Tag Archives: lesson

Traveling With The Goon

My wife and I have executed the SINGLE GREATEST SURPRISE in the history of our family. For the last two months, we’ve been planning an epic family vacation. We were going to take the kids to Walt Disney World.

Easter Sunday was the day and the secret was unspoiled. We enlisted the 15-year old, AKA C-Dog, in the weeks leading up to the trip. Great job all the way around. The trip to Walt Disney World (AKA Whiskey-Delta-Whiskey, Walter D. White’s house, or some other codeword designed for maximum OpSec against the elementary school crowd) remained a surprise until we woke the Noodle and the Goon (ages 7 and 5, respectively) Easter morning and told them to get dressed because they were going to see Mickey Mouse.

My wife (the Queen) and I had sketched out a broad plan for the actual travel. Flying on Southwest, our seats were not assigned. We figured that we would each pair up with one of the little guys and allow the C-Dog to sit with either of us. (Or 15 rows away, if his brothers had really annoyed him on the drive to the airport.) As it turned out once we got on the plane, my traveling companion was the Goon. Oh boy.

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Superhero Guy vs. Dad Guy

I’m a superhero guy. This is a distinct type of the creature “guy”. There are many other types and sometimes you’ll even see hybrids. The others are probably familiar to you: sports guy, car guy, outdoors guy, business guy, music guy, barfly guy, creepy guy, etc. I don’t knock any other type and actually share some minor characteristics with some of the others. Thirteen years ago I gained another type: Dad guy. But I’ve always been a superhero guy at heart.

If you’ve read other stuff on my blog, you may know that reading is my thing. Early in my reading career, I realized that I could consume my favorite authors’ works much faster than they could create more. Enter the comic book. I discovered them early on and fell in love with them right away. Captain America was, and still is, my all time favorite. (Not too hard to figure out- Steve Rogers, a 4-F runt with heroic character, is transformed by the Super Soldier serum to become the physical hero to match his noble spirit. I was usually one of the smallest kids in the class but full of heroic imagination. If there was ever a character that I truly wanted to be, Cap was it!)

Growing up in Syracuse in the 70’s and 80’s, there was one place to go to for comics: Dream Days. Run by Mike, an aging John Lennon lookalike, Dream Days was the place for comic book lovers. Mike was everything positive that pop culture says about the 60’s: optimistic, community-minded, and welcoming. When my brother Matt was in the hospital for a pretty serious surgical procedure as a young boy, Mike showed up at the hospital with a massive stack of comics for Matt to read while convalescing. I think Mike’s instructions were to read them, enjoy them, bring back what he didn’t want, and get better! Mike seemed to live at the store and the positive experiences talking to him there probably cemented my love of comics.

If my brothers and I had been good or particularly well-deserving of a treat we could sometimes convince our parents to take us to Dream Days. (This was not easy for a lower-middle class family with 4 children. I appreciate that more now than I ever could as a kid.) The only downside to a trip to Dream Days was that our parents were willing to spend about a tenth of the time in the store that we wanted. Walking in, you’d quickly peruse the new comics before poking around the back issues, graphic novels, or anything else you could get your hands on. When given the time warning, you’d quickly circle back to the new rack (unless you discovered some gem in the back issue bins for which you’d need to begin bargaining with Mom or Dad). Carefully picking the handful of comics that you were budgeted you’d then watch as Mike rang up the books on an archaic cash register, slide them into a yellow glossy plastic bag (separate bags for each brother- thanks Mike!) then back to the car for the ride home. Never was there a quieter trip with 4 boys than the return leg home after a stop at Dream Days.

Although I stopped collecting comics as  young adult, I never lost my love of the genre. In recent years I’ve found digital versions of many of my old favorites. I eagerly anticipate the next superhero movie. (Just a few months until The Avengers!) I look forward to dissecting with Matt the triumphs and missteps of the latest adaptations. Still a superhero guy at heart.

As the father of three boys- ages 13, 5 and 3 in February 2012- I’ve been thrilled every time one of them showed an interest in anything heroic. The fact that Hollywood has gotten pretty good at telling good comic book stories has helped. It’s just exciting to share something with your boys that you’ve always loved. Arguably, it’s one of the greatest joys of fatherhood for me so far.

