Winter’s Quarterly: Overpass

jan2015small“Overpass” begins in what the narrator Alex thinks is the final moments of his life. He is staring over the edge of a bridge with a busy freeway below it. He also realizes it’s cold out, and no one should have to die freezing. He spots his regular hangout, the Funky Perk, and decides he has time for one last cup of coffee.

There, he has a seemingly casual chat with Emily, the owner. She notices he’s depressed and tells him about the worst time in her life, which was the end of her marriage.

This story started out as an academic assignment, much like “We Be Cool” and “The Confessor” began life. Those stories, however, were much easier to conceive of than “Overpass.” For “The Confessor,” I had the option to rewrite a short story we studied from a different character’s point of view. Well, who the hell was Montressor talking to in Poe’s “A Cask of Amantillado”? That spun an entirely different character and a twist of irony. Plus I had a month to pull it off. From the same class, I had the option to write a story about a poem we read. “We Be Cool” gets its title from “We Real Cool” and was one of several stories I’d written about Rufus and Ralph, two characters from Holland Bay. “Overpass”?

I had taken a class in Modern Short Story to polish off my English requirements. Our teacher did not know until the morning she announced it that we had to write a short story for our final. I had a week to come up with something. And then I heard the line every writer who goes to college later in life hates hearing: “Oh, well, you write. This should be easy for you.”

Yeah… See, I generally sketch out shorts ahead of time, maybe outline the longer ones. A story may sit on my hard drive for months before a draft is written. This story needed to be mainstream and apply to our class.

OK, at least it was under 2000 words. I can do that. Right?

Confession time here. Once, when I was 19 and my life had hit rock bottom – no job, no car, no girlfriend – I had contemplated jumping off an overpass near my house. It was about a mile away, and I often took a walk out there to clear my head. By the time I walked back home, I’d realized that, if I was having thoughts like that, I had no place to go but up. Not everyone pulls back from it like that, so let’s agree that I got lucky with beating back depression.

For some reason, that incident returned to mind, so I pictured an overpass closer to where I now live and thought about it. I also thought about a coffee shop I used to go to called the Pleasant Perk (now Coffee Exchange.) I’d gone to that shop through three owners since about 2009, and it was a happy way to start my morning before heading to work downtown or on the westside. So the Perk/Exchange became the model for the Funky Perk. Emily bears a striking resemblance physically to one of the previous owners, but she is based on several women I’ve met who owned places like that. They always seem to be rebellious free spirits, which probably infuses such places with their atmosphere. (The Exchange is now run by a suburban mom and her family, but it’s still a nice place to stop first thing in the morning.)

Alex is at a point lower than I’d ever gotten, and it was fifty-fifty when I started the story as to whether he’d jump or not. In fact, when I read it to the class, one lady interrupted me and told me I was a sick bastard for writing something like that. By the time I finished, everyone had warm fuzzies after Emily reset Alex’s mental state just by sharing her own problems with him.

You Are Not Victims. Get Over It.

There’s a growing debate in social media these days about geek culture and whether or not it is under siege. It’s risen to new heights of hysteria as one gaming critic received death threats and had to leave her home temporarily for the safety of her family. What’s going on?

Well, for a certain subset of geek culture, the move to the mainstream threatens their very identity. And therein lies the flaw. The culture itself is not under threat. If anything, it’s growing, changing, becoming more interesting and more relevant. ComicCon is covered the way rock concerts and fashion shows were once on MTV. It’s hip to be seen with Chris Pine or Peter Dinklage or Hugh Jackman. It’s cool to dress up as your favorite Game of Thrones character or Batman at a large gathering. Suddenly, the public gets the whole Halloween all year vibe of geek culture. Cosplay is in. Video games are in. Scifi/fantasy/horror are in. Wil Wheaton, who spent years taking flack for playing one of the least liked characters on a Star Trek series is rapidly becoming the next Jon Stewart. Welcome to the new age, my friends.

So why the hate?

When I first got into IT back in the nineties, computers were becoming mainstream, and there was a certain degree of this sort of angst around it by people who hunkered down and did arcane things with the pre-Netscape Internet, with distant Unix boxes, and with cryptic command-line operating systems. Now PC’s and even Linux boxes started to look like Macs. “Oh, noze,” they cried. “Everyone can do this now. We’re not special anymore!”

Since I got into the technology realm in the mid-1990’s, I had no stake in the “old ways.” If someone told me to quit using a mouse and use the DOS prompt on a PC, I looked at them like they were stupid. They certainly were telling me stupid things. But the mouse represented change, and not the cool kind of change like big hard drives and high-speed Internet brought. Those icky muggles now knew how to do magic. Ew!

