Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s December 1993. I’ve just returned a car-load of film equipment to the Film Building at my university, where I’m a student. I’m in a contemplative mood this day and with nothing else on tap for the afternoon, decide to take a little drive.

The car is mine. I was home for my mother’s birthday at the end of November and decided to drive back to school seeing as I’d be coming back after exams a few weeks hence. I’m renting a house in the city’s west end with five other film and theater students so I have free parking for the month.

I drive without any real destination, but when hunger pangs hit I decide to drive up to my old neighborhood – the one I lived in ten years before, which would become, in my memory anyway, the happiest time of my life. There’s a burger joint near there I used to frequent, one of those old-school 1960s establishments that hasn’t changed in the fifty years since it was started. I go and grab my favorite meal – steak on a Kaiser with pepper and a little bit of BBQ sauce, onion rings, and a chocolate shake.

I park, I eat, then I keep driving, the car smelling of my lunch. I drive north. I cruise past my old house; I swing through crescents and side-streets where I used to play with the other neighborhood kids. I swing past the house of my best friend, who’s still living there, but is at work that day. The memory tank has been refilled, but I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

I pull over and park at the edge of the local park, get out, and climb a slow sloping grade of landfill that’s been turned into a hill. We used to just call it the “toboggan hill” because that’s what we did on it in the winter. There’s a bench and a couple lonely pine trees at the summit, and when you sit there you have a view of the playgrounds and baseball diamonds, and elementary school below.

This was my old school. The one I attended for only a few short years – April 1982- to June 1985 – but it still looms large and casts a long shadow over my life then. 1993 has been a rough year for me, and December of that year marks the one year anniversary of my parents announcing they were separating. I’m so devastated I nearly flunk my first year of university, but I manage to pull my grades out of a nose-dive and pass. Barely.

So that’s my frame of mind as I sit on that bench and stare out over my old school. It’s just before 2:00pm. I know this because the recess bell rings a minute or so later, and the kids come streaming out. To play four-square. To throw the ball around. To jump rope and play on the playground equipment – the same I played on ten years before.

What does all of this have to do with GI Joe? Everything.

It’s April, 1982. We’ve just moved to this new city. Moves have been a fact of life for me. By 1982 I’ve lived in six different cities. I just turned 9 years old. By this point I know the drill; my dad comes home to say “we’re moving again” because he got another job transfer and promotion to go a long with it. A move means excitement and sadness in equal measure. Excitement because it’s a new city, a new house (our new one will have a swimming pool), and new friends. But a move also means saying goodbye to old friends. In this pre-internet era, goodbyes really do mean goodbye. It means never seeing those familiar friendly faced again. You move away, they move on, and pretty soon you forget what they looked like.

We move just before Easter, which means I and my sister are starting at our new schools nearly through the end of the year. I have two months of Grade 3 and then summer. Will that be time enough to make friends? So the spring as I remember it is cold, dark, and lonely.

I can’t remember the actual date, but the specifics of it, I’ll never forget. It must be some afternoon after school I first see the commercial. It’s slick, animated, and trumpeting what looks like a new cartoon series. But it’s not a cartoon series, yet. It’s not a movie either. It’s this:

Now let me paint a picture for all of you here in the year 2018. In the 1980s, things were slower. The pace was different. Your average hour long TV show ran 52 minutes. There were only a handful of TV channels. Music was on the radio. There was no MTV outside of a few small outlets in the US. If you wanted to go shopping, you went to a mall. Movies? The theater.

And Star Wars movies were released 3 years apart. Three years to a 9 year-old may as well be a lifetime. But fortunately you have the toys – the action figures, the vehicles, the play sets. You have the comics and newspaper strips – al of which is designed to keep you interested in the property until the next installment.

But there was something else these little pieces of molded plastic were important for – something the designers didn’t anticipate. They were how you made new friends in new cities. Just the act of bringing a Star Wars toy to your new school was enough to get other kids to come over and talk to you. Several friendships (short lived ones, but friendships nonetheless) began that way. I’d bring a Bespin Han Solo or Hoth Luke to school; some kid would ask what other Star Wars toys I had. I’d tell them, they’d tell me theirs. They’d invite me over to play, and vice versa. Toys were how you got to know others. They were how you found your new tribe.

