Labyrinth

I’m generally pretty good at mazes. The whole trick is being able to see the whole thing. Sometimes you gotta work backwards toward your starting point to figure out the best way to go without running into a dead end. I’m pretty good at that – seeing the path in my head before I do it with my finger or a pen. I’ve got a lot of different apps on my phone that are all based off that concept – fill, flow, etc. Connect all these points without crossing the lines and try to do it in one go. I’m a pro.

And sometimes when I’m doing 100 levels in a sitting, I like to think that really does help me in the real world. That working on these little apps gives me the skills to look at the big picture and give me an edge in day to day life, or business, or whatever.

But life isn’t that kind of maze. You can’t see the whole board from where you’re standing. It’s like being in a corn maze without a map; all you know is that you have to keep going to find your way out. No instructions. No peeking ahead. No hints. And it just makes me so damn anxious. Because if you’re not allowed to work backwards from the finish, you end up having to backtrack and start over again, usually more than once. And in a maze that’s fine, because you can just erase and start over. But in life that means taking more time in your life, draining more money and resources every time you start from scratch and being judged for changing your mind because you hit a dead end instead of following through. You know it wasn’t the way out for you, but all anyone else knows is that you had to start over. It makes me feel like a failure.

And I know that it’s normal, and I know that it’s inevitable. It’s not failing. It’s just life. But it’s still hard to cope with. I don’t like not knowing what I’m doing. I don’t like not knowing where the end of the maze is going to spit me out. And it gets harder and harder to backtrack because I’m just tired. All the time. It’s so tempting to just get comfortable in this dead end so I can say “well at least I never had to back up.”

But happiness is at the end of the maze. Achieving new goals, finding out what your were meant to do, figuring out who you’re going to be – it all takes luck and skill and risk and hard work. Sometimes that means starting from scratch, or even just a few steps back. And life on the outside of that struggle is going to be a lot more comfortable than a makeshift home inside of the labyrinth.

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April Reflection (and March, and February…)

Well, as I predicted, it only took a month for this blogging adventure to fall to the wayside. I’ll be honest with all of you reading; the seasonal slump was hard to beat this year. Between the weather and my own anxieties, I got caught up in that lack of magic that many people discover in February.

I’ve also fallen into my old trusty habit of abandoning projects. For a week or two, I was certain I was getting back into screenwriting. I reread some of my college textbooks, cleared off a part of my wall for plotting, and started throwing around titles and logline ideas for the six different plots I’m currently working on in my head. Surprise, surprise—none of those ideas made it up onto the corkboard. A corkboard which is still hanging in the corner of my room to shame me for forgetting about it every time I walk by.

For a few months, I actually was very productive with fanfiction—which most people will understand as not very productive at all. Still, I was actively producing content, and I wrote over a hundred pages in two weeks. Not bad for someone who hadn’t written in quite a while. I actually convinced myself I might be able to blow through the project, really keep up my momentum for the first time in ages. But of course, that didn’t really work out the way I intended it to.

Soon enough I had to put that project aside for concert prep. My favorite band, The Score, is just wrapping up their first tour of the year, and I bought tickets to go to three different shows. About a week or so before, I realized I’d yet to listen to any of the music from the other bands, or book hotels, or travel tickets, or make t-shirts, or really do any of the things that I needed to do to prepare myself.

And internet—I can tell you that for at least a few days this year—I really was happy. I had an incredible time at my shows. I reunited with friends, made some new ones, and got to share the music I love with people who had never heard it before. I handed out dozens of the bracelets I’d ordered earlier this year, and got to talk to the band themselves. I was on top of the world.

It was in a conversation with one of the musicians that I made a discovery I want to share with all of you. I had abandoned countless different projects over the course of the year—but I had accomplished things too. I started a fan blog for the band, I practiced and improved at making animated gifs in Photoshop, as well as painting and designing t-shirts. And they were all things that other people were appreciating. (Someone also threw the word ‘talented’ into the ring, but I don’t want to get too sappy just now.)

