Drive-in Saturday

Detective Fiction, Philip J Reed

David Bowie died yesterday. I was tempted to write something about his passing, but, ultimately, I decided instead to post something he’d already inspired me to write: a chapter of my still-unpublished novel, Detective Fiction. You can find a little background on the project here, which may help with context. Every sequence in the story was inspired by at least one piece of music, and Chapter Twenty’s flashback to the time Billy Passwater met a girl whose life he is about to ruin — the calm before the calm before the storm — was inspired by one of Bowie’s. I’m posting it now to share with you, if you’d care to read it. And his passing reminded me, and inspired me, to keep writing. I’ve started another project this very evening, and it’s the first fiction I’ve written in over a year. It’s a productive mourning. Thank you, David.


When he heard from Helena that night, he was in his car outside of the Thornweed house where, as ever, nothing was happening, could happen, or was going to happen. He’d given up on reading about Super-Spider’s self-proclaimed “Love Quest” after the hero — his city in villainous chaos around him — spent an entire comic presenting a didactic lesson on Dating Education to the elementary school children.

Dating Education was meant to precede Sexual Education (or so Chester Kenneth Thornweed explained in one of his increasingly intrusive authorial asides, each of which featured illustrations of himself looking suspiciously fit), and it would teach the children the various skills they needed in order to get close to the boys and girls that they liked. Sexual Education was fine, Super-Spider explained, but how was anybody to get to that point in the first place?

Why Super-Spider was so interested in facilitating sexual contact among grade-schoolers was — thankfully — neither questioned nor discussed. Thornweed even inserted a lesson plan that he had drawn up, consisting of activities, projects, and a 50 question multiple-choice exam with the answers at the back of the comic book.

Billy closed the binder and decided to return this issue, and the pile of other issues he hadn’t read yet, to Thornweed in the morning.

When she called him, his feeling was one of relief. There was something refreshing about her, about seeing her name when the phone rang, about hearing her breathe, “Billy, hey!” when he picked up the phone.

Helena Silvering was a flight attendant he had met years ago in Pittsburgh at a crew tavern called The Landing Strip. He saw her across the room, still in her blue uniform. Her reddish brown hair was done up professionally, and she had the round and chubby cheeks of a teenager, which she had been not long before they met. She was presumably in the company of her fellow hosts and hostesses, and Billy was with Caitlin and her brother, downing a few drinks for the ride home, and he was in the process of conjuring up an excuse to drift her way and steer her someplace quieter when he noticed that her lips were moving…but she was not talking; she was singing along to David Bowie’s “Drive-In Saturday,” which had just started playing on the jukebox, and it looked like she was getting the words right as well, so he stood up and, pretenses be damned, decided to speak to her on that account alone.

She stood up to make it easy on him. They met halfway across the room and she presented herself to be held, and they both told each other what a great song it was, and that was all they said until it was over, moving slowly, hazily drunk against each other, and she felt so temperately cold, as she always would when he touched her, as she always would every time he touched her, and there was something about the sincerity of the night, the conditions and the context of the meeting, that made him behave himself. He kept his hands above her waist…and not that far above. He moved in to kiss her, but did not, and she sighed, because she wanted him to move in to kiss her and then not. It was the closeness she wanted, and that much he could give her, and wanted to keep giving her, and would, every so often, when circumstances and schedules aligned, give her again.

He hadn’t seen her since he moved to Florida, though several times she did get the chance to call him from Tampa, where she’d be waiting for some short period for a flight home, or elsewhere, but timing had yet to work out, and they were never able to meet up for drinks or hasty intercourse.

The thoughts of hasty intercourse were relatively distant in his mind when he answered her call. She was a welcome distraction from assassins, from dead dogs, from blown cover and tall, beautiful blondes who hated and distrusted him. From debt (he’d gotten his first balance statement for the car and wasn’t entirely convinced he’d ever see the amount due decrease). From family old and new, from whatever it was that Andrew and Les, independently, might have thought about him now, at this point, and about where he was going. From his future. From Debbie Indemnity and her fat, soft thighs and the shoe he’d sent her home without, the one he found beneath a lawn chair in the living room, which was where it had come off along with her shirt…he put the shoe in his closet in case she called, which he simultaneously hoped she would and wouldn’t. From Thomas St. Quentin, who must have thought that Billy was the biggest ass in town, and yet who kept paying him for reasons Billy could not understand. From Roger Jackchick’s boy, and the future Billy felt at least somewhat responsible for not being able to salvage. From Rebecca, who was going to come down after his birthday in August…who had already bought her ticket…who was as good as here already and her baby who was as good as here already, too. From decisions he did not want to have to make and decisions he did not want to have anybody make for him…from dreams and from nightmares and from people he was starting to realize that he missed and would never see again…

“Helena,” he said. “Hi.”

“How are you?” she asked. “I feel like it’s been forever.”

“I feel like that, too,” he said. “I’m okay.”

“What are you doing with yourself now?” she asked. “Are you still looking for work?”

“Kind of,” Billy said. “I have a job now. I don’t know. I might not keep it.”

