Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear

By Kenneth Lowe

RM Bulseco. Used under creative commons.

“Well, you’re home early,” Dad said as Riley trudged up the steps onto the front porch, using the tone of voice he’d cultivated across decades of bad dates and a failed marriage and dead-end career after dead-end career, that is made to sound as nonchalant as possible to hide the aching yearning of the speaker. The tone that, by the time a daughter is 16, she recognizes even if she can’t diagnose it yet. “What say we practice driving?”

Riley’s path home from the school that had closed its doors three hours early that day took her beneath an underpass of 80 West, and from their front porch she could turn to look up at the on-ramp to the highway and see the ocean of automobiles, motionless and powerless and angry. The big truck stop billboard that was always visible from inside the living room picture window was advertising a new low price on gas of $20 a gallon. CLEARANCE! roared the signs on the windows of the convenience store. HELP WANTED! HIRING IMMEDIATELY!

“Sure,” she said.

“I think we’ll practice on the Triumph,” Dad said, his voice full of the effort it took to get vertical from his usual position on the rocking chair, both hands planted on his knees. “You gotta learn stick sometime. Can’t let the drunk boy who wants to drive you home be the only one who knows how.”

This was the man who earlier that month had fist-bumped her when she’d told him she’d made out with Jenna in the back of the room during second period Chemistry while the teacher had slipped out of the classroom under cover of a movie to go cry in the hallway, the man who had then spent the rest of the day and the following morning making jokes about how the two girls must “have Chemistry,” each becoming increasingly labored and woefully easy to see coming.

He trundled over to the garage door, bent over to take hold of the handle, and heaved it up. His T-shirt rose up to reveal his gut at the same time the open door revealed the 2027 Ford Taurus, which would’ve looked twice its age even without the rust creeping along the bottom edges of the doors; the naked frame and tank of a Ducati with no wheels on it and its brake discs and drive chain sitting in a dusty puddle of oil on top of a towel on the seat; and the Triumph TR6, its dignified green paint waxed, its every metal part polished, the stain on its wood paneling catching the low sun of the winter.

“It’s even nice enough to drive with the top down today,” Dad said.


“You want me to back her out for you? Heh heh heh.”

“Jesus, Dad.”

Riley had never sat in the Triumph’s driver’s seat before. It felt like being hugged by your great aunt, if she was wearing a leather jacket. The street ahead of her stretched on until it dipped down a steep descent toward the lake, one that scared her on her bicycle when it was wet. She reached for the ignition.

“Ah!” he slapped her hand away and she rolled her eyes. “You’ve never driven this chick magnet before. What’s the first thing you need to do?”

“I don’t know, Dad.”

“You know, sweetie, come on.”

In the distance, somebody on the on-ramp was laying on their horn, long and loud and furious, joining a chorus of others. When she looked away from the worn grey man to her right, the only things she could see were the house across the street their neighbors had left abandoned last month in a tornado of shouting and broken dishes, or the sun, flat and dull and somehow still blinding, a whole astronomical unit away and yet right in her fucking face all the time. She put the visor down and then angled it over to the left to shade her eyes.

“You get ergonomical, honey. You get that seat where it should be. You check your mirrors. Go on now!”

She fumbled with the seat for a full minute before he got out of the car, walked around to her side, and helped her with it. A car tore past in the oncoming lane as he was in the midst of taking a creaky knee before her to do it, and the way the door obscured the upper half of his body must have suggested something to the driver, who hooted and honked as the other twentysomething guys in the back all made noise. Without looking up or interrupting what he was doing, Dad gave them the finger.

As he was walking back around (always walk around the back of a car, he’d told her when she was five, that way the dummy at the wheel is less likely to run you over), a police cruiser peeled around a corner in pursuit of the joyriders, sirens wailing.

“Mirrors,” he went on as he took his seat again and closed the door, timing his pause to give the sirens a minute to fuck along down the road, “mirrors being in the wrong attitude are not something you wanna discover doing 70 on the highway. Now, the best way to set things up is so you don’t have to turn your head. You should be able to see everything just by moving your eyes.”

Dad went on a bit about the first cars to have mirrors, about how they had needed to do it after they got fast enough to really be dangerous, and Riley had no idea how much of it was true or just made up. She knew he didn’t either. The mirrors were in the right place by the time he finally wound down.

“You start this one different than you do the Taurus,” Dad said. “The car can buck around on you because you’re driving it, not some fucking computer. Okay?”


“On the Taurus you need to have the brake down, on this one it’s the clutch. That’s on the left, all the way on the left. You use your left foot on that one, and you use your right for the gas and the brake the same way you do on an automatic.”