The point is that as much time as I’ve spent hating myself over the past few months for my failures, it doesn’t diminish my victories. For every project I’ve abandoned, I have skills that are sharper because of the experience. I’ve learned something. I’ve gained something. And I’m one step closer to finishing that project at some point in the future. None of us have unlimited time—but it’s easy to see progress as failure when you expect to achieve your goals immediately. Achievement takes time and hard work and patience. So maybe it’s not the end of the world that I tabled this blog for a few months. I got some other good things in motion, and now I can come back to my old projects a slightly different person with a different view point.

I never intended for this blog to become so much like a diary. Thank you to everyone who’s reading it anyway. I hope you gain some hope and confidence from my musings, and hopefully I’ll have something new to say soon.

Don’t lose hope. The year isn’t even half over yet.

The Magicians: Screen and Page

On my latest Netflix binge, I finally decided to pick up SyFy’s The Magicians. It’s another one of those shows that’s been living in the back of my mind, something I knew I would enjoy eventually but had to watch at the right time. Unsurprisingly, I loved it, caught up in about three days, and went directly to the library to take out the source material, the novel by Lev Grossman.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Magicians, imagine this: Harry Potter meets The Chronicles of Narnia, but in college. That’s how I’ve been describing it to all my friends, at least. The story follows a group of magicians in their early twenties, studying magic and spellcasting at Brakebills University—an undergrad establishment in the books, a graduate program in the television series. However, in addition to this hidden world within our own, they also discover there is another magical world that exists called Fillory. Everyone knows Fillory from the popular book series Fillory and Further, but when they finally visit, they find that it’s not the lighthearted land of talking bunnies that they’d hoped for.

So, magical school, magical land—Harry Potter meets Narnia. It’s a succinct description that fits the show very well. But as I found out when I picked up the novel, my expectations were woefully inaccurate.

The novel The Magicians follows Quentin Coldwater through several major milestones of his life—finding out he is a magician, going to college, graduating college, living in New York City, living his childhood fantasy and then losing it tragically. All in all, the book covers nearly a decade of Quentin’s life. Not unheard of for a novel, but pretty uncommon for a fantasy adventure story.

Here is your big tipoff: The Magicians isn’t a fantasy adventure story.

Yes, there are magical spells and time travelling and talking bears and trees, but they’re more set dressing than the focal point of the story. Really, it’s just Quentin’s life. The first two hundred pages cover Quentin’s entire education at Brakebills, during which nothing truly exceptional happens except one minor character death and a whole lot of world building. Then there’s another fifty plus pages about Quentin’s post graduate life, living in an apartment with a girlfriend he doesn’t really love and passing the time by drinking and doing drugs. They don’t get to Fillory until page 286. Even then there’s no quest for another thirty pages. The Brakebills students go to frolic more than any real reason. Which begs the question, “If there’s nothing happening, what is the point?”

The problem with comparing The Magicians to Harry Potter or Narnia is that The Magicians is not a children’s story of adventure. It’s not even an adult story of adventure. Rather, it’s a cautionary tale about living out your life waiting for the next big thing, waiting for your life to have meaning rather than appreciating the meaning your life has.

At the beginning of the book, Quentin is miserable. He’s a lonely nerd who seems positively allergic to happiness, and longs for an adventure like the ones he reads in books. Then he gets into Brakebills. He finds out magic is real, that he is special, that he could be worth something—only that doesn’t fix anything. Brakebills quickly becomes as boring as his old life in Brooklyn, as does his apartment in New York City, as does his adventure in Fillory. Quentin spends the whole book waiting for his “real life” to begin, thinking it’s just around the next corner. Any adventure that awaits him is instantly zapped. The void of the adventure is almost the point.

In many ways, The Magicians turns most fantasy adventures on their heads. It could even be considered a parody. The similarity to The Chronicles of Narnia is not a coincidence. The book is full of pop culture references, even a few jokes about Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. But Narnia is mysteriously missing from these jabs, almost too close for comfort. A book series about British children in WWII who wander into a magical land of talking animals to defeat a witch and become kings and queens just because they’re human? Fillory is, for all intents and purposes, Narnia.

