Of Laptops and Cub Scout Slides

Christmas 2007 just slipped into the past a few minutes ago, and I’m reflecting on what I’ve given today. Specifically, I’m thinking about one of the things I gave to my stepson: a laptop computer.

It’s not a great laptop; it’s about eight years old (300 MHz, 128 Mb RAM, 12 GB HDD, no wireless, bad hinges), but it’s still a laptop. It will run the basics, like a word processor and a web browser when we get a wireless card for him. I got it (and another nearly identical laptop, which I might be was able to repair for my wife) from a co-worker last Friday, so it was a very last minute thing, but with a little tinkering and some research, I was able to make it run. Logan had asked for a laptop for Christmas, and my initial thought was that there was no way we would be able to buy him one. We’re still struggling financially, despite my new job, so a laptop seemed completely out of the question.

Now, though, I wonder if he’s disappointed. When we gave it to him, I explained that it had bad hinges and he needed to be careful with them, and I explained that it was old and slow, and wouldn’t run World of Warcraft like he probably wanted it to, but he would be able to do his homework on it and play basic Pogo.com games and so forth on it. Maybe I was just reading something into his reaction, but he seemed disappointed.

Or maybe I was just seeing through his eyes, and imagining what he was thinking. I remember when I was eight — a few years younger than Logan — and I joined Cub Scouts. My family lived in a trailer, like I do now, and we got my Cub Scout uniform at the thrift store. One thing we couldn’t find at the thrift store was an official brass Cub Scout slide for my neckerchief, though. I desperately wanted the official slide, because I wanted to fit in with all the other kids. I begged and pleaded, and my parents said it cost too much money to get a new one, and that I would have to make do by tying a knot or something. I was devastated.

Little did I know, my Dad had an idea. He loved tinkering in the little metal shed next to our trailer, much like I enjoy tinkering with computers in the spare room at my house now. He found a block of wood about two inches long, drilled a hole lengthwise through the center, “painted” it royal blue with a thick magic marker, and wrapped a leather thong around it several times, gluing the ends in place. When he was finished, he called me out to the shed and presented it to me, a proud smile on his face. He had fashioned a one-of-a kind neckerchief slide for me, from scratch.

I hated it. It wasn’t anything like the shiny brass slides the other kids had, and I hated that I was from a family that was too poor to buy me a new slide, or even a new uniform.

I can only imagine how my Dad must have felt. I don’t remember if I reacted politely, or if I told him outright that I hated it, but I’m sure he knew the truth, and I’m sure it hurt him that I didn’t appreciate the work he put into it, or appreciate the fact that it was made from scratch.

Looking back on it now, I was an idiot. I should have reveled in the uniqueness of my Cub Scout slide. I should have showed it off and told everyone how my Dad had made it for me with his own hands out of wood, leather, and glue. That was part of the spirit of Cub Scouts, after all; we made things, we were taught to be resourceful, and we were taught to honor our parents. My homemade slide was far better than the shiny brass ones (which I later found out were just cheap plated metal anyway.)

I know, a laptop and a Cub Scout slide are two drastically different things. But times now are drastically different from what they were thirty-five years ago, too. Despite the disparity, there are some similarities between what transpired then and now. When I gave Logan the laptop, though, he wasn’t rude; he didn’t say he hated it. And, after watching a movie with me, he booted up the laptop and wrote part of a short story on it, balancing it on a TV tray with one of my shoes propping up the loose screen. Despite the fact that it was still broken enough that it wouldn’t hold its own screen weight, he didn’t appear to hate it.

I still feel like it’s an inadequate present, though. I want to make it a useful tool for him. I have plans to fix the hinges so he won’t have to prop it up with shoes, and I will get a wireless card for it so he can check his e-mail and do research on the Internet. (Update 1/4/07: I received the new hinges for both this laptop and my wife’s laptop yesterday and installed them last night. Now both laptops have nice, stiff screens that support their own weight.) Maybe I should find a way to wrap a leather thong around it and “paint” it with a royal blue Sharpie … no, then he really would hate it.

