The Thing with Depression: How Benjamin J. Grimm Helped Me Face Myself and Family Regarding Mental Health

If you watch current Marvel movies, you haven’t seen The Thing mixing it up with the Avengers on the big screen. The Thing (Benjamin J. Grimm) mainly appears in comics and cartoons as a core member of The Fantastic Four. In 1961, writer, Stan Lee, and artist, Jack Kirby, launched four explorers into space in the first issue of The Fantastic Four. Once in outer space, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm are exposed to cosmic rays and gain superpowers. The twist: each of their subconsciouses affects their powers. Reed, always stretching himself too thin, became the elastic Mr. Fantastic. Sue, who felt unseen by people, became The Invisible Girl. Johnny, a hot head, became The Human Torch. And Ben, who felt like a working-class lug, became super-strong golem, The Thing. The combination of their relationships and amazing adventures laid the groundwork for the Marvel universe as we now know it. And what’s more, the series introduced a way for me to connect The Thing’s self-loathing to similar patterns in myself. 

Depression isn’t just feeling sad. It’s normal to experience the whole emotional spectrum, but for myself, I found that sadness extended to a holding pattern of self-loathing. I’d find myself asking tough questions: Why am I sleeping all the time? Why am I pulling away from family and friends who only wish to check in? Though I recognized signs of depression, the stigma of asking for help kept me from turning to mental health professionals. It took not a rocket crash but a breakdown to learn I wasn’t a freak but someone with bipolar depression. Most importantly, I learned I was functional with the right medication and talk therapy. Ben’s own journey of self-discovery established his character as an icon for myself and my mental health.

Unlike Reed, Sue, and Johnny, who could switch their powers on and off, Ben was permanently turned into The Thing. Because of that permanence, Ben viewed his new powers and form as a curse rather than something that made him a superhero. He physically embodied depression. Whenever Ben left the Fantastic Four’s high-rise headquarters, he wore an oversized trench coat, shades, and pulled-down fedora. This wasn’t to avoid paparazzi but prevent him being seen as a spectacle. My own depression can often feel like stones piled on top of me, each stone representing a regret to be reviewed before I’m able to get out of bed and face the day. When my depression ramps up, I go around with my hoodie pulled low and headphones in to cut out the world. This is my way of disengaging and blocking stimuli, to stop negative thoughts avalanching in on me.

As the Fantastic Four’s story unfolded, it became clear that The Thing’s greatest power wasn’t his physical strength, but his perseverance. His catchphrase “It’s Clobberin’ Time!” signaled to villains he could take a licking and keep coming back for more. I found that perseverance inspirational but soon realized the flip side of it was a mental holding pattern—Ben couldn’t accept his current reality, which in turn, brought on his depression. 

To try and explain why I didn’t feel connected to my present self, I searched for my own rocket crash or cosmic rays. My depression often felt as though one event could veer me off course—I was unaware that the period of joy in my life I chased was the manic cycle of bipolar depression. But, shortly after that period ended, I’d find myself sitting in the debris of the metaphoric crash site, waiting for a change to make things better without doing any of the work. Instead of rebuilding and relaunching, I reviewed my past trajectory for mistakes to relive, much like Ben wishing to be his former self. Ben and I both faced the stigma that men shouldn’t ask for help. With Ben’s depression, he saw only his monstrous form rather than the hero inside himself—with my depression, I was staying in my head, which kept me from being present in my current life. 

When I first noticed my depression, I thought it best to live with my parents. But, whenever I ran into parents of childhood friends I felt shame for “living at home at my age.” Family told me those opinions didn’t matter, but my false perception led to career decisions that sped up moving out of their home. In turn, these choices took me away from a support system best for my mental health in the long run.

Ben made similar, rash decisions. There are storylines in which Ben felt better off leaving the Fantastic Four. But it was through the Fantastic Four’s growth as a family that Ben began to connect to his present self as The Thing. In the series, Sue and Reed marry and have two kids. These kids only know Uncle Ben in his Thing form. Seeing himself in this form as an uncle helped Ben embrace himself. When Ben first held his nephew, he said, “Now… All of a sudden… I feel like a part of a family… ’stead of a freak show!” 

When you see Ben in the Marvel Universe relaunch of Fantastic Four, he’s not covering up his rocky orange self. Ben is in casual clothes tailored to his frame with his wife, Alicia, on his arm, helping people together. I like to think my version of a personal relaunch is talking honestly about mental health with all generations of my family, trusting their understanding, and being open about living with bipolar depression. I had my biggest breakthrough when I stopped looking for one specific event—or metaphorical rocket crash—to point to where things may have gone wrong. Instead, I started experiencing the present and utilizing tools from therapy to engage with the world rather than pull away. The Fantastic Four are known as explorers of the Marvel Universe—seeing similar patterns between my own mental health and in Ben’s expression of himself as The Thing, I began exploring my life again. Benjamin J. Grimm does not turn into The Thing at a whim, just as I don’t turn into someone with bipolar depression. Instead, it is who we are every day. It turns out that, after all, we aren’t the freaks we thought we were—instead, we are the heroes of our own stories.

An Interview with Sunyi Dean

The Book Eaters explores the lives and world of people who, well… they literally eat books to survive. A rare breed of people indeed! Where did the concept for The Book Eaters come from?

I want to give a fancy answer but the truthful answer is that Book Eaters was written during a time when I was extremely exhausted and more than a little burnt out. In essence, it’s a story which only made sense when I was quite sleep deprived, and which I somehow finished even though it was more or less total chaos.

Later, when I was feeling better, I had to somehow edit that mess into a narrative that made sense, and even then, my editor had to swoop in after acquiring the book to help me hammer it into better shape!

Your book takes advantage of two timelines: exploring Devon’s childhood and her present-day dilemmas. How did you decide to tell the story by jumping back and forth rather than a linear approach? Did the early drafts do this as well?

It was something I decided on very early! I build my novels around a structure I call “reader’s journey”, which is a sort of spin on hero’s journey. In short, rather than focusing on the journey that the protagonist undergoes, it focuses on the reader’s experience of their story, and prioritizes dramatic information reveals in structure.

In thriller novels, nonlinear or dual timeline narratives are fairly common for this reason: the center around controlling what information the reader has access to, in order to constantly subvert what the reader thinks they know about the plot, world, and characters.

The Book Eaters mixes genres from fantasy, to horror, to thriller, to fairy tale, to literary. What pushed you to blend these genres together? What were some books that inspired you to do so, if any?

I would probably just class it as speculative fiction! Fantasy is defined only by setting elements, so any kind of plot structure can fit inside it.

All that said, I love spec fic books with a thriller structure particularly, so The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, and The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey were big influences.

You’ve opened up before about being a mother and a neurodivergent writer. How much of yourself do you put into your novels? What advice do you have for diverse writers?

I try to put in whatever I can—anything of myself that I think will be relevant or interesting to readers. I know that’s a vague answer, sorry!