“Listen,” Helena said. “I only have a minute, but I wanted to call you, because I’m going to be in Tampa for a few nights this week. And I was wondering if maybe you’d like to get together.”

“I would like that, Helena,” he said.

She cared about him; that was what Billy was reacting to. This was a human being who genuinely wished him to be happy. She cared about him more deeply than any family member he had known, she desired him more strongly than any of the women with whom he had shared beds, back seats and bathroom stalls, and she wanted to be closer to him than any friend he had had in his life. She was a perfect girl with endless patience and freckles on her chubby cheeks and a smile that made him smile, too.

He’d never, ever be able to love her.

* * *

On Wednesday the seventh she flew in, and Billy picked her up in the employee parking lot, where she was waiting, out of uniform, with a co-pilot who was still in his.

“Billy!” she said as he approached. For the first time in a month, he left his hat in the car. She threw her arms around him, and Billy couldn’t help but notice how big she had gotten. Not…not fat, exactly…but larger, like her mother. (Whom he’d made sure to identify in photographs.) She’d filled out, and then kept going, and it took him a moment to readjust his expectations for the next few nights. Otherwise, she looked very similar to the girl he remembered, the girl with whom he periodically wondered what his future would have looked like. She was wearing only one earbud, and as she embraced him he heard Pete Townshend singing “You Came Back,” from a mixed CD he had curated for her six years and a thousand miles ago. It made him close his eyes. Maybe she was heavy, now. Maybe it didn’t matter…

The man standing beside her was older than Billy by possibly as many as ten years. He was waiting for Billy to introduce himself, which Billy passively refused to do. There were two men here, right now, and the only pretty girl had chosen him to throw her arms around. He was not about to squander that advantage.

“This is Felix,” Helena said, after a moment. She was still holding Billy’s arm.

Now the man stepped forward, and held out his hand for Billy to shake. Billy took a moment to himself before doing so.

“Felix Deckett,” the man said.

“De wonderful, wonderful kett?” said Billy.

“Be nice,” Helena said, smiling. “He’s one of our co-pilots.”

“Co-pilot,” Billy said, nodding. “Got to start somewhere, I guess.”

“If you need anything later,” Felix said to Helena, taking his hand back, “just give me a call. I’m staying in the area.”

“She won’t need anything,” Billy said. “Did I tell you I got a BMW, Helena?”

“No!” she said. “But I saw you pulling in. It’s a convertible!”

“Yeah,” Billy said. Then, to Felix, “Thanks anyway. Good to meet you though.” And he waved the back of his hand at him as he and Helena walked away.

“Helena,” the man said, and Helena told Billy to wait. She went back and spoke to Felix for a moment, and he kept throwing glances that Billy made sure not to look away from. She laughed after a moment, he did not, and she placed a hand on his arm when she finally said goodbye.

“And so it was later,” Billy said as she joined him again. He made sure to look back at Felix, who waved once. Billy turned away. “Have a nice chat?”

“Sorry about that,” she said. “He’s kind of my co-pilot. We fly together a lot, and he gets a little protective.”

“He seems like a dick,” Billy said.

“No,” Helena said, leaning her forehead on his shoulder. “He’s actually very nice. I think you two just got off on the wrong foot.”

“I did alright,” Billy said, unlocking his car. “He was just a dick.”

* * *

They got into the vehicle, Billy started the engine, and Helena leaned over to kiss him. He held her back for a moment so that he could look into her eyes, and search out that same young girl, the anonymous airhostess in the short blue uniform, underappreciated Bowie lyrics on her lips, and the beat of his band in the tips of her toes. He wanted to see her again, as he saw her then, with his face in her hair and the cool warmth of her neck against him, the smell of daiquiris on her breath, the gentle hum of her breathing, like a soft and constant engine in the distance, speeding a fleet of passengers along into a future they thought — all of them thought — they could comprehend. They’d be wrong. They had to be wrong. Because sometimes the future was the past, and sometimes the future was now, because all he had was now, and days couldn’t last forever, and words couldn’t make wishes come true, as the song went, or basically went, and he pulled her in and he kissed her and he told her that he loved her, because that was what he wanted to believe and because that was what she wanted to hear, and she closed her eyes, and he kept kissing her, and he tasted salt from her quiet tears, and he buried himself in her face and her body and her presence, and shut the world out…the entire world…piece by piece, until there was nothing left.

Only him, and only her.

And in time, he knew, that would be all he needed.

ALF Reviews: “Fever” (season 4, episode 12)

Season four had two episodes that I was actually looking forward to. One of them was “Mind Games,” which shouldn’t surprise you at all because that was a Dr. Dykstra episode, and I tend to like those. (That tendency was broken with “Mind Games.”) The other was “Fever,” simply because its premise was solid: ALF contracts a common Earth cold…but since he’s not from Earth, he ends up in real danger.*

Obviously, this opens up a lot of reliable avenues for comedy; how many sitcoms have you seen about one of the characters lying around sick, driving the others crazy with his/her requests? It’s a common plotline because there’s a lot that you can do with it, and because it relies on character interaction…interaction which is specific to each show. (Frasier Crane’s cold is going to go differently from Larry Appleton’s, not only because of who these characters are, but because of the characters they’re surrounded by.)

