Like I’m Running out of Time

Why do you write like you’re running out of time?

Write day and night, like you’re running out of time?

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Earlier this week, I was training one of our new hires with another of the senior programmers in a virtual meeting. We were looking at the way the application deals with Holidays, which is to list them all out in a database so they can be tied to pages by an ID. It’s a limited, inefficient approach, but that’s not important right now. The holidays are metadata for this system we were working on, and it was our job to update the metadata in a separate system so that it stretched out to 2036.

One of the people on the phone said to the young trainee, “In the 30’s, it’ll be your job to update this.”

He responded, “You don’t think you’ll still be here?”

The person on the phone said, “We’ll be retired by then. Millionaires. Buhl will be a Best Seller.”

Trainee, “Then I’ll just call you up.”

I said, without thinking, “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be dead by then.”

The person on the phone laughed. The trainee said, “What? That’s just a few years from now.”

I laughed and played it off and we kept on with the training. For a moment, I let something slip. It would have been a really awkward conversation at work, but maybe I can unpack it a little bit here.

For some reason, I’m casually convinced I’m not going to live all the way through my 50s. It sounds morbid and depressing, but it’s something I just accept as a given. Tomorrow, the sun will rise in the east and set in the west. My family will still love me. Social media will still be one of our Big Mistakes. And sometime in the next 6 to 8 years, I’ll stop being alive.

What convinced me of this? It’s not one particular piece of evidence, but more like a collection of ideas that collectively feel like a dark prognostication.

Let’s start with genetics. I don’t have any information on the biological, paternal side, but I have some on my maternal side. My Mom, my biological grandmother, died when she was 68. Not super young, granted, but she was sick for years before that. She spent most of her last few years in and out of hospitals, getting treated mostly for heart issues. She held on to 68 out of sheer stubbornness.

Leslie, my Mom’s 4th/5th (it’s complicated) daughter and my biological mother, died in 2010, I think. I found out well after it happened. She lived in Israel at the time, and we weren’t particularly close. That means she died when she was between 53 and 55. I don’t remember exactly what killed her. I remember she had a tumor on her liver. I think she also had a tumor in her brain. I really don’t have many details about her death, and I’m not sure who I would ask to find out more.

Monica, my youngest biological half-sister, died around 20 years ago. I don’t remember the exact year or date, or even how old she was. Young, though. She had an inoperable brain tumor that lead to multiple strokes. She powered through those and recovered. For some reason, the doctors had to operate and remove the tumor. She was fine for a time after, but then died from complications related to the surgery. Those are as many details as I can remember.

Based on that patchy family history… it’s not a death sentence, but none of that is good news. Still, the source of half my genes is a mystery. That alone shouldn’t convince me I have a short mortal thread. What else is it?

The other reasons are less scientific and more poetic. My Dad died when I was young. His death was one of those moments that forced me to grow up and be my own person. When I look at my kids, I feel like I’m doing them a disservice by lingering. It’s like I’m holding back from them some key experience they need.

I just wrote that, and I know it’s bullshit. My kids would much rather have me around and alive, just as I wound have preferred to have more years with my father. But maybe in 5 or 6 years, when they’re getting closer to 30?

The other ideas that make me think I’m going to die in my 50s are even flimsier than the last. I’ve said for a long time that I’m never going to retire. That I’m going to keep working, right up to my last day. That feels like a true statement, every time I say it. It doesn’t mean I have to die in my 50s, but coupled with the other things I’ve talked about, it makes sense.

Laying it all out like this sounds depressing, and that’s not what I’m going for. The genetics may or may not mean anything. Not having any sort of retirement is just something my whole generation has to look forward to. And the idea that I might be doing my kids a favor by dying… that’s just weird.

When I was joking with my coworkers about not living into the 2030s, I wasn’t being melancholic. It’s just some idea I’ve grown to live with and accept.

Aside from being a source of morbid humor, it alters the way I think about some things. I think about how I was born a very sick baby, and how every year I’ve spent in this world has been a gift and an opportunity to do or say something. The clock is running out, so I need to make the most out of what time is left.

Neither of my kids seem interested in being parents, so what else can I do to leave something permanent behind? That sounds like hubris, like why should I be so special as to make a mark on the world when so many people are forgotten, but it’s not. I’m the result of an unwanted teenage pregnancy in the early 70s. I fell into the lap of a couple in their later years. My arrival in this world disrupted lives. If I don’t do or say something, then how can my life be considered anything other than a huge, cosmic mistake?