Advice wise, I’m always cautious handing that out, but among the autistic writing community, I often see folks worried that their writing will be too “weird” or unusual for commercial tastes. I understand that fear, because it’s protective in a way; it gives us a psychological “out” when rejections roll in.

But that mentality also is an insidious form of self-rejection, and can nurture a sense of bitterness—neither of which are good for authors in the long term. Don’t worry about being weird! Write what you enjoy, but with your practical hat on, and it’ll be fine.

You currently have a podcast, Publishing Rodeo, where you share insights on publishing and writing. What would you like to share with aspiring writers who are considering traditional publication right now?

I would be upfront with them that trade publishing is a very tiered industry. By tiered, I mean that authors are generally acquired in certain advance brackets, which in turn largely determine the marketing and support their books get, which in turn tend to define how well the book sells on launch. There’s some variation in those equations, but by and large, advance size is linked to sales, and that aspect—which define your career—is not only decided early on behind closed doors, but is almost entirely out of your control.

Please do check us out if you get the chance! We don’t do the podcast for money or to build platform, but just to offer up free resources and information (lots of links on the website, and lots of show notes for every episode!) We go heavy on the facts, details, and stark realities—good, bad, and everything in between.

What have been some of the surprising differences or similarities of your book coming out in multiple countries/markets (i.e. the UK and US editions of The Book Eaters)?

I wrote TBE for the UK market, even though it is a smaller market than the USA, and put in things that I thought UK folk would appreciate. I was surprised and pleased to get an American publisher as well, but in hindsight there were sections that left Americans confused, which could perhaps have been explained, if I’d thought about it more. For example, at one point Devon interacts with someone who speaks Polish, which doesn’t need an explanation for UK readers, but some Americans didn’t understand why there would be so many EU immigrants in the UK and thought it was bizarre.

On the flip side, the American copy edits changed a lot of UK terms, and I regret not keeping more of them (all of them?) as written. UK readers did pick up on those changes, and I’m afraid I now look very foolish / very Americanized to some folks as a result!

Tell us more about your next novel, working title: Sea Sister (out 2024!)!

Tentative title keeps changing but I think at the moment we are using The Night We Drown (check back in a few weeks though, and it may yet be different again…! Argh!)

The next book is a “Chinese gothic” historical fantasy, set in Hong Kong. The narrative appears to follow two women: the first is a triad-employed exorcist living and working in Kowloon Walled City, circa 1965. The second is a young lady who moves to a ghost-infested island in 1942, where she hopes to hide from the Japanese invasion. Neither story is what it appears, and the links between these tales gradually reveal themselves as the novel progresses.

What book(s) do you want people to be aware of this coming year and why?

I have read advanced reader copies of quite a few books this year! Some I’d recommend:

7 Sci-Fi Hopepunk Books to Improve Your Day

This article has a strict guest list—wholesome books only. Hopepunk is a subgenre of sci-fi/fantasy wherein authors ask the important questions: What if humans don’t ruin everything? What if the future isn’t so bad? What if it’s kind of exciting and cool? What if the color green still exists in a hundred years?

We’re all accustomed to a long line of dystopian fiction, apocalypses in muted tones, unhinged space raiders, and militarized teenagers. None of that here. The ruins are overgrown with lush fauna, the raiders are pretty reasonable, the kiddos are goofballs, and the protagonists refuse to give up on being kind.

This list is sorted by the highest ratio of warm-fuzzies to oh-shit-conflict. In other words, sorted by least likely to induce stress to most. Cozy up in your PJs, light a scented candle, and read a story that will make you hope for better.

  1. A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Crowned by many as the current monarch of hopepunk, this book follows Sibling Dex, a tea monk devoted to the deity of small enjoyments. Sound like the wholesome meter is already maxed out? There’s more. They meet Mosscap, the first robot to leave the wilds and encounter a human in centuries, whose goal is to ask humans, “What do people need?”

There’s much in this story we all want: a tiny home on wheels, a vocation drinking tea, community-centric tree villages, small bear decorations, a society where gender and sexuality aren’t inherently labeled or considered important and therefore people can simply exist as they are. That sort of thing. Wild-Built’s setting on a socialist, green moon where kindness makes the world go ’round is the key to its hopepunk status. The story is steeped in optimism as well, a gentle unlearning of those pesky high expectations we hold ourselves to.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built will relieve more stress in you than a delicious cup of tea, though you should probably enjoy both, just to be sure.

  1. The Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers

Cramming four books into one entry may not be fair game, but all of the Wayfarers books have a special spark of hope. The first entry, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, follows the crew of a wormhole-digging spaceship. In this distant future, humanity coexists with countless alien species.

The biodiversity in this universe is what fills you with awe. Aliens aren’t just humanoids with blue skin, etc., but a caterpillar-esque cook, a species that uses luminescent skin to communicate, and reptilian people with a deep culture around physical touch. Alongside the intergalactic government–level conflicts, swathes of loveliness exist among the various settings and character groups these novels focus on. And the food. If you think nothing could make you want to eat a burger made of grasshoppers, you will find yourself very surprised.

  1. The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

This book has the heart and atmosphere of a Pixar movie, which should express the exact intersection of charming and goofy it hits. Linus, a social services agent, is sent to assess an orphanage for magical children. The children in residence are just your typical kids, like a gnome, a blob who wants nothing more than to be a lobby boy, and the antichrist.

The House in the Cerulean Sea is the patron saint of second chances, the warmest found family read there is. For anyone with a mind-numbing job who dreams of a seaside vacation, optimism and an open heart gets you there in this book.

  1. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Murderbot chronicles its adventures protecting squishy humans from various planetary hazards and assassination attempts. The first novella in this series, All Systems Red, is Murderbot’s initial foray into caring about people way more than it says it does. Sometimes a family can be an optimistic survey crew and their incredibly angry, powerful, and media-loving security android.

The Murderbot Diaries paints a future that seems grim at first glance. Capitalism rules the stars, and our salty narrator Murderbot is seen by the Corporation Rim as nothing more than a product. But the hopepunk is in the details—Murderbot always finds a group of wayward humans to take care of, and an action-packed way to screw over the corporates. Despite the sections of the universe that operate on greed, there are places in this series where future life looks pretty bright.

  1. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

What is one to do when they wake up on a spaceship with no memory of boarding it? Rylan, though it takes a while for him to remember it, is humanity’s last hope. His primary skills include science, optimism, and making friends.

The main character carries the hopeful tint of Project Hail Mary. Rylan is a ray of sunshine in the midst of circumstances that sorely need just that—read the book to understand why you should chuckle. This entry is lower on the list because of the world-ending threat that may stress out some readers, but the lovely friendship and the satisfying problem-solving in this book will still warm your heart.

  1. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

In an alternate history, a cataclysmic event causes the Space Race to heat up a few years earlier, with a much keener motivation: secure a home in the stars before it’s too late. Elma, a pilot and mathematician, has her eye on being the first woman in space.