Of course, ALF doesn’t have any characters, and nobody on the planet knows that better than I do, so that’s not what got my hopes up. What got my hopes up is the fact that ALF’s extra-terrestrial origins provide this episode with another chance to explore something that we take for granted.

And, yes, this show has had that opportunity dozens of times by this point, and it’s whiffed on nearly all of them. But “Fever” has something unique on its side: biology. Almost all of the show’s previous explorations of Earth-life were handled through the filter of culture. Christmas, Halloween, birthdays, funerals…erm…soap operas…magic teeth…? I don’t know. This show sucks.

Biology, though? We’re in much better shape there, because it’s involuntary. It doesn’t matter if ALF wants to deliver a standup routine, because it’s not his brain or mouth that will be reacting to this aspect of life on Earth; it’s his body. He has no choice but to make us see the common cold through a new filter…and that’s interesting to me. The writers are being handed an opportunity that they will have to actively work to fuck up.

I’m…setting myself up for disappointment, aren’t I?

“Fever,” additionally, wins me over by sheer virtue of being named after the single sexiest song in all of popular music. (You can pry my lust for Peggy Lee from my cold, dead hands.) So, hey, even if it sucks a dick, I get a pretty great song stuck in my head. Small comfort, I know, but that’s way more than I usually get out of this show.

Oh, and, the end of this episode puts us halfway through the season. So, at the very least, we have that to thank it for.

“Fever” starts out with one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen in this show. Willie’s starting up the grill in the back yard, and ALF gooses him in the side with a pair of tongs.

Big deal, right? ALF is always fucking around with people.

Well, in this case, it’s different because Willie looks at him and chuckles. For the first time ever, ALF’s annoyance actually seems well received by another person. Some little smile or laugh makes all the difference, because usually when ALF jabs something deep into Willie the latter makes an angry face, or yells, or fumbles for his crack pipe. Whatever you do or don’t think of Willie, that makes ALF look like an asshole.

But when the Willie doesn’t seem to loathe the joke, it changes everything. It actually seems…nice. And believable. I like that.

Then there’s some crap where we learn that ALF ate all the raw meat and there’s nothing left for anyone, so I’m really hoping we get another one of those great descriptions of ALF shitting in the tub later.

Then there’s an unexpected storm, which cancels the barbecue over Willie’s protestations.

It’s actually not a bad opening sequence. It does three different things (Willie setting up the grill, ALF eating all the meat, the storm) in just about a minute of screentime, making it pretty efficient, and giving the episode a lot to work with.

It’s a good start.

ALF, "Fever"

Then it’s not the start anymore, and it stops being good.

The intro credits give way to the family running into the house, wondering if they brought everything inside. It turns out they forgot Willie, who is pinned under the barbecue grill. If you guessed this is because ALF tipped it over on him, congratulations; you are still alive.

Fine, whatever, ALF is sentient dickcheese. I don’t even care anymore. What I do care about is how much of a fucking asshole Willie is when he comes inside. Kate runs over to make sure he’s okay, and he yells at her that he was “flailing around” and nobody helped. Since he knows ALF is the one who tipped the grill on him, he has no reason to be upset at Kate. He knows she didn’t even see that happen; he’s the one telling her about it. Then she brings him a towel to dry himself with, and he snatches it away from her with such violence that I’m pretty sure he considered busting her on the jaw just to remind her of her place.

He’s pretty mean to her here, and I have no idea why, as she’s the only one trying to help him. What a sack of assholes this guy.

Willie then waves away her concern for his health by saying that it’s an old wives’ tale that people get sick in the rain. In fact, he was just reading a study about that in his scientific journals (which all good social workers subscribe to; why didn’t they make Willie a lab technician or something, again?), which conclusively proved that people subjected to rapid temperature changes were no more likely to get sick than the control group that never experienced them.

If you guessed that Willie’s speech is interrupted when he starts sneezing uncontrollably, congratulations; you are still alive.

ALF, "Fever"

Roger Ebert observed once (and I have to paraphrase as I can’t remember the exact quote) that if somebody coughs early in a film, the sickness will likely be fatal by the end. The same observation could apply to sitcoms; we sneeze all the time in real life, but if someone does it even once during TGIF you know they’ll be laid up for the rest of the episode.

ALF, "Fever"

Sure enough, the next scene sees Willie in bed, and his loving wife whom he hates brings him some tissues and a bowl of his favorite soup, cream of crack. He says that he appreciates the way she’s been putting up with him while he’s sick, and she says, clearly joking, “You can’t help it. You’re a man.”

Which causes Willie to pause, take a breath, and say, “I’ll just ignore that.”

Willie, you fuckfart. Some obvious, gentle ribbing from your wife gets this stern, condescending rejoinder? Do you have any clue how much shit comes out of your mouth that she clearly ignores on an hourly basis? What about the previous scene in which you screamed at her for something you knew wasn’t her fault, and ripped a towel out of her hands while she was trying to help? If Kate said “I’ll just ignore that” every time you were a cunt to her, she’d never have any other lines.

