Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Reflection #40/40

I turned 40 today, May 27, but we’re about to move, so I had my birthday party last Saturday. It wouldn’t make sense to have a party when you don’t even have a house.

Alice and I moved into this house ten years ago, right after I turned 30. It was the perfect size for the two of us. But now that we have two kids, we need more room.

We’ve been moving stuff out of our house all year. At first the goal was to de-clutter, so that we could properly stage the house when we put it on the market. It took us months to get that done. Finally, after countless hours of labor, we transformed our home into a spacious and elegant place. It looked great; it made us think, Wow, we have plenty of room, why did we ever want to move? And then we remembered that half our belongings were in storage.

When we put our house on the market in April we were terrified that no one would want it and, even if we found a new house, we would end up paying two mortgages. But fortunately, amazingly, we found a buyer within four days of putting it on the market.

Most of our friends never saw our house in its elegant and spacious phase. By the time my birthday party rolled around, the house was mostly empty, with random piles of stuff crammed against the walls.

The theme of the party was 40 Appetizers for 40 Years, and everyone brought appetizers. Such wonderful appetizers. We ended up with more than 40, for sure. I thought I would be able to at least sample each one, but there was just too much, and I couldn’t do it. Though I made a valiant effort. Points for originality go out to Kate for the chicken & waffles with maple gravy, and to Joey for the weird retro hot-dog-pieces-on-sticks-stuck-in-cauliflower.

Tons of people showed up; people I know from college, from Barnes & Noble, from the Church of the Redeemer, from Good Shepherd, from Riverview East Academy, from Arcadian Comics & Games, from the Edge House, and more. All those places and eras I’ve been writing about in these reflections came to life and intermingled. It was great to see everyone, and chat with them, and my only problem was that I couldn’t talk to everyone longer. I felt bad to neglect anybody, but dang, there were a lot of people. And I am extremely grateful to all of them for showing up.

Not everyone could make it. I was particularly disappointed that Skaught and his family, who were originally planning to come, had to cancel because of a family emergency. I understand, of course, but I missed seeing him. I don’t see him enough.

Like I said, though, it was an excellent turnout, and it was great to bring together so many fine minds to discuss the important issues of the day. Like, who is the best Batman artist? Matt, Erik, and Chris all put Marshall Rogers in first or second place; I like Rogers, but I prefer Jim Aparo. Aparo’s Batman is the platonic ideal of Batman.

Many people I talked to commented on these reflections I’ve been writing. It’s gratifying that people have enjoyed them, and I’ve enjoyed doing it, but it’s also been a weird experience for me. For years I didn’t post anything personal on Facebook. But when I decided to do this project I thought, what the heck, let’s put it all out there. Now I’ve shared all sorts of details of my life with hundreds of people, and I like to think we’ve all grown a little bit closer.

When I started the project I made a list of topics I wanted to cover, and the list kept growing and growing. Now that I’m at the end, there are glaring gaps—I wish I had written about my cousin Rebecca and her family, and about my in-laws, and so many others. The more I named specific people, the more I felt guilty about all the people I hadn’t named.

At the beginning, I thought I could include all the important parts of my life in 40 reflections. I quickly realized, though, that there was no way. I tried to cram in the high points, with occasional digressions about cassette singles and comic books. At least I showed some restraint; I could have easily written 40 reflections about comics.

Despite the omissions and oversights, I’m glad I did this. Thinking back over my life I remembered a thousand more things than what I wrote about. I started out with the attitude of, “Oh my God, how can I be 40? Where did all the time go?” Now it’s, “Come to think of it, I did a lot of things in those 40 years.” And, even better, I realize that I don’t have much to regret; there have been so many good times and great people that I have to admit I have been very, very fortunate.

What I’ve realized is that I’m not really very anxious about turning 40. I turned 40 today, and I feel the same as I did yesterday. What I’m anxious about is moving. I have spent all day stressed out about the move. Looking back, moving, and the depression that has followed moving, has been a major theme in these reflections. This project has been at least partially an attempt to defuse any potential upcoming depression.

And yes, I know it’s not that big a move. We are literally moving one street away. We will be in the same neighborhood. The point is that we are leaving our home.

Tonight is our last night in this house. I’m going to miss it. So is Abby—it finally sunk in, that the move was really happening, and she started bawling. “I don’t want to move!” she said, “I love our house!” Alice and I nodded sadly. We love our house, too. This whole process is so exhausting that after a certain point you can’t even remember why you wanted to move in the first place. And, to make things worse, we’ll be leaving our neighbors, who we love.

Our realtor, Amy, who has been a huge help through this whole process, came over tonight to check on us. We were packing boxes when she arrived. She told me that this was the perfect way to spend my 40th birthday, because it's a reminder that being a grown-up sucks.

