17 Things I Wrote This Year That Aren’t Half-Bad

This was a year, alright. And now, thankfully, mercifully, it’s done. We’re on to the next one.

But first, a look back at some of my favorite pieces I wrote this year. This list features a holiday party buffet of options, there are short stories, true crime longform reported pieces, TV/film commentary and criticism, strange tales from the edges and frontiers of humanity’s pursuits, and finally, a pair of personal essays.

Enjoy!


Best Short Stories

The Last Time I Committed Suicide I Used A Time Machine, But I Did It For Love

Time travel teaches you two great truths. One you immediately grasp, the second you come to, eventually. The first is obvious: there is nothing real but the present moment. Wherever you are, there you are. And equally, whenever you are, there you are.

The second truth is harder to grasp. But it goes like this: if I’m traveling in time, then when is the present moment? And even weirder, I can return from the past to anytime I want. But which time is happening right now — which moment should I come back to in order to get back to my present day — the moment I left? Starting to get it? It’s all happening right now. Every moment is the present. And the only present is your experience of it. The rest is probability.

The universe is this inconceivably large probability machine. Things happen, because things have happened. Things happen, which leads to other things happening. This is all connected. But where is the present in that?


Rihanna Will Set You Free, You Best Believe That

“Are you a bad man? Is that why they smashed your hand up like that?”

He hesitated to tell her the truth. He worried it might change her attitude towards him. He’d come to enjoy her company. She was unlike any child he’d ever been around. Absolutely fearless. And her fuck the police attitude suggested she wouldn’t judge him for being the sort of man he was.

“You could say that. People would say that. Yes, I’m a bad man.”

“I figured,” she said, proud of her junior detective skills.

“But I’ve never killed or raped anyone. Never.” He winced with pain, but it could’ve been at the thought. “Never hurt anyone who was weaker than me. But, yes, I’m a bad man.”

“My daddy was a bad man. His brothers — — my uncles — — they was all bad men, too. Two of ’em dead. The other one in prison. I think. Pretty sure.”

“What about your daddy? He in prison, too?” he asked, pretty sure he knew the answer. Then he learned how terribly wrong he was.

“No, he dead. He killed my mama and then himself,” she said, as if she were recounting a plot-line from a movie she’d seen.

“He was a real bad man. The police was after him. He thought my mama was gonna leave him, or snitch, or maybe he just wanted her to go out with him. I don’t know. I was only a little kid then.”

“How old are you now?” he asked. He noticed for the first time that he’d stopped focusing on the pain of his hand.

“I’m eight. I’ll be nine in September. That’s when we gonna move. So I can go to a new school. That’s why my auntie working so hard right now. She hustlin’ real hard.”

He was about to ask what her auntie did for a living, but he decided hustle hard was a good enough job description for him. He didn’t need to know the specifics of her hustle.

“What’s your name?” he asked, genuinely curious about this fearless little girl.

“My real name is Thérèse. My mama named me after a French saint. But no ever call me Thérèse. They all call me TiTi. You can call me TiTi. I don’t care.”

“If your mama named you Thérèse, then I’mma call you Thérèse. Don’t wanna upset your mama’s spirit. It’s a nice name. Don’t normally hear it pronounced like that. Thérèse.”

She liked how he said her name. It gave her a tiny lift of pride. She noted the feeling because she wasn’t accustomed to it. Adults rarely made her feel proud of herself. That’s not to say she wasn’t proud of herself. She was. Thérèse knew that she wasn’t like the other kids. And she was proud of that. She just wasn’t used to any adults making her feel proud.

“What’s your name, mister?” she asked.

“My real name is Halloween. But nobody calls me that. Everyone just calls me Lalo.”

The sound of the cold water splashing against the porcelain paired well with the bright happy sound of her laughter as it echoed in the cement and stonewalled basement.


How Do You Leave Your Abuser, White America Wondered

White America takes another long, slow and even breath. You exhale another sigh. It decorates the calm of the deep afternoon. You know it. You feel it. You are in a bad way. But only now, in the softly diminishing light of this afternoon, have you come to fully and truly realize that your partner, The Rich, are inarguably abusive. And that you are their victim.

