthma, and she and I could both stand to lose a few more pounds. Unfortunately, my son has inherited my dental problems, he’s got an issue with milk proteins, and his skin dries out faster than a fish tank in the Sahara, but he’s otherwise rambunctious and a joy to be around. My daughter likes chocolate milk a little more than I’m comfortable with, and she eats the same four things every day, but she’s smart, active, and creative.

We haven’t been to Disney World or Land. We don’t take weekend road trips to museums or state parks. My kids have never been on a plane.

We rent movies once they hit DVD or check them out from the library instead of going to the theater. We use the library or scour thrift store bookshelves for bestsellers to read. We have Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, but we borrow logins from friends and family for the more exclusive cable channels.

We sometimes have to charge gas or groceries.

We rarely go out to eat at a restaurant.

We don’t have a dishwasher, so some nights I’ll spend two or three hours doing everything by hand.

Most of my clothes come from thrift stores, though I do splurge for the $12 jeans from Costco once every couple of years. I’ve had some of my work shirts for going on a decade. My work shoes were purchased from a Goodwill for $5.

Most of our kid’s toys come from thrift stores, assuming they don’t have too many missing pieces. When we spoil them, they get a new $3 toy from Target. We only buy larger new toys around Christmas or birthdays, which we have to start saving for months in advance.

My job is fairly stable and secure, but my health premiums keep going up just enough every year that my annual raise barely covers the price hike.

I’m still paying on my student loans.

But we have enough. It’s not everything we want or sometimes even need. But we have enough.

We have clothes on our backs. We have a roof over our head (even if we are rapidly outgrowing the house that we rent). We have never had to skip a meal.

We entertain ourselves by going to the mall and wandering through the stores, looking at things we can’t buy. We go to thrift stores to find cheap trinkets that bring us temporary happiness. We take walks in local parks when the weather allows. We draw. We play board games that we’ve mostly bought from thrift stores, so we’ll use buttons to replace the missing game pieces. We sing in the car. We try to do the occasional movie night at home, complete with microwave butter popcorn.

We laugh at lot in our house. No one hits anyone else. No one is afraid. No one is dying from an incurable disease. No one drinks too much. No one shoots or smokes anything. We encourage one another to do our best. We rarely have to raise our voices. Disagreements are often solved with the flip of a coin or a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

So, yes, we are lucky, my boy. Not just because we had cake and ice cream with M&Ms in it. But because we have each other.

2019: The Blog Strikes Back

Over the last few years, this website has pretty much sat vacant. I post every once in a while, but, quite honestly, not often enough to justify the $4 per month I spend to host the site. In fact, at the beginning of December, I decided that SpaceMonkeyX.com would end it’s nearly 20 year run at the end of 2018.

Obviously, I had a change of heart.

In fact, I’ve decided that 2019 is going to be the year that I write more. I’ve set a daily goal for myself to write something of substance – whether it be a blog post that I share here, work on one of the dozens of stories I have squirreled away in the cloud, write a little more of an overly-long podcast episode, or maybe just take some notes for a board game idea I’m working on. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it’s going to be something.

Ya see, I miss writing. I miss the feeling of the words flowing out of me as fast as my fingers can glide across the keyboard. Actually, the words flow much faster than my stubby little nubbins could ever glide anywhere, but you get the idea.

Thankfully, I have plenty of projects to work on.

I’m actively working on another read-along record book in the same vein as The Thing. It’s been sitting idle for nearly two years and I’ve just recently made some great headway on it, so that process is already started.

I also have a long-gestating series of stories that I’ve been sitting on for far too long. This is a sprawling, pulp fiction-inspired series that I’ve been compiling images and story ideas about for years. I actually have an old Word document that starts like this:

January 10, 2007
I’ve been kicking this story idea around again…

So clearly this has been a long time coming. I just need to write the first novella to get the ball rolling and then I think I’ll be in business.

On top of that, I have a podcast series that I’ve been slowly, but surely working on since about August that I’d love to introduce in 2019. I have the first two episodes written and I’m about 1/3 of the way through the third, but unlike in the past, I want to have a bunch of these written before I record and release. I’m hoping that will be the best way to keep my momentum going so there won’t be long gaps between episodes. Hoping.

I haven’t even mentioned the story idea my daughter and I have been kicking around for a few years about a horror novella for kids. We also have our fanfic Hellboy 3 sequel that I’d love for us to actually sit down and write instead of just jotting down ideas and discussing it during early morning car trips to school.