But how realistic is that? What thirteen-year-old knows how to rule a nation? No, no, no. Here’s a twenty-three-year-old who’s lived a full life, been trained in magic, actually has the tools to complete this adventure—and the moment he gets there he fails. He can’t complete his spells. He’s not ready for a fight to the death. He barely has the social capacity to have a civil conversation, let alone govern a sovereign nation. Quentin is useless, and that is in some ways the point. Going on a magical adventure did not fix him. Nothing can except himself.

This moral is very nearly lost in the television show. In a Hollywood-ification that parallels what happened to The Hunger Games, the cautionary tale becomes more about the adventure than Quentin’s lesson. There are monsters to be stopped and sinister plots to be discovered and revenge to be exacted. There are things that drive the story besides Quentin’s dissatisfaction with his life. But then, television is a different medium, and three hundred pages of aimless waiting doesn’t translate well to the screen.

As a book, The Magicians teaches an important lesson about the dangers of escapism. Maybe it would have been more palatable to me if I’d been able to dive into the story without any expectations. But there’s still one problem I have with the novel: Quentin Coldwater is a miserable fuckface, and I hated reading about him.

There has got to be a way to write characters suffering from depression that does not look like this. As the story stands, Quentin is a sad fanboy who searches the world for the source of his problems, when his problem is really himself. He knowingly takes the easy road whenever he can, lashes out when he’s upset without feeling any guilt, and justifies his actions in a vicious cycle with seemingly no end. I felt little to no sympathy for him as the protagonist of the novel. Which is saying something, since I went in predisposed to love Quentin from the show.

I felt sympathy for Quentin exactly three times during the book—when he cries upon arriving in Fillory, facing Jane Chatwin at the Retreat, and conversing with Emily Greenstreet at the end of the novel. That’s it.

For three hundred plus pages, Quentin is a miserable narrator who talks circles around himself. There’s no character development. Instead, we watch him jump through the same hoops to set himself up for a loss no matter what life throws at him. His only development comes well after Alice tries to set him straight.

“For just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.” (333)

She essentially screams the theme of the book at him, and still Quentin doesn’t get it. He does kiss her in a rush of passion, though we’re deprived of Alice’s reaction by a time cut. That’s another issue altogether, which we’ll return to in a moment.

Quentin only truly changes after the final showdown, months later when he’s woken up from his injuries and realizes that Alice is long gone. Then he learns to appreciate her, learns to live in the present, even in his own broken way.

So where does that leave us? The same place I was when I first picked up the book in the library, reading the inside cover and weighing my reservations. The Magicians turned out to be another story about a mediocre boy, the incredible girl who loves him anyway, and how her pain helps him grow as a person. Welcome to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Why on Earth should the story be about Quentin? Why am I not reading about Alice? She loses her brother, is raised in a toxic home, fights for her place at a school that refuses to take her, and is easily the most powerful magician in the book. She takes on The Beast on her own merit, without any outside help or power. She chose to go to Fillory to protect the boy she loved, to die for her friends, and instead of hearing about her, I’m reading the seventh consecutive page where Quentin thinks about how it doesn’t matter that he cheated on his girlfriend now that they’re in Fillory.

As far as the book is concerned, Alice is not even a full character. She’s likable, of course—there’s not a scene in the book I didn’t like her. But despite having a full backstory, she’s not treated as her own person. Which brings me back to her final kiss with Quentin.

Alice’s reaction to the kiss is cut because it does not matter. The point is not whether Alice accepted the kiss as an apology, or whether she shoved Quentin off her and slapped him in the face. (I hope she did.) The point is only to show that Quentin still loves Alice, has the audacity to call her “his Alice” as he watches her take down the Beast. The story is not about Alice, or adventure, or development. It’s about Quentin, who is terrible.