The Rich have always been abusive. For as far back as White America can remember. Your memory isn’t as good as it once was. The idea hardest to keep ahold of, the slipperiest fact to grasp, is also the simplest one to prove: if your partner is abusive then that makes you the abused. The victim.

You keep repeating the word in your mind like a mantra, a holy chant, the chorus of a pop song. But what does one do with this awareness when it comes? What do you do when you know that your partner is abusive? How does a victim navigate the world?

Looking back, The Rich never really loved you. And you see that now. They mostly just told you lies. Like other abusers, they’ve controlled where you can go, who you can talk to, who you can see, and be seen with. They’ve cut you off from family and friends, and your neighbors, too. And it’s all due to how The Rich like to spend their money. But The Rich never really share their money or have ever wanted to discuss sharing it with you. That should have been a warning sign, a red flag. But it wasn’t. Why not?

In the beginning, The Rich told White America, “Do you see that? All of that can be yours. We can build this together.” It was a beautiful dream, one that stretched from sea to shining sea. Another sighs escapes your body, slowly. Sadly.


True Crime

The Sad, Strange Life and Death of Devonte Hart: The Crying Black Boy Who Was Famous For Hugging A Cop

Look at how Devonte clings to the officer. His face is a mask of trauma. His tears have a history behind them, but not the one easily presumed. The truth was: Devonte Hart was clinging to a person whose job it was to protect him from harm. And he was sobbing. Quite possibly because he knew this police officer could not, nor would not, protect him from his abusive adoptive white mothers. He wasn’t just crying about his fears of racist police violence; he had more immediate fears of domestic violence.

Sadly, his fears for his life would be proven correct.


He Was An Infamous College Hacker Then A Bitcoin Millionaire, Now He’s Charged With Depraved Murder

This story begins with a paranoid cryptocoin millionaire who was fully convinced that North Korea was about to nuke the U.S. — sooner rather than later. Although he lived in Bethesda, Maryland, the paranoid millionaire felt compelled to be ready for what he believed to be an imminent nuclear holocaust. Thus, he needed to construct an impenetrable lair. The 27-year old hacker and day trader, Daniel Beckwitt, was and remains a brilliant young man. His mind, however, couldn’t contain his unchecked paranoia from consuming his genius. In particular, Beckwitt suffered from tunnel vision due to his unique intellect. This created huge blind spots in his thinking and planning, which ultimately led to an irrevocable tragedy — snuffing out the life of an equally promising young black man.

Askia Khafra, the 21-year old son of immigrants, was a man with a firm grasp on the American dream. In fact, his dreams were so big that Khafra eagerly made a deal to fund them by working punishing hours digging tunnels under Beckwitt’s home. The day trader promised to be an angel investor in Khafra’s startup idea if he helped construct his secret subterranean lair. But on Sept. 10, 2017, Khafra burned to death in Beckwitt’s DIY fallout shelter. After their months-long investigation, Maryland detectives pushed for Beckwitt not to be charged with manslaughter, but with the state’s rarely applied charge of “depraved heart” murder.


The Boy That Fire Couldn’t Destroy: The Life and Death of Dave Dave

On a cold February day on the New York subway, a 6-year-old boy looks forward to enjoying a memorable summer. The boy nestles next to his mother on one of the last available seats; he pays little attention to the moody adults made short-tempered by the harsh winter air in the subway station. The boy’s just happy to have a seat where he can zone out and look at all the graffiti in the car and on the walls of each station stop. He does this often whenever he and his mother head home to Brooklyn. The graffiti that decorates the subway cars and station walls is still an urgent new way to make art. Both street art and the hip-hop culture it comes from are just a few years older than the boy. The year is 1983.

The graffiti the boy loves to look at has just begun to spread out from New York’s subways to London, Tokyo and Sydney. But everyone knows that New York is still where it’s the illest. As hip-hop seizes the imagination of the city, the downtown punk scene has gone New Wave. Things are changing, yet staying defiantly, vibrantly alive. It will be an incredibly memorable summer for America. In March, Michael Jackson will release the music video for Beat It. And then, in May, the King of Pop will prove himself to be a global superstar when he first performs the Moonwalk at Motown 25. This will also be the same summer that America first meets Madonna, who releases her debut album in July.