Then ALF comes in and he starts sneezing, which means…

ALF, "Fever"


So, yeah, there’s like four minutes of this “strange bedfellow” bullshit. It’s basically just them saying how much they hate each other and then making goo-goo eyes at the camera. At one point ALF rips an implicitly nasty fart and fans it all over the room with the blanket.

I’ve never had anything less to say, and that’s probably due to the fact that I want to get away from the above screengrab as quickly as possible.

There is one part when ALF says that he’d rather have a feather pillow, because he hates foam. And since we watched the “A Mid-Goomer Night’s Dream” episode of ALF: The Animated Series for the Xmas Bash!!! so recently, I know that’s bullshit. The Goomer used to bring everyone on Melmac foam every year. He was their Santa Claus, and that was their gift. Not that I give too much of a shit about continuity between the two shows (the only thing important to me is that all of the characters from the cartoon are dead now and won’t be coming back) but I figured I’d bring it up.

Hey, as long as I’m making stray observations: remember when we met Lynn’s friend Joanie in “Live and Let Die”? I commented then that I’d rather have her added to the cast than Willie’s horny little brother, but God hates us and that wasn’t to be.

Well, I had to refer back to my review of “Lies” recently and noticed that the girl Lynn speaks to on the phone is Joanie…and she was counseling her there about a recent breakup as well, just like she did in “Live and Let Die.” So not only was she referred to before we met her, but in both cases we get a sense that she hops from relationship to relationship, and Lynn’s role is keeping her centered.

That’s a name, a face, and a character trait…at least one thing more than most characters on this show get. I wonder if she originally was meant to be a recurring character, perhaps in those mythical Monday scripts that apparently made a lot more sense and were funnier than any of the crap that ended up being filmed.

In some alternate universe we ended up with Joanie in the cast instead of Jim J. Bullock. I can think of at least three reasons I’d rather live there, and only one of them involves the toga.

ALF, "Fever"

We get an establishing shot that ensures us that we’re one week further away from imagining ALF and Willie feverishly grinding their bodies together in tormented sleep. Now ALF is the only one sick, and we get our standard “bothering everyone with requests” jokes. He sent Kate to the store, for instance, to buy him all manner of shit to help him feel better and keep from getting bored. Then he calls Willie out to adjust and fluff his pillow, which Willie does with comic violence.

Here’s why that’s interesting: it’s deserved.

See, the whole sickness thing came about because of ALF. ALF tipped the grill onto Willie, ALF hung around while Willie was sick, and now ALF is pissing everyone off with his demanding behavior. So when Willie lashes out at him here, it’s after at least a week’s worth of direct irritation, illness, and inconvenience.

So that’s fine. That works. ALF caused this shit, and Willie’s over it.

But compare that to his earlier lashing out at Kate, when she had nothing to do with anything, and the worst thing that happened was that he got rained on for a little while. His pillow-fluffing violence is played the same as his towel-snatching violence.

Max Wright either doesn’t know how to or doesn’t care to moderate his performance. He could be snippy in either case, but there’s a clear difference in snippiness between what Kate should have received and what ALF receives here. To Wright it’s all the same, which makes Willie look like a fucking asshole.


Two days later ALF is doing worse. Kate is concerned for him, but Willie is convinced he’s faking it for attention. (His training as a social worker has clearly conditioned him to expect that everyone’s problems are made up and should be ridiculed.)

Then he feels ALF’s forehead and realizes that he’s burning up. He then apologizes, which is fine, but did this moron never think to feel his forehead at any point in the past week and a half?

Willie takes Kate into the kitchen and asks if she’s seen War of the Worlds, because he knows the writers on this show haven’t had an original idea yet and they’re sure as hell not starting now. His concern is that ALF has no natural defenses to a common Earth virus, and will die. Then he beats Kate for several minutes until the commercial break.

And, once again, I like the idea that a relatively harmless Earth virus has more serious repercussions for ALF. But here’s the problem: we never actually find out that it’s dangerous to ALF’s life or safety. It’s just a guess, and it’s a guess rooted entirely in what Willie knows is a work of fiction. He saw it in a movie, this is kind of vaguely, tenuously, possibly sorta similar to a detail from that movie, and now he’s in a panic.

It’s bizarre. To put this in more human terms, this would be like Lynn eating an apple and then falling asleep, causing Willie to conclude, without an ounce of doubt, that this is the work of the witch from Snow White.

It’s fucking ridiculous.

So, yeah, I love that ALF’s life is in danger. (Do I ever!) But I wish that the danger was established by something other than Willie’s distant memories of something he saw on The Million Dollar Movie.

ALF, "Fever"

When we return, Willie calls a Dr. Kramer, and introduces himself as “Wooly Tanner.” It’s not a joke; it’s something that should have been reshot after Max Wright cleared the mashed potatoes out of his throat. But since Paul Fusco wasn’t the one who looked like an idiot, it didn’t get a second take.

