“Won’t I suffocate?” I ask my sixteen-year-old son, whilst standing in a three-block-deep hole and trying to remember the super-secret Xbox handshake for laying sod. It isn’t enough to promise your son a day of Minecraft. You also have to survive it. And not just in the physical sense.
“But I’ll be completely sealed in!”
“Exactly. Minecraft monsters have no concept of object permanence. If you seal the hole, they’ll wander off.” [Like some adolescents, whenever chores start.]
“Are you sure that’s my best strategy?”
“Yes.” He doesn’t look at me, deftly maneuvering his character for the greater good of Minecraft. He avoids directly mentioning my crappy grasp of avatar control. “That’s the best you can do ‘til morning.”
I throw a block of freshly mined dirt into the air as instructed, but it does not seal the opening above me as promised but falls back into the hole and bounces around by my feet.
“Not the B button, Dad. The left trigger.”
“Very sound advice. Thanks.”
I consider again the possibility of slipping the controller to my daughter (the youngest) and incrementally teleporting myself to the home office. I have other, very real holes to dig out of, and burying myself alive (virtually) hits a little close to home. But somehow, at Christmas, leaving feels wrong. Welch on this promise and I might as well douse the Christmas tree in gasoline and light a match.
“That’s the right bumper, Dad,” he corrects me again. “Use the trigger. No. . . No. . . the left trigger.”
Dirt sails ineffectually through the air again. “Crap!” In terms of advice, I can confirm that it is much easier to give than receive.
I can hear monster sounds: grunts, groans, and creepy music that promise all sorts of impending doom. One split-screen over, my son is halfway through turning his own sod-tomb into a hobbit mansion.
A mottled-green monster plops into my unfinished hole, sizzling like fuse.
“Ope!” My son says. “That’s a creeper.”
My son’s avatar stops digging and face-palms.
My tiny effort is now a giant, smoking crater. The few, pitiful treasures I’ve painstakingly gathered are splattered across an empty grassy plain, glittering like dewdrops of pain beneath the night sky.
The screen fades from red to gray. (Well, my half of the screen fades. My son’s half is fine.)
After a few seconds my avatar reincarnates again, alone and unequipped in a field full of monsters, including the green explody kind.
“Dig!” my son commands. “Dig, you fool!” [Insert Gandalf link.]
I dig. Miraculously I manage to seal myself in the sod tomb, hands shaking on the controller. A happy little accident, as Bob Ross would say.
I am never going to survive a day of this, I think. I ready my ‘dig/punch’ function, determined to land at least one hit before getting detonated.
“Good job, Dad.”
Wait, what? Was that positive reinforcement?
Gradually the thrill of not dying is replaced with the dissatisfaction of sitting in a crummy hole. “This is boring. When do I get some payback?”
“Stay there,” my son says. “We’ll get to that.”
I look over at his side of the screen: he’s sprinting across the monster-laden plain recovering my lost goodies. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
And suddenly, it’s my son, the wise, old mentor.
“We’ll talk about retribution, after you make some armor.”
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 re-explains the controls to me while the rest of the cousins giggle. And from the back of the cousin pile my son’s voice cuts through chatter like Minecraft’s infamous diamond blade:
“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 triggers. 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, perhaps 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.”
“The days are long but the years are short.” –Gretchen Rubin
Not bragging, but in high school I scored a role as one of the lusty muleteers in The Man of La Mancha. For those of you who know me, this is totally out of character. For those of you who don’t know me . . . er . . . take my word for it. But I was good in auditions. Really good. For every show, I was the guy throwing a kicking-and-screaming Aldonza over his shoulder and hauling her off-stage. Great fun, discounting make-up and tight pants.
I have one, not-so-fun memory about that production though. I was supposed to play a song on the lute and sing a solo with it. I had a lute. (Dad.) And a decent voice. (Mom.)