It’s a great summer to be a boy in America.

But not for this little boy. He will miss all of it. Instead, a few weeks after that subway ride, on March 3, he somehow survives a fire that burns 90 percent of his body. He must spend the entire year receiving numerous life-saving surgeries. He fights so bravely that he lives up to his nickname: The Miracle Kid.

The fire is set and lit by his father. The boy is left to die in a Travelodge that sits in a strip of tourist lodgings in the long shadow of Disneyland. His father brought him to the Happiest Place on Earth to kill him. But somehow the Miracle Kid (given name: David Rothenberg) manages to defy his father’s murderous will.


The Definitive Tale of Redoine Faïd: The Real-Life Movie Gangster Who Just Escaped a French Prison in a Helicopter

On a quiet Sunday morning, the helicopter instructor waited for his three new students at a small flying club in a tiny town called Fontenay-Trésigny, France. When the “students” arrived, though, they were actually a trio of well-armed commandos who demanded that the instructor fly them to the Centre Pénitentiaire Sud Francilien, a prison in nearby Reau. Their AK-47 assault rifles were very persuasive. The commandos hijacked the helicopter and the instructor piloted them to the prison. Thanks to months of drone surveillance, they already had all the intel they needed for their military-style operation. Namely, they knew that all but one spot of the prison was covered by anti-helicopter netting — this spot was, of course, where they intended to land.

The masked men, each of whom was dressed in black, arrived at the prison around 11:20 a.m. local time. Two commandos leapt from the hijacked chopper, brandishing their AK-47 assault rifles. They set off smoke bombs to obscure themselves from the security cameras and used a handheld cement grinder to cut through the heavy prison doors. (The third stayed behind with the helicopter and pilot to ensure they all had a way to escape.) Once through, the two commandos headed for the visitor’s room, which is where they found the man they had come to free: Criminal mastermind Redoine Faïd.

Their plan reflected the violent poetry of an action scene in a fast-paced crime thriller. That, too, was by design. Faïd had devised it according to his cinematic imagination. In fact, all of his prison escapes have been executed with the creative flair of a master filmmaker.

Now freed, Faïd and his commandos backtracked through the prison and rendezvoused with their hijacked helicopter and flew it to Gonesse, a suburb 25 miles northeast of Paris in the Val-d’Oise region of northern France. After landing safely, Faïd and the commandos hopped out, set the pilot free and torched the helicopter. The flames were to disrupt any incriminating trail of evidence. Then they fled in a black Renault Megane, making a clean getaway by merging into the mass of high-speed weekend traffic on the A1 motorway.


TV/Film criticism/commentary

A New, New Hope: Luke Skywalker and the Soul of Baby Boomer Men

Luke combines his original thesis of meaning (become a Jedi) with its antithesis he later believes (destroy the Jedi) to reach synthesis, as he sacrifices himself, his dark side, and his light side. He does this to protect people he loves. And to protect the rest of the galaxy, obviously. This is the culmination of decades of growth on Luke’s part. This is a true spiritual glow-up. His soul reaches whatever the Jedi equivalent of enlightenment is. Luke, finally, gets it.

If you wish to conquer those who seek to dominate and destroy, the only way to defeat them is to defend your community, and pass on wisdom to the next generation. Anything is a weapon if you hold it right. Plus, as Master Yoda teaches Luke, the greatest burden of the master is that the student surpasses the teacher. That’s also the great hope of the master. You hand the galaxy you protected to the next generation and you ask them to do the same. Sometimes you must sacrifice yourself, if necessary. That’s the true job of the hero.

For Luke to become the hero he was always meant to be, he has to save himself. He has to become the change he wishes to see in the world. Like Gandhi, but with space pacifism. In his final action, Luke steps out, alone, and squares off against his nephew, Ben Solo. An epic moment. But Luke uses their fight not as a means to win, or dominate with his will and excellence, instead, he’s a distraction. For now, Luke knows there is no good form of domination. He must not fight to control, but instead give up control. Selflessly. He learns to protect his community, rather than fight for some abstract concept like “save the galaxy.” He stops gazing at the horizon. He lives in the moment. In now.

