Fried food and gambling chocolate coins

A Hanukkah story about leading with your strengths

On the fifth night of Hanukkah, the menorah at the mall caught my friend’s eye.

“Look at those broken lights,” he said. “Only six lights are working.”

For a second, I thought my friend was messing with me. But he wasn’t kidding. He was outraged, not just on behalf of his Jewish friend, but on behalf of all Jews shopping at this particular open-air mall.

“This is some disrespectful shit,” he said. “I need to speak to someone about this. Who’s running this damn mall?”

“Um… dude…”

“I’m not messing around, Michael. Hanukkah is always an afterthought at these public holiday displays. Look at that Christmas tree. It’s gigantic and glorious. I’ll bet you every light bulb on that Christmas tree works. Y’all are getting shafted.”

“This is a menorah, dude.”

“Exactly! All the lights should work.”

“They do work.”

My friend pointed an accusatory finger at the mall menorah’s three unlit candles.

“Does that look like a functioning… what did you call it?”

“Menorah.”

“Right. Does that look like a functioning menorah, Michael?”

“Yes, it does. But let me ask you something. Are you familiar with the story of Hanukkah?”

“No.”

“Do you mind if I Jew-splain for a minute?”

“Be my guest.”

I gave my friend the abridged version of Hanukkah. Basically, the ancient Jews were living under the rule of a foreign empire. Things were kosher(ish) with that arrangement, until they weren’t, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the folly of empire. ANYWAY, one day, shit had gone too far, or maybe shit had gotten real. Either way, there was an “inciting incident” that galvanized these total gangsters called Maccabees to make their gangster move and led a revolt.

“That sounds epic,” my friend said.

“Totally epic. Mel Gibson actually wanted to make a movie about the Maccabees. He thought it was like a western, only with swords and tunics, instead of horses and six-shooters. Like a Jewish Braveheart.”

“But isn’t Mel Gibson an—”

“Yup. That’s why Warner Bros. shut the movie down. But back to our story, the story of Hanukkah.”

“Hey, how are you supposed to spell Hanukkah, anyway?” he asked. “That always confuses me.”

“However Google tells you to spell it. Now, where was I?”

“Gangster shit.”

“Right. So, all the gangster shit ran its course. The Jews were finally safe from whoever was trying to kill us this time. But we had another problem. The Temple. It was a mess. Remember, this was ancient Jerusalem. You couldn’t just hire a Task Rabbit.”

“So they cleaned the Temple?”

“Well, they tried to. But there’s all these rituals.”

“What kinds of rituals?”

“If I was a more observant Jew, I’d know the answer. But I’m not that kind of Jew, and this isn’t that kind of Hanukkah story. They needed oil to light lamps to cleanse the Temple. But, and this is the key part, they only had enough oil for, like, one night.”

“What happened to all the other oil?”

“I don’t know. It was destroyed in the fighting, or something.”

“That doesn’t make any sense, Michael.”

“Well, if that doesn’t make sense, then hold onto your butt because the next part is bonkers.”

I pointed to the first candle in the mall menorah.

“They only had enough oil for one night. I know, you don’t buy it, but just go with it. Because the oil that was supposed to last only one night, actually lasted eight nights.”

“What!? How?”

“That’s the miracle of Hanukkah. Although, I’m personally skeptical about the miracle part. I wasn’t there.”

“No shit.”

“It seems entirely plausible that someone had extra oil and was like, don’t tell anyone, but I refilled the oil for eight nights, and everyone got so excited about miracles that I didn’t want to spoil the mood because after all that gangster shit things were so grim.”

“You’re saying it’s a myth?”

“Probably. But it’s a damn good myth. One that would make a good movie. From a different filmmaker, of course.”

“Of course. But why are those lights out?”

“Because we light one candle each night of Hanukkah to celebrate the miracle.”

My friend looked back at the menorah. I saw a lightbulb go off in his eyes, and then he began to do the math.

“The one that’s behind and slighter higher than the rest is the shamash,” I explained. “It lights all the other candles.”

“OK… I dig it. So, what do you y’all do on Hanukkah?”

“We spin the Dreidel and gamble on the outcome with these chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.”

“Your religion celebrates gambling?”

“I don’t know where the Dreidel comes from, but gambling seems like a solid homage to the gangster shit from the story. Plus, we eat fried foods.”

“Fried foods, why?”

“You need a reason to eat fried foods? They’re delicious because they’re fried. But on Hanukkah we eat fried food to remember the miracle with the oil.”

“What kinds of foods do you fry?”

“Latkes.”

“Latkes?”

“Potato pancakes. You put apple sauce on them. Maybe sour cream. Maybe both, if you’re living right.”

“What about ketchup?”

“Not if you want to be invited back next year.”

“But they’re basically hash browns.”

“Hash browns that kick ass and take names.”

“So why not ketchup?”

“Look, I’m not going to debate you, dude. Put ketchup on, if you want. But know this: you’re just wrong.”

“OK, so you eat latkes because of the oil.”

“And donuts for dessert. Donuts are fried in oil too.”

“You eat hash browns, I mean latkes, and donuts for this holiday?”

“Yes, and we gamble with chocolate coins.”

“And gamble with chocolate coins.”

“That sounds amazing,” he said. “I want in!”

“Thanks for explaining Hanukkah.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

“Hey, um, can I give the Jewish people some marketing advice?”

“You can give this Jew some marketing advice.”

“I think you’re pitching Hanukkah all wrong.”

“Oh really.”

“Yes.”

“OK, how would you pitch Hanukkah?”

“Lead with the fried food. Donuts, latkes! America will totally embrace a holiday of fried food. It’ll be huge on social media. I’ll bet you all the chocolate coins in the world that with the right combination of GIFs and hashtags Hanukkah will go viral.”

