Category Archives: memoir

Lemmings

My nephew realized during our texting the other day that he had failed to tell me about a sudden memory.

While eating gummy bears, he wasn’t paying attention as he popped one after the other into his mouth until he really liked one. He stopped chewing and checked the half-eaten gummy, a clear one.

That triggered the memory of my mother (his grandmother who mostly raised him) telling him that those were my favorite gummies.

We then texted a while about how and why we have such vivid memories as humans as well as how we know things.

In short, our memories and bodies of knowledge are swirling with many elements of our experiences. I mentioned to my nephew that I usually ask classes of students if they recall the first time visiting a friend’s house and thinking it smelled weird (or even bad).

Virtually everyone immediately perks up because this experience is so vivid in our memories.

My goal in that brief exercise is to help students confront how we associate “different” with “bad,” and as critical educators, we must move past that judgmental state.

But this texting was also a trigger for me.

I am resistant to and very rarely fly—not because I am afraid of flying (yes, I am rational enough to know flying is far safer than driving), but because almost all of the experiences around flying trigger my anxiety.

Flying is a series of first experiences (a nightmare for me), racing to meet schedules beyond your control (including sudden gate changes and flight delays, etc.), and worst of all, a toxic soup of cramped spaces and loud noises.

Last week, I attended and presented at two conferences requiring me to fly from Upstate SC to Detroit (Troy, MI) and then to LA (Anaheim) before returning to the Greenville/Spartanburg SC area. That trip involved 6 plane flights and three hotels over just five days.

The very worst part of the trip was finally arriving at LAX from Detroit, a segment of the journey that began just after lunch EST and involved me walk-running through the Houston airport and having no food from noon EST until midnight PST.

As noted above, I struggle with my anxiety in any new situations and securing an Uber at LAX was my very first Uber experience—which nearly drained me as finding a way to secure a ride through the App wasn’t working in the airport and then took 1.5 hours to complete after reaching the pick up area outside the airport.

I found myself standing at my hotel around midnight being told that they were completely full, and despite my having a reservation, they were moving me to another hotel.

That other hotel was just on the opposite side of the convention center from the hotel where I stood, but the manager gave me the wrong directions leaving me wandering around Anaheim near Disney, again, after midnight.

Sweating, exhausted, and starving, I opened my Google App and discovered I should have turned left instead of the right I was told.

I dropped into bed, still no food, completely exhausted about 1 PM PST, where I stayed only about 4 hours before being up to (finally) eat some food, make my move to the original hotel, and make my major roundtable by 12:30.

Most of this trip felt like standing in line or being packed into seats far too small for humans and everything—every thing—costing far too much—with human choice cast to the ditch all along the way.

It’s a small world after all.

As we stood packed together for one of the flights home, I had a sudden memory like my nephew.

I thought “lemmings.”

My adolescence was spent in the 1970s. I recall vividly discovering the new music of The Police when waking up one morning in my childhood bedroom. The song was “Roxanne,” and The Police would become one of those foundational parts of my music-crush history.

In those formative years, a starting metamorphosis occurred.

Concurrent with my introduction to reading and collecting comic books along with being a closeted science fiction novel fan, I was increasingly drawn to popular music lyrics.

Pink Floyd, The Police, Eagles, Billy Joel, and others provided for me some of the first places that I recognized purposeful writing—of course this genesis of my own love for reading and writing poetry.

Standing in line, mindlessly herded, I thought “lemming,” and also that I learned the word from “Synchonicity II” on The Police’s Synchronicity. That album and song title also led me to explore the word “synchronicity.”

My earliest memory of learning words from popular music is “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, a song that drove me to both the dictionary and the Bible.

Toward the end of my year 61, I am also fascinated by my experience with the word “lemming” because like “coyote,” it provides a wonderful example of how idiosyncratic reading, learning to read, and knowledge are for us humans.

The Police were using “lemming” to evoke the song’s message about the dehumanizing aspects of modern life:

Another working day has ended
Only the rush hour hell to face
Packed like lemmings
Into shiny metal boxes
Contestants in a suicidal race.

“Synchonicity II,” The Police


When I heard this song 40 years ago, I had no real access or inclination to check the association being made with lemmings, what turns out to be a fabricated story of animals who are suicidal:

So why is the myth of mass lemming suicide so widely believed? For one, it provides an irresistible metaphor for human behavior. Someone who blindly follows a crowd—maybe even toward catastrophe—is called a lemming. Over the past century, the myth has been invoked to express modern anxieties about how individuality could be submerged and destroyed by mass phenomena, such as political movements or consumer culture.

But the biggest reason the myth endures? Deliberate fraud. For the 1958 Disney nature film White Wilderness, filmmakers eager for dramatic footage staged a lemming death plunge, pushing dozens of lemmings off a cliff while cameras were rolling. The images—shocking at the time for what they seemed to show about the cruelty of nature and shocking now for what they actually show about the cruelty of humans—convinced several generations of moviegoers that these little rodents do, in fact, possess a bizarre instinct to destroy themselves.

Do Lemmings Really Commit Mass Suicide?

So here is the complicated reality about “lemmings” and how I came to know the word.

First, I hear Sting’s British pronunciation any time I think of the word. My Southern version is quite different, but I know the word in a layer of subtle ways to say the word aloud.

Next, I now know not only the flawed but enduring meaning of “lemming” (the metaphor for mindless human obedience that is self-defeating), but also the fascinating and disturbing back story to how an Urban Legend and cultural myth come to be.

To read with comprehension, we humans certainly need a complex toolbox of decoding, word recognition, and knowledge; however, how that toolbox is formed remains mostly idiosyncratic and very difficult to prescribe.

I imagine many of my teachers were given credit by proximity for my developing (and often) advanced literacy throughout my junior high and high school years.

Yet, my word recognition and knowledge base were overwhelmingly fostered out of school—reading comics and science fiction, listening for hours while staring at liner notes in pop music.

