Wednesday, July 25, 2012
A Portrait of the Art Lad as a Young Man
Transcript from a typical day:
[Door opens. Slams shut. Windows shake in their frames. Candlesticks fall from tables.]
MM: Hey. Is that you? How was your day?
MM: Hello? Thomas?
MM (louder): Thomas? Hey, who just walked in the back door?
[distant rustling sounds, as of someone rifling through cabinets and drawers]
MM (very much louder): HEY! Who just came into my house? I’m here in the living room. And, uh, I’m armed. Thomas? THOMAS!!
Thomas: God! What?!? I said it was me!
MM: Did you say it telepathically? Because—
Thomas (with heavy, oh-my-god-SO-heavy sarcasm): Like anyone would break into this place! Like hell! Just getting something to eat. Is that okay? Is that allowed?
[more rustling sounds. Extravagant beeping of the microwave. Footsteps, coming closer]
MM: Oh my God, what is that?
Thomas (aggrieved): What? I made some nachos. It’s a snack. Oh, we’re out of Velveeta. I had to use the whole brick.
MM: Dinner’s in 20 minutes!
Thomas: I just need five.
[loud crunching sounds, followed by satisfied lip-smacking]
The Brownie: That is SO gross.
Thomas: Muh rrr ow fumpha buhnuh, mummafumpha!
MM: HEY! You don’t talk to your sister like that!
Yeah, that’s 13 in a nutshell.
I had hoped my offspring might avoid the cliché, go for something more original when he hit adolescence, but my people are, at their core, great traditionalists and my son is no different. He is the living damn avatar of the surly, sarcastic, misunderstood teen.
I’m pretty sure I wasn’t like this when I hit my teen years. Ahhh, we all know that’s bullshit, don’t we? Okay, fine: I was a self-important wiseass, always listening less and speaking more, always so sure I was right about everything, and convinced that any authority figure who tried to tell me what to do was criminally stupid. Good thing I outgrew that.
I was different from Thomas in one way, though: I talked more to my parents. I may have been rude and obnoxious most of the time, but my parents—my mom especially—had a pretty clear window into my life. Mom had a way of finding common ground with me, some little thing that gave her a foot in the door. Thus she came to know me at that age: she knew who my friends were, she knew what, or who, was troubling me at school, what my aspirations and ambitions were. Thomas and me? Not so much. Not at all, in fact. Somewhere in the past year or so, he turned into the fricking monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey: Dark, inscrutable, unsettlingly mysterious.
Also big, did I mention that yet? Not beefy, chunky like my Big Brother. Tall-drink-of-water big like both of my grandfathers, who cleared six feet easily. Last summer, Thomas went through a growth spurt that was a little slower than, but not otherwise dissimilar from Bruce Banner transforming into the Incredible Hulk. Like so:
But the hardest change to bear was that my son seemed to back away from all of the creative endeavors that used to define his very existence. A couple of years ago, he was scribbling away on a novel of his own (perhaps trying to nudge me by example to finish mine), working with scary intensity on stop-motion animation videos, and still finding time to draw a few pictures, comic strips, and storyboards of his videos.
As near as I could tell, all of that went away. Thomas started spending more and more time suckling at the great teat of the XBox, squirreled away in darkness, playing Halo online with friends from school who have never come over to the house, who I wouldn’t know if I passed in the street. When we moved from our last apartment into the new Magazine Mansion last summer (just shy of Thomas’ 13th birthday), I tasked the kids with getting rid of junk they didn’t want anymore and it broke my heart to see that at the top of Thomas’ throwaway pile was the looseleaf binder containing his novel in progress. He gave various LEGO sets—in other words, all of the props, sets, and actors of his stop-motion epics—away to his younger cousins. I tried gently to convince Thomas to rethink keeping some of these things, advising that later he might regret getting rid of them. But my parental wisdom was met with a contemptuous scowl and utter silence.
“Don’t you like doing this stuff any more? You’re really good at it,” I offered.
Scowl, scowl. “Like hell. You have to say that. Parents always have to say that stuff.”
“You’re very creative. And you know, it’s not just me. You had a lot of fans in your Art Lad days, you know.”
Scowl, narrowing of the eyes. “Please. I was, what, six? Art Lad is dead.”
