On the passing of my mentor, Stephen Dunn

I was devastated to learn this morning of the recent passing of Stephen Dunn. To many, he was a name in poetry collections. To others, of course, he was a friend. To me, he was a mentor.

I’ve had the good fortune of being encouraged in my writing for just about my entire life. Teachers and colleagues and friends all encouraged me in my work. I was told that I was good, then I was told that I was very good, and at some point I started to believe it. By the time I enrolled at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey (it’s a university now), 22 years ago, I was already a writer.

Not really, but that’s the answer I would have given you if you’d asked.

Stockton had a top-notch literature faculty. I am confident that that fact has not changed. But Stephen Dunn was its crown jewel. He was a celebrated poet, and he taught writing workshops. I was told many times to take one of them, and I did as soon as I could. They were small courses — around eight students — and they met for single four-hour sessions each week. I made several lifelong friends in that workshop. I am pretty sure I also made the best friend I’ve ever had.

And I found my mentor in Dunn himself.

Previously, I’d been supported in my craft by folks who complimented me, encouraged me, inspired me to continue. There is, obviously, value in that.

Dunn supported me by doing what others should have done sooner: He challenged me.

I say others should have done it sooner because I wasn’t prepared for this. I took challenge as an affront. And, as he was a perceptive human being and an accomplished writer himself, I’m confident in saying he knew I would take it that way.

Dunn would weed out students who didn’t belong in his workshops. That may sound harsh but I don’t believe it was. I remember the class consisting of a certain number of students on day one, and a smaller number on day two. He met with us individually, and some of us didn’t come back. I assume this is because students ended up taking the workshop for no reason other than to earn credit hours, and that’s not what the workshop was for.

The workshop wasn’t for those who dabbled. The workshop was for writers who needed to grow.

He never once suggested that I leave the class, but he also never once let my writing get away with its weaknesses. He would discuss — in front of everybody — what I did wrong. Where my language fell apart. Where I reached for a conclusion without finding one. Where I told without showing. Where a joke fell flat. Where a story started or ended at the wrong point. He wasn’t picking on me. This was the format of the class. We would all “workshop” each other’s stories, with the only real rule being that the authors of those stories could not speak until the workshopping was complete.

I remember seething. I remember being ready to pounce on every criticism. I remember wanting to explain why they were wrong as readers and I was right as an author.

Then it would be my turn to speak, and I’d have nothing to say. Because they weren’t wrong. For the first time, and thanks to Dunn, I was able to see not just that I had failed my readers, but exactly how I had failed them, and to what degree, every single time it happened. That was a gift beyond value.

It was a painful gift, but a necessary one. The encouragement I’d received in the past was nice, but it didn’t help me to grow. People focused on what I did right and made me feel good about it. Dunn, I truly believed, sensed my mindset, understood it, and worked to help me see my own flaws. He didn’t need to do that. We could have read my stories and moved on. But we didn’t.

At times I felt as though I were being unfairly singled out. Stories that were clearly lesser than mine were getting less scrutiny. Writers who slapped something together an hour before the class got a superficial reading and no more. My stories were discussed and dissected and ripped apart before my eyes.

It’s easy now to see that this was an enormous compliment. The fact that he gave my stories the spotlight that he did was not an insult. It was not an excuse to trample them. It was an opportunity for them — and for me — to develop. Other stories got less scrutiny because there was less to scrutinize. They received less effort because the writer had invested less effort.

I gave my stories a tremendous amount of effort. He knew that. I also thought I was a really fucking good writer. He knew that, too.

But if I wanted to think of myself as a really fucking good writer, he was going to correct me. And so he gave me a choice: Either I actually become a really fucking good writer, or I shut my mouth about it.

It was up to me. I could do either. If I wanted to take the easy way out, nobody would have judged me or ever thought about me again. If I wanted to actually become what I thought I already was, he would help me.

And so he did. He did so by stripping my work down to its component pieces — in front of an audience — and showing us everything that misfired. He offered suggestions, yes, but he never dictated solutions. There was no one way to write a story correctly, but there were a handful of ways to write them incorrectly. He painstakingly dismantled everything I did and handed me the pieces and told me to put it back together again…only he wanted it to work this time.

It wasn’t an approach that worked for everybody. A few more students left the class. I have a feeling that happened every semester. They probably thought they were really fucking good writers, too. And though the class ended at about 10 pm and many of us had work in the morning, I think various smaller groups of students congregated after every session to blow off steam.

“Can you believe he said that?” would be more or less the sum of our conversation, repeated dozens of times until we were too tired to stay awake. I think all of us understood that there was value in the experience — we kept coming back, didn’t we? — but it felt good to pretend we didn’t, to embrace the perceived affront, to do our impressions of Dunn and laugh. (Joke’s on you, you soft-spoken, deeply intelligent man.)

That was probably the hardest period of my life as a writer, because I was made to wonder if I should even be a writer. I mean, I knew I should. Of course I fucking knew I should. I’d been writing since I was around 10 years old, and seriously so since I was around 16. I knew what I was doing. I was good at this. This was all I had. If I weren’t good at this…if I were wrong and I actually weren’t a writer…

…what was left for me?

I remember one specific story that I wrote, which was absolutely destroyed in the workshop. It was called “Strength in Numbers,” and I certainly hope nobody still has a copy of it.

It was beyond salvage. Well, maybe not. Maybe an actual writer could have salvaged it. But me? No. It was very clear that I was not the person to restore this thing to life. Better to bury it in the yard and feign ignorance when the police started asking questions about where it was.

But that wasn’t an option, short of dropping the class.

We were responsible for taking one of the stories we’d written and shepherding it through to the end of the semester. We’d share a draft with the group, rewrite it, and then reveal the final product, improved for all of their feedback.

“Strength in Numbers” might be improved (hey, how could it not be, right?) but it certainly wasn’t going to be anything worth showing off. So I gathered up what little was left of my dignity and I sat down and decided not to rework my failure after all.

I wrote a different story under the same name, which itself was about a story called “Strength in Numbers” and the author who, despite his frustrations, couldn’t get it together. He spent more time being frustrated about that fact than he did working on the story, of course. That ended up being my main, unspoken joke. I wasn’t deliberately criticizing myself — this was a character, you know — but I was certainly relieving a lot of stress and anxiety by doing it.

