Reading between the lines in this week’s episode of “Better Call Saul”

Like I do every week, I watched Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s spin-off of “Breaking Bad” with my grandmother. She found the scene between Gus Fring and the sommelier “pointless,” but as a gay man, it struck me with its poignancy.

In “Fun and Games,” the ninth episode of the sixth and final season of AMC’s Better Call Saul (2015-2022), drug lord Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) visits a wine bar to celebrate a deal well-struck with the Salamanca cartel. While there, he chats with David (Reed Diamond), his favorite wine steward. The tension between them is unspoken, but no less palpable for that. One is reminded of “Hermanos,” the eighth episode in the fourth season of Breaking Bad. During the climactic flashback, Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) busts a cap in the crown of Max Arciniega (James Martinez) while a devastated Gus looks on, mirroring the shot of a bereaved Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in “Ozymandias.” Even though the text paints Max as a close business partner of Gus a la Walt and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), the subtext screams something more homoerotic between them, through Esposito’s gaping, silent mouth.

You don’t wage a decades-long war of attrition against a Mexican drug cartel to avenge the death of an associate.

Not since Max – and not until David – has Gus unmasked such humanity, in either series. But right when the timbre of the conversation with David reaches something close to tenderness, even though, to the untrained ear, they’re only discussing wine, David exits stage left to bring Gus a new bottle. Wisely, cinematographer Marshall Adams chooses to close in on Esposito’s face, an actor who’s already proven he can emote his way through pages of character development without uttering a single syllable of dialogue. Gus’s characteristically stoic visage cracks finely under the weight of this pathos before he cuts the scene short and exits the bar.

On the surface, the sequence does nothing to advance the plot. However, like any artfully crafted prequel should do, Better Call Saul teaches us something new about Gus’s character without simply offering him up as a cameo appearance for Esposito. We already know how Gus’s story ends, after all, and he isn’t even the man of the hour – that would be Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill (Bob Odenkirk). We don’t need to document every moment of Gus’s life between his showdown with Eduardo “Lalo” Salamanca (Tony Dalton) and his fateful encounter with Walter White.

But what we do need is a deeper insight into the man who loved another so profoundly, not even Max’s death could bring Gus to pursue a relationship with David.

What writers can learn from playing “Final Fantasy VII”

With developers remaking “Final Fantasy VII” in 2020, a Literary Hub contributor revisits one of his favorite games through a writer’s eyes. What else does this storytelling medium of our time have to teach literary artists?

Writing for Literary Hub, Jamil Jan Kochai recounts the the experience of playing Final Fantasy VII at twelve years old. “Refusing to remain static or single dimensional with its storytelling,” Kochai writes, “the game repeatedly breaks out of its own narrative form, all for the sake of the ever-widening story itself.” Kochai even goes so far as to describe a level devoted not to advancing the external plot, but internally exploring the main character’s psyche.

As a child, I preferred Sonic the Hedgehog over Super Mario, perhaps because I was drawn to the storytelling and character development in the Sega games (however “primitive” it may have been). As a matter of fact, my first piece of writing was “Sonic” fan fiction. I wonder how many other young writers can say the relatively new medium of gaming first inspired them to craft imaginative literature.

Do you “catastrophize?”

When I sat down for a day shift in my home office yesterday morning, my company laptop started beeping at me like a bat shrieking in the night after I booted it up, with an error message populating across the screen before I could so much as log in. I scanned the QR code on my phone camera, and once I tapped through to the Dell help site, a description awaited me for the error code.

“Hard Drive – Not Installed.”

My heart started to pound. My thoughts started to race. My breath caught in my throat.

I took the error code to mean I had been fired over the weekend. I must have done something so egregious, my employer couldn’t even be bothered to give me notice. Surely, they remotely uninstalled my hard drive instead so I couldn’t inflict any more damage.

So convinced was I that I was now unemployed, I snapped at my poor grandmother when she asked me a poorly timed question. Like a drowning man, I tried pulling her under with me.