But every time I looked at the sheet music and thought about bar chords, time signatures, and picking, I got intimidated. With two weeks to spare, I confessed to my drama teacher that I wasn’t going to be able to play and sing at the same time. She was mildly disappointed, but shrugged and said we could use the pit orchestra, and that everything would be fine. No big deal.
But that moment stuck with me. It wasn’t talent or time that beat me. It was intimidation. This is a lesson I keep learning—one that keeps coming back for second helpings.
Earlier this year I told a potential agent that I’d have a rewritten novel manuscript to him by mid-March. It’s taken a lot of work to make it this far, and I continue to get positive feedback from other writers and editors, but my confidence went way down every time I looked at the forward work. “I’ll never be able to do all that, let alone before March.” Comparing the few spare hours I have each week for writing with the enormity of project left me emotionally bankrupt. How can I even start on a project that “will never be finished?”
Our brains are wired for quick pay-offs. If you don’t believe it, check out the research by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, here or here. En bref, the quick reward of finishing something today is more important today than the promised reward of finishing something large and meaningful several weeks down the road. For the less ambitious, Tim Urban does a funny Ted talk about what happens in the mind of a chronic procrastinator.
When I was complaining about my lack of motivation, my wife suggested, “Why don’t you make a paper chain link for every hour’s worth of work you think it will take. Then you can cut off a link every time you do an hour of work and measure your progress?” I was dubious about the motivational power of paper chains, but with cheap subcontracting (my son), I got a chain suspended in my office in no time. It started at 178 links or 178 hours. A bit of depression sets in when you realize your 10th draft needs more than 40 hours a week for four straight weeks. (Obviously, I’d need more than four weeks to make up the time if I was to keep my regular bread-and-butter job and have a family.) But the kids keep begging to cut links for me, and now I have to scramble to keep up with them.
And the exercise made writing therapeutic again. The project wasn’t Mount McKinley on the horizon anymore. It was 178 day hikes spread out across as many days as needed to do it right. The real value didn’t come from the begging children, as cute as they are. It came from chunking out the work, parsing it into one-hour units. It came from breaking down the problem into constituent, achievable parts and identifying which pieces could be done anywhere with a red pen and a shade tree, and which pieces need two or three quiet hours in front of a computer screen.
Suddenly it was much easier to do a few pages each day, and seeing the redlines materialize on the printed page gave me that small kick of accomplishment I needed to do a little more.
I still haven’t learned to play that Man of La Mancha song on my lute, but I’ve made some serious progress on the manuscript . . .
What are tricks do you use to get motivated on challenging projects?
“Legolas! What in Durin’s name am I supposed to do with this thing?”
I’ve never liked shaving. It’s too close a compatriot to tender skin and bleeding chin. And now I have another reason to dislike it. . .
Some of you know I like soccer. I play on an Over 30 indoor team and play pick-up on Saturday mornings when I get the chance. Or perhaps I should say “I played.”
Here’s a bad formula: Uneven Soccer Field + Trash-talking 36-year-old + Changing Directions = Knee Surgery
One minute you’re an all-star and the next minute you’re flat on your back staring up into the concerned faces of 20 friends, wondering when you got old and what you’ll write about this painful experience. You worry that now you won’t be able to finish your novel by the deadline, and all sorts of other irrelevant things.
Everybody’s milling about, telling you to stay down. The doctor in the group has you by the ankle and calf—you don’t remember him picking your leg up—and is checking to see if everything lines back up. The hot Texas sun is pounding on your face and the St. Augustine grass is stabbing into your bare arms. And there’s the white hot pain of knowing you screwed up.
They help you get to your feet and tell you you’re done for the day, even if you think you can play a little more. After a few steps you realize you’ll at least be able to make it to the car.
It’s hard to know right away just how bad it’s going to be, but after the swelling and the denial wear off and the doctor orders an MRI, things come into focus pretty quick: lateral meniscus, medial meniscus, and anterior cruciate ligament, all blown.
I don’t do things halfway.