By the time I moved  it had been two years since The Empire Strikes Back. Five since Star Wars. Time moves slow as a child but it moves really slow when you’re a Star Wars fan. You need toys to fill the gaps between films. Between Star Wars and Empire alone there was Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole. Between Empire and the third installment due next year – Revenge of the Jedi – there’s been Smurfs, and Indiana Jones, and a lot more I’ve forgotten. But they’ve all been peg-warmers and gap fillers. By 1982 nobody is playing Battlestar Galactica. They may still be playing Star Wars, but the wait between films is so long to a 9 or 10 year-old. You need something else.

Something different.

And so it was, one evening in April, when my mother was taking my sister to the local mall to do some clothes shopping one evening after school sometime in April. I begged off to browse the toy aisle, and when I get there the first thing I noticed were the colors of red, white, and blue on the floor display.

GI Joe: A Real American Hero.

The packaging was the first thing that lept off the shelf at me. Whereas the Star Wars figures featured the toy in a plastic bubble and a photo of that character (no matter how minor) from the movie, these featured a beautiful painted image of the character in action. The back of the card featured smaller paintings of the other figures in the line, and below those, a file-card with the character name, code-name, rank, specialty, and place of birth. With nothing else to go on but the packaging you had a psyche profile of what that character’s personality was like.

I begged my mom to buy me some. She ended up relenting and getting me three: Breaker, Grunt, and Snake-Eyes. I took them home, took them out of their packages, and plated with them until bed-time. But the real fun came the next day when I snuck Snake-Eyes into my book-bag and took him to school. Come morning recess, I brought him out and it was like moths to the flame. None of the other kids had seen a GI Joe up close before, though they had seen the commercials. So here was the new kid with the hottest new toy. And from that moment, friendships were born.

That was just the beginning though. See, I didn’t really get “in” to GI Joe beyond those first three figures. They were just three tots if many, and my heart still belonged to Star Wars.

In 1983, we were on vacation in Vermont, and on the first day I broke my leg skiing. That vacation became a three-month odyssey of traction and body casts and being stuck at home. And while some school friends did visit me (and I did have a tutor so I could keep up with school) it was a very lonely time.

Then my dad came home from work one night with a gift for me. Well, two gifts anyway. One was a new GI Joe called Snow-Job, the other was a snowmobile called the Polar Battle Bear.

Which I still have, by the way.

Maybe he picked those because he knew our ski vacation had been cut short and I blamed myself, maybe it was just because he wanted me to have some fun while I was bedridden, but it did the trick. By the time the cast came off I had acquired more GI Joe toys. I. Was. Hooked. By the time September rolled around Return of the Jedi had come and gone, but I was fully on the GI Joe train. Joe became the linkage to my friends, and their interests (including the aforementioned best friend who I met that September because he was talking about James Bond, another of my childhood touchstones).

And for a GI Joe fan the hits kept on coming. That September saw the release of the 5-part miniseries A Real American Hero, which aired on a local station after school Monday-Friday. That Christmas I added a whole slew of new GI Joe toys to my collection – the MOBAT Tank, VAMP Jeep, Dragonfly Copter, the Headquarters Command Center, and more figures. Joe became my life, but in no bigger way than the following summer when visiting some old friends out west who introduced me to the Marvel comic.

The first issue I ever bought. Still have it too.

That span of years, from 1983-1985 were some of the finest of my life, and it was largely due to those little plastic men and women.

Then, everything changed.

[To Be Continued in Part II]

October Nights

They say as an author you should never read the reviews of your own work. As an author I can say with authority you can and inevitably will read reviews of your work, especially when it’s your first novel. The good news is Magicians Impossible has been relatively well-received especially for a debut. It received multiple starred reviews, it made some top ten lists, it made some Best of 2017 lists.

I got some great fan mail too. People telling me Magicians broke them out of a reading rut.Some even saying it was one of the best books they ever read.

But of course not everybody liked it. And I’m not going to address any of that because why would I? Not everything is going to be someone’s cup of tea. A book, like any work of art, is what it is; it never changes. And how a person responds to it is 100% on them.

That said there is one recurring criticism of Magicians Impossible that I would like to address.

For some readers it all has to do with how quickly Jason seems to master his levels of magic. Some seem to feel it all happens in a couple of days. Some say a week. Those who paid attention would guess correctly that it more or less takes a month.