The good news, though, is that my birthday didn’t suck. I had a wonderful party. And that party is that it is a beacon of positivity, something I can think back on when I start to get stressed, and remember all the friends and the good times and how lucky I am.

We’re moving into a new house, and maybe we’ll be there for ten years, and maybe ten years from now I’ll be writing 50 Reflections for 50 Years. Or maybe Facebook will be long gone, and people will be telepathically beaming their messages to one another. Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter; I will still have my store of experiences, and I will always have my memories of the good and bad times, of growing up in London, of my college years, Barnes & Noble, teaching, and everything else, and those times will always be a part of me. Like William Faulkner said, the past is not dead; it is not even past.

Reflection #39/40

Well before I went to college I knew that I was going to major in English. Not because of any solid career plan, of course, but because I really liked English.

Like my mother before me, I went to Transylvania University. People in Ohio always say, “Oh yeah, that’s in Pennsylvania, right?” It’s not. It’s in Lexington, Kentucky. For the first couple of years of my college career, I worried that I had made the wrong choice. Was Transy really the right school for me? But it turns out that it was, because I met
 Alice there, and that’s where I made most of my best friends.

I also learned stuff. In one of the introductory lit classes we read “A Rose for Emily,” and while we were talking about it, something clicked in my brain, and I really got it, the connection between form and content, and I could visualize the text as a complex web of meaning. In that moment, I truly became an English major.

I took way more English classes than were strictly necessary. I had enough credits for both a major and a minor in English, if such a thing were possible. Romanticism, 17th Century Lit, Metafiction, Genre Movies, Demystifying Faulkner, African Fiction, Detective Fiction, Creative Writing (Fiction), Creative Writing (Poetry) . . . I hated writing papers but I loved those classes.

The first friend I made at Transy was Jason C.
, and through him his roommate Chris, and soon afterwards Skaught, the tidiest Discordian of all time; Steve C., who I would later share an apartment with; Steve Johnson, my lifelong collaborator and fellow creator of unmarketable ideas; Ryan, who bought more comics every week than I did; Jason W., always calm in a crisis; Stacy, who I could talk to for hours on any subject; Ray . . . the list goes on and on. In particular I should mention that Ray was the one who encouraged me to get back together with Alice after the two of us broke up that one time, so my children literally owe their lives to their Uncle Ray.

By the end of my college career I was sick of writing papers and wanted a break, but I also feared change, so graduation was an odd time for me. The night before graduation I sat there, alone, in the Hazelrigg basement computer lab, wondering how it could all possibly be over.

After graduation, I knew I would see Steve and Skaught and Ray and Stacy and all of those folks soon enough, probably within the week. But there were so many other people I didn’t know if I would ever see again. That’s what’s so hard to process, to have people around who are a part of your daily life, and then one day they aren’t. It’s like your TV show has been cancelled, and your story will continue in a new series with a new setting and a different supporting cast.

The day came and we graduated. Before I went back to the dorm to carry my stuff down to the car, I said my good-byes. My last was to Kim W., star of the English department and all around good person, and it suddenly struck me that I might never see her again. It was a disturbing thought.

And I was right; I never saw Kim again in person. At least now there’s Facebook, and I can click “Like” on the pictures of her kids.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reflection #38/40

My maternal grandfather, Leighton Watkins, was born on May 27, 1910. We shared a name and a birthday. I called him NaNa. He lived next door to us, with my grandmother DeDe, in a big brick house. Sometimes I sat in the living room and watched baseball with him.

One morning when I was six I woke up and saw DeDe sitting next to my bed. I don’t know how long she had been sitting there, waiting for me to wake up, but as soon as I did she told me the news—NaNa ha
d died in the night.

I was devastated. I cried and cried. I stayed home from school, but I don’t know what I did for the rest of the day.

I was only six, and I only knew NaNa as my grandfather. There was so much I didn’t know about him. When I went to the funeral I was shocked and amazed when the man at the front talked about NaNa’s life and all he had done. He was a veteran of World War 2 and a beloved teacher and principal. So many people said that he had changed their lives for the better. It made me feel proud, to know that he had done so much good, but also disappointed, that I had only discovered all these great things after my grandfather was gone.

There was a night, maybe after that first day, or maybe after the funeral, or maybe even later, when I was lying in bed and couldn’t sleep. The loss hurt too much and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I got up out of bed and started playing with my Superman Colorforms set. I had gotten it for Christmas a couple of months earlier. Colorforms are little vinyl pictures that you can stick onto a laminated plastic backdrop. There were little vinyl Superman images and little Lex Luthors, and you could maneuver them around to create scenes of them fighting.

The adventures of Superman unfolded on the plastic backdrop and in my head. By playing with the Colorforms, I was able to distract myself from the pain. Soon afterwards I went back to bed.

