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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Speak Not On All Matters

I’ve tried to be more disciplined in what I respond and react to—especially on social media. I find that when I resist the impulse to jump into the fray on every topic or respond to every incendiary headline, I find greater peace of mind. My opinion is just that—mine. It’s not imperative to my well-being to share it. I’ve tried to recognize that doing so in the past only served to feed my egotism. Today’s virtual public square is a cacophony of inflammatory rhetoric and ideological disharmony; I’ve found that sometimes the easiest way to decrease the noise is not to add to it. Looking back, I’ve found that, at times, it was more important to jam my point into a discussion than it was to consider the broader implications for those involved in said discussion. Does my need to hammer home my point have to steamroll over someone who may have a greater emotional investment in the topic at hand? The short answer: No.

In resisting the self-serving need to hastily weigh in on every topic, I find that I’m able to strengthen my sense of self-control, avoiding unnecessary online altercations and vexations in which—undoubtedly—one or more parties walks away feeling wronged or, worse, persecuted. The world around us is cause enough for anxiety; why add to the collective tension and temperature of the pot through an egocentric compulsion to force opinions and the need to be “right?” In the last of Freud's major theoretical works, 1923’s The Ego and the Id, he made the analogy of the id being a horse while the ego is the rider. The ego is “like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse.” That’s largely what this exercise has been for me—trying to keep my instinctual desire to opinionate in check by taking tighter reins of my ego and engaging in secondary process thinking. Do I succeed at controlling the impulse every single time? Hell, no. Do I still succumb to my ego-demon on occasion, the one who feels the need to be snarky or clever or right? Hell, yes.

But this work in progress keeps trying to get it right, to find the balance, to hurt and demean people less with my words. I take inspiration in this quest from the essayist Joan Didion, from her award-winning 2007 memoir on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking: “Why do you always have to be right? Why do you always have to have the last word? For once in your life just let it go.”

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Mob Mentality and the Sidelined Final Girl of ‘Halloween Kills’

Let’s get this out of the way early: Jamie Lee Curtis is largely relegated to a hospital room in Halloween Kills. Her iconic final girl, Laurie Strode, gets no kick-ass action sequences battling perennial boogeyman, Michael Myers. She winces (a lot) from her injuries sustained in the 2018 installment, threatens to go hunt Myers down, and waxes philosophical about the nature of evil—but gets to do nothing beyond these trivialities. Knowing that Halloween Kills is the bridge film between Halloween and next year’s Halloween Ends, one suspects that director David Gordon Green is reserving Curtis’ genre capital for a climatic showdown for the ages in the last film—but that does little to alleviate the feelings that something’s missing from this film; namely, the lynchpin of the Halloween franchise.  

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, we can move on and assess Halloween Kills on its Strode-less merits. I’ve watched the film twice; the first time as my ten-year-old self who’s still enthralled by the boogeyman in suburbia, the second time with a more deliberate critical eye. Like any film in the venerable franchise, Halloween Kills is a mixed bag, hitting some of its marks with brutal precision while missing others completely.

The new film begins with a very clever prologue that continues the 1978 film’s storyline—the pursuit and capture of Michael Myers. It involves a young Officer Hawkins (Thomas Mann) and a life-and-death decision that changes the trajectory of far too many lives to count by now and an encounter between Myers and young Lonnie Elam (Tristian Eggerling). It also features an impressive—if improbable—cameo by a character from the original film. Green and company really shine in this sequence, which possesses both the look and feel of Carpenter’s original, and ably set the mood for what’s to come. After this pre-credit sequence, the film picks up where the 2018 film ended: Laurie’s compound engulfed in flames and its intergenerational trio of final girls—an injured Laurie, daughter Karen, and granddaughter Allyson—jostling down the road in the back of a pick-up truck en route to Haddonfield Memorial.