Here’s the correct answer. Spoilers lurk within so if you haven’t read Magicians Impossible why on earth are you visiting my website?

Anyway …

I mapped out the events of the book before I put words to paper, just to get it straight in my mind. Using October 2018 (the year after the book’s 2017 release) as a guideline I made a calendar of events so I’d know what happened and when.

Damon’s opening mission takes place on Friday September 28th. His funeral is Monday October 1st. The events that transpire up to the climactic events of Murder Hill happen between October 1st and October 29th – so four weeks total.

The bulk of Part One – everything from Damon’s Funeral through Jason’s visit to the Oracle takes place between October 1st and 5th. After the Oracle, Jason is on lock-down with no further training, and spends the next two weeks honing his Adept and Archmage skills. He doesn’t next advance in levels until the Louvre mission, which takes place on October 23rd when he “blinks” on his own for the first time, showing him he has the abilities of a War Seer (Level 4). He later wields an Enchantment spell (Level 3) on the Paris metro. Since it’s established that levels of magic are cumulative, it’s not out of the ordinary for you to leap ahead a level then backtrack to master the previous one. All told that’s a span of 19 days.

The rest of the story – the Temple of Bones, Jason’s visit with Damon, his throwing in his lot with the Golden Dawn, the Battle of the Citadel and Murder Hill takes place between October 24th and the 30th. There’s a three day (October 25-28) span between Jason deciding to join the Golden Dawn and his theft of the Sphere of Destiny. In that time he hones his newly acquired skills as an Enchanter and War Seer. He crosses over to the Diabolist Level on Murder Hill.

Now some would argue a month is too quickly to learn these skills let alone master them. But those people ignore the events at Murder Hill on July 4, 1999 when Jason was 12 years old and first exhibited the abilities of a Mage. But as he never got his Hogwarts letter or was recruited into the Invisible Hand those skills lay dormant until he crossed the threshold into the Citadel, where those powers began to be unlocked, by passing through the many doors and chambers of the Invisible Hand’s fortress.

So if you yourself was questioning how someone with no training could and advance so quickly, I hope the above clarifies it. And if not, maybe the below will. This is the calendar I put together three years ago when I was just drafting Magicians Impossible. Some details may have changed but I pretty much adhered to this breakdown.

There are other criticisms I’m sure and I take no issue with any of them, not even the ones that accused me of ripping off books or video games or TV shows I’ve never read, played, or watched. I wasn’t even completely sure I should even address the timeline, but for people who surfed on in looking for answers, maybe this will do that.

B

[As a follow-up that’s not to say Magicians Impossible definitively takes place in 2018 or 2017, just that in my mind it takes place later this year]

School Days

I had planned to end this year’s blog with a more general update on things. What’s going on in my life. What movies I’ve seen. What books I read. The TV I watched, the music I listened to. I’ve also been waylaid a bit, both with family obligations, and with a banger of a head cold that’s kept me out of the loop for a bit. Frankly, I’ve been in a state of near exhaustion for the last month. So I was going to just let 2017 sputter out on its own without me.

Then my sister forwarded the obit.

Let me tell you about John Ballachey. “JB” as he was known to his students. JB taught history. He was, I believe, head of the department, but I may be mistaken in that regard. He’d taught at our school since the late 1960s, even teaching history to the parents of some of the kids in my class.

He was an institution.

It sounds cliché to speak of a teacher who inspired you, but in JB’s case this was all true. I’m a huge history buff today and that’s largely due to him. He made learning fun. He didn’t care about dates and events that occurred on them. He wanted you to see the connections. Many times our classes were about what could have happened at certain junctures, as opposed to what ended up happening.  It was, in essence, storytelling, based on historical fact. You needed to know your facts with JB and he wouldn’t hesitate to call you out for it. And the thing was, you wanted his approval, that wry grin and winning smile that told you “good job” without his having to say it. I was a fair-to-average student in many regards, but for two subjects; English, and History. I succeeded in history class because JB made it an adventure to learn.