Now for the humor. Plenty of things to manage during this whole process: recovery time, family obligations, writing schedules, and telling my indoor team the bad news. But I didn’t expect hair growth to be one of them. On the morning of the surgery, I’m lying in the hospital bed and a nice girl comes in and wants to see a little leg. The hospital smock isn’t exactly modest, but I pull it up past the knee anyway. Best not to argue with them, not when they’re holding power tools and you’re in a drafty smock and getting an intravenous drip.)
The nice girl shaves my knee bald-baby in less than a minute. She wipes the area down to sterilize. Because my knee feels cold and and naked, she lets me cover it back up. Then the sleepy drugs kick in. I dream about getting wheeled to out to the car and pretending to eat some food.
I wake up a few weeks later in physical therapy doing an excruciating knee bend.
ME: “Where am I?”
DEVIL: “The place where bad little children go.”
ME: “Really? Why?”
DEVIL: “You missed your shot in that soccer game.”
ME: “Ah. Makes perfect sense.”
During that first hour of therapy I re-notice the hair: my right leg is perfectly normal, but there’s a swath of deforestation, ending mid calf where the surgery prepper left off with her power tools. The transition from bare leg to hair is so abrupt that every time I look down I forget about the pain of rehab and wonder what might come crawling out of that jungle and onto the empty plain. It’s seriously distracting. I keep waiting for the therapists to say something, but they never do. They see weird stuff every day, I guess. One more half-shaved leg isn’t going to throw them.
But the naked knee and the Black Forest on half my calf is a problem, even if the physical therapists don’t say anything about it. People in Houston are still wearing shorts in December, and I want to fit in. Every time I go out in public, I know people are staring that that transition line and wondering why I didn’t just shave the whole thing. “Doesn’t he know how bad it looks?”
Eventually, the stares get inside my head. This is not the sort of thing I want attention for. People shave their legs, right? I decide I can make two-equally naked legs and grow it all back the same length. Problem solved.
Smart men consult the internet before taking on a job like that. Smart men start with the hair clippers and then use a razor, if they must. Other men (men like me) just watch their wives surreptitiously and then go for it. It can’t be that hard, right?
Well, first off, twenty years of not shaving your legs can make the first outing a bit rocky. Where did all this hair come from? I can’t even grow a full beard, but one little swipe on my leg is enough to put my Gillette Mach 3 out of action. I sit in the shower for an hour, wiping the excess off my razor, cursing myself for another dumb idea.
I’ve got golf-ball-sized bare spots all up and down my leg and now the shower is running out of hot water, and everything looks just as hairy as before. I can’t let the hair go down the drain because I’m the one who handles the clogs, and I may have teased my wife a bit about her bathroom sink, so if I clog this one . . .
Then I start to notice how cold the bathroom really is. It may feel like summer outside, but a Texas bathroom always knows it’s winter. The tile is cold. The air is cold. The shower curtain is slimy and cold. The lukewarm water only makes the goose bumps worse.
There’s a writing lesson in this, but I’m going to save it for next week. The important thing? It took me three days to finish. I went as high as men’s 1970s basketball shorts and called it quits.
“Good marketing makes the company look smart. Great marketing makes the customer feel smart.”
I woke up to my predicament, palms sweating, at 9:30am when the customers and crafting ladies started rolling in. My book table was half-buried in the forest of more conventional booths: crocheted “Minion” hats, fleece blankets with tied fringes, hand-carved wooden crosses, and an assortment of other craft fair products. The vendor to my right was selling custom herbal tea blends and the vendor to my left, homemade jewelry. I could almost hear my fifth grade teacher humming, “One of these things is not like the other…”
That’s what I get for having bright ideas.
The itch started a few weeks ago. I must have been looking for a break from the daily slog of work, parenting, and grinding out edits on Plague Runners , because I actually read the craft fair email advertisement before deleting it: “JSC Annual Holiday Bazaar,” it said.
Hmm… I’m not really the crafty sort.Delete.