The television show remedies this by picking bits and pieces of every character for the screen. Quentin on the show is more like Penny in the books—depressed, sure, but full of optimism, Fillory facts, and a pathetic dorky quality. Penny in turn takes on Quentin’s biting anger and cynicism, but he wears it with much more sympathy. And Alice is given a chip in her shoulder so large it’s actually difficult to love her. Not at all like the passive girl in the books.

I’m not here to say that one version of The Magicians is better than the other. Like all things, it comes down to personal taste, and what you’re looking for in a story. The novel certainly has an incredible lesson behind it, even if it was truly miserable for me to read. And while the television show is funny and bright and filled with characters rising to their various occasions, it takes a pass on the dangers of escapism as a moral. It’s less of an adaptation, and more a new story that plays in The Magician’s sandbox.

I can only tell you which I found more enjoyable. And for all its merits, I’ll probably be passing on the next two books of the series. The Magicians airs on SyFy Wednesdays at 9 PM.

January Reflection

Well. I didn’t make it through the whole month.

Worse things have happened though. I’m not entirely bummed I didn’t make it 31 straight days posting. Mostly because, upon closer look, I’m not terribly proud of anything I’ve written this month. I’m glad I was writing – don’t get me wrong – but if I want to finish any of the long-form work I have planned, it’s going to take time. Prioritizing publishing over content is not going to help me in the long run.

It’s been great forcing myself to write every day, even if it’s supremely messed up my sleep schedule. I’m hoping to carry that fire into November and work on something, anything, at least a little every day. But with my limited time and energy, I can’t push off my larger projects because I know I’ll miss a day on this scatterbrained blog.

I’m not giving up, though. There are still things that I want to say, and stories that I want to share. But I do think I’m going to tone it back on the postadays. I might try posting once a week in February, just to get a feel and see if I can still keep it up without getting distracted.

So from here on out, you can expect to hear from me slightly less. But hopefully when you get one of those emails, it will have a link to something I’m proud of. A thought out article rather than a mish mosh paragraph I squeezed out of myself at four o’clock in the morning.

I’m hopeful for things in the future. But at the same time, I can feel that New Year magic wearing off, depression and frustration seeping in. I’m exhausted, and a lot of times I find it difficult to keep up the pace. I’m trying to find other productive things to do that aren’t quite as creative-heavy, like reading a book about screenwriting, or watching a movie while keeping my own creations in mind. Still, it’s hard to keep morale up when I’m in the same place I was last January, and it’s cold and unforgiving outside.

I hope February is better, for you and for me.

A Problem in 13G

To be fair, they had warned me the apartment was haunted.

It was the third or fourth building I’d looked at, and the only one that was realistically in my price range. It was older, and nothing inside had been refurbished, but it offered a little more space than the others. I figured I could deal with tiny cabinets and creaky stairs if it meant I didn’t have to donate half my closet to the church.

“Now I know the walls aren’t in the best shape,” offered Jan the building manager as she walked me through the living space, “and the molding definitely needs some work, I’ll admit. But it adds character, you know? Plus, it has a ton of natural lighting.”

She waved her hand like a regular Vana White, gesturing to the large windows on the opposite wall, which offered a fantastic view of the next building’s brickwork. There was probably only about five feet between them.

“Absolutely,” I agreed with a smile. “And what did you say the heating situation was like?”

“Oh, well uh…we have a baseboard heating system, which is…at the moment—I guess it really depends on the lodger, you know? Some folks like it warm, some folks like it cold, so we get different opinions on the situation all the time. But if it ever became a problem, I’d be more than happy to take a look at it.”

“You do your own heating?”

The woman’s face blanched, and she brushed past me.

“Just wait until you see the kitchenette. The cabinets are a little on the worn-side, but this has a lot more counter space than you’ll see in most apartments at this rate.”

