I’m not doing this because you told me to

I proposed to my girlfriend and she said yes, and it was wonderful – everything everybody always says it will be. In one way it is a grand new step into a new part of my life. In another it is really not that much at all.

I have been living with her and her kids since July. The other night, somebody came by to appropriate my old television set and coffee maker – the last vestiges of my old place that I wasn’t using in her house and that I wasn’t able to palm off on a charitable organization or a local buyer. I’ve been ferrying kids to after-school activities, putting them to bed, cooking them dinner. I’ve been walking the dog and feeding the cats. We’re here for each other every day in every way that actually counts.

So yes, it feels like the rings and the flowers and the hooting and hollering are just an annoyance – another sad obligation, like standing in line at the DMV or turning in your Selective Service paperwork. Yeah, here I am, sure. Here’s me, following these rules.

Marriage has historically been about control, and a lot of people still want it to be about that. It was about controlling young women, controlling property, controlling heritage and inheritance. It’s now the goal of the worst political actors right now to make it about controlling personhood in the strictest sense: You straights over here get to be a family, you gays over there don’t get to be.

I was hearing this awful bullshit during the years It was supposed to Happen For Me. I had a girlfriend once who went on about the fact she wanted a princess cut diamond (it had to be a diamond). Like it mattered, like the whole thing would be ruined if that wasn’t a part of the whole road show. (We broke up. She’s married now. I sincerely hope she’s happy. I sincerely believe we would not have been.)

My twenties ended in a rowdy apartment in Colombia, with me jobless and among my gay father and his gay husband, with no money and no career and no relationship, and I was so happy. Most of my friends had already been married. I returned to the United States during that time twice, both times for weddings. The second time I stayed for money – and It kept Not Happening For Me. The years turned brown and fell off the branch. My health worsened. The grandparents I keep in contact with died. My brothers and most of my friends long ago married off. I was living with the sense that It would never Happen For Me.

It could have Happened For Me earlier. I’m convinced that if I’d committed to it, at least once before I could’ve been married – maybe twice. But I would not have been in that gay-ass apartment on the night I went from 29 to 30. I would be here now, working on kid #3, probably miserable, like my father was miserable when he made what I have come to realize was a logical choice at the time, even though it hurt everyone whose life ever touched his: To go in for the flowers and the cake and the married-filing-jointly, for the ability to legally sire children with his last name who maybe might be there to carry his ashes up the mountain when time caught up to him. (We did.)

Fit yourself into the fucking box, they said to him, and there wasn’t any recourse for him but to do it. Get in the fucking box, there’s a house and kids and birthday parties and graduations and family photos and trips to Disneyland here, there’s your mother’s joy at seeing her grandchildren play outside, there’s your grandmother sitting your little wife down with your first born son in a quiet room in the house you played in as a boy and leaving her a little pitcher of water because your grandmother remembers how thirsty it is to breastfeed sometimes. She’s Great-Grandma now, and she’ll give them your same bag of marbles to play with on the floor. It can Happen For You!

When the box is everything, then you leave everything behind when you leave it. When everybody else is in the box and you are outside it, even if you know it’s fucking bullshit, you feel lonely out in the cold. Some just get desperate and look for any way into it.

This is why I was careful to the point of timid, because it is everywhere, the fucking box, and it makes you distrust your own happiness. It’s why we waited, why I met the kids and lived in the house and became a part of the family before asking the question. It’s almost silly now, because the answer was no mystery. The promise has already been made.

Here’s what is important: That I got some folks together that we both care about and surprised her and sang a little song with the right wingman on the piano. We ate and drank. I think it is some bullfuck to expect a woman to do something the man would never do, so I did not kneel, and I won’t ask her to take my name, and I’ll wear an “engagement ring,” too. The fucking metal is not important. The fact I needed to make her feel special is.

I fucking hate weddings as I hate the devil, all Montagues and thee. But I love this woman, here at the end of all things. That is real.

I’m beating diabetes. Don’t clap.

Because I can.

About a year ago I got diagnosed with Type II diabetes, which shouldn’t have surprised anybody. It was pretty stressful at the time, particularly considering that in this country, rich people can just keep increasing the price of insulin for no fucking reason. My poor girlfriend had to talk me down off a ledge.

