About two years ago, my son made this point effectively and unintentionally. We were visiting my sister, and an argument broke out around the XBOX and whose turn it was. I went to the game room to investigate, and in the mayhem, somebody handed me a controller. Cool uncle, right?
“Here, Uncle Ben, it’s your turn.”
“Um. Okay. What are we playing?”
I’d heard of Minecraft. I’d heard a lot about Minecraft. In fact, I’d heard so much about Minecraft that I’d deliberately avoided it. “Mine-Crack” some of the kids called it. With all those nieces and nephews staring at me, though, I froze. The people had decided. Who was I to argue?
I am not an uncoordinated person, but the XBOX controller for Minecraft can be tricky, with its multi-colored buttons, dual control sticks, dual triggers, D-Pad, and dual bumpers. Even worse when all your nieces and nephews are staring at you, and you’re trying desperately to maintain that thin façade of coolness that all adults think they wear, even after getting blown up several times by a green proximity bomb with legs.
My youngest daughter sets down her controller and tries to re-explain the controls to me while the rest of the cousins giggle at my poor performance. And from the back of the cousin pile my son’s voice cuts through chatter like the infamous diamond blade of Minecraft:
“You know, all I ever wanted in elementary school was to spend a day playing Minecraft with Dad. And I never got to.”
That hit me right between the left and right trigger. Or maybe the D-Pad. He’s 16 years old, and probably too grown up to care anymore, but I had never once played Minecraft with him. Not even for an hour, though I’d listened to him talk about it endlessly.
The point of being a parent, I think, is so you can feel bad about yourself more often.
The point of being a parent is perhaps also hoping eternally, that you might get at least one thing right.
So for Christmas, I gave him a copy of Minecraft in his stocking. I’m probably the only historical example of a lame dad giving his sixteen-year-old son a five-year-old copy of Minecraft. About eight years too late, if you don’t think too hard about the math.
He sorta grinned when he took off the wrapping paper. “You know how old this is, right?”
“Yeah.” I grinned back. “But I’ve got the day off.”
“Good advice is always certain to be ignored, but that’s no reason not to give it.”
Idlewood Manor is about to be torn down.
In a rare show of generosity, its cantankerous caretaker Mr. Llewellyn opens the manor doors to ten groups from different walks of life. At face value, it’s just a weekend romp, a chance to experience the discomforts and delights of a bygone era. But each group has its own secret. One group is constantly looking under chairs and peeping through keyholes. A man wanders around the grounds with a stick that looks suspiciously like a metal detector. A young couple flees each time the other guests approach them.
Anna, Charlie, and Emily begin investigating the mystery of Idlewood Manor independently. Gradually, Anna’s fearless exploration, Charlie’s gift for codes, and Emily’s eye for detail coalesce into a clearer picture of what’s been happening at Idlewood, and the kids come together to solve the mystery of the manor.
I loved the quick-stroke character sketches that come out naturally through the narrative:
“Mr. Llewellyn struck Emily as the kind of man who liked children fine, but only after they’d celebrated their eighteenth birthday.”
“‘It will be fun,’ his mother said. ‘Anna’s probably already out there.’ Charlie doubted it. Hitting a ball around the lawn with a mallet didn’t seem wild enough for Anna.”
The kids sounded like kids I knew, and the suspicious characters like mix-breeds born of Encyclopedia Brown and Agatha Christie. The prose felt so confident that I googled “explorer Virginia Maines,” only to realize she’s a fictional rather than historic personage. And despite my best intentions, Allison had me ciphering out codes by the end of the novel, and not because the narrative requires it.
My favorite part was the underlying theme: Not all treasures are found deep inside a musty vault.
We interrupt this regularly scheduled lunch with a public service announcement: My short story SUNBURN has been accepted for publication! It’s in the House of Zolo’s Journal of Speculative Literature, Volume 3, available on Amazon. Digital copies (Kindle) are free for the next 24 hours (November 16, 2021).
