A Holiday Post and a Thank You

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First of all, thank you for all the kind words about my sister. I’m grateful for every kindness at a time like this.

Second, I plan to cook up a little treat for my family so we can have a little something while we open gifts on Christmas morning. Since my original copy of the recipe is not holding up all that well, I thought I’d post a(n altered) version of it here both for posterity and to share with all of you.

The original recipe called it an “Apple and Spice Dessert” but it’s really more of an apple cobbler with an especially tasty batter. Here it is:

Christmas Apple Cobbler

    • 1 1/2 lbs apples, peeled, cored and sliced
    • 1 tsp cinnamon
    • zest of one lemon
    • juice of one lemon
    • 1 1/4 cups AP flour
    • 1 tsp ginger powder
    • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
    • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
    • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
    • 1/2 cup butter
    • 1/3 cup sugar
    • 1 egg
    • 1/2 cup molasses
    • 1/2 tsp baking soda
    • 1/2 cup boiling water
    • Whipped cream for serving.

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 9×9 baking pan. (8×8 should work, too, but check that cooking time)

Mix the apple, cinnamon and lemon zest and juice, then spread it in the pan

Sift the next five ingredients into a medium-sized bowl

In a larger bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and molasses. Beat until smooth

Dissolve the baking soda in the boiling water. Alternately add flour and hot water to the butter mixture, beating each to incorporate. Then pour resulting batter over the apples and bake for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool somewhat.

Cut into squares and serve topped with whipped cream.

The original recipe had less apple, more sugar, less lemon, and less spice. It also called for margarine instead of butter, which no. Adjust it however you see fit. This is a big favorite around here, especially with my wife. I hope you give it a try and enjoy it yourselves.

Third and last, every year I post a link to my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, which is the 1971 animated version directed by the brilliant Richard Williams. The animation is amazing, dark, and genuinely scary. This version really earns its ending, scaring the shit out of Scrooge and little-kid me, turning him to good and me into a weird obsessive who searches out this show every year.

The good news is that you can watch a legit copy of it through the service Hoopla, which I can access through my public library. If you can’t do that for whatever reason, it’s still available on YouTube.

Either way, it’s the best and scariest Marley ever. Check it out.

Whatever you celebrate, I hope this holiday season has been gentle with you and that things get better in the new year.

thinking about my sister at the end of her life

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I’m typing this on a plane as we board a flight to Philly. I’m leaving Seattle because a doctor told a family member that my big sister is likely to die today or tomorrow, and I’m hoping to see her one last time.

Let me tell you what my sister means to me.

One of my earliest memories–not my absolute earliest, but still–was of me trying to convince my parents that my sister and I were twins. I believe I understood on some level why that wasn’t really possible, but I knew that twins share a special bond, and why couldn’t we have that kind of closeness just because she was five years older?

I also remember going full court press on my parents to move me from the back bedroom to the middle one. For weeks I asked and asked until they finally gave in, humping all my furniture, clothes and toys to my new bedroom.

Then, to the horror of my tiny, barely post-toddler brain, they moved all of my sister’s stuff into the back room. Turned out, we were swapping rooms.

How did my family miss the whole and entire point of the move, which was that I wanted to share a room with my twin?

I also drove her nuts over Saturday morning cartoons, pulling that pyrrhic victory bullshit that middle kids turn to when they want to win a fight through the long slog of making everyone miserable until they just give up. That shit felt so good, until my own younger siblings started to do it to me.

As we got older, she got me into Steve Martin before he really broke out. She also made me a fan of the 70’s prog-rock band Yes. Now, there’s nothing cool about

Yes logo

but to me they were cool because she liked them.

And she is the person who made me love science fiction and fantasy. That in itself is huge, because it’s a huge part of my life, and I have her to thank for it. And I’m pretty sure she’s the only member of the family to read my books.

That’s who she is to me. Obviously, she’s so much more than that–both to the other people who know and love her, and to herself–but I’m flying across the country so that I can hold her hand one last time and think about her.

We are, all of us, impermanent. But the effect we have on others can outlast us, so be sure to pass on love and kindness to the people who need it. It’s important.

But maybe keep your terrible prog-rock music to yourself.

[Update] She passed before I could see her again.

A Finished Draft of a New Twenty Palaces Novel, and More

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If you’re a Kickstarter backer for the two new 20P novels, you’ve likely already received the announcement that the zero draft (aka: the vomit draft) of The Flood Circle is done. That means both this new book and The Iron Gate are ready for revisions, and since they sort of tie together, it’ll be good for me to tackle them together. So, Yay for that, and also I wish I wrote cleaner first drafts.

In other pleasant news, my months-long plan to say “Or we could just play Jinkies” every single time my gaming group was about to try a one-shot or switch games has had the desired effect. One of our players is taking a holiday trip, so I get a chance to try out this game I’ve had in my personal, figurative on-deck circle for months. It’s like getting an extra Giftmas present a week before the holiday.

In less happy news, I had to switch to a new doctor this year, and my wife convinced me to make an appointment for a minor health issue that’s been bothering me for (literal) years. Basically, I break out in itchy hives any time I get slightly warm. A hot shower will do it. A walk to the grocery store will do it. A tense conversation with my wife will do it. On the advice of my previous doc, I take an OTC allergy med, but that only eases the itching, it doesn’t eliminate it, and it does nothing for those ugly fucking hives. It’s just so gross and embarrassing, and it’s been getting in the way of my exercise plans for literal years.

So I went to the doc. I told him I’d spent months working hard to lose weight and had dropped 40 lbs. Then I went to my father-in-law’s house to help my wife deal with his estate, and the place was not exactly clean. (Which is not a dig on my f-i-l. He was a good guy, but he was in his eighties and his health had been terrible for years.) It was there, cleaning out that house, when I started breaking out in hives, and it took me weeks to figure out why. (Finally, I googled “I am allergic to my own sweat.” — It turned out I wasn’t actually allergic to my own sweat, although some people can be. It was just body heat.)

That was in January, 2012.  My appointment with the doc was last July, and after I ran through the whole thing, he ordered the usual tests, then said nothing about the hives. When I sent a note asking about it, he told me I’d need to make an appointment for it.

Which I already did. Last July.

I suspect he’s over-focused on my weight, which has indeed gone up now that any sort of exercise makes me look, feel, and act like a leper with fleas.