It’s a year later, I’ve dropped 15% of my body mass and my blood is registering like somebody who’s merely in danger of having diabetes rather than somebody who straight up has it. With a little more diligence, all symptoms of the condition will vanish. This is the part where I talk about what an inspiring and hard journey the past year has been, how it was a struggle but the early mornings and endless laps and personal transformation were worth it.

Too bad I did basically jack shit. Sorry.

Good morning world!!! Going for the full 26.2 today, wish me luck!!!

– Never Ken Lowe, ever

Seriously. I started giving half my fries to my girlfriend or her kids at meals, and I dropped like two suit sizes. A big initial burst of weight loss was straight up depression at the diagnosis. The rest has been almost nothing. No vicious discipline. No workouts. No inspiring story. And most importantly of all, no fucking running because running is bullshit.

I really want to get across something here: Weight loss or better health or wellness or whatever you want to call it is not inherently virtuous, any more than being good at writing or rhetoric is inherently virtuous. It is a tendency. It is a temperament. It is a privilege, guys. Genetics. As it stands, I am predisposed toward probably being at risk for Type II diabetes my whole life, but evidently, unless something changes, not SO MUCH AT RISK that I can’t easily course-correct with the pathetic amount of self control I actually have. I am here to tell you there is zero virtue in that.

Other people have to work hard to save themselves from this disease. For a lot of people, it’s more than they can do in the face of a callous society and insurmountable risk factors that first arose when their mother and father’s DNA first joined together. I take some joy in being one of the lucky ones because I get to write my stuff and love my girlfriend and play more D&D and otherwise spend more time on this side of the curtain, but that is all I am: Lucky.

But you know what would be great? If more people were lucky. If, just by being born in a great country like the United States, those dire risk factors or personal tendencies didn’t condemn people to wasting away into a husk because of how they were born, or the food that their horrible dead-end job leaves them no money and no choice but to eat after a day of intolerable bullshit.

I would love for everybody to have so grand a privilege, and I cannot understand the people who don’t feel the same way.

It’s hard to write about this stuff when a fascist fuck is president

I had to rattle off my family history about a dozen times when I went down to Cuba at the end of last year. The people there treated me like some kind of unicorn. As it turns out, having a mother from Isla de Pinos (which they call “de la Juventud” today, because Castro I guess) is another mark of distinction. I didn’t quite pick up what it means, but it meant something because everybody who introduced me to everybody else brought it up.

“His mother was from the island!” they said a couple times. I figured the part-Chinese and part-American parts of me would be the draw, and they were, but everybody marveled over la isla, too. Even when you’re on an island, there’s another island.

Every interaction between a Cuban and an American is fraught, but there was another layer to it with me, the unspoken thought among the folks I met and came to know there: This one actually knows how lucky he is.

It was jarring having to come back and write about Nancy Drew and Méliès and fucking Donald Duck, while we’ve got our own dictator proudly prancing about, bragging about how there’s apparently nothing he can’t get away with. Writing about movies or developing video games in my spare time increasingly feels like tap-dancing on the deck of the Titanic.

This is where I’m supposed to say that art is important, or where I’m supposed to justify what I do. I haven’t got it in me, I’m afraid. Things are terrible right now, all over, and I’m increasingly losing hope that anybody knows what to do about it, or is capable of doing it. Since the days of W., when I came of age and realized how dumb and mean-spirited the majoritarians in my country are, I’ve privately thought that the only way we can slide back from it is on the other end of true cataclysm. More and more, it looks like that’s just were we’re heading, and that the hands on the wheel won’t loosen their grip to let the rest of us steer toward something, anything else. Some even seem to want it. My grandfather, an escapee from China and from Cuba, a survivor of Castro’s gulags, taught me from a young age that I do not.

One of the first days we were over there in Cuba, we took a trip over to Manaca Iznaga, which was a sugar plantation of old, one with a great watchtower still standing there. It’s seven or eight stories up, and all the peoples of the world were gathered there having a go of the thing, scaling it and looking out over the land. It was put there to keep an eye on the slaves toiling in the fields.