SUNBURN also won the Marburg Award in Germany in 2019. This version is even better.
In a post-apocalyptic, environmentally compromised world, young Jacob and the remnants of humanity live underground, only leaving their caves and habitats at night to gather precious resources from nearby cities.
Since being above ground after daybreak is deadly, the underground habitats have developed strict morning curfews to ensure the safety of dwindling resources. But Jacob has secretly been spending some of his “salvage night” working in an old bio-crystal lab in the nearest city, trying to develop a plant-crystal hybrid that will reverse atmospheric effects that make surface dwelling untenable.
On the verge of a break-through, Jacob stays late one morning, and his improvised lab catches fire. With his own life on the line, and the fate of humanity in the balance, Jacob jumps in his car for one final drive.
Announcing the publication of my first German novel translation, “Die Ringe on Ector”, which is out today!!! If you speak German and enjoy Fantasy stories with clever (anti) heroes, lots of action and some dark magic sprinkled on top, check out this series. (If you don’t speak German but want to do me a favor, download anyway 😏 and share with all your German-speaking friends. (If you have a Kindle Unlimited account, you can even read it for free.)
For a behind-the-scenes look working with a translator, check out this video from Life, the Universe, and Everything, February 2021.
“I like this book so I think I’m going to write a review on it.” –Benjamin K. Hewett
Danny Day lives every day twice.
By sixth grade, he’s a pro at it. He spends the first playing video games, scoping out important details, and doing things most of us will only daydream about, knowing his day will reset at 2:22 am and he’ll have to start all over.
For Danny, this is a good thing. His second day—the sticky day—usually goes off like a speed run. He gets perfect grades, stops his toddling twin sisters from decorating their bedroom walls with sharpies, and tricks his classmates into thinking he can read minds.
But Danny’s life is far from perfect. When his family moves from Texas to Idaho, Danny has to be the new kid at school twice as much as any normal kid. If he gets hurt on a sticky day, he hurts twice as long. Even worse, Danny starting to think he’s been doing it all wrong. Then he meets Zak, the kind, athletic sixth-grader who lives each day without regrets, and who convinces Danny that he can too. Danny eventually shares his secret with his new friend and swears him to secrecy and the two boys enlist Freddie, the girl-next-door, in bringing the bullies of Snake River Middle School to justice.
In reading the story, it is clear that Danny isn’t the only one reliving junior high. Author Mike Thayer’s portrayal of middle school feels almost photographic, but it serves up the sweet taste of sixth-grade wish-fulfillment right along with the poignant memory of mistakes made. In addition to painting his adolescents well, Thayer gets the adults right, with unique perspectives and personalities for each, without bogging down the book in elaborate backstories.
I especially like Danny’s mom. Even though he’s living every day twice, she still manages to surprise him sometimes, and those moments are some of the funniest.
In short, The Double Life of Danny Day is for middle-grade readers, current junior high attendees, and all the rest of us who survived junior high intact, more-or-less. It’s about finding balance, even when we think we have it all. In the end it’s not Danny’s singular power that makes him great, but what he spends that precious extra time on.
Is it a true story?
“No. But it could be true, and that’s all that matters.”
When I was twelve, I signed up for Boy Scout Camp. As explained to me by my older brother, it was the great summer adventure: water sports, merit badges, and exciting new foods.
Our Scoutmaster was one of my life role models, a giant of a man with the ability to make any scouting trip memorable and fun, without letting things get out of hand. A few weeks before the camp, he handed me a blank form and asked me which merit badges classes I wanted to take. A few of the choices were easy. I’d always wanted to learn to ride a horse, so I filled one time slot with Horsemanship. Mom did all the Cooking at home, so I didn’t need that one (I’ve since repented), but Leatherwork looked kind of cool, and building your own shelter in the woods for Wilderness Survival sounded awesome.