I turned in the new draft as my “final” version of a completely different story. My classmates read it. We talked before Dunn showed up. One of them, I remember well, said Dunn was going to kill me. I felt the same way.

When Dunn did arrive, he sat down in his chair, held my story in front of his face and took a moment, as though his eyes were focusing on something he were seeing for the first time. He cleared his throat. All of this was standard practice as he decided how to open the discussion. I remember specifically seeing a little smirk appear on his face, and then he said, “I really liked this.”

Probably not in the way he expected, I gave him what he wanted: a story that came from somewhere. It wasn’t just a few pages of language I thought was clever. It wasn’t some pointless story I wrote because I was assigned to write one. It wasn’t the bare minimum skeleton of a narrative, which he and I both knew I could scrape together in my sleep.

I’d written a story. I’d written a story because I had an emotion that I needed to exorcise. I’d written something that mattered to me. And that was what I had been missing.

Dunn knew that I was capable of sitting down and pounding out something that read well, was funny, was probably even a little bit interesting.

But none of it mattered. I could play all of the notes of a beloved tune but I wasn’t playing them with feeling.

He pushed me until I realized that. And when I demonstrated that I understood that, he celebrated my work in front of the class. In front of me.

I’d met him halfway. I enrolled in his class expecting my writing abilities to be recognized. Instead, he recognized how much further they could go. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but he was right. So I brought them further. I worked to bring them further. I hurt myself bringing them further. And he thanked me.

I remember well one thing he said. He said that I arrived in his class as a talent, and I left as a writer of stories.

I remember it well because he wrote it in the foreword for my first collection of writings. He didn’t need to do that, but he said he was honored to do so. I believe that he meant it.

Years later, when he was clearing out his office, I happened to meet with him. He’d recently dug up some concept art for the cover of his Riffs & Reciprocities collection. I admired them and he asked if I wanted to keep them. Now I was honored. He signed them for me. I still have them. I will always have them.

I’ve seen him many times since. Sometimes live, as during an impassioned reading he gave shortly after 9/11, a reading that stuck with me so vividly that I ended up quoting it in my Resident Evil book last year. He is thanked in the book as well, for reasons even here I cannot overstate. I refer to him as “the great poet,” not only because he was one, but because he was and remains the great poet for me.

I took a second workshop with him shortly after he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. We kept in periodic touch after that. He helped me and he encouraged me and all of those things are wonderful, but I am only where I am — wherever I am — because he pushed me.

Dunn was not an easy man to love as he pulled apart what you thought was talent and revealed it to be mere competence. (At best.) But somewhere, at some point in his own creative life, somebody must have done the some thing for him. Somebody must have said, “Here are your weaknesses, Stephen, and you need to fix them.” And it must have stung. It must have angered. It must have lit a fire in him that kept burning right up until Thursday, June 24, his 82nd birthday.

The fire that Dunn lit within me — lit from his own flame — still burns. It will continue to burn. I feel it burn every time I write something. Every sentence. Every word, if I let myself feel it. I remember Dunn and how he would have pushed me to do better. Not because he wished to feel superior or to make me feel inferior, but because both he and I knew that I was capable of doing better, and because — of the two of us — only one was brave enough to point it out.

He guided me long beyond those writing workshops and he’s guided me probably long after he’d forgotten me. But I’ll never forget him, his demeanor, his unwillingness to let his fondness for his students get in the way of his honesty. I’ll never forget everything he said to me that I needed to hear. I’ll never forget the way he helped me take a knack for writing and turn it into a passion.

More than any one specific person in my life, I owe Stephen Dunn my career. If it weren’t for him, for him showing me not only how to stoke that flame but teaching me the importance of keeping it lit, I’d have moved on from this hobby like I have so many others.

Instead, writing stopped being a hobby. It became a purpose.

Everything I write has the voice of Dunn behind it. If it’s strong, it’s because I listened to him. If it’s weak, it’s because I didn’t. But it’s always there. It always will be there.

The voice of a man who tore me down because he knew I could build myself up better.

And because he cared that I do so.

Stephen Dunn invested himself in me. I hope I haven’t let him down.

Goodbye, Stephen.

Nothing I can say could possibly be enough, but I hope that some day I can leave with someone even a fraction of what you have left with me.

Riffs & Reciprocities

Reflections on Max Wright’s Passing

Here’s a fact: Max Wright hated being alive.

Can I say that with confidence? Yes. Do it mean it unilaterally? No; of course I don’t. But at some point, early in the production of ALF, he stopped enjoying what he did for a living. He had a few roles after the show, but nothing major. He stopped doing interviews. He stopped acting in general. He retreated from public life, living most of his final years alone, behind a door that rarely opened. He stopped talking to his friends and family.

I shouldn’t have the right to say “he stopped talking to his friends and family” and mean it, and yet, I do. For the past few years, people claiming to know him, to miss him, to want messages passed on to him, seeking assurance that he was still alive and hadn’t died in his apartment without anyone knowing, reached out to me. I won’t provide any names — or their relationships to him, which would just as easily give them away — but please take a moment to consider something with me:

Max Wright was so difficult to get a hold of, so impossible to reach even by those who loved and cared about him personally, for decades, that these people reached out to me for help.

Me.

The asshole who chronicled the worst experiences of Max Wright’s life and made a crack joke every few sentences. I refuse to believe any of them reached out to me because they expected I knew him. I do believe they reached out to me because they’d tried everything else and were desperate.

Here’s another fact: I never met the guy. I never spoke with him, or corresponded with him in any way. Now I never will. He passed away last week. Whenever his old friends and estranged family members wrote to me, I replied politely. I let them know that I meant no offense by my jokes, and that I wished them luck in finding him.

I’d be surprised if any of them did manage to get in touch. He made a conscious effort to be left alone. In 2015 the National Enquirer located and tried to speak with him. He refused to open the door and provided only a two-word quote: “Please leave.”

If he knew it was the National Enquirer, I have to say I can’t blame him. They were the ones in 2001 who ran the photos of Max Wright at a gay hobo crack orgy.