It’s an evil place, if there are such things. And people just walk obliviously along now, and buy shirts and tchotchkies there, and enjoy the view. I did, too: A reed of an old woman approached me and guessed I was from Germany. I laughed and felt bad about it, and I told her where I really am from, and once again I told someone why I know Spanish. You got out, said the look on her face. And I bought the shirt off of her for $12 because I couldn’t say no to her.

They’ll do the same here, whatever may happen. Whatever people are expelled or disappeared or erased will just be nameless ones who aren’t around to talk about it. And you or me or somebody else who was around for it will see somebody who got out and wonder what it must be like.

I’ll keep on living, of course. I’ll do as I’m doing and look for ways I can help. I have so many amazing things to live for, just starting with the woman I’ve chosen to be with and the family we have together. But sometimes it helps to articulate that it’s hard and that it looks dark.

South

It’s been a long and difficult week: I got a fucking car, which I am ambivalent about (since I paid/will be paying too much for it). We finished up a bunch of Christmas shit early because this week, my girlfriend and I are down in Colombia. That photo is her candid shot of me last as we finally sat down with my stalwart companion Álvaro. We’re staying in Jamundí with Pacho and Orlando in the same apartment where I lived with my father.

It’s not the same without him here. Pacho claims he can feel his “energy.” I can’t really, but it is odd not having him there. It’s going to be a long week of trying to show my girlfriend the fun parts of this corner of the country, hopefully with some time to finally relax.

The Dungeon Jog – How to keep a D&D session moving along

Hey guys, got a year to clear one floor of a dungeon? | Made with tools at donjon.bin.sh

The new D&D campaign I’m running has wiped out all the DM burnout I was feeling, and it’s incredibly refreshing. In addition to taking some pressure off me by setting it in the historical Viking Age and populating it with Norse mythology – all of which requires basically no modification from 5th edition rules where things like monsters or magic is concerned – I’m also using this as an opportunity to try running the game in a way that is faster and gets to the fun stuff more quickly. One of the things I’ve found as a player in recent campaigns is that sessions just take too damn long. Time commitment, more and more, is what stands between players and having some fun. What I’ve found, in the last two sessions, is that I can encourage the game to move more quickly while still keeping player choice and exploration central to the experience, and we can get an adventure done in two sessions of two hours. Rather than a dungeon crawl, we’ll call it a “dungeon jog.” (more…)

Bad Movie Diaries: Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home (1981)

Paste Magazine | Bad Movie Diaries: Home Sweet Home

Again, Jim has introduced me to a horrific crime against cinema. Having to watch this while on vacation should qualify me for some kind of hazard pay. It’s the unbelievably inept story of several horny couples, one obnoxious cockblock of a KISS-makeup guitarist whose literal name is “Mistake,” and the attempt of a guy known as a bodybuilding program pitchman trying his hand at becoming a Jason- or Michael Myers-style killer. (I goofed, attributing the former to John Carpenter before Jim justifiably chided me.)

I hope you enjoy our conversation on this, one of a vanishingly few horror movies centered on the Thanksgiving Day holiday.

The dice give a dark gift

From “The Secret of Kells”

I took a long hiatus from running my D&D campaign, and pitched a new idea to my players (among several): Set that shit in the 8th Century AD, the actual historical age of the Viking, but mythology is real. It removed a lot of the pressure on me to come up with some grand over-arching world-building and it also allows for tons of adventures with interesting angles.

I threw way more time and effort into designing modified rules for it, and then I warned my players that the world was going to be cruel, life short and sharp, and that they should have at least a couple extra characters on deck in case disaster befell them. Turns out that warning was valid: In our inaugural session this past Monday, one player died to a one-shot from a cultist (a very basic enemy) in the very first fight. He had rolled an Irish monk – that is, a scriptorium monk who learned Kung Fu from his Irish monastery, which as we all know is 100% historically accurate. I was looking forward to good times with this character, whose player really is a delight to have in the group because he really just puts his all into coming up with mannerisms and hang-ups for his characters. But no: his fightin’ monk bit the dust.