Sometime in the next 24 hours, the itch got worse. I like to write, but I like to meet and talk to people as well, and cloistering myself to get another writing project done was killing me. So what if the only escape nearby was a certified craft fair? I could go as a vendor. Surely there would be some poor fellow there looking for an oasis of fantasy in that ocean of knick-knacks and Scentsy candles?
So I did the essential research:
Buy-In Cost: $55 Estimated potential customers: 200-300 Demographic: Middle-age craft fair enthusiasts, family members, and assorted NASA employees Competing Products: ~70 booths, only two selling books, none selling fantasy / sword-and-sorcery Reference Case: If you ask nicely. . . Likelihood of Breaking Even: ???
I contacted the reference case to get perspective on whether or not the buy-in price made sense for the type of sales I could expect. The reference case vendor was very encouraging once he heard about my books. “You should give this venue a shot.” (I didn’t realize at the time that he was a fantasy enthusiast as well, and would end up buying both my books. . .)
I mulled it over. It would be a low risk opportunity to get real-time sales experience. Even better, the mix of vendors didn’t threaten to crowd out an up-and-coming fantasy/sci-fi author. And, sheesh, if I couldn’t sell a few books to whichever coworkers happened to wander past, then I’d never amount to anything, anyways.
I bought in, excited at the prospect of sharing DARTS and RINGS with potential new fans and publicizing the upcoming release of SWORDS.
Still, I’m not a fan of cold calls. I dislike being approached by salespeople, and consequently feel very self-conscious about doing the same. And what if my work friends thought my book was silly? What if nobody showed up? What if the people who came to the craft fair actually did only want to buy crafts?
I’d be out $55 and a fair bit of self-respect, that’s what. The thought didn’t thrill me. Why was I going to a craft fair? What else could I do to help cover the costs of the table, some diversification more relevant to a NASA holiday craft fair?
Well? I like making snowflakes. And I’m pretty good at it, too. Eight-points. Six-points. Spider-web. Eagle Feather. Something for everyone. So I made a few at home. My wife suggested that they were elegant, but looked a bit plain for the likes of a craft fair, so I took a few out back and spray-painted them. Then I made a more snowflakes from the black butcher paper used to catch paint. (The “shadow-flake” has overlapping patterns of paint and darkness, and is quite striking.) Even if I didn’t sell any books, I ‘d be able to sell enough of these beauties to offset the cost of the booth.
Wrong again. Sitting at my booth, it quickly obvious that most people don’t consider snowflakes a worthy investment. But I watched their hungry eyes and slowing steps of the ladies as they passed, trying to puzzle out how these beautiful snowflakes came into existence without incurring this particular booth’s sales job.
Ahh. So crafting people aren’t so different than me? Who wants to be sold to? So I pivoted.
Me: “Would you like to know how to do it?” [With no hint of ulterior motive.] Craft Lady: “Actually, yes.”
I spent the whole day helping people make their own. I’d planned to do a mini-course (mostly for friends, family, and bkhewett.com enthusiasts), but everyone else seemed interested in the hands-on too.
Pretty soon I had a swarm of people around my booth, including the other vendors. Lucky thing I brought an extra pair of scissors and some paper. We laughed and joked. They smiled and expressed their own creativity, and occasionally appreciated mine. More people came to see what the commotion was about and started making snowflakes of their own. And once my new friends finished making snowflakes, many of them friends wanted signed books. Others offered one-dollar tips for the holiday craft lesson and promised to look my books up once they got home.
It was fun. It broke the ice. I provided people with an opportunity to express themselves creatively. I didn’t have to awkwardly pressure anyone into buying a book they didn’t want. They could see the books on the table and ask questions in their own time-frame. The hardest part of the whole day was making sure I gave each person in the crowd proper attention.
I didn’t go out thinking about how I was going to stop traffic at my booth, teach a new skill, engage the creative brain, and then sell books. I started with the question of how I could cover the cost of the booth if my books didn’t sell. That idea morphed through the day into something that made the venue more enjoyable for others and made the sales experience more enjoyable. What’s more, selling books and meeting new fans put fire back into my cloister efforts, and I’ve been twice as productive over the last two weeks.
