Does it piss you off when people call genre fiction escapist? They’re usually kind of assholes about it, right? Don’t they get that the stories we tell ourselves about monsters are metaphors for the deep, unspoken horror of being human? Why do they say that?

This is why. There’s no escaping this.

I’m gonna spoil some things. This is your warning.

True-detective-1x02-7There were enough breadcrumbs (some more obvious than others) to lead suitably geeky viewers to see Elder Gods poking their tentacles through the holes in the unraveling lives in “True Detective.” And when Rust Cohle followed Errol Childress into his creepy labyrinth, you could almost hear Cthulhu rumbling under the stones. Instead, Rust took a knife to the gut and Errol took a bullet to the head and everyone was just a fucked up sack of meat trying to process all that mythology that swirls like a vortex in the theater of our fever-addled brains.

No escapism here. Fuck you, Ambrose Bierce.

And fuck escapism, because if you give in and follow that vortex, you don’t get to push through the pain and horror and reach epiphany.

true-detective-treeThe supernatural world is so close you can just see it out of the corner of your eye. That’s what makes “True Detective” so real. We can almost see it, too. We live in it, pretending we don’t. The stories we tell ourselves are so unreal they’re overpoweringly real. Our willingness to let them overwhelm us gives them power. Errol Childress is the moldering fruit dangling from one branch of a rotten tree, focused on myth, wallowing in generational evil — horrifying, delusional, monstrous.

Rust and his partner Marty Hart are absolutely fucked up, but they’re grubby, earthy, human fucked up. And they both suffer plenty for it. But they got a damn near happy ending because in the end, their humanity almost kills them. It’s that brush with death that redeems them as much as any of us can be redeemed.

Darkness, yeah!

Exit

March 8, 2014 — 1 Comment

It’s been nearly ten years since my mother died.

It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve spoke to my father.

This one is raw. Posting it is nervous-making. I’m sure other people remember some of these events differently. These are my memories.

____________________

L’enfer, c’est les autres.

I am six years old. I lie on my stomach on the braided rug that covers the living room floor, eyes fixed on the red-faced man screaming from the television set. My parents ask me if I understand what he is saying, and I want to tell them that he keeps saying the h-word but I know I’m not supposed to repeat it. So I shake my head. They seem sad, but they call me over to sit between them on the couch, and I do.

“He’s talking about Hell,” my father explains. I guess he’s allowed to say it. He’s a grown up, after all.

I nod.

“Hell is a real place. It’s where people go when they die if they don’t believe in Jesus. Do you believe in Jesus?”

I nod again.

“It’s not enough just to believe he exists,” my mother adds. “You have to believe believe. You have to accept Jesus into your heart.” I have seen pictures of Jesus. I imagine his beard would itch if he were inside my heart.

“Demons believe he exists, too, but they won’t go to Heaven.” my father says this, but my mother lays a hand on his arm.

“Don’t scare him by talking about demons.”

“But he should be scared. This is real. Do you want him to spend eternity in Hell?”

I sit between them, looking from one to the other as they talk. The red-faced man is still yelling.

“Jesus came.” My father is talking to me again. “Jesus came so we wouldn’t have to go to Hell. Hell is an awful place. It’s full of fire, and demons, and sinners – but most of all, it’s full of loneliness. That’s the worst part. Being alone. Jesus wants us to live with Him forever in Heaven.” I can hear him capitalize Him.  “That’s where He’ll be, and that’s where your mother and I will be. Don’t you want to be there with us?” I nod yet again. I want to be with them forever no matter where they are. They seem very happy, and I know I’ve done something right. They kneel in front of the couch, and I do, too. They close their eyes and my father says some words that start, “Dear Jesus.” My mother nudges me, and I repeat them. When we’re done, my parents sit down on the couch again. They are crying. I crawl up between them, and I am very happy.

-

I am twenty-nine years old. It’s late – or early, depending on your point of view. My father left hours ago, and my sisters and brother are sitting in my mother’s hospital room. The small table in the corner is buried in snacks. Ruffles and Coke, my mother’s cure for everything from the common cold to a broken heart. My sister brought those. I know without asking. Add a puzzle and a cat and it’s every Thanksgiving and Christmas morning I can remember.

I don’t think we’ve ever spent this much time together as adults. I am the youngest, my parents’ only shared child. No one else in this room is biologically related to my father. They talk about his failures, his get-rich-quick schemes, his correspondence-course need to tack title and degree after meaningless title and degree to his name. About his inability to hold a job.