The tour hurried on to the rest of the apartment. It was adequate, I guess. The bedroom had a large crack in the wall, but more floor space than others I’d seen. The shelving in the linen closet was lined with some awful, peeling paper, but I was too surprised by the presence of an extra closet to care. And the bathroom was grimy at best, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t solve in an afternoon with some bleach and a toothbrush. I was hoped so, anyway.

“Well thank you so much for showing me around,” I said tepidly, as we headed back to the main room. “I really appreciate it.”

“Oh no problem at all, not at all,” she said. She slapped my arm lightly. “Although, erm…there is one other thing that—well, technically I do have to tell you.”

I immediately steeled myself for the worst. The price of the building was nice, and most of the problems I could live with. Even a history of mice I could probably live with. But if she was about to drop the c word I was out. Roaches were where I drew the line.

The building manager ruffled her shoulders, raising her eyes to the ceiling as she prepared her words.

“A couple years back, we did experience a certain…incident with one of our tenants.”

“What kind of incident?” I asked, crossing my arms.

“Well, the mortality kind.” She giggled, as if that might soften the blow. “Nothing messy—thank the Lord. Just some poor girl, late twenties. The police said it was self-induced, but of course we didn’t find that out for a few weeks. It had already been a few days when they found her.”

“Found her?” I asked. “You mean she…?”

“Killed herself, yes. Technically. But as I said, it was years ago, and the entire apartment has been redone since.”

I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I thought you said this building hadn’t been refurbished.”

“Oh, refurbished—no. But it has been sanitized and inspected several times since the incident. More than ten! I could even get you a report on that if you’d like.”

“Er—that’s fine.” Ignoring the instinct to cut my losses and hit the pavement again, I cleared my throat. “More than ten inspections? Isn’t that a little excessive?”

In an instant, Jan the Building Manager was clearly full of regret.

“Obviously, our tenant satisfaction is a serious priority. We thought that being thorough…”

“Totally, but—ten? For something that happened years ago?”

She hesitated, and I noticed her eyes trail back to the ceiling.

“We’ve had the occasional complaint about…odd, little things in this particular space.”

“What kind of little things?”

“Just your average old building complaints—drafts, faulty electricity, sounds from the pipes. But with this kind of history, people let it get into their heads, you can understand. All these silly jokes about ghosts and spirits or whatever the PC term is these days.”

I blinked at her.

“Sorry, you’re trying to tell me that this apartment is haunted?”

“Of course not,” Jan the Building Manager laughed, her voice an octave higher. “I’m simply trying to give you some contextual information. I’d rather you get the facts from me than a bunch of whispers from other tenants. And the fact of the matter is that this apartment has been inspected top to bottom repeatedly, and there is nothing about it that couldn’t be fixed with a little TLC.”

That was a bold claim. Jan the Building Manager watched me like a skittish cat, her hands gripping her clipboard with knuckles whiter than the bathroom grout. I stared back, incredulous.

I’d never been particularly superstitious. Bad horror movies aside, I didn’t find the idea of a ghost confined to one apartment all that terrifying. Still, finding out that someone has died exactly where you’re standing is a bit of a reality check. So maybe I was a little shook. But I wasn’t sure what was more shocking—the fact that some poor girl had killed herself, or the fact that so many people had left the apartment because they were convinced her ghost was still raiding the fridge at night.

As I was struggling with that concept, the silence seemed to push Jan the Building Manager to her breaking point.

“Listen, I know that this kind of information can come as a shock. And you’re certainly not the first person to have their reservations about moving into a building with such a long list of complaints—paranormal or otherwise. So I’m going to talk to the realtors, and maybe we can negotiate something a little more enticing, hm?”

She released her clipboard, clicking her pen furiously as she crossed out something on the page. A scribbled note, a final tap, and then she turned the paper toward me once more.

My eyes widened. That was a very nice rent number.

An opportunity was presenting itself, and I wish I could say I just reached out and seized it. But if we’re being honest, it’s more like the opportunity reached out, grabbed my arm, and wrapped my hand around its throat, begging.

“Alright,” said Jan the Building Manager, taking my stunned silence for more supernatural reluctance. She nodded, scribbling again. “How about this?