After giving the audience a reasonably plausible explanation for how he survives the fiery deathtrap Laurie rigged for him, a slightly charred and very pissed-off Myers goes on a rampage, slicing and dicing his way back to Haddonfield proper. Myers is angry in this movie—with the kills brutal beyond anything seen in the franchise since Rob Zombie took his one-two crack at it. While Mikey takes out the majority of Haddonfield’s fire department and a drone-flying interracial couple, the audience is re-introduced to the survivors from the original film—Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall), Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), nurse Marion (Nancy Stephens), and a grown up Lonnie Elam (Robert Longstreet)—who gather at a dive-bar for an annual commemoration of the tragic events of Halloween night ’78 and to toast Laurie. Elsewhere, Lonnie’s son and Allyson’s on-the-outs boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold) happens upon a critically injured Officer Hawkins (Will Patton). As the parties converge upon Haddonfield Memorial, news that Myers has somehow survived and is killing his way back to town gets out. The survivors—led by a baseball bat-wielding Tommy—decide that “evil dies tonight!” and a vigilante mob is formed to hunt Myers down once and for all. Otay, Panky.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in Halloween Kills, it’s because there is. Green is firing on all cylinders in this one, his many story threads mirroring the growing chaos of the mob outside Haddonfield Memorial. Karen (Judy Greer), who’s given far more than the yeoman’s work she had to do in the last film, is convinced that Myers is coming to the hospital to kill her mother. Allyson (Andi Matichak) ignores her mother’s directive to sit vigil at her grandmother’s bedside, instead arming up and joining Cameron and Lonnie in their hunt for Myers. Sheriff Barker (Omar Dorsey, also returning from the last film) tries—albeit unsuccessfully—to control the mob tensions about to tragically spill over at the hospital, even getting into verbal fisticuffs with Haddonfield’s former sheriff, Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers), who’s now head of hospital security. And Michael Myers? He’s making a beeline for his former family home on Lampkin Lane, now inhabited by an affectionately quirky gay couple nicknamed Big John and Little John and played by MADtv’s Michael McDonald and The Mick’s Scott MacArthur. Suffice to say that Myers reaches the ‘ole homestead before the ragtag crew of would-be vigilantes does and is not a fan of the new color scheme. Or charcuterie.

The film’s third act coalesces in a weird, dreamlike, violent denouement—complete with voiceover by Laurie from her hospital room—the sole intention of which seems to be setting up the next film. It’s in this final sequence of events where Green is either going to succumb to the same fate as all previous sequel directors or rise above it in spectacular fashion: Explaining how and why Michael Myers “transcends” human mortality. It’s clear after the Haddonfield mob puts Myers through his paces that he’s something…beyond a mere mortal man. How Green will expound on this in Halloween Ends will ultimately cement his standing in franchise history.

Halloween Kills isn’t a perfect film and suffers from middle-child syndrome, the degree to which won’t be evident until it can be held up within the context of the full trilogy of films. As purely a sequel, it’s briskly paced with some exceptionally well-executed sequences, like the parkside SUV assault, and some less so. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Big John and Little John.) The nostalgia factor here with returning characters is high (hell if I didn’t get misty-eyed when Cyphers first appears on the screen), with surprisingly strong performances from Richards and Longstreet. Matichak, too, is exceptionally good. Disappointingly, Hall’s Tommy Doyle is a misfire. With his bellowing and menacing baseball bat stance, it’s as if he were channeling Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan from The Walking Dead here. Chalk this up to the film’s inconsistent writing, which Green shares with Scott Teems and Danny McBride. For every well-written scene (like the one in which Greer’s character attempts to help one of the escaped Smith’s Grove patients who’s been mistaken by the hospital mob for Myers), there are two that suffer from cringe-worthy dialogue and weird pacing. Even the big twist at the end of the film feels off, illogical in the context of time and what’s going on just outside the Myers house where it occurs. Elsewhere, Green makes at least one surprising choice in which a character most would peg as a goner early on actually survives their Myers encounter, which leaves one wondering if said character will have a part to play in the final film. On the plus side, John Carpenter (with son, Cody, and Daniel Davies) delivers another outstanding soundtrack that manages to sound distinctive while remaining true to his original ’78 score.