So as you can see, I have enough to write this year that I shouldn’t have any problem fulfilling my daily goal. I just have to carve out time to make it happen.

And so, this is my first official “Write Something Every Day” entry. I know it’s technically January 2nd, but this is a goal I just decided for myself today. Close enough for jazz, as the old saying goes.

In fact, I think I’m going to keep writing on my website every day, even if it’s just to say, “Hey, I worked on [insert writing project here] today!” Maybe I can kill two or more birds with one stone by getting my allotted writing done, as well as justifying the $4 per month I pay to host this antiquated relic of the early-2000s internet.

So follow along and see how I do! Words of encouragement (and showering of gifts) are always welcome.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I recently watched the excellent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, about Fred Rogers, the influential host of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood

The movie was a great overview of the man’s life, mostly centered around his television career, but occasionally dipping into his personal life, too.  Seeing Rogers single-handedly rescue PBS before a panel of senators intent on stripping away the budget of the fledgling network was incredible.  Watching him be present and listening to people of all stripes and abilities was heartwarming.  As so many have said online, his message of love is exactly what we need right now.

But that was also the part of the film that got to me the most.  You could see, as he got older, that his heart just wasn’t in it anymore.  That he was still trying, struggling against the darkness, trying to be a guiding light, but finding it harder and harder to shine.  Perhaps his frustration was best revealed when he recorded PSAs for children after September 11, 2001’s terrorist attacks.  He literally said that he didn’t know how much good the PSAs would do.  That is a man who has lost hope.  

I felt for Rogers at the end of his life.  As he watched the world around him decay into more violence, anger, and hatred, it must have been discouraging to realize that, on a large scale, he didn’t make a difference after all.  His message of love and understanding and trying to be a better person clearly didn’t get through.  I can’t even imagine how he’d feel about America’s current political landscape.  And it makes it really hard to stay positive when you think about the fact that, if Mr. Rogers couldn’t make the world a better place, what chance do I have? 

But Mr. Rogers did make a difference.  He made small differences everywhere he went.  That really is the ultimate lesson to be learned from his life.  We can raise our own children to be kind, understanding, and compassionate, but we can’t change the world.  We can’t make people be nice.  Sometimes you just have to accept that you can’t save everyone, but you can save your own children.  And hopefully they’ll take the lessons you learned from Mr. Rogers and pass them down to their children someday, instead of succumbing to the anger and cynicism of the world around them.  That was the best that Fred Rogers could do.  That’s the best that any of us can do.

(Not-so) Funny Games

Recently, one of my favorite podcasts, The Faculty of Horror, put out an episode about Michael Haneke’s 1997 film, Funny Games.  

This is a movie I’ve been putting off for years.  I don’t do well with horror films in the “home invasion” sub-genre, especially since I got married and had kids.  It doesn’t help that all the descriptions and synopsis have used the words “torture”, “sadistic”, and “depraved”.  But because I enjoy the podcast so much, I really didn’t want to miss an episode, so I finally broke down and watched Funny Games.

Much to my surprise, it really didn’t bother me all that much.  I think it helped knowing that the film is a commentary on film itself – more specifically the horror genre.  With the main antagonists breaking the fourth wall to literally wink at the audience and sometimes even directly address us, as well as a moment where time winds backwards before our eyes, the whole thing felt very staged and intentional.  It didn’t feel like I was witnessing a home invasion as much as I was a scripted performance.  This helped me stay detached enough to not feel the same dread and “too close to home” vibe I’d normally get from this type of film.

Even more interesting – ultimately, I didn’t really enjoy it.  I know it’s not a “fun ride” type of film to begin with, but even as commentary, I found it sort of trite.  Granted, it probably wasn’t 20 years ago, but so many meta films have come out since then, that this one feels a little stale now.

I also didn’t appreciate the way the film talked down to the audience; it really felt like Haneke was judging us the whole time.  My problem with that type of preaching is that most viewers of horror films understand the difference between entertainment and reality.  We know that horror movies are fake and we’re often the first ones to decry real violence in the real world.  So why rub our noses in our shared interest of facing the fears of real violence through the make-believe medium of film?  It’s quite smug coming from someone who has made plenty of violent films himself, even going so far as remaking this one shot-for-shot in 2007.  It’s an instance where I feel the film says more about the director than it does the audience he is so willing to judge.