Eventually, I’ll have to go in for that followup appointment to cover the actual issue I went to see him for in the first place, but the holidays are busy and I have writing to do and whatever. I’d be more willing to go if I thought something good would come of it. Very discouraging.

On the plus side, the internet assures me that this issue usually goes away by itself in three to thirty years, so really, this will might be fixed any day now.

Anyway, that’s it. Take care of yourselves and happy holidays.

The Teen Romance Subplot in Stranger Things Season One (Happy Stranger Things Day)

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First of all, I know this is (::checks word count::) Way Too Long. This is very much an Overthinking It-style analysis, and maybe it would be better if I cut it way back, or focused on only one of the characters, or even if I broke this up into a couple of installments, but fuck it. I’ve been itching to write something like this, because so much of the critical focus on Stranger Things is about nostalgia and movie references, but little attention is paid to how the show undermines those elements.

A few months back, I was looking for a podcast with a solid analysis of the show, and I happily started playing something from Variety. Almost immediately, one of the hosts said, while laughing, that the references in the show were the only thing to talk about, and I immediately turned that metaphorical dial. I don’t care how prestigious you are in the trade. If you’re phoning it in, I’m hanging up.

Second of all, so much of the fan discussion of this show falls into either shipper obsession or why certain fans stan certain characters and I honestly it’s rare that I find any value in those conversations

I can certainly understand fans of the show who root for the characters, or want to see them kiss or whatever, but I never really understood the fervor for this sort of thing. Maybe it’s my essential boringness, but I just don’t engage with media this way. As long as the story is good, I’m not thinking about which character ought to be pairing up, or who is simply The Best. Wash over me, Show. I will think about you after.

Which is me saying that, if you’re reading this and thinking “He’s criticizing [Character], so he must stan [Other Character]” I promise I’ll be picking apart [Other Character] soon enough.

Also, it’s 2021. Why is this a blog post instead of a video essay?[1]

I’m planning to analyze the subplot mentioned in the title of this post, and I’ll write a little bit about Nancy, but this will mainly be about Steve and Jonathan, the two guys who form a love triangle with Nancy in the first season. Steve has become a fan favorite over the course of three seasons, but Jonathan… not so much. 

Frankly, that’s exactly the right way for audiences to react. It’s also kind of unfair.

How do the teenage characters in Stranger Things absolutely explode the standard teen romance plot in 80’s movies?

Here are the basic elements of that plot:

    • the girl who serves as lynchpin, who is drawn toward the popular jerk at first but eventually realizes she’d be happier with Someone Else. She’s somewhat idealized and v sympathetic so the audience falls in love with her a little, too.
    • that Someone Else, a boy who is a bit of an outcast, a quirky striver who has, maybe, an artistic bent. He’s a bit of a weirdo but in a cute way and eventually winds up with the girl.
    • the popular jerk she’s already dating, who is handsome, wealthy, and athletic, and turns out to be a villain by the end. He’s The Guy Who Seems Right At First But Isn’t.

I mean, that’s not the only type of romantic plot, but it’s a pretty common one. And, being movies and being from the 80’s, a lot of these stories center the outcast character. Since ST is a (dreaded) “eight-hour movie” it has the time to center all three characters. 

If anyone has read the Duffer Brothers’ original pilot, MONTAUK, they would have seen a very different version of Steve. Instead of a clueless, sensitive baby-man, he’s an extremely troubled guy. When Nancy goes to meet him in the school bathroom before first period, he hides at first so he can jump out and scare her. Then, after they kiss, she asks him if he’s been drinking. Reminder: school hasn’t even started yet.

Later, at a party on the beach, he’s end-of-the-day drunk and stoned, and he physically drags her away from the party to assault her in the dark. That’s… not the same kind of story at all, and I’m glad they dropped it. The Steve Harrington we got was much more interesting than that villain would have been.

So what I’m saying is that, just as Steve (as he appears in the show, not in the pilot) doesn’t neatly fit the basic archetype, neither does Nancy or Jonathan. (For more about the pilot script, keep reading)

Let’s start this with 

Nancy 

since she’s the easiest to talk about. 

First of all, against all expectation, Nancy isn’t given an introduction designed to make us sympathetic toward her. The first thing she does is smirk at Dustin–adorable, fan-favorite Dustin–then slam a door in his face. Why? Because he dared to offer her a slice of pizza.

Personally, if a kid with the weapons-grade charisma of Dustin Henderson offered me a slice, I would thank him profusely and sincerely, then turn him down. No way would I eat the last of a pie that had been grubbed around by a bunch of 12-year-old boys playing in a basement. But I’d be nice about it.

Nancy clearly doesn’t feel the same way.[2]

She’s also not that sympathetic in the way she treats her best friend. Barb tells Nancy that she’d “better still hang out with [her]” after she becomes friends with Steve and his pals. Nancy immediately assures Barb that of course they’ll still be friends, she’d never ditch their friendship. Nancy ditches her the very next day.

What I’m saying is that Nancy is careless with other characters that we like, and that’s an odd choice for the lynchpin of our love triangle.

But once Barb goes missing, Nancy does another unusual thing for a character in a love triangle: she loses all interest in the romance plot. Honestly, once Nancy starts risking her life to find Barb, I started to sympathize with her deeply. (More on this later when we talk about Steve.) It’s not the first cool thing she did, but it was the one that made me change how I thought of her.

After that point, evidence of her actual interest in the romance aspects of the story are thin on the ground until the epilogue, when she gives Jonathan a Christmas gift that’s not really a gift, then gives him A Look. Being Jonathan, he thanks her and runs away, and she goes back to Steve and his awful Christmas sweater. New status quo: Nancy is back with the pretty himbo while Jonathan, the guy is actually seems to like, is still on the outside.

Speaking of 

Steve, 

he’s a huge fan-favorite, and it’s easy to see why. 

First is Joe Keery himself, who’s plays Steve as a guileless pretty boy who keeps trying to do the right thing but can’t seem to figure out what that is.

Second is that Steve is a villain who becomes good because of LOVE, which is a wildly popular trope. I’ve never really understood the visceral appeal of the Reformed Bad Boy, but I recognize that it has a powerful effect on some people. Adding it to Steve’s S1 arc is bound to give him a huge boost in popularity.

