Things Learned While Doing Other Things: The Tangential Thinking Edition

photo by thatsherbusiness.co.uk on unsplash

I’ve written this sort of list before. I was inspired by late journalist Sydney J. Harris, who would occasionally print a column entitled “Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things.” Like Mr. Harris, I have a tendency to collect random factoids that rarely even appear as Jeopardy clues. My brain is just wired that way.

I was also inspired by the concept of tangential thinking. This is when someone moves from thought to thought without ever reaching a point or conclusion. The thoughts, or ideas, are connected to each other, at least in a superficial way. This sort of disorder is one of the primary symptoms of schizophrenia.

Which I do not have.

At least, I haven’t been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and I don’t believe that I am one. But, I guess I would hardly be the authority on that.

I do, however, often demonstrate tangential thinking. I love to allow my mind to wander at times in free-association. Sometimes my thoughts wander even when I don’t allow them. My wife learned this about me long before she was my wife, and she has become an expert at reeling me in to get me back on point. However, when I’m writing—at least, when I’m writing for pleasure—I love to go off on the occasional tangent, just to see where my thoughts take me. Sometimes, it seems a lot like magic, because this sort of thing takes me into a state of Flow, where unlikely connections between thoughts are made and make a piece come alive for me. Other times, it takes me nowhere, although I can’t believe that any time spent exploring the random synaptic firings that form my own personal database is a waste of time.

After I began to look at some of the factoids I’ve collected, I noticed that many of them were oddly connected, and—taken as a whole—create a perfect example of how my own tangential thinking process seems to operate.



Greg Berlanti, one of the main driving forces behind the DC superhero shows on the CW, was once a writer and producer on Dawson’s Creek. The coming-out story of Jack in season two of Dawson was based on the openly gay Berlanti’s own experiences in high school. Berlanti was the showrunner during Dawson’s third season, when the first romantic kiss between two male characters on primetime television occurred in the Season 3 finale. Berlanti had threatened to quit if the network didn’t allow the kiss to happen. This was way back in the year 2000, kids. Times have changed.

Tom Kapinos, also a writer and producer on Dawson’s Creek, went on to create the Showtime series Californication, starring David Duchovny, which ran for seven seasons. He also developed Lucifer.

You know who else knows a lot about Lucifer? Ministers. I found out, while watching a documentary about Fred Rogers, that he was a Presbyterian minister. You never learned that from the television show. The documentary said that Rogers wanted it that way, so that children of all faiths would feel welcome.

Mark Frost, the author and co-creator of the television series Twin Peaks, was once a member of the lighting crew of PBS’ Mister Rogers Neighborhood, alongside actor Michael Keaton.

Jack Nance, who played fish-loving Pete Martell in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, also played the lead role in Lynch’s Eraserhead. I didn’t initially recognize him. More interesting, to me, is that Catherine E. Coulson, who played Margaret Lanterman the Log Lady on Twin Peaks, was Nance’s ex-wife even at the time they were on the Lynch series together.

Mary Jo Deschanel is an actress who played wheelchair-bound Eileen Hayward in the series Twin Peaks, way back in 1990. She is the mother of Emily and Zooey Deschanel. Emily and Zooey were 13 and 10 years old, respectively, when this show premiered.

Speaking of twins, did you know that Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Wanda Maximoff—the Scarlet Witch—in the Avengers movies and on the recent WandaVision, is the younger sister of those Olsen twins? You know the ones I’m talking about.

Here’s something simple that amazes me. We’ve reached an Era (the capitalization is mine) where the studios are making so many superhero movies and episodic television/streaming series, such as WandaVision, Jupiter’s Legacy and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, that I no longer feel guilty, or sad, if I happen to miss one. This really is an embarrassment of riches. A true golden age for fans of live-action superhero fiction.

On Amazon’s wonderful superhero series, The Boys, the decidedly Amazonian superhero known as Queen Maeve is played by Irish actress Dominique McElligott. I watched two seasons of the show before I realized that McElligott was also Lilly Bell in AMC’s Hell on Wheels, another great series.

Colm Meaney played a main character on Hell on Wheels also, but he was better known to me as Miles O’Brien on both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Sir Patrick Stewart was only 47 years old when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987. The character Jean-Luc Picard was supposed to be 59. As a man in my twenties at the time, I thought Stewart was “old.” I’m quite a bit older now than he was then, which means everyone born in this century thinks I’m old, too. What goes around, comes around.

Phillip Morris—who I first saw as the fast-talking, rhyming lawyer Jackie Chiles (a Johnnie Cochrane-type character) on Seinfeld—played one of the children in the Star Trek: TOS episode “Miri,” back in the ’60s. He also later appeared in the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and the Trek series Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Morris is the son of Greg Morris, who played Barney Collier on Mission: Impossible. I never knew that.

More Trek trivia: Tig Notaro changed the name of her character on Star Trek: Discovery from “Denise” to “Jett” Reno, as an homage to musician Joan Jett. The name never had anything to do with Janet Reno.

Joan Jett’s song “Bad Reputation” was the theme song for Freaks and Geeks, which . . .

And so on.



See what I mean?

I mean, it’s inevitable that Star Trek or Star Wars will come up in any type of free association. At least any type conducted by me. My personal filter seems to focus on subjects at the heart of the nerdgeist. There is a tenuous thread that weaves its way through all of these fact-nuggets. It links comic book superheroes and science fiction and fantasy and the music and pop culture from a specific self-centered slice of the space-time loaf. This whorl of thread doesn’t make a point. Instead, it paints a subjective, impressionistic image of the cloud of thoughts that originated this brainstorm.

Tangential thinking. C’est moi.

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