While The Calculating Stars is also lower down on this list because of a world-ending event, the tenacity of those committed to launch into space despite the traditions holding them back is hopeful. Be warned, however, that the book showcases some of the most frustrating parts of real life, such as annoying men questioning every action women take. That said, most of it is very satisfying. 

Author’s note: I highly recommend the audio book. Mary Robinette Kowal reads it herself, and she is a trained voice actor.

  1. To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Hopepunk is Becky Chambers’s niche. In this novella, four scientists travel in cryo to study the flora and fauna of different planets. Each character is lovely and so appreciative of the magnificence around them, it’ll take you right back to your bug/space/plant phase as a kid.

To Be Taught If Fortunate accomplishes a great deal of wonder in a few pages. However, it’s low on this optimism scale because when this book chooses to hit hard, it hits hard. One chapter in particular might remind you too much of the deep quarantine times, so protect your emotional health foremost.

A couple honorable mentions others frequently list, but I personally wouldn’t categorize as hopepunk, include Binti and The Fifth Season. Both are excellent, just not as hyper optimistic as the others on this list.
The next time you’re looking for a sci-fi/fantasy read to boost your mood, check out one of these wholesome reads. Looking for other recommendations? Our blog has book reviews, editorial articles, and more for your reading life. 

5 Major Benefits of Returning to School for Writing

Nontraditional students are a fast-growing academic population in the US. I’m one of them—I just recently returned to school after a four-year break. And I’ve noticed more and more people these days seem to be getting comfortable going against the high-school-to-college fast track. But if you left college—or never went in the first place—how do you decide when (and if) to go back? Especially for something like writing?

Tough question. There are plenty of caveats, contexts, and canoodles that go into making such a big decision. So, in a noble effort to aid you, I’ll share five key benefits I’ve discovered since returning to school for writing. 

  1. Deadlines

Okay yes, I know. I KNOW. This word disgusts me too. It’s one of the main reasons I dropped out of school in the first place. I mean, homework? Seriously? Not cute.

But honestly, I’ve come to appreciate deadlines. They’re still stressful, mind you—that part doesn’t change—but they also provide two very important things to a head-in-deep-space writer like me: structure and motivation. 

Deadlines have forced me to actually do the work of writing. And it’s a lot of work! It takes a stupid amount of persistence and discipline. And as a creative who struggles with both of those things, school deadlines have been the training wheels I’ve needed to help me figure out my own methods of tackling a project. And it’s a tool I’ll carry and continue reluctantly honing for the rest of my life.

  1. Comradery

And what’s the point of horrible, stressful deadlines if you don’t have any friends to complain about them with?

Writing is often a very solitary act. Sometimes I love this about it. Other times it makes me full-on bonkers. Comradery is critical to a writing practice not just so we remember how to talk to other human beings (important!), but also so we remember we’re not the only ones who feel like we don’t know what we’re doing. We all have to fight through that noise, and it really helps to have more supportive and encouraging noise from our friends to balance it out. 

Plus, things like passion and inspiration are multiplicative. There’s no hype like writing- workshop hype. 

  1. Networking

This one goes hand in hand with comradery in a lot of ways. But whereas I view “comradery” as relating more to the social side of writing, “networking” is more about the business side.

One of the most difficult parts about trying to get into writing as a career is building a professional network. In this sense, I feel like the Internet has almost backfired—it’s now way too easy for publishers to get lost in a sea of faces, profiles, and short stories about a Really Cool and Unique Science Fiction Idea.

That’s where school comes in. While I by no means claim school will set you up with an impeccable career, I’ve made way more connections in the past eight months of college than I ever did in my two-plus years of going solo. It’s hard to avoid networking when you’re surrounded by professors and faculty who have spent huge portions of their lives navigating the writing world. And best of all, most of them are super keen to share what they’ve learned!

  1. Knowledge

This one might seem a bit obvious, but I can’t overstate its importance. Yes, with the age of the Internet (and your public library), knowledge has never been more widely accessible. And if you’re really self-motivated, both of those things can be a great way to learn a ton for free.

But there is a difference between trying to learn something on your own and being taught by someone who is very knowledgeable, skilled, and practiced. In school, you don’t just learn the stuff—you (hopefully) learn how to apply it, how to expand upon it, how to weave it into everything else you’re learning and will learn. 

And, best of all, you get to discuss it with other people. That’s been an indispensable part of it for me—not just gaining knowledge, but learning how others interact with it. And how loaded with bias and assumption it can be. Knowledge is much more treacherous if left uninterrogated. And in my experience, few people are more ready to interrogate the system than writing students.

  1. Environment of Learning

This one combines all the previous points and rolls them together into one giant burrito. I can’t tell you how much my motivation, my fascination, and my writing practice have improved since being surrounded by people who love to learn and teach. It’s tough to find an environment that challenges and propels you in the same way out in the “real world.” 

Still, it’s important to remember that none of this is guaranteed. Just because you go to college (or return to it) doesn’t mean these five ephemeral benefits will tumble fortuitously into your lap. You have to be ready to seek them out and strive for them. (Well, to be fair, the deadlines will find you. Nothing will stop them. Seriously, start running now.)

I also know college is a privilege not everyone has access to. If this is the case for you, I encourage you to find ways to learn from and connect with other writers in your community. Try looking into writers’ clubs at your local cafés and libraries. Or better yet, start your own!

But if you’ve found yourself stuck in a writing rut, if you feel like you’ve reached a plateau in your skill and ability, then college (or at least a couple of writing classes) might be a way to catalyze yourself. That, or you could hitchhike across the world. I hear that can be relatively stimulating.

An Interview with Natalie Marino

You are both a physician and a poet. Did one of these career paths come before the other or have they developed alongside one another? Do you feel they influence one another?

I have been a practicing primary care physician for over 15 years. Although I majored in English in college and read a lot of poetry as a student, it wasn’t until 2019 that I started writing my own poetry. I do think my career as a physician and my interest in poetry are related. The practice of medicine is based in science, but it is at least as much an art. Listening to patients, to their stories, is the mainstay of how I work through finding solutions to medical problems. Knowing how necessary good medical care is, and having learned through experience how difficult it is to fully understand what a patient is telling me, I discovered my need for a creative outlet. In my search I fell in love with the intricacies of language in poetry.

Your incredible body of work so far leans more to poetry, though you have written a few nonfiction pieces. Would you say you prefer poetry over nonfiction? Or do you find yourself inspired to write poetry more often than nonfiction? 

I enjoy writing both nonfiction and poetry, although I find myself more often feeling inspired to write my own poetry when I read poetry that does something new with the form or content of language. 

Imagery of nature appears frequently in your poetry; we see this highlighted in poems like ‘Language of Rivers’ and ‘Sexual Nostalgia in Peri-Menopause’. Does nature play an important role in your life, and do you find yourself often writing poetry around something you’ve observed while immersed in nature?