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Spoiler alert: I wasn't murdered

A story about working from home (alone), Roman history, Korn, man's (alleged) best friend, fear of axe murderers, and the machines that will come for us... someday.

For the second time in as many days, Christina went to the office. Two years ago, this wouldn’t have been worth mentioning, but these days commuting to a physical office is noteworthy. Commuting is the new work from home.

Although I began working from home a decade before it was fashionable, working from home (alone!) was unsettling. Things were quiet. Too quiet! When my monitor went on the fritz, as it sometimes does, tech support was nowhere to be found. Lunch was a lonely affair of leftover baked ziti and leftover podcasts. And when Mortimer realized that his bipedal treat-dispenser had left the building, his mood soured.

Not that the experience was all bad. With Christina absent, the last bottle of iced green tea was safe, the line for the bathroom nonexistent, and for the first time in nearly two years, I could hear myself think.

When darkness fell, I called it a day. Mortimer and I left the office and went for a walk around the neighborhood. Back home, Mortimer savored his post-walk treat while I messed around on TikTok and generally fucked off. It was glorious. But as the Romans were fond of telling their leaders, all glory is fleeting.

Around seven, Christina texted to let me know she was on her way home. I closed the TikTok app. Mortimer paused Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome podcast. It was time to make dinner, but first we had to scout the kitchen for supplies.

Mortimer voted for bacon-wrapped steaks with a side potatoes fried in bacon fat. I chose Thai curry with vegetables and tofu over brown rice. As I chopped vegetables, Mortimer positioned himself nearby to catch any food that fell off the counter.

“Did you know the Caesar salad was invented in Tijuana?” Mortimer asked. “It has nothing to do with the famous Roman Emperor, or any of the lesser Roman Emperors who were also called Caesar.”

“I did not know that.”

“Maybe we should serve a Caesar salad tonight,” Mortimer suggested. “Christina loves a good Caesar salad.”

“With Thai curry?”

“You’re right,” Mortimer said. “We should go with steak and potatoes instead.”

“But I’m a vegetarian.”

“And I’m a talking dog with a working knowledge of culinary and Roman history. What’s your point?”

I didn’t really have a point, and neither did Mortimer. But that didn’t stop us from bickering while we cooked.

With the curry simmering on the stove and the rice cooker working its magic on the rice, Mortimer and I set the table. But that didn’t take long, and Christina still wasn’t home by the time we finished.

“She’s probably stuck in traffic,” Mortimer said.

“We could tidy up the living room,” I suggested.

“Or, we could crack open some beers and learn about ancient Rome. Did you know the Romans invented the concept of the dictator? It was a temporary gig. In an emergency, they’d suspend their regular government and put one dude in charge for a year.”

“What if that dude didn’t give up power after one year?”

“It was a real problem, so they invented this two-person dictatorship, so that one dictator could end the reign of another dictator?”

“And that worked?”

“Well, it did until it didn’t. Basically, it was a recipe for bloody civil war. Want me to get some beers so we can do a deep dive on this? Roman history is nuts, dude.”

I was about to say yes, when all of a sudden music began to play from the other room. The music sounded like heavy metal. An angry, piercing guitar riff, backed up by relentless, heart-pounding drums sent a chill down my spine.

“Did you tell Alexa to play metal?” I asked Mortimer.

The dog shook his head, then began to whimper. Slowly, I turned my head toward the hallway, where the music was coming from. It was dark, and a terrible thought consumed me. What if I’m in one of those horror movies where the serial killer enters the home and plays heavy metal in a room that’s supposed to be empty in order to lure his victim into the darkness, where he can hack them to death with an axe? That seemed unlikely. But as a card-carrying scaredy-cat, reason was no match for my worst fears. Something had to be done.

“Mortimer,” I whispered, “go check it out.”

“You check it out.”

Suddenly, the vocals kicked in, and it felt as if the music was coming closer. Which meant the killer was poised to strike.

“I’ll make you steak,” I said. “Just go check it out. Do your job, for once.”

But Mortimer wouldn’t budge.

“Go check out that noise and report back, Mortimer.”

“You go, boss.”

“Boss?”

“Yeah,” Mortimer said. “You’re in charge, so you check out the scary music.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked.

“That we’re in one of those horror movies where the serial killer enters the home and plays heavy metal in a room that’s supposed to be empty in order to lure his victim into the darkness, where he can hack them to death with an axe?”

“Actually, I was thinking that since this is an emergency, I’m suspending our regular household government and appointing you dictator.”

“Very well,” Mortimer said. “I accept.”

I nodded in the direction of the music, but Mortimer didn’t move.

“What are you waiting for? Get after it.”

“What are you waiting for?” Mortimer asked. “As dictator, I order you to go find out who’s playing that terrifying music at full volume.”

Outsmarted by my alleged best friend, I walked slowly toward the music, and what I feared would be my bloody demise.

In the darkness of the hallway, I swung my arms wildly, hoping to land a punch on the killer I feared was hiding in our house. But my fist connected with the wall, and after a frantic thirty seconds, I found the light switch.

The hallway was empty.

But the music was coming from my office. Was the killer waiting for me? Every muscle in body tensed up, and I could feel my heart pounding inside my chest.

Slowly, I made my way down the hallway toward my office. The door was open. Had I left it open? I couldn’t remember. I was too frightened to think straight.

I stretched out my hand into the darkness of the office and felt for the light switch. The music was loud, and while I couldn’t make out the screaming lyrics, I guessed they were written by a Satanic cult as a soundtrack to accompany human sacrifice.

Now or never, I told myself.