Here’s a fact: The words hobo, crack, and orgy are funny.

Here’s another fact: On April 18, someone (anonymous aside from the letter J.) left a comment on this blog saying, “Max Wright’s crack addiction is not funny,” and J. is right.

Addiction isn’t funny. I grew up with an alcoholic father who was distant, abusive, and cruel. The fact that I struggle with mental health issues is unlikely to be his fault. The fact that I feel guilty about them and have had so much trouble addressing them in healthy ways is almost certainly his fault.

In terms of drug addiction, I’ve seen it ruin — and sometimes take — the lives of many people I cared about. Classmates. Friends. Colleagues. My brother.

Joking about a topic or enjoying jokes about a topic doesn’t necessarily mean you find that topic funny. You find the joke funny. Perhaps it’s well told. Perhaps it’s just shocking. Perhaps it’s sarcastic or knowingly inaccurate.

I’ve laughed at jokes about many terrible topics. It’s one way of coping with them. With processing them. Depending on the context, people getting shot, robbed, stabbed, falling off of buildings, and getting eaten by monsters have all made me chuckle.

Because they’re jokes. And laughing at one doesn’t imply in any way that you’d find the same thing happening in real life funny at all.

If you were to ask me how many times I’ve laughed at addiction — real, actual addiction, in the real world — I could answer with an honest zero.

Or can I? Because I’ve laughed at Max Wright.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright had crack-fueled gay sex with homeless people, on video.

Here’s a related fact: True or not, that always felt so far detached from reality that humor was the only way I could even vaguely understand it.

I didn’t know the guy. I didn’t watch his life fall apart. I wasn’t there with his wife, fretting through the night that he wasn’t coming home. I wasn’t one of his kids coping with the rumors. I wasn’t a friend trying to hold him together, encouraging him to get help, praying that he would be okay.

For them, it wasn’t detached from reality. They understood it in ways that humor would never have possibly entered into.

For me, Max Wright was the stupid dad from ALF.

The stupid dad from ALF smoked crack and gathered homeless people for orgies.

I’m not going to say there’s something wrong with you if you don’t find that inherently absurd. But I will say that that’s the only way it ever registered to me.

Me. A nobody on the internet, who liked to say bad words about a puppet show he used to love.

Here’s another fact: I was always worried that Max Wright would die while I was writing my ALF reviews, and I wouldn’t be able to make jokes about him anymore.

Because when someone dies, things get more real.

He’s not the stupid dad from ALF. He’s an old man who died without anyone who wanted to help being able to reach him. It’s too late now. He’s dead. It’s too late, whatever you wanted to do. It’s too late for everything now. His life is over.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright has never read my reviews. I know some of ALF‘s writers have. I know Anne Schedeen at least knows about it, because a few months ago she started following me on Facebook. (Here’s a fact: My heart flutters just thinking about that.) I have been given reason to believe two other people associated with the show have read it.

But Max Wright never read my reviews, and he never will. He had no interest in speaking about ALF. He had very little interest in speaking about it even when he was on the show, with the most significant interview I ever found taking place over the course of a few minutes during a smoke break.

He hated the show. He never made any secret of that, and we don’t need interviews to come to that conclusion. Whether he was beating the shit out of the ALF puppet in front of guest star Dean Cameron or getting in his car the moment his final scene for “Consider Me Gone” ended, without even saying goodbye or sticking around for any necessary reshoots, it was obvious.

Max Wright hated his job.

After the National Enquirer story broke, he hated his life.

After dealing with the fallout, he hated that his friends and family were reaching out to him, and he stopped letting them do that. Max Wright hated the world enough that he did exactly what I do and what you do when we hate something: He took active steps to stay away from it whenever possible.

Here’s a fact I don’t think I ever mentioned in my reviews. I meant to mention it in my farewell post, but I didn’t. If you ever wondered why that post is so short, that’s why. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because of this related fact: It still really fucking hurts.

Years ago, I entered into a relationship that turned toxic quickly. I expected it could get better if I worked hard at it, so I did. It never got better. I felt trapped and inadequate. I tried everything. As hard as I worked at keeping it together, she worked at tearing me down.

Thanks to my upbringing, I didn’t know what love was supposed to feel like. Also, I was fully prepared to accept any shortcomings as my own. Things were my fault. Why wouldn’t they be? They always had been in the past.

She bled me dry, emotionally and financially. She spent my money quickly and eagerly enough that — deliberately or not — I wasn’t able to get away. Genuinely. I had nowhere I could go. I could move out, but I’d have nowhere to stay. Now I know I had many friends who would have taken me in, but then, at the time, in the situation, I could not see that. In fact, the one friend I would have turned to is the one she singled out, telling me that she’d spoken to that friend, and that that friend was appalled with me and didn’t want to hear from me.

I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? I was a terrible person who deserved to be treated like that and shut off from contact with my friends.

She never spoke to that friend. At all. It wasn’t an exaggeration, it wasn’t misleading, and it wasn’t a misinterpretation. It was a complete and total lie. She made it up so that I would feel trapped. So that I would have nowhere to go. And it worked.

At one point, finally, I left. I’d love to say I was strong enough to do so in that moment, and maybe I was, but I felt like I was at my weakest. I had nothing to my name. I found a cheap room to rent with someone who was — thankfully — a sweet and understanding human being who became a dear friend and helped me get back on my feet.

But I’m jumping ahead there. I was alone in a room on an air mattress. I had nothing. I had no money. Every single day I thought about suicide, not because I was in despair, but because…well, why not? What was I hanging around for, exactly? Why was this life, this particular life, worth living?

I needed a distraction, and, historically, I had always found that distraction in writing. But writing about anything that had happened to me — or that I was going through — did not seem appealing. I didn’t want to relive any of it. Shit, I still don’t, and it’s hard enough just glossing over it here.

But I needed to write. I knew that. That was my therapy.

And I decided to write about ALF. I could take out my frustrations. I could focus on something thoroughly worthless. I could act like an idiot and tell stupid jokes and give myself a god-damned reason to get the fuck out of bed.

I’d forgotten that the mom on ALF was named Kate. That was my ex’s name.