Also in my seventh decade on this planet, I watch my grandchildren blossom with literacy that is grounded in video games, YouTube, and cartoons. Their knowledge base, like mine, comes disproportionately from their hobbies, the things they love.

Our literacy, if allowed, is inextricable from our passions.

This is Freire’s writing and reading the world, using our language to make sense of the world we are given and to create the world we want and need.

Here is the great and sad irony: Formal schooling and the teaching of reading are all too often the perfect context for evoking the enduring by inaccurate association we all have with lemmings.

We have a faction of people who persist in “all students must” approaches to very small children coming to know the world and the enchanting beauty of language.

Like the commuters packed like lemmings/sardines in their cars, like all the travelers with me marched through boarding and then packed into those planes, children pre-K through grade 12 are marched through schooling and taught that reading is not in fact beautiful but a way to create the sort of workers The Police recognized: “He doesn’t think to wonder why.”

We are marching together to the end of 2022, a year when literacy and literature are under assault, and thus, our children and our freedom are under assault.

We will goose step into 2023 with “lemmings” being the perfect mascot for who were are, thoughtlessly on a suicide march that was manufactured in a Disney studio.

Provincialism, Ways of Being, and the Failure of Democracy

I had dinner and a few beers with a former student recently. Although he is about two decades younger than me, we share a hometown and grew up in the same neighborhood. And after I had moved out during young adulthood, as a child, he often spent time at my parents’ house, just playing and hanging out.

He’s worked all over the world and has been living in Europe for more than 15 years. Our conversation drifted to our hometown and his perception of living in Europe instead of near where he grew up. Eventually, he asked how some people “get out” of small hometowns, escape the trap of narrow-mindedness—what I referred to as provincialism.

We share a strong discomfort with conservative and fundamentalist thinking even though we were raised in that environment, which continues to this days in our hometown. His question reminded me of one of my favorite lyrics from The National: “How can anybody know/ How they got to be this way?”

Especially as a teacher, I have found teaching siblings complicates any solid answer to his question since two people raised in the same home and town can turn out to be very different people. We catalogued several people also from our community who, like us, no longer conform to the mold of our upbringing, trying to understand why some people change and others remain frozen in the provincialism of their upbringing.

My former student is very clear that the key for him was being an exchange student in Europe during his junior year of high school; his worldview changed once he had lived a different view of the world. I credit my education, especially literature, but it is the same dynamic—being exposed to different views of the world.


“The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance,” begins “The Words of My Mouth” in a June issue of English Journal. “Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues—all of these may be evils in the English classes as others.”

That opening builds to this key question: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings?”

This essay is by Lou LaBrant and was published in 1946. LaBrant was vividly aware of the threats to freedom in the context of WWII and Nazi Germany, but her essay resonates today because of the threats from within the US, the Republican assaults on academic freedom, books, and individual choice by weaponizing “pornography,” “grooming,” “Critical Race Theory,” and any word or phrase to impose a narrow view of the world onto all of us.

“Not one facet of human experience will serve to insure the kind of society we need so desperately, and all aspects of living affect all others,” LaBrant warns.

The role of education, she emphasizes, must include: “A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of anything.” At the core of racism, sexism, and all types of bigotry and hate, LaBrant recognized the need to challenge the power of “word magic,” the belief that uttering something makes it so, gives it power.

In 1950, LaBrant returned to this topic, focusing on students as writers:

[Students] should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what they say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word-magic. (p. 264)

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writing. Elementary English27(4), 261-265. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41383735

Over the past few years, I have made long trips from South Carolina into the Midwest, specifically Ohio and Wisconsin. Each time, I find the persistence of what is stereotypically “Southern” into the region that we in the South would classify as the “North” (which is everything outside of the Deep South, including Virginia and Texas). Fundamentalist billboards condemning homosexuality and abortion as well as huge signs quoting scripture line highways all through rural America.

Billboard in Ohio

These 8-10 hour drives left me certain I was not making just the specific trip I was on (conference presentations) but was destined for the flaming pits of Hell. Although I am a white straight man, I strongly believe in the rights of all people regardless of racial identification, gender, sexuality, religion (or not), etc., because I very much believe I deserve the same sort of freedom to fully be the human I have come to know that I am.

I also know that for women to be fully human, body autonomy is essential and that includes abortion rights.

Like Kurt Vonnegut, I am a humanist:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife [emphasis added]. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

A Man without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut

To me, this is a foundational commitment to the country’s claim of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How can any of us be happy if we are required to conform to a narrow mandate of ways of being determined by a few in power based on a provincial view of the world?

My gender identity and sexuality are who I am, and right for me, but that means nothing for anyone else. I want my ways of being to be honored; therefore, I believe I am obligated to honor that for everyone else.


As my former student can attest by experience, people have even more freedom in countries other than the US; Americans do not have a monopoly on individual freedom and certainly not communal support for those freedoms (universal healthcare contributes to individual freedom, for example):

[I]t seems to me that the myth, the illusion, that this is a free country, for example, is disastrous….

There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it—and almost all of us have one way or another—this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.

“Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” James Baldwin

The hostile environment in the US today fostered by conservatives is also eroding those freedoms day by day; people are less free in the US than 6 months ago, and we are very likely on the precipice of the erasing of even greater freedoms in the coming months.

The Republican agenda of rolling back freedoms and rights as well as increasing bans and censorship is an agenda grounded in provincialism, which, as I have observed, seems to be rooted in rurality, the isolation of people creating an isolation of worldview.

We know rural America is red and urban American is blue, but I think we fail to examine fully why this is the case. For me, my former student’s experience illustrates the dangers of narrow thinking when you have limited experiences and why a cosmopolitan worldview is a doorway to expanding how you think and your ability to have empathy for people who appear to be unlike you.

I use “appear” because, for example, a gay person and a straight person have different sexualities but share the need for having that sexuality honored. That is our commonality.