From deep in my belly, I let out a blood-curdling scream, one I hoped would make me sound like a warrior. Then, still screaming with all the warrior energy I could muster, I flipped on the lights and leapt into the office, arms and legs ready to punch and kick for my life. I felt like Chuck Norris, without the mustache, or the martial arts skills.

The office was empty.

Thank goodness!

Mortimer came running.

“Where’s the axe murderer?” he asked.

“There is no axe murderer,” I said. “The music is coming from the Alexa.”

We both looked at the device, one of many AI “helpers” that had invaded our home in recent years.

“Alexa, off!”

Suddenly, the music stopped.

“Holy shit,” Mortimer said. “Is this how it happens? Are the machines rising up to kill all humans and dogs? I’ll bet the cats are in on it. I knew those feline fucks were working with the machines. I told you, don’t trust the cats, and don’t let the machines into your home. But nobody listens to me, not about dinner, not Roman history, and certainly not about protecting your ass from a cat-robot apocalypse.”

Suddenly, Alexa came back to life. I jumped. Mortimer barked.

“Playing Ball Tongue by Korn on Spotify,” Alexa said.

A moment later, the music began to play. It was the same menacing song.

“Panic,” Mortimer shouted, before scampering away to the safe space under the couch.

But I knew better. There was no murderer here. This was another case of technology gone haywire. But how?

“Alexa, off!”

The music stopped. But a moment later, Alexa whirred back to life and announced the same song.

“Alexa, off!”

The machine powered off, and because I wasn’t taking any chances this time, I unplugged the damn thing. Then I made a phone call.

“Hey honey,” Christina said.

“Were you listening to Korn?” I asked.

“Yeah… Actually, it keeps turning off for some reason. How did you know I was listening to Korn?”

“It’s playing on the Alexa in my office.”

“Really? How?”

“I thought there was an axe murderer in the house and that he was toying with me, playing creepy music to lure me to my doom.”

“I don’t understand,” Christina said. “I shouldn’t be able to control Alexa from my car.”

“Honey…”

“Yeah…”

“I don’t want to frighten you, but Alexa is in control, and we’re totally surrounded.”

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Humanity booster

Getting a booster shot should be easy. But nothing is easy with humans, especially when computers are involved

“This is like that scene in War Games,” I shouted from my office.

Down the hall, Christina yelled back from her office.

“What scene in War Games?”

“The one at the very beginning where the guys in the silo have to turn their keys at the same time to launch the missiles.”

“Doesn’t one guy pull a gun on the other guy because he won’t launch the nukes?”

“Yup.”

In that scene, we’re told the human element failed because the guys in the silos didn’t launch their missiles and, um, end humanity. But another way to read that scene is that the human element succeeded because the guys in the silos didn’t launch their missiles and end humanity. The character with a conscience was played by John Spencer, who would later become famous playing Leo McGarry on The West Wing. The character determined to shoot his friend so he could nuke humanity was played by Michael Madsen, the sociopathic Mr. Blonde, who cut off a cop’s ear in Reservoir Dogs. That’s good casting, folks.

Anyway, our situation wasn’t as high stakes as global thermal nuclear war. We were trying to book our booster appointments for the same time. But that was proving more difficult than it should for a society that’s already figured out how to end life on this planet with the turn of a key.

Christina snagged a Friday appointment, and I ended up with a time slot on Monday afternoon. I offered to drive her, and she accepted.

“There might be a walk-in option,” Christina said as we got in the car. “That way you don’t have to come back.”

“Hopefully. But the website was kind of confusing on the whole walk-in appointment thing. I clicked the button for walk-in locations and it spit out a list of places, but most of them were appointment-only, so…”

“Yeah, it was a little wonky-joe,” Christina said.

“Wonky-joe,” I agreed.

As it turned out, the wonky-joe website led us to a minor clusterfuck IRL at the Kaiser hospital in Panorama City. There were easily sixty people in the appointment line, but there was no waiting for walk-ins.

“Maybe you’ll be out of here lickety-splitsville,” Christina said.

“This feels fishy. I’m getting to the bottom of this.”

Christina found her spot at the back of the line. I went to speak with the lady at the reception desk.

The woman at the reception desk explained that the walk-in line was only for people getting their first or second dose, as well as for people getting flu shots. A few weeks ago, before the vaccine was approved for kids over five, demand was low and walk-ins were welcome. But now that kids over five can get vaccinated too, demand is up.

“Boosters are appointment only,” she said. “I’m really Sorry.”

“No problem,” I said. “I’m glad to hear demand is up. I’ll be back Monday for my appointment. See you then.”

“See you then.”

I started to walk away, but then turned around and added, “By the way, your explanation was great, but the walk-in thing is a little confusing on the website.”

“I know,” she sighed. “You’re not the only one who has said that.”

She started to apologize for the confusion, but two people with appointments interrupted. They were furious about the long appointment line, and while they said they wanted the receptionist to unfuck the situation, I got the feeling that what they really wanted was to take out their frustrations on another human. Clearly, the computer element had failed us, reducing the receptionist to a human apology-machine and the patients to assholes.

“No dice on the walk-in,” I told Christina. “I’ll come back Monday.”

In the distance, we heard a man yell out to anyone who would listen.

“I pay good money to Kaiser,” he screamed. “This is bullshit!”

Of course, we pay “good money” to Kaiser too. I’ve read our membership benefits thoroughly, and I’m sure they don’t include the right to yell at the staff.

“This line isn’t as bad as people think,” Christina said. “They’re taking people in batches. They call out for either Pfizer or Moderna, and five or six people go at a time. I don’t think it’ll be long.”

Christina was right. She waited about fifteen minutes—a very small sacrifice for a life-saving vaccine.

“What are you going to do while I’m in there?” Christina asked.