I write like I’m running out of time. Maybe I can conjure a story that will say something that outlives me. Maybe I can write something that will make up for all of the harm I’ve caused just by being born. If I’m going to do it, I’ve got to hurry. Because some part of me is certain I don’t have much time left.


On Loki and Surprising a Writer

I want to talk about Loki. But before I do, I’m going to talk about what it’s like for me experiencing stories as a writer. Then I’m going to talk about the MCU in general. Finally, with enough warning about spoilers, I’ll talk about Loki on Disney+ and what I think about it.

Stories through a Writer’s Eyes

I’ve written about this before, but the more I write, the harder it is for me to enjoy stories. A story is essentially a magic trick where the writer misdirects and distracts their audience while setting up twists and turns designed to create an emotional reaction. When you know how the trick is performed, the impact is lessened.

You don’t always have to be surprised in order to enjoy a story. Sometimes the adventure is enough. Some stories are full of beauty, or the characters are endearing enough that we want to spend more time with them. These are the stories I revisit over and over.

The Formula of the MCU

We open with our protagonist, a flawed human being that’s attractive, quippy, talented, and not necessarily a nice person. Our protagonist’s main character flaw gets them into trouble and they’re forced to see who they are and how they’re affecting the people around them. They reach their lowest point, then after working to overcome their greatest weakness, come face-to-face with a villain that is in some way a twisted reflection of who they are. After a climactic conflict, our protagonist comes out on top, still flawed, but also changed for the better. They see themselves in a new light and in the end, they are determined to do better.

Which movie am I describing? When it comes to the MCU, I’m basically describing all of them. There are exceptions, and I’m leaving out a lot of nuance, but the MCU movies are borne from the same DNA.

I’m rarely surprised by an MCU movie, and yet I love them. These movies are full of characters I want to hang out with while they go on their colorful adventures.

I want to be surprised by these movies, but it’s okay when I’m not. Avengers: Endgame delivered quite a few surprises. Black Widow didn’t surprise me, but I still left the theater satisfied. In my opinion, it’s a solid movie. It follows the MCU formula, but that doesn’t matter because I enjoyed all of the characters on display.

Loki and Disney+ Shows in General

I mentioned Black Widow and gave my general opinion, but I didn’t go into any spoilers. I’m about to go into spoilers for the Disney+ shows. If you have not watched them, go watch them and come back. I’ll wait.

*** Spoilers for Disney+ Marvel Shows Below ***

I’m going to start with Falcon and the Winter Solder. As much as I love Sam Wilson and this series in general, I think this series is the weakest of the three. It’s still very good! I really love it! But I think it could have been better, and it was the least surprising of the Disney+ shows.

While it is interesting and a little surprising to make Sharon Carter the Power Broker, it doesn’t make a ton of sense if you scrutinize the details too closely. If one were feeling particularly uncharitable, one might describe it as a character assassination. I think it’s fine, but I think it could have been handled more gracefully. For example, if she’s The Power Broker, it makes no sense for her to put an armed Zemo in the same room as the person developing her super soldier formula.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier went places I did not expect a show to go on Disney plus dot com. They explored what it means to be a black superhero. They touched on the injustice black Americans experience regularly. They showed a faux Captain America kill a man with his shield. The creators of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier were bold in the story they delivered, regardless of whatever criticisms I might have about this being a somewhat predictable Marvel offering.

Now let’s go back to WandaVision. That show surprised me continuously. It kept me entertained every week while opening up more and more questions.

I loved WandaVision. This show looked different from any other Marvel product. It dived deep into grief without flinching. As weird and fantastic as the show could be, WandaVision delivered a very human story.

It gave us what may be the most profoundly beautiful sentence the MCU has ever stated: “What is grief, if not love persevering?” The Internet may have turned that phrase into a meme, but I’m still moved by it.

Speaking of The Internet, they did to WandaVision what they often like to do, which is come up with theories, then become insolent when those theories don’t pan out. Evan Peters playing Quicksilver in WandaVision did not mean we were starting the multiverse and bringing in the Fox X-Men characters. And, even though the comic books have a strong association between Agatha Harkness and Mephisto, we were not shown Mephisto as The Big Bad after 9 episodes of no direct mention of him.

So now let’s talk about Loki.

Loki captivated me. Loki actually, legitimately, surprised me. And I loved it.

This show took a pre-redemption Loki, a villain that just tried to take over the world, and truly rehabilitated him, even beyond what we saw in Thor: Ragnarok.