Yet, democracy is failing us in the US because those who want to use their political power to control have the same rights to vote as those who want to use their political power to insure everyone’s freedoms and ways of being.

And in 2022, those voting to control seem to the have the upper-hand, not because there are more of them but because the system has been gamed to favor them and they often have the greatest passion for asserting their control. Sadly, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).

Some see their ideologies and beliefs as baseball bats; others see them as safety nets. In a democracy, those votes are equal—and the humanity of individuals hangs in the balance.


I am not concerned, however, that I am in fact going to hell for wanting individual freedom for everyone regardless of their ways of being, regardless of how their gender, sexuality, or whatever appears the same or different from mine.

The irony is that Republicans are creating hell on earth for all of us right here in the US; they are proving Sartre right: “Hell is other people.”

And because of the failure of democracy, there is no exit.

Mother’s Day 2022

There are sayings about power that seem true.

Power corrupts.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But, I think, these are mere shiny rhetoric because the truth is much uglier.

Power reveals who a person truly is.

Most power in the U.S. remains in the hands of men, white men. And we routinely hear male politicians invoke the “I have a mother” or “I have a daughter” to justify the truly horrible things they do to the detriment of women and girls.

Yes, we have mothers. But that doesn’t guarantee anything, any more than having power guarantees that having that privilege means the power will be used in the service of those without power.

For all her very human flaws, my mother was wonderful to me. Far from perfect, often wonderful, formative, of course, and ever-present in my being, even (or maybe especially since) after she died.

I am not stooping to the petty and dishonest “since I have a mother” argument, but I cannot in good conscience do anything other than advocate for complete body autonomy, complete human dignity and freedom for all women and girls in part because of the life my mother lived—especially her early life in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

And then my life with her in the 1960s and 1970s as I grew up—watching her daily live the reduced life of women, even as she enjoyed the privileges of being white and having the advantages that came with being working class in the South.

As elected officials—often white men and then occasionally joined by white women working anti-woman adjacent—continue to dismantle the autonomy and freedom of women in a country that shamelessly claims to be the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” I am emboldened by the weight of my own mother sitting there in the knots of my being that I daily try to ease.

She did give me life and she also passed on our shared anxieties—the racing mind, the never-ending “what if” thinking, the erosion of our bodies because our minds simply will not leave us be.

Motherhood is not the defining feature of womanhood.

Motherhood is the defining feature of motherhood.

Dishonoring womanhood is spitting in the face of all that defines womanhood, including motherhood.

Power reveals who people truly are.

In the U.S. in 2022, that truth should shame us all.


the philosophy of gerunds (my mother is dying)

my mother has returned to where she began

wisteria (like a photograph)

Clothespin Bucket

Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

2022: On Fear and Anxiety

“This one’s like your mother’s arms when she was young and sunburned in the ’80s/ It lasts forever”

“I’ll Still Destroy You,” The National

The Friends We Never Had

While I am more than deeply skeptical about the supernatural world, I had a few weeks ago what I can call only a premonition.

My partner and I were sitting at a local brewery, and I had this sudden and random thought: A former more-than-friend contacting me more than a decade after ghosting me to tell me a mutual friend had died.

Both people in that thought are people I have had no contact with for many years, although I once considered one of them (the one I imagined finding out had died) my best friend.

In no more than thirty minutes from that thought, I had a chilling real experience: I put down a book I was reading, glanced through Facebook on my phone, and saw a post that the person I had once considered my best friend had just died.

I was quite disoriented, and shared the whole event—premonition—with my partner, who asked how I was feeling.

To be honest, it took several days for me to work through and confront how I felt, both about the premonition event itself and of course the death of a person I had once considered my best friend.

There is more, of course, to why this entire situation bothered me, disoriented me.

The person who ghosted me made a statement to me that would prove to be about the last thing they ever told me; they said about the person who I once considered my best friend: “He is not your friend.”

Among the many parts of our parting that were messy and painful, even though that was over ten years ago, I remain haunted by the sincerity of that message despite the layers of doubt about that relationship I had to navigate.

Being ghosted means being left without full closure, but this ghosting also left me with a puzzle I never was able to piece together.

Without any real evidence, I believe that warning—that he wasn’t my friend. However, I can’t shake the need to understand that even as I have made complete peace with both the ghosting and the reality that someone I considered my best friend was in fact a friend I never had.


I am not religious and I have a very strong aversion to tradition and formality (anxiety reflexes, I think); therefore, death always puts me in awkward public corners.

My parents died within 6 months of each other only a few years ago. Being the dutiful son in the way people expected, the normal way, added to the weight of their deaths for me. Their deaths overlapped my mother’s sudden stroke and debilitation so by the time they died, I was drained in ways that were far beyond simply having to live through the sudden health decline and deaths of your parents.

I was completely at peace with what I wanted and could do during those months with and for my parents in terms of I know that my parents were and would have been the very first people to understand and not judge my abnormal responses and behavior.

I don’t play expected roles well. I am deeply attracted to people who do not expect or want me to play roles as a result.


That brings me back to friendship.

My partner has noticed that I am prone to referring to several people as “someone I used to consider my best friend.” In fact, my life’s highway seems to be littered with those folk.

That phrase is not one of bitterness but one of an awareness that comes with having lived into my sixth decade.

Today, I still stumble a bit when I refer to someone and tag that with “my best friend”—even though I have come to a place where I have created a space for embracing that designation in a way that resists idealizing and seeks to honor how someone has demonstrated to me their degree of friendship.

The path to resenting someone you once called your best friend is paved with your own projections, your own hope or want for that person to be your “best friend.”

The best kind of best friend is one that you realize after “best friend” has already just happened naturally over time.

I think I am in a place where I can enjoy someone else for who they are, without expectations of them being anything other than who they are. Some of that, again, comes with age and can only occur when we are as comfortable with ourselves as is humanly possible.