Like its predecessor’s commentary on generational trauma, Halloween Kills works better in a broader sense with its depiction of the dangers of mob mentality. When the hive mind overrides rational thought and reason, Green and company postulate here, the resulting consequences can be worse than the original trigger. The denizens of Haddonfield rise up—collectively—to defeat their longtime boogeyman. It’s a noble undertaking to want to reclaim their home, but Green is there to remind us that sometimes evil wins—especially if you’re the lady who brings an honest-to-God iron to the street fight. And, sometimes, there’s collateral damage. Halloween Kills gives us the collateral damage in spades. This Curtis-light entry in Green’s Halloween trilogy may be short on the Strode but it’s heavy on the brutality. Its breakneck violence works best when viewed as the (fast) moving part to a whole not yet fully in view.

Narrative choppiness aside, Halloween Kills ultimately delivers the slasher goods. Michael Myers is the soulless killing machine we’ve all come to know and love over the course of 40+ years in eleven films (with a twelfth on the way) and a body count now over 150. Best advice: Turn off your brain, grab some popcorn, and just ride the waves of slasher nostalgia. Let the armchair critics of the world argue pointlessly over the film’s merits—or lack thereof—and just lose yourself in the seasonal slaughter. There will be plenty of time for more serious discourse and analysis once we see what kind of bow Green slaps on his trilogy with Halloween Ends.

Rest up, Laurie Strode—we expect big things from you in the next one.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Fearing the Other in 'Other Terrors'

I'm very happy to finally share the exquisite cover for Other Terrors, my forthcoming HWA anthology, co-edited with the talented Rena Mason. The cover artwork was done by Venezuelan graphic designer Pablo Gerardo Camacho, who also did the cover for Marlon James' Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The anthology will be published on July 19, 2022 by Mariner Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 

Even better, after many months of reading and re-reading member submissions and editorial deliberations, we recently revealed the contributors and TOC. Personally, I’m most proud of the fact that although we were slated to select five member submissions, Rena and I worked hard to open up space for ten, doubling the presence of HWA members in our TOC. There are 22 short stories, 2 poems, written by 15 female contributors, 9 male—each bringing a unique perspective to the universal theme of “otherness” from the diversity of their backgrounds and experiences. From the publisher’s website:

An anthology of original new horror stories edited by Bram Stoker Award winners Vince Liaguno and Rena Mason that showcases authors from underrepresented backgrounds telling terrifying tales of what it means to be, or merely to seem, “other.”

Offering original new stories from some of the biggest names in horror as well as some of the hottest up-and-coming talents, Other Terrors will provide the ultimate reading experience for horror fans who want to celebrate fear of “the other.” Be they of a different culture, a different background, a different sexual preference, a different belief system, or a different skin color, some people simply aren’t part of the dominant community—and are perceived as scary. Humans are almost instinctively inclined to fear what’s different, as foolish as that may be, and there are a multitude of individuals who have spent far too long on the outside looking in. And the thing about the outside is . . . it’s much larger than you think.

In Other Terrors, horror writers from a multitude of underrepresented backgrounds will be putting a new, terrifying spin on what it means to be “the other.” People, places, and things once considered normal will suddenly appear different, striking a deeper, much more primal, chord of fear. Are our eyes playing tricks on us, or is there something truly sinister lurking under the surface of what we thought we knew? And who among us who is really of the other, after all?

We are happy to announce that the following HWA members will be included in Other Terrors:

• Holly Walrath with “The Asylum”

• Denise Dumars with “Scrape”

• Annie Neugebauer with “Churn the Unturning Tide”

• Nathan Carson with “Help, I’m a Cop”

• M.E. Bronstein with “The Voice of Nightingales” 

• Shanna Heath with “Miss Infection USA”

• Michael H. Hanson with “Night Shopper”

• Jonathan Lees with “It Comes in Waves”

• Maxwell Ian Gold with “Black Screams, Yellow Stars”

and

• Hailey Piper with “The Turning”

These exceptional stories from our HWA members will join previously announced esteemed contributors:

• Tananarive Due with “Incident at Bear Creek Lodge”

• S.A. Cosby with “What Blood Hath Wrought”

• Alma Katsu with “Waste Not”

• Stephen Graham Jones with “Tiddlywinks”

• Jennifer McMahon with “Idiot Girls”

• Michael Thomas Ford with “Where the Lovelight Gleams”

and

• Ann D├ívila Cardinal with “Invasive Species”