Third is that the show provides him with two friends who take on the role of scapegoat when he finally has his big villain moment[3]. It’s not Steve who does the spray-painting, it’s these other guys. Steve’s big regret is not that he tried to ruin Nancy’s reputation, only that he stood by and did nothing.

Fourth, that big villain moment, which usually occurs at the climax of the story, is actually shunted to episode six. And why not? The love triangle is a D-plot at best. The real resolution to this story comes from the confrontation with the Demogorgon/Brenner/the upside down, and a showdown with Steve in the middle of all that, would be a distraction from what’s important.

That leaves plenty of time for the previously mentioned reformation of poor Steve. The show transitions from Hopper saying “Losers? What losers?” straight to Steve and his friends. Tommy talks about plotting some further revenge [4], but at this point Steve has nothing but regrets. So, instead of lashing out yet again, the rich, popular Guy Who Seems Right At First But Isn’t does a sudden face turn.

And why not? There are two episodes left, and the plot is not interested in Steve’s heartbreak. The plot is bringing all these separate story lines together for the final confrontation, and the writers have to decide if Steve is going to be part of that, or if he’s going to vanish from those episodes. Or if he’s going to die.

So, face turn it is! And by the end of the season, he ends up with Nancy even though he’s STILL the Guy Who Seems Right At First But Isn’t.

And the right guy, judging by Nancy’s Christmas Gift Look (and subsequent seasons) is 

Jonathan

which invites an interesting question: At what point does Jonathan begin to have feelings for Nancy? 

I’ve thought about this for quite a while–and I think the show is a little confusing on this–but I don’t think Jonathan really begins to care about Nancy until the scene where he rolls out the flowery sleeping bag on the floor of her bedroom. 

This is going to take a little bit of text, but bear with me.

There’s a certain trick directors use when they want to show that one character secretly/quietly loves (or is infatuated) with another: The two characters have a scene together, usually a conversation. One of them walks away and it feels like the scene has ended. But no, actually, not yet, because there’s an extra shot that shows a character staring after the one that’s leaving with a look of blank interest. Call it a look of yearning or fascination, maybe, but their eyes are intently focused but the rest of their face is expressionless.

In the first scene where Jonathan and Nancy interact on the show, Jonathan gets one of those lingering shots of her as she walks back to her friends.

Except his expression is all wrong. He looks mildly confused, not fascinated. What’s more, the shot holds on him long enough to show him look away and walk toward the door. That is definitely not an unrequited attraction shot.

Context for the scene: Jonathan was all alone at the high school corkboard, hanging a flyer about his missing brother, and Nancy’s new friend group were standing in a row in the middle of the hallway, staring at him as though he’s some kind of zoo exhibit: The Weirdo and his Unnerving Tragedy.

Then Nancy crosses the space between them to offer her support and reassurance (the previously mentioned “first cool thing”) and Jonathan seems genuinely surprised. Is Nancy Wheeler one of them–the Steves and Barbs and Tommy Aitches standing across the hall, watching him like he’s barely a real person–or is she better than that?

Later, when Jonathan is taking pictures of the scene where his brother vanished, he hears a scream, runs toward it, and discovers Steve’s party. Now the situations are reversed, and it’s Jonathan looking at Steve/Barb/Tommy, etc as though they’re a zoo exhibit: The Social Habits of the Upper Class Suburban Teen. 

And because, as he later admits, he’d rather observe people than talk to them, he starts taking pictures. (I’ll get back to this in a bit)

There’s a final, lingering shot of Jonathan in the scene by Steve’s pool, too, but he doesn’t have a look of fascination here, either. It’s disappointment. Nancy has chosen Steve, which means she’s chosen the boring, normal people.

And of course, up until now we like Jonathan. He’s suffered a terrible tragedy, and he’s doing his best to look after his mother. He’s gotten a hero’s introduction, and because Nancy dared to leave her himbo boyfriend to talk to him, Jonathan is positioned as the Someone Else, the quirky, artistic outsider who’s a bit of a weirdo, who is also the right guy for Our Heroine. 

Right up to the moment we see him snapping pics of Nancy undressing in Steve’s bedroom window. He’s not supposed to be that much of a weirdo.

I get that the plot requires those photos for Nancy to spot the demogorgon so the show can combine the teenage Will and Barb plotlines. They really needed that cross. And sometimes, when the need for a plot solution is powerful enough, you can find yourself defining characters so that they fill that need. 

Which means that Jonathan, a caregiver character who makes breakfast for his family, works extra shifts (as a high school sophomore) to help cover bills, and who is trying to comfort his mother so she doesn’t go spinning off the rails, is also a creepy stalker dude who takes secret pictures of a girl during a very private moment.

That’s a bad look for the guy who is slotted into the role of the romantic lead of this particular subplot. So what the fuck?

I puzzled over this for a while. Sure, the show needed to have Jonathan accidentally snap a photo of the demogorgon, but why did it need him to take photos of Nancy in Steve’s bedroom window? Why not just have him see them, get that look of disappointment, then have him see Barb on the diving board. A lonely teenage girl sitting by herself, full of sadness, is a solid choice for an artsy photograph. Click. Demogorgon captured on film

Or why not have him snap a few photos of the kids by the pool, so they could keep the scene where Steve punishes him, then, through the viewfinder, he sees Nancy undressing in the window but doesn’t press the shutter. Let him make his disappointment face, then take the plot-necessary photos of Barb? 

Why not draw the line on the correct side of a picture of Nancy undressing?

I keep thinking about that absolutely electric scene with Dacre Montgomery and Cara Buono at the end of season 2. If the show had paid it off in season 3 with a night (or series of nights) at a no-tell motel, that would have been fine by me. Logical, even.

But there’s a significant portion of the population that has been badly hurt by real-life infidelity, and they would hate Karen forever if she cheated on Ted. Nevermind Karen’s loneliness or Ted’s neglect, they’d turn on her because she did things “the wrong way” (ie: not getting a divorce first). Therefore, the show has Karen back out of the tryst.

Part of me wonders if they made that decision because of the way fans responded to the stalker shit that Jonathan pulls in season one.

But Jonathan is a character, not a real person, and I’ve been wondering what character motivation, if any, they give for him to have taken that shot. 