I suspect no one can ever be entirely comfortable with themselves, but we can come close if we are willing to look hard at who we are in our bones and still like/love ourselves.

Idealism is a delusion. Blunt recognition of Self and others is a gift, a liberation, an opportunity to recognize someone as your “best friend” without the traps of either word—”best” need not be exclusionary and “friend” must not be an obligation.

I have again and again over the years found a sort of solace in the work of Kurt Vonnegut, someone who too seemed out of kilter with this world but gleefully willing to look hard at himself and that world. Vonnegut always felt like he was able to provide some soothing but dark words of wisdom, almost as if he were an old soul all his life.

“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is,’” he wrote in A Man Without a Country, quoting his Uncle Alex.

The more I think about friendship, the more I believe this is the key to happy friendships—enjoying all the nice in the moment regardless of anything else.


I sit here left with a quandary about whether I did, in fact, have a premonition. Could the person who I once considered my best friend cast himself into the universe in such a way that something like my soul sensed it?

Is there something beyond our traditional awareness that keeps some of us forever intertwined?

Once ghosted, are we forever haunted?

And just what in the hell do we do with those friends we never had?

12-22-21: Nerdvana

What does it mean to be a nerd?

Not as vividly as today, slipping toward my last month at the age of 60, but in high school I was aware that I existed in different worlds, worlds that really did not overlap.

Those worlds, in fact, were documented in two films of my youth, Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds. And the worlds, of course, are the tensions between nerds and jocks in formal schooling.

From about 1975 into the early 1980s, I was a compulsive comic book collector, and throughout junior and senior high school, I was on the schools’ basketball teams; I also was a serious golfer and ran track my senior year.

Wearing my father’s number 3, I spent much of my adolescence trying to be the athlete I believed he wanted me to be.

With 7000+ comic books safely ensconced in my comic book room at my home, where I could control who knew about my mostly closeted life, I graduated 8th in my class and more distraught that I had failed to secure a letterman’s jacket than proud of my academic achievements.

My school had arcane rules for lettering, the jacket only awarded to those who lettered in their junior year, the only year I failed to letter in basketball after lettering my sophomore year and in two sports my senior year. I wore my father’s letterman’s jacket occasionally—him a four-sport letterman and co-captain of the school’s first state championship football team.

I clung to the jock life desperately in high school, but the nerd life was who I was, who I am.

Although I became a serious cyclist a few years after high school, and continue today as a fairly accomplished recreational cyclist, I learned quite quickly that the embarrassment of being an outcast that came with being a nerd in school, suddenly flipped throughout college and into adulthood.

Oddly, to be honest, much of my nerd impulses are satisfied by my adult sports obsession, cycling. The two worlds seamlessly merged, and with little conflict—unlike the satirical clashes in the films of my youth.

From the science fiction obsession I adopted from my mother to the comic book collecting and compulsive efforts to be a comic book artist, I slowly throughout college morphed into being a writer and a teacher, followed by graduate school and the life of a scholar, which pulls everything into one neat and stable nerd pile.

In my 40s, I moved to higher education and found the space to merge all of my nerd life into my career, including doing comic book scholarship and blogging. Over the next two decades, with age, I returned to my nerd center, beginning again to collect comics just as the world has embraced all that nerdom in the form of comic books being adapted to film and series on streaming services.

I grew up with campy Batman (a wonderful work around to shift comic books to live-action), The Green Hornet, The Incredible Hulk, and The Amazing Spider-Man, the latter two a hint of the possibility of comic books as TV series that were far ahead of their time in terms of the technology needed to make that work.

Most of that pop culture/comic book/super hero world was simply only stuff that nerds could appreciate, love. While there was some momentum to these as well as popular success, this was still mostly the nerd world.

Young adulthood, career, graduate school, marriage, and fatherhood pushed my nerd life aside while pop culture continued to tip-toe toward today’s nonstop nerdvana seen in Marvel and Disney+.

I sit here writing on 12-22-21, recognizing that the Pop Culture Gods have blessed us with the last episode of season 1 of Hawkeye, the release of The Matrix Resurrections, and new comic book day (including the release of Moon Knight (v9) 6 amidst the buzz around Moon Knight coming to Disney+)—maybe the peak ever nerdvana.

My 15-year-old rendition of Marvel Spotlight on The Moon Knight 28 (1976)

In 2012, despite being a lifelong SF nerd, I came to the original The Matrix trilogy 13 years late; I found all three films on my cable package, and immediately consumed them with nerd-glee, baffled why and how I had allowed life to distract me from them when they were commanding pop culture.

I soon wrote a poem about this experience, alluding the Revenge of the Nerds and beginning then to think seriously about what it means to be a nerd.

The value and consequences for being a nerd shift throughout childhood and adolescence into adulthood because at its core being a nerd is about being fully human, passionately and nakedly fully human. While we are children, and especially teens, to being transparent is terrifying, and the result is many simply hide their passions, who they are, and resort to shaming and bullying those few among us willing to live the nerd life even as we know it costs during those delicate years of growing up.

Of course, we have always found each other, sought refuge in small gatherings, but I grew up before comic book stores and Dungeons and Dragons, well before gaming really took hold.

Nerdom was isolating for me—until it simply was my life, my passions finding their way into my careers.

I will find ways to bask in 12-22-21, this nerdvana. After I complete this blog post, I can head to my local comic book store, opening at 11 am. I will go cycling this afternoon, and we have committed to watching The Matrix Resurrections tonight. I am fretting over how to fit in Hawkeye, as I also fret over how and when Daredevil comes to the MCU (hints and leaks swirling around me).

Being a nerd is an attempt at being fully human, allowing our souls and our minds to care deeply, to love and embrace these other worlds imagined and brought into our real lives.

12-22-21 is also the first day after the Winter Solstice, daylight once again promising to expand and bring us another spring, hope and sunshine and warmth.

Nerdom is the human heart joining with the human mind and pretending we have souls, souls that can and will occasionally join hands, all creatures good and one.