“Find a seat, do a little people watching.”

“Your favorite.”

I found a seat against the wall with a good view of the line. As soon as I sat down, the woman in the next seat asked if I was getting a flu shot.

“Nope, just waiting for my wife.”

The man who had yelled about paying “good money” to Kaiser erupted again. He was still angry about the line, but now his ire was directed about Joe Biden, who Americans elected to put an end to all lines.

“That man is stupid,” the woman next to me said. “So stupid.”

I might’ve gone with entitled over stupid to describe the man who was no blaming Joe Biden for the long line. But to each their own, I thought.

“Moderna,” a nurse shouted in the direction of the line. “Who needs Moderna?”

A few hands went up. The nurse took the person closest to the front of the line. A little later, the same nurse asked for Pfizer people. And so it went. Pfizer, Moderna. Moderna, Pfizer.

Two women in line caught my attention. They were commiserating over the fact that they both had to get back to work and check on their kids. Friendly good-natured banter. I thought, maybe these two women will become friends. They can exchange contact info, arrange play dates for their kids, and maybe even team up, the way people sometimes do in functional democracies, to demand programs so that working parents don’t have to choose between healthcare, career, and kids.

But that nascent dream went to shit when the woman wearing an N-95 mask said her appointment was for a booster shot, and the woman in the homemade mask said she was here for her second dose. I wondered why the woman seeking the second dose didn’t move over to the no-waiting walk-in line. But the woman in the N-95 mask fixated on a different question: what the fuck took you so long to get vaccinated? The conversation sputtered out and died.

“Moderna,” the nurse shouted. “Who needs Moderna?”

A dozen people raised their hands. The nurse took three people, but after those three people had checked in with the nurse and moved into the vaccination area, an older woman at the very front of the line said she was also there for Moderna.

“Why didn’t you say so?” the nurse asked.

The older woman looked confused, as older people sometimes do.

“She is so stupid,” the woman sitting next to me said. “They call Moderna. She does not say anything. So, she miss her turn. Stupid. Very stupid.”

“I think she just needs help,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” the nurse told the old woman. “I’ll make sure you’re next.”

“Stupid,” the woman next to me said. “Very stupid.”

Near the back of the line, a couple who looked to be in their eighties, had their own complaints. I didn’t know their names, of course, but the man reminded me of a local deli owner named Herman and the woman looked like a distant relative named Mitzi.

“What do we have to do to get a shot around here?” Herman asked.

“What kind of system is this?” Mitzi wondered. “There should be two lines: one for Moderna, one for Pfizer. That way people know what’s what, instead of this mishegas.”

Without looking up from his phone, a middle-aged man wearing a Beastie Boys t-shirt told Herman and Mitzi to “advocate” for themselves.

“You gotta fight,” he advised Herman and Mitzi, just as the Beastie Boys had advised his entire generation to fight for their right… to party.

And so they fought. They yelled about the long line. Soon, another man, a fiery Russian octogenarian I nicknamed Leon, joined the fray. It was on like Donkey Kong, but according to the woman next to me, Herman, Mitzi, and Leon were “stupid.”

The receptionist and an orderly responded to the commotion.

“It said to walk-in, so I’m here, but now you say I need appointment,” Leon shouted. “I do not need appointment!”

“He’s so stupid,” said the woman next to me.

The receptionist explained that Leon did need an appointment for a booster, which was news to Herman and Mitzi, who said they were under the impression that walk-ins could get boosters because of a button on the website that spit out a list of walk-in locations.

“The website is wrong about that,” the receptionist said.

“You are wrong!” Leon said.

“This is madness,” Mitzi said.

“They are so stupid,” said the woman next to me. “Can’t follow instructions—stupid.”

Leon threatened to sue.

“Kaiser will have big problems with my lawyer,” Leon said. “He is great lawyer. I will own Kaiser, and fire you.”

“I’m sorry for the misunderstanding,” the receptionist said. “They just authorized vaccines for kids, and we’re starting to hit the mandate deadlines, so there’s a lot of demand, and we’re only doing appointments at the moment.”

“We need boosters!” Herman said. “We are very old.”

“Kaiser will have big public relations problems with me,” Leon vowed. “I am important man.”

“Advocate,” Beastie Boy advised again, without looking up from his phone.

And so Herman, Mitzi, and their new friend, Leon, advocated. Which is to say, they yelled and screamed until the nurse finally came out to speak with them. After explaining how appointments work, the trio resumed their “advocacy,” albeit at a higher volume. The receptionist gave up and walked away, the orderly shrugged, and eventually the nurse caved.

“You can get your booster, if you promise to be quiet,” she said. “Please stop making a disturbance.”

“You cannot silence me,” Leon said.

But the nurse had already begun walking back to her station. Herman grumbled a little about the mix-up with the website, but let it go. Mitzi shifted focus and began complaining about people who aren’t getting their kids vaccinated.

“These people are idiots,” she said. “Who could be so cruel? I am ninety-three. I want to live. Don’t they want their children to live? Fools!”

Once again, the woman sitting next to me leaned over and said that Herman, Mitzi, and Leon were “very stupid,” before adding that Kaiser is also “stupid.” But I wasn’t so sure about that. Hadn’t Herman, Mitzi, and Leon prevailed?

Just then, the nurse stopped in front of me. If I “advocated” in the style of a Beastie Boy, I realized, I could get my booster today, without an appointment. But the nurse looked like a nice lady whose patience had been worn down by nearly two years of a deadly clusterfuck. Besides, yelling at the nurse felt more like sabotage than advocacy.

“Hang in there,” I said.

The nurse nodded. I like to think that under her mask she smiled. But then she looked over at the woman sitting next to me.