When I was born, he worked at this hospital. In fact, he was at work when my mother went into labor with me. They paged him to the maternity wing, and everyone had a good laugh. But something happened a few years later. No one really knows what. He always said he quit because he couldn’t get along with his boss, but some people tell different stories. Some of those people still work in this hospital. And they would remember. Maybe that’s why he’s never here.

My sisters and brother talk about all this and more. To them, he was a usurper, a man who married their mother and replaced their father. They can criticize him fearlessly. I cannot.

And I am alone.

-

I am ten years old. My brother has just locked me out of the house, and I want to get inside. He’s home on leave. My brother is ten years older than I am, and I want nothing more than to impress him. Well, except for him to let me back in the house. I pound on the door with my fists, but he ignores me. I pound harder. Still no response. I kick the door as I punch it, and finally he appears in the window. He is smiling.

“LET! ME! IN!” I scream at him, not because I want to be heard but because I am angry. He smiles at me and shakes his head. I hate that smile. I am angry and frustrated; what right does he have to be so cheerful?

I flip him off.

His smile vanishes. The doorknob turns. I have won. But he is not letting me inside. As he bursts through the doorway, I turn and run as fast as I can. I’m lucky to get halfway around the house. He catches me and pins me to the ground.

“You’re a douche,” I say. In for a dime, in for a dollar. I have no idea what a douche is, but I’ve heard people say it, and it sounds really insulting.

I don’t get up for a long time. Any fight between a twenty-year-old sailor and a ten-year-old overweight bookworm that doesn’t end in death is full of mercy, but I am on the ground, and I am hurt, and he has gone back inside and locked the door.

And I am alone.

-

I am twenty-nine years old. I am sitting on an old vinyl couch, its metal arms rusty, its padding tattered. My sisters are sitting in similarly ratty chairs, both crying. My brother is sitting on the other end of the couch, his face unreadable, but I can read plenty of anger into it and it’s all pointed at me. My father is between us, his head on my chest, his tears soaking my shirt. Down the hall, my mother is dying.

I shift my weight, telling my father that I want to get up. Slowly, he pulls away from me. “Thank you,” he whispers. I walk into the hallway. My sister follows me.

“He just wants some time alone with her.” She hasn’t accused me of anything yet, but I am defensive. “With his wife. How is that wrong?”

“It’s not,” my sister says. Everything but her words screams that it is. Very wrong. “It’s just . . . what do you think he’ll do in there. With none of us there?”

“You think he’s going to smother her or something?” I say it. Somebody had to.

“Well, no . . .” Well, yes.

“Whatever else he might be, he’s a man who’s losing his wife.” You treat someone like a monster long enough, maybe that’s what they become. He’s not her father. She doesn’t understand how deeply his failings cut.

“I know what he is.” She’s ice cold now. “I live here. But you show up and start speaking for everyone.” I’ve been watching my mother die by proxy, half a country away. Never there to help, never there to see her. Her illness moves in giant leaps for me, but in tiny drips for my sister.

“How was I supposed to know ‘Can I spend some time alone with my dying wife?’ needed to be put to a vote?” It’s almost the end now, and my father wants to be here. For days, we’ve practically had to bar the door to keep him near her. Or maybe I was the only one who wanted to do that.

“You weren’t. No one expects you to know what things are like here now.” This isn’t your fight, stranger. Don’t you have somewhere else to be? She turns on her heel and walks to the nurse’s station outside my mother’s room.

And I am alone.

-

I am twelve years old. I have a feathered headdress on my head and a sour expression on my face. The other students parade back and forth across the stage, singing songs, gesturing gestures, speaking speeches – but I am Indian #2, and I am singing no songs, gesturing no gestures, speaking no speeches. I wanted nothing to do with it, and I have my wish.

My mother teaches at this little private school in the basement of a Baptist church. I am supposed to do something great with my life — we all are. We are supposed to change the world for Jesus. When you think about it, it’s the least we can do.

Last year, I had a lead role in the school play. It was exhilarating, terrifying, almost too much to bear. Almost. I was thrilled by the attention, ecstatic to play such an important part. But this year, they expected it of me. How dare they just assume I would join in? So I refused.

I’ll be in it if I have to, I told my teacher. But no speaking parts. She seemed disappointed. I was worried she’d tell my mother. My mother might force me to do it. Maybe I wanted that.

But I am Indian #2. I have no lines. I have no songs. I am part of the scenery.

And I am alone.

-

I am twenty-nine years old. I am sitting in my mother’s hospital room. It’s been two days, but none of us has left. Except my father. He comes and goes frequently, staying only long enough to check on her, then running off again. Maybe he needs to be at work. Maybe all of us need to be at work.