Rounding out this outstanding TOC, the following talented authors will also be joining the Other Terrors lineup:

• Usman Malik with “Mud Flappers”

• Gabino Iglesias with “There’s Always Something in the Woods”

• Eugen Bacon with “The Devil Don’t Come with Horns”

• Larissa Glasser with “Kalkriese”

• Tracy A. Cross with “All Not Ready”

• Linda D. Addison with her poem “Illusions of the De-Evolved”

and

• Christina Sng with her poem “Other Fears”

Heartfelt congratulations to all those whose stories made the TOC, and our sincerest thanks to the HWA membership for making our decisions so difficult. The quality of the pool of submissions was impressive! We deeply appreciate your patience as we worked through the long process of bringing this anthology together. Special thanks to Jaime Levine at HMH, whose been a pleasure to work with, HWA's agent Alec Shane, and Lisa Morton, who both recommended me for the gig and had the insight to pair me with a superb co-editor.

Pre-orders are up now. Following the lead of one of our contributors, Jonathan Lees, here are several online retailers from whom you can pre-order Other Terrors:

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Coco (2007 - 2021)

It’s Tuesday as I sit at the desk in my home office and begin writing this; it’s a gray and gloomy morning here in Michigan.

Fitting weather for a heartbreaking morning after.

On Monday, August 9th, our sweet boy, Coco—with Brian and I at his side—crossed the Rainbow Bridge. It feels infinitely more comforting to write that instead of “he died” or “he passed away” but we’re all adults in the room and well-versed on the deceptive reality of such feel-good words. Yet we cling to them when there is little left to cling to, don’t we? It somehow lessens the gravity; too bad it doesn’t lessen the ache.

Coco was a special dog—a Miniature Schnauzer who personified love with his gentle spirit. He was handsome in the stateliest of ways with a dog show prance for miles. He shared a birthday with my own Dad—December 30th—although my father has a few years on him. He was a lover—no dog could cuddle like Coco, whether it be on a lap or beside you in bed. He oozed affection and goodwill and could instinctively gauge moods and give you just what you needed at just the right moment. Along with that German pedigree of his came stubbornness (sometimes it became a battle of wills over pooping), and no dog could throw shade as effectively or comically as our Coco. 

I met Coco in October of 2011, shortly after Brian and I met in New York City. It was our third or fourth date and Brian brought Coco—then about four months shy of his 4th birthday—over to my weekend apartment in Hell’s Kitchen one Saturday evening. I had mentioned to Brian how my own childhood dog had been a Miniature Schnauzer, given to me by my father for my 8th birthday. When I met Coco, it was love at first sight. To this day, I joke with Brian about who I fell in love with first—him or his dog. That would have been 10 years ago next month. As Brian and I grew closer, our little family of three solidified.

Coco had an amazing life of adventure—from growing up in the heart of Manhattan to our long road trips to Michigan and Pennsylvania. Even when Brian and I settled into the suburbs on Long Island, there were weekend getaways into the city for Broadway shows, with Coco always happy to be safely ensconced in a NYC hotel room with late-night and early morning walks around city blocks bustling with city dwellers and tourists alike. Coco frequently came with me to work at the nursing home, always happy to go office to office visiting my staff, presiding over morning meeting sitting on my lap at the head of the conference room table, and those midday strolls around the perimeter of the facility. Coco loved riding in the car, and I was happiest when he rode shotgun in my truck even if it was just to the Starbucks drive-thru to get coffee. 

Coco had the tenderest of dispositions, instinctively knowing when to play gentler with a puppy (like his buddy Missy at The Hamptons Center) and when he could assert himself with a larger dog. There is still a YouTube video out there of our Coco hilariously terrorizing Brian’s brother’s late 100-pound-plus English Mastiff, Dante. There wasn’t another dog or person who Coco didn’t get along with. He was always a mellow, go-with-the-flow kind of dog. Even with our frequent moves (seven in the space of just under ten years), Coco always proved to be adaptable and resilient. As long as he had us—and a favorite “baby” or two—he was good to go and happy. And as long as we had him, our lives felt full and complete.