Throughout the conversation Willie has his hand partly inside his shirt, like Napoleon. I have no idea why, aside from the obvious fact that nobody cared about anything anymore.

He reports ALF’s symptoms to Dr. Kramer — pretending they’re his own — and I like this aspect of it.

When ALF had emotional issues, Willie could call on his friend Dr. Dykstra. For whatever reason he knew he could trust Dykstra, which meant the family had someone with the proper knowledge and training to help them through whatever problems ALF was having.

Now, though, it’s a biological issue, and Willie doesn’t seem to have a general practitioner friend. That means ALF can’t get the treatment he needs, and the family has to figure out some way to solve it otherwise.

It’s a nice development, and very natural to the setup of the episode and the series as a whole.

The doctor tells him not to worry; there’s a bug going around. Which is believable (aside from the fact that Willie managed to get an actual doctor on the line, and not a receptionist). Coughing and sneezing usually aren’t anything to worry about, and if there’s something going around it’s likely that a doctor would shrug you off. He’d tell you to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and call if it gets worse. There’s no reason to panic over something that people experience regularly.

…except that ALF isn’t people, the doctor doesn’t know that, and Willie can’t tell him that.

I like this part. And I like that Kate is making ALF soup. “His favorite,” she says. “Cream of pizza.”

There are a lot of cool little ideas in this one…I just wish they came together to create a better episode.

ALF, "Fever"

The kids come into the kitchen to report that ALF is doing worse. Well, Lynn reports it. Brian’s well into his second week without a line. And Eric doesn’t even exist.**

Then ALF enters the room and briefly collapses with some pretty great puppetry. They help him up and he shows them a picture of Carl Shrub that he found in one of their reference books.

Carl Shrub was the herb in Melmacian diets that gave them their immunity to viruses. See, Melmacians never got sick, at all, and Melmacian scientists suspected it was due to all the Carl Shrub they ate.

The family identifies Carl Shrub as ragweed. Which is convenient both for ALF and for the show, the former because it’s easy to find, and the latter because we get to make fun of the Ochmoneks for being poor and slobby.

ALF, "Fever"

Willie and Kate try to sneak around the Ochmoneks’ property to harvest ragweed, but speak too loudly about how fucking fat and awful and stinky and ugly their neighbors are, so they get caught. Also Max Wright does some really annoying pratfall over a garden gnome.

It sucks dick.

Mr. Ochmonek comes out brandishing a hoe because he thinks he’s being burgled. At the last moment he sees that it’s actually Willie and Kate, and then knowingly and happily beats them to death.

ALF, "Fever"

…no, he just listens to them make excuses about why they’re standing in his yard at night, loudly making fun of him and his shitty wife. They claim to have come over to weed for them, and they start pulling ragweed.

It’s not a bad excuse, and it moves the plot along. But then Mrs. Ochmonek comes out and her husband explains that they’re weeding the garden. Mrs. Ochmonek shakes her head and says, “Oh, please.”

The studio audience laughs and we fade to the next scene, so I guess that was the punchline. But fucked if I have any idea what the joke was.

Any guesses from you guys? Maybe they don’t have a garden, and therefore Mrs. Ochmonek knows their excuse is bullshit. But then why would her husband believe them? Surely he’d also know that they don’t have a garden.

I give up.

ALF, "Fever"

Back at the house ALF has the air conditioner cranked up, and Kate is baking ragweed per his instructions. Which…okay. When ALF said that he had ragweed (erm…Carl) in his diet on Melmac, I assumed it was something used in other dishes. You know, like a seasoning or a garnish or something. Instead I guess they just baked fistfuls of it and ate that? And what if someone on Melmac didn’t like the taste? Or was allergic to it? Then could they get sick?

ALF said earlier that Melmacian scientists (enjoy imagining that) weren’t certain that a Carl-rich diet was responsible for their immunity; they were just pretty sure that was the reason.

But wouldn’t that have been pretty easy to prove one way or the other? Just as Willie alluded to an experiment earlier about subjecting a group of test subjects to extreme temperature changes to see if that made them sick, couldn’t Melmacian scientists have performed their own experiment in which one group was given Carl-free meals for a few weeks to see if they became ill? Ideally they’d believe they were still eating Carl, so that the scientists could rule out the placebo effect.

On the one hand I shouldn’t be surprised that a planet full of selfish morons like ALF should have been a bit sloppy with their scientific research, but at the same time they mastered space travel and nuclear fission to the point that they were far beyond Earth in those regards. They can’t have been totally idiotic. Those aren’t advancements you stumble upon with a lucky guess. So why were they shrugging and saying, “Keep eating ragweed, I guess”?

I. Give. Up.

Anyway, they ask what to do with the ragweed, and ALF says that some of them used to stick it in brownies and take them to Stanley Kubrick movies.

Man, season four sure loves its drug abuse jokes, doesn’t it? Also: Fucking Melmac had Stanley Kubrick movies. I GIVE UP.

ALF, "Fever"

Brian and Lynn come in, with Benji Gregory getting to announce that they bought some ice for him. Damn. I was really hoping he was going to be inexplicably silent until the show was cancelled.