I confess that I lost patience. I lose patience a lot with the adolescent who has displaced my sweet boy. In a vast and eye-popping catalog of my failures as a dad, this is my most glaring right now, hitting that breaking point, and abandoning whatever wisdom I might have in favor of haranguing him. Our battles, marked by both tremendous shouting and deafening silence, have been epic, sparked by a range of topics that are eminently sensible: enforcing parental rules and oversight regarding his use of the computer, insisting on talking, howsoever briefly, to his XBox Live battle buddies (the better to confirm that every one of them is indeed a school friend, or at least not some perv or troll on the prowl). But all too often they descend to the absurd, such as an argument that almost came to blows over Thomas’ inability to sort his own socks. Not our finest hour.
Too often, I wonder if it’s me who really has the problem. At least once a day, I find myself telling him to get his head out of his butt, to unstop his ears and listen once in a while, to show a little more appreciation and gratitude, to treat his parents with respect. Good God, who’s the walking cliché, huh?
And yet there are days when things are sublime, when the surly teen surprises me, and I see something that gives me hope for the future.
One night not long ago, I found myself coming downstairs to perform my nightly—and nightly hated—duty of peering into the darkness of the basement and telling my surly teen that it was time to say goodnight to his XBox buddies and go to bed.
For some reason, I didn’t announce myself on this particular night. For a change, I was actually silent, speaking less, listening more. And what I heard from the top of the basement stairs shocked me. Ordinarily, most of what I can discern from the basement when Thomas is gaming is a series of muffled grunts and guttural orders, shouted into a headset and, I always assumed, related to some group tactic involving the digitally rendered mass destruction of a mutual enemy.
But this night, for the first time, I actually listened to the voice coming up from the basement.
“Okay, Pwned27, I need you up on the platform while I set up this tracking shot. Jubjub12, Magooberax, you to move across the field from left to right. Remember, you’re running at the end so it’ll match up with the next scene.”
I blinked. That didn’t sound like a tactical plan in the offing. That sounded like…
“Are you making a movie?”
Thomas yelped and leapt off the couch. “God! You scared me! Why’d you sneak up like that?” He turned his head slightly, speaking into his headset. “Not you, Pwned. Let me know when you’re in position. No, I can’t see for myself. I’m not looking at the screen.” He looked at me, frowning and guarded. “What?”
I looked over his shoulder. In the dim light, I could see he was running his XBox through an old video capture device I had last seen in a carton of cast-off electronics in the bowels of the old Basement of Crap, and now that device was in turn connected to our aging laptop, where he was running a video editing program that I could never figure out. His online pals with the goofy names were performing a scene. And Thomas was directing.
“You ARE making a movie,” I said, staring at the laptop screen.
“It’s machinima,” he said, the disdain plain in his voice.
He sighed. “Never mind. Yes, I’m ‘making a movie.’”
I looked at the computer, then back to him. “Can I watch?”
Thomas blinked, surprised. But the “Like hell!” still fell from his mouth reflexively.
“I’ll be quiet,” I said. “I won’t say anything or ask any questions.”
My son looked me in the eye. He’s tall enough to do that now. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Also, you don’t have to go to bed til you finish this scene,” I added.
“Have a seat,” he offered.
Well, it was a revelatory hour, I’ll say that for it. During that time I learned that Thomas and his friends spend most of their evenings, not shooting aliens or one another, but improvising stories about videogame characters who shoot aliens and one another.
“A lot of companies build machinima software tools right into their games, so it’s pretty easy to do,” Thomas shared, in between directing takes of his scene. He shared other tidbits as he went about his work—it was like being on the inside of a DVD commentary track. He was directing one of his players to move to another level of an elaborate platform, with stairs going every whichaway. Some of the stairs didn’t appear to lead anywhere. The construct looked familiar.
“I had to build the set for this scene—" he started.
“You built this?” I began. “How--?” But he gave me a stern look and I remembered my promise.
“The game includes the tools to make your own levels and structures. It’s not that big a deal. Anyone could do it.” He squinted at the screen. “I was trying to build something that looked like Escher’s Relativity.” He looked at me. “That’s a picture by M.C. Escher, with a bunch of staircases that are, like crazy. They’re upside down and sideways to each other, but people can walk on each one and—“
“I know the image,” I said, thinking, I didn’t know the name, but I know the image. And I’m impressed as hell that you do, too. Then, not knowing why I wouldn’t say that too, I went ahead and said that, too.