A Collector’s Dilemma: Navigating Comic Book Universes over the Decades

Recently, my partner began doing artwork on an iPad, and one afternoon, I returned to one of my passions as a teenager, drawing super heroes:

After Gil Kane’s cover of Daredevil and Black Widow v1 issue 97

Over the past year, facing as I am creeping into my 60s, I have also returned to collecting comic books, focusing on Daredevil and now Black Widow. Collecting, reading, and drawing from comic books were central to my teenage life from about 1975 through the early 1980s.

Diagnosed with scoliosis in the summer of 1975, just before entering ninth grade, I took solace in those comic books as I struggled against not only the usual terrors of adolescence but also the specter of living life in a clunky body brace throughout high school.

The brace was incredibly uncomfortable, and standing at the long bar separating our kitchen and living room was an ideal place for me to draw from the growing number of Marvel comics I was buying each week.

Collecting comics in the 1970s was a real nerd-life, but it looked much different than now. I visited two pharmacies and one convenience store on comic book release day, carefully sorting through spinner racks. Eventually I had paper catalogues of the books I owned in a 3-ring binder.

Back issues were also a real challenge, but I scoured the for-sale section of the print newspaper and found comic book sellers in the ads of the Marvel comics I collected. Once, my father even took me to a comic book convention in Atlanta.

But in many ways, the 1970s were a very naive time, much simpler and incredibly problematic.

Even then, as I note in my full-length examination of comic books, Marvel seemed overly focused on new readers; comic book publishers know where their money is made—the foundational and enduring characters—and cannot resist returning over and over to their origin stories.

Adulthood interfered with my collecting, and in one of the worst decisions of my life, I sold my 7000-book Marvel collection to help make a downpayment on a townhouse. I squirreled away my full run of Howard the Duck (volume 1), but all the other magical runs—Conan, Spider-Man, Daredevil, X-Men, etc.—were handed over to a comic book store in Charlotte, NC, so that I could properly adult.

After the Frank Miller reboot of Batman and the first Batman films with Michael Keaton, I dipped my toes back into collecting briefly because several of my high school students were collectors. However, since the early 1980s, I really had mostly abandoned the comic book world.

One of the great pleasures of my career shift in 2002—from high school English teacher for 18 years to college professor, 20 years and counting—was starting to write and publish comic book scholarship, and later, often blogging about comic books.

A couple summers ago, I made a huge change in my life, and with turning 60, I decided to allow myself my pleasures, even if they seemed childlike, childish. With the encouragement of my partner, then, I returned to actively collecting comics, and moved my collection into our apartment (from my office).

Even though I have much more disposable income at 60 than I (or my working-class parents) did as a teen, I recommitted to collecting with parameters of spending less than a few dollars per book (maybe $10 or $12 from time to time) even though I was targeting the 620+ issue run of Daredevil—to which I have added the much smaller run for Black Widow (after noticing a recent issue had a legacy numbering of 50).

From the naive and simpler 1970s until the 2020s, huge changes have occurred in comic books—the multiple reboots, the rise of the film adaptations, and the nearly fatal collapse of over-saturation in the 1990s.

But for me, a comic book lover and collector reconnecting with the super hero world, I find the constant renumbering and rebooting maddening.

The quest for complete runs is a nightmare of Dante’s Inferno proportion.

It took some tedious work, but Wikipedia and the Marvel database at Fandom allowed me to map out on my Notes app the 6 volumes of Daredevil and the (ridiculous) 8 volumes of Black Widow.

As I flip through back issues at the 2 or 3 local comic book stores, I have the Notes app open and typically have to click a Fandom link to make sure I am buying a book I need since Marvel provides precious little information for collectors on the covers (currently, however, most do have legacy numbering).

I find the reboots and renumbering some of the worst decisions made by comic book publishers, notably DC and Marvel. Again, these behaviors prioritize new readers, and leave life-long fans and collectors behind. Yes, I am well aware that comic books are a business and the market drives a great deal of what happens in the pages of my favorite titles.

It is maddening none the less.

A perfect example is Black Widow. I jumped into volume 8 of Black Widow, a wonderful run written by Kelly Thompson and drawn beautifully by Elena Casagrande and Rafael De Latorre (and others).

When I noticed that issue 10 of volume 8 was legacy number 50, I was motivated to collect the entire run of Black Widow, a seemingly doable project.

I turned again to Wikipedia and Fandom, constructing another outline on my Notes App. However, I soon noticed that if I collected every issues of the identified 8 volumes, I would own far more than 50 issues.

What gives?

I reached out on Twitter and searched frantically on Google—but finding a clarification for how Marvel determined legacy numbering, and why Black Widow has 8 volumes with conflicting total issue numbering, was nearly impossible.

It seems, according to Fandom, that Marvel counts only volumes 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 in the legacy numbering—another maddening layer to collecting in 2021.

And this is just Black Widow, a relatively fringe character in print comics (although her status appeared to be much greater in the MCU); when I grabbed some recent Spider-Man issues (prompted by noticing Thompson writing there also), I am even more frustrated by the layers and layers of reboots and alternate universes.

Where, o where, is Spider-Man of my teen years?

I don’t want to be the old man shouting for kids to get off my lawn; I do want to stay reconnected with Daredevil and Black Widow, along with other loved characters such as Wolverine and X-Men.

But I must admit, Marvel isn’t making it easy, and I am not even sure they care.

The Inevitable, Exponential Decline

Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas

In the consumer society called “America,” we humans are often nothing more or less than the objects we accumulate.

Or as comedian George Carlin explained, we are ultimately our “stuff”:

Nine months into being 60, I recognize that my life—in the throes of the inevitable, exponential decline—is reflected in some of my most prized stuff, my collection of bicycles that numbers 4 (two Ridley road bicycles, a Santa Cruz MTB, and a Santa Cruz gravel bicycle).