Riley was surprised by how firmly she needed to push down on the clutch.

“You gotta floor it.”

She did.

“You’ll feel it in your calf the first few days. You can also pop the transmission into neutral before you start it, that also works. What’s it in now?”

She looked at the stick, with its neat little lines pointing to numbers inscribed on the knob.

“First, honey, it’s in first, right?”

“I guess, Dad.”

“When it’s wiggly in the middle like this,” he popped it out of gear, “It’s in neutral. Here it is in first again. Keep your hand on the stick. It’s good to let it rest there. Keeps you from fucking around on your phone or eating a taco or all those things you see careless pricks doing while they drive, you see what I mean?”

“Uh huh.”

“When you start the car, you’re going to keep that left foot all the way down on the clutch. And then you make sure you’re in gear, which you are, and then we’re going to give it the same amount of gas you’d give the Taurus to get moving, and you take pressure off the clutch until you feel the engine catch the wheels. You look like you have no idea what I’m saying.”

“It can’t be that hard,” she said, and turned the key.

The car sprang to life, bucked 18 inches forward, and stalled immediately. The radio turned on, and remained on as the aftermarket electrics complained that the battery was draining.

“…of refugees being turned away from bunkers by security forces on the same day NASA has revised its projections to indicate landfall could occur as soon as this evening. Here in Denver, humanitarian observers estimate 100,000 people are camped outside the city, with ongoing violence between members of this group and—”  

He reached over to shut the radio off just a little too quickly.

Riley stared at the road ahead. The sirens had not really stopped, but sounded like they were chasing the joyriding car around the neighborhood. Their wail, the revving of engines, the horns of those trapped on the on ramp, the panicked beeping of the car seeming to scream the battery is RUNNING OUT, you need to DO SOMETHING—

Her father’s hand, which was bigger than her face, settled on her shoulder, and the other hand gently reached over and turned the ignition off. She found herself focused on the veins in the back of it, on the high school ring that was choking off his right ring finger, on the tan line from where he’d had the wearable until the day when it beeped at him angrily about having another beer and he stepped on it until it crunched.

That same hand reached over and cradled her cheek in its palm the same way it had when he’d woken her up on her third birthday, the same way it had when she’d sat on the front porch staring at the moon the night Mom took the van and didn’t come back.

“You know what driving is about? It’s not about turn signals and 10 ‘n’ 2.”

She didn’t say anything. He brushed away the tear that rolled down her cheek.

“Two things, kiddo. The first is awareness. The second is focus. Today we’re just gonna do focus.”


Theaters are probably screwed

Creative Commons: PxHere

The trouble with capitalism in this country specifically is that it can see about as far as its own nose. The pandemic, which has revealed the cruelty, folly, and craven selfishness of every evil institution and person, has likewise shined that searing spotlight on the movie industry, and the industry, at every level, has stumbled about with that same blindness.

The plain thing to do is to shut everything down until the plague passes us. That is what has worked in other countries. Read a newspaper if you don’t believe me. The fact that this is inconvenient to rich people is beside the point: It is plainly the right thing to do, which means that in America, we don’t fucking do it.

Because we subscribe to thoughtless, shortsighted capitalism above all else–because once you have yours you are obligated by law to say fuck everybody else–the film industry in particular is now forced to essentially allow itself to be gutted because the individual segments of it won’t work together to weather this thing. It is as if you were faced with a ravenous zombie horde, but instead of reacting as one human being, you watched your individual arms and legs argue over which of them should get bitten by the zombies rather than, you know, work together to run away from them.

Warner Bros. has announced that it will simply issue same-day releases of its entire slate of movies for 2021 on HBO Max, the ultimate concession to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic that also throws theaters to the wolves. There is a lot to unpack from this news, starting with the fact that no mention is made anywhere of revenue sharing with theaters. Why should there be? Studios have done everything in their power over the years to extract more and more revenue from theaters, which remain the only practical model by which you can charge people to see Captain America vs. Godzilla per ass rather than per household.

Is that good for the moviegoer? In the immediate term, yes, it is. This sort of thing should have been in place earlier. I’m sorry that I don’t live in Manhattan or Anaheim, but I would still like to see The Lighthouse within some reasonable interval of when it came out. I don’t always have time to go to a theater, and there are some movies that I don’t feel like dragging four children to go see. The theatrical release is, in a time of streaming, at least somewhat outdated, and theaters have known this. It’s why, before this plague, they all started tacking on table service and bars.