There are still a few films out there whose reputation prevents me from watching them (most notably A Serbian Film).  But I’m glad I finally got around to seeing Funny Games, if for no other reason than it proves to myself that sometimes the bark really is worse than the bite.  

  

Summer 2015

Hey, folks! Sorry it’s been so long since my last update. I’ve been fairly busy over the last couple of months, working on Mental Floss, spending time on a beach, drawing, and writing, writing, writing. I’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time doing dishes, which is really the only blemish on an otherwise pretty decent summer.

First off, let’s get the Mental Floss stuff out of the way. The Strange States series continues. I had a surprise hit with South Dakota’s Wall Drug entry. I also updated an old article, 10 Very Rare (And Very Expensive) Video Games, which turned into a virtual rewrite thanks to a bunch of movement in the video game collecting hobby over the last few years. I also had a new, rather extensive article on the History of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, published on July 4th (fitting). Finally, I scored a minor viral hit with “7 Overlooked 80s Toys Worth More Than You Think”.

As for that beach time I mentioned, my family (and most of my extended family) traveled to Tybee Island, Georgia to spend about a week in a condo right near the ocean. It was an amazing experience to see my kids playing in the surf for the first time and to explore Savannah and the island itself. We had a great time despite the 13-hour, one-way drive with a seven and a not-quite-two-year-old in the car (thank god for tablets!).

It was our first family vacation and, oh man, did we need it. I’ve never really been one to take two weeks off from work, ever. A day or two here and there was always my preferred method of relaxation, but I have to say, it made a huge difference to just spend time away from work, from our normal routine, and from the world we usually know. It’s amazing what a little shift in perspective will do for your psyche. I know that ever since we got back, I’ve been more relaxed, I’ve been more patient with my kids, and I’ve felt like, yes, there is time to get everything done, instead of scrambling and racing around with my head down. Now I’m really jealous of all those Germans getting six weeks vacation every year. No wonder we have such a stressed out society.

I have been spending quite a bit of time writing fiction this summer, too. My main project at the moment is a Goosebumps-esque novel for kids. It’s based on a story my daughter and I came up with, which makes it all the more fun. So far I’m about 80 single-spaced pages in and I’m having a blast. I’ve also completed a couple of short stories and have a couple more that are in progress whenever I need to take a break from the novel. Everything is in the first draft phase at the moment, but I’m hoping to take a little time soon to edit and send them off to a few small publishers. However, self-publishing with Kindle is always a viable option today, too.

It’s funny how completely different my outlook is on writing fiction this time out. 10 years ago when I thought I was going to be the next Stephen King, I was sending manuscripts out to the biggest publishers in the business, not wanting to “waste my time” with the small press. Now, thanks to working in the nonfiction field for so long, I understand that having an extensive portfolio of published work is so much more important in the long run. I’m also not so egotistical to think I’ll be writing novels for a living like I thought I once might. It’s ok if I do my day job and then write fiction on nights and weekends. That’s what most writers do, even accomplished ones. I don’t know if it’s just maturity or experience, but I understand now what my writing goals should be, and it makes the writing that much more fun and exciting. Still, I hope I can get a few more things published, because that would be pretty sweet.

Unfortunately, all this time sitting on beaches, writing about video games and action figures and zombies (and all those dishes I have to wash), have prevented me from working on my podcasts this year. I have a new episode of When You Hear This Sound written and ready to record, but, ugh, it takes so long to do, and I don’t really have a good studio setup, and the air conditioning that’s been on all summer because it’s so bloody hot will screw up the recording, and excuse after excuse after excuse. I’m hoping that I’ll soon be able to get back to it, because I really do enjoy it, but with so much else going on this summer, it just hasn’t been a priority (especially when compared to sitting on beaches and getting paid to write about video games and action figures). But here’s hoping I’ll be able to make time for it again this fall and winter. I have some great ideas ready to go, it’s just a matter of finding the time and a few assistants to help me make them a reality. If only I hadn’t used up all my vacation time and I could take a little “staycation” to get some things done.

As we head into fall, I hope the next time I give you an update I’ll have finished the first draft of the novel, maybe cranked out a few more Mental Floss articles, and perhaps gotten around to a podcast episode or two (once the air conditioning is turned off for the season in November because Missouri weather sucks). I also have a few more things going on that I didn’t mention here, but they’re still up in the air at the moment, so I’ll wait to report on them when things have solidified a little bit. Until then, thanks for reading, and thanks for supporting me throughout my many creative endeavors.