If I’d remembered that, I wouldn’t have committed to reviewing ALF. Kate was not a name I wanted to hear. In fact, those first few episodes were rough going for me.

But the Kate on ALF was…great, actually. She was funny. She was by leaps and bounds the best actor. She was the most stable and reliable character in the entire thing. I quickly came to dissociate the name from what I had learned it meant.

The writing helped me. The readers and their laughter helped me. And Kate — this Kate — helped me, because she took the most traumatic experience of my life and let me see that it was over, and I could find new things and make new associations now.

Here’s a fact: I was having fun. I was doing something I enjoyed. If you read my reviews now and hear misery and disdain and agony, it’s an act. It’s a lie. I loved every fucking minute of it. Of watching the show, of writing about the show, of reading your comments.

It was everything I needed to get back on my feet again. To be myself again. To learn that I had value.

I’ve laughed at toxic relationships and jokes about them. By no means do I find toxic relationships funny. I can sure as hell promise you that. But by taking my real-life sadness and anger and frustration and playing it up for the purposes of reviewing one of the worst sitcoms in American history, I was able to cope with it. I faced it through humor. Instead of being overcome by my emotions, I chose to wear them like a costume, and I did a little dance, and I made people laugh, and then when I was done, I was able to take that costume off.

Forever.

There’s an entire story you were never told.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright gave me the most enjoyment on the show, by far.

He wasn’t the best actor and he didn’t get the best lines, but watching him was fascinating. He almost never seemed to try, but he did the bare minimum. He hated his job, but he showed up every day. He hated the show, but he never quit. He sped away from the set the moment he had nothing left to shoot in the final episode, but he showed up for work that day and did his damned job.

That’s admirable, in its own way, and also so interesting. Watching Max Wright in the show, it’s less like somebody is playing Willie and more like a ghost is loosely inhabiting him. In the strictest, most technical sense of the word, he’s acting. But mainly he’s just a presence, moving his lips and his body without having any particular interest in anything that’s happening around him.

It’s bizarre. There were times I genuinely couldn’t understand what he was saying. I still don’t know if he referred to a woman named Julie or a man named Patchouli. He called himself “Wooly Tanner” in one scene and it wasn’t reshot. It’s just part of the show. Max Wright half-assing his way through the least ambitious sci-fi comedy in history is part of what gives it its charm.

He wasn’t happy. Neither was I. But ALF gave us both a reason to get out of bed.

Here’s a fact: When the Max Wright crack hobo scandal broke, none of his previous colleagues or costars came out in support of the guy.

Nobody, at any point, said, “I know Max and that’s not Max.” Nobody said, “This is a lie made up to sell magazines.” Nobody said, “The photos may look like him, but that’s not him.”

Max Wright was tried in the court of public opinion, and nobody took his side.

But his wife stayed with him.

He had several other drug-related scandals that decade, and she stayed with him.

Here’s a fact: I’ve always wondered why.

Well, okay…it was love. The last thing I want to do to this poor dead guy is introduce the idea that his wife couldn’t have possibly loved him.

But I wondered what those conversations must have been like.

Relationships end over lies. Over infidelity. Over destructive behavior. And that’s okay. Those are understandable stopping points.

What did he have to say to her to keep their marriage together after videotaped evidence of his hobo crack orgies surfaced? What did she say to him? What kind of balance could they have possibly achieved?

We’ll never know. She died two years ago. And now he is dead, too.

By 2015, they were no longer together. They stayed married until her death, but they didn’t live together. He was alone. I don’t know if she was.

And I still wonder what those conversations must have been like. To not get divorced, but also not be together. To not split up over the scandal, but also to never see each other. To stay in each other’s lives, but to live completely separate lives in two different places.

Here’s a fact: For whatever reason, I believe she loved him. I believe she thought he could change, or get the help he needed. Maybe she was right. Maybe she was delusional. But he was the one seeking (very dangerous) sexual action on the side. And she stayed with him.

After she died, he went to Germany.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright had a happy ending.

ALF remains popular in Germany, but he still didn’t want to talk about the show. In fact, he refused to even speak of it to his new German boyfriend.

For the final few years of his life, he was in a committed relationship with a German man. Photos exist. They look happy. You can find them, if you want to. They aren’t as easy to find as the National Enquirer photos of a disheveled old man taking out his trash, but they’re out there.

And that’s a part of his life — the final part of his life — that the English-language reports omit. They’re happy to remember him as a has-been. A washed-up actor with a legacy of scandals. The stupid dad from ALF.

The German stories are where you’ll learn of his relationship. Of the positivity he found very late in his life. Of the happiness he wanted and never had before.

I don’t know what he felt or didn’t feel for his wife, but I do think it says something that she stayed married to him until the day she died, and he entered into a relationship with a man as soon as she was gone. She waited for something that never came. He left for something else the moment he could.

But he found it.

According to reports, Max Wright died in the same little apartment he’d occupied alone for so many years, out of the public eye. But I don’t know if that’s true. The details seem to all be traced back to a single TMZ story, which Max Wright’s son is said to have corroborated. TMZ is hardly a reliable primary source, and I have no clue what his son did or didn’t actually say to them.

He could have died in Germany, for all I know. He could have died happy, somewhere far from his own past, somewhere nobody he used to know would be able to find or reach him. I wouldn’t put it past TMZ to make something up, and they don’t seem to have picked up on the news of his German exploits at all. Maybe they just assumed he died in the last place they saw him.

Because that’s the lens through which they viewed him. Max Wright didn’t exist until he had a camera on him, be it ALF‘s, the orgy guy’s, or the National Enquirer‘s. We see him from a distance, welcome or not. We draw our conclusions. We move along to the next thing. We’ll come back if anything else embarrassing happens to the guy, because that fits our idea of who he is, was, and must be.

They weren’t there for the conversations with his wife. They weren’t there for the talks with his kids. They didn’t experience the desperation of his friends and family who tried to reach him and tried to help.

His isn’t a redemption story. He’s the stupid dad from ALF. We know how that one is supposed to end. It’s a joke, so it ends with a punchline.

I’ve done my part cementing Max Wright as a washed-up nobody, best known for smoking crack in his underpants in an abandoned warehouse. I did it with this blog, these reviews, right here, with all of you.