Part of that reflection involves my more than 30 years as a so-called serious cyclist living by The Rules, including Rule #12: The correct number of bikes to own is n+1. Because of major life changes, I now live in a 900-square-foot apartment instead of a house more than twice that size.

Bicycles occupy far too much space, and I have them hanging on the wall, forcing me to climb a ladder just to be able to ride.

As I have been fearing, while alone, I fell off the ladder recently while storing bicycle parts in the only storage space available in the HVAC area above the bathroom. I imagined myself lying broken on the concrete floor while I was falling—feelings I included in a recent poem, blue&black.

The reason I was on that ladder circles back to my bicycles since I was replacing the saddle on my Ridley Excalibur (Flandrien edition).

A few Saturdays ago, I joined the early morning ride from the local Trek store. I took several extended pulls during the ride, and gradually realized my saddle was incredibly uncomfortable, causing numbness and pain.

For cyclists, especially those of us who ride long and intense distances, the saddle is one of the most important components. I rode with Fizik Arione saddles for many years, a flat, long saddle with a faux-suede strip that keeps you from sliding around.

However, I briefly retired from road cycling throughout 2017—after being struck by a car on Christmas Eve 2016—but when I returned to road cycling in early 2018, I had to acknowledge that my body no longer found my road bicycle as comfortable as before.

Much to my chagrin, and embarrassment, I had to raise my stem and change my saddle, then to the Fizik Aliante, a curved saddle designed for people who are less flexible.

I also had to abandon my preferred thin, faux-leather handlebar tape, and returned to wearing padded gloves since I was struggling with hand stiffness and pain.

Those changes made riding more comfortable, even as I strayed from The Rules and the enormous cultural pressure among so-called serious cyclists.

After I stood up from the fall off the ladder, momentarily stunned and shaken, I cursed what had led to having to change my saddle again (this time to the same MTB-style saddle I have on my MTB and gravel bicycle). It took a few minutes to realize I was essentially fine, until I noticed blood marks on the carpet from a small cut on my foot.

Each time I climb the ladder to ride my Flandrien road bicycle, which I have switched to from my Helium SL because the Flandrien is far more comfortable, I see the inevitable, exponential decline of me reflected in the gradual replacement of parts on that bicycle—the raised stem, the padded handlebar tape, the bulkier saddle.

Much of this is depressing because it reflects a life-long war for me between me and my body—a body that never seemed to be able to attain the demands I have made of it, a body often disappointing and flawed.

But there is also more, a recognition that my being drawn to a sport grounded in Rule #5 (harden the fuck up, or HTFU) has a great deal of disfunction that I should walk away from, instead of gradually and reluctantly relinquishing piece by piece.

Some of that disfunction can be traced to my father, a hard-ass product of mid-twentieth century bullshit about working hard and suffering. Any of the success I have achieved as a cyclist resulted from my ability to suffer, just as my father taught me directly and indirectly.

My father suffered himself into an early grave.

And there are days now, especially after mountain biking and some gravel riding, when my shoulders ache just like my father’s failed him for the last couple decades of his life.

The machine is wearing down.

I have been sharing stories about the inevitable, exponential decline with my students, including telling stories about my life as a cyclist for about 35 years.

I now confess that the HTFU lifestyle was a really bad way to live and ride, and that I am paying for it. I usually share the story of the day I quit the Assault on Mt. Mitchell—a 102-mile ride that concludes with about 30 miles of climbing—just as I was starting the climb.

I didn’t just quit that day; I quit ever doing the ride again (after about 20 starts and 16 or so finishes of the grueling event since 1988).

My story of coming to reject a life of suffering, a hobby of suffering, seems to resonate with many of my students, notably my athletes (especially the football players) and students in ROTC.

Those students deeply inside cultures of suffering appreciate a different perspective than what they are being told within those cultures; those students are often up very early in the mornings doing grueling physical activity before starting their day as students.

They are bone tired, often fighting the urge to fall asleep in class.

I tell them that it doesn’t have to be that way, that life can be filled with joy and pleasure.

As I write this, I have recently ridden my bicycles 6 days in a row, and found myself in a hole. Tired. Sore.

As I write this, it is day 2 of rain with several more days of rain forecast.

I am anxious about not being able to ride. I am also slipping into the depression that comes with the contracting daylight of October.

I am a good existentialist who recognizes our passions are our sufferings, but I am far too inadequate at being a human who can resist the allure of HTFU.

Yes, I know—and believe—that we are supposed to imagine Sisyphus happy as he turns again and again to descend the hill in order to roll his rock, his Thing, back up the hill.

But at 60, I am newly aware Sisyphus would be happier if he were simply to quit, no longer to be defined by his stuff.


See Also

Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

Death Takes a Lifetime, and then a Year

60 (Last Time)

This coming Thanksgiving of 2021 will be the ten-year anniversary of me being ghosted.

The person was an important part of my life, but our connection made both our lives complicated. And we were never able (willing?) to address the problems in ways that would protect the relationship.

The ghosting was a dark cloud over my life for many years—although I never discussed it in any real way with anyone else. And if I am entirely honest with myself, the ghosting may have been about the only option for the other person.

Over the last few years, that dark cloud has vanished, and in its place, the ghosting simply remains as an example of one of my deepest existential fears—realizing I have experienced the last time after the fact.

I think many of us believe that if we have forewarning, we could better prepare for and work through a last-time situation—such as the loss of a loved one or the end of a serious relationship, whether lover or friend.

Not knowing, I admit, triggers my anxiety, but I lost both of my parents about 4 years ago, my father in late June 2017 and my mother that December.

My father had been in poor and declining health for years, to the point that I think many of us had become far too complacent with that reality. He literally died right after telling me he needed to “poop,” likely as three nurses moved him into the bathroom or certainly by the time they had him on the toilet.

Nothing about being aware of his poor health and imminent death or being right there as he passed really made that last time any less overwhelming or less shocking. Once the last time has passed, there are many what-ifs to worry your mind.