He became a big brother in December of 2019, when Cooper—also a Miniature Schnauzer—joined our family. My only regret is that we waited so long to get another dog and playmate for Coco. Although they only had about a year and a half together, they bonded quickly. In testament to Coco’s generous and loving spirit, he (again) quickly adapted to sharing his dads with the family’s new addition, never once showing signs of resentment or jealousy. Even as the years advanced on our Coco, he did his very best to keep up with mini-Cooper’s endless energy. They’d tussle together on the floor and be happy to go on long walks together, but sleeping arrangements were where we always let Coco maintain the upper hand—he got to sleep between us in the bed, while Coop snuggled amongst his blankets and “frog baby” in his crate. It was our one way to remind Coco that he came first and had at least one privilege his upstart little brother did not. It was an arrangement he seemed satisfied with, even until his last night with us.

About two weeks ago, we noticed that Coco was drinking exponentially more than usual and urinating a lot. We took him to the veterinary clinic we’d carefully researched and selected when we moved back to Michigan last December, and he was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. He had been eating voraciously up to that point, but after one sprinkle of the probiotics the vet had prescribed and one dose of the heavy-duty antibiotic she’d ordered, he all but stopped eating. On the Saturday before his passing, I called the vet to report that now Coco hadn’t been eating for 2 or 3 days despite my ever-patient Brian even trying to hand-feed him. Although the vet had office hours that day, we were brusquely told that they wouldn’t be able to fit him in and to try an emergency veterinary hospital. Panicked, I began calling other local vets. The second call I made was answered by a lovely young woman named Sarah at the Somerset Veterinary Hospital in Troy. Even though Sarah didn’t know us from a hole in the wall, she made us an appointment for that same morning, and we brought Coco in. There we met Dr. Whitney Reinhold, who was just lovely—gentle, empathetic, and possessing excellent clinical skills. Concerned with Coco’s dehydrated state (despite his continuing to drink plenty of water), she ran some diagnostic tests.

The news was delivered with compassionate candor—based on his symptoms and lab values, Coco was either suffering from Leptospirosis (possibly treatable) or bone marrow cancer (not treatable). We were left with an agonizing decision: Hospitalize him or bring him home over the weekend. Somerset Veterinary was not open on Sundays, so if we left him with Dr. Reinhold and her staff, he’d be essentially alone, save for a few overnight checks by the vet. If something went wrong and he took a turn for the worse, there was the possibility that he’d die alone. There was also the option of an emergency veterinary hospital; upside was immediate treatment, downside was that (again) he could take a turn and we wouldn’t be with him. The third option was that we take him home with us for the weekend and monitor him closely; Dr. Reinhold suggested that we offer him anything he would eat—baby food, peanut butter, rice and chicken. Coco—around year 5 or 6—developed a ridiculously intolerant gastrointestinal problem that limited him to one Science Diet variety of food that was particularly vile to my human sensibilities in every way possible, from texture to smell. Although Coco was weak and his breathing a little congested (likely due to an enlarged liver pressing against his little diaphragm), we opted for option #3. Dr. Reinhold gave him some subcutaneous fluids, a gentler antibiotic, and medication for his liver. We would nurse him all weekend and pray that he’d pull through until Monday, when we could return him to Somerset Vet for additional treatment. By then, we hoped his Leptospirosis test results would be back and we would be in a better position to determine a course of action. In an act of such compassion and empathy, Dr. Reinhold gave us her personal cell number in case we ran into any problems over the weekend or Coco took a turn for the worse. 

That weekend, we dedicated ourselves to our little buddy. Brian, in particular, was so attentive to his needs, from helping him stand outside and spreading his back legs so he could urinate to sitting on the floor with him every two hours with any combination of peanut butter and baby food on his finger trying to coax Coco to eat. He administered his medication, without fail, like clockwork. My heart broke watching them together, because Brian raised him from a puppy and their bond was an unbreakable one. At night, in bed between us, we took shifts cuddling him, turning him over every two hours or so to prevent any kind of skin breakdown. With his poor nutritional intake, he was in a much-weakened state by now. Although we forced ourselves to stay hopeful, there was a looming reality hanging over us like a dark cloud those two long days and nights, and we took every opportunity to stroke his head and tell him everything that we needed to say. He was able to make eye contact with us and we spent hours just sitting with him, staring into those soulful eyes of his, trying to figure out what he wanted. He didn’t appear to be in any pain, which buoyed our spirits somewhat. By Sunday night, he stopped urinating and his breathing slowed. We were positive he was going to pass away during the night, and we tried to take some comfort from the fact that he would be with us, at home, in the familiar comfort of his own bed.