I think the answer is revealed in the moment of conflict when Nancy and Jonathan are out in the woods with Lonnie’s gun, actively hunting the monster. In the earlier darkroom scene, Jonathan said he takes pictures because he thinks they’re “saying something” and he wants to capture that moment. In the woods, Nancy asks him what she was “saying” [5] when he took her picture, and Jonathan says that he could see a girl who was trying to be something she wasn’t.

Nancy immediately recognizes that as a dig and rightly calls bullshit. Jonathan, who apparently thought “I can see that you’re better than those people you call friends even if you can’t” was some kind of compliment, tries to retreat, but she keeps pushing him. He admits that he doesn’t like (most) people and then they trade insults. 

And they insults they choose are revealing. 

Nancy’s dig at Jonathan is specific to him (and aimed at his reputation). “Maybe he’s not the pretentious creep everyone says he is.” Oh no! His reputation is accurate! Better to stick with Steve, because why else would she date an earnest dope like Steve who (to quote Steve himself in another context) “is cute and all, but [is] a total dud” except that he’s the BMOC?

In contrast, Jonathan’s dig at Nancy is not specific to her at all. He talks to her as if she’s a type of person, a generalization instead of an individual. “The suburban girl who thinks she’s rebelling…” etc. [6]

Because Jonathan does not think of people outside his tiny circle as individuals. He sees them (to use his own words from season two) as “normal”, as people choosing to travel inside the ruts that society carved for them because those ruts are easy. They have pre-fab interior lives. They’re people with nothing interesting or worthwhile to offer. 

That’s why he was so contemptuous of Bob in the second season, and was also so very wrong about him.

That’s also why, when Nancy approaches him at the corkboard to offer a few supportive words, Jonathan looks back at the crowd she left–Barb with Steve and Tommy H and Carol–and they are framed as a cohesive group, all standing together the same way, looking at him with the same expression. To Jonathan, those are all the same type of people: normals. To him, it’s unremarkable for Barb and Tommy H. to be standing next to each other, because they’re both in the “vast majority” and his vision of them doesn’t recognize divisions of conflicts between them. They’re just… all hanging out together, as far as he can tell.

That is also why, I believe, he takes that picture of Nancy. What privacy do people like them really need when he’s so sure he already knows who they are, inside and out?

So we pit Steve, the villain with the hero’s flaw (he needs to figure out what’s *really* important) against Jonathan, the hero with the villain’s flaw (thinks most people suck and are beneath him) which is one of the reasons this dopey show about petal-faced monsters and psychic little girls has such interesting characters, and why all the talk about nostalgia and borrowing from other sources misses the subversive touches that make this show compelling. 

To circle back to one of the earliest questions I had about this subplot, when does Jonathan actually start to have feelings for Nancy?

After he’s arrested, Flo says he beat up Steve because he’s in love with Nancy. Is she right?

I’m sure Flo heard about the circumstances of the fight: seeing the movie theater graffiti, beating Steve like a rented mule, then bloodying a cop’s nose. Nevermind that Jonathan didn’t mean to elbow Callahan in the face, no cop ever believes they got hit by accident. To Flo, it would make sense that there’s a coherent through line with these elements, and that Jonathan was motivated by love.

However, watching the scene again, its pretty clear that Jonathan doesn’t start throwing punches when Steve is insulting Nancy. At that point, he’s saying “Let’s leave. Let’s leave.”

It’s only when Steve starts insulting Jonathan’s family, saying Will is missing because he’s a screw-up from a family of screw-ups,[7] that Jonathan throws that first punch. The fight is evidence that Jonathan loves his little brother, not the cute girl beside him.

Even so, I don’t think Flo is entirely wrong, even if she uses flawed evidence to reach her conclusion. I think Jonathan does already care about Nancy by that point. Maybe it’s not full-blown, let’s-portmanteau-our-names lurve, but I think he started to care for her from the moment he pulled her out of the tree to safety, then rolled out the sleeping bag onto her bedroom floor. Before that, he was sort of figuring her out, swapping stories about their parents while they were shooting cans, talking about his photography, whatever. He was getting to know her.

Once Nancy crawls through some extra-dimensional mucus portal into a world of murder monsters, she levels up to Proper Show Hero. And when she returns to our world, she’s a complete mess, justifiably freaked out to have accidentally ventured into an alternate Earth where she was hunted by a monster.  

Jonathan is a care-giver and a helper. He cooks the family breakfast. He shops for a coffin, alone. He tracks down his deadbeat dad. 

Then he and Nancy venture into the woods to find the monster, and she’s confronts it all by herself. His voice leads her back to safety. He’s the one comforting her, just as he had to comfort his mom and would try to comfort Will in season two, when the kids are calling him zombie boy.

He also offers to crash on Nancy’s floor so she won’t have to be alone, if that’s what she wants[8], and when he says that, his tone has completely changed from the “What’s the matter? You tired?” moment from earlier that night. His relationship toward her has done a 180, because she needs his help and he’s giving it.

I’m pretty sure this is where Nancy genuinely starts to care for him, too. She’s intelligent and full of initiative, and she needs someone who can help her get shit done. Jonathan does that for her, while Steve very much doesn’t.

In the morning, when Karen tries to open the door, they do that panicky hand-grasp thing, a Stranger Things-specific indicator of growing closeness between two characters (of different genders, of course). Murray will call it “shared trauma” but up to this point, it’s Nancy’s trauma. Jonathan is just there to make it better.

Of course, later he gets monster snot dripped into his open mouth, so he eventually gets his trauma, too. 

There’s more to say about this triangle in the second season, when Nancy is trying to get Jonathan to go to a party so he could maybe meet someone, which he does and he does, and poor Steve, like so very many boyfriends and husbands, is shocked to discover that his partner is unhappy. Plus, Dorothy Sayers. But this post is already too long. 

Stranger Things! Where everyone sees the references to older stories, images, and tones, but no one seems to recognize how the show undermines them. [9]

If you’ve read this far, thank you! (Also: I write books)

 

 

[1] I joked about this with my son and he immediately started saying: “Do you want to make a video essay?” in the tone I always used with him when I was offering to jump into a big project. Like, he would help me make a video essay. I brushed it off, because of the time it would take, and also my ugly face and weird voice, but I’m sure that was a mistake. 