What’s my main point here? Be flexible. Pivot. Run with that crazy idea for a bit. It may be the first step in an even better idea.
ESSENTIALS FOR RUNNING A BOOTH
Merchandise (including an accurate book count)
Cashbox (with change, and a starting till count)
Patch Kit (Scissors, Tape, Pens and Pencils)
Mailing List Sign-Up
Business Cards or Book Marks
iPhone Credit Card reader (if you’re that kind of person…)
An event-appropriate talent/activity to share with potential customers
PROBLEM SOLVING SUMMARY
Identify Need: Change of scenery. Inventory collecting dust.
Identify Solution: Holiday Craft Fair
Calculate Benefits: New Fans, Change of Scenery, Professional Contacts, Potential Profit
Postulate Risks: I might look silly selling books at a craft fair, waste my writing time, and not cover costs.
Identify Mitigations: Take a secondary product such as snowflakes.
Flex and Pivot: Use the snowflakes as a conversation starter and bonus for book purchases.
I returned to a very quiet house from a family trip to the Pacific Northwest. It’s quiet because Cami and the kids have reunion duty in California while I pay the bills and tidy up a few stories for publication.
Saturday. The silence is deafening here. I can hear the thunder of our refrigerator and the steady tick-tick-tick of the mantle clock in the absence of exuberant children.
It’s almost quiet enough to hear Freddy, the dead cockroach. He’s on the floor of Cami’s office, begging for a fitting burial, legs up in the air, as poison (or starvation) takes its toll. I try to ignore him each time I check the parakeet, but he’s getting into my head. Did he just move?
On Tuesday he’s still there, and still dead, and now he’s invited a friend, also dead.
Those of you that haven’t lived south of Waco should consider yourselves lucky. There are few things creepier than reaching into a dark cupboard and feeling the skitter of cockroach feet across the sensitive part of your hand. That’s the feeling I get every time I walk past Freddy and wish my kids were here, because they love finding cockroaches. “Dad, you owe me five cents. I just cleaned up another one!”
Nobody’s going to clean up that roach.
On Wednesday I give him extra space, going outside to eat my Jimmy John’s sandwich. The 90 degrees Fahrenheit is a welcome change to my freezing office. The lizards are running across the deck, doing pushups and flaring out a big orange throat flap they use to get the attention of the opposite sex. Not unlike Facebook I suppose.
I relax into my favorite deck chair and enjoy the show, sitting so still that a lizard crawls up the plastic back and onto the collar of my shirt. Unaware of the passenger, I bring it inside with me once I’ve finished my sandwich. He sits on my collar for 20 minutes until the AC starts to cool him down. That’s when I feel the tiny little claws on my neck. For the split second before launch, all I can think about is Freddy and his dead buddy crawling about my neck. The lizard flies through the air and lands among the plants gathered for vacation plant care (another story).
After that, I sweep up the dead roaches. It’s not worth carrying that kind of burden.
I do this too often. I shy away from things that irritate, intimidate, or feel unclear or difficult to me. Last week I made a comment on one of my favorite podcasts about Fantasy and Science Fiction storytelling, Writing Excuses. For several days my comment stayed in comment moderation limbo. In the back of my head I wondered: Am I not good enough to have my comments accepted? Did my website link offend someone? Was I supposed to do something differently? Eventually I made the effort to reach out to a few people who are familiar with such things. I’m not sure what they did, but within an hour, my comment had been accepted. It’s a small thing, but it reminded me that starting small is sometimes better than waiting until you can see the end from the beginning.
This struggle manifests in my writing. I don’t want to write anything down that’s not brilliant, so I chew on my pen cap or write seven different opening lines and discard them all. I’m trying to be perfect before I’ve even finished draft one. To combat this, I wrote a crappy post this week, start to finish. I slept on it, rewrote it, and sent it to my brother for a second opinion. I took hard feedback, and worked on it some more. Each time, the path became a little clearer, reminding me that sometimes the best advice is to start small.