Eventually, that went away, and to some degree, the novelty for the non-technically inclined went away as well. I used to have a rule that, if you graduated high school after me, you had damn well better know where the Start button was, what it could do, and, oh, you also forfeited the right to complain when I said “Reboot” sometime around the Y2K changeover. The old guard looked at these things as secrets of a mystic art. I looked at it (admittedly being an arrogant ass in the process) as a benchmark one needs to function in the modern era. We got more than three channels on the TV, Corky. Better master that remote or no HBO for you.

So it is with geekdom. One columnist complained that too many hot chicks were wearing costumes at conventions without earning their geek cred. Said columnist got his ass handed to him by John Scalzi, whose initiation into geekery happened roughly at the same time as mine did (even though John is younger.) As creator of the Old Man’s War series, a noted expert on all things scifi, a Heinlein scholar, creative consultant for one of the Stargate series, and probably the most popular SF author today, Scalzi made two declarations that, I’m sorry, but are not open for debate: 1.) Anyone who wants to be a geek is a geek. No exceptions; 2.) there is no king of the geeks (though Wil Wheaton could make a case) nor any rules for initiation. It is not a closed society. It is not a mystic cult.

And therein is the parallel to the technology sector in the 1990’s. Long time geeks don’t like all this change!

Man up, buttercup. When you go mainstream, you have to open the gates. Otherwise, you’re no better than those idiots in pretentious literary circles sniffing their own farts and sneering at anything that doesn’t sound like Hemingway or Faulkner and whining if their work does something horrifying like sell over 10,000 copies. (I’m looking at YOU, Franzen, you self-absorbed pretentious hack!) You are no longer the outsiders. Isn’t that what you’ve been pining for? Acceptance? Respect? A little bon ami for whatever franchise it is that you love?

Well, here’s the second part I alluded to earlier. There’s a culture of victimhood in geekery. Not every geek has thought this way. I did cosplay back in the 1990’s when it was “grownups in silly costumes.” And it was fun. It let me blow off steam. It gave me (Surprise!) social skills. But there were plenty of folks in that then-smaller community that felt slighted by the mainstream. They felt hurt to be ridiculed, and much of it was carry-over from adolescence and childhood, when a love of Star Trek or Star Wars replaced the mandatory love of the NFL. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were supposed to be your gods, not Captain Kirk and Han Solo.

And I get that. I was not the most athletic child. I sucked at baseball. (A few dozen men who played Little League with me are reading this and going, “No! Really?” One star pitcher reminds me of it on my birthday every year as a joke.) I found solace in Star Trek, in the monster movies on Saturday afternoons, in repeated viewings of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back on HBO when we first had it. I loved this stuff. I wanted to make up my own.

And then, as a young adult, I fell in with the Trekkies. Often ridiculed, most of them didn’t care. We had a blast together, and it was about more than the television show. I drifted into the Klingon fan groups because, frankly, they threw better parties and were better draws for charity events. Plus, you haven’t lived until you and several of your friends barge into a Denny’s dressed as alien berserkers and growl at the manager, “We demand finger food! Bring us pudding!”

But there’s that obsessive component of which the victim mentality plays into. Fandom began to suck up all my time. The politics of the clubs started intruding on other aspects of my life. I was going broke trying to pay for all the gear it took to be a Klingon, and, alarmingly, I had little time to actually watch the show we all claimed to love. One day, I posted my farewell on a local Fidonet bulletin board, took my costume (which a few fanatics insisted I call a “uniform”), and dumped it in the Salvation Army clothing bin, latex forehead and all.

I have never taken so much flack for a decision in my life. When someone called or emailed me, hurt that I’d turned my back on the group, I said, “I’m in debt. I need to go to school and learn some skills. And I need to have time to myself that’s not devoted to a television show you guys won’t give me time to watch.”

“But that’s not fair!”

No, working sixty hours a week at three jobs for two years so I could catch up on my debts was not fair. Driving cars that were expensive rolling death traps bought for less than I now pay on my mortgage each month wasn’t fair. Having no social life beyond the group wasn’t fair. Even the most fanatical churches acknowledge you have a life beyond the sanctuary (unless it’s a cult.) All this did was bolster my decision to leave. Too many people made it central to their lives, and I, having been vetted and approved to join the sacred congregation, was a traitor.