Lynn tells ALF that if his fever doesn’t break they’ll dunk him in a tub of cold water, to which ALF replies that if they get his nutsack cold they’re “gonna hear one heck of a Little Richard impression.”


Anyway, ALF gets sicker so he starts doing racist impressions of Japanese people, a propos of absolutely god-damned nothing.

ALF, "Fever"

Willie and Kate decide to forcefeed him ragweed, which I’m pretty sure has been my solution to this whole ALF problem since episode one. Then there’s some really shitty attempt at physical comedy as she tries to get him to eat from a clearly empty ladle.

This show is fucking terrible. If the ladle is empty, why shoot it so close up? Why go out of your way to let everyone see how half-assed your sitcom is? Shoot it from further away, you dumbasses! Pick a different angle! Do anything to make me believe you give a shit!

ALF, "Fever"

In the next scene he’s all better, and he bitches that there’s no pesto to go with his chocolate turkey.

He then says he’s going to market the ragweed cure through his new company. He even belabors his own jokes, making sure that we all know that the name of this company — Shumway — is a riff on Amway. ALFusco, you need to rewrite your jokes if you keep having to explain why they’re funny.

Anyway, Kate tells him that ragweed makes most Earthlings sick, so ALF punches Willie in the balls.

ALF, "Fever"

In the short scene before the credits, ALF sets the back yard on fire. Why not.

“Fever” wasn’t a terrible episode, which instantly makes it the second best of season four. But I can’t say there’s much to recommend this one aside from its basic premise.

Oh, and its title. Go listen to that song 15 times. It’ll be a much better use of your half hour. Anyway, I’m out of here. I’m singing “Tutti Frutti” at karaoke tonight and I need to ice down my scrotum.

Countdown to ALF becoming an ex-alien in front of the Tanners: 12 episodes

MELMAC FACTS: Melmacians never got sick, due to an “immunity” they gained from eating Carl Shrub, which we know as ragweed. Also: Fucking Melmac had Stanley Kubrick movies. I GIVE UP.

* Both this and “Mind Games” were apparently holdovers from season three. Read into that coincidence as much as you like.
** Back into the womb with you, kid; we’re doing a season three story again!

Fallout 4 and My Ethical Shitstorm

Graygarden Homestead

So, I finished Fallout 4 recently. There’s at least one more post I’ll be writing about it — also on the subject of ethics — but if you’re curious as to my opinion: it was pretty great. A bit of a mixed bag, as in some senses it represents Bethesda’s best work on the series, and in other senses it represents far and away their worst.

But there are plenty of discussions about the game’s quality going on right now, and I really don’t care to join them. I left game reviewing for a reason, not least because it allows me to actually have fun with games again. If they’re lousy but I still find them enjoyable, I can spend my time with them. If they’re technically great but not really up my alley, I’m free to ignore them.

In short, I can get back to what I like to play, and play it when I want to play it. That’s good, because I’ve read in some history books that video games used to be a source of fun for people. How nice to catch a glimpse of that distant past!

Anyway, one of the things that I’ve loved about the Fallout series, going all the way back to the first game, is the ethical wringer it puts you through. In fact, as much as I like to play a “good guy” character in those games, the first Fallout successfully stressed me into behaving badly. As the days counted down and I was running out of time to find a water chip, I found one in the ghoul town of Necropolis. But the residents there needed it to stay alive; their pump was broken. They offered to let me have the chip if I fixed the pump for them…

…which was something I couldn’t do. I could try to get my Repair skill higher or find the parts I needed, but I very likely wouldn’t live long enough to do so. My life, like the lives of everyone waiting for the water chip in Vault 13, was in danger now, and I didn’t have the time to spare.

So I stole their water chip and got the hell out of there. My problem became their problem, quite literally. I passed the hot potato and tried my best to forget that this ever happened. (The poor ghouls would have no such luxury of forgetting.)

Fallout 4, though, was pretty sadly free of ethical dilemmas. You always had the choice of who to kill or who not to kill, who to side with or who to side against, but those aren’t dilemmas; they’re just options. A true dilemma comes from something like my situation in Necropolis, when I could let one group of innocents stay alive, or sabotage their survival to keep a different group alive.

There’s no right answer. There’s a moral answer, but not necessarily a right one.

Toward the end of the game, though, Fallout 4 stranded me in a situation I didn’t expect. It may not even have been intentional, as I only ended up in it because I failed to talk my way into an alternate solution. But for the first and only time in the game, I felt genuinely conflicted. And I still do.

Spoilers follow, but they’re pretty minor ones. This is your warning.

Years ago I took The Moral Sense Test after reading about it in The Three-Pound Enigma. I recommend both the test and the book strongly.

In the years that it’s been refined since, the Moral Sense Test might be a lot different than I remember, but its objective was to place the test-taker in situations of increasingly complex ethical obligations, for the sake of studying their reactions.

For instance, in one situation you’d see a train about to crash into a boulder on the track. You’re operating the switchbox, and can throw to lever to cause the train to change tracks, missing the boulder and saving the lives of everyone on board.

Do you throw the switch?