“He’s selling the house.” My sister can read my face as my father walks out the door. “Moving to Mississippi, from what I hear.”

“Are you sure?” I ask. Of course she’s sure.

“He had a ‘For Sale’ sign up the other day. He took it down when he saw me looking at it.” She wouldn’t have to go far. She lives right across the street, in the field where we used to fly kites. All of that land was divided up years ago when I was still in high school. What would I want with any of it? I wasn’t ready. No one asked.

“I thought . . .” It doesn’t matter what I thought. My thoughts are selfish. The only plot of land left on the beautiful old New England farm where my grandfather was born – that he and my mother and I each grew up in, generation after generation – was the one my father was selling. The only one that he could still leave to me. The one he had let go to shit around him. The one I had dreamed of caring for the way my grandfather used to care for it when he would visit, the way my father never cared for it. I am sitting at my mother’s death bed as my father sells off her memory.

And I am alone.

-

I am eighteen years old. This is my first week at the Baptist college my parents chose for me. Well, that’s not true. It is my first week, but my parents didn’t force this on me. I chose it. Granted, they made my options feel limited. Some of the schools they recommended were more conservative than this one, but I’ve spent my entire life with Jesus, God, and the Bible ringing in my head. I don’t know any other way.

My roommate is at church. Church is mandatory here. We have to fill out a form saying where we went. But this is Ohio – right where the Bible Belt buckles – and there are so many churches with so many people in them that no one would ever know if you went or not.

So I don’t go.

It’s all starting to ring false to me. All the sermons, all the politics, all the guarding of hearts, all the marching and signs, saving lives, saving souls. It’s phony, or at least I’m phony for claiming to believe it. With so many truths swimming around, who could be arrogant enough to claim to know which one had a capital T?

My roommate, for one. I can’t talk to him about any of this. Jesus may have come to bring us freedom, but one of those freedoms was absolutely not the freedom to question him – sorry, Him. Jesus, God, and the Bible are real to my roommate the way air is real, and anyone who thinks otherwise should have his head examined, and should definitely be very, very far away from the good people who know better. So my roommate spends his Sunday mornings in church, and I spend mine going through all the motions with him – up bright and early, dressed in Sunday best, lock the room, head down the stairs . . . and off to breakfast as soon as he’s out of sight.

I’m a phony.

And I am alone.

-

I am twenty-nine years old. I just got off a plane from Chicago, and I haven’t seen my mother in months. She’s dying. No one doubts it. But I haven’t seen her, so none of it is real to me. My sister yanks the baseball cap off my head as I approach my mother’s hospital bed. Her face is sunken, her eyes dim, and I see only the barest glint of recognition in them. She moves her mouth as if to speak, but I hear only moans.

“Oh, she recognizes you!” My sister is in tears. So am I, but hers are happy. “She’s so happy to see you. Look.” I look. I wish I could see what she sees. I kneel by the bed and hug my mother, and my sister joins the others on the far side of the room.

I’m sure each of us has had this moment, one by one, arriving at her bedside and holding her motionless body, whispering words of love, of sorrow, of fear, of guilt and sadness and shame. To her, the moments must blur together, child indistinguishable from child, face from face, love from love.

We are together.

+

Days later, we gather around her bed. My sister is a nurse, and she recognizes the signs. Mom’s about to go. We hold hands and encircle her bed. One by one, we break the circle and walk to her bedside. Some of us talk to her quietly. Some just hold her. No one makes any speeches. After some timeless amount of time, my sister starts to sing.

We are together.

+

Mom doesn’t die then. She lives several more days, in fact. The doctors say her body is too healthy to die. Her heart won’t stop, even though the cancer has spread from her uterus to her lungs to her brain. My sister apologizes, as if any of us would want that moment back.

We are together.

+

The next day, my sister walks into the room hand-in-hand with my four-year-old daughter. My wife has driven through the night to be with me, and my sister has taken my daughter off to explain the idea of death. Better her than me. When they first walk in, I think my sister is leading, but it quickly becomes clear my daughter is driving this train. She drops my sister’s hand and marches right up to my mother’s deathbed. Fearless. She doesn’t hesitate the way I did when I first walked up to that bed four days ago, and I feel a little shame, but my pride in her washes it away.

“I took her to the cemetery,” my sister tells me. “I wanted her to see . . . I don’t know, something she could touch.”

I nod.

My daughter reaches up, and I think she will take my mother’s hand. Instead, she puts something on the bed, then closes my mother’s hand around it. A pine cone. “This is from where you will sleep,” she tells my mother.