I was born and raised in California, one of the few places where there are several climate types in close proximity. Nature has always played an important role in my life. I’m also especially drawn to eco poetry. Many of my poems are influenced by eco poets, like Kelli Russell Agodon, Lucille Clifton, and Maya C. Popa. In one of my favorite craft books on poetry, The Triggering Town, author Richard Hugo discusses how most effective poetry comes out of real or imagined experience. Because I’m often immersed in nature, many of the experiences I write about involve nature. 

You have a new chapbook, Under Memories of Stars, coming out this year. What are some of the images you explore in this book, and do you feel they differ from the poetry you’ve published thus far? Furthermore, can we expect a central theme for the poetry, or is this a collection of works where you feel each poem tells a story that should be read independent from the others?

My chapbook Under Memories of Stars Is a collection of lyric poetry involving the themes of love and grief. The poems in this collection also show the speaker’s evolving perspective on nostalgia—how she realizes memory is constantly changing—and by the end of the collection, her acceptance of death. While focusing more on relationships with family than some of my other poetry, nature imagery is a cornerstone in this collection, and this is similar to much of my other poetry. 

What was the writing process of your chapbook like? Did you find it difficult to juggle compiling the book and sending submissions out?

I wrote many of the poems in this collection separately without having a goal of writing a chapbook, and so compiling the chapbook didn’t really make it more difficult for me to send out submissions of my other poetry. When I noticed the common themes in the included poems, and that all of these poems involve stars, I was inspired to put the chapbook together.

Submitting to journals is, I believe, always a bit of a daunting process, and rejections are something all writers have to deal with. Over the years, what process have you developed for dealing with rejections and what advice would you give poets who have just started sending their work out into the world?

Realizing that most poets receive mostly rejections of their submitted work has allowed me to take my rejections less to heart. When I first started submitting, I sent my work to many, many journals, and I didn’t always read much of these journals beforehand. My current process is to read a few recently published full-length poetry collections throughout the year. When I’m impressed by the poetry included in a collection, I look at the “Acknowledgements” section so I can keep in mind the journals that are included there for my future submissions. Then I read some of the other work published in these journals, to see if my work might be a good fit. This process has saved me a lot of time and money and has made submitting my work a less frustrating experience. 

Do you have any big publishing aspirations for the future? Perhaps an anthology we can look forward to.

I’m currently looking for a publisher for my second chapbook, which uses lines and syntax from novels and plays from the 20th Century that involve the theme of The American Dream to discuss our collective need as Americans to have a new dream. I also have poems coming out soon in Salt Hill, South Dakota Review, and South Florida Poetry Journal, among other journals. 

Lastly, if you could give any advice—regarding the industry, the writing process, and so on—to yourself when you were just starting out, what would it be?

  1. Live your life. Go outside and try new things. Rich and varied experiences make for excellent poetry subjects. 
  2. Read more than you write. Not just poetry, but novels, fiction, and nonfiction written by the greats and contemporary writers. Inspiration for new work has come to me most often when I’m reading. 
  3. Become involved in local and global writing communities. Attend workshops by writers whose work you admire. Go to online and live readings. Write reviews of recently published books that impress you, as this will not only help other writers but will also help you continue to discover what makes great writing great. 

The Last Car Alarm

You’re visiting a friend in his new 7th floor apartment. You’ve helped him move by bringing his miniature grandfather clock from his old place. You put it down in the empty living room, compliment him on the excellent view of the city, then chat for about fifteen minutes. You catch up on each other’s news,...
Flaming fiddles, it looks like there’s a roadblock here! If you’d like to finish reading this piece, please buy a subscription—you’ll get access to the entire online archive of F(r)iction.

A Review of The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on February 21, 2023.

An invitation to a month-long writing retreat with your writing idol? Who wouldn’t jump headfirst into this opportunity? After being at a low point in her life with her job, relationships, and—perhaps worst of all—writing itself, that is exactly what Alex, the main character of The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz, does. However, when she and the other four female attendees arrive at the grand estate, her writing hero Roza Vallo presents her own shocking plot twist: the five invitees must create and finish an entire novel in the month that they are at her estate. The incentive to win? One million dollars and a life-changing book-publishing deal. However, the introduction of the contest certainly isn’t the only plot twist: there is the complicated, fractured relationship between Alex and her ex-best friend, Wren, another competing writer. Then, when other mysteries arise, Alex finds herself the main character of a story where not everything is as it seems.

Alex’s character is not only well-developed throughout the whole story, but she is also relatable in her struggles and emotions. I say this even as Alex is a white woman in her early 30s, and I’m a 21-year-old Filipino-American man. She is unhappy about her state of life at the beginning of the book, but when she receives the offer to attend this retreat, work on her own creative piece, and meet her lifelong writing idol, her passion for writing is suddenly rejuvenated. We’ve all been through those parts in our lives where we crave something more meaningful, and if a chance appears to devote ourselves fully to our true passions, I know I would jump at such an opportunity just like Alex did.

Readers also witness Alex grow in her independence, self-confidence, and resolve as both a writer and human being. In the book’s first half, Alex is consistently influenced—even controlled—by what others might think of her and her writing, her own expectations of herself, the pressure of the competition, her worries regarding Wren—the list can seem endless. However, when mysteries and threats develop in the book’s second half, Alex slowly begins to think and act of her own accord, even willingly risking her life for others. These struggles and this growth make readers connect with Alex more as the story progresses, making us feel that we’re right there with her.

This book also explores the volatility of human psychology, which is no surprise since Bartz herself is also a practicing therapist. Bartz explores this in multiple ways but especially through Roza’s actions toward the other writers. In addition to the strenuous writing requirements she demands of the writers, she also invites them into one-on-one conversations and convinces them to reveal deep, dark secrets. Such is an example of dangerous power dynamics wherein Roza exerts her influence over these writers who admire and worship her. Relationship dynamics are also explored among the writers. With Alex and Wren trying to win the other writers over, as well as the mind games and backtalking that occur throughout the story, Bartz reveals the human desire to do anything to win and propel oneself forward, prompting the question of whom one can truly trust. While the dangers of power and relationship dynamics are explored within the writing retreat, these dangers can extend to life too, and we wonder what lessons we and the writers learn alongside each other.

One strength of this book is the pacing. We readers quickly realize alongside Alex that “retreat” is a gross misnomer for what comes after. There are four chapters that focus on introducing Alex and her less-than-ideal circumstances and her path to the retreat. While these four chapters take a while to get going, they are essential in setting the foundation for the rest of the book and readers’ expectations of what is to come. Then the rest of the story unravels in Roza’s grand yet mysterious estate—a place that slowly yet effectively cultivates intrigue and suspense through unexplained and perhaps even supernatural events. This buildup culminates in sudden, shocking reveals and fast, action-packed sequences that hook readers until the end, making the slow burn toward the discoveries natural and worthwhile.