Noodle, the 5 year old, has definitely embraced the superhero motif. Noodle loves Batman, Iron Man, and Captain America. (Clearly he is an intelligent young man with impeccable taste!) It was very quickly after he first got hooked on superheroes- more than a year ago- that my two roles collided. Superhero guy versus Dad guy.

If you’re a Dad, this may be familiar to you. If not, and parenthood is in your future, prepare yourself. These two types have slightly different world views. Superhero guy believes in the incredible, the mythical, the things that inspire us to surpass the limitations that we think constrain us. Dad guy is protective, a teacher, concerned with shaping his children to become good adults. These two types are not mortal enemies- like Cap and the Red Skull- but have different priorities.

These priorities were in conflict when Noodle decided that he was going to learn to fly. It started simply enough. Drawn into the movies and cartoons, he started mimicking the kicks, punches, and heroic poses of his favorite characters. Flying was just a new aspect of his play.

Like any fledgling hero, Noodle started out cautiously. His flight began by launching himself off the ottoman. He had seen enough cartoons and movies to know that, in order to fly forward, he’d have to immediately turn parallel to the ground. So his launches were very immediately followed by belly-flopper style landings on the floor of the den. I credit his persistence because, although he wasn’t seeming to gain much altitude after each initial leap, he continued putting more and more effort into his launches, resulting in harder and harder crashes.

Finally, Dad guy’s partner/nemesis- Mom girl- pointed out that Noodle was in danger of hurting himself. The task of putting a stop to the yet-unsuccessful flying lessons was assigned to Dad guy. Ugh.

This actually caused some hesitation in me. Dad guy understood that it was important to explain to Noodle that he could not, in fact, fly. He was a little squirt and not really hitting the floor that hard but it was only a matter of time before a landing hurt him. But the last thing that superhero guy wanted to do was to drag Noodle into the mundane world. A dilemma.

In the end, Dad guy did his duty. I solemnly informed Noodle that he could not, in fact, fly. But superhero guy kept the spark alive in Noodle’s heart. I just whispered to him that maybe flying wasn’t his power. Why stifle his hopes for greatness? (Besides, the world needs Blue Lightning!)

Red Marvel and Blue Lightning

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The Art of the Succinct, or: How I Learned to Stop Avoiding the Short Story and Enjoy the Ride

Confession: I used to be a reading snob. I can admit that now. I’ve taken ownership of my wicked past and have seen the light.

What I mean is that I used to look down on the short story. I might take a crack at a novella- but only if the author was solid. A short story just didn’t seem to be worth my time.

Growing up, I read a lot. Reading was my preferred way to spend my time. In retrospect, I can see that putting my nose in a book and barely coming up for air was my way of handling my shyness. Books were always my friend and never rejected me. (It did take me about 3 or 4 attempts to complete The Return of the King but, to be fair, I tackled that one in the 6th grade. I was a geek for anything vaguely fantastic or epic so LOTR was on my list early. But that last book is a little dense.)

My stumbles at Tolkien notwithstanding, the novel was it for me. A good novel (preferably at least 300 pages) meant plenty of time focused on a single story and roster of characters. I’d work my way through the obligatory introductions by the author (“Todd, meet Gandalf. Gandalf, meet Todd…”) and settle in to the meat of the story. I’d enjoy the novel through its resolution then, usually, flip back to the book’s beginning looking for the “Also by…” list in the hope that it was a single entry of a larger series. One of the first fantasy novels that I read, by the brilliant Piers Anthony, was Centaur Aisle. That book was picked because with the word “centaur” in the title I figured there was no way it could be anything but fantasy. This led to a short-lived habit of selecting books based on the font and color of the title on the book spine- usually evaluated by standing in a library aisle with my head cocked 90° to the right. Centaur Aisle, with a vaguely medieval font on a sky blue field, was a perfect example of that practice.

Centaur Aisle cover

The book in question.

That particular book was an excellent choice for a young novel aficionado. Although I had unknowingly skipped the first three books in the Xanth series, the novel lived up to my expectations. I quickly got myself up to speed on the world and characters and I was off! I finished that one and circled back to the first three books that I had missed. Piers Anthony also became the first author that I really sought out. I soon discovered the breadth of his work and got my hands on anything he wrote.