Well, yes. Clearly you do. Ethically, that is your obligation.

So the test ramps up the complexity from there. Let’s say that if you throw that switch, the train will hit a cow on the other track. The lives of everyone on the train will be saved, but the cow will die.

Maybe the solution is still easy, so let’s say it’s not a cow, but a human child whose foot is caught in the tracks. Now do you throw the switch?

Let’s say it’s not a boulder, but it’s a group of 20 people. Throwing the switch saves them, but at the cost of the lives of the 10 people who are standing on the other track. Sure, 10 is fewer than 20, but can you ethically kill 10 people who would have been safe otherwise to save 20 who were naturally in danger?

…and things got even hazier from there. It was a great test. If you enjoy being driven insane, take it. (Oh, and you’d also be helping the researchers out a great deal, as well.)

Fallout 4, through a quirk, plopped me in the middle of a small-scale Moral Sense Test. And I still don’t know if I made the right decision.

At one point in the story, you discover an organization known as The Institute. Up until this point you’ve heard horror stories about them. You’ve seen the damage their technology has done. You’ve seen the fear in the faces of the people you meet. You’ve heard the rumors of The Institute’s enemies disappearing…and innocent people being replaced by robotic substitutes. Deliberately or not, The Institute has become emblematic of everything the residents of the Wasteland fear.

Then you find The Institute yourself, and you can hear them out. Their methods are flawed, certainly, but you may conclude that they’re also necessary. Many friends of mine played the game and chose to side with them, deciding that the ends justified the means, with The Institute being a terrible force that was still humanity’s best hope.

I didn’t decide that. I threw my hat in with The Railroad, a small, underground (literally) group of agents working to take The Institute down.

No real ethical issues here; just a choice. Do you think The Institute is humanity’s best hope? Side with them. Do you think it’s not? Side with The Railroad. Simple.*

I sided with The Railroad. And since I had visited The Institute and lived to talk about it, they had a great asset in me: I could work undercover. Whatever they needed done within Institute walls, I could come and go as I pleased. It was a win all around, so I kept doing quests on behalf of The Railroad, bringing The Institute down piece by piece. All I had to do was follow Railroad instructions while paying Institute lip service.

Again, a choice; not a dilemma.

Then, all at once, The Railroad had nothing for me to do. Or, to be more clear, they had plenty for me to do, but they had to bide their time. It was important that I stay in the good graces of The Institute, so they told me to keep working with it. That was my only mission; keep helping The Institute until I received further instructions.

It had to seem like I was siding with The Institute, which raised, gradually, the question of how long you can pretend to be something without becoming that something…a question of well-intentioned infiltration that Kurt Vonnegut explored beautifully in Mother Night.**

How thoroughly can you aid the Axis without becoming a villain yourself, even if you’re doing so in the name of the Allies? How is leaking intelligence to the good guys more important than the fact that you’re gathering it for the bad guys?

It’s a deep and impossible question to answer, even though it’s a fascinating one to explore.

My ethical dilemma came when The Institute asked me to track down a scientist it wished to draft for their cause. Easy enough, except that when I got there, there was a standoff in progress. The scientist was holed up in the destroyed shack you see above. Institute troops were there, ready to drag him off kicking and screaming.

Ethics check: is it worth forcing this innocent man into the hands of the enemy in order to stay in the enemy’s good graces? Is his happiness — and potentially his life — worth my chance to win this war?

To my mind, yes. It was worth it.

Sadly, it wasn’t that simple.

Another group known as The Minutemen showed up to protect the man from The Institute. The Minutemen were a small militia that existed because I helped it to exist. I built it. It was a defunct organization that I resurrected; a loose group of armed survivors who traveled the Wasteland, responding to calls of distress, and helping those who needed it the most.

My precious Railroad — my ethical compass — was far away in a basement somewhere. It was a choice only I could make, and I had to make it now. I could side with The Institute and not only drag this guy away but make enemies of The Minutemen, or I could side with The Minutemen, protect this guy, and make premature enemies of The Institute.

The game offered me a peaceful solution. It almost always does, if you can pass a speech challenge. Fortunately I’d built a character who was great at weaseling his way out of things, so I tried to convince the scientist to go peacefully with The Institute.

The speech challenge failed. He was terrified. He didn’t want to go, and The Minutemen were there to help him.

Then I tried to convince The Minutemen to stand down.

That speech challenge failed, too. My silver tongue meant nothing to them when compared to the terrified scientist’s screams for help.

There wasn’t another way out. I could fight The Institute’s troops, or I could fight The Minutemen. If I fought The Institute I’d kill a bunch of bad guys, but lose the chance to defeat them for good. If I fought The Minutemen I’d kill a bunch of good guys — the exact same good guys I’d inspired to become good guys — just to keep up appearances.

I had a robotic companion with me. Codsworth; one of only two characters in the game that remembers you from before the war. From before the world changed. From when you used to be another person entirely.

I tried everything to find another way out.

There was no other way out.

It was a standoff. There was going to be gunfire. I had to choose a side.