We are together.

My mother has waited her entire life for Jesus to come and take her away, but she doesn’t have to die for Heaven. As we stand around her bed, loving her, being her children, crying openly both for sorrow and for joy, we are all together. We are Heaven. And this is eternity. I look at my daughter, at my wife, at my sisters, at my brothers, at that pine cone, at my mother’s hand, and I accept it all into my heart. This isn’t the Heaven my parents taught me about, but for me, it’s better. It’s one I can see. One I can feel. One I can believe. And I don’t just believe. I believe believe.

Hell is a real place.

Hell is the absence of this.

Hell is alone.

The World Needs The 33

January 31, 2014 — Leave a comment

The World Needs The 33. And so do you. And today, you lucky so-and-so, you can get it.

If you know me at all, you know about J.C. Hutchins’s work. You probably got a copy of 7th Son: DescentPersonal Effects: Dark Art, or both for Christmas one year. Hutch spins a hell of a yarn, and he’s back with an absolute gem in The 33.

The33_Episode1_Cover

How do you stop a cabal of baddies from jumpstarting the apocalypse? You assemble a group of 33 misfits with unusual skills, that’s how. The 33 is a sci-fi/supernatural thriller series — think The X-Files meets Hellboy — and after reading the first episode, I was jonesing for more.

But stop listening to my casual addiction metaphors. Get over to jchutchins.net and see for yourself. The 33 is an episodic tale with new episodes coming monthly. Each story is available in both text ($1.99) and audio ($2.99); you can snag a bundle with both directly from Hutch’s site for $3.99 (What a deal!)

J.C. Hutchins is a hell of a talented writer, and I’m proud to call him a pal. I’ve had glimpses and peeks at this story world for a little while now, and I’m super excited to watch this story unfold.

The World Needs The 33.

And the world is in luck, because the first episode is available today.

So go get it.

I can’t fault you for thinking Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY is about astronauts and space. It totally looks like it is. All the ads show George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in space suits. Magazines are interviewing astronauts to ask how accurate the science is. Neil deGrasse Tyson is all up in Twitter’s business about how inaccurate the science is. You’d almost be crazy not to assume the whole flick is about astronauts and space.

Not even close.

[WARNING]

I’m about to spoil the hell out of this movie for you, so if you haven’t seen it, you might want to go handle that now. IMAX, if you can. It’s worth the extra couple bucks. Swear.

[/WARNING]

Now, if you’ll indulge a personal anecdote and a little wound opening . . .

My wife was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004. Our daughter was three years old. You’ve had loved ones diagnosed with things — maybe you’ve been diagnosed with something yourself — which means you know that a diagnosis isn’t when you find out something is wrong. A diagnosis is when you learn the name of the thing that’s been destroying your life. Sadly, naming a thing doesn’t make it magically disappear like some kind of Reverse Beetlejuice. The thing making my wife stare off blankly into the middle distance while holding our infant daughter, the thing making her sleep for hours or even days on end, the thing making her look at her wrists and face and wonder how to get everything on the inside onto the outside — learning to call that thing BIPOLAR DISORDER did not make her face light up, did not get her out of bed, did not remove everything sharp from the house. Medication didn’t do that, either, but it helped. Finding the right mix of pills, sunlight, rest, activity, sleep and food is a daily struggle. We’ve nearly divorced twice because she knew something was dragging her down and I was right there, holding on tight enough to be guilty.

GRAVITY is a movie about depression.

If you’ve ever lived with someone who’s depressed (I mean really depressed, not just down), you probably recognize it in Ryan Stone’s behavior. Flat. Monotone. Distant. Sick all the time (dig those sniffles). She snaps out of it in a crisis, as you do, but swings right back to distance as soon as things calm down. No hope. She’s going to die up there, and no one will mourn her. When she finally does open up, it’s to tell the heartbreaking truth that sits on her chest like an elephant: her four-year-old daughter died in a playground accident, and since then Ryan has shut down. Back home in Lake Zurich, Illinois, at 8:00 p.m. Central time, she just drives. Just drives.

She wishes she could have saved her daughter. She knows she could have if she’d just been there. She sees a chance to save mission commander Matt Kowalski and there’s light in her eyes as she screams, “I’ve got you!” But he knows she doesn’t.

“You’ve got to learn to let go, Ryan,” he tells her as he sets himself adrift.

“I had you,” she mutters. “I had you.” But she didn’t. And now she’s lost someone else that it should have been in her power to save.