Thomas smiled, and forgot to remind me of my promise to shut up. “Well, I read about it. It’s a neat image. Anyway, I can’t really get it to work here, because I need, like three different gravity fields to really use the staircases. But I’ve got three characters in this story and they all have, like three different reasons for fighting this war. And I thought: well, I could use the Escher tower as, you know…”
“Yeah.” He turned into his headset then to issue more instructions to his cast (however did he get three other teenagers to follow his directions, I wondered).
I sat for a while longer, but the scene was running long. In the end, I left him there, indicating that he should go to bed when he finished, and not before. He nodded and that was that.
The next day, he showed me what he’s put together so far. His machinima masterpiece currently is over 40 minutes long, and he estimates that he’s halfway through.
Then, the day after that, we were back to the same old script, arguing again, this time about the importance of locking the shed door after you’ve finished mowing the lawn.
So in the end there was no great, lasting rapprochement, no magical sea-change that led us to a perfect father-son relationship. But we had a moment. And you know what? I’ll take it.
Art Lad is dead?
Friday, July 20, 2012
The Cobbler’s Kid
Before we can go forward, we have to go back. To understand the mystery of Now, you have to reconstruct events by sifting through a big honking pile of Then.
We could start here (from the blog, Feb. 21, 2008):
…there's the story I promised Thomas I would write. Not long ago, I told him about my real-life boy detective adventure and what really impressed Thomas was not that his Dad actually acted and thought like a genuine detective at the age of 11, but that he broke all these rules and still got away with it…I assured him that I was simply very stupid and very lucky, and that today, if I'd been caught…they'd probably send me away to reform school…Thomas insisted that I wouldn't go to reform school (or "kid jail," as he charmingly called it) because those were places for bad kids, and I was just a good kid who did one little thing wrong. He seemed to think there ought to be a reform school for good kids who did one bad thing. "You know," he said, "maybe you'd get sent to, like, a home for wayward boy detectives."
My 9-year-old’s last statement stuck in my head, and led to a few nights’ fun talking about what it would be like to go to a place that corralled characters based on every boy (or girl) detective I ever loved, and taught them the skills and procedures that real detectives use. After a few conversations about this, Thomas got bored—he was 9 after all—and our nighttime chats and stories soon turned to other more fascinating subject matter, such as dinosaurs. Or poop.
Time passed, spring and summer rolled in, and one long weekend, during a brutal heatwave, I found myself stuck indoors and at loose ends. Her Lovely Self and the kids were gone for a week, visiting the grandparents. Nothing good was on TV, and the dog was never much of a conversationalist, so eventually I found myself on the computer, doing work. In fact, I was editing a story that was about to run in my magazine—a family-focused feature about all the amazing and diverse summer camps you could send your kid to. I was reading through a sidebar listing all manner of highly specialized kids’ camps: for cheerleading, chess, computers, karate, the list went on.
I thought, idly, There should be a camp for boy detectives. I would have been all over that when I was a kid.
And then, remembering those nighttime conversations back in February, I started writing a story. When I surfaced for air a day or so later, I had written 55 pages.
I got distracted for a day or so, and when I finally came back to the story and read through it, a terrible thing happened: I remembered that I suck at fiction.
This is a painful admission for me. When I was a boy, I filled whole notebooks with nothing but fiction. Actually, nothing but detective fiction. I began writing mystery stories when I was 9 or 10. They were largely one-page stories, starring myself and my friends. I remember that I dispensed with any kind of plot (as a purely labor-saving measure) and generally cut right to the action: me and my friends storming the secret hideout, or the abandoned mill (all locations in my stories were either "secret" or "abandoned"), foiling the counterfeiters or rescuing the girl, sometimes with the aid of advanced martial arts, often armed with "smoking hot .45s, blazing bullets of death at the criminal evil-doers."
My friends enjoyed these little daydreams on paper, although one day, my friend Shawn said, "You know, these are pretty good. But when are you going to write a real mystery?"