“Why didn’t you get your flu shot yet?” the nurse asked.

“I am waiting for my flu shot,” the woman said.

“But you don’t have to wait,” the nurse said. “I told you to stand in the walk-in line.”

“Oh.”

“You could’ve been out of here thirty minutes ago.”

“Oh.”

“Come on, let’s get you your flu shot,” the nurse said.

The woman gathered her things and rose from her seat. I wanted to say, whose stupid now? After all, she had wasted thirty minutes of her life mocking confused people for failing to understand a system that had also baffled her. It would feel good to deliver a little karma. But what would that accomplish? There were enough assholes in this story already, I knew. So, I stifled the urge to say, you suck, and instead went with, “good luck!”

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The trial of a sci-fi freak

A story about fandom and the fans who totally miss the point

Christina and I saw Dune while we were in Santa Barbara. I already wrote about that perilous trip, but for reasons of narrative economy, I omitted the incident at the movie theater. OK, “incident” is a tad strong. Encounter? Yeah, encounter sounds better.

Picture it: a movie theater. You remember movie theaters, right? They’re kind of like watching on your TV at home, except the screen is much bigger, the sound rocks, and the popcorn comes with an 8,563 percent markup. Also, there are strangers.

One of those strangers sat in the row just ahead of us. He was an older man with glasses. Wisps of gray hair poked out from under his red ball cap. Maybe he smiled, maybe we smiled, or maybe nobody smiled. I can’t say for sure because everyone was wearing a mask. But for some reason, the stranger struck up a conversation.

“Are you two sci-fi freaks?” he asked.

He could’ve gone with hello, but instead the stranger chose to check our genre bona fides right off the bat.

Maybe I didn’t like the way he said “freaks,” or maybe I didn’t like the cut of his jib, or maybe I figured Christina was the better bet, if he was looking to share his Dune fandom with another “spice freak.” But for some reason, one I’d later have to explain to Christina, I punted.

“She is.”

The stranger twisted around in his seat to get a better look at Christina.

“I love Dune,” she said. “I love the books—”

“Yeah, the books are great. I’ve read ‘em all. Have you read ‘em all?”

“The first three.”

“Gotta read ‘em all.”

“I totally love the David Lynch movie,” Christina offered. “I know some people don’t like it, but I love it.”

“Terrible. It was terrible. Even the director said so. It’s not Dune.”

Christina disagreed, but she saw no point in continuing the conversation. The stranger seemed like a mansplainer, and besides, he wasn’t the spice freak she was looking for. So, the conversation died down, but only for a moment.

“Have you read Heinlein?” the stranger asked me.

“Yeah.”

The stranger turned again in his seat to get a better look at me. Suddenly, we were talking. Well, maybe “talking” is a little strong. He was quizzing me to see if we belonged to the same tribe of “freaks.”

“What about Clarke?”

“Sure.”

“Asimov?”

“Uh-huh.”

He rattled off a few more authors. Then, satisfied that I had passed his sci-fi canon quiz, the stranger asked for my favorite sci-fi author. A dozen names came to mind, but I blurted out Neal Stephenson for some reason.

The stranger approved.

“What book?”

Seveneves.”

He shook his head with disapproval. Was he one of those guys who refuses to read novels with female protagonists, I wondered? That could explain the Heinlein gambit.

“He wrote Snow Crash, you know.”

I knew.

“You read it?”

“Yeah, it’s really good, but the ending was a mess. Endings are hard.”

“What about Cryptonomicon?”

“Loved it.”

“Yeah, me too.”

OK, some common ground, I thought.

“I hated the Japanese for like two years. I just hated them.”

“Huh?”

“Because of the book. I hated them.”

What the fuck!? Did the stranger just say he hated the Japanese for two years because of a novel? Again, what the fuck!?

If this had been a movie, the handsome devil playing me would’ve asked the stranger what he meant by that. Was he speaking literally, or figuratively? If the former, tell him we don’t share his racist views. If the latter, urge him to think before speaking. Then ask the stranger how, in the ever-loving fuck, he so badly misunderstood a novel about World War 2 codebreakers and a ‘90s crypto startup with the long-term goal of distributing Holocaust survival guides to people at risk of genocide.

But this was a movie theater, not a movie. It took me a moment to process the stranger’s comment. In that moment, the conversation faded. And in the next moment, the lights dimmed and the previews began.

Unlike Christina, I’ve never read the Dune books. My only recollection of the original movie is how bummed I felt whenever Dune played on cable. It just wasn’t Star Wars. But I went to see the new version of Dune with an open mind and came away happy.

If you don’t know, Dune is about the feuding factions of a corrupt, dying empire that could’ve built a paradise, but instead decided to mine “spice,” a spaceship fuel with hallucinogenic properties. Dune has lots to say about colonialism, environmental exploitation, and the ways in which capitalism and militarism inevitably conspire against the human spirit. So… not topical at all. Dune is also a beautiful film with shades of Shakespearean epic, crisp dialogue, retro tech that’s sure to inspire fascinating conversations, and kickass action scenes.

A few weeks later, we had our friend, J, over for dinner. J, who is so cool his first name is only one letter, used to be our neighbor. When we were neighbors, we kept running tabs on each other, collected stray packages left by an inept postal carrier, regularly held court at a local coffeehouse, and shared takeout meals in our “comfortable clothes,” while talking about important stuff: J’s love life, books, and movies.

“Did you see Dune yet?” Christina asked.

J hadn’t seen Dune yet.

“You have to see it,” I said. “You’ll love it. The movie is great. Also, Javier Bardem, Jason Mamoa, Josh Brolin, and Oscar Isaac are all on the list.”

“Your list, or Christina’s list?” J asked.

“Both.”

