I Don't Know Why You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

I think one of the aftershocks of being a shunned nerd throughout middle school is that I am obsequiously, ridiculously happy whenever someone offers friendship.  It’s like a drug for me; hey, they want me around!  It’s that pleasant shock of being chosen first for the dodgeball team, that sensation that someone has weighed my merits and found them, astonishingly, to be worthy.
Then they leave.
I’m simplifying, of course, since obviously I have many deep and wonderful friendships that have lasted for years.  But I do notice that my life is scattered with people who’ve I’ve had an intense online relationship for three weeks, and then they go.
I’ve learned to deal with that.
Because what’ll happen is that someone emails me out of the blue, having seen my writings, and they’ll be all like, “Hi!  I liked your stuff, and X really resonated with me.” And because I like correspondence, I’ll write back and say, “Thanks!  What about X resonated?  Why?”  And then we’ll get into this very deep series of emails, sometimes two or three a day, about who we are and what’s going on in our lives and how we feel about things.  Sometimes it even escalates to texts.
And that’s a connection that I like.  I like newness.  I like people.  So new people in my life makes me squealingly happy.
Then I’ll send one email, and the responses will stop.  Maybe not altogether; sometimes, it just dribbles to a close.  But it doesn’t stop because of me; we had this exchange, and I was eager as always, and for one reason or another they’ve wandered off.  I’ll watch for any communication from them, but it doesn’t really come.
That always makes me a little sad.
That’s not a unique event, but a habit in my life.  There are at least six people like this in the last four months I can think of who this cycle has happened with.  And I used to get depressed about that, because I thought in my shabby teenaged way that what was happening was that we were becoming close friends.  Their leaving was some judgment upon me, and I wasn’t good or interesting enough to keep in their lives.  Why else would they wander off?
These days?  I’ve come to accept that it’s not me.  I’m not sure why they go, but I’ve come to accept that my goals in talking to people aren’t the same as the people I talk to.  For them, I assume, these exchanges of psychological intimacy are a pleasant diversion, not really headed anywhere, and some day they find something else in their lives and go.  And there’s nothing wrong with that except for my expectations; for me, it’s a path to ZOMG PONIES AND HAPPINESS AND FRIENDSHIP 4EVA, and for them it’s a nice way to pass a half-hour.
(And it’s not like my communications don’t wax and wane, but they usually don’t wane permanently.)
Dealing with that has made me cynical, or perhaps realistic.  What I once perceived as friendship was actually something ridiculously shallow – an exchange of psychological intimacies and anecdotes that I mistakenly assembled into something with real meaning.  I used to think that opening up and sharing those things made us friends, on some level… but it doesn’t.  It makes us compatible to be friends, possibly, potentially.  But there are a thousand other hurdles to pass because we pass the “cool dude” section and move officially to friendship.
Friendship, I’ve come to realize, can only be tested through time.  Are they still here six months from now?  Are we still talking?  Have we supported each other through travails?  Then maybe we’re friends.  And before that, what we have lies in the hazy zone between “acquaintance” and “buddy,” a sort of place where we’ve had a good solid conversation and established a mutual like, but not necessarily pursued it.
It makes me a little sad to have that approach, because there’s something more satisfying about living in a floppy happy dog world where oh boy, everybody’s your best buddy and the universe is full of friends wherever you look.  But this attitude, where I recognize that my life has many intense (for me) connections that come and go mysteriously, is much better for my psyche.
It doesn’t mean I don’t miss them when I leave; my heart is studded with a thousand tiny leaks of connections that once were, so much that it looks like a colander.  But it means that when they talk to me now, I just enjoy what’s there, and when they go, I don’t ascribe it to any particular failing on my part.  (Except, maybe, the part that was so slavishly ready to strike up a conversation with a stranger in the first place… and that’s a flaw I’m okay with having.)
So into the room they come and go, talking of Michaelangelo.  They still take a piece of me with them when they leave.  I’ve just learned to give it away.