My mother’s death was much different. By comparison she seemed healthier than my father (she wasn’t), and then, her death was precipitated by a stroke.

Nearly every day after her stroke in early June until her death in early December, I visited her, unable to speak and often suffering an assortment of ailments that left her miserable. The end for my mother was a many-months nightmare.

Just weeks before she died, the doctors discovered she had stage 4 lung cancer; he last days were spent in hospice where I sat beside her a few hours a day.

She died late at night when I wasn’t there, and I slept through the call from hospice since my cell phone was on silent. The what-ifs about the last time with my mother have weighed on me and my nephews.


On July 9, the day after my granddaughter turned 7, I was just starting a 16-hour drive to Kansas before then driving to Colorado for two weeks before a week in Arkansas to visit friends at the University of Arkansas. While driving, I noticed an email from my dean about a position I had applied for, director of my university’s writing program.

I have been at my university almost twenty years and have invested a great deal of time into our first-year writing program, effectively lobbying for and helping develop the job that I applied for.

Since I was driving, my partner read the email, which explained that I would not be interviewed at all for the position. My dean acknowledged that he knew I would be disappointed.

I am 60, and this was my dream position for my career.

Yes, I was deeply disappointed, driving much of that day very depressed and slightly numb from the realization.

But the larger issue was coming to recognize that this was very likely the last time I would apply for any position other than the one I now have. I certainly will never be the director of writing at my university.

I am white, a man, well paid, and very privileged. I am also 60. People now routinely ask me when I plan to retire.

This is the end of my career, although I genuinely do not think about retiring since writing and teaching are careers I can continue to do for many more years.

And yet, my experience is quite insignificant and pales against the racial and gender awareness among Black people and women (for example) who navigate the workplace with the moment-by-moment awareness that they are being ignored, passed over, paid less, and marginalized simply for being who they are, regardless of their qualifications or potential.

This is not intended as a pity party, but a way to acknowledge and navigate something almost all humans must endure, the fear of and experiencing the last time.


I taught Thornton Wilder’s Our Town many years as a high school English teacher. I have always been drawn to the character Emily who dies young but is allowed to relive a day of her life.

By the final act, Emily views her life in replay from beyond and exclaims: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

She then turns to the Stage Manager and asks, distraught: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

Living is a series of last times, and we are damned as humans to rush through our lives simply not looking hard enough because we are so pre-occupied with our lives.

I am 60.

When I get down on the floor to play with my grandchildren, I inevitably have to stand up. It is a challenge these days, standing up, and I think maybe, just maybe, part of the struggle is carry around all the last times I have accumulated.

Last times I will continue to accumulate.

Until the last time.

Clothespin Bucket

I had a dream last night, the kind of dream that jumbles your past and present in ways that make sense only in the dream.

The jumble in this dream was riding my recently purchased gravel bike from my former home (where I lived when I was about 10 until my early 20s) to the nearby club house of the rural golf course where that house sat, Three Pines Country Club.

In this dream, my mother, now deceased, met me at the club house after I pedaled up the long hill from that house to the club house, weaving between cars much more carelessly than I would in real life. I also rode the bicycle over steps and furniture into the club house, weaving there through people as if my behavior was perfectly normal.

The kicker of that dream was not the mixing of past and present as well as the living and the deceased but that I eventually realized although I had ridden to the club house to hit range balls, I didn’t have my golf clubs or shoes—as I had ridden a bicycle of course.

In real life, both my mother and I worked at that golf course for many years, and I spent a great deal of my life at the club house and hitting range balls, spanning essentially my entire adolescence.

None the less, the dream was so vivid that I was unnerved when I woke, and continued to think about it all morning.

Eventually, I texted my oldest nephew, over twenty years my junior, who lived much of his life growing up in the same house, raised primarily my my parents, his grandparents.

Our shared home and parenting have resulted in our feeling in many ways more like brothers than uncle/nephew, I think.

Since my nephew had been very close to my parents in their declining years, he was the executor of their will; and since their deaths a couple years ago, we have continued to reach out to each other as we work through the complicated loss of my parents.

When I thought more about this dream, I wanted to share it with him, and his immediate response was to wonder why the dream had included the associations that it did.

Almost immediately, I realized that the odd combination of my current cycling hobby and my childhood and adolescent life on a golf course made perfect sense, especially including my mother.

And what holds all that together is clothespins, or more accurately my mother’s clothespin bucket.

brown wooden cloth pin lot display
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Our first family home was a rental house in Enoree, SC, several miles south of my home town, Woodruff, where my parents next rented a house before building their own home—the one of my dream—at Three Pines. The house on the golf course was a few miles north of Woodruff. I lived in these homes in the 1960s and 1970s.

My mother always washed clothes and then dried them on a clothes line outside, the clothes held in place by dozens of wooden clothespins she kept in a plastic bucket.

At some point, by the time we lived at Three Pines, my parents did own a dryer, but she still would hang clothes outside and that bucket never budged from the laundry room. I want to say the bucket was blue, in fact.

I started college at a junior college in nearby Spartanburg, and then finished my undergraduate degree at the satellite campus of the University of South Carolina—then USC-Spartanburg but now named USC Upstate.

For my final 2.5 years there, my advisor was an avid triathlete, a sport I had never encountered before, being relatively new in the early 1980s. It is because of this advisor that I became fascinated with serious cycling.

As a college student from working class parents, I was not hurting for money—I always had jobs, often at nearby golf courses—but buying a serious bicycle in the early 1980s seemed too expensive once I started shopping around.

One day I was telling my mother about the advisor, triathlons, and my budding interest in cycling, adding that I thought buying a bicycle was more than I could afford.

Without hesitating, she told me to go to the laundry room and bring her the clothespin basket; that turn in the conversation struck me as odd, but I dutifully fetched the bucket and started to walk to my room.