This book truly becomes a hell of a ride through the intrigues Bartz seamlessly weaves around Alex. Not only does Bartz craft a flawed main character with whom readers can relate and empathize, but she also crafts a stay-up-all-night type of plot that drags us into the dangers of the writing world and humanity. I charged through this book in three days and ended up reading the remaining 30 chapters in the early hours of that final day. I was that engrossed in discovering what would befall Alex and the other writers and reflecting upon the complexities of being a writer. Ultimately, The Writing Retreat is a thrilling debut novel from Julia Bartz, one that captivates even until the very last word, just like Alex strives to do with her novel in this retreat turned real mystery and danger.

A Review of Wrath by Shäron Moalem and Daniel Kraus

Published October 11, 2022 by Union Square & Co.

Wrath is an extremely smart and fast-paced horror thriller from Shäron Moalem and Daniel Kraus. Given my enjoyment of Kraus’ past works, I was excited to see where Moalem and Kraus would collaborate to take the topic of hyperintelligent rats and the humans who created them. Daniel Kraus is no stranger to collaborations, as he has worked with the George A. Romero Foundation to complete Romero’s The Living Dead after the legendary director passed away. Kraus, who also co-authored Trollhunters and The Shape of Water with Guillermo del Toro, brings his A-game to the book’s scarier scenes and shows with this book that he can consistently write some of the best horror presently found on bookstore shelves. Shäron Moalem is not only a New York Times best-selling author in his own right, but is also an award-winning scientist and physician who has co-founded three biotechnology companies. Given the premise of hyperintelligent rats, Moalem’s science background helps ground the book as a smart page-turner. The two writers have created a great horror read, but also have the science down so solid it can be passed along to fans of the medical and techno-thriller genres.

To address an upfront trigger warning, Wrath deals with animal lab experiments. The scenes that I found the most disturbing were the experiments by EditedPets, a company which modifies animals to create the next level of interactive pets. EditedPets treats the rollout of new enhanced animals like products and not living creatures, similar to new versions of a cellular phone. As a home provider to rescue pets, I found how the book deals with the consumer mindset of pet owners and boredom of old pets when a new trending pet is released by EditedPets as a way of exploring humanity at our most desensitized. Wrath is to pets what Romero was warning us about consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, with zombies mindlessly shuffling around the mall.

Humans being desensitized is at the heart of Wrath. EditedPets is a toxic work environment, as the company is siloed and has no transparency. Tech entrepreneur Noah Goff’s work environment has employees forgetting what it means to be human, as the only life they have is being on call for him 24/7. Goff pushes the staff to meet the deadlines of a Pet Expo, and a lack of cross-communication between departments and poor work/life balance for employees leads to rats being overexposed in an experiment designed to increase their intelligence. Goff’s lack of safeguards causes one rat in particular to become incredibly intelligent. This rat, Sammy, brings about some of the best and most terrifying scenes in Wrath.

The book is also about the evolution of skills instead of a push for profit. Wrath doesn’t just focus on Sammy as the human gene splicing makes him more intelligent and he develops more and more skills to turn New York City into a state of chaos, it also focuses on the human gatekeepers who are trying to save the city. Scientist Sienna Aguirre slowly breaks out of Noah Goff’s grasp to fall back on the life lessons she learned from her father and starts working with exterminator Prez. Prez is an old school exterminator, trained by his adoptive father, and the first to leave Goff’s employment and start to fall back on what he knows is right instead of chasing the easy profits of EditedPets. And even Dallas, a bullied grade school boy who befriends Sammy, taps into the tutelage of riding the NYC subway with his train operator mother, to save a train full of people when the rats invade.

Wrath teaches us that one can gnaw their way to the top in nature or in business but can just as easily be disposed of when they no longer serve a purpose. The through line for survival in Wrath is being altruistic. The characters who put others over their own safety and don’t take the shortcuts to saving the city are doing more than helping the people in harm’s way, they are teaching Sammy what the human spirit is beyond what he knew from the scientists in the lab. As Sienna learned from her father, “genius only gets you so far. Sometimes all that works is your nose against the grindstone.” Showing up, taking care of others, and getting the job done is what it means to be human at the end of Wrath, and it turns out that even a rat can learn that lesson.

Writers Talking About Anything but Writing: V. Ruiz

An Interview with V. Ruiz on the Metaphysical, Cooking, and Trashy TV

Writers Talking About Anything but Writing is a series of interviews in which we ask writers to take a break from trying to document the world and just kinda chill out in it for a while.

Laura Villareal (LV): Let’s start with the metaphysical. Besides being a writer, you’re also an astrologer/bruja/espiritista.  I talked to Jess Rizkallah a while back about tarot in one of these interviews which I enjoyed a lot so I’m excited to talk to a practicing astrologer like yourself and hear more about other metaphysical practices. Your website lists your services, but what’s your favorite way to work with the metaphysical (tarot, natal chart readings, etc.)? Also, how did you first get into working with the metaphysical?

V. Ruiz (VR): It’s really interesting to see this question phrased this way because in many ways, astrology doesn’t feel inherently metaphysical to me! So much of astrology is ancient AF and also based in pattern recognition and history and science and data and all of these things that feel so different from witchcraft and tarot. I would say though, that astrology is my favorite tool of all of the metaphysical/occult practices I engage in. There’s so much in a natal chart that can help me understand what a person has seen, their orientation towards the world, the way others receive them, and so on. It’s like getting to hold a globe of the past/present/future of their lives. It’s an honor each time someone shares their chart with me.

As for how I got started, I, like many Latinx folks, grew up watching Walter Mercado which hooked me on the topic of the zodiac initially as a child. I have known my sun sign for as long as I can remember but it wasn’t until around 2010 that I discovered my actual birth chart. In terms of other practices, I was raised by family members who were very religious but who had strong belief systems related to the unseen. Part of it was based in Christian/Catholic thinking, but other things were not able to be labeled in the same way. My mom told me young that she would just get “feelings” or “know things” before/as they happened and I believed it. As these things started happening to me, and (now) my child, I knew there was more to life, things that couldn’t be labeled or easily described in mundane terms. I began practicing witchcraft officially around 2013 around the time I went to rehab for an eating disorder and I’ve been evolving and growing in these paths ever since. 

LV: That’s fascinating! I love how you describe reading the­ natal chart as like holding “globe of the past/present/future.” And I can relate to growing up with a mix of Catholic and beliefs in the unseen. And wow, you’ve been practicing witchcraft for almost 10 years now which is cause for celebration! In that spirit, I wonder if you can tell us about one of the most significant moments of growth you’ve experienced in practicing?