Small Victories, Seven Weeks On

So it’s been seven weeks since I had open-heart surgery, and technically speaking I’m recovered.  I’d put myself at 85% back to normal, maybe 90%.
Still, there are odd triumphs.
For example, last night I finally slept on my side.  It hurt, as my ribs are still healing from being snipped open – and will for six months, I’m told – and I had to drug up a lot to sleep on my back.  But last night, I eschewed my usual dosage of Ativan and rolled over onto a pillow… and while it hurt getting there, I could stay there long enough to catch half an hour’s sleep.  Which I did, until I moved in my sleep and woke myself up, at which point I’d roll on my back for ten minutes, then push through the pain to roll back over on my side…
…it was not a good sleep.  But it was triumphant.
Likewise, I’ll be happy the day I can stay up late and be useful.  As it is, I have limited energy; by 8:30 at night, my brain fogs out and I’m pretty useless.  I can watch TV and converse, but anything that requires full concentration (like programming or writing) is right out.  Given that I often work late, this is bothersome.
There’s still tons of things I can’t do.  I can’t drive.  (In a crash, the steering wheel might crush my still-fragile sternum.)  I can’t lift anything over eight pounds, and it actually hurts a little to lift those weights, which means moving my laptop off my lap requires a bit of thought.  Coughing or sneezing is like being stabbed.  And – let us be frank – missionary position will be a fond memory for the next few months.
And I’m actually pissed at my doctors.  Those of you who remember my harrowing incident with the ventilator will know just how traumatic I found it to be intubated.  (Andrew Ducker sent me a link, which I read and then accidentally deleted his email, showing that one out of three people put on a ventilator displayed PTSD symptoms.  I don’t have the signs of PTSD, which is not to say it wasn’t significant; I was literally traumatized.)  That was the worst experience of my life.
I found out last night that this was expected behavior.  In other words, every patient with a triple bypass wakes up on a ventilator.  And yet not one of the fucking doctors or nurses involved with any of this said, “When this is over, you will wake up on a ventilator to help you breathe, and it’ll be about three hours before you can breathe on your own.”  So when I awoke, I thought this was a sign that something had gone drastically wrong, and not that this was SOP, leading to a ton of terror.
Christ, that makes me mad. One brief conversation would have saved me hours of fear, especially since they specifically encouraged me not to go on the Internet and look up how the surgery went, since that panicked many patients.  Well, if you advise me not to do my own research, the least you could do is tell me what to expect, you dumb fuckers.
(And no, I haven’t written up the rude nurse, but I still need to do that soon.  I will.)
Anyway.  I’m mostly better.  Still recovering seven weeks later, and maybe for months.  But I’m exercising.  I’m writing.  I’m getting there.

Why I Was Disappointed By The VFX People

So io9 has a great article on how the Oscars totally disrespected the Visual Effects industry.  The short version: the people who did the effects for Life of Pi, which has some of the greatest visual effects I have ever seen, are now broke.  The company’s insolvent.  And that’s apparently quite common in the VFX industry, where the best and brightest need profit sharing to keep their companies afloat.
(If you don’t think Life of Pi features brilliant visual effects, go watch it. Then ponder: the tiger is entirely CGI.)
Anyway, so when Life of Pi won for Best Visual Effects, they were going to make a stink about this shameful plight in their speech, but the producers played them off early and then cut the mic so no one knows what happened.  It was shameful, and awful – they should have been allowed to speak.
But they were so fucking stupid.
I watched, and the dude who accepted the award pissed away thirty seconds thanking people.  You can’t fucking do that when you’re going to make a statement.  Yeah, I know you’re grateful, but you’re on limited time – and people will understand if you don’t get to them.  Your whole fucking job was to tell the billion-plus people watching about the problems with the system, and you blathered on like this was any other speech.
I’m a writer, so I’ll help you: lead with the strongest thing.  You should have started with, and I was expecting you to, “Funny that we won this. We’re bankrupt now. We did literally the best job in the whole world last year, and we still couldn’t turn a profit.  You know why?”
If you’d started with that, they could have tackled you off-stage before you finished, and the entire world would still be Googling your name.  But no.  You gave the producers enough of an opportunity to bone you, and they shouldn’t have… but you knew they wouldn’t like what you had to say.  You knew they were out to get you.  And you fucked it up.
In this sense, it’s kind of like watching Gore hand over a commanding lead to Bush in 2000.  Gore ran a shitty campaign he should have won in a walk, and instead he dribbled away his victory until it came down to a handful of votes in Florida.  I think Bush’s lawyers and the Supreme Court were complete and raging assholes… but the fact is, you should never have put yourself into the situation where you got punked.
Likewise, I’m all for VFX artists.  I support them.  I used to buy Cinefex every month and marvel at what they did.  And I’m mad that the one chance they had to speak loudly to America, they instead decided to thank a bunch of random folks.