[2] Nancy doesn’t actually redeem that door slam until the Snow Ball at the end of season 2, when she finds poor rejected Dustin crying by himself, dances with him and tells him that everything is going to be all right. Of course, she also tells him that girls his age are dumb, which… come on, Nancy. No need to build up a young boy by dumping on young girls.

[3] Stranger Things has two types of human villains: First are the Connie/Troy/Billy types, people who are cruel or violent and who do traditionally villainous acts like punch, humiliate, or kill.

Second are the Lonnie types, who aren’t going to slap someone around or whatever, but who are selfish and lazy. Their priorities suck, so when Joyce calls Lonnie about Will, Lonnie does nothing. He doesn’t even return her call, because he’s hoping the situation will resolve itself without him having to be inconvenienced. And he shows up for Will’s funeral with a flyer from an ambulance-chasing lawyer, because he figures his son’s death is somebody’s fault, and he’s going to cash in. He’s selfish.

Hopper starts off the show as a Lonnie type. That’s why he responds to news of a missing kid with “Coffee and Contemplation.”

Early S1 Steve is a Lonnie-style villain, with his “Don’t tell them about the beers” and “Why don’t we see All The Right Moves tonight?”. Nancy has her priorities right: her friend is missing and must be found. Steve still thinks he can ignore all that and go on dates. He’s selfish. He doesn’t transition to the more active villain type until he and his friends try to ruin Nancy’s reputation with the movie theater graffiti.

[4] The way I see it, if Steve hadn’t made that face turn, and stuck with Tommy and Carol, he would most likely have died at the end of S1. If the three of them had turned up with some kind of stupid revenge scheme in the middle of the Demogorgon confrontation, it would have killed them. That’s just story logic.

And while “Complete jerks do something stupid and get themselves ganked by the monster” is so 80’s that it was designed by the Memphis Group, that has more of a slasher vibe to it. It wouldn’t fit the tone of Stranger Things, which is more about community and coming together. 

[5] For the second time. The first time she asks, he gets all embarrassed and apologizes. Which makes me realize that I can’t remember another time, in all three seasons, when he apologizes to anyone. He makes (well-intentioned) mistakes and he’s often wrong (Then again, anyone who disagrees with Joyce is going to be wrong) but the closest he comes to apologizing again is the hospital elevator scene in season three, where he admits that he was “mortifyingly wrong” but he never says that he’s sorry. Then again, “I was completely, mortifyingly wrong” might be better than “I’m sorry”.

[6] I thought it was pretty funny that Jonathan’s dig at Nancy, which is that she was on a path to an ordinary boring suburban life, is exactly the future that Steve, former jock, offers her in S2E1 when he says that he could skip college, stay in Hawkins with her, and go to work for his father. 

[7] Seriously one of the worst Steve moments of the entire series. It might not be as harmful as the movie theater graffiti, but it is absolutely vicious, and I never hear anyone talking about it.

However, it’s clear that Steve knows he crossed a line he shouldn’t have. When it’s time for him to bang on someone’s door and shout that he wants to apologize, he doesn’t go to Nancy’s house. He goes to Jonathan’s. 

[8] Another fun contrast between Steve and Jonathan: When Steve enters Nancy’s bedroom, it’s right after she’s explicitly told him not to come in. Throughout the rest of the scene, he tests her boundaries over and over, trying to get her clothes off, until she loses her temper. Then he gives a cutesy apology and everything is fine. Jonathan pushes exactly zero boundaries when he’s in Nancy’s room, checks with her that it’s alright for him to stay, and only gets into the bed (on top of the covers) when she asks him to. Steve is a guy who is accustomed to pulling shit on people, while Jonathan does not.

Unless he has a camera and you’re part of “the vast majority”. Get over that shit, Jonathan.

[9] Crap! I planned to talk a bit more about the original (and quite excellent) pilot for the show, but it’s just too much. It was called Montauk, and if you want to read it for yourself–tv pilots are quite short–you can do so here.

Even More Seen for Halloween

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Hey, it’s Halloween time, which means I’m watching Halloweenish shows and movies. And I have even more opinions here in part 3, also known as “part last”. (Spoilers for everything)

The Innocents: This  from 1961 and stars Deborah Kerr. It’s adapted from the Turn of the Screw, just like Haunting of Bly Manor, but this keeps the original ambiguity about whether the ghosts are real or figments of the nanny’s imagination.

It’s pretty bloodless, in every way. Beautifully shot and acted, but bloodless.

Beyond the Black Rainbow: As a fan of Mandy, I dropped the director’s first movie into our Netflix queue right after we watched it. I loved this weird little art (school) movie, even though it’s full of wacky lighting and design choices. Plus, it features to slowest escape in the history of escapes. It’s more interesting than scary, and more fun than thrilling. Worth seeing on a quiet night.

Dracula (1979): Frank Langella is the sexiest Dracula of all time, pushing the plot of this film through all the usual beats with energy and presence that’s too often missing from these remakes. Plenty of actors go for, I don’t know, “stately.” But Langella gives the undead count real life.

Laurence Olivier plays Van Helsing, and his confrontation with his undead daughter is the most effective scene in the whole film. One of the better versions of this particular tale.

Horror of Dracula: Not the greatest version of this story, but it gets bonus points for being energetic and extremely clean. This movie has the tidiest Transylvanian vampire castle and the fakiest blood in movie history.

It’s still fun. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would never seem to be having this much fun in later movies. Worth seeing, I guess.

Something Wicked This Way Comes: I’d seen this several times on cable when I was younger, and while I’d remembered the plot pretty well, I’d forgotten how beautiful this movie is. Autumn hillsides, golden sunsets, steam trains in the night, leaf-blown streets, and the fanciest library small town America has ever seen.

Storywise, this is about an autumn carnival that visits a small Indiana town, granting people’s dearest wishes in ways that curse them and make them part of the carnival. Those elements are a little smug and moralizing, but the rest of the film makes up for it.

The dialog is self-consciously homey and elevated, and the adult actors really make a go of it. Jonathan Pryce, playing carnival owner Mr. Dark, really makes his mark with the lines he’s been given. The two child actors, the actual leads in the story, don’t fare as well, but they’re still a lot of fun.

It’s an odd movie, and I wish someone would remake it, self-conscious dialog and all.