Right now I’m working through the sixth draft of my novel Plague Runners, and I needed this advice more than ever. “Keep writing Ben. You’re planting ideas that won’t be ripe until tomorrow.” A special thanks to Diann Read and Peter Ahlstrom, who each encouraged me this week in their own way.
Call to Action:
Write a short poem about a preferred topic (lizards, cockroaches, or turnips?). Let it sit overnight, and then rewrite it. Ask a friend to critique it. For the especially brave, post the final poem in the comments here or on Facebook. I’m particularly interested in how your concept changed after a good night’s sleep.
What drew me to Fantasy and Science Fiction as a child was its emphasis on possibility. You can slay (or tame) that dragon. You can destroy the ring. Good triumphs over evil. New technology forces us to grips with our shortcomings and helps us remember our humanity. Though both genres offer examples where this is NOT the case (I Am Legend, Richard Matheson and A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin), this focus has often pushed me to ask the question “what if . . .” in my own life. Why not challenge overwhelming odds?
“Why not try out for the middle school starting fullback position on the football team? Never mind that I’m 90 pounds, sopping wet.”
“Why not ask that girl out? So what if she is out of my league?”
“What if I audition for the high school musical? Who cares if I’m I a senior and have never taken theatre before?”
My best experiences come from dreaming big and following through. So when your Nokia 5310 GSM goes for a swim, dream big:
Saturday, November 6, 2010
The lifespan of your average cell phone is longer if it doesn’t go swimming in Clearlake, which is exactly what ours did last week, and all our contacts with it. (Not my fault.)
On Saturday I decide to mount a recovery effort. I pack up the kids and some essentials—socks, flippers, flipper-booties, snorkel mask, trunks—and head on back to the dock. Just so you know, the mask isn’t to see better. The bottom of Clearlake is actually buried in 8-inches of mud, oyster shells, and alligator droppings. It’s murky as all getout down there. The mask is actually for keeping the icy salt water off my cheeks and eyes.
I get all that stuff on, leaving the kids under a pile of clothes on the dock for insulation. They promise me they’ll sit. Unfortunately, the water is colder than I’ve anticipated and they giggle and run for high ground when I thrash in the water. They settle down after I assure them I won’t splash anymore. By now I’m too numb. They resume their assigned tasks of watching for alligators, keeping my emergency towels dry, and not falling in. Some of them shout helpful hints like, “You’re probably not going to find it,” and “I’m cold.”
I agree: it’s cold. I’ve only found a beer bottle. There’s nothing to see. It’s dark and cold down there and the only comfort is the fact that the mud is a few degrees warmer than the water. I climb up onto the dock.
“Get back in the water dad,” my five-year-old daughter, Eve, insists. She’s already said a prayer to help me find the phone, and she’s not about to let me give up. She uses her sweet-and-matter-of-fact-voice: “You need to look a little farther out.”
So I make a few passes a little farther out. I’m 8 feet under and about 10 feet from the dock now. The water is icy and the mud is still black. The oyster shells are still scratchy. I swim as low as I can and hold my breath. This isn’t very long, because my chest keeps shriveling up and forcing the air out of my lungs thanks to the cold temperature. It’s been 15 minutes and staying out any longer would be foolishness. A SIM card is not worth this. . . .
My hand brushes over something rectangular and hard, right where Eve told me to look.No kidding.
I get out and strip down to my trunks, ignoring the “NUTJOB!” looks from passing motorists.
Eve hands me my towel and I hand her the phone. “Hold it carefully,” I say ineffectually as the phone slides down the slanted dock ramp. Luckily, it snags on a traction rail. This time I zip it into the jacket that Carter (7) has reluctantly returned to me.
“Yeah, me too. Can you help me carry some of this stuff?”