Well, I wasn’t stupid. Ghosts weren’t real, and my income was pretty limited. The apartment could have been a shithole and I would have taken it for a price like that. Maybe Jan’s desperation should have tipped me off that I was getting into something of a wild situation. Then again, I was also pretty desperate to not be living at home with my parents.

I smiled, and Jan the Building Manager lit up like a holiday light show. She was off in an instant, rambling about the different paperwork and building amenities and how quickly she’d be able to get me a copy of my key. She dragged me back to the hall, and I glanced behind me at the room one more time.

Ghosts, ha. Stupid.


To Be Continued. Possibly.

Diary of 4 AM

I have changed the setting on the fan three times. It was too hot, then too cold, then too hot once more. Now the gentle hum of medium fills the room, filling the empty spaces between my typing.

There are no crickets outside – not exactly. But the silence has taken on a similar sound, to the point where I can no longer discern whether or not that is the true sound of the silence, or a comedic filler my brain is supplying.

There’s also a gentle rumble outside. At first I wonder if it’s thunder; it was raining before after all. But after a few seconds, the change in pitch becomes more distinct. Another descending plane, landing at the airport fifteen minutes away. Hopefully it lands safely. I might be able to hear it if it didn’t.

I run my hands down the face that I forgot to wash, rub my hands over cheeks stinging with barbecue sauce. I had half a sandwich at 8:30, two wild berry Pop-Tarts, and boneless wings at 3 AM. I either eat everything or nothing at all. There is no in between.

My eyelids are growing heavy, but I cannot sleep until I post. Cannot rest until I write. Cannot dream until I finish this diary entry.

That’s what this has become, in essence: a diary. Not a fun place to work on articles, or workshop pieces, or share fiction. Just last minute poetry I’m not fully happy with, and justify by describing it as “full of post-tense emotion.”

How much longer can I keep this up? Not for a paragraph. I’m sure.

 

Fairy Ring

At night it’s worse.

Sometimes it’s after a very long day, or a day where my anger has left me exhausted. Sometimes it’s after hours of feeling nauseous, or feeling my brain pound with a headache. Sometimes, of course, it’s for no reason at all.

I’ll lay awake in bed, and suddenly I can hear absolutely everything. I can hear my pulse in my ear as it’s crammed into the pillow. I can hear the sheets shift when I breathe. I can hear my eyelashes fluttering over the pillowcase, the air whistle in and out of my nose.

The baseboard heating clicks too much when it turns on. The motor in the fridge hums directly below my bedroom. And the clock on the wall is way too loud. Some nights I’ll take it off its mount and lay it in another room. It doesn’t help. I can still hear it.

I can hear the cars on the highway a few miles away. I can hear the late night train as it pulls into the station. There’s a dog on the next street over. A couple of teens driving their golf cart. Some party goers on the stoop of their dorm room.

Somewhere, someone is talking about me. I can’t hear the words, not in language. Just the impossible hum and whistling in my ears. How I can sleep when everything is so loud? Everything all around me at once and it won’t fucking stop for just one fucking minute.

On nights like this, there’s only one solution. I have to trick my body. So I brave the discomfort, and slip in my headphones. I don’t have a boombox anymore, and my laptop can’t play CDs, but I’ve evolved with the times. I pull it up on YouTube, a playlist I’ve made for emergencies, for nights when the sounds are too loud and my thoughts are too strong.

The first chord is a full measure, and even imagining it makes my muscles feel heavy. I don’t even have to hum it, if I’m being honest. I’ve played it so much that my body is trained, Pavlovian conditioning at its finest.

It’s something of a betrayal, isn’t it? To spend every waking moment with your body, day in and day out for years on end, and yet it will never listen to you. I cannot sleep when I want sleep, cannot cure illness when I feel sick, cannot even ask my body to stop clenching my teeth against my will. And yet one note, and my body falls slack.

Mike has gained more trust from my body than I ever have.