Literary criticism was a concept then unknown to me. "Whadda ya mean?" I asked. "That's real!" I said, shaking my notebook at him. "That's real as it gets!"
"No," he insisted. "This is, like, the end of the story." He opened my notebook and read the opening line of the story. "'Once the last piece of the puzzle fell into place, the answer hit the brilliant young detectives like a bug on a windshield.'" Then he looked at me. "Well? What was the piece? Heck, what was the puzzle? That's what’s cool about a mystery—the puzzle part." He handed back the notebook. "Also, the whole thing about using .45s is stupid," he added. "I would definitely have a .357. Like the guy on Starsky and Hutch."
In the moment, I'm sure I grumbled about this unlooked-for appraisal of my plotting skills, but I took his comments to heart, and shortly thereafter I started writing mysteries under the heading of "YOU Figure It Out!" (in my head, I always shouted this, typically at Shawn, the mystery critic's friend). I can't say they were a big improvement over my previous efforts—they were still very short stories, and the solution of the mysteries nearly always hinged on a suspect making a minor slip of the tongue, an error of obscure historical fact, or revealing information he had no way of knowing ("unless HE'S the culprit!!"). I can't show you any of these stories, because I'm sure the estate of the recently departed Donald J. Sobol would initiate immediate litigation, and they'd be right to do so. I never strayed far from my inspirational sources.
But a curious thing happened: These stories started making the rounds beyond my circle of friends. During our school's silent reading period (every hour after lunch), other kids started asking to borrow my notebook. Although I see now that this was due to the fact that we had a very small library at school, at the time, I took it as a sign of my growing literary prowess.
I was wrong, of course. About having literary prowess of any kind, a fact that did not hit home until college. The school I went to had a much-esteemed creative writing program whose faculty then included a modern master of short stories and, more interesting to me, a highly regarded novelist of crime fiction. To get into any of their creative writing classes, you had to fight for a spot by submitting audition stories for their judgment. For three years I tried to get into the creative writing classes, and for three years, I was rejected.
My senior year, I decided to dispense with the whole submission process and simply showed up to class. That was a high point in the annals of MM's Most Embarrassing Moments, I can tell you. I guess I thought the class would be in some big lecture hall, with dozens of students, and I could more or less blend into the background. In fact, the creative-writing workshop was held in a little lounge filled with cushy chairs, all occupied by a grand total of eight students. I couldn't have been more awkwardly out of place if I had showed up buck-naked and announced my intent to use one of the cushy chairs as a toilet (although if I had, it might have given the other students something to write about). The teacher was unfailingly polite and kind to me, but he threw me out just the same. Later, when I caught him in his office, he surpassed himself in grace and kindness by pulling all of my audition stories out of a file and critiquing them on the spot.
The last one he looked at, the one I was proudest of was, of course, a mystery story: A first-person thriller told from the perspective of a douchebag frat boy whose mistreated girlfriend is systematically killing (or extravagantly maiming) the frat boy's pals until he's the last douchebag standing (that might have even been the title of the story). Oh, and the best part: He's absolutely clueless that his girlfriend is the killer/maimer. As he relates everything that's happened, as the body count rises and the net tightens, it becomes horrifyingly clear to the reader what's going on, but the fact that the narrator himself hasn't twigged was, I thought, a mighty feat to pull off, heightening the suspense to absolute Everest altitude.
The kindly master writer didn't agree. In what I thought at the time was a compliment, he did comment on my fast pacing, and on the snappy reportorial style I employed. Then he suggested that I consider switching majors from English to journalism.
"I'm a dual major in the j-school," I admitted.
"Well, there you go!" he said brightly, handing me my stories. With a gentle wave toward the door, he signaled the close of our interview, and the end of this surprisingly long digression.
That was pretty much it for my career in fiction.
And now here I was, 20 years on, looking at these 55 pages and feeling like I was back in that office or even the workshop lounge, buck-naked and looking for the nearest chair to crap in.
To sum up, I had written 6 and a half chapters focused primarily on a boy who, as we meet him, is in the process of breaking into his school in the middle of the night. He's caught by the police, charged with a felony, spends a little time in jail, and then is transferred to a specialized juvie boot camp with other delinquents, where he quickly becomes friends with an amoral computer hacker and a kid who likes beating people up. These are the three main characters I chose for my young-adult mystery/adventure story.