“I can respect that. Just don’t tell me you fantasize about Timothée Chalamet,” J said.

“I fantasize about Timothée Chalamet.”

J wrinkled his nose in disapproval.

“If you’re comfortable, see Dune in the theater,” Christina suggested. “It’s totally worth it. Just make sure you don’t sit behind an old racist dude.”

“I told you, honey, I punted, and I’m sorry.”

“You totally left me hanging!”

Christina filled J in on the sci-fi “freak” who mansplained Dune to her, quizzed me about the sci-fi canon, then said he hated the Japanese.

“I thought Philip K. Dick was your favorite author,” J said.

“I love Dick!”

“Why didn’t you tell the stranger you love Dick?” J asked.

“Because I panicked. And I didn’t want to get into Dick. Not with that guy.”

“Bad Dick vibes?” J asked.

“Terrible Dick vibes. Just terrible. You don’t talk Dick with dicks like that.”

“What’s your favorite Dick book?” J asked.

“Well, I only do one Dick a year. More than one Dick is way too much Dick for me. This year, I read A Scanner Darkly. Easily his most personal novel. Moved me to tears.”

“But a slow start,” J said, “for me anyway.”

We agreed. Slow, but worth it. A Scanner Darkly is about the rise of the surveillance state, but it’s really about young people making awful mistakes and losing their minds. Once you get hip to that second theme, the story has all the feels, as the kids say.

“Last year, I read Ubik. Holy shit! Ubik changed how I think about death.”

“Really? I’ve gotta read it again,” J said. “I read it in high school. I was a kid, an idiot.”

“It’s very funny,” I said. “The first chapter is one big Dick joke.”

“I’ve seen Dune three times,” Christina said. “We saw it in Santa Barbara, then again in IMAX, and then I watched it on my phone.”

“I have to really love something to watch it on my phone,” J said.

“She’s a super fan,” I said. “I’m a regular fan.”

“What I just don’t understand is how that guy was even a fan?” Christina said. “Like, did he not understand the movie? Or, the whole concept of metaphors?”

“You mean a story set on a desert planet where pasty white people with airpower colonize brown people and steal their spice to fuel their spaceships,” J said.

“Totally—one hundred percent,” Christina said. “ I don’t even understand what movie he thought we were watching.”

“They don’t see it,” J said. “They watch Dune and they think it’s their story because they identify with Paul, even though the whole point is Paul’s people fucked up, and he’s this white savior trying to make amends. They watch Bladerunner and they think the future is cool because cars fly and there are sex droids, but they miss the fact that we nuked the planet and even the richest man on Earth probably has a fake dog. It’s all about them and their weird, bullshit fantasies.”

“But dudes like that get that spice is a metaphor for oil, right?” Christina asked. “Like I don’t think that guy was tripping the light fantastic, or whatever, on the spice trip of it all, but you know, he gets that it’s about… oil, war, the Middle East. Right!?”

At this point, I should share two things about J. First, the geek is strong with him. Very strong. I’ve seen J cosplay. He makes a very compelling X-wing pilot. Second, J is a Palestinian American who grew up on Long Island in the first decade of this millennium. Racists have been explaining geeky fandoms to J for years.

“Oh… he gets it,” J said. “He totally gets it.”

“He’s there for the world,” I said. “He digs the war stuff, and probably the mind control voice stuff too, because that’s super cool, but he doesn’t connect the brown people in the movie to the brown people in the real world.”

“Then why did you tell him to talk to me?” Christina asked.

“I didn’t know he was a racist at the time,” I said. “He was just an old guy looking for his seat.”

“But you got a vibe,” Christina said. “Yes? A vibe?”

I shrugged.

“Point of order, your honor,” Christina said. “I believe Michael said he had bad dick vibes. At the time, that seemed a throwaway line—and a cheap gag, if you ask me—but now that admission is about to payoff.”

“He got a vibe,” J ruled, banging an imaginary gavel. “She’s good.”

“And you are a sci-fi freak. We established that, yes?”

“In the parlance of that racist old man, sure.”

“Your honor, I move to declare me the winner. He’s the real sci-fi freak! He read all those authors, not me. I don’t read sci-fi. I read fantasy. Michael lied that day in the movie theater.”

“He did lie!” J said.

“I panic-lied.”

“That’s still a lie, Michael.”

“OK, you win. I fumbled on that one.”

“I thought you said you punted,” Christina said.

“Sorry, I mix my metaphors too.”

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Scared Shitless

A story about fear, haunted houses, career opportunity, and the wisdom of FDR

In his 1933 inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was known as Franky Dee to his friends and Frank The Stone Cold Motherfucker to his enemies, said something profound about fear.

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Roosevelt made that speech at a difficult moment. In technical terms, the economy was totally fucked. But the truly scary thing was democracy didn’t seem to have any answers, and so fascists were gaining power around the world. Scary shit.

And yet, if Frank The Stone Cold Motherfucker was afraid of greed-demons, hate-mongers, and fascists assholes, he didn’t let that fear show. Instead, Frank The Stone Cold Motherfucker popped another cigarette in his old-timey cigarette holder and uttered the coolest line ever: the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself.

Folks, Frank The Stone Cold Motherfucker was a badass. But, and this is an unpopular opinion, he was also liar. Because there’s actually plenty to fear besides fear itself. Here’s an abridged list of my personal fears.

  • Horror movies

  • Alligators (and the Floridians who are so very cavalier about said gators)

  • Climate change

  • Snakes

  • Eye injuries

  • For-profit healthcare

  • Bad guys with guns

  • Self-proclaimed “good guys” with guns

  • Disease

  • Wild fires

  • Los Angeles drivers

  • Dudes who believe their tech is the solution to everything

  • Scuba diving

  • Our eventual robot overlords

OK, I have a lot of fears, maybe more things than the average bear. But I’ll bet dollars to donuts you also fear more than just fear itself. Put that in your old-timey cigarette holder and smoke it, Franky Dee.