As the soul of the baby boomer men, Luke Skywalker represents the best they could become. That is, if only they would get over their egos, start listening to millennial women, get the hell out of the way of Gen X dudes, and make amends to their baby boomer sisters who’ve been quietly carrying them the whole time, whether they recognize it or not.


What ‘Black Panther’ Teaches Us About When Fathers Lie to Their Sons

In various interviews for his new movie, director Ryan Coogler has said the theme of Black Panther is: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This theme colors the film just as much as the Afro-futuristic production design provides it with a never-before-seen vibrant lushness. But as I walked out of the theater, I focused on a much different theme: How do the emotional bonds between a father and son shape the son’s life and the father’s legacy?

The dramatic core of Black Panther is a lie, one that King T’Chaka tells his son T’Challa (brought to life with a thrilling performance by Chadwick Boseman). The king doesn’t outright lie; instead, he omits the truth, which is just as dangerous. The ugly truth T’Chaka avoids and hopes to spare his son, ultimately shapes the life of another son, and sets the two sons against one another. (Spoiler alert: King T’Chaka kills his brother, which orphans his nephew, T’Challa’s cousin, the film’s villain, Erik Killmonger, played with irresistible charisma by Michael B. Jordan.)

In screenwriter terms, the two sons function as a “union of opposites.” One son (T’Challa) must learn the omitted truth to become the man he’s destined to be. Meanwhile, the other son (Killmonger) has been doomed by this same truth. The ugly fact of his father’s wrongful death has twisted Killmonger’s soul, and perverted his emotions in his murdered father’s absence.

Perhaps the reason this theme resonated so deeply with me is that I grew up knowing that my father’s uncle shot and killed his brother. And years later, the murderous brother died of a broken heart. This disfiguring truth, this family legacy, shaped me. It informed my understanding of violence. And it made me hyper-aware of how often men fail to deal with their emotions, which leads to tragic results.


20 Years Later, ‘Cowboy Bebop’ Remains the (Undisputed) Greatest, Coolest Anime Series Ever Made

It all comes back to what composer Yoko Kanno said, “I am attracted to something that barely exists at the balance between things.” And that’s the true secret of Cowboy Bebop’s genre-bending, space-travelling, adventure story through a future world. We all are attracted to things that exist at the balance between things, because that’s where life exists.

In the East, the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu offered the world this advice for life: “To the most trivial actions, attach the devotion and mindfulness of a hundred monks. To matters of life and death, attach a sense of humor.” And this is why Cowboy Bebop remains a timeless work — it unblinkingly confronts what it means to be alive. It questions how we deal with feelings of emptiness, whether it’s empty stomachs, empty fuel tanks, the emptiness of space or that emptiness we feel down in our souls. And it reminds us to be bold, to remain open to life and to “attach a sense of humor” to how we create meaning in our lives — reminders we could all use from time to time.


Strange Tales

Scenes From the Parking Lot of Dennis Hof’s Casino Funeral

I’ve come to a casino in the capitol of Nevada for the memorial of a dead pimp. Smart money says he’s also about to be elected as a state lawmaker. But since he’s dead, if he wins public office, he’ll have to be replaced. First, though, he must be memorialized.

Carson City is a sparse rural town. It’s an unglamorous place to celebrate a man famous for his outsized ego and legal daring. This, however, is where they’ve decided to commemorate the life and legacy of Dennis Hof, the man most recently nicknamed the “Trump from Pahrump.” The question is, of course: How much should anyone celebrate a man who goes to the grave with a fresh rape allegation and numerous other sexual assault accusations?

As I walk up to Casino Fandango, which sits along an asphalt continuum of car dealerships, motel chains and fast-food restaurants, the Bee-Gees blare from the parking lot speakers in their disco-era falsetto. It seems fitting. A pimp’s funeral feels very 1970s. Inside, the air tastes of stale cigarette smoke. I step past retirees busy feeding their retirements into slot machines, one quarter at a time. It’s noon on a Saturday.