Gravity_bullock_asleepHe guides her, almost from beyond the grave, to the airlock of the International Space Station. Once inside, she rolls into a fetal position. The metaphor seems heavy-handed for a second. We get it. She’s in the womb and ready for a rebirth. But everyone doesn’t make it out of the womb alive. Birth is traumatic. Birth kills people. Nothing about this is going to be pleasant.

Tense crisis after tense crisis chase her into the damaged escape pod of the I.S.S., and there she finds that both she and the Soyuz are out of fuel. She picks up a transmission from Earth and as she listens to dogs bark and babies cry, she decides she’s had enough. No one will mourn her. No one will pray for her. She shuts everything down and waits for death.

Hope comes instead. And not from a devastatingly handsome superman, but from her own mind. Her little four-year-old daughter Sarah and her fellow survivor Matt, both of whom died so senselessly and whose deaths she just knows she could have prevented, are her totems now. She leaps out of despair into faith and hope, asking them to take care of each other. She’s given herself permission to exist, and if you know what depression is like, you know that’s a hell of a thing.

Ryan Stone gives herself the best chance she can to survive, but as she prepares to descend she knows it’s a crap shoot. And that’s fine. Because accepting the possibility of death as a consequence of living ain’t the same thing as embracing death. “I’ll just sleep while you sing to me” and “I’m either going to make it or I’m going to die” both sound fatalistic, but they’re damn near opposite sides of the coin when your brain is constantly out to get you. Alive or dead, she’s alive.

I’ve heard GRAVITY described as more of a technical triumph than a storytelling triumph. I’ve seen endless lists describing its scientific or procedural inaccuracies.

Here’s how I’ll describe it: when the credits rolled, I sat in my seat and cried my eyes out.

It’s October! Halloween is in October! Halloween is scary!

In honor of the scary awesomeness of Halloween and because Julie “The Witch Doctor” Hutchings asked me to and I basically do anything she asks me to do, I wrote a scary story.

I don’t have the time/energy/talent/false modesty to write fiction very often. It was fun. I hope you like it, and that it creeps the hell out of you.

Boo!

Daddy’s Little Girl, by D. C. Perry

Years are sneaky little bastards. Before you know it, they’ve turned into decades and started smoking drugs and wrecking the family minivan and YOU GET BACK IN THIS HOUSE RIGHT NOW

Sorry.

Anyway, I’m in grad school now. There was a time when I didn’t think I’d go at all, then I thought I’d go a year after college, then I got married and had a daughter and got a job and moved and got another job and moved again and got another job and . . .

It’s 15 years later. I’m the old guy. But I’m there.

I’ve worked in education in some form or another for almost all 15 of those years, but I’ve spent just a little bit of that time teaching. This semester, I get to hang out with my One True Love Flannery O’Connor, but I also have to learn about literary theories that weren’t even a thing when I was an undergrad and hear about how some theories were current in the late ’90s but have since faded and realize that maybe I am one of them.

Impostor Syndrome is kicking my ass.so-we-beat-on-300x253

And sometimes I wonder if I’m just trying to recapture something that is gone forever. Am I Jay Gatsby, desperate to push a giant reset button on a game that can’t be reset? Is grad school my ostentatious mansion, some mythical teaching job the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock?

And one fine morning —

endersgameI love Ender’s Game. It’s one of the books that made me love reading.

I love Speaker for the Dead. I wrote my final paper in college on it, a 20-page academic blusterfest about its function as a piece of metafiction.

I love Maps in a Mirror. It contains some of my favorite pieces of short fiction. I bought a replacement copy when my original was ruined during a move.

I do not love Orson Scott Card’s politics. I was ignorant of them when I learned to love his fiction. The only thing I knew about Orson Scott Card was that his name was on the cover of some of my favorite books.

Orson Scott Card is a bigot. There’s no two ways about it. Every time he opens his yap, bigot falls out. He thinks homosexuality is unnatural. Which is fine. Stupid, but fine. He’s free to think whatever he likes. But then he goes the next step. He actively works against the legalization of gay marriage. He actively works against gay people.

A movie adaptation of Ender’s Game is coming this fall.

I said I wouldn’t weigh in on this. I said that art is not the artist. I said that his politics are his, but his books are ours.

And then he opened his mouth again.

Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot.  The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.

Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.

Orson Scott Card

Son of a bitch.

Let’s take this paragraph-sentence by paragraph-sentence.

1. If he thinks that gay marriage wasn’t a political issue in 1984, he’s crazier than I thought. Gay marriage was not an issue in 1984 in the same way that women’s suffrage was not an issue in 1901.