JB wasn’t just a teacher though. He was also a longstanding member of the local Operatic Society, appearing in dozens of musical productions. I appeared with him in late 1989, sharing a scene with him as a reporter in a production of Damn Yankees (with JB playing the team owner). We all had a hoot – him especially. For the week leading up to the performance he’d grill me mercilessly, asking if I remembered my lines (I had, I think, three). But he clearly enjoyed making me nervous, just like he enjoyed all his students. If you encountered him on the street he’d always grin, and ask how you were, even though he knew how you were doing in his class.

He was also encouraging in my burgeoning career as a filmmaker and storyteller. In Grade 12 he happily agreed (despite being busy with teaching) to perform a small role in a 1-act play I directed based on a Woody Allen comedy bit. Despite having only a couple lines he hammed them up like crazy and got the biggest laughs of the show. There was something of a performer in JB, beyond the stage, beyond the classroom. I always felt after the fact that he had no real aspirations for the stage – he really just enjoyed being in front of and around people, be it an audience, be it a classroom of students. Despite having a mild stutter he didn’t blanch, even when he fought for the words on the tip of his tongue.

I don’t think I saw him at all after high school – maybe around graduation or shortly after though I did get to tell him I’d been accepted into film school, which earned hearty, friendly punch to the arm in that guy-ish way. I don’t remember what he said, but I like to think he was proud that I was going out into the world to make history of my own – just one of many kids he taught. I think he was proud of all the kids who passed through his classroom. To teach for so long you found yourself teaching the children of former students might have made you feel your age, but not JB.

I’m told that while he embraced world travel in his later years he remained involved in the community, in theatre, and the choir, and made animal welfare his passion after he’d hung up his teaching shoes. I am told though, second-hand, that he did know I was making a name for myself as a writer in the film and TV biz, and thought that was fantastic news. I’m sure he felt that way about all his former students – the lawyers and doctors, and the ones who went on to teach history themselves.

Looking through his memorial page, I saw a lot of names I hadn’t thought of in more than 25 years. Students, colleagues, parents, children. All who were touched by an extraordinary teacher. You realize now, in adulthood, what an impact your teachers had on you. To me, teaching is one of the noblest of professions – the one that truly keeps the world spinning.

I never got to tell JB any of this, but I’m saying it now for all the teachers out there. I want to say how much you do matter, to every child you teach, to every parent whose child is entrusted to you. And know that, even after those kids graduate or advance a grade and move on, they never do forget how much you meant to them.

Godspeed and good-rest, Mr. Ballachey. You were one in a million.

 

 

Sent from iPad

 

All Is Well As 2017 Dies

On November 11th I had my final author event of the fall. My hometown (or as close to a hometown as I’ll ever have). It was the best attended event yet, owing to the friends, family, and colleagues who came out. I didn’t have time to talk with everyone or to thank them for coming out to support me and Magicians Impossible, but I appreciate each and every one of them.

So, what’s next? For Magicians? For me?

I just finished the first draft of what will hopefully be my next novel a week ago. It was a challenge – maybe even more difficult a book than Magicians was to write – but I’m pleased with how that first draft came together. Right now it’s sitting in the drawer until 2018 when I plan to open that drawer up, pull it out, and start going over it with the red pen.

In the meantime I’m beginning development on a new TV project with some producers I have a long-standing relationship with. That was another reason for the trip; to sign the paperwork and make the deal real. It too will have to remain on the down-low for now, but it’s a project I’m very much looking forward to doing. It’s based, in part, on my own life, which is probably saying too much already. Rest assured once it’s made public a lot more about what it is will be much more clear, and may even delight some long-time fans of me and my work.

Until then I’m taking a couple of weeks off – now through Thanksgiving. 2017 has been a very busy, sometimes punishing year. between fatherhood, writing this new novel, doing Magicians promo, and inking the TV deal I’m absolutely exhausted. But I won’t be sitting idle during my Stay-cation; I have books to read, movies and TV to catch up on … and ideas to put to paper. The writer’s brain is never completely at rest, and I routinely find my best ideas when I’m not at my desk, working.

It’s been a strange journey, being an author. It’s a side of the writing biz I’ve never experienced before, but it’s been fun having the chance to step out from behind my desk to meet people, to read from my work publicly, to sign copies of a thing that sprung solely from my mind. So much of writing is solitary; even more so when you’ve largely worked in the film and television fields. Just knowing that my book is sitting on bookstore and library shelves continues to amaze me.

And I’m just getting started.