That might have been the first time I used super-heroes as a coping mechanism. It would not be the last.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Reflection #37/40

One night, sometime around 2010, Steve Johnson, Carter Newton, and I were in a hotel room in Collinsville, Illinois. We were there as representatives of Hex Games. Hex, as you may or may not be aware, is the company that Steve and I founded way back in 1997 to self-publish role-playing games, and we’ve been doing that ever since.

It had been a long day and Steve, Carter, and I were talking about hobos, because everyone loves hobos. We started bouncing around ideas and eventually came up with the concept for a game called Hobomancer
. It would be about magical hobos who had to ride the rails to keep the song lines in tune in order to prevent reality from collapsing. We loved the idea, but we have a lot of stupid ideas at night. The trick is to wait until the next morning. If you still love your idea in the harsh light of day, then maybe it’s actually good. The next morning we still loved the idea. We decided to proceed with it.

Soon we pitched it to
 Josh. Steve and Carter (and Colin) are all college friends, but Josh is someone we met through doing Hex stuff. The greatest benefit of being a part of Hex, for me, has been the friendships I’ve made along the way. Who could imagine a world in which I don’t know Josh? Anyway, we pitched the idea to Josh, and he also loved it.

We divided up the work on the book, and Steve, Josh, Carter, Colin, and I co-wrote it. Josh, Jeffrey Johnson, Juan Navarro, and Chris Newman illustrated it, with Jeffrey designing the cover. It took years of work, but we ended up with a book we were all proud of, and released it in May 2012, just in time for my 37th birthday.

The thing that makes Hobomancer more special to me than our other books is that it’s about things that are important. While I’m proud of the work I did on Leopard Women of Venus, that book doesn’t really express anything deeper than a love of pulp science-fiction. Hobomancer has a moral and sociopolitical message, about the dangers of our rampant consumer culture and the importance of community. Also there are monsters.

We felt like Hobomancer was the best thing we’d done, so Steve submitted it to the ENnie Awards. And, to our great delight, the panel of judges nominated it for Best Electronic Book.

Some people say that the ENnies are like the Academy Awards of the RPG industry. That’s not an entirely accurate comparison, because there’s no academy. The awards are decided by popular vote, so while it is indeed an honor to be nominated, literally anyone can go online and vote.

Once we were nominated we got on Facebook and encouraged everyone we knew to vote for us. Many people, including family and friends who didn’t know what the hell an ENnie was, were kind enough to do so.

The 2013 ENnie Awards were held at Gen Con in Indianapolis. My Hex friends were there at the con, but they were all busy during the ceremony, so I went as the one Hex representative. I had an acceptance speech prepared, just in case.

The ceremony took place in a ballroom in a hotel. There were hundreds of people in the crowd. I got increasingly nervous as the ceremony went on, through category after category, until finally they got to Best Electronic Book, and they showed the nominees up on the screen. We didn’t win the gold medal . . . but we won the silver, and they called our name, and played the musical clip we had selected (“Hobos are my Heroes.”) The crowd applauded as I walked down the aisle, went up to the stage, accepted the award, and gave my speech.

That’s one item marked off the bucket list.

I got a lot of laughs with that speech. It was a much easier crowd than my usual classroom of teenagers.

After the ceremony I met Steve at a nearby bar. We were giddy. After years of hard work, it felt great to be acknowledged. I only had one drink, but I left the server a $10 tip; that’s the sort of thing you do, when you’re a big shot award winner.

Reflection #36/40

Most of the teachers I know started teaching right out of college. I am unusual, in that I didn’t get my teaching license until I was in my thirties. I have less experience than most teachers my age, and I am farther away from retirement.

What was I doing in my twenties? Working in retail, mainly at Barnes & Noble.

In Reflection #34 I wrote about the thrill of sharing comics I had drawn with Mrs. Watkins’ fifth grade class. I had a similar experience when I worked at Barnes & Noble. My friend and manager
 Matt Kish asked me to collaborate on a comic strip that would run in the weekly bookseller news. We brainstormed ideas and came up with a comic called Don’t Quit Yer Day Job.

DQYDJ started out as a short humor strip about our co-workers, but installments started to get longer and longer, and an overarching story developed, and eventually it became the epic tale of our hero H-Bomb Ferguson’s battle against the Living Corporation.

Up to the end we continued to attach the comic to the bookseller news, so each week, when employees got their paychecks, they also got some action-packed anti-corporate propaganda. And we used store money to make the photocopies. How did we get away with that?

People got excited about the comic, and some of them became devoted fans.
 Sally, who was also H-Bomb Ferguson’s love interest in the comic, was our #1 fan, but we also got plenty of support from Xan, who got to be the evil sorceress Udanax. Casey got to get beaten up by H-Bomb.