Maybe someday Logan will look back at this night and remember how he felt about his first laptop. And maybe, just maybe, after he’s gotten older and has a different perspective on things, he will realize that there was more heart that went into fixing that broken laptop than there appeared to be, and maybe that memory will be as special to him as my memory of my Cub Scout slide became when I got older.

Or maybe not. Either way, I hope he’ll let me know in thirty-five years or so.

The author at 8 sporting his custom Cub Scout slide

The Man on the Ceiling

A few weeks ago, my wife and I did something we haven’t done for a while; we read to each other.

We’ve done that off and on since before we married, but lately it’s been more off than on due to different sleep schedules. The particular night in question, however, the timing was right, the decision to read was spontaneous, and we couldn’t have picked a better story to read each other.

In 2000, American Fantasy Press published a chapbook by Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem called The Man on the Ceiling (as opposed to Jules Feiffer’s The Man in the Ceiling.) The little book, sold only in a limited edition run, garnered critical acclaim and is the only work to have won the a literary trifecta of the International Horror Guild Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the World Fantasy Award in the same year. In March of 2008, Discoveries (the literary fiction imprint of world-renowned gaming juggernaut Wizards of the Coast) will release a full-length novel version of The Man on the Ceiling, a complete rewrite of the original by the Tems themselves. The book is available for pre-order through Amazon. Better yet, have your local bookseller place an order for ISBN-13: 978-0786948581.

The Man on the Ceiling is a unique book. Part autobiography, part nightmare, and all true (though not necessarily factual), it alternates between Steve and Melanie’s tales of their encounters with the Man on the Ceiling. Who is the Man on the Ceiling? I can’t — no, I won’t — tell you that. It’s not my place to tell you about things you already know.

What you may not know is that The Man on the Ceiling is a wonderful read for couples. When Lannette and I read it to each other, we passed the book back and forth. I read the “Steve” sections and she read the “Melanie” sections. A few times, we paused to shiver or say “Wow” after particularly well-crafted paragraphs, and it was interesting to note that such different writing styles could produce the same effects in us. Steve’s writing is surreal and very visceral, and Melanie’s writing addresses the deeper, less tangible fears that we all face. But the shivers induced in us by both styles were the same. The two writers took different paths, but arrived at the same fearful, insecure, vulnerable spots within us, and that is simply astounding in a work so concise.

The story works exceedingly well for reading aloud in separate male and female voices, and I recommend that other couples do the same (if they can find a copy of the chapbook; otherwise, wait for the full-length release in March.) When we finished the book, we sat on the couch and cuddled for a while, grateful that we could experience the story together, secure in the realization that some fears are universal, and glad we have someone with whom we can share the burden.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that we are friends with the Tems, and you might think that gives us an edge in appreciating the story. Maybe; I thought so at first, too. But the more I think about it, I don’t think knowing them makes that much difference. Sure, when they mention the house that they share with the Man on the Ceiling, images of that house jump immediately to my mind, and since we know what Melanie and Steve look and sound like, we automatically “hear” their voices reading the text and “see” them in the story’s scenes. But those elements, real as they may be, are not the story itself. The story is about him — the Man on the Ceiling — and our interactions with him. The setting could be any Victorian house in any historic neighborhood, and the people could have any faces concocted by the reader’s imagination.

I think that’s one of the things Melanie and Steve mean when they say in the story, “Everything we’ve told you is true.” Whether the details provided by individual readers match the “real” details is irrelevant; the experiences in the story are universal, and the Man on the Ceiling is, himself, universal.

Deep Subjects

My wife and I talk about deep subjects. After taking some laundry out of the dryer tonight and, inevitably, finding one unmatched black sock, I got to wondering: Is there a Bermuda Triangle for socks?

“Yes,” my wife replied emphatically when I asked her.

“Okay, so if we accept the existence of a Bermuda Triangle for socks, does that mean we also need to entertain the possibility of a Bermuda Shorts Triangle?”

She just groaned and rolled her eyes. Okay, so this was not one of the deep subjects that we talk about. (Too bad, really. It seemed interesting to me.)