Here’s something else I fear: Halloween. With so many things to be fear in real life, I just don’t connect with the idea of a holiday where the goal is to scare yourself shitless. Not that I’m anti-Halloween. If you want to celebrate fear, more power to you. I prefer to stay home with the dog, eat candy, and watch a Marx Brothers movie.

Except, that’s not how I spent Halloween 2021. This year, we visited a haunted house extravaganza. Paying good money to be scared shitless wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but in a roundabout way, visiting the haunted house was my idea.


Usually, my brother-in-law, Zak, and I talk about fun stuff like novels, cooking, history, and TV shows. But sometimes we talk about serious stuff. I have nearly two decades of life experience on Zak, who was 15 when Christina and first met. When life gets scary, Zak calls me.

About a year ago, Zak called seeking career advice. We’d been down this road before, and while Zak insists that I give good advice, I’m not sure he actually listens to me. At any rate, Zak’s problem was this: he had a “bullshit” job that didn’t pay well, or offer much of a future. Really scary shit.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to say, but then I heard a voice that reminded me of my father’s voice. It sounded loving and tough and full of hard truths, so I went with it.

“You’re absolutely right that your job sucks,” I told Zak. “Working in a warehouse is physically brutal, mind-numbing, and if the experts are right about the robots, there’s probably no future there. But what are you going to do about it?”

Zak didn’t have an answer, but I did.

“What about learning a trade?” I asked.

“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Zak said.

Zak’s fear was justified. I had pitched the trade thing many times since Zak finished school. I talked about it when Zak quit his job at the hardware store for a gig at a hookah lounge where his friends liked to hang out. I said the same thing when the hookah lounge gave way to a stint in the medical marijuana business. And I talked up the value of a trade yet again when the medical marijuana thing went up in smoke and Zak went to work in the warehouse of a direct marketing agency.

I was a broken record, and my only song was Learn a Trade by Fatherly Advice. I wasn’t trying to harangue Zak, or belittle him, but I wanted to give him the same gift my father gave me: self-reliance. So, I kept preaching the gospel of trade until I was blue in the face. Like all writers, I know the value of message discipline.

Eventually, my message hit the mark. Or, maybe Zak tuned me out, and what happened next was just a coincidence. Either way, I was here for it, and so was Zak.

“A buddy of mine offered me a job at a company that builds amusement park attractions,” Zak said one day. “But I don’t know if I should take it because the job is part-time, so I won’t make as much money, and there are no benefits.”

“Don’t worry about the money right now,” I said. “What skills can you learn there?”

“Well, there’s carpentry and electrical, and they the paint stuff.”

“So, you’re telling me someone offered you a job where you get paid to sample a bunch of trades, discover what you like, and instead of the drudgery of moving boxes around a warehouse, you’re going to build cool shit people love?”

“Well… when you put it like that, dude.”

And so, in the early summer of 2021, Zak quit his warehouse job and went to work at a company that was building haunted houses for Halloween.

Toward the end of September, I asked how things were going. Zak said he was learning new skills. He hadn’t picked a trade, but he had eliminated a few options.

“Painting sucks,” he said. “You spend half your time doing prep and half your time doing clean up. The fun stuff goes fast. Plus, it’s super messy. Carpentry is all right, I guess. But I’m sort of leaning toward electrical, I think.”

Hot damn!

“The thing is,” Zak continued, “I’m getting a little frustrated. Everyone is super nice, but I don’t really understand how what I’m doing fits into the big picture, you know?”

The big picture? I was tempted to point out that with nearly 8 billion humans on this planet, even the people who think they see the big picture are probably full of shit. But I didn’t think that would help, so I asked if Zak would get a chance to see the haunted houses fully assembled.

“No, they get loaded onto trucks and final assembly is on site.”

“Do me a favor. Find out the location that’s nearest to you, and go see what you built.”

“Yeah, OK. But why?”

“Because you’re part of something that’s bigger than you,” I said. “You’ve contributed to making a thing, and you should see that thing.”

“I don’t get it. Why?”

“Because seeing the finished thing will give you perspective. Right now, you’re in the weeds. You’re working hard, but you don’t know how, or if, it’ll pay off. When you see the finished thing, you’ll think about all the hard work you did, and you’ll see that work in a new light. Maybe you’ll think, that was cool, but it’s not for me. Or, maybe seeing the finished product will light a fire under your ass.”

“Let me guess, you’re rooting for fire under my ass.”

“With the intensity of a thousand suns. Now, where’s the closest haunted house?”

A few days later, Zak got back to me. None of the haunted houses were slated for Florida, where Zak lives. But three of the haunted houses would be part of something called Howl-O-Scream in San Diego. Within minutes of hearing this, Christina bought tickets, booked a flight for Zak and his fiancé, Dylan, and invited our friends, Becky and Rob, to join us for what was advertised to be a night of scares and screams.

In the weeks leading up to Halloween, I tried not to think about my fears. But the more I tried to block out haunted houses, monsters, and spooky vibes, the worse things got. In my waking hours, I’d dread the “jump scares” at Howl-O-Scream. At night, fear darkened my dreams. It was a little like that scene at the end of Ghostbusters (a movie that’s right on the line of my personal scary threshold) where Gozer the Gozerian says, “choose the destroyer.” Except, I couldn’t think of something sweet like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. My mind was an all-you-can-eat fear buffet.