Olivia (3) hops around gleefully on the way back to the car. “You did it, daddy! You did it!” Eve’s carrying the wet mask. Carter’s got my pair of corderoys wrapped around his neck like an extra-long scarf.
After a short operation at home, it’s obvious that the SIM card works. I know because we put it in a somewhat drier, older model phone that we’d been using as kid bait for the last few years.
When my wife gets home she is shocked to see the old phone operating under brain transplant. “I thought that phone was gone forever!”
“Some of it may be,” I respond, “but the contact list isn’t.”
I caught a lizard today at work. He was sun-bathing outside Building 4S at JSC, ribs rising and falling peacefully, lazy eyes dipping shut for long seconds at a time. I stood in the warm sun and watched him for at least two minutes, watched his eyes dim and re-open.
I’d gone outside because my new office is bitter cold and facilities management is on their third attempt at getting things under control. The room was originally designed for handling the heat loads from a Shuttle Era mainframe computer, and I guess one guy in his mid-thirties doesn’t throw off that much heat. Getting to work is like a sad version of that opening scene from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood: I take off my nice black dress shoes and slip on thick pair of wool socks, soccer length. Instead of loafers, I use thick-hide cowboy boots. Mr. Rogers gets a comfy sweater, while I get a gray hoodie from Old Navy, followed by the black blazer once kept exclusively for important meetings with upper management.
Of all the government agencies, you’d think NASA could get environmental controls right, but we’re just as bad as the next. When we build an office building, we don’t build it like a spacecraft. We build it with the short game in mind. (Or we did in the ’60s and ’80s.) While the walls are modular, the air handlers, thermostat controls, and ducting are not. Every time NASA re-orgs, the walls are reconfigured, and the thermostats creep farther and farther from the rooms they control. After twenty or thirty years, the temperature control to your office might be in the third floor ladies room (don’t ask me why), while the temperature gauge is in the second floor spacesuit lab. Spare no expense. . .
In my old office, people in the conference room next door used to come beg me to turn the temperature down. “We’re roasting,” they’d say.
I wasn’t particularly understanding. “Deal with it, suckers. It’s only for an hour.”
Payback stinks. I like my job, but (Boss are you reading this?) my new office is a bit cold. Like cold enough to freeze penguins. At least twice today my co-workers asked if they could just leave their lunches since the fridge is almost full. Very funny, Patrick, and you other guy whose name I can’t remember.
That’s why I went outside to sun myself with the lizards. Call it kinship. I suddenly understood the temptation to lie in the sun all day and blink lethargically. I watched him blink, and he ignored me because I was too cold to move. I noticed his eye pattern after a while: open for one second, close for three. The part of me that is still ten years old goads my more mature self:
Young Ben: “Bet you can’t catch that lizard when he closes his eyes.”
Old Ben: “I’m not as slow as I look.”
Young Ben: “Yes you are. You’re practically decrepit. You have to sun yourself to stay warm!”
Old Ben: “Shut up. I’ll show you.”
The next time the lizard closes its eyes, I put my right hand over him quickly and carefully, so he can’t run, and then carefully grasp him by the head with my left hand, between thumb and pointer finger. Even so, he almost gets away, and he definitely isn’t happy about getting a cold hug from my hand. He opens his mouth wide, griping about the interrupted nap and trying to look ferocious. I notice patterns of blue scaling right under his eyes, and bring him up close to my face to watch his color change from black to greenish brown.
Young Ben: “Bet you can’t poke him in the face with your tongue.”
I know better than to take that bet, from past experience:
. . .
Have you ever tried to swear with a lizard clamped to the tip of your tongue? You’re better than that? Good.
You can say whatever you want ’cause they will hang from your tongue for hours, grinding their tiny little jaws as you shout poorly-enunciated expletives. They don’t let go. Not till they’re sure you won’t be licking them in the face anymore.