So here’s the fact I’ll leave you with: He found love with a man who cared about him. That’s evidence that his failures weren’t all he was. That’s not all he had. That’s not where he ended up.

There’s an entire story we were never told.

Probably because we wouldn’t have listened.

Rest in peace, Max.

My Friend Mike, Who is Dead Now

Let me tell you about my friend Mike, who is dead now.

I grew up in a tiny town. A rural area. I had friends, and very good ones I should make clear, but I never really fit in. Southern New Jersey wasn’t the place for me. I can’t remember a year going by during which I didn’t look forward to getting out and never looking back.

It’s not where I belonged. I doubt anyone else thought I belonged there, either.

I say this as context so that you’ll understand what it means that my friend Mike, who is dead now, was never anything but kind to me. Even when I was frustrated by who I was, what I was, where I was. Even when I treated others poorly and didn’t deserve kindness in return. Even when he no doubt knew that we’d graduate high school and move on and he’d never have to deal with me again. He was always my friend. Mike, who is dead now.

Someone described Mike, who is dead now, as a gentle giant. I couldn’t possibly choose two better words myself. He was a big guy. He always was. Physically imposing, but wouldn’t hurt a fly. I’ve seen him laugh. I’ve seen him happy. But I never saw him upset. I never saw him sad. I never saw him angry. I never heard him say a negative thing about anybody or do a negative thing toward anybody.

My friend Mike, who is dead now, was soft spoken. He was funny. He had the biggest God damned heart. People go through life making friends and enemies but Mike, who is dead now, never seemed to get around to the enemy part. He was friendly to everybody. He hung out with the popular kids. He hung out with the outcasts. He hung out with the nerds. He was good to all of them. He was better than most of us deserved.

There was a sincerity about Mike, who is dead now, that it’s difficult to put into words. If you knew him, you’d know immediately what I’m talking about. If you didn’t, you never will, because he’s dead now.

He could have been a bad person. It was high school. He had the stature and strength and popularity to back it up. He could have been a jerk. He would have gotten away with it. It could even have been fun. A lot of people go that way when they have weight to throw around. I probably would have, too. But he didn’t. Mike, who is dead now, was humble. He didn’t think he was better than anybody. He was always there, this friendly, funny presence with the great big heart.

I have a lot of specific memories of friends from that time in my life, but I don’t have many of Mike, who is dead now. I think that’s because my fondness for him can’t be boiled down to a night of video games or a weekend of drinking or some ridiculous mischief we got up to together that we’d never dream of pulling today. Mike, who is dead now, was a more general part of my life. A constant. Someone always friendly and reliable and trustworthy. One who always played along if someone were teasing him, and one who never teased back.

When I left New Jersey, I lost touch with a lot of people. Including Mike, who is dead now. I had a new life to focus on, and they did, too. But time passed, and I started reconnecting with many of my old friends. After I lost everything a few years ago and was barely scraping together the money to rent a room and the energy to earn that money, when I started rebuilding myself personally, I reconnected with even more of them.

Mike, who is dead now, was one of them.

He looked so happy. Well, as happy as Mike, who is dead now, ever looked. He always seemed to wear the same expression. You’d see the real smile in his eyes.

Mike, who is dead now, seemed to be living a stable, healthy life, and of all the people I went to school with, myself absolutely included, I can’t imagine anyone deserving that more.

He had a beautiful family. He didn’t look a day older than the last time I’d seen him, nearly 20 years ago. I’d see him post photos of sunsets and beautiful mornings, better looking skies than anything I’d seen myself when I was in New Jersey, and he’d caption them with positive thoughts. Affirmations. And every so often he’d comment on something I had posted, just to show his support. That’s just who Mike, who is dead now, was.

On Feb. 1 at 6:37 pm, Mike, who is dead now, posted a long status update. He was venting about someone who had clearly treated him poorly. It was longer and angrier than anything I’d seen him post before. But I didn’t see this post until much later. I missed it, or overlooked it. A lot of people did.

That same day, at 11:32 pm, he shared an uplifting video with the caption, “That’s a beautiful story.” I didn’t see that post, either, but that’s more the kind of thing I expected to see from Mike, who is dead now.

On Feb. 4 at 8:34 am, a family member shared the news that Mike, who is dead now, passed away over the weekend. I was sad. A lot of people were. Everybody wanted to know what had happened to Mike, who is dead now. People reached out to me to see if I knew anything. I didn’t.

On Feb. 5 at 9:58 am, I learned he’d committed suicide.

Mike, who is dead now, killed himself.

I’ve had a number of friends die, and of course the old crew crawls out of the woodwork to post condolences. That’s okay. That’s how it should work. But I believe there’s a noticeable difference between those who offer condolences because that is the right thing to do, and those who are genuinely upset and will miss the person deeply, perhaps more deeply than they ever would have guessed. The latter is all I saw for Mike, who is dead now.

I don’t know what he struggled with. I don’t know the situation. I don’t know what he carried in his heart or his mind or what demons he fought every fucking day until he finally decided he couldn’t or wouldn’t fight them anymore. I don’t know because he never told me. I don’t know because Mike, who is dead now, never told anybody. He felt more comfortable taking his own life than he did reaching out for help.

And Mike, who is dead now, had a wealth of people who would have listened. Who would have tried to help. Who cared about him and loved him and are too late to help him push through.

Mike, who is dead now, took whatever he was feeling, whatever he was fighting, however deeply he was hurting, with him.

I’m sad and I’m angry and I’m frustrated and I’m heartbroken.

Because Mike, God damn it, I would have helped you. And I’m not alone. Seeing that you were happy, you were doing well, you were living a great life…nobody deserved that more than you. And just recently you posted kind words to me. And just recently you talked with a mutual friend and had her convinced you were doing great. And just recently you bumped into another friend in the convenience store and he couldn’t have been happier about how well you were doing.

And you killed yourself, Mike. You’re gone now. You aren’t coming back and if anyone knew what you were going through, we would have helped, dammit. If you needed money or a place to stay or a shoulder to cry on, we fucking loved you. And we would have been there. If we knew, we would have been there.