2. Well, at least he recognizes that this is an avalanche even he can’t stop.

3. Oh, for shit’s sake, that old chestnut? “Can you be as tolerant, for a completely different value of ‘tolerant,’ to me as I never ever ever was and in fact told others not to be to you? Because if you can’t somehow avoid treating me as the jerk I was and basically still am, I get Moral Highground points for life. Stickyouty tongue!”

So what do we do with this movie? I’m going to be super reductionist here and posit three groups of people who might want to answer this question.

Group 1: People who love Card’s politics.

Frankly, I don’t care how you feel about Ender’s Game or what you do. You’re a bunch of jerks. Go watch the movie. Or don’t. Don’t sit by me.

Group 2: People who hate both Card’s politics and Ender’s Game.

Seems pretty easy for you guys. Don’t go. Don’t give him your money. Don’t watch a trailer. Don’t look at a poster. Don’t buy a kid’s meal at whatever fast food franchise offers the Bugger Burger.

Group 3: People who hate Card’s politics but love Ender’s Game.

Here’s where things get tricky for me. This is my group. I’ve been excited about this movie since before I knew gay people existed. In my mind, there is no connection between Card’s politics and this story. But the jackass keeps trying to draw one for me. By opening his yap.

I still plan to see Ender’s Game. For me, there is still a strong enough separation between the art and the artist that I can see this movie with the joy and anticipation of childhood intact.

Every time — every. single. time. — Orson Scott Card says some-politically-stupid-thing between now and the release of Ender’s Game, that joy and anticipation gets dented. And the odds that I boycott the movie because I can’t untangle it from this bigot increase.

Of course, this swings both ways. Psst. Hey, Scott. (Can I call you Scott?) An apology would go a long way. Not with some people — you’ve done a lot of damage — but with some of us. Maybe with most. With me. You’ve come damn close to saying you were wrong already. Go the next step. You can still believe homosexuality is wrong. But say you were wrong to work so hard to deny rights to others. Say you’re sorry and mean it.

I can’t emphasize strongly enough, though, to everyone, that you should not eat the Bugger Burger.

Matt Smith is leaving Doctor Who.

The Doctor is a strange role. Every new Doctor has an expiration date stamped on his head, since we know he took over because the last guy left. And we love the last guy – this new guy will never be any good, he’s nothing like the last guy. And then we warm up to the new guy just in time for him to become the last guy and here comes the new guy. We hate the new guy.

But even more than the last guy, we love that little pocket between the last guy and the new guy. That’s when we get to play.

Almost immediately (OK, this is the Internet – totally immediately) after news broke that Smith is done, names for the new guy started flying. Idris Elba. Stephen Fry. Chiwetel Eijofor. Martin Freeman.

Helen Mirren.

*RECORD SCRATCH*

While I’m gratified that no one seems to care about the Doctor’s race anymore, his gender is carved in stone – manly, manly stone. I don’t really understand the objections, but I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. I’ve seen a few different types:

“I prefer a male Doctor.”

Totally cool. I get it. That’s your right, naturally.

“The Doctor is a man. I’ve seen him on TV for years, and even though he’s looked different over the years, he’s always been male. He can’t change gender any more than you or I could.”

The actors who have played the Doctor are men. The Doctor is a fictional character and can do and be whatever the writers want. This is a science fiction show about a centuries-old time traveler, and changing gender isn’t even science fiction anymore. I’m a little worried about you, since you seem to have trouble distinguishing fantasy and reality.

“The Doctor has very male attitudes and behaviors.”

Um . . . I think you’re wading into some dangerous water. You might want to examine your thinking, look for unconscious stereotyp–

“Plus the Doctor married a woman and flirts with women all the time, so being female would change everything.”

Uh oh.

I should note (though I probably don’t have to) that very few of these comments came from women.

Men, this is not a good time for science fiction and gender relations. Between the “fake geek girl” bullshit and Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s recent tone-deaf brain sewage, this genre and the satellites we claim in its name seem increasingly threatened by and threatening to women. If seeing the Doctor regenerate into a woman would actually ruin the show for you, that bums me out. It really does. Not because you won’t enjoy the show anymore; because of the rigid, unflinching, ungenerous frownypants guys you represent. My daughter would totally love seeing a female Doctor, and I would love it with her. Instead of digging your nails into all the things you think are yours and yours alone, maybe it’s time to learn to share.

In that spirit, let’s assume the next Doctor won’t be a white dude (I mean, he will, but maybe if we pretend loud enough we can drown out reality).

Who’s your pick?