Zak and Dylan flew into town the Friday before Halloween. Over Chinese dumplings, I tried to tell Zak how excited I was to see the haunted houses he helped build, but I couldn’t find the words. My excitement was about Zak, not Howl-O-Scream. Then Christina shared a funny video that put everyone in a spooky-scary mood. Well, everyone except for me.

“At least I’ll be able to binge-eat candy, then work off the calories at Howl-O-Scream,” I said, trying to find the silver lining to this scary situation.

“Honey, do want me to buy you a ‘no scare’ necklace?” Christina asked.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a special necklace you wear so that the haunted house actors know not to scare you,” Christina said.

“Actually, the necklace doesn’t work inside the haunted house,” Zak explained. “The necklace is for the scare zones around the park.”

“There are scare zones!? As in, there are places in addition to the haunted houses where they scare the shit out of you?”

“Yeah, dude, it’s Howl-O-Scream,” Zak said. “The haunted houses are the main attractions, but the whole place is going to be decked out for Halloween.”

Eventually, it was time to face my fears. Which is to say, it was time for Howl-O-Scream. I declined the “no scare” necklace for two reasons. First, if the damn thing didn’t work inside the haunted houses, it was kind of like wearing see-through pants — technically you’re covered, but in practical terms those pants are pointless. Second, the “no scare” necklace cost an extra $15, which is sort of like going to a bar and paying them not to serve you. Instead, I made my own anti-fear plan.

  1. Always hold someone’s hand. Ideally, hold Christina’s hand, but any hand would do in a pinch.

  2. Eyes open at all times! This wasn’t like watching a horror movie where you can just close your eyes and pretend nothing is wrong. This was a full-on horror experience. So, eyes open to spot the scary shit before the scary shit spots you!

  3. Use the wise words of Frank The Stone Cold Motherfucker as my mantra: the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself.

As soon as we entered the park, I knew I was in trouble. The sadists who designed this experience had placed scare zones around the haunted houses, which meant that if I wanted to see Zak’s work, I’d have to navigate a horror show of scary shit.

There were zombies, monsters, ghouls, and half-dead carnival freaks that looked like they were on a multi-state murder spree. There was some kind of bandaged giant on stilts who looked like he had escaped from an asylum, a maniac with a chainsaw, and clowns.

Holy shit, the fucking clowns!

At one point, I saw a clown walking straight toward us. I grabbed Rob by the arm and held him close.

“I am not down to clown,” I told Rob.

“Michael, I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s also a clown right behind us.”

I screamed and walked as fast as I could. Scared shitless fitness.

The first haunted house was called Death Water Bayou. The cajun horror vibes gave me the willies. Each turn through Death Water Bayou featured a jump scare. Again and again, I’d scream, squeeze Christina’s hand, then keep screaming until it was time to move on to the next jump scare. Finally, mercifully, the experience ended.

Becky and Rob, who easily watch more than one hundred horror movies a year, said it was a “solid” haunted house. Dylan agreed. He was scared, but for reasons I’ll never understand, that made him smile. Christina also enjoyed Death Water Bayou, but she worried that each jump scare had taken its toll on me.

“How you doing, baby?”

“Scared shitless fitness,” was the only response I could muster.

We found a bench near some concessions carts. I wasn’t sure if the concession area was in a scare zone, but I figured that even though the Howl-O-Scream people were clearly demented, they were still capitalists, which meant concessions were probably safe because it’s hard to sell churros to someone who just shit their pants.

“What did you think?” Zak asked.

“Very realistic,” I said. “You did a good job.”

And that was the truth. Zak had done a good job. The haunted house was scary. I was proud of him. The only trouble was, we still had two haunted houses to go: Simon’s Slaughterhouse and Nightmare Experiment.

“Honey, maybe you should sit the rest of them out,” Christina suggested.

I looked to Becky and Rob, my horror show sherpas.

“A slaughterhouse is gonna be super gory,” Rob said. “You don’t do well with gore.”

“And the other one is a creepy hospital,” Becky said. “Michael doesn’t do well with creepy hospital stuff either.”

“I’ll be OK,” I said.

“Will you?” Christina asked.

The answer was clearly no. As Marsellus Wallace said, I’d be pretty fucking far from OK. But I made a promise to myself in Death Water Bayou. No matter what, I would run the entire haunted house gauntlet, not because I was brave (I wasn’t), or because I enjoyed being scared shitless (I didn’t), but because I love Zak and I’m proud of him.

So, we ran a gauntlet of scare zones to get to Simon’s Slaughterhouse, where once again I screamed and then screamed some more. Then we hit Nightmare Experiment. I thought it was terrifying, but Becky and Rob said was “OK.” I didn’t care. I had faced my fears and survived! Now, all I had to do was get the hell out of Howl-O-Scream.

“Is there a way out of here that doesn’t go through any scare zones?” I asked.

“No,” Zak said. “But we’ve been through these scare zones already. No big deal, dude.”

I didn’t agree. Then I remembered my mantra. I had plenty to fear, including fear itself. And I had faced those fears (some of them, anyway). Franky Dee’s wisdom had helped me. But it wasn’t the first part of Frank Dee’s quote that helped me find my way through the terrifying maze that was Howl-O-Scream, it was the second part, the part nobody quotes.

…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

That’s all I had to do: advance in the face of fear. Heck, advancing in the face of fear was basically a version of the career advice I had been giving Zak for years. Now, all we had to do to escape Howl-O-Scream was… advance.

I held Christina close. Zak popped a piece of candy into his mouth, then veered off from the group to toss the wrapper in the trash. And that’s when it happened.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!

The final jump scare of the night. But I wasn’t the one screaming, not this time. That honor belonged to Zak, who moments after declaring the scare zones to be “no big deal,” nearly jumped out of his shoes at the sight of a ghoul that popped up from behind the trash can.

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