I wander my way through the casino and its avenues of neon and noise, trying to find The Royal Crown Room where the memorial for Hof will be held. Six hundred people are expected as a guests. They’re easy to spot. Many wear black. Their faces are somber. None of them look eager to be interviewed. Except for one.

The tall black man rocking a long white pimp suit meets my interview request with a broad, familiar smile. He says, “You and I may be the only brown people in here.”

I ask the pimp his name.

“They call me Gangster Brown, from Oakland, California. Dennis Hof blessed me and Divine Brown. Do you remember Divine Brown? I’m the gentlemen that she was with at the time on June 27, 1995.”

He’s referencing Hugh Grant’s sex scandal in 1995, when the British actor was arrested for soliciting a prostitute (i.e., Brown) on Sunset Boulevard.

With unmistakable pride, Gangster Brown says, “Dennis Hof was a personal friend of mine. Had me do the MSNBC Rita Cosby news show. I said, ‘Dennis, why should I do the Rita Cosby news show? I’m not in trouble. If I get on the news before I’m in trouble, I’m gonna get in trouble. I don’t wanna do it.’ He said, ‘Trust me.’ And I ain’t never looked back.”


Terminal Lucidity: The Researchers Attempting to Prove Your Mind Lives On Even After You Die

One of the strangest stories of death you’ll ever hear is the tale of Anna Katharina Ehmer, a wildly deranged, developmentally delayed German woman who was raised in a mental institution. Anna was locked in a permanent mute state, her brain ravaged by meningitis. Yet at the moment of her passing, this presumably deaf-mute woman somehow transformed into a songbird. She serenaded Death. Before that moment, Anna had never once spoken in her entire life.

The doctors and hospital staff who witnessed Anna’s concertina for Death were rendered speechless themselves; some sobbed in bewilderment; others felt they’d witnessed a miracle of the soul. In particular, here’s how one of her doctors, Friedrich Happich, recalled the moment:

One day I was called by one of our physicians, who is respected both as a scientist and a psychiatrist. He said: “Come immediately to Käthe, she is dying!” When we entered the room together, we did not believe our eyes and ears. Käthe, who had never spoken a single word, being entirely mentally disabled from birth on, sang dying songs to herself. Specifically, she sang over and over again, “Where does the soul find its home, its peace? Peace, peace, heavenly peace!” For half an hour she sang. Her face, up to then so stultified, was transfigured and spiritualized. Then, she quietly passed away. Like myself and the nurse who had cared for her, the physician had tears in his eyes.

We witnessed the dying of this girl with deepest emotions. Her death posed many questions to us. Obviously, Käthe had only superficially participated in all that happened in her surroundings. In reality, she had apparently internalized much of it. Because, where did she know the text and the melody of this song from, if not from her surroundings? Moreover, she had comprehended the contents of this song and used it appropriately in the most critical hour of her life. This appeared like a miracle to us.

It wasn’t until 2008 — some 75 years later — that modern science finally invented a term for what happened to Anna Katharina Ehmer: “terminal lucidity.” German biologist Michael Nahm coined the term. Thanks to a recent appointment at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health, in Freiburg, Germany, he studies the phenomenon of these startling, spontaneous exhibitions of impossible physical and mental feats at the hour of one’s death. And for years he’s hosted a website where he offers select writings and journal papers from his research. (Here’s a short example of his work with terminal lucidity.)

In essence, terminal lucidity is a mysterious flash of life and vitality that occurs in people just before they die.


The Rise in Self-Proclaimed Time Travelers

In the year 2000, a time traveler reportedly walked among us. He was from the year 2038, but he drove a 1967 Chevy Corvette. His sweet time ride disrupted gravity using a twin singularity system. This time traveler arrived in present day to stop a civil war in the U.S. He did so by contacting the U.S. intelligence community and convincing them to let 9/11 happen. And it worked. The civil war of 2008 was averted, and the history of the world hopped onto a different timeline.