It is finished. It is glorious.

masseffecttrilogy

Before Christmas, I knew three things about the Mass Effect series:

  1. It was science fiction.
  2. It starred Commander Shepard, who could be a dude or lady, depending on your preference.
  3. The Internet hated the end.

That was enough for me, though, so I let my daughter know I was interested and she passed that information on to the proper authorities. Lo and behold, Christmas morning, my very own copy of the Mass Effect Trilogy for PS3.

masseffect

Mass Effect is a sprawling science fiction epic. Games like this can be a little daunting for me. So many options! In fact, so many SECRET options. In the main menu, before you even start the game, is an innocuous little option called ENTER CUSTOM ID. This looked like a name change option to me, and I’m not really into renaming my characters. Shepard was cool with me. Skip it! Let’s go! Turns out that ENTER CUSTOM ID option is loaded with choices, from gender to character class to backstory. It’s fantastic stuff, but it was invisible, at least to me. So my Shepard was stock out the box – a male soldier born on Earth who was the sole survivor of some mission gone horribly awry. Mass Effect is an old game (time moves faster now, deal with it). The menus and controls felt clunky, and it didn’t autosave the way I expect a game to autosave. As a privileged and entitled gamer of the year 2013, I expect to die and pop right back up damn near where I fell. Mass Effect says nerts to all that and sends you back to a frustratingly distant point in the past. I learned to save often. The graphics were impressive enough for me, but I’m pretty much impressed with anything that looks better than my old Atari 2600.

Hell, you are no doubt thinking. What a crappy game. Why did you keep playing it? Well, I’ll tell you. While it might be a bit poor in controls and graphics and menu clarity, this game is rich as hell in story and character. In some games, the cutscenes are little payoffs or rewards for completing a level or defeating a boss. In Mass Effect, the cutscenes are the game. The choices you make in conversation, the relationships you develop with other characters, the characters who live and die as a result of those choices – that’s Mass Effect, and that’s what makes it incredibly immersive and affecting. I won’t remember what gun or armor I had equipped to Commander Shepard in any given firefight, but I will always remember having to choose to leave one of my soldiers behind to get the rest to safety. I will always remember choosing whether to let the last survivor of an ancient race live or die. I will always remember the life and death argument I had with Urdnot Wrex.

urdnotwrex

And I would get to continue remembering those things as I started Mass Effect 2, because each game in the series allows you to import saves from the previous one.

All the choices my Commander Shepard made – life or death, good or ill – followed me from Mass Effect into Mass Effect 2.

masseffect2

Mass Effect 2 felt much more like a modern game. The controls were different, but my frustration with the change was just that – I got used to the new button configuration in no time, and certainly preferred it. Mass Effect 2 autosaved the way my entitled and lazy soul expected, so there was no more “I have to go all the way back WHERE?! Done!” business. The structure felt both more open and more constrained. In Mass Effect, I could (and did) race through the main plot, leaving side missions to rot on the vine while I cruised from A to B. In Mass Effect 2, while that is still an option, everyone in the game makes it very clear that it is not a wise option. As my chore list grew longer and longer, I grew more and more frustrated with the grind of it all.

Guess what redeemed it.

That’s right – the characters. Every mission began with a groan and ended with a grin. Each apparently bland mission I’d be sent to complete would crackle with characterization. By the time I was ready for the terrifying final mission of Mass Effect 2, I knew each member of my crew in a way I knew only a couple in Mass Effect. I cared about them because I had worked alongside them to exorcise some demon from their past. As I made more life-or-death choices and sent them on suicide missions in the game’s Thrilling Conclusion(tm), I was genuinely worried for them. I wanted them all to come back safely.

They didn’t.

And I was heartbroken. Genuinely heartbroken.

Because I knew my choices would continue to haunt me in Mass Effect 3, and the characters I lost on that final mission would not play any role in that game. I would feel their loss. I just knew it. I didn’t know it would affect an entire race, though.

Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 carried over most of the gameplay elements of Mass Effect 2, with a couple of tweaks here and there. At first the urgency of the impending threat to Earth didn’t gel well with the Galactic Errand Boy structure of the game, but once I accepted that the Thrilling Conclusion(tm) would wait until I got there, I settled down and got to work. There are chore lists long enough to choke a Reaper, but the little character moments carry them along once again. Differently, this time, though, because rather than getting to know my new crew, I was treated to moments with members of my old one.