Some of those people I still called friend afterward. One of them is an online member of my current writer’s group. But the mentality is still there across all franchises and formats, from gaming to movies to comic books and beyond. A small group of hardcore fans feels threatened that they’re suddenly not special anymore. And that victimhood of being outsiders is a huge component of that core belief.

All I have to say, having been in that world and having fond memories of most of it is…

The only threat to geek culture are the hardcore fanatics who can’t stand change. If you want to know what’s threatening your culture?

Go look in the mirror.


A Modest Proposal: Star Trek: The HBO Series

2009 Star Trek cast

Source: Paramount Pictures

As JJ Abrams takes on Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars, it’s clear there’s only one Abrams-driven Star Trek left. Paramount has decided it wants a movie for the fiftieth anniversary of Trek‘s debut. But after that…?

Let’s be honest. As good as JJ Abrams is, he didn’t think of the future of Trek, just how to get fannies into theater seats. But the technology is too omnipotent. A couple of devices used to drive both movies’ plots – transwarp beaming and Khan’s blood – don’t bode well for long-term story-telling.

So let me suggest that, once Pine, Pegg, Quinto, et. al. take their last bow in 2016, that Paramount reboot the series once again, this time for HBO.

HBO Original Series logo

Source: HBO

Or SyFy or Showtime or FX or… You know. Star Trek is ripe for the kind of storytelling that made Breaking Bad, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and even Deadwood hits. It’s time to start over, give the thing an arc based on its original run, and take it places. While completely revamping it like BG is a horrible idea (Galactica was always kind of an unfinished idea in its original incarnation anyway), it would be an opportune time to toss out some of the cliches that have grown up around it. A cable series would also allow writers to explore aspects of the crew’s story that are only hinted at or played around with in novels and fanfic. Is there really a sexual undertone to Kirk and Spock’s relationship? Why is McCoy so neurotic? What’s the real story behind Khan? Klingons: Ridges or no ridges? (I know Enterprise answered that, but this would be a reboot.) I’d also love to see an end to all the time travel nonsense.

Fans, of course, would have to come along for the ride. It’s been fifty years. Time to give up pelting the writers over trivial inconsistencies that would simply be ignored in real life. It’s not Doctor Who, where the very nature of The Doctor demands inconsistency. Besides, back when I indulged in cosplay, this sort of nitpicking sucked all the joy out being a fan. One idiot told me I could never write fanfic involving Harry Mudd, the lovable rogue who gave Kirk and company migraines in the original series. When I asked why, he said that Roger Carmel, the actor who played Mudd, was dead. Yeah, I’m pretty sure Ron Moore and Brannon Braga were going to show up on my doorstep with a bunch of red ink. Rick Berman would shake his fist thusly at a pizza delivery driver from Cincinnati no one had ever heard of. That kind of lunacy.

But it’s also time to bring Trek back to its original story. The altered timeline with a Kirk who is something of a cross between Han Solo and Stifler from American Pie works for the Abrams movies. Now, let’s get back to why people even care about him in the first place. You can’t duplicate Shatner (which is why Kirk’s character was selected to be the epicenter of the altered timeline), but you can build on what he did previously. And it’s not that you need to ignore the latest movies. Why should you? They’re fun. (OK, I do still cringe whenever I see Spock bellow “Khaaaaaaaannnnnn!!!!“)

It’s something to think about. Besides, Trek is a story about explorers. Exploration is better suited for TV. Movies are for high action and epic battles.

Which is why Abrams needs to do Star Wars.



Keep Calm And Call The Doctor


Source: BBC

As the world prepares for the debut of the Twelfth Doctor (actually, Thirteenth. John Hurt sort of snuck in there and fought in the Time War), I’ve been getting into Dr. Who, going all the way back to the beginning. This past weekend, I watched a chopped up copy of the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child.” (I could have watched it all, but YouTube keeps yanking the middle part. Damn you, BBC. Damn you for enforcing your copyright!) I also watched the first part of “Tomb of the Cybermen” on BBC America. So I got to see the first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. I also watched part of the Dr. Who television movie last week, the webisode “Night of the Doctor,” and the absolutely brilliant “Day of the Doctor,” which manages to feature all thirteen incarnations of The Doctor (and never mind that the first three actors and one’s replacement are all dead.)