But our Coco, once again, defied the odds and proved to be an intrepid little fighter. He made it through that night and even seemed ever-so-slightly more responsive in the morning. We took that as a sign that he wanted more time with us. We called Dr. Reinhold first thing on Monday morning, and she had us bring him in. She would start IV fluids and IV antibiotics while we waited for the test results, run some more diagnostics, and see how he was in a few hours’ time. But she was guarded and benevolently honest: Coco’s prognosis was poor.  

I’m not going to lie—that morning was the longest few hours of my adult life. Brian opted to go to work to busy his mind; I ran into the nursing home for an hour to tend to a few of my usual early morning tasks and came home. Around 1:00 PM, the phone rang. It was Dr. Reinhold explaining that Coco had taken a turn and advising that Brian and I should come as soon as possible. Instinctively, I grabbed one of Coco’s favorite toys—a silly-looking orange dinosaur that he’d had for years. Jumping into my truck, I called Brian and told him. Thankfully, Somerset Veterinary is only a few blocks from the house, so I was there within minutes. Running into the vet’s office, my heart was lodged in my throat. I was ushered immediately into the back where our beloved Coco was lying in his doggy bed, the soft blanket we had left with him covering him. He was breathing heavily—too heavily, I knew—and had a plastic cup-like apparatus over his snout delivering oxygen. His eyes were wide open, and he seemed markedly more responsive than how I’d left him earlier. Dr. Reinhold explained to me that he’d been doing ok for a while that morning, that he had perked up with the IV fluids. But when they’d gone to turn him over—changing his position as we had to avoid skin breakdown—he’d gone into respiratory distress. She’d run more tests and his kidney and liver function were both poor. 

There is that moment that all responsible pet parents know well—that agonizing reality and crushing weight of the decision to do the kind and loving thing for your furry loved one. While I waited for Brian to arrive, I sat with Coco and cried and cried while again and again telling him how very much I loved him, how sorry I was that I couldn’t make him better. My hand never left him, as I stroked and caressed his fragile little body and repeatedly kissed the top of his head and nose. I consciously tried to commit the feel of him, the smell of him to memory. My thoughts went to all those times when I’d failed him—when my patience fell short or when I raised a voice to him in frustration. I apologized to him, telling him how utterly and completely perfect he was and that those moments of harshness were my failing and not his. I begged him to forgive me and, in that moment, saw nothing but unconditional love in his expressive, tired eyes. There was my proof, my confirmation of what I’ve long known—that dogs are superior to us humans in every way that counts. Their capacity to love, without qualification, is limitless and sets them apart from every other living creature on this earth.

Brian arrived and Dr. Reinhold explained to him what she’d told me a short time ago with nothing but patience and compassion. Without needing to discuss it, we both agreed to end Coco’s discomfort before it turned into suffering. We spent another 20 minutes or so talking to him, stroking his salt-and-pepper coat and frail little body underneath, kissing him, and making sure that when he left us, he did so knowing how very much he was loved. When we were ready, Dr. Reinhold explained the process to us—it’s one we’ve both been through before. We positioned ourselves directly in front of our beloved little buddy, and made sure that he could see us, that our loving faces would be the last thing he saw as the lights dimmed and he went to his eternal rest.

As he left us, I simultaneously prayed to whatever force in the universe gives us the gift of these beautiful creatures and cursed it for not giving us more time together. Our grief was unbearable in those first moments when Coco left us, and Brian and I held each other—and Coco—and just sobbed and sobbed. Dr. Reinhold and her staff—truly angels who walk amongst us on this earth—gave us as much time as we needed with Coco afterward. I think we stayed with him for another half an hour before finally pulling ourselves away. Leaving that sweet creature’s empty shell there broke our hearts all over again, but we knew that Dr. Reinhold and her staff would handle his remains with the utmost care. He would be privately cremated—Brian made sure that his silly little orange dinosaur baby went with him—and he would come home to us the following day.