Digging through the clothes pins, my mother said, “Here,” and I turned to see her holding a wad of bills she had pulled from under the clothespins. “Don’t tell your father,” she added.

It turned out to be a couple hundred dollars, but we never talked about why she was squirreling away money or why she was so willing just to hand over about $200 to me on the spot.

The money was still well below a bicycle shop quality bicycle, but I went to Sears and bought what now counts as my first serious bicycle because I did start riding in a way then that led over the next three years to buying that first bicycle shop bicycle from the now defunct Great Escape, then in downtown Spartanburg.

I know enough pop culture psychology and the works of Freud, Jung, and Frazier to be able to navigate my own dreams for some glints of meaning. So I feel comfortable with what I see in the dream merging my now and my past, blurring my current 30-plus year hobby of cycling with my childhood and adolescent hobby of golfing.

It is of course my mother this dream is about.

My mother’s willingness to create her own secret place, a stash of cash, in a clothes pin bucket—this domestic woman, this life-long mother, this person who was immediately self-sacrificing.

Especially for her son.

Especially for me.

My parents not only would have done almost anything for me. My parents essentially did do anything for me.

They did that for my nephew as well.

It is something we share, something we can understand with a heavy melancholy and love, something we have to take out every once in a while and try to work through, untangle, confront.

I had a dream last night, the kind that leaves you disoriented and nearly unable to draw a clean line between that dream and your own lived life—because the fabric of the dream is weaved out of strands from many different years as if the finished garment is a perfectly ordinary shirt.

A shirt when washed would flutter a bit on a clothes line, fastened securely by decade’s old clothespins used occasionally to hide a few dollars you may need someday.

At War with Myself

There is a refrain I say to myself, something I likely have never admitted to anyone: “I hate my body.”

I say this to myself quite often and without the gravity the word “hate” should imply because this simply is a fact of my existence.

A good friend texted recently, sharing very dark morning thoughts and ending with #upliftingthoughts. I wasn’t being flippant but empathetic when I replied: “Well … uh … yep … done that, do that … it is called existentialism.”

Discovering and working through existential philosophy and literature throughout my undergraduate years and into the first decade or so of my career as a teacher was incredibly important for me.

Liberating.

As I followed up with my friend, I explained that existentialism, in my opinion, gets a bad rap as a negative philosophy—confused with nihilism (in the same way “communism” is conflated with “totalitarianism” in the U.S.). My reading of existentialism, I explained, was that humans had to acknowledge that our passions are our sufferings in order to move past that fact of human existence so that we were free to live, even enjoy the fatalism of human existence (we live, we die, and everything else continues—or as Kurt Vonnegut put it, “So it goes”).

Human pain and suffering, and nearly daily angst experienced by being human (aware), are not things to be dreaded or to be overcome, avoided; those are fruitless folly.

I was drawn, in fact, to Albert Camus’s existentialism (mostly the literary strand). Not to be too simplistic, but Camus suggested humans must contemplate their ability to take their own lives, suicide, in order to reject that power, and live.

Camus also matter-of-factly said that Sisyphus’s rock was his Thing and we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy - Illustration - Albert Camus Quote Framed Art Print

I must confess that my daily refrain of “I hate my body” is grounded in a very simple fact: I cannot recall a single day of my life absent some sort of physical pain and discomfort.

In brief moments of painlessness, in fact, maybe brought on by medication for example, I am nearly unable to recognize painlessness as anything other than the absence of pain (the norm) and then am gripped by the realization that the pain will return—almost to the point of my feeling relief when the pain does return.

In my high school soccer-coach days, I had a ninth grader sit out of practice because he was in pain from practice “starting back all of a sudden” (he seemed to have no concept of off-season training); his older brother turned to him and said, “If I didn’t practice or play when I was in pain, I would never practice or play.”

I didn’t have to say anything, but nodded at the older brother.

It is no accident or surprise that I adopted as my lifelong athletic hobby recreational and competitive cycling, a sport that is grounded in pain and suffering.

To be a cyclist is to hurt; to be an elite cyclist is to hurt more than other cyclists.

I have more than once noted that a very hard cycling event was just pain.

And that is part of what my refrain to myself is all about; “I hate my body” is no complaint to myself or the Universe, but a statement of fact like “It’s just pain.”

I do imagine there are people without chronic pain, people who enjoy their physical selves, basking in pleasure as the default experience with their corporeal manifestation.

How I envy those people, maybe even loathe them.

I was quite old, nearly forty, before I discovered that I am a clinically anxious person, probably also on the autism spectrum; regardless, I am hyperaware of everything.

Every. Thing.

My senses are on high alert 24 hours a days, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

I may have normal experiences with pain (I doubt that) but I certainly am deeply and continually aware of those aches. Anxiety and pain are also symbiotic; regardless of which came first, they are cyclic and perpetuate each other relentlessly.

While some people dream of becoming wealthy or famous, I fantasize about relaxing and being painless in a way that doesn’t include anticipating the return of pain.

Pleasure as a default instead of the occasional “absence of pain.”

At 59, I am in a real dilemma because growing older is somewhat naturally a descent into chronic pain. Ironically, my cycling avocation has guaranteed as much since I spent many years cycling 8,000-10,000 miles a year, many of those miles exceeding efforts that I should not have been forcing my (hated) body to accomplish.

That is my war with myself. My body’s chronic pain in combat with my brain that will not pause, that wallows in endless “what if” thinking (resulting in my lifelong hypochondria as well).

When my friend and I were commiserating about dark thoughts, and I was being too academic and explaining existentialism, I also noted that existentialism allowed me to recognize that I am not drawn to some promise of a peaceful afterlife (the carrot of most organized religions) that can come if I deny the flesh during the one life before me.

Pain is exhausting and demoralizing, but it is the only thing I really know.

When I am prompted to say to myself “I hate my body,” I actually smile a little to myself, take a deep breath, do the best with whatever is before me, and just carry on.

It is my Thing, you must imagine me happy.