We brought our epic to a close, sort of, and Matt left B&N in, what, 2002? But I soldiered on and kept working there through May 2005, when I moved to Cincinnati. It seemed like almost everyone who worked there came to my 30th birthday party, which was held just a few days before we left town.

After I had worked at B&N for a few years I used to complain about it, particularly with Casey and
 Sarah. We worried that we didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives in retail, that we had greater dreams, that we were wasting our lives. It’s true; at the time, I felt trapped. But I did get out of retail and become a professional, with a salary and paid time off and no requirements to work the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve.

Now that I’m wildly successful I can look back on those times from a different perspective. I think about DQYDJ, and going to Mexico, and the parties at Casey’s house, and I don’t feel like it was a waste, and I don't regret how I spent my twenties at all.

I have to admit, those were good times, man . . . good times.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Reflection #35/40

My best birthday was when I turned four. That’s when I got the gift of a little sister.

We were in Louisville, staying with my grandparents. One morning I got up and looked around for my mother. I asked my grandmother, Da, where she was. She said, “She’s in the hospital, having a baby.” I couldn’t believe it. At first, I thought Da was joking, but she convinced me that she was telling the truth.

This is how I remember it, though it doesn’t really make sense. Obviously my parents had told me that I was going to have a new sibling. Was I really not paying attention at all for nine months?

We went to the hospital. I looked through a window and saw a row of babies in cribs. One of those babies, they told me, was my sister Cynthia. 

Cynthia was born on May 22nd. As I remember it—though, again, this seems odd—she came home to my grandparents’ house on my birthday, the 27th. I remember playing in the yard with my friend Dave
, that day, and wearing my father’s old Indian Guide uniform, and being excited at her arrival.

I have since learned that it is normal for kids to resent their newborn siblings. For whatever reason, I didn’t. I liked her from the beginning. And, aside from normal arguments, and disagreements about who was taking up too much of the back seat in the van on long family trips (her), we have always gotten along.

Cynthia and I played together, with Transformers going to parties with Barbies, Barbies fighting alongside Transformers. Our toys formed a super-hero team, fought evil, and operated a hair salon on the side. Thanks to me, she learned the names of obscure super-heroes (e.g., Doctor Fate); thanks to her, I learned all about the Babysitter’s Club (e.g., Claudia has a phone in her room and is obsessed with junk food.)

Over the years I’ve known a lot of people with sexist attitudes, and I like to think I’m not very sexist. A lot of that probably comes from growing up with a little sister who I loved. If my sister was a fun and interesting person, then girls were probably okay. In fact, they were probably just as good as boys.

My sister went on to become a superstar, with degrees and an impressive resume and glamorous friends. 
She's smart and talented. Now she’s all grown up and drives a car and has a job and everything, but I still remember when she came home from the hospital, and she’ll always be my little sister.

Happy birthday, Cynthia!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Reflection #34/40

When I was little I would draw every night before bed. I filled notebooks with pictures of soldiers, robots, monsters, UFOS, and super-heroes. But they weren’t just pictures—they were stories, made up as I was drawing. I would draw the robot, and then draw the UFO shooting the robot, and then draw the explosion, one on top of the other. It ended up being an unreadable mess.

I remember staring down at the drawings in my notebook, wanting to share these storie
s, but knowing that no one else would be able to make any sense of them.

In fourth grade, when Dale Floyd French 
and I started making comics for each other’s amusement, I discovered that something had changed—he could understand them. It is an amazing feeling, to realize that you can combine words and pictures to tell a story, a story that other human beings can read and enjoy.

The first time I got a chance to share a story with a mass (meaning more than one person) audience was in fifth grade, in Mrs. Watkins’ class. That was a wonderful school year. Not only was Mrs. Watkins a great teacher, but I was lucky enough to be in the same class as Dale Floyd French and Michael Houchens.

Most importantly, when Mrs. Watkins found out that Dale, Michael, and I were making comic books, she asked us to display them in the back of the room. Every so often she would let the class go to the back, where everyone would choose a comic, take it back to their desk, and read it. Thanks to us, the class got a break from work. We were a hit. We created comics like Modern Art, Battle of the Century, One-Issue Special, Messy Comics, and the Barn Bots, and characters like Drip-Drop Man, Spot the Rainbow Dog, Chappy Chapstick, and Fuzzball & Scuzzball.

(Side-note: Around that time, Marvel Comics was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and it seemed to me like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four had been around forever. Next year Fuzzball & Scuzzball will be celebrating their 30th anniversary. More than anything in the world, this makes me feel old.)

Nowadays I draw a weekly Fuzzball & Scuzzball web comic. I have a much larger audience now; the web comic is read by literally dozens of people. While I enjoy drawing it and posting it online, it doesn’t compare to the thrill I had in the fifth grade, sharing my work with the other kids in the room.