As I stepped outside the vet’s office, it started to rain. It was as if the universe was crying with me for the loss of this magnificent, selfless, beautiful-in-every-way dog named Coco, loved boundlessly by his two dads, a slew of family and friends, and his little brother, Cooper. I sat in my truck and my heart burst open even more than I thought possible. I just sat there, hunched over the steering wheel, and sobbed until I was empty. In those first heartrending moments following Coco’s passing, I wanted to truly die, to go with him and walk him over that famed Rainbow Bridge. If there is one thing I hope and pray, is that all dogs truly do go to some kind of heaven and, especially, that we’re somehow reunited in spirit and form at the end of our own lives. I want to believe that. I need to believe that.

The week following Coco’s passing has been filled with heartbreak—those first days and nights were nearly unbearable. 

Coco’s collar and leash hanging on the hook by the back door…

His empty doggy bed that still carries his scent…

That empty spot between us in the bed where Coco slept every night for so many uninterrupted years…

We received word from Dr. Reinhold yesterday: Coco’s Leptospirosis test finally came back from the lab and was negative. That’s good news in the sense that we don’t’ have to test or worry about Cooper contracting the disease. That also means that our beloved Coco succumbed to likely bone marrow cancer and that there was nothing that we could have done to save him, which takes some of the guilt off me for not opting to admit him to the emergency animal hospital over the weekend. Our choice gave us—and him—more quality time together to express our love and prepare for his final journey. It’s bittersweet news, but in the midst of this numbing heartache, it’s good to take whatever modicum of comfort you’re afforded. 

I finish writing this on Sunday, almost a week after Coco has left us. If you’ve read this far, I thank you for taking the time to read this tribute to him. I wanted to commit the events of Coco’s last days and life to writing so that there is a lasting homage to this extraordinary dog, who was loved more than these words can convey—try as I might. I hope his journey over the Rainbow Bridge has ended with all the promises contained within that beautiful poem. The grief this week has been unbearable at times, sometimes at the most unexpected moments. I asked him in our final moments together to send us a sign that he’s ok, that’s he still with us, watching over us. While I’m waiting for that sign, I’m replaying countless Coco memories in my head, taking comfort in the many heartfelt messages of sympathy left for us on social media, and just taking it one day at a time with lots of deep breaths to quell the panic attacks when I’m overwhelmed by the sense of loss. Coco’s final resting place—a beautiful, personalized wooden urn—arrives tomorrow. Brian and I will transfer his ashes after work and likely shed even more tears for our sweet boy. 

I am grateful that Brian and I have each other to hold one another up through this. Grateful, too, for little Cooper who now inherits the benefits as the singular recipient of our focus and doting. He’s our reminder that life continues, that there are always more dogs to love and care for. We’ll continue to love and care for him with the same dedication and passion that we cared for Coco—and the countless pets between us that we’ve loved and cared for over the years. In time, we will undoubtedly open our hearts and home to another dog, a little brother or sister to keep Cooper company. We’ll repeat this cycle of love and accept that this gift comes with the eventual—and inevitable—loss. 

That is the cycle of life.

Rest in eternal peace, beloved Coco. Thank you for sharing part of our lives with us and for making us better human beings through the example of your steadfast loyalty and unconditional love. We will forever try to be the people you always thought we were. Our love for you transcends the meaning any mere words could ascribe. Miss you and love you dearly, little buddy. 

Coco Liaguno-Charles

December 30, 2007 – August 9, 2021


Monday, January 4, 2021

2020: The Year in Music

Thanks to the global pandemic that rocked everyone’s world this year, the first year of the new decade saw an unprecedented demand for at-home entertainment and solo leisure time pursuits. The written word probably fared the best, with people stuck at home and picking up a book for the first time in years. Movies and television were a catch-22; although the demand was there and people were willing to pay, there was limited new content because either production had been shut down or movie studios opted to delay or postpone theatrical releases versus release to VOD for fear of losing too much money. 