Warlock: This was a big hit when it was released, and it still holds up today. Julian Sands is a warlock in pre-Revolution Boston who escapes to the future, and Richard E. Grant is the Witchcatcher who follows. Lori Singer is the bright, energetic, midriff-baring modern woman who gets caught in the action.

Plot wise, it’s a standard mix of fish-out-of-water and thriller elements, and the unusual magic makes the plot surprising. I honestly thought this movie would make a top-tier movie star out of Julian Sands, but oh well.

It’s not a horror movie, really, but it is dark urban fantasy, and it still holds up.

Border: Not sure why someone put this on a list (at #2) of best horror films of the last ten years, but it’s absolutely a good film. Not horror, but genuinely good.

Tina is a Border control agent who is prosthetics-ugly and who has the ability to smell people’s fear, shame, and other emotions. She believes she’s been born with chromosomal damage that has left her deformed, but one day she meets someone just like herself, and slowly comes to realize she’s not human at all.

This is more drama than fantasy, and more fantasy than horror, but it’s a terrific movie. Thank you, northern Europe and your fascination with trolls.

More Seen for Halloween

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Hey, it’s Halloween time, which means I’m watching Halloweenish shows and movies. And I have even more opinions here in part 2. (Spoilers for everything)

His House: If it weren’t for the next film on this list, this would have been the best Halloween movie we’ve seen this year so far. It was impeccable.

The story centers on two Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in England who are given a space in a run-down housing project while they wait to hear if they’ll be sent back home to die. Except this little flat is full of ghosts, and it takes a while for the refugees to realize the ghosts arrived with them.

Most of the incidents and visuals related to the hauntings are familiar, but the story context added real meaning to the common tropes, and the way their memories and hallucination sequences were shot were startling and beautiful. Highly recommended.

The Devil’s Backbone: We were a few years late to this one, and it’s easily the best thing we’ve seen for this holiday (so far). More of a slow-burn thriller than horror film, the story takes place in a Spanish orphanage, surrounded by dry, barren fields, near the end of the Spanish Civil War. The orphans are the children of leftists fighting a losing war against the fascists, and they have few teachers, little food, and even less hope.

And right in the center of the courtyard is an unexploded bomb.

What’s more, one of the boys that the teachers believe has run away, has been murdered and is haunting the place.

This movie is beautiful in an austere way, and it’s full of wonderful characters. If you haven’t seen this yet, check it out.

The Call: South Korea has been hitting it out of the park in the last couple of decades, and they’ve been doing it without the reliance on established IP that has everyone complaining about modern American films. This movie is about two women, one living in the past and one living in the future, who can talk to each other over a single phone line. One is a virtual prisoner inside her home. The other wants to help her be free.

The girl in the future has nothing to offer except information. She can play new music from the girl in the past’s favorite band into the receiver, or look up news articles or whatever. She can tell her new friend what’s about to happen.

The girl in the past has all the agency. She can save lives, change history, do whatever she wants with the information her friend gives her. Except the girl in the past is actually deeply troubled–there’s a good reason she was kept locked away–and once they stop being friends, the girl in the future has no defense against her except the information she gives.

It’s clever as hell and a lot of fun. Check this one out.

Nightbooks: This is a terrific little horror movie aimed at kids—”gateway horror”–some have called it, and it thankfully doesn’t lean too hard on the moralizing and just-so lessons that often plague supernatural tales for kids. 

Starring Krysten Ritter(‘s wardrobe), it’s the story of a boy who loves horror who gets abducted by an evil witch’s magical apartment. Ritter, as the witch, demands a scary story every night, and the boy (along with another abducted kid who’s stuck with all the household chores) spend every day exploring the mysteriously expansive apartment, searching for a way to escape, when he should be writing.

Which, in its way, is like me and the internet.

This one is great for kids who are comfortable being scared, and also for adults who don’t mind kiddish things and/or love fantastic costuming and production design.

Come True: Ever watch a movie that was wonderful–not because they threw around a bunch of money, but because it was full of interesting ideas and visuals you had never seen before, and it seemed to be leading to something wild and profound…

Only to have it absolutely shit the bed in the last scene?

I really wanted to recommend this movie. it’s beautiful. It has a bunch of haunting visuals, and the set up is fascinating.

Essentially, a homeless teenage girl, who suffers from strange nightmares, signs up for a sleep study because it would give her a little pocket money and a place to sleep indoors.

But of course, there’s more going on than she realizes. Than any of them realizes. And there’s an extended scene at the end, where the girl is sleepwalking, that is so interesting and original, so beautiful in the way that it’s shot–and eerie, too–that I really hoped for something strange and profound at the end.

Nope. 

So very disappointing.

Wildling: There have been a number of movies since The Frighteners where a girl is being held prisoner there, and you root for her to get her freedom, only to discover that, whoops! she’s actually a deadly killer and her captors were right to lock her away. I just talked about one above.

It’s a fun twist the first time you see it, but as it comes around again and again, it sort of starts to feel gross. 

In this film, the girl turns out not to be a sadistic murderer, but a sort of werewolf who never changes back. After hinting strongly that this young girl, newly set loose on a small town, is some kind of threat, the film quickly pivots to Actually, it’s people who are the REAL monsters. 

Which is fine. That works for me, sometimes. 

The climax centers on our teenage monster girl–now a few months pregnant–evading a group of good ol’ boy hunters who make it their business to exterminate Wildlings whenever they turn up. And of course their leader is the same guy who held her captive all her life, now convinced he was wrong to try to rehabilitate her. And all our wilding monster girl wants to do is escape with her baby to the far northern tundra, which is apparently a wildling’s natural habitat. 

But the whole time I was watching the end of this movie, I was thinking main character’s love interest. Someone, somewhere, was going to ask him about his first time, and he was going to be either drunk enough or dumb enough to tell the truth, starting with “Well, she’d just been rescued from the attic prison where a creep had kept her locked away her whole life, and my family was the first people besides her captor she ever talked to,” and it would end with “then she sprouted fur and fangs, and fled into the wilderness with our baby.” 

I mean, I’m almost more interested in a movie about that.

A Chinese Ghost Story: I’m spending the entire month of October watching Halloween movies, and I’m sure there are horror fans out there who think much of what I’m watching isn’t actually horror. I’ve met my share of “If it’s not rated R, it’s not horror” folks and lets just say we don’t agree on much.