But naturally, when I reset the computer, I came to discover my life as I knew it wasn’t over, after all, and that morning’s melodrama could have been avoided altogether had I thought to turn it off and turn it back on first.

The above anecdote is an example of a cognitive distortion known as “catastrophizing.” I have no doubt my dialectical behavior group therapist will agree with me when I tell him about it later in the week.

Catastrophizing isn’t unique to my diagnosed mental illnesses, of course (bipolar I, borderline personality disorder, and PTSD). Yet I can’t help but wonder if I’m more susceptible to it because of my BPD – to be sure, what is a personality disorder if not a body of thinking errors? Combined with the persecutory delusions from my PTSD as well as the psychotic and schizophrenic symptoms of my manic episodes, I sometimes hold my grip on reality at arm’s length.

Indeed, catastrophizing is about jumping to the worst-case scenario without critically seeking out dissenting evidence first. As recently as this afternoon, when my team lead thanked me over Slack for taking initiative on a project, it set me to pacing about the room as though the tone of her message were sarcastic when, in all likelihood, it was nothing more or less than positive reinforcement.

Which is why healthy self-talk is so key, not just for you, but for the sake of everyone with whom you share your community. Because the narcissists and the sociopaths from my past abused me so holistically and at such an impressionable age that I now internalize their behavior as systemic self-oppression, nothing but negativity lies ahead for myself and everyone else around me unless I lead a revolution in my own mind and actively challenge this illogic as intrinsically as it manifests itself in my psyche.

Otherwise, I lose patience with my loved ones over nothing, and I react to my colleagues like they’re passive aggressive when they aren’t.

Magical realism or memoir?

Colombian author Ingrid Rojas Contreras recently released a new memoir, “The Man Who Could Move Clouds.” In an interview with NPR, she discusses the fine line between fact and fiction.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s new memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, is named for her grandfather, a curandero in her northern Colombian hometown who people would hire “to ward off rain ahead of soccer matches or to banish ghosts” (read more from WJCT News here). However, since immigrating to the United States, Contreras found that “sometimes when I would share stories of my family, I would be corrected or I would be investigated,” with others calling her lived experience “magical realism.” Contreras interprets this pushback as “a version of just trying to erase different worldviews.”

According to Contreras, “Once I realized that, I had so much energy and so much love for this story and just really wanted to do it justice.” Her book describes “that experience of living in a context where the magical feels routine and people tell you that your real life is fiction.” I can’t judge Contreras as a memoirist without reading her work first, but, The Man Who Could Move Clouds sounds like quite the conversation-starter in the realm of creative nonfiction.

What’s in a name?

Here lies “Jack Trades, Master of Arts,” my short-lived (and ill-fated) pen name. Welcome to yet another re-brand.

At the risk of sounding like Taylor Swift circa 2017, I’m afraid I deleted the post titled “Who Is Jack Trades, Master of Arts?” from May or so of this year.

“I’m sorry, but Jack can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh. Because he’s dead.”

One is reminded of Lady Gaga killing her boyfriend in the “Paparazzi” music video, or leaving her “former” in a trunk on Highway 10, as I lay to rest my nom de plume. It isn’t just that “Jack Trades, MA” makes for a pithier social media bio than it does a stage name (though that has a lot to do with it) – it’s also that the promises I made in this post proved themselves unsustainable, between my master’s degree program and my full-time day job.

No, “Hunter Goddard” is already on my byline. It is what appears next to the titles I’m proudest to call mine. It is full of meaning and history, an identity I reclaim for myself from the abusers who made it so I dreaded the sound of my own name. I adopted the spelling “Godard” in my Twitter and Instagram handles because that is the Norman French translation of the Anglicized “Goddard,” from the days before my ancestors crossed the Channel with William the Conqueror; if a certain aforementioned Lady can feign “Eurotrash” with her “Haus of Gaga,” then so can I with this oldest incarnation of my name.