All was well in my adolescent head- until I hit Anthonology, his collection of short stories. I had accidentally picked up short story collections in the past but this was the first time that I can remember picking up one from my sparse list of favorite authors. I was honestly at a loss here. On one hand, Piers Anthony was an A-list writer (pun intended, as any reader of the Xanth books will appreciate). I’d read just about everything of his I could get my hands on- 6 or 7 Xanth books, early entries in the Apprentice Adept and Incarnations of Immortality series, and even a poorly understood attempt at his Tarot books. However, the short story was my nemesis. I’d barely get comfortable with the setting, plot and characters and then- BANG- it would be over. What was the point?

At that point, I could not afford to be picky. My desire to hide away from the world inside a good book meant that I’d exhausted every bit of decent reading material available. (It would not be until a few years later that I would grow to appreciate re-reading a good book. Nice, that. Like catching up with an old friend that you hadn’t seen in some time.) I opened the book and began reading. I figured I owed Piers at least that much for all of the satisfaction he’d given me already.

That changed my entire outlook. I admired the wry wit of “The Life of the Stripe”. By the time I reached “On the Uses of Torture” I was in awe. The author had created these entirely complete stories- beginning, middle and end- sometimes in just a few pages. Thanks to Mr. Anthony, the short story was now on my radar.

As I matured, my list of favorite authors grew. I discovered the worlds of Roger Zelazny and Robert Heinlein– usually through a robust novel or series. The Chronicles of Amber books and Stranger in a Strange Land remain at the top of my all time favorites list, alongside Mr. Anthony’s own Incarnations of Immortality series. However, I’d always be delighted from that moment on to discover a collection of those authors’ short stories. Zelazny’s The Last Defender of Camelot (most notably the titular story of Lancelot’s modern struggle) and Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow (” ‘If This Goes On…’ “) sit solidly next to any longer piece.

I began thinking about this topic- the short story- the other day while boxing up old books to give to friends or donate to the Rescue Mission. I was overdue in keeping a promise to my wife. When she bought me my first eReader a couple of years, I promised that as I was able to find my old favorites in digital form, I’d begin shedding the accumulated weight of 25+ years of reading and collecting books. I’d made significant progress in building my digital library over the last couple of years and, in acknowledgement of my wife’s ascetic tastes, was ready to move the books out.

[As an aside to my fellow bibliophiles- I will suggest that you get comfortable with the idea of the digital book. While I have a nostalgic love of the physical artifact itself (the book that I can hold), the true power of books is in the information that they convey. The printing press changed the world not because it created a new consumer product but because it allowed information to move freely and without constraint. The Internet is its modern descendant. What’s important about the book is what’s inside- not the carton.]

In packing up my old companions, I came across my beat up copy of Anthonology. This book had truly been buried under its peers in recent years in the second layer of books on one of my bookshelves. I picked it up with that comfortable feeling of recognition. The packing was slightly delayed while I spent some time revisiting those stories.

It’s only now, as a 40 year old man (and father!), I realized what it is about short stories that draws such appreciation from me. A common theme in my conversations with my sons is the value in doing something well. I know that I’m not alone in this- parents want to teach their children that a job well done has its own intrinsic value. This is illustrated in the Japanese tea ceremony. The overt actions, preparing and serving tea to a small group, are of secondary importance. The tea ceremony’s primary lesson, to my understanding, is one of respect for something done well- in this case, the seemingly simple act of sharing a pot of tea. There should be an innate satisfaction in mastering something. It is our stamp on the world. It is our moment to exert our will over our own human imperfection.

I appreciate the skill it takes to write a short story well. To be able to capture all of the elements of a tale- setting, character, plot, theme- and do it so succinctly is admirable. Nowadays I have no real preference in the format of my readings. Similar to my willingness to embrace ebooks, it’s about the quality of what I’m reading, not the format that the author chooses to utilize. An author that tells a story well is worth reading- whether as a short story, novel, play, or poem. Why miss out on the good stuff because you don’t like the way that it was packaged?

Afterthought:

The website Snopes, an encyclopedic and disciplined look at all things urban legend-related, presents a solid investigation into a story related to Ernest Hemingway. The story is that Hemingway wrote a masterful story in only six words- “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Regardless of whether he wrote such a piece, it inspired some modern masters to present their own six-word stories, as detailed here. Without making any comparison between my own work and that esteemed collection, here’s my version:

He won, despite their best attempts.

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