That treat was noticeably absent on one very important mission, and before I realized it, I was making genocidal decisions because I missed a woman who died on my final Mass Effect 2 mission. Every argument the members of her race made to me, I rejected. “You’re not her. What do you know? In fact, your very presence here offends me, because I’m sure if I hadn’t let her die, she’d be here in your place.” I didn’t think it, but I felt it. And before I knew it, it was too late. I’d doomed them all.

talilegion

Mass Effect 3’s ending has driven the entire Internet insane, it seems. Coming to it a bit late, I experienced only the Extended Cut ending, which I hear fixes some of the problems gamers had with the original ending. I had no issue with the ending. It felt satisfying to me, and it gave me a sense of closure. If you didn’t like it, feel no obligation to convince me to hate it. All opinions are held. As for me and my Shepard, we learned to love an unlovable crew of misfits, we met a sketchy alien we wouldn’t trust with our laundry and learned to trust him with our lives, we prevented almost as many genocides as we caused and we went out like Big Damn Heroes. And we are probably going to do it all over again very soon.

The house I grew up in is gone.

My grandfather was born in a small farmhouse in Sheffield, Massachusetts, in 1913. Sixty-three years later, my parents brought me home from the hospital to the same house. My grandfather retired to Ft. Myers, Florida, but left a small camper that he and my grandmother stayed in when they visited. Grandpa was a small man, but he lit up a room with his smile. He didn’t hand out approval easily, but when he did it hit like a wave. He was wiry and weathered the way you imagine old New Englanders; Robert Frost and E. E. Cummings, rugged and righteous, wise and wise-ass. I looked forward to those visits every summer. When Grandpa was there, we never watched TV. We worked hard outside all day; he always looked the place up and down when he arrived, sighed with his whole body, then went into the garage and got his old tools and got to work. I followed him around, learning things about plants that my father either didn’t know or didn’t care to teach me. We stayed up late and drank lemonade and played dice and caught fireflies. My sister told me that while she was dating her husband, she pointed at my grandfather and said, “Watch that man. He’ll teach you everything you need to know.” I could have told him that.

stonewall

The house sat at the base of Mount Everett, and that mountain was my playground. My brothers were older and knew more of it than I did, but I spent my childhood climbing giant rocks and trees and swimming in a winding brook in my very own Terabithia. Years later, I proposed to my wife on that mountain. It wasn’t elaborate. It probably didn’t give her much of a story. But I couldn’t think of a better place to ask someone to spend the rest of her life with me than the magical kingdom where I’d faced and overcome so many dangers. I knocked myself unconscious one winter sledding head first down the narrow trail where the woods met the mountain. I remember seeing my friends running away before things went black; I assume they came back, possibly with an adult.

Sleepovers at my house meant sleeping bags in the barn, late-night games of flashlight tag in the corn field, and even later-night terrified sprints to the house to sleep on the dining room floor. One summer my friends and I found dirty magazines in the hay loft. It was very exciting and dramatic. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably a couple months of tantalizing guilt and pre-adolescent confusion, we nobly set them out in the rain. It’s easy to roll my eyes now, but in that moment we were purified.

We fed our wood stove all winter to heat the house, and that meant splitting firewood during the fall to stock the shed. We’d set the splitter up across the street and fill pickup truck after pickup truck in the crisp fall air, and while I’m sure I complained plenty, I never felt closer to my family. My brothers and sisters were teenagers and at least nine years older, but on those weekends we were together, doing honest work and banking our survival. Getting up first on a New England February morning and starting the fire with wood from the back of the shed – that was love.

saddleback

I left for college in 1994. I came back during breaks, and much as I wanted to play the “college guy” part, nothing felt better than curling up under my old blanket on my bed next to the chimney. I sat in my room during winter breaks and wrote terrible poetry and felt very Thomas Pynchon, but I had seen Paris (Ohio), so how were they gonna keep me down on the farm? I came home on breaks less and less as college went on, and finally I graduated and rented an apartment just outside Dayton. I was a Midwesterner.

My mother died in 2005, 10 years after my grandfather. My father sold the house while she was in the hospital. My father, the self-appointed minister, the arbiter of all things holy, the man who taught me that the road to God was narrow and ran right through his backyard, unmade my connection to family, to history, to beautiful dreams and knuckle-scraping reality. The house that passed from generation to generation didn’t make it to mine.

I haven’t spoken to him since.

I hear the house looks lovely these days. The barn fell down before my mother died, and the old garage and driveway are gone. I hear there’s a nice circular drive. I don’t know if the new owner tore it down and rebuilt or just remodeled the old house. I don’t know which I’d prefer. I’ve said for years that I don’t care who owns it as long as it’s loved. I’m such a liar.

I won’t belabor the metaphor. I have some things to set out in the rain.