(Not to mention that Jean-Luc Godard is one of the French New Wave directors I revere most).

“Jack Trades,” meanwhile, is the dying gasp of a months-long and life-threatening manic episode. It was as impulsive as it was peculiar to refresh my brand around a joke from someone who is decidedly not a comedian.

Suspension of Disbelief, however, will continue to serve as my personal pop artistic experiment, a Warholian writing studio where I endeavor to elevate the mundanity of our broken world into the sublimity and transcendence of creative nonfiction. Similar to the Italian neo-realistic filmmaking style which, in many ways, saw postmodernism in the cards, I will still juxtapose my lived experiences as a gay man against the post-Cold War ruination that traumatized me into mental illness, until a whole greater than the sum of its parts rises out of the collision like sparks from a flint.

Or a phoenix born again from the ashes of its latest self-immolation.

The “New York Times” reporters who write longhand

Sam Anderson and A.O. Scott both draft their stories by hand. While it may seem counterintuitive for journalists to adopt this practice under deadline, they find that they produce higher-quality and more consistent work.

Sam Anderson is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, and A.O. Scott is a co-chief film critic for the Times. According to Sarah Bahr, they both hand-write the early drafts of their submissions to the publication. “Drafting by hand lowers the stakes,” Bahr writes about Anderson, “because it doesn’t feel like ‘official’ writing yet, which helps him avoid writer’s block.”

Since I’m a self-employed journalist who drafts by hand, I agree with Scott when he says longhand helps him “forget the pressures of writing for a publication.” As important as it is to remember your audience when writing publishable content, it is no less crucial to resist burnout. Personally, handwriting is just private and intimate enough that I feel in the moment like I’m indulging this passion and inspiration for its own sake, and not because I’m forcing myself.

A Coloradan’s perspective on this week’s Texas shooting

Having enrolled in kindergarten the year of the Columbine High School massacre and graduated high school the year of the Aurora theater shooting, I am no stranger to these tragedies. Here are my thoughts on what happened in Texas.

When I started kindergarten out-of-district at Ralph Moody Elementary School in Littleton, Colorado, it was because my grandfather taught there. It was August or September, 1999.

Moody was fifteen minutes away from Columbine High School.

I have no memory of the massacre that killed twelve students and a teacher, but it took place on my grandmother’s birthday that same year – Tuesday, April 20, 1999. She had to spend her fifty-fifth watching the news for any updates on the lockdown and evacuation at Moody.

Lucky number thirteen years later, she would relive that same anxiety over the Aurora theater shooting. I woke up the morning after the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Sheridan to dozens of missed calls and text messages from her about the news.

Like how the post-September 11 world is… well… “worlds” apart from the pre-September 11 world, Columbine shaped the trajectory of my educational experience, whether I was aware of it or not. For example, I can remember the anti-bullying campaign that visited my class at the turn of the millennium.

I realize now it most likely came to be as a result of Columbine.

Indeed, Littleton rests an hour south of Fort Collins, where Matthew Shepard succumbed to his wounds from the hate crime he suffered in Wyoming, and an hour north of Colorado Springs, where Focus on the Family is headquartered. Since LGBTQIA+ youth are already at greater risk for bullying than their straight, cisgender counterparts, it only makes sense that one of the possibly bisexual shooters would feel isolated and marginalized from the students surrounding him at Columbine, and why that might leave him vulnerable to the other shooter’s psychopathy.

Speaking from personal experience, Littleton is crawling with white, upper-Middle Class evangelicals who hoard their resources and privileges from all “outsiders.” In many ways, it is a typical postwar American suburb, but in some ways, its history is exceptionally sadistic. After all, 2013 saw another school shooting in the area at Arapahoe High, a sister school to my own alma mater, Littleton High, as well as the high school my mother attended before she dropped out, across the street from her family’s house.

My mother’s family will someday see their story told in a memoir all its own. Suffice to say, their communal narcissism and sociopathy embodies the Littleton community.