What in the name of God was I thinking? I wondered. This is complete crap! I dragged the file to the trash and turned my attention to something I knew how to do: nonfiction. I probably wrote a blog post.
Summer passed. Fall arrived. The kids started school. I came home one day to find Thomas on the computer, ostensibly doing homework. He was reading what appeared to be a very densely worded assignment sheet on screen. It wasn’t.
"Where did you find that?" I asked, eyes widening in horror.
"It was in the recovered file folder," Thomas murmured, barely registering my presence.
"Well…well, don't read it. It's…"
"It's pretty good," Thomas said. "Did you write this?"
"Months ago. It's—"
"It's really good," Thomas clarified. "Are you going to write any more?"
"I don't think so," I said. "I kind of hit a dead end. I'm not really sure where else to take it. Probably should just delete it."
Instead, Thomas saved it as a proper Word doc. In a folder marked "Dad's Book." Right in the middle of the desktop. Where I couldn't miss it.
But there it sat, untouched, unread. By me, anyway. Time passed. I lost my job. I took up freelance work. I started working on another book—the nonfiction thing I shared here a few years back (and which you probably thought was the book I had finished when I posted last night after a year of monastic silence. Boy, were you wrong, huh?). I stopped working on that book to take another job. We moved. I took another job. We moved again. Life became an unending succession of transitions and turmoil and uncertainty. Addresses changed. Kids grew. Computers crashed. Dogs died. The world turned.
But there was one constant. Every few months, Thomas would ask, "Hey, are you ever going to finish that story?" A folder marked "Dad's Book" mysteriously appeared on our new computer. And my laptop. Cleaning up our apartment last summer—during a long weekend when the wife and kids were, coincidentally enough, off on their annual sojourn to the grandparents—I was dragging out debris from under Thomas' bed and found, carefully folded in a shoebox, 55 dog-eared pages. They had been read many times. But the shoebox had a thin layer of dust on it.
On my stomach, stuck halfway under the bed, up to my elbows in gum wrappers and comic books and LEGO blocks, I lay there and traced my finger in the dust on the lid of that shoebox. For a fleeting moment, I felt like a child again, the boy detective, on a case, searching for clues. And for sure, I was in the presence of a mystery, the kind of mystery every parent encounters when his child does something strange and wonderful. For three years, for a full quarter of his life, my son had kept this fragment of a story in his heart (and under his bed). Despite the passive disinterest of the author and the active discouragement of his father, he had never stopped asking me if I was going to finish the story. In deed, if not in word, he had never stopped asking me the question all storytellers hope to hear: "What happens next?"
Someday, he’s going to stop asking, you know.
I cannot tell you where this thought came from, nor convey to you just how much that thought chilled me to the bone. But it struck me with such force that I sat bolt upright. Which, by the way, I don’t recommend when you're under a metal-framed bed.
I saw very clearly that I was the proverbial cobbler who had let his kid go without shoes (although at least he had a shoebox). My entire adult life, I made a living by putting one word after another, writing and editing vast swaths of copy for money. But had I ever done that for my kids, for love? I fished the pages out of the box and, after finding an ice pack for the lump on the back of my head, I sat down and read through those 6 and a half chapters for the first time in three years.
Maybe it was the blow to the head, but I saw something different when I read the story. The characters didn't seem quite so negative and aberrant as they had three years earlier. I remembered that each of them had admirable qualities and skills, and their own peculiar moral code. I just hadn't yet given them enough pages to show it. I also realized one big thing about one of the characters, something I hadn't realized before. And this realization also seemed to point a way around the wall I had hit. So I fired up the laptop and found that folder. Where it had been waiting for me all this time.
I am here to tell you that the past year has seen me do some of the hardest, most exhausting work I've ever done. Writing, as I'm not the first to observe, is work, brother. Fiction especially. I'm sure there are many out there who take to it like a duck to water. But for me? After 20 years? As a lefty, it was like trying to write a letter with my right hand. It's awkward, mentally fatiguing, and takes an enormous amount of time and focus to make the words on the page even remotely readable. And the whole time you're doing it, you're only too aware how easy it would be to just stop, to switch to your good hand and stick with what you know. But my kid didn't want nonfiction from me. He didn't want journalism. Good or bad, he wanted this story.