Fortunately, he had a new character ready to go, and as soon as the fight resolved, the party was astounded to witness a pooka (a child-sized rabbit fairy creature from Celtic myth) poof into being nearby, introducing himself as Sprinkle Honeystone (courtesy of a fantasy name generator program my group swears by).

Play needed to stop for like, five minutes for us all to laugh our reproductive organs off at this turn of events, and Sprinkle went on to spear a zombie to death and unleash a cloud of poison gas that annihilated a small group of enemies. It really is part of the black comedy of a D&D campaign run with maximum brutality and a group of players who are game to bury a player character or two. I’m hoping for such positive energy as we continue. I’m already altogether more excited about it than I have been in quite a while.

You meet the nicest cacti in your dreams

Katharine got a candid moment of me selecting hats for the trail. None of them fit that well.

I’m back in Illinois, and the snow is back here, too. I was glad to go see my cousin and her bouncy little toddler, but I’d be lying if I said the primary motivation wasn’t to take my pretty gf to introduce her to the saguaros, who were all delighted to meet her.

We went hiking up a trail I hadn’t been to the end of the first time I went – that one was the source of the last post’s charming flora. Funnily enough, it was the site where she messaged me – before we were dating – teasing me about not being in the office. I was able to respond with a photo of the sweeping desert at dawn.

The Sonoran is a unique place – greener than you’d think if you’ve never been there. I could really get used to it, I think, especially when the winters are no cooler than an overnight low of 40 or so.

The other major thing I discovered this time was that every video game designer and fantasy author should really go on a horseback ride. It’s pretty revealing how difficult and tiring the activity is, even for the dumb sap sitting on top of the horse doing none of the heavy lifting.

Hitting the trail.

The saguaro stood perfectly still. Maybe the tiny mammals would just skitter away from her if she didn’t move.

The chollas ambled up the hill, hooting and hollering into the noonday sun.

The saguaro was certain he was well-hidden. Besides, he thought, human sight is movement-based.

“This is saguaro turf, motherfucker! Barrelheads don’t come up here!”

“Uuugh,” came a cry, in unison, from the saguaros. “Turn the light off!!!!”

Among the saguaros once more

 

The hills near Cave Creek. | Kenneth Lowe 2016

 

I’m visiting family in the Phoenix area for Thanksgiving, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the country. People who aren’t from here tend to think it’s a flat and featureless stretch of desert, but it’s a mountainous and majestic one in reality. There are all sorts of flora unique to the area, including the strange and mighty saguaro. These guys are probably my favorite plant in North America (the South American Samán tree, which I don’t know if that’s what it’s really called, is my Other America favorite).

“Let me tell you why you should vote libertarian!!!”

Saguaros seem as if they have deep, idiosyncratic personalities. They are outwardly prickly, but can’t hide their expressiveness. They seem as if they are trying to tell us something, but that it just takes them a century or two to say it. It would be something, to stay here for a long stretch of time and bend an ear to them.

These photos are all from my trip two years ago, but I’ll see about posting some more after my hike today.

“Everybody have enough shade?”

The old lecturing the young.

Chollas, creeching real horrorshow as they go rolling into the night in search of the old ultraviolence.

All Quiet

Paste Magazine | Two Views of All Quiet on the Western Front

My latest from Paste Magazine is a look at the two major adaptations of All Quiet on the Western Front, in honor of the century that now separates us from World War I.

The Great War is a kind of subject of fascination for me, because it really is the height of folly. It’s everything we all hate about humanity, and the terrible people who we agree to allow to lead us. It was so bad that we don’t tolerate any kind of true monarchy anymore. It made the heads of state realize that if we didn’t agree to specifically pull our punches, we could end humanity. I think those of us who ponder these things really look back at it and feel afraid that we didn’t truly learn anything from it. This was a difficult viewing for me, especially the 1930 version I detail in the article, blissfully ignorant as it is of just how terrifying the scenes of dumb, eager white boys gleefully signing up to wear fancy uniforms for no real reason would look a scant six or seven years later.

A really great video series on the debacle that led up to the war comes to us courtesy of Extra Credits, and you should totally watch the whole four-part series.