I’m hooked. For a kid who was suckled, weened, and stoned on Star Trek, Dr. Who is the perfect nerdgasm for middle age. Here’s a character who is the same person across fifty years. If the actor leaves, as William Hartnell did in 1966, The Doctor just regenerates into a new incarnation. Change the actor and the personality and carry on. Plus, The Doctor is a time traveler. So you can have the old actors come back to let different incarnations of The Doctor meet each other. “Day of the Doctor” did this and introduced not just one (John Hurt’s tragic War Doctor), but two new incarnations (Peter Capaldi’s fleeting appearance as The Doctor’s future self.)

I did watch Dr. Who as a kid, only seeing a few episodes. So naturally, I thought that Tom Baker was the original Doctor. I also remember seeing a couple of movies on Superhost featuring Peter Cushing as a human scientist named “Dr. Who.” Those are discounted by Whovians, since it essentially is a reworking of the original concept. I remember seeing a later episode with (I think) Peter Davidson as The Doctor and wondering what happened to Tom Baker. Then I learned about regeneration and how The Doctor (who is never really named) changes looks and personality every time he regenerates.

But my real discovery of The Doctor came in 2005, when SyFy started running the revived series featuring Christopher Eccleston. He was a bit of culture shock. Most of The Doctors I’d seen had taken their cues from Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor (and a favorite of most of the currently living actors, particularly the outgoing Matt Smith.) This Doctor wore a leather jacket, had a short haircut, and a Scottish accent. He wasn’t as whimsical as Troughton or Baker or even McGann. He had the mischief the character had developed over the decades, but there was something dark about him. I also witnessed his regeneration into the Tenth (and my favorite) Doctor, played by David Tennant. His first words (later echoed by Matt Smith in his first moments as The Eleventh Doctor) was “I wanted to be ginger!” (Smith, after a brief moment of terror when he thinks he’s changed genders, says, “Damn. Still not ginger!”)


Maybe he was Franz Liszt. Ever see the two of them together?

So my image of The Doctor is Baker, McGann, Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith. So how was it watching that first episode? William Hartnell was an elderly man with the hair of Franz Liszt. He was mysterious, gruff, and, let’s be honest, a bit of an asshole. Mind you, that’s my only experience with The First Doctor. And he is so unlike the later incarnations, more like Hurt’s War Doctor or Jon Pertwee’s angry, exiled Third Doctor than the whimsically dressed Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor or any of the newer Doctors. Mind you, the writers and producers had no clue their creation would last fifty years and be played by fourteen actors. They barely knew what “TARDIS” meant. But it was fun, and a bit creepy, watching the beginning of this journey. By the end of episode 1, you still have no idea who this Doctor person is, what his nature is, or what it is he does.

But Patrick Troughton, more than any other actor, is responsible for the Doctor’s look and feel across all the remaining incarnations. If he has an equivalent in American television, it’s Detective Columbo, a sharp mind disguised in the persona of a bumbling idiot. Later actors would use the distracted mannerisms in varying degrees, the dry egotistical humor, and the “Gotcha!” when it becomes clear that The Doctor has outsmarted his enemies.

We have yet to see much more than a glimpse of the Twelfth Doctor, but already many are speculating on the Thirteenth (now that the twelve regeneration limit has been quietly “debunked” (ie – The producers realized this is probably going to go beyond sixty years and thirteen incarnations). My picks? Eddie Izzard would make an excellent older Doctor, with his own personality, sense of humor, and long association with the Monty Python troupe. Harry Potter star Rupert Grint would give the Doctor his fondest wish: to be a ginger. Grint’s Ron Weasly coupled with the dark genius that is The Doctor would create a Doctor in the best tradition of Troughton. With the call for a Doctor who is black or female, producers would do well to look at Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) when Capaldi decides to call it a Doctor. Elba is English and would bring an intensity to the character that’s been somewhat missing (John Hurt an exception) since Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor. A female Doctor? I honestly don’t know enough about British television or film to make an educated guess. I’ve suggested (in jest) that Emma Watson might be good as it would be a huge shift in the character (and hilarious if you have Eccleston, Tennant, or Smith’s Doctor run into her), changing not only the gender, but making him (her?) incredibly young. Plus I can see Watson having fun with her Doctor. However, a better choice might be (and was considered) Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley. Lumley, back when the thirteen-Doctor limit was still in place, starred in a parody of the show The Curse of the Fatal Death, in which Rowan “Blackadder” Atkinson (another one considered for the role) appeared as the Ninth Doctor, but kept meeting with repeated mishaps. Lumley, in the end, appeared as the Thirteenth Doctor, whom his (her?) nemesis, The Master, found rather attractive and rode with her in the TARDIS off into the sunset.

But we still have a few years of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor to see. Capaldi is older and looks somewhat like Tom Baker in his Doctor days. Should be fun.