I had one slot left, and Lifesaving sounded a lot cooler than Emergency Preparedness, so I marked that one down too. One of the other boys warned me it was an aquatic merit badge, but I figured I was in pretty good shape, and I’d already completed the Swimming merit badge.
Towards the end of the week, we were learning escapes. I went into the water with an instructor about three times my size and built of pure muscle. Beefy was supposed to act like a panicked, drowning person, and I was supposed to escape his grip and carefully lead him back to the dock while maintaining a safe distance. It all sounds great in theory, but I was in trouble from the get-go. The moment I hit the water, Beefy latched onto me like a three-hundred pound gorilla and began dragging me down. I took one gasp of air and then all I could see was muddy water. It got colder. I was wrapped up so tight I couldn’t move a muscle.
In that dark place, I wondered if I would just continue sinking forever, if I would ever breathe again, and if maybe Beefy was taking this escape exercise just a bit too seriously. I had a moment of complete and utter fear. It took me a lot longer than it should have to remember the training they’d given us. But eventually I did remember it. I broke Beefy’s grip and dove away from him, creating the safety space required.
In retrospect, I didn’t get out of that predicament on my own. I went in with a theoretical understanding learned from experts and some practical experience in breaking holds. And in retrospect, there was also a safety net. There were lifeguards, if my training, experience, and skill proved insufficient.
We have lifeguards too. We have safety nets.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, I interviewed a friend and licensed marriage & family therapist Matt Brown. We talked about my book The Deep End of Life, finding support, and getting out of the deep end. I’ve been going back through the interview footage, making clips of specific topics kids (and adults) might wonder about before seeing therapist for the first time. Some of the questions are more serious than others, but sometimes laughing a little is just as important as asking for help.
“The Deep End of Life is as charming in its shallows as it is poignant in its depths.”
Allison K. Hymas, Author of The Explorer’s Code
As some of you know, I finished writing a book last year, and it is finally available. There wasn’t a party or a signing like I sometimes do, thanks to COVID-19, but that didn’t stop us from launching it on Amazon and Ingram (for retailers).
The Deep End of Life is a departure from what I usually write, but also probably the best thing I’ve written to date. It’s an important book. It’s about an 11-year-old girl coping with her parents’ divorce. It’s about making friends, seeking help, and talking through tough subjects. It’s also a funny book, and one I wish my kids had had four years ago.
Trust me, you’re going to like it:
CHAPTER 1: WAR
Judith’s eyebrow started it. It soared up her too-pretty face like a volleyball in need of a good spiking, emphasizing the pounds of make-up she’d applied to get Dad’s attention. Showing just the kind of stepmom she’d be, if she got the chance. It was the arched eyebrow of war.
Too bad Judith wore a fancy white dress to the war. Too bad her dress was two sizes too tight. And extra too bad she had to get up from her poofy crimson chair to go to the restroom.
I wouldn’t have done that. I would have held it. And I would have worn my favorite pair of jeans, ankle-cut socks, some stomp-around tennies and my “Try to Stop Me” t-shirt if I were going to start an eyebrow war. I don’t really care what I get on my favorite jeans, ‘cause it always washes out. And if it doesn’t, that’s just one more cool story to tell my best friend Stacey Stanbaugh.
Dad’s Judith is stupid. It’s been too long since she’s had her face rubbed in the playground dirt. It’s been a long time since she’s been in a death match with a fifth-grader. You don’t pick a fight when you’re wearing white. Even first-graders know that. And you don’t get up and go to the restroom in the middle of a war either.
Dad’s not paying attention. I glance over, just in case, but he’s still on his work phone, arguing with Marco about an invoice or something. The waiters aren’t paying attention, either. Nobody is.
I sniff her glass, just to be sure. If it’s grape juice, I can spare a little. I love grape juice.
It’s not. It smells like old armpits.
I take a sip.
Tastes like armpits, too. Now I won’t feel guilty spilling it.
