Pictures of Plastic Men (Part II)

If you missed Part I you’ll find it at:

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s 1993. I’m 20 years old. I’m sitting on a bench atop a hill, watching the kids at my old school play at recess down below. I’m remembering a time not long before; only ten years but those might as well be a lifetime. I remember that old life, and the things in that life that meant the world to me, if only for a short time. I think back to a day in 1985, shortly after my 11th birthday when my dad came home to tell us we were moving again, this time to North Carolina. This was to be a temporary move, a 2-year “loan assignment” that meant at the end of the assignment, in 1987, we were moving back to the same house on the same street, and I’d start high school with the same kids I’m in Grade Six with now. The promise of return is a salve, because I really like it here and our house and our pool and all of it and don’t really want to leave. But we have to, and come July, that’s what we do.

The first thing I notice about our new city – Greensboro – is the abundance of shopping malls and department stores, each with a toy section out of my wildest dreams. And my parents, knowing this is a rough move on my sister and I, are very generous with the toy purchases. My dad even finds me a local comic book store and says we can go there once a month to buy the latest GI Joe comic book. While I missed  my friends, it looked like our time in North Carolina would be enjoyable.

Then school started. I hated it.

Bane of my existence, 1985-1986

This wasn’t like the other moves. Those were always met with some excitement. But this felt different because I was different. I was settling in. I had friends. I had a life I was happy with. And it was all being torn away from me.

Now, being into toys, and being into GI Joe at the ripe old age of 12? That was a sure ticket to Loserville, Population: you. I found this out one afternoon during school, in the first or early second month. The way the campus was set up was the main building as this big rectangular cinder block running north-south along the street, with an annex to the south, and a gymnasium building with classrooms adjacent to the north. My homeroom was in the south annex – my first class of the day was in the north building. I’d have to transverse that distance within the three minutes we had between classes before the bell rang. I was walking along the path leading to the building when I passed a group of grade eight and nine boys surrounding a Grade 7. I slowed enough to hear them calling him “baby” and “little boy” and some other words I won’t get into. Lying at the boy’s feet was a small plastic toy I recognizes immediately as Snake-Eyes Version 2 – the Ninja version. I know this because I had it too.

And still do …

I slowed almost to a stop, enough so that the kid looked at me with these eyes I’ll never forget. Like a trapped, frightened animal. I don’t know the circumstances for the toy. Maybe he brought it to school because he liked having it close. Maybe he was hoping someone else would notice it, and recognize it, and maybe talk about their toys.

Maybe, he was looking for a friend.

I wish I could say I interceded and told these much bigger kids to leave him alone. I wish I could say I called a teacher over because bullies are bullies until they’re dealt with. I wish I could say I charged in fists swinging to protect this kid. But what happened was one of the older kids looked at me, and not wanting to get involved, I resumed walking, faster now, and leaving the group behind.

3:15 couldn’t come quick enough. I took the bus home; I went up into my room and closed the door. There were some toys left out from the previous day’s adventures but somehow they felt different. I couldn’t look at them, let alone pick one up without thinking of that kid at school.

Were this a movie or TV show, I would have shown up at school the next day with a GI Joe figure and tracked that kid down and ask what he thought. I wouldn’t have cared what some Grade 8 or 9 boys who would never be my friends anyway thought. Maybe that kid and I would have become friends. But i I didn’t do that. I saw that kid occasionally around school but I never approached him to say hi or that I thought those other kids were jerks and that Snake-Eyes was cool. I wish I’d done that, but I didn’t.

1985 became 1986, but GI Joe didn’t continue with me. It didn’t seem as cool as it once was. I felt like I had failed, that I wasn’t living up to the ideals I thought the toy was supposed to instill – bravery, honor, and loyalty to your comrades. I got self-righteous; this was Grade 7. 12 going on 13. Toys? They were for little kids. How on earth could I show up with GI Joe toys at school and expect to make friends?

It was a long, lonely time for me. I still had the comics and still kept up my collecting with that once monthly visit to the local comic store (subsequently branching out into more mature titles like Watchmen and The Shadow). I received my last batch of GI Joe toys that Christmas. I may have played with them a bit that holiday week, but they went into the closet come January and that’s where they stayed even. The toys were packed up and moved up north but they stayed packed away in those boxes for the next 30 years. By the time I started Grade 8 in yet another new town, I was heavily into music and that became the way I made friends; with mixtapes and playlists and record collections. Without friends to play with, my toys were all kind of … childish.

#

Back to 1993, back to that bench overlooking that park, and that playground. I sat there the full fifteen minutes watching kids ten years my junior playing. Kids probably born the year I discovered GI Joe and started to fit in with my new surroundings. I wondered what toys they were into now. I wondered if they helped kids make friends with other kids. I wondered how many of them would give up their toys in similar situations as I did. I remember feeling saddened by the whole thing. Childhood is one of those things you endure. Kids can become friends in an instant, and you can break that friendship apart just as quickly when you find other kids – hipper, cooler ones – that you’d rather be seen with.

The recess bell rings. They kids race back inside. The doors close, and I’m alone again. I pick myself up, trudge back down t to my waiting car, climb in, and drive home.

#

It’s 2018. I’m far from from that park and playground, far from that life. I’m a father now, and am re-experiencing childhood again through my son’s eyes.  The GI Joe toys are all gone – sold off to collectors a few years ago. I kept a few favorites though, because you can’t completely part with the things from your childhood. I didn’t need the money, or even the space. I just needed to say goodbye to them and let someone else take joy from their presence. And as I saw them all exit my life, one parcel at a time, I realized they were just … THINGS. Pieces of plastic and die-cast metal. That’s it. And I think the decision to sell them made all the difference in my life.

You can appreciate your childhood, and should do so, but not at the expense of the here and now. For a time those pieces of molded plastic assembled in Taiwan and shipped overseas to fill toy-stores everywhere was our entire world. They were important to me. They meant something, at a time when I was still figuring out what life was all about. For a boy who moved around a lot as a child, those toys became my friends at a time when I didn’t have any. My childhood memories divide up into neat, tidy compartments; the toys I played with, the comics and books I read, are all linked to a place and a time.

I don’t know how long we’ll stay here in this new city. But I do know and hope that my son will find the same joy, the same warmth, the same friendship with those toys he comes to love. Because sometimes childhood is as much about the things you cherish for an all-too brief moment in time.

 

 

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.