I pulled out my pistol and killed The Minutemen. They weren’t even hostile to me. Their names were in green, signifying that they were friendly. They saw me as an ally. And why wouldn’t they? I’d inspired them to fight for truth, justice, and the American way…and then I killed them because I had to keep up a lie.

A little notification appeared on the screen. “Codsworth hated that.”

I hated it, too, Codsworth. I still do.

The Institute dragged their scientist away to his new fate. At my feet were the bodies of good and brave men who died at my hand, for doing what I told them it was right to do.

I’ve played a lot of video games over the years, but never before had one made me feel so alone.

* There are other factions to choose from, so I’m deliberately simplifying things here, but, ultimately, the choice is to side with or against The Institute. The other factions all take an oppositional role.

** Read it if you haven’t. It’s Vonnegut’s best, and one of my favorites.

It’s Just Another Year

New Year

It’s just another year. 2015, 2016, 2014. What’s the difference, really?

Probably nothing. It happens. December 31 is one day, January 1 is the next day. There’s no significance aside from whatever we decide to give it.

Big deal.

But…here we are. Celebrating — or at least acknowledging — it anyway. And it’s difficult to resist looking back at what the previous year has been. People say it’s better to look ahead to the next. It probably is. That doesn’t really change anything; nobody knows how things will work out.

2015, if you’d like to know, was one of the most difficult I’ve ever had. I try hard not to turn this into a personal blog, and, largely, I succeed at that. There’s no reason to keep that stuff out of here — it’s my site, after all — but I like the fact that I can turn to Noiseless Chatter as an escape. As something apart from whatever else it is I’m dealing with at the time…even if I inevitably have to go back to it.

A new year is a new year. It means nothing and feels like it should mean everything. When 2015 started, I was in probably the best situation I’ve ever been in. About halfway through, that changed, and I was probably in the worst. Month to month, week to week, day to day, you never really know what to expect. A few years back I made all the wrong decisions and ended up in a very bad place. No surprise there. This year I made all the right ones…and ended up in a very bad place anyway.

What’s the moral? What’s the lesson? Why bother? Isn’t it easier to be a shit? A miser? A pain in the ass? If you end up in the same place…why do it the hard way? Why put your trust in people? Why hope for anything? Why work for anything?

It’s all fleeting. At best you find what you wanted and keep it until you die. More likely you don’t hold onto it that long, or don’t find it at all. In the end, does it matter?

Of course it matters.

Of course it matters, and it matters because you don’t know how things will work out. I started last year high, found myself low. But you know what? I ended it in a good place again. Just as things can pivot and change for the worst tomorrow, they can pivot again the day after that.

Everybody’s going to experience their ups and downs. Bad things will happen to good people and good things will happen to bad people. So why bother being good? Because when you’re good, you deserve those good things. And when you’re good and bad things happen to you, people will be there to help. That’s the difference. It’s not karma or any kind of cosmic balance that’s gone askew. It’s life. And you’re going to go through the worst things imaginable, no matter who you are. The difference is that if you’re good, people will be there to help you through those times. And if you’re good, you’ll be there to help them as well.

This year won’t be any easier than the last. It might even be a little harder, for all of us. We’re all older. Our metabolism is slowing down. We’re closer to grey hair, or no hair. We’re closer to death.

2015 is over, and none of us are getting it back. If we had a shit year and want to try again, too bad. If we had a great year, too bad. It’s gone.

Do something this year.

I don’t care what it is. Nobody but you should care what it is. Do something.

If it costs money, spend the money. If it costs time, invest the time. Because this is it. Whatever amount of time you have left on this planet, it’s decreasing. That arrow only points in one direction.

Figure it out. There’s something that will make you happy. What is it? What’s stopping you from getting there? Figure it out. Now. Do it. There will never be a better time. There will be less time, but never a better time.

We live in a scary world. We live in a confusing world. Above all, we live in a world that has no interest in our personal definitions of fairness.

Figure out what you want to do, and do it. Do it for you. Nobody else in the world is going to do it for you, so do it for yourself.

Maybe the thing you need is really getting rid of something else you don’t need. Something holding you back or breaking your spirit or slowing you down. Maybe getting rid of that thing will hurt somebody you don’t want to hurt. Maybe that’s still for the best.

One day you’ll die, and that’ll be it. The things you did are the things you did, and the things you didn’t do you will never do. If you died tomorrow, would you be satisfied? Why not? What haven’t you done? Why aren’t you doing it? How can you get to the point that you’re doing it?

Do it. One day you will die, and the odds are good that it won’t be on your own terms. It won’t be when you’re ready. It won’t wait for you to get around to that thing you’ve always meant to get around to.

There’s something out there that you want. Go get it. If it’s not something that will impress anyone else, or is important to anyone else, good news: it’s your life. You’re doing it for you.

Do it for you.

It’s just another year. 2016, 2017, 2015. What’s the difference, really?

Probably nothing. It happens. December 31 is one day, January 1 is the next day. There’s no significance aside from whatever we decide to give it.

So give it some significance. New Year’s Day is, if nothing else, a very useful reminder of how quickly an entire year of your life slipped away.

Make it a big deal.