VR: It is wild to think about it. It doesn’t feel like there was ever a point where it wasn’t all so important to me. I think one of the moments that still stands out to me is from my early years in my practice: I went with some friends to a large spiritual event (there were like 200 people there) that involved drumming, trance music, dancing, and long meditations. The meditation was the final event of the evening, and we all went home around 3:00 A.M. Some of my friends were talking and saying goodbye in one area of the space, while I talked with others in a different area. We were talking about our experience during meditation, and I described the space where I was walking, and I remember being like “Oh and I saw C there too, and we both looked at each other and then kept walking.” And it didn’t seem weird or funny at the time, but when we all got back in the car, I found out C had also seen me and had described the same landscape to others. So, we had this big moment of feeling like we had connected in a different dimension or space. I think from that moment, I had this big opening internally of what might actually be possible.

LV: What a profound experience to know that you both connected in another spiritual realm.

Besides the metaphysical, one of your other passions is cooking. I love talking about food so I’m excited to hear about what you’ve been cooking lately. What kinds of food do you enjoy cooking most? Any favorite recipes? 

VR: UGHHHH, I love food so much. In my collection, In Stories We Thunder, I talk about my journey in recovery from an eating disorder and part of that healing process and journey has been embodying a space where I can nourish myself and provide pleasure with food. It’s hard at times because I have a shit ton of food allergies, so I basically had to learn how to cook to get the food I was craving without triggering a reaction. Right now, I’m really into making fish ceviche as the weather starts to warm. I finally got an air fryer so I’ve been making up for a lack of fried pickles by making them CONSTANTLY. I also love teaching myself to make meals with substitutions via experimentation. While I can’t have tomatoes, I learned to make a spaghetti sauce that is very similar to a tomato-based sauce. It requires a lot of work and steps but allows me to make lasagna lol.

LV: Good food is one of the greatest pleasures in life, I think. I’m glad to hear cooking is now part of your healing process. It must be difficult to find good substitutes for your food allergies, but the experimentation can be fun, right? There’s something satisfying when a substitute works well in a recipe, at least for me. And I love lasagna! What’s in the sauce you make?

VR: OMG YES SO TRUE. When a substitution actually works, and it works well, it’s this HUGE success. It pays off in so many ways. So, the sauce takes literally like 12 hours to cook, but I basically steep a variety of vegetables: carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash, onions, garlic, jalapeño, & various herbs. I always add a can of beets and a can of pumpkin. Most folks substitute tomato with bell pepper but I have a nightshade allergy so I can’t have bell pepper either lol. That simmers until it becomes so soft it is mush. Then you gotta add red wine vinegar, honey, the usual spices, etc. like you do the usual sauce. Eventually you blend it all together until it’s like a chunky or bisque texture. Then keep adding vinegar in splashes and letting it simmer. The beets give it the darker color but all of the veggies add to a similar flavor especially with the right combo of herbs. It’s called a “No-Mato sauce” LOL.

LV: Oooo that sounds so rich and delicious! The depth of flavor must be phenomenal after all that time cooking. I’m definitely going to try making some “No-Mato sauce.” Besides the joy of eating something delicious, food has a deep connection to memory for me. Are there some foods you cook now that are like that? Or perhaps a favorite comfort food?

VR: Food is so linked to memory for me as well. Some foods feel like a hug inside and I love that. Enfrijoladas are one of my fav because my grandma made it every day for me when I was obsessed with it in elementary school. It was also right after moving to a new city so it became something predictable and structured in a time of chaos. Tamales will always feel like a hug too, and I think with those, it’s also about the process: about the talking and helping during the making of it. Albondigas are a newer happy memory one for me. I always loved them, but then my grandma started making them with and for my child and so it took on a new meaning. She also makes them for my dog now without the salt/spices hahahah.

LV: Oh gosh, just hearing you mention enfrijoladas and tamales is making me hungry. Awww it’s so cute that your grandma makes some special ones for your pup too. It’s heartwarming how recipes and foods connect generations of family. I’m certain your child has wonderful memories connected to your cooking.

It’s not often that I get to talk about trashy TV—which I enjoy SO much—but recently I met someone who watches all the same ridiculous shows as me and it was glorious. LOL! So tell me, what are your favorite trashy tv shows and what do you enjoy about them?

VR: I just went through the entirety of Real Housewives of New York. I don’t know that any other show perfectly encompasses trash the way that one does hahahah. I think what I most love about trashy TV is that it is so low stakes. There is so much in life right now that is calling for people to learn and grow (as we should), and so much of my work and personal goals require dedication and drive. So sometimes, at night, it’s just nice to watch white women be messy as fuck and think to myself, “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?!”

LV: Oh gosh, I can’t get into Real Housewives because they’re often yelling and it makes me feel like the confused Mr. Krabs meme. I never know what is happening! LOL! I get why people love the franchise though. One of my favorite low stakes shows is Below Deck.  Have you watched other seasons of Real Housewives in different cities? I keep seeing the commercial for Real Housewives Dubai which admittedly has me interested in watching an episode or two. Are there other TV shows you’re really into right now?

VR: Omg that show totally makes me think of that meme. I can see why you’d feel like that! It’s utter chaos!!! I used to watch The OC one forever ago because I grew up in Orange County so it hit in a different way hahaha. I usually watch my reality TV while I’m working so I’m not super invested, but I like that they have so many seasons because I can take my time getting to know all of the main folks. I just looked up Below Deck because I haven’t heard of it, and now I’m very much going to watch it. Surprisingly, I’ve gotten into dating reality shows which is a whole new level of chaos. I can’t stop watching Temptation Island, it’s terrible tbh.

Aside from reality, I’ve been very into paranormal/thriller/mystery type of series and shows. Behind Her Eyes was one that still sticks with me. It was captivating on a whole other level. Maid hit me hard, it’s a beautifully made TV show. I read the book after watching it and while both are different, they’re still both so well done.

The Humid Maze of Life

I wanna be back where people meant so much to me that my whole body hurt all the time, just from caring.

Where Ashley smoked bowls with me in the stairwell, coughing, laughing, drawing our initials in a heart on the wall with ash, best friends forever, you know. Where Sam picked up my body, strewn somewhere in the lobby of our building as the sun seemed close to peeking out many nights (mornings?) in March, and dragged me upstairs to my room. She would sing songs because she knew that my insides felt cold the way they always did when I had been awake for days.

I wanna be back where Wes fed my ego with big deep swimming pool stares, platonic caresses, not so quiet adoration; clothed my body with huge warm sweaters, hung past my knees, baseball caps, lost every week; gave me a home in his lanky awkward arms, clanging lofted bed, beautiful imagination. Where bruises bloomed all over my body like lipstick stains from blackout nights, on my lower back, right foot, left knee, both elbows. Lipstick stains from god, life, the divine whatever—drugs.

I wanna be back where Sarah would lie next to me while I napped, brush her lips against my skin, float in and out of my life like a whisper of some deeper potential I would never find. Where I woke up with someone who loved me every day and went to sleep maybe with one less. Where my skin was golden, sun baked, always oily with sunscreen, sweat, salt water, sand; I was never where I was supposed to be, I was by the ocean. Where nights went on forever if I wanted them to, a transcendent bleeding together of time, that sour drip in the back of your throat; Charlotte was probably playing a Gwen Stefani CD in her ancient car; I was probably trying to count my heart rate because I used to do that all the time; Taylor was from Mars and she sat in the backseat.