Dad still isn’t paying attention. He’s going to be on his phone for a while, it looks like. He thinks buying nice dinners is the same as taking care of someone, and since the divorce, he’s been even worse. Not that Mom’s any better. She travels a lot, and when she’s in town, Dennis the marine biologist comes over and I have to share Mom with Dennis and his shark movies.
At least with Dad, I don’t usually have to share. It’s all about making the right kind of mess.
Eyebrow war, phase two.
You can’t just spill red wine onto an enemy’s dress. That’s juvenile, amateur, the sort of thing Omar would do, though he’d probably trip and make it look funny, and everyone would laugh.
And you can’t throw it in her face, like the official challenge to an epic duel.
But Dad always says to go for gold.
So I do.
I slide Judith’s wine glass to the edge of the table, and lower it carefully toward the plush, pillowy seat. I push my finger down to create a divot in the fabric, right where I estimate her bum will land. Not that it’s going to be a hard target to hit. I empty about half the glass, more than I meant to, watching it soak in. Then I lift my finger and wipe it off in Judith’s napkin.
I’m eating my peas, continental style—with the knife in my right hand and the fork in my left—when Judith gets back. I watch her adjust that too-tight white dress before she sits. No smile. She just raises her eyebrow at me. Again!
She slinks down into her chair, picks up her fork, and freezes halfway to her pork chop, eyes growing melon-sized. Her fork trembles slightly as she turns to look at me.
“What’s wrong, Judith?” I ask.
“Marco, I have to go,” Dad says suddenly to his cell phone. The word “wrong” has a special meaning between him and me. What’s wrong, Misty? What’s wrong, Evelyn? What’s wrong. . . Judith.
I can see him replaying his mental tape for the last few minutes of phone time, or whatever it is dads do when they’re figuring out what they missed.
My dad’s pretty good at this. His eyes flit from Judith’s wine glass to me and then back to Judith. “Judith, don’t move,” he says.
Judith doesn’t listen. In just a few visits, it’s easy to see that Judith isn’t the type who listens to what other people say. Instead, she does the worst thing possible. And by worst, I mean best. She stands up and turns to see what’s in her chair.
I try not to giggle.
“Don’t look, Bob,” an old lady near us says, warning her husband.
So, of course, he looks. . . His eyes go empire-wide, certainly wider than they’ve been all evening, talking to his boring wife.
“Judith,” Dad says. There’s an edge in his voice that adults use when they don’t want everyone’s attention but they want to be taken seriously. Judith stops staring at her chair, at nothing because the cushion was already red, and sees the cloth napkin Dad’s trying to hand to her. That’s when she checks her six and sees the giant red spot of Jupiter on her bum. “Oh, my . . .”
When she looks at me, her face is as red as her missing wine. I don’t back down. I don’t look away. I never do.
Dad says you can win a battle but lose a war. When he looks at me, I know I’ve lost something. . .
The New Year is knocking on the front door. I can see him through the peephole with a handful of “bills past due” in his left hand and a wad of cash in the other. Every time I let him in, he knocks that priceless lamp by the door over or spills grape juice on the carpet.
I hesitate. Old Year is comfortable, relaxing on the couch with some luke-warm hot chocolate, re-reading list of unfinished projects. He’s comfortable in the same sort of way that a known misery trumps the unknown. Or comfortable like oft-worn pair of pants with a hole in the bum, and anyone looking too closely can see your undies.
Hopefully, nobody’s looking too closely.
Old Year hasn’t been all bad, though. For example, I finished writing a book called The Deep End Of Life.
It isn’t about dragons, spaceships, or a lonely thief trying feed his kids. In some ways it is a very ordinary book. It’s about an 11-year-old girl coping with her parents’ divorce. It’s about what sometimes happens to kids when their parents break up. It isn’t an autobiography by any stretch of the imagination, but it is real.
I’ve mentioned this before, but 2016 was a difficult year for me, and it was hard for my kids as well. It was the year their parents got divorced.