This movie has ghosts! And an ancient tree demon! And reanimated corpses! And wandering murderers! 

It’s also a comedy and a romance, plus, it has Daoist monks who can do magic, wire fu sword fights, a clueless but good-hearted hero who blunders through magical dangers, not to mention the odd bit of elaborate slapstick.

it’s great fun, and pleasant to be reminded of 80’s Hong Kong films, where every forest path had a blazing blue light just over the next rise. 

One Lane Bridge: This six episode series out of New Zealand combines supernatural elements with a police procedural, which are chocolate and peanut butter to me. Season one covers the arrival of a new junior detective to a small town with absolutely amazing landscapes and a bridge that causes some people (including our new protagonist) to have prophetic visions.

Will these visions help our hero solve the murder that opens the season? Well, a little. Mostly, it will send him visions that he will misinterpret, make him think he’s losing his grip, act out recklessly, and nearly tank his career. 

I’ll confess that I occasionally had a bit of trouble telling characters apart, but that’s a common issue for me. It’s a solid show that gets a lot of things right. 

Seen for Halloween

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Hey, it’s Halloween time, which means I’m watching Halloweenish shows and movies. And I have opinions. (Spoilers for everything)

The Shining (1980): Supposedly one of the greatest horror movies of all time, this really hasn’t held up. Kubricks’ direction is terrific. The long, slow steadicam glide is unsettling here in a way it just isn’t in other films (and I don’t understand film well enough to know why. Soundtrack, maybe?). The performances are solid… except for Jack Nicholson.

When I was younger, people loved Jack Nicholson because he was doing that Jack Nicholson thing, with the raised eyebrows and the snide way of talking. Late in the movie, when he’s slipping into full-blown family killer mode, it works. Earlier scenes not so much. Kubrick let him mug his way through scene after scene, and instead of enjoying a movie I hadn’t revisited in a while, I sat there wondering how this dude managed to remain a movie star, and how he kept pulling in so many Oscar nominations.

Give me the Nicholson of Chinatown, not this. 

Insidious: I was surprised to see this was made for only one and a half million dollars. Watching it a second time, I was disappointed in how it looked–even Stranger Things put more effort into their otherworldly environment. But on a million and a half dollar budget? Hat’s off. 

It was also full of terrific performances, and the scares were clever, esp compared to the torture porn films this picture made unfashionable. And that scene with the mask? Thumbs up: solid scares.

Muppets Haunted Mansion: Here’s the deal: you watch this, you get great puppets, dad jokes, cute songs, and fantastic design. It’s the same thing the Muppets have been doing on screen for decades, and if you liked it in the past, you’ll like it even more now that the money they’re spending goes so much further. Plus celebrity guest stars having a blast playing broad comedy.

My only gripe: they mixed the music too loud, so it could be really difficult to make out the lyrics of the songs. I can’t tell if that’s a currently fashionable production choice (since it seems to come up in lots of different shows) or if it’s a problem with my aging hearing (since it seems to come up in lots of different shows).

Midnight Mass: I know reaction has been mixed on this, but I thought this was brilliant. Lot of folks thought it was talky, but sometimes I want to hear quality dialog, even in the horror genre. Reveal the characters with it. Create verisimilitude with it. Give the actors something really juicy to do. That’s why Child of Fire was so full of people telling their own stories, after all. I love books and shows where the characters tell stories that reveals who they are. 

Another thing it had going for it was that it was gorgeous. Too much horror ignores visual appeal–or goes in the other direction to show only things that are repellant–but Mike Flanagan wisely seized on the opportunity to show truly gorgeous skies over Crockett Island, and that’s important. It establishes a world is worth fighting for, or at least living in, and it provides the contrast that makes the gross and/or repellant stuff stand out.

More beauty with terror, please. Make the forests look deep and green. Make the castles gothic and beautifully ruined. Pay attention to the environment. Too many horror movies cast good looking actors, then make everything else ugly or gross. 

The Changeling (1980):

In a previous blog post, I’ve complained about ghost-oriented murder mysteries, because having a detective who depends on clues fed to them by a vengeful spirit makes your detective seem like they don’t detect very well. (I was writing specifically about the new Nancy Drew show, which I have since revisited and will talk about in another post).

However! When the lead character is not a detective, but is still driven by a haunting to look into a terrible crime, well, that’s a genre I really like.

In The Changeling, George C. Scott is a famous NYC composer who suffered a terrible tragedy and retreats to Seattle, to teach at the UW and compose in an overlarge house maintained by the Historical Society which turns out to be haunted by the spirit of a murdered child. 

The haunting stuff is all the ordinary things you’re used to seeing in a ghost house movie–opening doors, secret rooms, the works. It’s the murder mystery where this movie stands out. 

I should say that I like George C. Scott, but he never seems all that affected by the moving objects or thumps in the night. If Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrence lands on one end of the “frightened by all this spooky shit” bell curve, with her goggling eyes and wavering, one-second-from-fainting body language, Scott’s John Russell lands at the other end. He might be the most self-possessed hauntee in the history of non-comedic films.

Malignant: I really enjoyed this movie, but not as much as I should have. The buzz about it was that it had this gonzo twist that split audiences between those who noped out and those who thought it was new and weird and a goddam delight.

We fell into the second category. Unfortunately, it also felt a little flat. My wife kept saying “This is very TV” throughout, and not just because we kept recognizing the cast from Canadian SF shows. 

One of the downsides of enjoying scary movies is that you end up seeing a lot of the same things over and over. The figure in the mirror. The door that creaks open on its own. The frightened co-ed sprinting through the woods. I’ve talked often about having to forgive books, movies, or TV shows in order to enjoy them, and these old tropes are high on that list. Malignant managed to put shit on screen that I hadn’t seen in a horror movie before.

Then you have a climactic fight that feels small and same-y. When most of the participants are also character I don’t know and am not invested in, it takes the energy out of me. 

So, loved the movie but not as much as I wanted to. 

The Old Dark House: Before James Whale did Bride of Frankenstein, he made this little gem, about unlucky travelers forced to seek shelter from a (vividly portrayed) thunderstorm in a house filled with dangerous weirdos. 