Music fell somewhere in between. With artists creating new music remotely pre-pandemic, production capability wasn’t an issue. What stopped some artists from releasing new product was the inability to promote new music with live shows. In today’s business model, it’s the touring that brings in the bigger bucks—not releasing $1.29 singles on iTunes. Although streaming was up (despite listeners spending far less time in the car or at the gym), the streaming of new releases wasn’t, with data showing that folks opted to stream older catalog titles, like musical comfort food. Artists grappled with the timing of new releases—from competing with the coronavirus for media time to promote their music to the fact that people were just overall distracted. Less people traveling to and from work lessened the importance of radio play, while the closure of schools severed that all-too-important word of mouth publicity pipeline among the under 18 set. So, like movies, the amount of new music put out in 2020 was markedly less than previous years. 

Still, there were some spectacularly good releases in 2020. If there was a theme in music during this pandemic-afflicted year, it was escapism. Artists created hopeful albums, filled with songs that were uplifting and uptempo. Lots of tunes to dance to—even if the dancing was relegated to living rooms. My own annual Top 10 list held true to past trends and personal patterns of predilection: Lots of Brits, heavily female artist skewed, and at least one new discovery. This year’s list sees the reappearance of artists you’ve seen grace my year-end favorites before, with two notable exceptions: Miley Cyrus and Love Fame Tragedy. Cyrus released a phenomenal collection with Plastic Hearts, an eclectic blend of pop-punk-country-glam-rock and homage to 80s-era New Wave that shouldn’t work as well as it does. Cyrus pays tribute to female rock icons with covers of Blondie’s Heart of Glass and The Cranberries’ Zombie, while bringing in rock royalty like Billy Idol, Joan Jett, and Stevie Nicks for duets and clever mashups. Cyrus made me a fan with this album.

Love Fame Tragedy is a collaborative solo project created by Matthew Murphy, the Wombats’ lead singer and lyricist. The album—Wherever I Go, I Want to Leave—is a glorious indie pop-rock masterpiece filled with Murphy’s wry, high-end songwriting on 17 tracks covering a range of musical styles from electro rock to ambient house, indie synth-pop, neo-funk, and even R&B.

Topping my list this year is one of my “newer” favorite artists—Jessie Ware. Once described by Rolling Stone as “the missing link between Adele and Sade,” Ware has made consistently good albums since her 2012 debut, Devotion. Her fourth—this year’s What’s Your Pleasure?—is a pure pop-dance tour de force, finding Ware more comfortable than even in her own musical skin. The album is ripe with every variation of dance music—from disco to hi-NRG and house and back again to disco-funk. It’s frothy and flirty and frivolous fun and just the kind of record we needed this year to remind us to dance like nobody’s watching. It easily lands at a firm #1 on my year-end list.

Speaking of, without further chitchat, here’s what you came for: 

#10 – HOTSPOT / Pet Shop Boys

#9 – CHROMATICA / Lady Gaga

#8 – DISCO / Kylie Minogue

#7 – LOVE GOES / Sam Smith

#6 – PLASTIC HEARTS / Miley Cyrus

#5 – INFINITE THINGS / Paloma Faith

#4 – IMPLODING THE MIRAGE / The Killers

#3 – WHEREVER I GO, I WANT TO LEAVE / Love Fame Tragedy 

#2 – FUTURE NOSTALGIA / Dua Lipa

#1 – WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? / Jessie Ware

Honorable Mentions: No formal ranking, but worthy of a listen or two. 

  • I HAVE MY STANDARDS / Martha Davis
  • THE NEON / Erasure
  • FOLKLORE / Taylor Swift
  • RAZZMATAZZ / I Don’t Know How But They Found Me (aka iDKHOW)
  • HATE FOR SALE / Pretenders
  • FUN CITY / Bright Light Bright Light
  • SPELL MY NAME / Toni Braxton
  • DREAMLAND / Glass Animals
  • AFTER HOURS / The Weeknd
  • CHIP CHROME & THE MONOTONES / The Neighbourhood
  • THE RARITIES / Mariah Carey