Back where everything was moving, it couldn’t be stopped, it just went. Waking up in Sofia’s apartment in Downtown Miami, she was already gone, a quick shower and hello to the doorman then an Uber to the train station. On the handlebars of Charlotte’s bike, gliding down South Beach, Cammie had abandoned her bikini top, someone looped a flower through my nose ring; later a plate of cocaine and dark lighting, some fancy, nearly empty apartment complex, Charlotte truly dripping all over the pole, somehow, randomly, a childhood friend beside me in town visiting, of all things, the university I was enrolled in, an Uber away, several miles, lots of traffic.

I wanna be back in the everything, the humid maze of life, where I felt so undeniably real that I knew it was gonna last forever, that forever was really just one moment, that that one moment was now, and that I was going to let it absolutely swallow me whole.

As the Incredible Hulk Turns Sixty, Let’s Talk About Anger Management

On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers spoke in front of the US Senate Subcommittee on Communications to urge funding of public television. Senator John Pastore stopped Rogers after he quoted from “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” a song teaching kids about anger management. PBS got their funding and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood went on to address feelings and emotions via a “neighborhood expression of care” in other ways for decades. 

Sometime afterward, Rogers visited the film set of the 70s television series The Incredible Hulk because children feared they’d turn into the Hulk if they lost their temper. Just like the comic series, the show featured scientist Dr. Bruce Banner (called David Banner in the series), who, after exposure to gamma rays, turned into a muscular behemoth when angry. Rogers talked with the two main actors of the show about anger and filmed Lou Ferrigno’s makeup transition into the Hulk. Rogers believed showing the process might start a conversation about anger and not covering up feelings.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood visiting the set of The Incredible Hulk is a perfect parallel for how therapy helped me grasp the concept of anger management. It reminded me of feeling like a toddler not yet having the means to express my feelings. Through therapy, anger management taught me skills to help control my emotions and give a proper response to a current situation instead of feeling the echoes of a past encounter. Instead of regretting that I lost my temper, I learned to ask clarifying questions about what the other person needed. Rather than let myself get frustrated, I also learned to advocate for time to process something. 

It took me a long time to differentiate anger management from actual anger. I knew people who used anger as a management tool and, to paraphrase Dr. David Banner, “Don’t make them angry, you wouldn’t like them when they were angry.” Before starting therapy, I’d snap “I’m fine” if asked what was bothering me—a red flag for me during times of emotional conflict. I couldn’t explain what was happening in my head due to undiagnosed bipolar depression nor was I raised to talk about my feelings or speak up about something troubling. So, I’d bury a lot of things and outbursts that happened due to brain lock or feeling backed into a corner. Despite this, I didn’t feel I needed anger management. But through therapy, I learned to address current and past traumas that caused those outbursts. I discovered how to better pause and verbalize my thoughts rather than panic in a frozen emotional state. I also worked to constructively speak about my feelings to build a healthy dialogue instead of letting emotions sidetrack the topic. These are skills I use daily.

How does the Hulk comic address anger management over the years when his basic principle and powers boil down to the catchphrase “The angrier Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets?” Since the first issue in May 1962, The Incredible Hulk comic book has explored how much one person can take before losing their temper. For most of those decades, the comic book didn’t deal with anger management. Dr. Banner avoided losing his temper and transforming into the Hulk, but the title character always showed up. The change into the Hulk often happened due to the military chasing down an on-the-run Dr. Bruce Banner à la The Fugitive, or a local monster of the month causing him to turn. Dr. Banner wished to find a cure for the Hulk but never his anger. In The Avengers (2012), when Mark Ruffalo says, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry”, moviegoers cheered for this version of the Hulk. For myself, I wished to break the cycle of anger. I never saw anger as “the madder I got, the stronger I got,” but as a moment of weakness. My anger was an inability to slow down, calmly breathe, and be vulnerable. It was a failure to effectively open a dialogue. Anger management taught me to speak openly while creating space for personal boundaries.

Talking through his anger is not a skill associated with the Hulk, traditionally speaking in clipped sentences, but he is known for trying to remove himself from a situation before losing his temper. In the comics, someone attacking the Hulk hears the classic phrase “Hulk just wants to be left alone”, as he would try and take himself out of the situation. Famously, the Hulk once took the act of removing himself from a situation that angered him to the extreme. In issue one of The Avengers, the Hulk is a founding member of the team before becoming an iconic rage quitter in issue two. When faced with his teammate’s opinions of him, the Hulk quits The Avengers.

Like the Hulk, I’ve rage quit. One week into a new job, I got sent out into the worst winter weather to pick up what I had been told were pictures for a client shoot. After driving in harrowing conditions through Chicago traffic, I returned to deliver what were actually my boss’s vacation photos. My boss had lied to me and I quit after discovering it. Through therapy, I realized I grew up being taught that quitting wasn’t an option. If I signed up for something, I had to see it through no matter how unenjoyable or out of place I felt. Lacking emotional maturity as a young adult, I didn’t know how to approach the situation with my boss and snapped after driving through the hazardous, winter road conditions. Much like when we first meet Dr. Banner in issue one of The Incredible Hulk. Working for the military, generals barked at Dr. Banner regarding upcoming gamma bomb testing. Dr. Banner then discovers a civilian at the bomb test site. Unable to speak up, he puts himself in harm’s way to save one person, exposing himself to gamma radiation, and ultimately turning into the Hulk.

Created by a bomb, the Hulk is a metaphor for anger, but bombs and anger prevent the negotiation of balance and boundaries. Bombs also block seeing things from another person’s perspective. In the Civil War storyline, Marvel explored members of the Avengers fighting each other over government regulation. Marvel solved the dilemma of including the Hulk in this storyline by sending him off the planet in a rocket (via Avengers: Age of Ultron for the movies and Planet Hulk for the comics) because whichever side the Hulk took would win. The Hulk represents closing off negotiations and offering a final argument of anger or a last bomb blast to end a disagreement in your favor.

Like the writers of Civil War, I needed to put the Hulk away to work on the hard conversations in my life via discussion, listening, and learning. One of the advantages of anger management was learning to calm my thoughts during a disagreement to listen to the other person’s side instead of simply waiting to speak. The Hulk may be the strongest, but he didn’t have the strength-building techniques I needed to better myself, communicate at my best, and work to bridge divides. I’d read how the Hulk wanted to be left alone or shout when first met with confrontation. In a storyline like Civil War, the heart of the story wasn’t heroes fighting about government control but communication breaking down. Anger management taught me I didn’t have to have an outburst to be heard or leave the room to end a discussion. Therapy allowed for healing dialogues and growth both at home and at work. It helps me bring calming energy for others to match instead of a decibel to be heard over.