My Secret To Success: I'm The Dumb One

I think one of the reasons I’ve done as well as I have is that I’m often the least talented guy in the room.  But I sought that room out.
Now, it’s a little bruising on the ego to be the dumbest and least talented person in any group of folks.  You do feel intimidated, and maybe underaccomplished, and certainly feel a tremendous pressure to shut up, geniuses are talking.  The temptation is to leave these scary smart folks and seek out a group of people more on your level, where you won’t feel so far behind.
Here’s the trick, though: you only get the high-level advice when you talk to high-level people.  You might hang with a crowd of average joes and have a great time, but at the end of it you’re all working off of the same rough knowledge base.  You’ll exchange a few helpful tricks, since everyone has strong points – but it’ll take you longer to ascend to the next level.  Because those folks aren’t in the top tier, and they don’t know how to get there any better than you do.
So find a bunch of people who are really good at what they do, and try to learn directly from them.
But here’s the terrifying part.  When you’re among the brilliant, you don’t want to seem dumb.  So your natural temptation is to shut your mouth and nod, trying to pass for a genius.  But that won’t work.  Things will go over your head.
No, to make headway, you must actually admit your ignorance to them.  When you’re confused, say you’re confused.  If they’re talking about something you don’t know, say you don’t know what it is.  And while some folks will sneer, in my many years of experience using this trick, I’ve found that most people absolutely love to explain things to other people.  It makes the explainer feel smarter, and knowledgeable, and helpful – and if you hang around geniuses, what you soon learn is that many of them feel every bit as insecure as you do.  As long as you don’t ask for an explanation after every sentence, you’ll get along fine.
So what you get by hanging out is explanations by very smart folk, who often want to share their knowledge because it gives them a warm glow.  I’ve spent years behind the 8-ball – hell, I married a woman who is probably double my emotional IQ – and the progress I’ve made has been astonishing.
As such, I’ve made it my plan, whenever I can, to hang around people who are way above my pay grade.  And to be the dumb one.  Because to be the dumbest guy in a room full of smart folks is often a lot smarter than being the smartest guy in a room of dummies.

Why Seth MacFarlane Did A Beautiful Job (At What He Was Asked To Do)