But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we never told you that we loved you. Maybe you knew you had friends, but didn’t know they were people you could trust. Maybe you didn’t know how much people actually cared and were willing to help. And maybe that’s because we’re fucking idiots and we never told you.

I wish I could have told you. I wish I could step a few days into the past and find that worrying post and reach out. I wish I could go back to high school and give you a big hug. I wish I could do anything at all to change where we are, right now, with you dead by your own hand because you didn’t think there was another way forward.

I hate that that’s where you ended up. I hate that you, of all people, were on the bottom, beneath something so heavy you had no hope of lifting it up. I hate that I’m out here writing about mental health and being open about my own struggles and trying like hell to help people avoid and deal with the shit I have to face every day and my friend, the gentle giant, the sweetest, warmest fucking guy imaginable, struggled and fought and lost without me even realizing it.

Please don’t be like Mike, who is dead now. Please, for God’s sake, reach out. Let someone know. Because somebody out there cares more than you think they do. And if you don’t believe that, then reach out to me and I’ll prove you wrong myself.

And if you’re doing okay reach out to someone today, tomorrow, the day after that, someone who isn’t. Reach out to the ones you know struggle and the ones you assume are fine because why wouldn’t they be. Reach out, damn it. Because people need you, and however open and accessible you assume you are, when they are losing that fight, they’re only going to see one way out, and it won’t be picking up the phone and calling you. So pick up the phone and call them.

Mike was my friend. In our most recent messages he was excited to be going back to school to get a degree. I was excited for him.

He’s dead now. Whatever he was planning or looking forward to, that’s where his story ends.

He was my friend. I wonder if he even knew that.

The saddest part of It’s a Wonderful Life, to me, has always been its ending. Yes, everything works out, but it’s terrifying that had George Bailey actually killed himself that night, his story would have ended there, without him realizing or knowing or understanding that there were so many people out there who would have helped, who wanted to help, who would gladly do whatever they could to help.

He didn’t reach out to them. He stepped out into a cold winter’s night and decided for himself that there was only one way out.

He never reached out. He never knew. Somebody else had to show him.

Understanding the Need for Representation

It’s my birthday today, and every year since this blog began I’ve used my birthday an excuse to write something personal. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s not. This year, it’s not.

Whenever people talk about the need for representation in media, I get it. I understand it. I see where they’re coming from. But I never really felt, personally, what it means to go unrepresented.

I’m white. I’m male. I’m American. I’m straight. I was born into a Christian household. So were the vast majority of characters I’d encounter in film and on television.

As I’ve gotten older, the balance has shifted somewhat. Groups of friends get to have a black one, and even a girl one. Maybe there’s a Jewish one if the writers can think of enough jokes to justify it. Of course there are also shows and movies with predominantly female, black, or homosexual casts, but those are always easy to identify by sight and so anybody who doesn’t want to find themselves exposed to such things can keep away easily. Everybody wins.

This past year, I’ve been through a lot. (I won’t even begin to pretend I’m alone in that.) Good things. Bad things. Exciting things. But also something that, as I turn thirty-eight, I wish I went through a long time ago.

In 2018 I came out as asexual. I know that everybody has their own journey. I know that everybody comes out in their own way, in their own time. I know that there isn’t a right or wrong way to come to your own awakening.

And yet, if I can have the privilege of sharing the ugly side of a good thing, I was angry. Angry that I didn’t understand myself sooner. Angry that this is what I’ve always been without the vocabulary to express, understand, or process it. Angry that I wasn’t me.

Let me step back.

I remember one day in high school. My friend Nate had lost his virginity at some recent point. He was the first one in our circle of friends to do so, and he was telling us about it. We were kids. We were curious. We asked questions. I’m sure he was happy to be the center of attention on this topic.

He said, “The bad thing is that once you have sex, you start always wanting it.”

For whatever reason, that stuck with me. Around a year or so later, I lost my virginity as well, to a girl named Amy. Before and as it was happening, I didn’t feel like I really wanted it. I felt curious about it, for sure, and I was turned on, but I wasn’t…desiring it.

I remembered what Nate said. I figured maybe the first time you just sort of fumble your way through it anxiously, and you figure out what you’re doing and what you like, and curiosity gets replaced, gradually, by actual sexual desire.

It didn’t. Not for me. Not then, or at any point since.

But I didn’t know why. I became the next center of attention. Friends asked me questions and I answered them. I doubt I lied about anything but I’m sure I embellished. They wanted a story. I told them a story.

Maybe I just didn’t feel that way toward Amy. I liked her and I was attracted to her, but maybe there needed to be something deeper. Maybe when I was in a more serious relationship, with someone I cared about on a deeper level, everything would click.

I found that person in my next relationship. She was great, and I look back on the time we spent together fondly. We dated through the end of high school right into the beginning of college. I cared about her. I had fun with her. We had similar sensibilities and morals and senses of humor.

We had sex, a good number of times. And I still didn’t want it.

The more I reflect on these early experiences, the more I realize that it’s always been this way for me. I remember having the house to myself frequently with one girlfriend, but I never thought about or looked forward to having sex. I thought about watching movies and playing video games and laughing with each other. I remember another girlfriend saying to me — in a jokey way — “You don’t even like sex.” I’m sure she thought there was truth to that statement well before I did. I remember sitting in my car outside of a college party, listening to the Live at Leads version of “Magic Bus” with a girl who hadn’t heard it before. It was a nice moment. I enjoyed spending the time with her. We went back into the party, and then into a bedroom, and she wanted to have sex. I wasn’t interested. I tried to get interested, but I couldn’t. I felt terrible. I felt as though I’d led her on. I was embarrassed.

Through the years, I’ve tried to figure out what the problem was. It wasn’t impotence, because I could have sex…I just didn’t want to. It wasn’t that I was gay, because I find women very attractive and have yet to be physically attracted to a man. It wasn’t low testosterone, because I paid for a test out of pocket knowing for sure that that would be the reason, but my doctor called a week or so later with the results to tell me that my testosterone was actually pretty high.

I talked to a few people about it. Not many, and probably not the right ones. One thing a girl I was seeing told me is, “You just haven’t had good sex.” I kind of doubted that. Without making any qualitative assessment, I was in the same boat by the time our relationship ended.