This isn’t the plot of a bad movie. At least, not yet. However, it’s probably the most popular internet legend you’ve never heard of. Not to mention, it’s definitely one of the strangest 9/11 conspiracy theories you’ll ever come across.

But most of all, it’s just the tip of a very weird internet iceberg: The Invasion of the Time Traveler.

…And here’s a follow-up, because there’s been some drama in the world of Youtube Time Travelers…


Monster Sex, a Love Story: When Your Girlfriend’s Kink Is to Imagine Herself as a 50-Foot Woman Wrecking Shit Godzilla-Style

What originally caught my attention: The boyfriend posted in a subreddit thread that his girlfriend asked him to “fuck her through a gingerbread house.”

How the fuck does that work? I wondered. Did he mean his dick went through a house and then into his girlfriend? What about fucking through a gingerbread house is a turn-on? And why gingerbread? I had so many questions about this woman who needs that Godzilla monster sex. Luckily so did others. They asked this guy questions — many of which he answered very matter-of-factly. (Never once, in fact, did he seem like a bored troll spinning fictions.) The best part, though, was the earnestness. For example, how this young German man confessed that, at first, he was confused by his British girlfriend’s “monster ravaging the world” kink.

He admitted that her kink was weird to him. But he loves her. He wants her to be happy — to feel secure in their relationship — so he played along. It was rather beautiful to read. Compelling, really. Here were lessons for all men. All partners. This guy figured out how to support and care for a woman and her erotic imagination. We should all strive to be so open-minded.


Personal Essays

Walking on Water, and Other Ways Black People Escape Life on Land

The cold of the Pacific Ocean hits you like a drug high. It’s a painful, pleasant shock to the system. The water bites, but doesn’t break the skin. Instead, it penetrates.

As you walk into the water, the purple light of dawn against your back and a surfboard under your arm, you equally welcome and recoil from the predictable sting. The first wave swallows and submerges you. When you resurface, the cold runs down from the crown of your head; it streaks past your eyebrows and rushes down your face in tiny rivers of frigid liquid. The sea water exhilarates and restores you in ways nothing else could. You think about how walking on water forever changes how you walk on land. For the better.

Water is my everything. Always has been. Out there, bobbing in cold oceanic currents on my surfboard, feeling the grey morning swells rumble and roll beneath me as I wait for my wave. Drifting free on the skin of the sea. Waiting to walk on water. Alone in my oceanic escape. Yet when I tell people I’m a surfer, they often have the same puzzled look.

“Is this a joke?” their eyes wordlessly wonder, “Are you being funny? Should I be laughing?”

A black surfer? To certain ears, it must sound like “devout atheist” or “unbiased opinion.” But it’s no oxymoron. Guess some people don’t know this: Black people are a water people. You could say we were born on the ocean. The Atlantic.


How Do You Tell A Dead Man That You Love Him?

He always had a great laugh. A big, warm, happy laugh, the kind you’d expect from a cartoon character that everyone loved. Or, more accurately, one that everyone loved to watch. His laugh let me know that everything was okay. In that moment — the exact moment I felt it — I should’ve told him I loved him. But to his ears, that would’ve sounded hella gay. He would’ve said, “Dude, don’t be so oodley.”

That was our word for things that were gay, but without gay being a pejorative. It was a word that worked well as a rhyme, back when we all freestyled. It still served a specific purpose, outside our freestyle circles. Oodley marked a line in the social sand. It marked when a guy went too far into emotional territory. My best friend wasn’t homophobic, per se. He was down with gays. He could go dancing in a gay club, but he still didn’t like it when any dude was too soft. He was also an old school Korean guy from Chicago. If I said I loved him, that would be way too weird to him. He was the kind of dude who equated love with sex.

All the while, he was a man desperate for love. It was a feeling he never got to experience. Not from a loving partner. Still, he could never stop himself from wanting it. With every cell of his being. Instead, he paid for it. He would rent love. No wife or girlfriend, my best friend spent his love on sex workers. And they always agreed to love him back for an hourly rate.


If you feel like dropping me a line, you can reach me at zaronburnett@gmail.com