The core problem with the Hulk and anger management is that to stay true to the origin of a long-standing character he always needs to be angry. That is both the pillar and crutch that makes comic book characters relatable for multiple generations of fans. “What if the Hulk is here to protect us from Dr. Banner?” is the current pitch of Hulk by Donny Cates and Ryan Ottley. Cates’ run on Venom explored themes of addiction, and Cates bringing their voice to a book dealing with anger encourages me. If the characters can’t grow past their origins, it’s up to the readers to grow and develop using the source material. Reflecting, the Hulk taught me a lot about anger management over the decades. I learned the answer is not to have outbursts and run away from my problems but to grow into myself and my voice. In sharing how I feel constructively at the proper time, I created stronger bonds with those around me and I don’t need to be left alone during rough times. An icon for anger, the Incredible Hulk has the potential to open the topic of conversation about destigmatizing anger management. After sixty years, maybe the Hulk can smash down the walls we have built up in ourselves over years. 

Reframing Clown Imagery: Anxiety and Bozo the Clown

Bozo the Clown reentered the public when David Arquette appeared on CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live at the beginning of this year. Arquette came out dressed as “The World’s Most Famous Clown” and presented hosts Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper with gifts such as oversized novelty combs. Arquette did an excellent job of holding true to Bozo’s mission of spreading kindness, even as Andy Cohen tried to get Bozo spill the tea on other clowns like Krusty. Arquette’s inaugural outing as Bozo showed that he is the right person to fill the famous oversized shoes and transform the current flood of horror-inducing images of clowns into traditional symbols of someone who keeps getting back up and enjoys the lighter moments in life, which is what I remember from The Bozo Show growing up.

On Christmas Day in Chicago, just a few days prior, I watched the rebroadcast of the recently aired Bozo’s Circus: The 1970s. Back when I was a kid, Bozo the Clown was a licensed property, and individual television markets had their own actors playing the main character, hosting live in-studio shows. In Chicago, Bob Bell was our main Bozo, and the show was huge. Rumor had it that there was a ten-year waiting list for the ticket raffle to be in the audience. I would get to see The Bozo Show but on the day my anxiety ruined my enjoyment. It wasn’t until looking at the recent relaunch of Bozo as an adult that I would be able to reframe my experience.

My neighbor Jimmy invited me and an older boy on the block, Tyson, to go to the show when his family got tickets in the raffle. I would have been in lower grade school at the time, and it was the seventies, so we dressed up to represent our families on television. I remember waiting in line when, suddenly, a producer was talking to Jimmy’s mom. She smiled and said we were going to be in the relay race segment but that Tyson was too old to participate. Instead of seats with a center view of all the action, the producer shuffled us far off on the end of the sound stage.

On top of that, Jimmy and I ended up being separated on opposing relay teams. We sat by the in-house orchestra in their white-with-gold-trim-John-Philip-Souza-marching-band costumes. I started sizing up the competition of the other relay racers. Soon, I felt the tightness of Sunday-church-dress shoes and wished I had worn sneakers. I wasn’t at The Bozo Show but in gym class. What if I lost the relay race for the team on TV? Everyone at school would be watching at home. I would never hear the end of it. My thoughts spiraled—soon everyone in Chicago would know, too, if I tripped up. It would probably play on a blooper reel. The relay race segment was at the end of the show, and I spent the whole airtime anxious about what might happen as I watched doomsday scenarios in my head instead of what was going on in the studio. I wasn’t enjoying something I had looked forward to experiencing for years.

In the end, the relay race was canceled due to a guest performance running overtime. But dealing with that same type of disappointment and anxiety would continue for me as the years went on. This became a tent pole moment in a lifetime dealing with anxiety.

I didn’t think about good aspects of the that day until seeing Arquette on New Year’s Eve relaying his message of Bozo and kindness. At the end of the show, Bozo led out the audience in The Grand March. Afterward, each kid in the audience had a one-on-one goodbye with Bozo and in that moment, Bozo teased me and Jimmy, which cleared away all my anxiety and disappointment. It was just one line, a reference to The Three Stooges but it meant the world to us when he said, “Uh, oh! Here comes Moe, Larry, and Curly” as Jimmy, Tyson, and I walked up to him. If I think back, I can still remember Tyson and Jimmy’s smiles at that moment. We were able to connect to Bob Bell as a performer instantly. It was comforting to know that Bozo watched the same TV shows we did, and in that moment, there weren’t other audience members, the camera crew, or the big sound stage. It was just us neighborhood kids and a clown. As an adult, reframing that one moment has helped turn around what was once a traumatic memory.

Bob Bell was able to read the room and give each kid a generous and genuine moment. Bozo was “The World’s Most Famous Clown” because the clown came first, not being famous. It wasn’t about who was Bozo in what market; it was about bringing entertainment to kids. I knew people who went into clowning to be famous first and were disillusioned because the circus life was hard and not how clowning appeared on Bozo’s television show. This type of performer found kids were too honest an audience to perform for and instead of learning to play with the reality of a clown in front of the kids, these performers were dismayed by the questions of young inquiring minds. The other type of performer focused on the negative side of the calling of clowning and only saw the makeup as a means to an end. They were never the type of people to pick themselves back up or spotlight serenity, blowing a dark cloud over interactions instead. While Bozo and the other clowns may argue and (pie) fight; he may fall down but he gets back up, brushes himself off, and gets back to work. The message of The Bozo Show was that life is tough (mishaps come from taking shortcuts) and it’s full of surprises (like a man in a gorilla suit chasing you—but you can get back up too.

Reframing my mindset also helped me focus on the day I went to the studio as an act of kindness by my neighbors. For kids our age in Chicago, anyone getting chosen in the raffle to go to The Bozo Show was literally receiving a golden ticket. Jimmy had siblings, and there were other kids on the block and at school, but he chose me. In that sense, I won the lottery of having a friend who looked out for me, and it was a betrayal of his friendship over the years to focus on the negative aspects of that day. Even though we were separated that day, Jimmy was always on my team whenever I felt anxious and helped me live a more adventurous childhood. We have fallen out of contact but over the years, I have found other friends who are there to catch me as they help me get off the metaphorical trapeze platform.

As Arquette said on New Year’s Eve, the image of clowns has recently been associated with being scary. I feel that anxiety and fear have enough resources on their side without adding a symbol of brightness and joy. To this day, I can see an image of Bozo, and it puts a smile on my face no matter what I have going on. So, I hope to continue to focus on showing appreciation for what others do for me and to give the good moments their time under the big top. Healing is not linear. In the past, before getting therapy, I would focus on the negative times. But by taking a lesson from Bozo, I can look at each past time and reframe my thoughts to see the brighter side of each memory. And, most importantly, pick myself back up.

If you grew up with Bozo the Clown too and want to check out the work David Arquette is doing, visit Empire Circus.