Now, I attend the University of Denver, whose founder, Governor John Evans, oversaw the Sand Creek massacre in the Colorado Territory that killed upwards of six hundred Cheyenne and Arapaho people at the hands of the United States military – yes, Arapaho; the same nation my home county is named after.

I cannot stress enough that Adolf Hitler studied American racism for sources of inspiration behind the Holocaust, and that Columbine took place on his birthday.

Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine taught me the killers targeted one of their victims for being Black, and one can’t help but wonder if this week’s first responders in Uvalde, Texas, would have neutralized the suspect with greater urgency if the students at Robb Elementary School were majority-white instead of majority-Latino. Either way, America’s past is uniquely violent for the success with which the European race displaced all other cultures living on this continent, and these tragedies are our reckoning.

Take it from a Coloradan.

Running on fumes

On Tuesday, May 24, I messaged my Talkspace counselor about how to combat feelings of emptiness. What I at first thought of as a symptom of my borderline personality disorder turned into something more.

Earlier this week, I texted two Millennials – an “elder Millennial” in his forties, and one more my age (late twenties). I asked them both if they ever felt “empty.”

They both answered enthusiastically and emphatically in the affirmative.

It only makes sense, doesn’t it? According to Fortune, “the average millennial carries about $28,317 in debt, not including mortgages.” If the federal minimum wage is seven twenty-five, then it would take just shy of two years of working full-time, before taxes (or any other expenses, for that matter), to pay off such a debt, which doesn’t even calculate interest.

And I use the minimum wage as the extreme example here because many Millennials – myself among them – are “underemployed,” meaning we’re working outside our educational fields (and we’re paid like it, too).

In other words, we accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for college based on the false promise that these graduate degrees would land us higher-paying careers. Instead, we’re working jobs we settled for like we’re indentured servants to these predatory student moneylenders.

I know I’m not the only one who struggles to get by working two jobs, and one of them is an internship paying more than twice the minimum wage. What days off I do get, I spend resting up for the following work week, when I come back in and repeat the cycle all over again of generating revenue for faceless elites who don’t even know I exist, much less that they’re effectively feeding off the best years of my life. Indeed, these individuals surround themselves with ambitious sycophants who lie about the injustices that prop up their disproportionate privileges, and it is they who make up the institutions of oppression which threaten the very future of humanity with war, climate change, and an ever-widening economic gulf between the billionaire class and the global majority.

So, no, the “emptiness” I feel isn’t some pathological symptom of my borderline personality disorder, because my friends without BPD feel the same way.

It is a perfectly logical response to a life I never asked for, and wouldn’t have, if given the choice.

Mayday!

Lady Gaga released her second full-length studio album, “Born This Way,” eleven years ago on Monday. The anniversary brought back memories of high school, and reflections of where my life has headed since then.

It rained Monday, May 23, 2011.

I remember because that was when Lady Gaga released her second LP, Born This Way. I’d become a fan in January 2010, after she reissued her debut, The Fame, under the EP, The Fame Monster. I’d watched, live, as she announced the title for Born This Way at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards while wearing that historical dress made out of raw meat. Sitting by my side was a fellow Little Monster whose birthday was also May 23.

She was born this way. She was born this day.

Eleven years ago, I’d borrowed my grandparents’ 1997 Chevrolet Cavalier so I could drive to Sheridan and buy the CD at Target in Riverpoint with their money. I played it on my way to Littleton High School, where my junior year had drawn to a close the week before. I dropped off an assignment for the International Baccalaureate program, stained with raindrops. I drove home, listening to the gay anthem on my radio.

I would go on to graduate from Littleton the following May. “The Edge of Glory” blasted on my alarm clock the morning of, when I sat down for another IB exam before the ceremony. My involvement in that program earned me the diploma which would help yours finish his four-year degree in three at Colorado State University Fort Collins. My commencement as a Bachelor of Arts in entertainment journalism took place in May 2015.

Gaga herself was the primary source of inspiration behind my critical theory.