So I just kept trying. Dating. Pursuing. Sleeping with girlfriends. Sometimes once, sometimes many times. I kept having sex because I kept expecting something to click. Sometimes I felt obligated to do it. Sometimes I’d do it just so I wouldn’t disappoint someone. It was fine. It felt good. But it wasn’t anything I wanted.

I grew up watching television. Too much of it. I saw the characters there. I identified with some of them. I learned about myself from watching them. I was able to see how people like me failed or succeeded in what they set out to do.

But sexuality was binary. The vast majority of these characters were straight, a rare few were gay. I didn’t desire sex at all. I didn’t see that anywhere. Something was wrong.

A few years ago, Bojack Horseman had an episode in which Todd, played by Aaron Paul, realizes he’s asexual.

I’d heard the term before, but never looked into it or gave any thought to it. If someone identified as asexual, well…good for them. It’s not my business to go rooting around to figure out what it means. They’d arrived at their own truth, and that’s what was important.

Here’s the thing, though. Prior to that episode, I did see something of myself in Todd. I’d rather not get too specific here, as I think I’m putting enough of myself out there as it is, but there was a moment — and then further moments — in his relationship with Emily that felt very, very close to home. To the point that it hurt.

Bojack Horseman primed me for identifying with it, I’ll admit. As someone who struggles with depression, anxiety, self-loathing, chronic unhappiness and as someone who used to have self-destructive tendencies, I see myself a lot in that show. Intermittently. Here and there. In a line or in a decision or in an inability to get one’s shit together.

And that’s okay. In a show covering a topic you’re familiar with, that’s almost bound to happen. As long as it’s written and acted well, I suppose, which Bojack Horseman is.

But I definitely didn’t see myself in Bojack’s hyperactive sex drive. The meaninglessness, sure, but not feeling compelled to have more and more and more of it.

And then Emily confronted Todd, with an openness that hopefully a lot of us can learn from. And, ultimately, Todd’s answer put things into perspective for me.

EMILY: What’s…your deal? I feel like you like me but you don’t like me, but you like me. And I don’t know what that is. Are you gay? […]
TODD: I’m not gay. I mean, I don’t think I am. But…I don’t think I’m straight, either. I don’t know what I am. I think I might be nothing.

I turned the television off after that episode and I just…thought. As silly as it may seem, I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility.

Obviously there are many characters we don’t actively see having or pursuing sex, but the understanding was always that there were parts of their life we don’t see. If we were to follow them beyond the boundaries of a thirty-minute episode, we’d see them pursuing guys or girls and that would be that. There were characters who were horny and characters who were reserved enough that we didn’t get a glimpse into their sex lives. Everybody had a sex life, and the few that didn’t actively wanted one.

There were no characters that openly had no interest in sex.

Emily asks Todd that question because she’s hurt. She feels like she’s been led on to some degree, even if it’s clear she doesn’t think he did it on purpose. I had an Emily. I had a lot of Emilys. I didn’t intend to lead anybody on, but we’d go on dates. We’d hang out. We’d have fun. We’d flirt.

And then I didn’t want sex. And if we had it, I wasn’t pursuing more of it, even if I were keeping them in my life.

And I’ve hurt them. In large part I’m making an assumption there, but in one specific case someone reached out to me after I came out to explain how she felt. How I had confused her. How I’d upset her. She wasn’t blaming me. I had just been open about something that finally made sense to me, and she replied with her own openness about how it felt on her end.

I didn’t want to hurt or mislead or confuse anybody. I just…didn’t know. I didn’t know that was an option. I didn’t know that there were people like me. I thought there was something…wrong with me, and I spent too many years and too much effort with too many people trying to “fix” myself, get myself on the right track, feel sexual desire the way every single other person on the planet obviously felt it.

I later connected with a friend who was also asexual, though I hadn’t known that before. I found a community online that helped me better understand what I am, and that it’s okay to feel the way I do. I started letting people know ahead of time where I stood sexually. These are good things. But I wish I could have done them sooner. I wish I’d had the knowledge that this wasn’t a problem…this was just something I was, and I wasn’t alone. I could have saved a lot of people a lot of pain.

I said above that I’m straight, and I am. I love women. I love romance. Dating is fun and getting to know a partner on a deep, personal level is fun.

But for all of my life I thought it was supposed to build to sex. Again and again and again to sex. And it didn’t for me. That wasn’t what I wanted. I did it because I felt as though I needed to, that I should have wanted to, that this was the way things worked and I didn’t really have a place to disagree.

And I realize now why representation is important. For the first time, I experienced that firsthand. When we see people like us in the media, we know we aren’t alone. When we don’t see them, we suspect we might be. When there isn’t some kind of representative of who we are and what we want and how we feel, it’s easy to believe we’re missing something. We’re broken in some way. We aren’t who we should be.

I’m not saying I necessarily needed to see a character like Todd when I was a child, but I am saying that seeing him when I finally did helped me a lot, gave me a reason to research asexuality, and gave me a push I needed to understand who, the fuck, I was.

I didn’t even know that the thing I was was an option. And that’s terrifying to me. It’s sad that there are children and adults who don’t realize it’s okay to be who they are, so they try to be someone they aren’t, hurting others and themselves in the process, and never being truly happy with who they already are.

I guess it’s about right that here, in this monumentally shitty world that seems determined to get worse every day, that a cartoon about a talking horse would be the one place I’d find some honesty. I just hope it’s honesty that’s easier to come by in the next generation, for people who might need it even more than me.

Book It!

Writing has actually been important to me for longer than reading has. Don’t worry; I’m not suggesting that this is in any way a good thing. Writing without reading is almost entirely worthless for anything beyond its therapeutic value.

But I wrote, long before I understood stories. Long before I understood characters. Long before I understood structure or themes or my audience. I wrote a lot of garbage. It went nowhere, which is exactly as far as it deserved to go.

Eventually, I started reading as well. Nothing of much merit. Some John Grisham, some Michael Crichton, some Stephen King. The pop stars of fiction. I’d like to think I would have enjoyed actual literature, but I sure as hell wasn’t reading any, so we’ll never know for sure.