I loved the relationship between Loki and Mobius. I loved the relationship between Loki and Sylvie. I loved getting to explore all of the Loki variants in Episode 5, especially when Classic Loki proved to both the audience and protagonist Loki that they were more powerful than they believe. Powerful enough to change from their selfish, broken ways and sacrifice themselves while Ride of the Valkyries played over an illusory Asgard.

And then we got the final episode of season 1, and I was shocked.

They never actually gave his name beyond He Who Remains, but that was Kang the Conqueror. There were lots of subtle hints pointing at Kang leading up to the last episode, but it seemed like another Mephisto situation. They weren’t really going to reveal that the man behind the curtain is a character we haven’t seen at any point throughout the rest of the series, right?

That’s exactly what they did. Since we witnessed so many Loki variations, my theory was that we were going to see another Loki variant pulling the strings. The Loki that Wins. It would explain why Loki timelines in particular seemed targeted for pruning. My theory fit with everything else watched up to that point. I saw the Kang hints, but didn’t think the showrunners would actually go there.

Putting Kang aside, the episode delivers in other ways. Throughout the series, we saw Loki developing relationships with Mobius and Sylvie. We saw him confront his own absurdity and the lies of his “glorious purpose.” Loki grew throughout the series, but it ends with the ultimate test of his rehabilitation. He’s separated from Sylvie, the person he just told, “I just want you to be okay.” If that’s not the purest expression of love, I don’t know what is.

Further, he’s back at the TVA, where no one seems to know who he is. He built a friendship with Mobius and now that appears to be gone. As Lady Sif predicted in a previous episode, Loki is alone, whether he deserves to be or not.

Final Thoughts

Marvel excels at getting the characters right and making their audience care about them. Most of the time, that’s enough for me. Loki, and to a lesser extent WandaVision, showed me that Marvel is capable of going a step further. It’s good storytelling, and it’s fresh and exciting.

Writers can learn a thing or two from watching these shows.


Message From my Future Self: Do What You Love

Last week, I tried to record a new VLOG. I wrote the script and recorded about 20 minutes of footage. After editing, that would probably have become a 10 minute video.

I wound up deleting it. The good and valid reason to trash the footage was because my recording used the wrong microphone, so there were a lot more audio artifacts than usual. The less good and valid reason… it was a very sad and depressing entry.

I try not to censor myself here. However, I try not to put out too much depressing content. I have written many blog posts that I never clicked Submit on because they were too dark. In spite of my dalliances with political topics on this blog, this has always been about my journey as a writer.

To be a writer, you must have endurance, and you must be able to withstand the points in your career that turn dark. One of the best ways to do this is to embrace optimism when you can, and root out pessimism when you have the strength to do so.

You cannot make it as a writer if you let the despair overwhelm you.

I’ve been so close to giving up, especially over the last year and a half. Even this last week, I’ve been feeling really down.

This morning, something occurred to me, and I want to share this in case you need encouragement the way I do.

I woke up late and took a long shower. As I breathed in the steam and the smell of soap, I began to daydream. I imagined myself leaving my body and transporting into the past. I inhabited someone else’s body in 1995, but I still remembered everything.

In this scenario, I wanted to make the world better. But how could I overcome the Cassandra problem? What could I do to convince the people in power that the information I carried truly came from a possible future?

I went to the military. I convinced them to hook me and the Brian Buhl of that time up to lie detectors and record our reactions. I would ask my younger self deeply personal questions, things only I could know, and the people observing would be able to read the reactions from both of us.

The daydream continued after the interrogation. Young Brian was thoroughly spooked and distraught after going through that ordeal, so I spoke to him to help him out. This is what I said:

“Keep writing. It brings you joy. Whether or not you succeed, it doesn’t matter. It’s a part of who you are. It keeps you sane and stable, and it’s something you’ve always loved doing. You’ll lose sight of that for a while, so I’m warning you now so you stay on it. Also, start attending writing conventions sooner than later. You’ll meet people that will change your life.”

I came to my senses, shampoo in my hair and my eyes stinging for a different reason. I realized the message I wanted to carry to my younger self applies just as much to me today.

The reality is that I probably won’t have the writing career I want. Is that the reason I write, though? No. It isn’t. I write because I have stories to put on the page. It’s who I am and it’s what I do. It would be nice to be paid for my work and to sustain myself with the stories I tell, but that’s not why I do this.

I should not allow publishing fears and concerns dissuade me from doing what I love.

Are you doing what you love? What’s stopping you? If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing, what would it be? What do you think a future you would tell you today?