At the same time streaming and video games and every other thing in life joined television in the cavalcade of things stealing novelty from the movies, theaters have been forced to make up for their historic decline in revenues through obnoxious means: Half a damn hour of trailers before the feature, on top of advertising prior to the trailers. Memberships and rewards programs to entice more people to come more often. All of it, ultimately, resulting in a less pleasant experience when you do bother to go.

Now, of course, that experience can literally kill you. I already wrote at Paste about just exactly how steamed that makes me, in light of everything.

And yet Warner’s move here pisses me off just as much. An industry with hundreds of thousands of employees, the basis for the blockbuster movie model, will simply be abandoned. Theaters will close and it will be harder to make blockbuster movies, which in turn will cause a downturn in earnings for studios who have not been able to see past the blockbuster since the turn of the century. If these same execs are dumb enough to greenlight the latest Robin Hood movie, they are absolutely dumb enough to keep trying to bet the farm on blockbusters when the model is no longer viable.

They could, instead, participate in some form of revenue sharing. But they will not do that, because under capitalism it is stupid, criminal, to consider giving somebody something for nothing. If there is no immediate benefit to your bottom line right now, you are honor-bound not to do it. The possibility that there could be mutual benefit at some unspecified point in the future is not to be considered. We must eat the fucking marshmallow NOW.

If you think everything will remain the same and the industry will just limp over the finish line, you should know Hollywood has had a big collapse once before, in the ’60s, as TV ate away at viewership, standby genres like Westerns and big movie musicals became less popular and created bubbles that burst, and as antitrust rulings brought an end to things like the B-movie due to the end of block booking (a studio forcing a theater to play a whole slate of movies). The entire swirling confluence of post-war American cultural forces led to it, really.

We’re in a time of such upheaval again, and it’s not at all unreasonable a thought, to my mind, that a mainstay of public life like the theater could come to an end as a result. Besides throwing a bunch of people out into the street who were pulling down a wage, what is that going to do? I know it seems like I’m worked up about the specific way in which I get to watch dumb movies, but this stuff does matter. What stories get told, by whom, and to whose monetary benefit are all important things–things that are part of the same cultural concerns as stuff like representation of women and minorities.

I’m happy I get to watch Dune without fucking catching the plague. But as with every other shitty thing about this shitty country during this shitty pandemic, it reminds me that it all comes at the cost of some other person or institution undeservedly getting screwed. But nobody fucking listens to me, so I guess I’ll just throw my hands up and do it.

There is yet much to do

Photo: Ted Eyten, creative commons

They will shriek and gnash their teeth, but it is over. It should rightly have been over four years ago, when 3 million more of us said “no” to the bullying, to the tantrums, to the lies, to the utter disrespect and small-mindedness. But, because things are in place to prop up the votes of some of us over the votes of others, we have all had to watch as vandals have ridden roughshod across everything. It was plainly wrong, plainly stupid, and it could have been avoided if everybody sat down and faced the simple fact that the will of the people and the vicissitudes of our stupid electoral system only occasionally align.


You will live to see it

When my grandfather was born in 1919 in Hong Kong, it was a British dependent territory, but there would’ve been people walking around him, not even all that old, who would have remembered the 1897 decree that took it out of China’s hands. I don’t know the first detail about his own grandfather besides that he did at one point end up in San Francisco in the late 1930s. I also know that he basically had to have remembered what living in China during the Opium Wars was like.

During the Bush years, I expressed dismay to my father. I can’t remember which piece of shit thing W. had just done. We’ll say he’d just invaded his fourth or fifth country, or cut his 29th tax, or issued his 300th executive order. Zipped the body bag on his 4,000th or 5,000th stop-lossed troop, maybe.

“You can’t see something glacial move when you’re standing on top of it,” he told me, which sounds like something somebody probably once told him on a day he despaired. He would’ve had plenty such days. He remembered the Stonewall Riots. He was a young man when Bobby and Jack and Dr. King were killed. He had to duck and cover in school. His whole life, from when he was born until I was old enough to go to school, he lived with the nagging feeling that one of the stupid old men running the Kremlin or the White House would push the wrong button and destroy us all.

It all feels impossible today, when the only woman in the presidential race – indeed, the only good candidate; the clearly superior candidate; the person, male or female, who should fucking be the next president – steps down. It’s not for me to sit here and say “Oh, don’t despair. It’ll all work out in the end.” Because it might not. My grandparents made it out of Cuba alive, and we don’t hear from the ones who didn’t. The ones, right now, whom Trump is cheerily erasing.

History is a tide. It moves slowly and it knocks over everything, and everyone, and we live atop what it has left behind, in the world it chooses to give us. This is hard to accept on days like today, when your own individual actions seem completely fucking meaningless. There will be other days. Despite everything, I believe you will live to see them.

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.


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.