It’s beautiful and a lot of fun. The camera work is inventive (for 1932) and we loved the characters, even the aggravated married couple. Great cast with terrific dialog (when they were given some, sorry Boris) and even though it’s not a horror film exactly, it was a perfect fit for the season. 

Living in the Future

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Sometimes I like to imagine that I could time-travel back to the 1950s and write a science fiction novel about my life here in twenty-first century America.

The more I think about it, the more certain I am that my book would be received as a dystopia. For ex:
• Punishing heat waves and flooding thanks to climate change.
• Massive disinformation campaigns orchestrated by the Russians, by one of our two major political parties, and by individual bad actors
• Pervasive social media that encourages and monetizes outrage and fury
• Several massive “islands” of discarded plastic swirling in oceans all over the world
• Billionaires riding rockets to the edge of the atmosphere as a vanity project while police toss the property of homeless people into Dumpsters
• Wildly addictive opioids

Even the changes that I think are positive social advances would have seemed like dystopia to them. When the Supreme Court decided Loving v Virginia in 1967, 98% 80% of the country was against interracial marriage. I’m not sure most ever imagined gay marriage, except as outlandish satire. The fact that we have Black Lives Matter protests–and that we still need them in 2021–would have been dystopic all in itself.

Me, I’m glad we’ve made those steps. It’s a slightly better world now that we have kids tv with same sex couples in them, for example. Readers in the 50’s though? Eh.

Sure, there’s stuff they’d be glad to see, like Wikipedia, or Shakshuka recipes on YouTube. Maybe artificial hearts. Maybe smart houses that let you switch off the lights with a voice command (never mind that the same smart house will record everything you do and say, Big Brother-style, for the corporations at the other end. Including your noisy sex).

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before, we have moved recently, but only a few blocks from our old apartment. We’re higher on the hill now, and have fewer plants outside to muffle the noises of the neighborhood. New place is newer, with burners and light switches and bathroom vents and door latches that actually work, but I still would have preferred to stay in our old place.

It’s helpful that cafes and libraries are re-opening, because it means I have been getting out of the apartment and really getting work done. Progress on The Flood Circle has kicked into high gear, and let me tell you, that feels really fucking good, even if I have to wear a mask the entire time.

It’s nice to have that, at least.

Take care of yourselves.

So, we moved recently

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So, we moved recently.

It always sucks to move but this was particularly terrible, because it happened during that massive PNW heatwave from four weeks ago. Here’s a short version of the story.

At the beginning of June, we chose Monday, 6/28 as our move date so we could be into our new place (and out of our old) by July 1. Our old landlord was nice enough to hire a moving company to help us out.

The Thursday before, we started hearing about the heatwave that was coming. We were supposed to be getting temps in the upper 90s on Sunday, then hit a high of 108F on Monday. I contacted the landlord to suggest we reschedule to a day where the movers were less likely to fall over dead as they carried our sofa up the back stairs, but he said they still wanted to do it on that day.

Boss wouldn’t give up an earning day, I guess.

By Saturday, I got an email saying the movers would start an hour early and knock off before temperatures got too hot, like noon or one. I don’t remember how things work in other cities, but in Seattle, the hottest times of the day come in late afternoon, around 5ish. That still seemed ridiculous, but whatever.

That weekend was a nightmare of packing up the last of our things in 98F temperatures, guzzling water, sweltering. We’d do one thing, sit down, then get up and do one more thing, then sit down again. Also, the heat was getting on top of me, making me woozy and a little nauseated.

Then moving day came, and mere moments before the movers were supposed to arrive, they cancelled.

I immediately got online to find us an air-conditioned hotel room for the night, but everything was all booked up. We sat in our apartment and sweltered.

One piece of advice they give you during a heatwave is that you’re supposed to leave your windows open all night, letting the cool air in. Once the run rises, you close everything up and pull the blinds to trap the cool air in place and keep the heat out.

Except our Seattle apartment had little cross ventilation. The windows were tiny and the air flow was minimal. What cooling we did get–which was not a lot because night time temps didn’t drop that much, another deadly aspect of dangerous heatwaves–was quickly overwhelmed by body heat and carbon dioxide.

Having prepped a bunch of ice cubes, we put steel bowls full of them in front of our box fan. We sat and we did nothing. We hid in the dark.

I didn’t do that well. I felt sick most of the day. My hands swelled up a bit, and my feet swelled up a lot. Like, a scary amount. I had a hard time keeping awake (not that I really wanted to) and I found myself in a kind of thoughtless daze through much of the day.

The best remedies I had for the temperature was to wear a soaking wet T-shirt (and not in a sexy way) and to put my head under the shower with the water set at its coldest.

The latter was a revelation. It was the best possible kind of pain, making my skin tingle down my back, and I could actually feel the cold water drawing heat from the inside of my skull, along with lethargy, confusion, and exhaustion. It was a really strange sensation.

The movers didn’t finish completely until Saturday. They managed the boxes on Tuesday, but were short-handed and couldn’t bring over the furniture. The landlord, knowing this wasn’t going well, helped us by driving over the mattresses in his jeep (we don’t have a car). At least we had something to sleep on.

That’s the short version. Things sucked for about a week and a half, and over on my 20 Palaces Kickstarter, I had mentioned that I thought our move would interrupt my writing for a few days before and after the move, but that turned out to be a terrible guess. Laughably terrible. The disruption was much longer and more profound. Luckily, I’m back to my old, pre-pandemic pace. More on that in an upcoming post.

As for the new place, it’s newer and brighter than the old, with larger windows that allow for actual air circulation. It’s also slightly smaller than our old apartment, especially the fridge, which drives my wife to distraction.

Also, although we’re farther from the train yard than the old apartment, that place had a smaller front slope with lots of greenery, so we had foliage and buildings across the street to block the noise. The new apartment sits on a bare hill and has a nice terrestrial view, and it’s the loudest place I’ve ever lived.

Anyway, I’m still settling in. My wife is trying to, but she hates to settle for anything. As for my son, well, this is officially the second place he’s ever lived in his life, and he’s about the right age for this move, so he’s doing pretty well. Except for the ants. Did I mention that the new place has ants? Bugs give him the willies, so we’re dousing the outside wall with vinegar and…

Well, this blog post could go on and on, but I’m going to stop typing about it so I can write today’s pages. As I mentioned above, I’ll post about my improved productivity and the pandemic soonish.

Thanks for reading.