Sound City


Source: Roswell Films

Back in 1991, three guys from Seattle piled into a rickety van and headed down the coast to Van Nuys, California, to record an album. When they arrived, they found a converted factory that looked ready to fall in on itself at any moment. The owner’s office was under the ramp to the rooftop parking lot. Inside, the walls had shag carpet. The place reeked of spilled whiskey and years of cigarette smoke (tobacco and otherwise). The three guys and their producer, a guy from Wisconsin named Butch Vig, took one look at the place and went, “WTF?”

This, my friends, was Sound City Studios, where Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and a slew of Tom Petty albums and Johnny Cash’s last recordings and…

Yeah. This dump was an epic dump. This was where rock history was made. The band was Nirvana. The album became Nevermind. Once again, rock history was made.

Dave Grohl, now the leader of The Foo Fighters, made a documentary about the place. It’s special to so many musicians because music is hardly ever made this way now. If you recorded at Sound City, you’d better bring your A game. Because Sound City was a tape-based studio, well into the digital era. What comes out of the amps and the drums is what comes off the CD, MP3, and vinyl. No bending the note on the computer because your bass player is tone deaf or turning the snare drum into a artillery shell. Nope. Do it right, or go home.

Many of the musicians interviewed from Mick Fleetwood to Rick Springfield to producer Rick Rubin to Tom Petty lament that these days, younger musicians don’t believe that they have to practice. “Oh, they just fix it in the computer.” Yeah. That’s why a geriatric Who sounds a damn sight better at the Super Bowl than a supposedly in-their-prime Black Eyed Peas.

Sound City is mostly a music nerd’s movie, and a technology buff’s movie, but it’s a fantastic look at how real music is made. Keith Olsen, the legendary producer who worked for twenty years at Sound City, took that mentality with him when he started his digital studio nearby. Pro Tools is nice, but, as Keith Richards says in his autobiography, Life, “play the fucking room.”

Grohl (and pretty much everyone else in the movie) credits a customized Neve recording console with how all those great (and not-so-great. Telly Savalas and Vincent Price, anyone?) albums sound. Listen to Damn the Torpedoes, Rumours, Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion, and Nevermind. Listen to the drums. You can hear that it’s Studio B at Sound City. It’s that distinctive. Phil Collins, who popularized noise-gating (chopping the reverb on snare and bass to get a really rough sound, like on “In the Air Tonight”) could have gone to town in that room.

sound city

Source: Roswell Films

Sound City closed in 2011, prompting Grohl to shoot this film. He also bought the console when it became clear it would not go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It now lives in Grohl’s Studio 606. What’s that?

Well, the last third of the film is Grohl in Studio 606, his own private studio, making an album with everyone from Stevie Nicks to Springfield to Paul McCartney (the famous Nirvana reunion song, “Cut Me Some Slack”) with Butch Vig manning the boards.

Yeah. Sounds pretty sweet. Try getting that on a laptop in your living room. Oh, wait. You’re not Jeff Lynne or Daryl Hall, who have houses built for that specific purpose.  In other words, they don’t just live in the rooms; they play them.  Taking notes,


Star Trek Into Darkness


Paramount Pictures

So JJ Abrams returns with a second installment of his vision of Star Trek. Last time, we were treated to faithful reboots of the original cast with the exception of James T. Kirk. No, Kirk sat at the epicenter of the changes from the original timeline, so instead of disciplined risk-taker William Shatner played, we got…

Well, Chris Pine’s Kirk was kind of an asshole who had to figure what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wants to be captain of the Enterprise, but is he ready?

We are treated for the first nine minutes to what could be the tail-end of a rebooted series on television. The Enterprise is surveying a distant planet inhabited by a species that is still trying to figure those new-fangled wheel thingies someone just invented. In order to preserve the budding civilization, which lives around a very active volcano, Kirk and Spock hit upon the idea of a stopping a cork in said volcano, only Spock is trapped when Sulu and Uhura have to leave him behind. The only way to save Spock is to fly the Enterprise, which has been sitting under water for two days over Scotty’s protests, over the volcano and beam him out. It’s classic Star Trek, and you can see Shatner and Nimoy pulling this kind of stunt if Gene Roddenberry had the technology and the budget to do it. But it also has two very bad consequences. First, the natives think the Enterprise is their god now. Second, Jim Kirk gets demoted to Christopher Pike’s first officer for falsifying reports and violating the prime directive.

That sets up the spoilery goodness after the jump.

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