At some point in the mid-90s, looking for something to read in my high school library, I found a copy of Catch-22. I’ve already talked about what an important moment this was for me. I won’t say much more, except that this is the book that made me a writer. It’s the book that revealed to me what writing can do. It affected me in a way no work of art had ever affected me, and, suddenly, writing wasn’t just some passive hobby. It was what I wanted to do. It was the first thing I’d ever thought to take seriously.

That was around twenty years ago. In the time since, I studied literature at college. I dedicated myself to honing my craft, working with a number of deeply accomplished writers who, for reasons I’ll never understand but will always appreciate, showed me more patience and support than I deserved.

I was a kid. I was stubborn. I thought I knew more than I did.

They helped me anyway.

I joined a number of writing groups online, and met other helpful artists who guided me forward. I connected with people on various forums and shot drafts back and forth. Often the mere act of providing feedback helped me see weaknesses in my own work that I couldn’t have addressed otherwise.

I got better. I started writing for a number of different websites, all of which took a chance on me when they certainly didn’t have to, and all of which helped me to improve a little more.

I started seeing my work edited. Not marked up, not annotated with suggestions, but changed. I provided something, and they published something else. I bristled. I was a writer, so I was supposed to bristle. Who were they to meddle with my work? They were people who knew what they were doing. I was still learning. In time I started to realize that the edits almost uniformly made my work stronger. I started to take note of what they were cutting, what they were changing, what they were resequencing. My work got better.

I started seeing my work commented upon by readers. The internet provides that incredible resource, something that traditional print media never allowed. Feedback from your audience is instant. If I wrote something good, people would tell me. I could reload the page and find 20, 30, 50 people telling me. If I wrote something bad, people would tell me. I could reload the page and find twice as many eager to tell me that.

I bristled. I was a writer, so I was supposed to bristle.

Then I listened. Not to everybody, of course, because there will never come a time that I’ll please everybody. But sharp criticism — even if it’s sharply phrased — was helpful to me, too. Perhaps the reader had missed my point. More often, I have to admit, I failed to deliver it clearly. I learned. My work got better still.

I started hosting my own writing workshops. I started tutoring others who wished to write better, whether for professional or personal reasons. I did my best to help them understand the lessons I had to learn painfully. I saw progress. I watched them evolve from writers at one level to writers at another. To this day I’m still not sure I’ve ever felt more satisfied than in those moments.

I got work as a writer. An an editor. As a proofreader. At some point the hobby that had become a passion had become a career. I’ve worked in television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the private sector, the government. People need writers. Countless individuals along the way had helped me become one. This was how I earned a living. If that’s where I stopped, I would have been happy.

That isn’t where I stopped.

A few weeks ago, on May 2, to be exact, I fulfilled a lifelong dream. I signed a publishing contract. I pitched an idea. Months passed. Emails were exchanged. Conversations were had. A contract was prepared. I signed it. I’m writing a book.

I can’t really offer much more in the way of detail. Well, I could, I suppose, but I’ve been asked not to. I’m happy not to!

The point is that I’ll be working on a complete draft over the course of the next few months. Noiseless Chatter won’t go away. I still intend to post new things. Maybe I’ll share some insights or anecdotes about the writing process. I’m really not sure. But as busy as things have been for me, this made them much busier overnight.

This is a good thing. Because this is what I’ve worked for. And this is where so many people in so many places for reasons I couldn’t possibly tell you helped me get here.

You, all of you, helped me get here. Those of you I went to school with, those of you who followed me here from YouTube or Nintendo Life or Adventure Game Studio, those of you who stumbled across an article I wrote here or elsewhere and stuck around…you’re the reason this is happening.

There’s another writer online I respect very much. I’ve followed his career. I’ve read much of his output. I do my best to support him whenever I can. In fact, I’m jealous of him, of his talents, of his abilities. He’s great at what he does, and he deserves everything he’s achieved.

He’s also broke.

He has a Patreon, and that seems to make the difference between whether or not he can afford groceries for the month.

I…don’t have to worry about that. My writing career isn’t as impressive or storied as his, and if we both died tomorrow he’d leave a legacy and I’d leave very little. But I can afford to eat. I can afford a place to live. I don’t have to worry about who will be sending me a check, or how much I have squirreled away in case that check doesn’t come.

I don’t just get to write; I get to make a living as a writer.

I’m a tremendously lucky person for that reason if for no other, and I don’t let myself forget that. Better writers than me struggle more than I do. Worse writers than me do much better. There’s not much in the way of correlation between talent and success. No matter how much I have of the former, I’m a very lucky person to have any of the latter.

I’ve worked with more talented individuals than I could possibly list here. Sometimes on projects that went nowhere, sometimes on projects that could have been better, sometimes on projects that went better than we could have dreamed. I’ve known more people who have picked me up when I was down and encouraged me to keep going when I was hopeless than I can even remember. I’ve gotten where I am because a lot of people gave up little pieces of themselves to hold me together.

And now I’m getting a lot further.

This opportunity will open a lot of doors for me. That’s thrilling and frightening in equal measure. I keep expecting to wake up at any point now. And, of course, I keep hoping I won’t.

The draft is coming along great. I’m excited to share it with my publisher and excited to share the details with all of you once the time is right. This is a big thing for me, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

I grew up without much support for my writing. I can’t really blame anybody. Nobody should write because they expect to make money at it. I didn’t expect to make money at it, and my family understandably thought I should maybe look into some other career.

But then I started to meet people who also weren’t doing it for the money, who were doing it because that’s who they were. They worked at grocery stores or at restaurants or at movie theaters to pay the bills, and then they’d come home and write funny, moving, thought provoking things most of the world would never even know existed.

And they helped schmucks like me.

If I hadn’t found that support, and hadn’t had that support upheld so many times over the years, I wouldn’t be a writer today. Not professionally, at least. I’d have a hard drive full of Word .docs and a pad full of notes that would go, ultimately, nowhere.

That would be okay.

The fact that I’m any further along than that is a bonus. It’s more than enough for me. It’s always been more than enough.

But pretty soon, I get to take another step.

I’m a really lucky guy.

I hope you’ll stick around to see it through with me.

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