Usually, our deep talks have more to do with philosophy, psychology, children, science, music, esoterica, or history. We don’t always agree, but we do discuss, and I like that. One of my wife’s most impressive qualities is her intelligence, and I’m thankful almost every day for our mental connection.

Blowing the Dust Off

It looks like it’s time to blow the dust off this blog again. Was the last entry really in November 2005? That doesn’t seem that long ago, but according to my calendar, it was about eight months ago. My, how time flies.

A number of things have come to pass since then, including gainful employment with IBM. In addition, I have a few more ComputorEdge articles under my belt, Keith and Logan are out of school for the year, and I have another writing opportunity taking shape behind this curtain over here.

But the most significant thing to happen in the last few months involves my wife, Lannette. She has been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS), a recognized disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. FMS is an often misunderstood malady, and some doctors don’t even recognize it as a valid disorder. Personally, I think they would recognize its validity if they had to deal with it from day to day.

I don’t have FMS, but I am familiar with it. I recognize it from when my brother had Fibromyalgia as a corrollary to Sjogren’s Syndrome. Lannette’s situation is a bit different, because FMS is her primary diagnosis; it is the source of unpredictable pain that moves all over her body from day to day. Living with FMS is a crap shoot for her. She just returned from a trip to visit family in the Pacific Northwest, and even though it was supposed to be a relaxing, renewing trip, it wore her out. She was exhausted when she arrived at DIA, and is taking it easy for a few days.

I’m constantly amazed by my wife. She’s the strongest survivor I’ve ever known. She was two blocks away from the Murrah Buiding in Oklahoma City when Timothy McVeigh blew it up on April 19th, 1995. She has been physically abused in ways that would stagger anyone, yet she still had the strength to fight back from all of that to start and administer an Internet newsgroup for women who have survived domestic violence.

I know that she will find her way through this challenge, find her “new normal.” She always has, always will.

The Only Constant Is Change

There has been another gap in my journal entries. Those who know me well know that this indicates a period of stress. Unlike many bloggers, I don’t feel completely comfortable dumping my personal life on the Internet for all to see. My Creativity Journal is intended to be a structured blog about creativity, and when things are stressful, I usually don’t engage in creative activities as often.

This time is kind of different. Sure, there has been stress, but I have actually been engaging in more creative thinking over the last month and a half or so. Being unemployed gives one that luxury.

Yes, unemployed. Their choice, not mine.

Immediately after returning from my honeymoon with Lannette, my employer of over seven years dismissed me with no severance pay. I was not entirely surprised at the dismissal, but I was shocked that they did not offer me severance pay. The company has a history of giving severance packages, but for whatever reason, they chose not to do so this time. However, this is not a bitch session, it’s a Creativity Journal, right?

As you may have seen from the opening page of my site, since becoming jobless I have been getting more writing assignments from ComputorEdge magazine. My band, Steel River Three, has been playing private parties and we have publicly debuted my song “New Guy Smell.” I have considered making a career out of computer consulting, freelance writing, and music, and have received nothing but support from Lannette while I explore this idea. (Thank you, honey.)

Another thing I have discovered is that I’m pretty good at Texas Hold ‘Em Poker. I had read Wil Wheaton‘s blog entries about playing in the World Series of Poker and landing a gig as a PokerStars.com team player. A few months before being fired, I had purchased Dataviz software’s Hold ‘Em High program for my Treo 650, and practiced in hopes of being able to sit down at a table in Las Vegas on the honeymoon. Alas, that was not to be due to lack of funds, but I enjoyed playing poker on the handheld anyway. When I found I had some free time on my hands (and no money) at home, I began playing in play money tournaments at PokerStars.

Now, PokerStars has decided to hold a free tournament for bloggers only. The prize package looks great, and I have nothing to lose except a few hours on a Sunday afternoon.

Registration for the tournament required pasting an advertisment on the blog, which I did on the main page of this site. Normally, I don’t go for that kind of thing on my site, but I’ll allow it temporarily as a condition of my tournament entry. Who knows? Maybe I’ll play *really* well and get hired as a blogger for PokerStars!

Look out, Wil, here I come. 😉