My Twitter-feed was a sputtering of fury last night, as Seth MacFarlane let loose a series of offensive jokes.  How dare he make a song about the number of Oscar winners in the audience who’ve gone topless on film?  Jokes about slavery?  Sexual jokes about nine-year-old nominees?  What the fuck?
But there’s two things to remember:
1)  Should my Twitter-friends decide to all watch an episode of Family Guy together, they’d fury-sputter in pretty much the exact same way.
2)  Seth is part of a plan that does exactly what the Academy wanted to do, and he executed perfectly.
First off, I loved last night’s Oscars, but that’s because I love watching train wrecks.  And Seth MacFarlane imploded hideously (as you can see from his dwindling presence as the Oscars went on).  There’s a big difference between making a joke at a celebrity’s expense that they can laugh off, and one that they actually feel bad about.  Billy Crystal, as boring as I find him, is a master of knowing how to take an affectionate poke…
…but think of it this way.  You’re a woman sitting in the theater, waiting to see if you win one of the greatest honors of your life.  This has been your lifelong dream – you’ve dedicated your life to acting, and now after years, all of your peers and fans have thought that you – yes, you – were worthy of getting the greatest honor the industry literally has to offer.  This is Hollywood history.
To be an actress is to be rejected.  You get rejected all the time, sometimes for maddening stuff – you’re not tall enough, your nose is too big – and sometimes for vague reasons that no one ever explains because they don’t have to.  You’re just not right for the part.  So all you can do is double down, try harder and try to get better, and after a decade of clawing your way through constant failure, you get to bask in the night that tells the world that yes, you’ve made it.
Then Seth MacFarlane reduces you to a pair of tits.
That’s why Oscar hosts have such a treacherous job; too toothless, you fail to entertain the audience.  But too sharp, and you make the nominees feel awful on the night they’re trying to celebrate in a way they can’t shake off.  And yes, a lot of those Hollywood guys are prickly and egotistic and thin-skinned, but it’s not a roast.
Seth MacFarlane took a lot of shots that bit deep.  And while I appreciate the funniness of deconstructing these fat cats, it’s like watching Chris Rock rip into Jude Law during his Oscar turn; I think, dude ain’t being asked back.
Your main job is to tweak the stars, gently.  Seth drew blood.
Plus, there’s the problem that Seth MacFarlane can actually construct a good joke.  He’s got a firm grip on the mechanics of comedy; he just thinks making fun of broads and gay guys and black people is hysterical.  And yeah, he hits every target eventually, which is a kind of saving grace, but he tends to focus on the stuff beer-sodden frat boys find really funny.  So you’re gonna find a lot of transgressive humor that hits weak targets (AH HA SPANISH PEOPLE SPEAK FUNNY OH WHO KNEW THAT, AM I RIGHT?).  Which isn’t really funny a lot of the time, at least not to the people who watch Oscar films because they believe in the beauty of the human spirit.
Yet that’s exactly what he was brought in to do.
Was last night’s Oscars an episode of Family Guy?  Family Guy, one of the most popular shows among a young audience?  The very audience that barely watches the Oscars, that the Academy is desperately trying to appeal to?
Yes.  They’re trying.  Just like they tried with Anne Hathaway and James Franco’s misfire a few years ago – hey, what do young kids like?  Can we put that in there?  Shit, if this many young kids ignore us, then in thirty years we won’t be able to get this on network television any more.  We gotta think towards the future.
So they crossed their fingers.  They knew Seth was a risk, and would definitely offend, but maybe he’d bump the demographics enough to save the franchise.  And he made the Oscars into pretty much everything people thought it would be, and if you like Family Guy you probably loved it and if you hate Family Guy well, they knew they were gonna lose you.  But could he walk that fine line between “offensive jokes” and “being mean to the celebrities”?
Nope.  Fell right off.  Look at the stone faces behind Seth when he’s talking to Captain Kirk.  They don’t even give him a laugh for the pretty funny line of “What if I’m the first Oscar host to ever get a bad review?”  He lost them, and never came back.
So next year, they swing back.  Get someone safe so they don’t piss off their established audience. Ratings will be higher this year, but that’s because people actually saw the movies, and probably little to do with Seth himself.
But in a bizarre way, the Oscars are sort of an inverse of comics.  Comics are struggling to stay relevant because yes, much of the industry seems to realize that it’s become a sinkhole of misogyny and stale plots, and all of the people who might write stuff that’s interesting have fled to webcomics.  Some of them want to change.  But they have this core audience – the majority of their remaining sales – who really want to see attractive women stuffed into refrigerators, and you have to satisfy that base while you wildly experiment.  You might try wildly on the sidelines to create a hit that appeals to people who are not mouth-breathing dateless dudes… but that’s a rough thing to do, because you’re trying to craft a hit so big that it appeals to people who don’t read comics, reigniting the industry and creating a whole new genre that saves your business model.  And while you’re trying that, you need to serve up the same dreck to an unthinking audience.
The Oscars are the opposite – they’re staid, stodgy, not all that fun to most of the younger generation, who don’t like the movies they choose, and don’t like how every ceremony goes on frickin’ forever.  So the Academy is trying to be crazy wild, doing things The Kids love, but then they piss off their celebrities (who they need to come back, as watching celebs is the only draw the Oscars have), and they piss off their older viewers.  So they snap back and hey, Billy Crystal.
So.  Seth’s another wild shot in the dark.  They hired him to make it into a Family Guy episode, and that’s what he did.  I bet many of them were holding their nose at the idea.  They were just hoping that, somehow, it would work.