So, with Facebook’s “Today in the Past” feature reminding me of these milestones, why is it that they leave more “bitter” a taste than “sweet” in my mouth?

Simply put, I am more nostalgic for that summer before I became a graduate than I am for anything to come after. Dancing to “Bad Romance,” first in front of the senior IB History class on my eighteenth birthday, then in front of the entire school at a pep assembly, won me “prom king.” People invited me to their grad parties not out of genuine friendship, but out of social pressure and obligation, and, as a teenager still, I couldn’t tell the difference.

Indeed, what did I have in common with the straight, rich, neurotypical kids?

Either way, this crowd would abandon me in droves by the end of the summer, catalyzing a depressive episode of my then undiagnosed bipolar I disorder which darkened my undergraduate experience like the rainclouds overcasting the sky on Monday, May 23, 2011. Too disabled with major depression to focus on much else, I graduated college to half a year of unemployment, which forced me to settle for seven years of working outside my field as of this writing.

Such a lifestyle of “fighting to survive” instead of “enjoying life” has contributed little to my mental wellness.

Now that it’s Monday, May 23 again, and I find myself working a fourteen-hour day to make ends meet as well as supplement my master’s degree with even more professional credentials than I already have, is it any wonder that my favorite song has shifted away from Lady Gaga’s pop-tastic “Hair” to Pierce the Veil’s suicide-preventative “Hold on Till May?”

For a friend

On Sunday, May 22, I met a former coworker in downtown Denver for dinner and a movie. This is her appreciation post.

I hadn’t visited an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema since before the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’d never gone to the one on West Colfax before Sunday afternoon. I arrived twenty minutes early so I could find someplace to park in time for the two o’clock showing, which meant by the time I walked to the theater, it was ten ’til.

I waited for someone I hadn’t hung out with since February or March, whenever it was we saw the West Side Story remake together in Highlands Ranch. That was in the early stages of the “endemic,” when the pickings were still slim for Hollywood entertainment. (The “endemic,” of course, turned out to be short-lived, with my campus internship transitioning back from biweekly to weekly COVID tests as of this writing).

No, today, we were seeing Men, which aligned more with our shared taste. I paid this time because she paid last time, and it was to our benefit that I bought the tickets in advance online, because Men proved to be the kind of independently produced A24 horrorshow worthy of attracting a crowd of local hipsters, gentrifying the area, to indulge all the craft brews and “alternative” charm the Alamo has to offer.

By the time my friend found her own parking spot, the previews were almost finished. We met in the lobby and rushed to our seats just in time for the opening credits to roll.

In the end, Men was a surreal, subversive experience only we could appreciate together. After the year I lived, when strangers on the street ganged up on and violated me, it was refreshing to join that many people in watching Rory Kinnear and Paapa Essiedu try (and fail) to horrify unconditional love out of Jessie Buckley. It gave me hope for the future of A24 and their output in the current of a mainstream more preoccupied with selling action figures to eleven-year-old boys than testing the more “creative” waters of the filmmaking form.

And this friend, a fellow “film school” Millennial whose education landed her in retail alongside yours truly, was the right one to lament with over “Royales with Cheese” in BarFly after the movie about George Lucas (and, yes, West Side Story director Steven Spielberg) commercializing the cinematic culture beyond all pretense to the “higher” arts.

More than that, this friend called me two or three times throughout the day on Monday, February 7, when I finally told people about the date-rape and mugging I’d survived the Friday night before. She treated me to dinner that evening. She offered more support than those closest to me.

Our very friendship is a middle finger to the institutionalized oppression that Men critiques. If we still worked together, we would have been fired for “fraternization” by the capitalist leaders who expected “productivity” out of us, rather than “humanity.” We trauma-bonded over our progressive ethics. We encouraged each other through the irreconcilable differences between our own psychiatric disabilities and our employer’s losing war with Jeff Bezos.

I would like to thank this friend for the burger, and reminding me to live for our next movie together in the future.