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.

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.

New study quantifies hiring discrimination against marginalized TV writers

As per a recent Nielsen poll, eighty-seven percent of respondents are “interested in seeing more content featuring people from outside their identity group.” Yet the data shows that TV writers rooms continue to exclude historically underserved dramatists.

Because audiences and advertisers both crave more diverse, inclusive, and equitable content, the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity – a consortium of working TV writers sponsored by Women In Film, Los Angeles – has surveyed more than eight hundred seventy-five working writers for their fourth annual report, “Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion & Equity in TV Writing.” Deadline reports that the TTIE’s findings are sobering, but not surprising. Women, BIPOC, the disabled, and low-income writers continue to square off against measurable favoritism in Hollywood.

I recently wrote about the bigoted hiring practices I’ve faced throughout the field of content creation in this blog post as a gay, gender-queer, disabled man. Since American capitalism dominates our post-Cold War world, it is an act of systemic and institutional violence to deny these communities the access to resources they need for survival. Yes, I work a day job that pays the bills, but it is increasingly incompatible with my life-threatening mental illnesses to daily settle for less than my passions, my qualifications, and my talents.

“The Philadelphia Inquirer” calls for us to use a different word than “manifesto” to describe the Buffalo shooter’s writing

“The Grammarian” is a columnist with the “Inquirer.” He argues the dictionary definitions of “manifesto” elevate the Buffalo shooter’s rantings.

The eighteen-year-old accused of killing ten people at a grocery store last week in Buffalo wrote a hundred-eighty pages of racist and deplorable literature leading up to the crime. The Philadelphia Inquirer, though, says it is unethical to refer to this diatribe as a “manifesto,” like so many mass media outlets have done (including the Inquirer itself). NPR is quoted in this column as saying, “‘Not using the word ‘Manifesto’ in no way deprives our audience of information, it helps deprive the shooter of the platform he was looking for.'”

The shooter “seeks to be an ‘individual … of public relevance’ — a status we’d rather not grant him,” writes “The Grammarian” about the first dictionary definition of the word “manifesto” he discusses here. “If it’s the second, then his screed’s propoundment of the ‘great replacement’ theory — a racist assertion that white people are being ‘replaced’ in America and Europe by nonwhites — suddenly becomes a ’cause,’ and we also shouldn’t grant him that.” The news has come a long way since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, when shock rocker Marilyn Manson castigated them in Rolling Stone for making “folk heroes” out of those two murderers, but until violence in America becomes a thing of the past, we must always critically deconstruct these stories at the word level.

Less than a week left in the “Mother’s Day Confessions” Challenge at Vocal

The deadline is May 30. If you feel so inclined, enter today for a chance to win!

“I’m sorry, Mama… I never meant to hurt you… I never meant to make you cry…”

These Eminem lyrics inspired the title of my entry in Vocal’s “Mother’s Day Confessions” Challenge, “Cleaning Out My Closet.” In this personal essay,I come out as gay to her.

Writing competitions are key to gaining exposure for both emerging as well as established authors. The “Mother’s Day Confessions” Challenge encourages entrants to write either a nonfictional or fictional open letter between six hundred and five thousand words based on the prompt, “Hey, Mom. I never told you this before, but…”

The first-place winner walks away with two thousand five hundred dollars; second place, one thousand; and fifteen runners-up will receive fifty dollars each.

In the interest of full transparency, you do have to pay for a Vocal membership to participate in their challenges. Mine costs me ten dollars per month. But they do pay you three dollars and eighty cents for every thousand reads, and the audience who finds you through one of their communities can tip you directly.

If this sounds like a worthwhile investment for you, then I encourage you to visit vocal.media.

Maine poet writes through terminal cancer diagnosis

Nick Stone is a former corporate lawyer who started writing poetry in his retirement. In August, when he was diagnosed with stage four metastatic prostate cancer and given twenty months to live, he decided to keep writing.

Eighty-nine-year-old Nick Stone has written dozens of pages of “left-brain” work, such as legal briefs and filings, for decades. However, the Portland Press Herald reports that he started engaging the right side of his brain when he composed poetry for the first time after retiring to Maine from his career as a corporate lawyer in Boston. Now that he’s diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer and has just months left to live, “Stone only wants to keep writing.”

It is almost otherworldly, what comfort writing can bring – even to the dying. Stone’s poetry gives him something to come alive for. No matter how late in life it is – even near the end – a writer’s time can come.

Program in Iowa encourages fifth-grade students to write about the environment

This next generation will face the most direct impact from climate change, young people of color most of all. That is why the Iowa Youth Writing Project’s latest program, Writing on the Environment, is working to engage elementary schoolers in Iowa City with this reality.

On a field trip to the park at Cangleska Wakan in early May, students from Iowa City Community School District were tasked with composing nature journals, eco-poems, and nonfiction about their experience. According to the Iowa City Press-Citizen, “It was part of the Iowa Youth Writing Project’s new program, Writing on the Environment, which invites students to write about the subject through lessons and exploration.” Three schools were selected for this initiative based upon their student populations who “may have higher economic need and those with more students of color,” since “‘communities of color are more affected by issues of climate change'” and “‘if we want to make a difference, make inroads in addressing those problems, we need to make sure that those communities are involved in finding solutions,'” says Patrick Snyder, elementary science and social studies coordinator with ICCSD.

Everyone reading this should applaud the IYWP for recognizing the intersection between science, literature, and social studies, as well as how critical that overlap is to inspiring meaningful action. Indeed, Melanie Hester, a fifth grade teacher at Alexander Elementary School for the past seven years, “observed how one of her students, who has ‘barely’ spoken throughout the year, ended up leading his group through the trail and back to its meeting spot.” With this kind of encouragement, children like that can grow up empowered to overcome otherwise insurmountable challenges for the good of all.