Every few seconds, the lizard’s legs windmill in a test for available traction. I give him a good perch on my finger, but that doesn’t seem to make him any more secure. I take my finger back and give him a little tug—not hard. This only pulls my tongue out farther.
I’m nailed to the spot, trying to breathe through my nose, imagining what might happen if someone comes out the back door at that very moment. My mouth is hanging wide open waggling my tongue to shake the lizard loose. He’s holding on tighter for it, tail swinging back and forth. I can’t close my mouth either because I don’t really want lizard underbelly flavoring in my mouth. I wouldn’t be able to close fully anyway.
A couple of odd thoughts cross my mind: What would the uber-pierced clientele down at Hot Topic say about this? I could try stuffing the lizard in my mouth and then approach them all casual-like, “Tongue-ring? Yeah, thaths pretty cool, but beat thith!” and then unfurl my tongue-lizard with great pride.
Or even better, tell my seven-year-old to keep a straight face while I try to read her Green Eggs and Ham or Fox in Sox. Or one of my terribly serious fantasy stories.
What works in the end is a firm, steady grip on the little monster’s head and a steady pull. He doesn’t give up without a fight, but I do prevail, and we’re both happier once he’s scurried back into the bushes. Of course he probably told the story a little differently when he got home from work that day: “And that, you little lizards, is how the tiny dragon slew the giant knight!”
. . .
That’s another thing. Stories are usually better in retrospect, after a bit of self-examination, and that same reflection can give rise to interesting insights. DARTS is based on a dinner I had with some work associates after a Space Shuttle Quarterly Review. RINGS came from my wife’s comment that I had ended a late draft of DARTS wrong and my brother’s insistence that I had too much story for one story. Plague Runners (in editing) was born from seeing my then-two-year-old daughter put her tongue to the black rail of an airport conveyance walkway and let it slide beneath her tongue for several seconds, while I frantically try to pull her away. (I bet she’d lick a lizard too. I should be more careful.)
At first, these things frightened me, these post-story insights from friends and family. I thought it meant I was inadequate. When I realized only my ego had been harmed, they drove me to examine more deeply and to see more clearly. Observation is the knack for seeing things right in front of you and thinking about them in a new light. “What would happen if. . .”
What’s something you’ve wondered about? Funny, strange things happen when you ask questions and look for tiny details. Things worth writing about. Try it. Stir the pot. Lick a non-venomous lizard. Tell me about it.
Last week I published my first book (Darts) on Amazon and stumbled across this old Facebook post. It’s a piece of my journal entry. I laughed out loud as I read the comments and realized that this dream has been a long time in coming. Thanks to you who have encouraged me.
Jaime Deter: So Ben…why aren’t you a writer… I see one news-feed line & it [pulls] me in…couldn’t help but enjoy ‘the rest of the story.’ Seriously…you’ve got a gift.
January 14, 2011
Cocoa Beach, Florida
I did go swimming. I couldn’t resist. Don’t tell my wife or my runny nose.
I went to a budget meeting at the Kennedy Space Center today. I listened, played my part, and tried to keep my nose from dripping on the table. After work, the winter beach was calling, and I couldn’t resist. Don’t tell my wife or my runny nose.
Oh. And I played blues scales for the sunny seagulls on my harmonica. It was windy, so I hid behind the Lifeguard sign until those bums went home and took their dumb sign with them. Then the wind reminded me I’d promised myself some exercise. Running barefoot in the water led to running barefoot and sweater-less in the water . . . one thing leads to another. As I ran, my legs told me they wanted more kick-up spray, so I stripped down to my shorts, and gave my back a shower too. The shallow water cradled my feet and softened the impact without slowing me down. I felt like a Ferrari, enjoying a quiet track, watching the empty sidelines stream by before taking a tight corner. I wished I’d brought my wetsuit, but pretty soon I was swimming anyways.
The walk home was cold, but I got to sneer cheerfully at the dreary hotel weight room as I headed for my hot shower.
Thanks for encouraging me to follow my dreams, Jamie.