After a slow start occasioned by a total write-over of the first 55 pages, I hit a respectable pace that first month of 1,000 words per night (2,000 on weekends). Then we moved out of our apartment to the new Magazine Mansion, and the pace dropped to around 1,000 words per week. But that was okay: I had crossed the 100-page threshold. The story had critical mass. More importantly, I began to see that there was a story, containing all the elements that I had loved as a child. I had worked in a few riddles and codes and mini solve-it-yourself moments that were building to a larger mystery. But there was more: danger, excitement, clues in unlikely places, secret underground passages, hidden staircases, abandoned buildings, mysterious figures in the moonlight, bicycle tracks in the mud. My characters came to life for me. They were jerks, they were kind, they had their flaws, but also their radiant virtues. They made mistakes, they said and did stupid and funny things. But they were also brave and loyal and absolutely dogged in their determination to see the thing to its end. Like some kids I know.
I had my moments, though. Sometime last October, I began to see that the story was going to be long, 5 or 6 times longer than those first pootling 55 pages. It's too big, I thought. I'll never get to the end. I shared my misgivings with Her Lovely Self, and my brilliant wife said, "Well, why don't you give Thomas what you've got so far and see what he thinks? It's what got you to keep writing in the first place."
I was coming to a big moment in what I now saw was the first half of the book. It seemed like a good temporary waypoint. By Thomas' 13th birthday at the end of October, I finished part 1—which ends on a pretty decent plot twist (if I say so myself), printed it out, hand-bound it and gave it to him as a present. The first half weighed in at around 200 pages. My son, newly minted as a teenager, thanked me laconically, then set the book aside and went on to the next present.
It's too late, I thought. He's not interested anymore. It's all dinosaurs and poop, and no more detective stories. But we'll see, I thought. Give him a couple months to start reading it. Then we'll see...
Thirty-six hours later, Thomas burst into the bedroom. It was after midnight. He had read the thing in one sitting. And let me tell you, few events in life compare to the moment when your cooler-than-thou teenage son appears in your bedroom in the middle of the night, book in hand, jaw hanging open, screaming "Wait! You mean [what I thought was happening] is really [something completely different that just blew my freaking mind]?!?"
"See?" Her Lovely Self slurred in her sleep. "Now you have to finish it."
That was eight months ago. In that eight months, I've been knee-deep in all sorts of unexpected home improvement (and repair) projects. I weathered the storms of corporate upheaval at my current employer and found myself promoted to a new job in the company, one that often leaves me stressed and too tired for words at night.
Three weeks ago, wife and kids left again for the summer trip to the grandparents. I shoved things around at work, gave myself an unnaturally long weekend, and took a running start at the homestretch. By the time the unnaturally long weekend was over, I was just finishing the penultimate race down the abandoned logging road as our heroes tried to intercept the villain at the secret airstrip before he could make good his escape. All that was left was the wrap-up chapter.
It was, you might say, a long goodbye. My first pass at the last chapter had more false endings and dragged-out farewells than the Lord of the Fricking Rings. But finally, inevitably, I knotted the thing off and called it good.
Except that I didn't.
Someone—Neil Gaiman, I think—once observed that you teach yourself to write a book while you're writing it. Which means, unfortunately, that when you get to the end, since you now know how to write the book, you have to go back to the beginning and write in the things you didn't know when you started. And to my utter astonishment, that turned out to be completely true; I have to go back. But that can wait. For now, I'm going to stick the story in a folder and let it age. Not for three years, but maybe for three weeks. Then I'll go through and make some hard-copy notes. Then I'll do a second pass. I think I can get it where I want it to be in time for Thomas' birthday in October. I don't know. But then, I don't know how I got here in the first place. I don't know how my son kept his faith in 55 poorly written pages for all those years. I honestly do not know how I managed to write a 433-page book that will, incidentally, never be read by more than a few people. Because after all these years, after all those late nights and long weekends, I don't know if this damn book is any good at all.
All I know is this:
It’s a mystery.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
A Picture Worth 115,000 Words
To answer your question, this is what I've been up to:
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