Sometime during the fall of 2016, while somewhat innocently browsing for internet video games, my oldest, a boy, came across an un-closed browser tab for “divorce attorneys.” He tried to cover up the screen and click away before the younger siblings saw, but they knew right away something was up.
Not how you want your kids to find out there’s trouble in paradise.
That led to some difficult, but important discussions. As parents, we offered to take them to counseling, and mentioned that it had been helpful for us in bringing healing and understanding. Only the youngest seemed open to the idea, but she—if I remember correctly—marched into the elementary school counselor’s office and demanded a session, without parental assistance.
Around that time, the kids were doing year-round swimming. When I picked them up from practice one day, a coach informed me that the youngest (same kid) had spent “a lot of time” in the bathroom. “I don’t like swim practice,” she said later, and she admitted skipping practice to “do gymnastics” on the locker room benches.
That moment stuck with me—a fourth grader swimming dutifully (mostly) through the winter months, when maybe she had bigger dreams, and it came back to me a few months later.
One evening, the youngest walks into the living room, whips out a piece of college-ruled paper, and accosts the oldest.
“Let’s talk,” she says.
He mumbles something that might, under duress, constitute an agreement.
I grin, because I like listening in on their private conversations, when I can. True, I’m only three feet away, but I’m also washing dishes. Chores (or anyone doing them) are completely invisible to kids. As long as you don’t make any noise or alter your facial expressions when they say outrageous things, they don’t know you’re actually there.
Over the counter I can see the paper she’s holding, and I realize—sadly—that this isn’t going to be one of the juicy ones. The college-ruled notebook paper has “book titles” written at the top. I can’t, for the life of me, recognize any of them.
“Tell me if any of these are good,” she demands of her older brother.
It takes me a minute to catch on, but apparently they’ve done this before, and none of the titles on her list are real. What she’s written is a bunch of test-case titles to see if her big, mature, well-read junior high brother seems interested in any of them. She’s not even particularly motivated to do anything with the information. She just wants to know.
And for an eighth-grader, he’s remarkably patient. “Yeah, that one’s pretty good,” he says, occasionally. Or he just shakes his head when they don’t meet his fancy.
It’s a fun game, initiated by a ten-year-old. Most of them are acceptable middle-grade mock-up titles, but there’s only one I remember now: The Deep End Of Life.
The moment she read it, I was transported from the kitchen, out of the present, away from the months of co-parenting and breadwinning, and aches and worries that parents feel. For a moment, I was there, watching my daughter dancing across that locker room bench, finding her own peace of mind in a world that had just imploded. And I think of that same kid, striding powerfully into the elementary school front office demanding to meet with the school counselor, a trained mental health professional.
The Deep End of Life is a title written by a fourth-grader. There are plenty of people who could come up with a better one. But it stunned me, reminded me of how little of their lives I actually see. It pulled back the curtain for a moment on the drama of childhood, the drama of fourth grade.
I wanted to catch that image and put it in a bottle. Some authors write the book they wish they’d had growing up. I wrote the book I wish my kids had had. It’s okay—and sometimes even fun—to get help when you’re swimming in the deep end.
With the day job in the mix, it took me a few years to finish. It helped that my commute in 2020 has been considerably shorter.
Thanks for that, at least, Old Year.
The New Year knocks again, louder this time. Opening that door will bring all sorts of problems. But it might bring some good things too. I look at Old Year, who is still lounging on the couch, eating smelly leftovers. “Yeah,” I say. “Get off the couch.”
He stands up and stretches, makes his way to the front door. His jeans are faded and a pocket seam has burst. There’s a bit of plaid boxer peeking through. He always lingers at the end.
“Undies are showing again,” I say, to encourage him onward.
He turns to look at me, hand on the doorknob. “Did you finish writing another book?”
“Do some cool things with your kids?”
“Then stop looking at my undies.”
Every year is challenging. This year I’m thankful for friends, family, and a finishing another manuscript.